Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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MEN HAVE dominated the Latin American magical realist landscape since its inception. Think about it. Borges. García Márquez. Cortázar. Carpentier. Llosa. One would think that magical realism's most popular diva, Isabel Allende, stands alone.

Not so. The voices of lo real maravilloso have always transgressed gender boundaries, even if American publishing and book marketing have trained their spotlights almost exclusively on the boy's club.

Latina magical realism, especially the most contemporary works, can't help but break down stereotypes. The women in these narratives are not the docile virgins, spitfire whores or perpetually grieving widows that are so often portrayed by the masculine voices of magical realism. Neither are they simply useful as metaphors for the state of the larger world. Rather, they are distinctly individual, smart, resourceful and loyal to their loved ones. They take their own epic journeys. They make art that matters. Their magical powers do not necessarily make them witches. They stand up in the face of inequity. Their matriarchs run households like men run governments. Their daughters equally aspire to the challenges of their sons. They can be conquered, yes, but so can they conquer.

Perhaps the most convenient way to capture the scope of Latina magical realist expression is to read Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real (Arte Público Press, Houston, 1990, Celia Correas de Zapata, ed.). (The best way, of course, would be to read all these authors in their native languages, but we at Margin understand that our readers are primarily English-speaking and, therefore, might not be able to access these works.) Editor Zapata (yes, she's related to frequent contributor Carol Zapata-Whelan) has compiled a valuable, wide-ranging collection of work from 30 major Latina authors, complete with a thoughtful introductory discussion about defining the Latina magical realist voice, and with a lovely foreword by—who else?—the aforementioned Ms. Allende, who writes:

…This Anthology is so valuable; it lays open the emotions of writers who, in turn, speak for others still shrouded in silence. For women in Latin America, setting down a short story is like screaming out loud; it breaks the rules, violates the code of silence into which we are born. Through these stories, each author selected by Dr. Zapata shouts out defiantly and reveals our experience to the world.
The anthology lineup makes for essential reading for any Latin American Studies or Womens Studies course, with authors representing all of the Americas south of the US—from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Costa Rica in Central America and the Caribbean to South America's magical realist hotbeds in Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Argentina and Brazil. Subjects may range from student demonstrations to stargazing, from bookkeeping to sewing, but what is consistent is the confidence and exactitude in these writers' voices. Indeed, these women are screaming to be heard. We need to listen to their stories, appreciate their jokes and savor their points of view if we are to get a complete picture of Latin America.

Below, I've sampled some of the authors with hopes you'll be inspired to pick up your own copy. Luckily, Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real has not fallen out of print; in fact, it was released in paperback in 2003 and remains alive and well in booksellers' inventories.

LUISA VALENZUELA ~ "Up Among the Eagles"

"I climbed up, and when I looked down and saw the green dot of the valley far below, I decided to stay here forever. It wasn't that I was afraid, I was just being prudent, as they say: threatening cliffs, beyond imagination; impossible even to consider returning."
This short-story author continues to find homes for her work in international literary journals and has become something of a darling among the American literati. Her's is one of those great stories that all writers wish they could stake claim to: as a teenager, she'd worked with Jorge Luis Borges in the National Library. If you could read only one story of hers, consider the aptly titled "Strange Things Happen Here," which appeared in Worlds of Fiction (MacMillan College Division, 1993; Roberta Rubenstein & Charles R. Larson, eds.) among many other mammoth authors of magical realism (Rudolfo Anaya, Dino Buzzati, José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Nikolai Gogol, Bessie Head, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Kafka, Bernard Malamud, Kenzaburo Oe, Octavio Paz and Amos Tutuola, to name a few). Dalkey Archive Press features a wonderful interview with the writer here.

MARTA TRABA ~ "The Tale of the Velvet Pillows"

"Nimia Sánchez's work enjoyed a sudden increase in popularity when the rest of the neighborhood saw the pillow. The embroidery showed a giraffe in the middle of a jungle full of details right down to the stems, trunks and leaves.… The happy owner of the embroidered pillow was obligated to patiently tolerate the parade of neighbors that wanted to see it, and in three days' time Nimia Sánchez received more than fourteen new orders."
This Argentine/Colombian author also helped to found the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá. Born and educated in Buenos Aires, she was the first academically trained theorist to study Colombian art and went on to become one of the most important art critics in South America. She became a naturalized citizen of Colombia upon marrying the Colombian journalist, Alberto Zalamea. However, it was her Argentine background which gave her the necessary liberty to shake up the Latin American art world in Bogotá, where she adamantly rejected the encroachment of influences from the United States as being culturally destructive. Her efforts to support a movement toward "art of resistance" highlighted the efforts of such writers as Gabriel García Márquez, who exemplified, in Traba's words, "the capacity to pull the national reality from its underdevelopment and transpose it to a magical, mythical, or purely imaginative level, which is considered far superior to…the imitation of tasks proposed by highly industrialized societies" such as the United States.

Costa Rica
RIMA DE VALLBONA ~ "Penelope's Silver Wedding Anniversary"

"The feelings of unreality that had pursued me since morning hit me with such force that I thought the martinis had finally done me in. I had the strangest sensation that the distance between other objects and myself were somehow sacred. Material objects which I once touched without noticing now disappeared from sight. They shunned contact, slipping away into nothingness, vanishing in the nightmare."
Costa Rica treasures Rima de Vallbona as one of its most prominent literary figures. Widely educated (University of Costa Rica, Le Sorbonne, University of Salamanca), she has published numerous books including novels, literary studies and short-story collections. Her novels and short stories explore feminine characters as they try to piece together the puzzles of their lives. Her three most acclaimed works include Mujeres y agonías (Women and Grief, 1982), Mundo, demonio y mujer (World, Demon and Woman, 1991) and Los infiernos de la mujer y algo más (Women's Inferno and Something Else), 1992. Her work has been widely anthologized and she held the Cullen Chair in Spanish at the University of St. Thomas (Houston, TX) for several decades.

ELENA GARRO ~ "Blame the Tlaxcaltecs"

"Nacha listened, motionless; someone was knocking at the back door. When again they persisted, she opened the door cautiously and looked out into the night. Señora Laura appeared, shushing her with a finger at her lips. She was still wearing the white dress, singed and caked with dirt and blood."
Fans of Octavio Paz may or may not know that he was married for a time to Elena Garro, a journalist, scriptwriter and choreographer from Mexico. She earned acclaim for her first novel, Los recuerdos del porvenir, which was published in 1963 in Mexico City. There, Garro worked as a writer and reporter. Five years later, she found herself in exile following the massacre in the Plaza de Tlatelolco, after which she was detained for nine days by Mexican authorities, then released with no passport or permission to leave the country. She left anyway, moving first to New York, then to Spain and finally to Paris, returning to Cuernavaca, Mexico some two decades later. It was in 1987 that her acclaimed novel was translated into English as Recollections of Things to Come by Ruth L.C. Simms. After her death in 1998, Princeton University compiled a comprehensive archive of her writings and correspondence, which has become better known as The Elena Garro Papers.

TERESA PORZECANSKI ~ "The Story of a Cat"

"It would have been different for a cat to die in the jungle, in a circus cage, or in a park, rather than on the printed rug with roses where Mary slid on her knees so many times a day. "
"Twenty years ago, an anthropologist named Teresa Porzecanski placed an advertisement in a Jewish newspaper serving this distant compass point of the Diaspora," wrote Samual G. Freedman for The New York Times in August 2003. "She was looking for the residue of an unrecorded history, the letters and snapshots of tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.… Mystified about why a scholar would care for the contents of their closets and bottom drawers, the aging immigrants or their offspring warily came forward, not only with mail and photographs but also with silverware, ritual candlesticks, samovars. Ms. Porzecanski and her students then set out, notebooks and tape recorders in hand, to interview family elders." The result? Porzecanski's treasury of Uruguayan Jewish letters titled History of the Lives of Jewish Immigrants in Uruguay (Historias de Vida de Imigrantes Judios al Uruguay). Aside from her scholarly anthropological work, Porzecanski is the author of eight short-story collections, five novels and a book of poems, and her work has been translated into English, Dutch, German and French. Most recently, her two novellas, Sun Inventions and Perfumes of Carthage, were translated into English.

Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of Margin.
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