Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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Reinventing the Present Moment:
Fuentes and Ortega define Latin American Writing

IT'S ABOUT time, I think, for Margin to give the nod to Latino writers of magical realism.

It seems like an obvious group upon which to focus discussions about literary magical realism. After all, it was Latino writers who fueled El Boom, and it was Latino authors (in English translation) who brought the wonder and delight of lo real maravilloso to North American readers.

But this has created a problematic side effect. Many American readers have come to infer that, because Latin American writing popularized magical realism, that it must be the only writing coming out of places south of the US. This isn't true: gritty, contemporary realism makes up a large part of the landscape of Latin American literature, even if many North American readers are unaware of this.

By focusing on magical realism as a global construct, I have hoped to accomplish two things. First, we aim to introduce readers to magical realists originating in "surprising" places (such as Denmark or Japan). Our job at Margin is to explore, after all, and it would be a mistake to focus only on literature from one part of the world if we are to meet this goal.

Second, we have chosen to refuse to perpetuate the stereotype that magical realism is "all Latin American writing." Too many writers from this region suffer because of these short-sighted expectations.

But I think it's time we gave Latin American writers a special focus at Margin; without them, where would Margin be?

I've had some difficulty choosing the focus of this edition's column, the first of a series at Margin called Latino Forum. Should I go with an historical perspective right off, by leading with Cortázar, García Márquez, Rulfo or other "old timer" in the genre? Should I get a fresh perspective from a contemporary new voice representing today's Latino writers? Should this be an interview, a feature on an individual, rather than an overarching discussion? How about highlights of the popular Latino writers of our times, such as Isabel Allende? Also, should I focus on an entire bibliography, or just one book? Short stories? Movie adaptations? Novels?

The landscape is rich.

This issue we feature a collection of stories published by Vintage, an American publisher enjoying 50 years in business in 2004. The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, edited by Carlos Fuentes and Julio Ortega, two magical realist and Latino heavyweights on the literary scene, seemed the perfect place to start a dialog about Latin American magical realism.

Latin American Stories, published in 1998 and distributed nationally, is a must-have collection for readers who love world literature. It's as simple as that. There are all sorts of anthologies out there featuring Latin American writing; while I have not read them all and cannot speak to any inclination to recommend one over another, I can certainly vouch for the diversity of voices in this collection.

Inside, you'll find the popular and anticipated magical realist vanguard: work from Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Gabriel García Márquez. There are some terrific magical realist tales coming from contemporary female authors such as Argentine Luisa Valenzuela ("Panther Eyes") and Angeles Mastretta (Big-Eyed Women) of Mexico. I also enjoyed the space set aside for lesser-known classic magical realists like Cuban author Antonio Benítez Rojo ("The Scissors"), Mexico's Sergio Pitol ("Bukhara Nocturne") and Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa, whose very satisfying tale, "The Third Bank of the River," is included in the collection. If one is to fully capture the flavor of Latin American magical realism, these stories serve as the perfect course.

What I also gained from reading the book is a sense of cultural identity that blossoms while reading not only the magical realist stories, but also those stories which are decidedly not magical realist. In fact, this may be the number one reason to read this book. Evocative landscapes, sensual relationships, colorful characters, realistic dialog about culture and economy and power complete one's sense of perception about the region. Uruguayan author Filisberto Hernández' story, "The Balcony," captures the sadness of a young woman's life in a gripping and unexpected way. "The One Who Came to Save Me," by Virgilio Piñera, was an interesting take on facing one's own death in an empowering way. I absolutely loved the powerful storytelling in "Taxi Driver, Minus Robert De Niro," written by Fernando Ampuero of Lima, Peru. (I remember thinking, This story rocks!) Another story that "rocked": Policarpo Varón's "The Feast."

What we have here is not just a lot of good writing, though Latin American Stories is certainly a prime example. What we have here is some fine editing and a strong vision shared by two of Latin America's finest literary dignitaries.

Author Carlos Fuentes has been called a "literary historian of the highest caliber" by the editor of Fuentes, who has written numerous screenplays, dramas and short stories, is perhaps best known for his novels, The Death of Artemio Cruz, A Change of Skin, Terra Nostra, The Old Gringo and The Campaign. Among his many distinctions is his position as the Robert F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard University since 1987. He also won the Cervantes Prize in1987.

Julio Ortega teaches Latin American literature for Brown University, where he also directs the Trans-Atlantic Project. His specialties, literary theory and 20th Century Spanish American literature and culture, define him as one of the leading experts on Latino literature. He is the author of a number of Spanish titles, most notably Una poetica del cambio and El principio radical de lo nuevo. His English-version books include After Wonder: Post-Colonial Writing and Transatlantic Readings, García Márquez and the Powers of Fiction and Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative.

What makes Latin American Stories so worthwhile, besides the excellent writing, is the front section of the book enclosing Fuentes' foreword, "The Storyteller," and Ortega's formal introduction to the collection, translated by Matt Jameson Evans. Fuentes' dedication to the short story form in Latino writing is lovely and heartfelt. His points there provide considerable fuel for including more Latin American authors in worldwide anthologies of short fiction. His respect and love for the form provide ample motivation to begin, and to savor, the collection that follows. Ortega, in his introduction, offers a brilliant overview of Latin American writing and provides an excellent historical vantage with which to approach the diversity of stories in Latin American Stories.

I'm a big fan of the "front matter" in anthologies and collections. Sometimes introductions and forewords don't add much to the overall effect of a collection. In the case of Latin American Stories, they are a necessary, readable and enlightening aspect of the book.

It is with this recommendation that I leave you to ponder the possibilities within the realm of Latin American writing. This collection provides an excellent start for the reader new to the Latino literary landscape, but its inclusivity also marks it as a fine addition for the bookshelves of both magical realism buffs and lovers of Latin American fiction alike.

Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of Margin.
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