Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

A U T H O R   I N T E R V I E W
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WHEN STUDENTS of magical realism are asked to name their favorite North American magical realists, invariably Aimee Bender takes place among the top five most cited. Mostly well-known for her book of odd stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Bender drifts between realism, magical realism and surrealism to deliver witty interpretations on age old subjects: hate, sex, death. Her stories, among the best along the fringe of literary writing, are perverse, honest, emotional and frightening even as Bender's insouciant humor raises eyebrows.

Aimee and I discussed her sense of humor and her wending in and out of magical realist territory in a recent interview. -- TKS, Editor

Tamara Kaye Sellman:

Thanks for taking a moment to discuss magical realism with us.

Aimee Bender: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

TKS: First of all, I'm curious whether you consider yourself a magical realist. Certainly your cult of followers consider you a magical realist.

AB: Sure, why not. I definitely like the term, and I'm proud to be included in that category.

TKS: Wouldn't you say that your work has equal footing in the surrealism category, though? As I was reading The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, several of the stories stood out as being more surrealist than magical realist. Neither style, of course, is obedient or superior to the other, but it's interesting to discover the distinctions that writers make of their own work.

AB: Yes, I think both terms work. I love what the surrealists did, and there are great links out there --, and Your site peers, in surrealism. Both seem really connected to dreams, to me, both surrealism and magic realism, but surrealism steps into juxtaposition, and moves away, sometimes, from sense. Which I like.

TKS: Erica Erdman, in a review of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, writes that "Bender's stories can cause us to permanently question what we have taken for the ordinary, causing us to lose our surety, our emotional footing. Don't take your eyes off the page no matter how unbalanced it feels. Spend any amount of time reading her work, and you may find your reality forever changed. Aimee Bender has brought us a very strange and very beautiful gift." How does one respond to such praise, and especially so early in one's career?

AB: It's so nice to hear. It really just makes me happy and glad. And then I have to kind of file it away deep in the back dark recesses of my mind or it's distracting and I start worrying about the next project.

TKS: The erotic nature of much of your work has been the subject of various discussions. However, what I'm interested in is the recurring nature of other themes. Just for fun, I'm going to give you a list of recurring concepts or images from your stories. I'd like you to share the first thing that comes to mind when you write about these ideas. (And don't worry, I'm no psychotherapist!) It could be anything, an association, a reason, an inspiration.

TKS: Holocaust--

AB: Too many things to list.

TKS: Skin--

AB: Tattoos.

TKS: Fire--

AB: Water.

TKS: Water--


TKS: Hardware--

AB: Wrench.

TKS: The color red--

AB: A row of shirts.

TKS: Knocking on wood--

AB: Mona

TKS: Closets--

AB: Office.

TKS: Soap--

AB: Dove.

TKS: Bones--

AB: Mr.

TKS: The name Mona--

AB: Mona Bone Jakon, the Cat Stevens record.

TKS: Okay, so you're an excellent word-association player! Gotta love it. But now you have my curiosity going. Explain the significance of "The color red = A row of shirts." One would imagine that a erotic, literary writer would make a somewhat different association with the color red (LOL).

AB: Ah, good point. Well, my first thought was just remembering talking about the impact of red with someone, and we were in a store, and I was touching a bunch of red shirts. There was a point where I was afraid of red, and wouldn't touch red shirts. I had a very superstitious phase, when I was at the end of being a teenager. And red -- and all it implied -- scared me. So of course now I love it.

TKS: And what of the connection between "knocking on wood," "the name Mona," and "Mona Bone Jakon, the Cat Stevens record"?

AB: Let's see. Mona knocks on wood, in my novel. And that's just what the name Mona made me think of. I love that album title. I have no idea what it means. I think it's kind of dirty, actually, don't you think? It seems to imply something...

TKS: You suggested "office" as a reaction to the idea of "closets." Does this imply a specific attitude you have about space or work? It's pertinent in a discussion about magical realism, how we interpret space as humans and as writers, and/or how we frame our identities around what we do as much as who we are. I'm just guessing that the relationship between office and closets is one or the other. I could be wrong entirely.

AB: It's very literal. I've been writing in a closet for about two years, but I'm about to stop. I wanted my own space, and the closet was big enough. It's been good, in its way, but also there's no window and it can get stuffy.

I do think how we interpret space is very important, very useful in terms of how we work.

TKS: I can't let the "Bones = Mr." go without a comment. Can you tell me what the relationship is there?

AB: I think there's a John Berryman character in his poems named Mr. Bones. Maybe? Nope, maybe it's another name. He writes poems with this character. I am in the midst of moving or I'd find the book and let you know--

TKS: Jules Davis of Pendragon Books says that "If there is another young author out there who writes with the blessed skill and precision of Aimee Bender, then I would certainly like to know about it." Clearly your work follows a path less chosen by most American authors, and the great and lucky news is that it works for you. Was there ever a moment when you first became aware that you were writing something very different from anything else, or has it been a gradual inclination paralleling your development as a writer? Or was it something else entirely?

AB: Truth be told, the year my book came out, so did another one, called Flying Leap, by a woman named Judy Budnitz, that had a somewhat similar sensibility. And then Julia Slavin came out with The Woman Who Cut off her Leg at the Maidstone Club, which also was about slightly skewed worlds. So I feel like it was in the water, and we were all developing simultaneously. I think realism had been overly dominant in the 80's and 90's and a bunch of us were ready to let the pendulum swing back a bit.

TKS: So you see a move toward alternative realism (magical realism, slipstream, surrealism, etc.) as part of a backlash to the gritty realism of those decades? Or are their other motivations for writing alternative realism?

AB: In a way, yes. It's not only that, but I do think there has been a resurgence in the past five-ten years, and part of it is reactive. In the way that all things are reactive. And there's always motivation for writing alternative realism -- it's really just as much a part of art as realism, and so it's always there, always, whether or not its the dominant presence or aesthetic.

TKS: Your work is obviously inspired by Oliver Sacks (I'm a big fan of his, myself). Also, your stories have a simple, fairy-tale like setup that speaks to the influence of Hans Christian Andersen. They also begin, perhaps paradoxically, in an edgy and clipped way, like setups to inside jokes. It's this sense of humor delivering sober subject matter (girls born with deformed hands, Americans flocking to Holocaust memorials, in example) that intrigues me. I wonder, is this just part of your nature or worldview, or do you make a more concerted effort to soften the edges of your subject matter, using the familiar fairy tale structure and subtle tactics of humor?

AB: In a way, it's just easier for me to talk about difficult things when there's a metaphor to see them through. Otherwise I get a little overwhelmed. This way, I feel like I have more access.

TKS: Tell me about your grandmother Ardie, and her love for fairy tales.

AB: What a wonderful question. Ardie was the grandparent I knew the most, and the story went that she would go to the local library as a child, on the east coast, and listen to the librarian tell fairy tales. She was poor and couldn't afford a book. She loved those stories so much, and when she was in her nineties, and dying, I read her some fairy tales because I wasn't sure what to do. It was such a meaningful bond between us. She had very soft hands.

TKS: You have taught elementary school. How does this exposure to the child's perspective influence your own worldview?

AB: Kids are really good writers. They move plot along, and fast! And everyone ends up in outer space and then comes back. I find all that very inspiring. They don't waste time. And they're very sure of what should happen next.

TKS: "Why write magical realism?" is a recurring debate for MARGIN's readers and contributors alike. What are the best reasons you can give for choosing magical realism as a narrative structure?Or do you think it's possible that magical realism is not a form that can be consciously chosen?

AB: Yeah, I think you write it because you just feel happy doing that. I got a rejection from a magazine recently, asking why I'd made the magical choices, because they seemed, to the editor, "arbitrary." I find that so annoying; it just doesn't seem like a legitmate question to me. If they don't think it works, fine, but the choice itself is the choice you make because it seems like the only way you can tell that story. It's not like all stories are born realistic, and then are transformed. They are born in the shape they are born, like creatures, and so if they come out as cockroaches or bluebirds, so be it.

TKS: I think that a lot of writers of magical realism have to go through this baptism by fire when they first send out their work. Sometimes editors embrace it, sometimes they wholly reject good work because of the "implausible" elements that are the cornerstone of magical realism. What advice would you give to writers whose works lean naturally or organically in the direction of fabulism or magical realism, who are struggling to be appreciated by readers and editors?

AB: If their work goes that way organically, then follow it through. And just keep at the work, both on a language level, and an emotional level. If the writer is risking something, then that's a good direction. If writing magic is somehow the safe route, then I'd tell them to write something real. But if there is real joy and work happening, then on with it!

TKS: Like many writers of magical realism, you have been accused, by some critics and reviewers, of using obvious symbols and spending too much time honing artifice. Why do you suppose they say this (about your work)?

AB: I think the symbols can appear obvious, and that's ok. I don't plan them, so it might very well be obvious to the reader but if it's not to me, then that's just all I can do.

TKS: It appears that your work is accepted on equal footing by both literary and genre worlds. It's not often that you see a writer commuting successfully between these publishing landscapes. How do you do it?

AB: Hmm... I don't really know. I think nowadays we are all really swimming in the worlds of high/low culture at the same time. I guess I could say that my family is artsy and interesting, but really not snooty. We all watched "Dallas" on the day we found out who shot J.R. We used to watch "The Dating Game" with a towel over the TV, and guess who was the best bachelor. So, I think this was a good environment, because it was both mainstream, and also not mainstream, because there was plenty of good rigorous discussion, too.

TKS: I understand that an image in Sports Illustrated inspired your story, "The Healer." I find this refreshing and honest. It's not often that we learn about pop culture influences on literary writers. Tell me this: What is it about pop culture that effects the way you or any writer sees the real world? And why do so many other literary writers claim such a disdain for pop culture?

AB: Actually, I saw that image after I'd written the story... I'm not sure what the link was. But it was so fun to see it! Two sporty gals, one with a fire hand, one with ice. Then a friend exposed me to the X-men, and that was a good education as well. Though I do agree, that pop culture has a huge effect, and I definitely watch TV and I like it, and without question it seeps into my writing.

I don't know where the disdain comes from. TV is definitely dominant. To disregard it completely is to keep yourself away from people, too.

TKS: I *have* to ask: In an interview with Strange Horizons, you seemed to regret having used the term "postmodern." Me, I could take it or leave it. But I'm likely an exception. Either people embrace the notion or they dismiss it. What bugs you about things "postmodern?"

AB: It's just overused. It applies to everything.

TKS: You have cited work by Arundhati Roy and Haruki Murakami as having blown you away, commenting that much of the literature that attracts you comes from "other places," that there's "often more room, for whatever complicated reason, for magic, surrealism, and all its contortions in writing from other countries." What theories do you have for why this isn't happening in the US?

AB: I think the American bootstrap, pull-yourself-up phenomenon is maybe a part. People think that real stories have more depth. And it's often highly religious Catholic countries that have a well-developed sense of magical realism.

TKS: Going back to Erica Erdman. . .In her interview with you, she says that "any one who has read Bender's stories will attest to the fact that they may be the doorway through which a new American style of literature may presently walk through." That's quite a claim. Did you ever imagine you would be blazing trails in American literature?

AB: Ah, bless Erica Erdman! So nice of her. I definitely did not imagine that, and I can't really say that I believe it either, but I like to hear it anyway and who knows!

TKS: Your stories employ the grotesque in a wonderfully contemporary way. And yet I'm reminded of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and the work of Thomas Mann, hardly considered contemporary now. What is it about the literary grotesque that appeals to you? What other contemporary authors employ it successfully, in your opinion?

AB: Flannery O'Connor has good stuff to say about the grotesque. She talks about it as though it's real. A child draws a big head, she says, because the child sees a big head, not because the child is trying to be funny. So distortion comes from truth, too. There really is distortion in everything anyway, and inside the grotesque, we are just putting that fact front and center. I guess Geek Love, by Katharine Dunn, is the best contemporary book of the grotesque in a way. It's really amazing.

TKS: Would you say that work from Flannery O'Connor and/or Katharine Dunn has magical realist elements? Some of our readers do. Me, I'm up in the air. It's easy -- even lazy -- to label highly imaginative work as magical realist, and at the same time, there are compelling supportive arguments to be made on both counts.

AB: I guess I'd say that it isn't classic magical realism. There is this anthology, called Magic Realists, which is so loose in its definition I felt a little frustrated. It's a good book, but tons of the stories are more "interpreted" magic realism. So, I think I'd define those two writers differently, but I think what they do and say can certainly be applied to the discussion, and compared to writers of more classical magical realism like Rushdie or GG Márquez.

TKS: Looking into the future a bit, are there any up-and-coming writers of magical realism that you would you recommend we keep an eye out for?

AB: Yes, check out Budnitz and Slavin, and of course George Saunders, who, although more of a satirist, definitely has a flair for magic too, like in his story "Sea Oak."

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