Modern Magical 


PAOLA CORSO: Magical Realism as
Memory, Voice and Vision

b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~    m a r g i n

WHEN CRITICS claim that there's no such thing as North American magical realism, I have writers like Paola Corso to thank for proving them wrong. Her recent story collection, Giovanna's 86 Circles (2005, University of Wisconsin Press), couldn't be a finer display of urban American magical realism, exploring the twists and turns of sooty river country in the heart of the American Rust Belt. According to the publisher, "These ten magical stories are primarily set in working-class river towns in the Pittsburgh area where Italian American women and girls draw from their culture and folklore to bring life and a sense of wonder to a seemingly barren region.… Each story catapults the ordinary into something original and unpredictable."

Those critics holding biases against magical realism have located it exclusively (and problematically) to Latin America, which means that when discussions of North American magical realism arise, it's automatically assumed that writers in the US enjoy too much privilege, have too much northern European background and are taught (to their detriment) Western realist modes that don't allow for the boundary transgressions that magical realism employs.

However, the work of many theorists (see Magic(al) Realism by Maggie Ann Bowers or Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris, for clear evidence) reveals the probability that magical realism can be executed successfully by North American writers, especially if they should belong to marginalized groups. Corso is a three-time member: she's a woman, the child of a working-class family, and of immigrant American heritage.

On the first count, Bowers in Magic(al) Realism makes an especially lucid argument for women writers as true vanguards of North American magical realism. On the second, it's widely understood that magical realism provides a voice for those who are not part of the power structure of a society; the American working class (whether industrially located or rural in nature) often faces the same obstacles of rural and peasant classes found in Third World countries. And thirdly, immigrants to America, regardless their homelands (Corso's family comes from Italy), struggle with challenges to their cultural identity the moment they get off the boat at Ellis Island (or scale the U.S.-Mexican border). So Paola Corso qualifies, by these criteria alone, as a North American magical realist. In fact, her work gives readers a blueprint of memory, voice and vision for American women, laborers and immigrants that, thanks to the magical realist perspective, may be the finest way in which to honor them.

While not all of Corso's stories are magical realist, they all exude an enchanting quality that tantalizes like the work of another fine contemporary imaginative fiction writer from the US—Aimee Bender. But while Aimee Bender's quirky work reflects an assumedly magical southern California locale and its related lifestyles, Corso's characters and situations arise from a working-class community generally considered so ordinary as to be unremarkable.

With this latest effort from Corso, she joins a fine cast of American women authors of imaginative writing who've also asserted their presence in less-than-glamorous landscapes, like Toni Cade Bambara, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary Overton, Devorah Major, Sondra Kelly-Green and Roberta Kusiak.

It's only been within the last five years or so that literary publishing has made a conscientious attempt at showcasing short fiction that focuses on the day-to-day lives of those who I might defend as the "most real" of Americans: the starving-artist waitress, the road-weary truck driver, the bored institutional worker, the laid-off factory worker, the nurse clocking out after a triple shift. (Editor's note: Maybe it's because I spent no small amount of time working in suburban Chicago and Portland restaurants—cooking, waitressing, bartending—in the 80s to pay for my college education that I now yearn to hear again those voices belonging to the most down-to-earth among us.)

And Corso offers up a nice collection of such stories in Giovanna's 86 Circles. Imagine such wonders:

• a keen clerk at a second-hand boutique finds the perfect suitor for a magical car jacket
• a visionary launderess sees well beyond the steam in the hospital basement
• a local reporter covers the prediction of a small-town mayor's death
• a child dries the leavings of yesterday's produce at a farm market to salvage the family spirit
• an old woman knits her hopes into the miracle of a grandchild (see Unraveled)
• sisters resurrect more than just their family's heirloom dough starter from the Old Country

While magical realism is typically associated with more rural and/or exotic locales than industrial Tarentum, PA (a Pittsburgh river town), Corso builds into that landscape all the necessary ingredients for magical realism. There is the extraordinary beauty of the mundane (Giovanna's magical 86 circles are simply the leftover water rings of potted plants kept on wooden floors), along with impossibility sliding into the real world like a raw egg into beer. She's poised us at the edge of two worlds in her stories: not really in the heart of the city, and not really in the heart of the wilderness. In between steel and water, paychecks and poverty, connection and solitude.

For Corso, this combination of location and worldview defines the fertile space of her childhood.

"I grew up in a city with three rivers. Behind our backyard was undeveloped land clear to the Allegheny River. My friends and I built treehouses, swung on bullropes, collected rocks for science class, and, of course, swam in the river. It was a place for making discoveries, room enough for an imagination."

Growing up the granddaughter of a steel worker, she describes those times, sitting by the bank and watching the Allegheny flow downstream, as "a welcomed contrast to the stagnant feeling in the dying river towns where my parents grew up." She remembers peeking into a vacant storefront once to see if the numbers on the adding machine paper roll had miraculously changed. In her mind, she "countered the lifelessness in this economically depressed town by thinking about the flow of the river, the places the current could take me."

Doubtless, her ties to the Italian-American community that the Rust Belt is known for have kept her connected to the cultural treasures that immigrant life can offer a writer, especially a magical realist writer: the family folklore, the mystique and mythos of the Old World, the superstitions linked to a Catholic upbringing. In her essay on the rosary's manual prayer, she asserts that "saying the rosary is a way for the working-class women in my family to use their hands not just for material production but for the work of the Blessed Mother." This integration of cultural upbringing, class identity and generational connection with the women in her family is well-represented in her worldview in Giovanna's 86 Circles.

Author Rita Ciresi describes Corso's work as a major contribution to female Italian-American literature. "Corso mixes myth and reality, fable and grit to illustrate the beauty, power, and necessity of storytelling. " She certainly joins a fine cadre of other women authors of similar heritage who write similarly imaginative work: Tina De Rosa (Paper Fish), Dorothy Bryant ( The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You), Anna Maria Ortese (A Music Behind The Wall and The Iguana), Nancy Savoca (the film, Household Saints) and Daniela Gioseffi (In Bed With The Exotic Enemy).

Of her own magical writing, she explains, "I try to capture the magic of the river's flow in my stories, which are primarily set in a working-class world on the decline that in many ways is like a box of restrictions—the work uniform, the time clock, the assembly line, the paycuts, the layoffs, foreclosures. It's a far-fetched idea that you can control what you have no control of, somehow free yourself from what's pinning you down, even for a brief moment in a daydream or a little folktale."

Though now well-educated and relocated to Brooklyn, Corso still conquers the familiar terrain of her hometown near Pittsburgh in her writing with both heart and empathy. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette portrays her in this manner: "Despite her three degrees, she can be seen as a working-class woman who does a white-collar job with blue-collar hands. The past is present."

Corso holds degrees in both creative writing and community organizing. She teaches a prose workshop at Fordham University in New York City and serves on the faculty of the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. On occasion, she also presents community-building workshops. Using her creative writing in an activist function (for instance, she's a member of the NEA's WritersCorps in the Bronx) is immensely satisfying for her as well. This nitty-gritty work (she's taught workshops in women's shelters, hospitals and senior centers) plants her feet firmly in the terra firma (perhaps creating the penultimate foundation for writing magical realism? …one could speculate). What better way to capture the magic of the real world than to be an inextricable part of it?

If this all wasn't challenging enough for one writer, Corso's writing moves between forms, as well. Though she started out as a fiction writer, Corso moved into shorter forms as lifestyle necessitated. "I started writing poetry when I had a baby," she explains.

Like other writing mothers, she didn't have time to shower while nursing a newborn, let alone delve into another 350-page fiction manuscript. Instead of giving in, though, she switched gears and chose a different tactic as soon as she went back to work. She describes her nearly hour-long subway commute to work as a kind of "mobile writing workshop." Without a fussy baby or a classroom of students to distract her, she found she could jot down a few lines to "just hold on to the essence of what needed to be said."

Poetry and flash fiction have evolved to become the best use of her free writing time. "I like the satisfaction of writing to the end in one sitting. Then when I pick it up to revise, whenever or however that may be, I can resettle into the world more easily."

The content and essence of her poetry mirrors the magical realist perspective in her fiction. About her poetry collection, Death by Renaissance, poet Denise Duhamel writes that Corso's poems "are tough, edgy, often unsettling—populated with tender sinners and tough-as-nail saints.… she blends the political with the mythic, family life with social annotations…"

Any writer of different forms faces unique intellectual challenges. It's difficult to switch from the multilevel consciousness that creating a novel requires to the crystalline thinking that a poem demands. Corso seems to slough off any burden in doing both, however, and tries not to compare her poetry with her prose.

"Instead I look for the presence of each in the other. The spiritual essence of poetry gives dimension to the material world of prose and vice versa. On the perfect page, one completes the other."

This awareness is perhaps one of the sharpest tools she has in her writer's kit. Her no-nonsense advice to writers struggling to "switch hit" between prose and poetic forms is evidence she's been doing this for a long, long time. You can practically envision her pushing up her sleeves when she instructs:

"Take a paragraph of your prose, create line breaks, and revise each as if it were a line of a poem before converting it back into block form. Find the dance in the walk. Then do the reverse. Take a poem, put it in block form and find the story, the narrative movement, where the dance might go if it walked a straight line, and let this inform your revision."

Her own writing reveals the success of this tried-and-true method. Lovers of verse will find amazing nuggets of poetry in her fiction, and lovers of story will enjoy the startling lucidity of detailed narrative in her poems.

Corso's ability to access creativity through both literary form and substance gives her an edge as a writer in a time when cultural change in America has become the rule, not the exception. Versatility lends today's writers a competitive edge. Writes author David Huddle, "Corso's characters are Old World people vulnerable to the assault of contemporary capitalism, but dreaminess relieves the stresses of their lives.… she creates a world that is at once familiar and strange."

"That's what magical realism…is for me," responds Corso, "creating an element of surprise around the river bend, moving toward something statistically improbable, but entirely possible, nonetheless." It comes as no surprise that her writing has been informed by the likes of such favorite imaginative authors as Philip Levine, Carlo Levi, Paulo Coelho, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez and Cristina Garcia.

Corso maintains a busy schedule that shows no sign of letting up. A quick search engine foray finds her traveling across the country to read from her new collection, to take part in a poetry reading, to speak about working-class culture, to lead workshops on community building. Notably, she joined writers George Guida and Peter Covino at the Brooklyn Public Library last October to help celebrate Italian American Heritage Month. She's currently co-editing (with Nandita Ghosh) the forthcoming Confluence: A Global Anthology of Women's Voices on the Politics of Water. She'll also be appearing with Italian-American writer Kym Ragusa at the New York Public Library (Mid-Manhattan branch) on Monday, November 28.

Her accolades reliably point to a bright future. Corso won the DeJur Award in Creative Writing for her novel, San Procopio and was the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize winner for 2000. Her novel, Watermark, garnered her the Nyman Family Project Prize. She was a 2003 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow. Her latest collection of poetry, The Laundress Catches Her Breath, was judged the first runner-up by Donna Masini for the Bordighera Poetry Prize, which honors venerable Italian-American writers. And just last September, Giovanna's 86 Circles was nominated for a Pushcart Press Editor's Book Award.

Despite having grown up enduring the bleak images projected by an industrial skyline, Corso is a determined and talented writer who, motivated by her sense of community and cultural identity, should continue to capture the essence of what North American magical realism is all about. With her energy and sense of purpose, there's no reason why she'll ever need to leave behind that cherished bend in the Allegheny.

Read three poems by Paola Corso

Read an excerpt from "Unraveled" (from Giovanna's 86 Circles)



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Rev'd 2005/11/11