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Tuesday, 1 February 2005
Now Playing: RE: how not to treat our elders?
Topic: January 2005
The first thing I notice about the story at this juncture, something I hadn't noticed before, is the assignment of the label, "the captive," to refer to the angel.

When Pelayo and Elisenda first found the angel, their response was less an exercise in captivity and more an exercise in rescue ("He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down," says the wise neighbor woman).

But the next day, the angel has become, indeed, a captive: Pelayo has taken to watching over the angel with club in hand, then dragging the poor creature out into the chicken coop at night. They are afraid of the angel, who is familiar and yet unfamiliar to them, a creature which they would have ordinarily considered a thing of Heaven, nonthreatening, especially since he is so clearly infirm.

When their baby awakens the following day, having broken the fever at last and yearning to eat, the relief of that news inspires Elisanda and Pelayo to release the angel to the ocean, upon a raft with fresh water and food for three days.

I find this amusing and sad all at once. How in the world is a flesh-and-blood creature of such infirmity to survive that sort of treatment? What were the two young parents thinking? Why were they afraid? And yet, isn't this, in essence, the way so many people treat their elderly? Send them away, or find some other way to forget about them, that in the act of forgetting they might disappear?

Shakespeare's voluminous cast of characters often did such a thing. I've been reading condensed versions of the Bard in short bedtime stories to my six-year-old, and I am reminded that, in fact, this is what Leontes did to his best friend in "The Winter's Tale," is it not? And what about the Duke in "The Tempest?" Was he not cast away by people who wanted his throne?

So now I'm reading this story as if it weren't about an angel at all, but perhaps about a betrayed king or God, or about a character who symbolizes a forsaken grandeur, or a reference embodying the notion of a long-gone prosperity: the good old days.

Posted by at 2:58 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 1:00 PM PST
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Wednesday, 26 January 2005
Topic: From the editor
Hello dear reader, Just a note to explain the recent absence...I've been busy with the production of Margin's 5th Anniversary edition (lots of extra features!) and the schedule's a bit tight. I'll return to this discussion on Friday, January 28. Thanks for your patience.

Posted by at 4:49 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 1:00 PM PST
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Saturday, 15 January 2005
Topic: From the editor
Please pardon this brief departure from the discussion.

Below is Tamara Sellman's prelude to her reading of a section of Pearl S. Buck's The Big Wave, to be presented at A Wave of Caring: a concert for tsunami relief to be held at the Bainbridge High School gymnasium on Sunday January 16 at 3pm in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

"I read the story, The Big Wave, about a year ago to my daughters as a bedtime story.

The Big Wave is the prizewinning children's book written by Pearl Buck, about a Japanese fishing village that is wiped out by a tsunami.

One year later, I am tucking my oldest daughter in one night, and we are discussing the tsunami when she asks, Is it like The Big Wave?

I am reminded then how providing a human context for the disastrous events of our lives, big and small, close and far away, is essential for healing the human spirit.

Watching the TV news or reading the paper only provides information and facts, but information and facts are not enough to help people, including children, to cope with bad news.

I've found, as a lifelong writer, that literature is one of the best ways to explore the uncertainties that befall the human condition. The Big Wave filled in blanks for my daughter that I was not sure I could fill in myself.

When I tell my daughter that, Yes, the tsunami is the same thing as The Big Wave, she does not respond with fear. Instead, I see her process the comparison, and her next response is not one of panic, but of compassion. How can we help? she asks. How can we help?

Thanks to Pearl Buck my daughter makes that important leap. She understands that if we share and have faith as a global community, life will persist."

Posted by at 3:21 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:49 PM PST
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Thursday, 13 January 2005
Now Playing: RE: Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program...
Topic: January 2005
I don't remember this from my original reading of "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." In small caps, as a sort of subtitle to the story, are these words:

This belies an interesting beginning for a story that commences with the image of a man killing crabs in his house all night. American children's book publishers would have a fit at the idea of such inherent violence starting off "a tale for children"!

No matter. This first scene, loaded with sensory images ("drenched courtyard," "stench," "Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing..." "glimmered like powdered light..." "a stew of mud and rotten shellfish") sets the reader on a typical course of magical realist storytelling, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course, holding the reins.

One doesn't know what to expect entering one of Gabo's stories. So it comes as no surprise (indeed, it makes me smile) to see that he would introduce the figure of an angel in the most earthly and abominable way, as a frail and elderly man on a gloomy day found lying face down in mud, impaired by a pair of ungainly wings. I think immediately, not of an old man at all, but of a desperate seagull caught in an oil slick, when I read this.

Immediately, the unlucky character who finds the old man, Pelayo (the one who was staving off the invasion of crabs for days before, and the father of the newborn child fallen ill) thinks of the old man as a nightmare. He grabs his wife, busy tending their baby, and shows her out to where he'd found the man, who Gabo describes simply as "dressed like a ragpicker."

But wait, Gabo's more sensitive than that! He goes on to say, "...his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had." Lovely. Gabo's not so judgmental after all, is he? This is a sad description, certainly, but it aims to try to reclaim for the old man some sort of dignity, it suggests the old man was, at one time, quite patriarchal.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez strikes me as one of the most empathetic truthtellers of our times. In our politically correct times here in the US, editors might flinch at a story where an elderly person is described in this way, but at the heart of Gabo's description is the necessary impulse to be honest.

And what of those wings? "Huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked..." They had, of course, been the old man's undoing, trapping him in the mud of three days' rain.

Right away, we learn something about Pelayo and Elisenda. They are not much different than anyone else. They are surprised, of course. But they do something that we all do in the course of our lives?they expose themselves to the reality of this irreal presence for so long a spell that they forget that he is part of their cultural mythos. Angels are not part of their everyday landscape, after all; angels are the couriers of omens and miracles who thrive in stories told by priests and grandmothers. In other words, Pelayo and Elisenda become desensitized?a state which encourages the mind to attach familiarity to what would otherwise be classified as irreal?and accept the old man's presence, wings and all, as something ordinary.

That is not to say that they don't still think he is an angel. He's just no longer extraordinary, not quite a nightmare, but rather, a pathetic discovery. They try to speak to him. They call on a gifted neighbor to help them decide where he came from (the old man's sailor-like voice and dialect suggests to them that he is a foreigner in the more earthly sense of that word). The woman declares him an angel, but with no more fanfare than if someone were to declare him a cab driver.

"He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down."

And that is the end of the angel's introduction.

One of the things I love about Gabo's writing is his ability to create dense, rich scenes that move. He spent as little time as necessary to create the premise for the story. In two paragraphs, we learn a great deal about the characters, the tone of the story, the setting, even the state of the world in "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." Gabo wrote this story like all of his others, with tremendous confidence in his literacy of time, place and the human condition. No wonder he's such a master.

What happens next? Stay tuned...

Posted by at 12:22 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 1:01 PM PST
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Mood:  sad
Now Playing: Sidebar:
Topic: January 2005
I Tivo'd "An Angel at My Table" and have been watching 45-minute portions of it during my lunch hour. Today I'll finish the last segment.

For those who don't know, the film "An Angel at My Table" is the autobiographical account of famous New Zealand author, Janet Frame, whose books Owls Do Cry and The Carpathians emerged as some of the most important literature (and, whaddyaknow, magical realism!) coming from that part of the world.

Probably even more importantly, it's the story of a girl who comes from poor and tragic circumstances, who decides to become an author at about the same time she develops into a dreadfully introverted and sensitive young woman. Her shyness is perceived as a form of mental illness, she's committed at a sanitarium and barely escapes lobotomization after her collection of short stories wins a major national prize.

No, there aren't angels, in the traditional visual sense of the word, in this film, but it's really a must-see for writers and folks who want to study mental illness from the point of view of a woman who was wrongfully treated for a disease she didn't have (schizophrenia). The social repercussions of her story have had an everlasting effect on mental health care ever since (and thank goodness, though there's still a ways to go). Janet Frame has, in the end, become a hero for thousands, thanks to this film.

Another book combining the notion of angels and the torture culture of mental health "care" is Sara Paretsky's Ghost Country, which I recommend for its sly use of angel-like figures, its political statement about American society's abandonment of the homeless, and its contemporary staging of a Virgin Mary sighting.

Posted by at 11:41 AM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:47 PM PST
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Friday, 7 January 2005
Mood:  bright
Now Playing: Before I forget...
Topic: January 2005
A couple of weeks ago, a great writer friend of mine, Heather Creamer of Nova Scotia, sent me, for a holiday gift, a collection of Canada's best for 2004: The Journey Prize Stories.

I flipped it open precisely to the page "Baby Khaki's Wings" by Anar Ali, a story previously appearing in filling station.

Well, of course, I had to read the story, knowing I would be perusing another famous angel story in the coming weeks. It turns out to be a terrific piece of magical realism. It is, of course, the story of a baby born with wings, but it's also the story of a young girl and the woman who employs her who are both victimized (in different ways) by an established patriarchy expecting perfection and constant care on the home front. It's also about trying to keep secret a wonderful truth from a society more preoccupied with social appearances and outdated customs than with the beauty of miracles.

Perhaps my favorite passage in the story is this description of the baby's developing wings, as the ayah Aisha, the young nanny, examines them with the intent to surgically remove them to protect her own job security:

"She slipped her fingers into the wing-pouch and pulled each wing out. Some white fluff flew out. Aisha smoothed out the creases on the wings and laid them across the baby's back. Only then did she realize that the wings had changed?they were now lightly downed with golden-brown hair. Aisha stroked the wings?they were so soft! What a beautiful baby!"

I won't tell you more than that, except to say that this is a must-read story for fans of both magical realism and angel tales. The writing is smooth and lovely, with bittersweet but beautiful moments. Ali Anar is an emerging writer worth anticipating.

Posted by at 1:44 PM PST
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Monday, 3 January 2005
Mood:  a-ok
Now Playing: Some history, and a word about Angels...
Topic: January 2005
Before I launch into a discussion about this favorite among Gabo's short stories, let's take care of some personal history.

I first read this story in 1996; a friend, Jeff Hill, had revealed to me in a writing group that my own work could be classified as magical realism. He gave me two books (Like Water for Chocolate and Chronicle of a Death Foretold), I read them, and I was convinced. I found a remaindered collection of Gabo's short stories shortly thereafter and read some memorable pieces, including "Eyes of a Blue Dog," "Tuesday Siesta" and "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," and became hooked on Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The version of "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" that I'm re-reading now comes from Leaf Storm and Other Stories, an Avon-Bard edition that's part of a larger series of primarily magical realist titles offered during the second part of the 20th century.

(Editor's note: We'll be featuring the history of that imprint in the Winter 2005 edition of Margin, which is slated for launch on January 26.)

But before I launch into the re-reading of this Gabo classic, a word about angels.

For me, angels in contemporary literature are, often, disappointing. It isn't that they aren't capable of wonders; they tackle their jobs with industry and enthusiasm. And that is precisely the problem. Flapping around with their absurd wings, glowing like, well, angels...they are hardly more than plot devices for the inexperienced writer, assigned to fix a stumbling manuscript and to lend it a manufactured sense of the mystical.

Now, I adore cherubs, and those angels who are part of the Nativity are lovely and necessary. But in a story about human foibles, who really needs a self-possessed heavenly creature directing traffic? I prefer stories where bumbling characters find their own way, which is significantly more interesting to me than watching an arrogantly perfect angel hold the lamp for them.

Angels in Disguise are another matter. There's a potential angel in the story, "Field" by Anne Spollen. I say potential because one could interpret the story's mystery visitor as a representation of the devil. But I read that story as featuring an angel, and I'm sticking with that interpretation.

Though perhaps I enjoy the idea of the Unlikely Angel most of all?the clueless, grubby angel who's shopping at Target on a bad-hair day with absolutely no idea they are leaving behind them a path of blessings and miracles. Like a reverse Pig Pen, eh? These are the angels that walk among us. At least that's what I'd like to believe.

Can't immediately recall any Unlikely Angels in literature, but you can certainly send me an email if you can. I know I'm trying to write one as a character in my current novel-in-progress.

Of course, akin to the unlikely angel is what I think of as the True Angel: pure, innocent, lovely. Think Remedios the Beauty from One Hundred Years of Solitude and you catch my meaning. After she rises up to the heavens, clinging to the wedding sheets, it all makes sense, though not a moment before. (Ah, the surprising inevitability of Garcia Marquez!) You'll let me know if you've found your own True Angel in other works of literature, won't you?

Which leads us back to this creation by Gabo, of

"?a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn't get up, impeded by his enormous wings."

Stay tuned.

Posted by at 4:51 PM PST
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Friday, 31 December 2004
Mood:  spacey
Topic: January 2005
Next week I shall begin re-reading and discussing the short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." I'm coming off a bout with walking pneumonia, so bear with me! Your comments are, of course, welcomed.


Posted by at 1:09 PM PST
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Thursday, 11 November 2004
Introducing Margin's TWO-WAY MIRROR ~ a magical realist reading diary
Topic: From the editor
I recently had the pleasure of hearing Alberto Manguel read from his A Reading Diary at the fabulous Vancouver Public Library complex. I was inspired by his project. Manguel essentially selected a book he'd already read in the past and decided to reread it again and keep a reader's diary of his responses to the text as he read each book.

In January 2005, I will offer a small reading diary addressing my own experiences rereading various works of literary magical realism in a new monthly column. I've decided to dub it TWO-WAY MIRROR to suggest the interactive way in which literature informs our lives, as well as the way we bring our lives into the literature we read.

I'm excited by the idea?I'm always trying to find ways to concentrate my reading time. A reader's diary seems like the perfect way to do this. I hope you'll enjoy the thoughts and notes and links that arise from this project. It's just one of many ways we plan to celebrate Margin's 5th anniversary as an electronic anthology.

Below, please find the TWO-WAY MIRROR lineup for 2005. All of these titles currently reside on my home bookshelf:

January ~ "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (short story from Leaf Storm and Other Stories)

February ~ The Passion by Jeannette Winterson (novel)

March ~ The Sand Child by Tahar Ben-Jelloun (world literature)

April ~ The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (children's literature)

May ~ Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (classic novel in translation; I presently own the Norton Critical Edition edited by Diana de Armas Wilson and translated by Burton Raffel, but could easily be talked into reading the newest Edith Grossman translation instead)

June ~ The Woman Who Fell From The Sky by Joy Harjo (poetry)

July ~ Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges (lectures)

August ~ To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (novel)

September ~ James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (children's literature)

October ~ A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell (novel)

November ~ "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce (short story from Civil War Stories)

December ~ The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (novella)

Once TWO-WAY MIRROR goes live, subscribers to Margin will be automatically notified of these new additions to Margin. Those interested in responding to the diary entries will be invited to share their own thoughts through links contained within the feature.

As you begin to anticipate the coming year, you might also think about creating a diary of reread books. Consider this an experiment for the coming seasons of reading. It could make for interesting commentary in your book group, for instance, or it could be just the ticket you need for keeping up your annual reading resolution. It might also force you to read books that matter (who would reread books that didn't?).

At any rate, I don't believe any book is read the same way by any one reader the second time around. Rereading is not only about encountering the words again, but about interacting with books on a new, more personal level. The words of familiar books can become memory, emotion and intellectual experience when encountered again.

?Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of Margin.

Posted by at 9:09 AM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 3:33 PM PST
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