A R T I C L E
AMERICAN TOP FORTY:
Magical Realism's Leading Ladies
(an incomplete list)
b y t a m a r a s e l l m a n ~ M a r g i n
IT ONLY makes sense that magical realism should appeal to both female writers and readers. Magical realism lives to reveal ideas, voices and landscapes that don't reflect the dominant social order. American women, specifically, have yet to enjoy just one century of Suffrage and equality, and may even be quick to point out how the power struggles between men and women are hardly over. Magical realism, then, becomes a venue for telling "herstory," and in the United States, there's a growing sisterhood of writers that have found it invaluable in shaping their narratives.
Below, you'll find a list of 40 American women writers who've contributed to magical realism literature in important ways. Some are well known in the mainstream while others are only well known among their own circles. You'll also find a strong contingent among women of color—stories told from Native America, Asian America and African America. Jewish authors and lesbian authors have also found that magical realist technique suits their own needs for telling their truths in ways that are terrible and beautiful at once. But even more so, all these women have discovered what is, in fact, the art of magical realism, and that is to accentuate what is real. Whether it's in the daily miracles of Judaism, the taking back of pre-slave identity, the visitations with ghosts from the old country, the hyper-duplicity of gay culture or the communal healing within elements in Nature, these voices, ideas and landscapes yearn to be anything but silent, invisible or discredited.
We salute these writers, their predecessors and all the daughters, sisters and mothers in the future who will continue to re-visit "herstory" for all those women who can't.
Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote: Which Was A Dream. From the author: "The desire to play, to make literary structures that play into and in unknown or unknowable realms, those of chance and death and the lack of language, is the desire to live in a world that is open and dangerous, that is limitless. To play, then, both in structure and in content, is to desire to live in wonder."
Alcalá, Kathleen. The Flower in the Skull; Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist; Spirits of the Ordinary; Treasures in Heaven. From the Washington State University library website: "Kathleen Alcalá, a supremely gifted storyteller in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez, writes cuentos de fantasmas. Literally translated, she tells ghost stories, but to the literary world, she is considered a premier writer of magical realism. Bilingual from childhood, she describes herself as a translator—not necessarily from one language to another, but between worlds, times, cultures, and contexts."
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Woman Who Owned The Shadows. Quoting the Native American/feminist activist: "American Indian literature is not similar to western literature because the basic assumptions about the universe, and therefore, the basic reality experienced by tribal peoples and westerners are not the same."
Anthony, Patricia. Flanders; God's Fires. According to NovaExpress Online: "In an earlier age, Patricia Anthony would have been burned at the stake. In ours, she is a beacon."
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. While not technically a magical realist, Anzaldúa understood well the colliding of worlds. "The actual physical borderland that I'm dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S., Southwest/ Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands, and spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy."
Barber, Phillis. Parting the Veil. Eric A. Eliason for Journal of Mormon History writes: "Barber often takes her reader from the mundane world to the world of visions and spirits so quickly and seamlessly that a reader can be caught off guard. That these two worlds are one in the classic Mormon mind is, of course, her very point."
Bender, Aimee. The Girl In The Flammable Skirt; An Invisible Sign of My Own; Willful Creatures. From Bookslut.com: "Aimee Bender is magic maker extraordinaire. She has garnered a reputation for being a brilliant linguist as well as for her indefatigable imagination. Her new collection Willful Creatures is full of edgy emotion, blooming adolescents, chance meetings and potato children who, like the kid in all of us, yearn to be accepted and loved. While Ms. Bender conjures up a surreal stew full of fairy tale scenarios and injured hearts, she seasons her stories with just enough reality to get to the emotion of the reader."
Brown, Rebecca. Annie Oakley's Girl; The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary; The Haunted House; The Terrible Girls. From Charles Mudede for The Stranger: "On the levels of language and imagination (the only levels of importance—in that order—when it comes to literature), Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett are Brown's ancestors.… Brown always arrives somewhere with certainty. But during the progress from A to B, the meaning of a word, or a set of words, multiplies and melts into a haunting haze."
Bryant, Dorothy. The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You. Magical realist author extraordinaire Alice Walker writes: "The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You is one of my favorite books in all the world."
Castillo, Ana. So Far From God. From Publishers Weekly: "Castillo takes a page from the magical realist school of Latin American fiction, but one senses the North American component of this Chicana voice: in her work, occult phenomena are literal, not symbolic; life is traumatic and brutal—as are men—but death is merely tentative."
Corso, Paola. Giovanna's 86 Circles. From Margin: "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."
de Rosa, Tina. Paper Fish. "In… Tina de Rosa's Paper Fish… the divine is supplanted by a powerful grandmother figure who serves as the source of ethnic inspiration for female protagonists who seek to attain empowering self-identities in spite of the male supremacist traditions of Italy, Italian America, and America."—Melus, 1998
Dunn, Katherine. Geek Love. The author asserts: "I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very early age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out."
Emshwiller, Carol. Carmen Dog. "Only she could have taken the women's movement, opera, and a wolverine and come up with such enchantment."—author Connie Willis
Erdrich, Louise. The Beet Queen; Grandmother's Pigeon; Tracks. In an interview featured in The Atlantic Online, Erdrich is defined as "an emissary of the between-world."
Fowler, Connie May. River of Hidden Dreams; Sugar Cage. Described by the Florida Times-Union as "reminiscent of the magical realism in the work of such South American novelists as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende as well as in the work of Florida novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston."
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper." This story, from one of America's earliest Suffragettes, might have been defined as a treatise on mental illness and hysteria back in the old days, but new readings clearly mark it a magical realist tale of emerging feminist empowerment.
Gioseffi, Daniela. In Bed With The Exotic Enemy. "…Gioseffi brings together pieces that center on outsiders, race relations or female sexuality. One group of stories deals with the problems of immigrants assimilating to the U.S.. Some stories border on magical realism… Gioseffi's hard hitting and guileless prose sometimes adds mystery… readers interested in the politically disempowered confronting exploitation and finally having their say will find satisfaction in these tales."—Kevin Grandfield, Booklist
Goldberg, Myla. Bee Season. Spotted at the Face The Sun blog: "Spelling bees, Hare Krishna AND Jewish Mysticism, all rolled up in one! Hooray!"
Harjo, Joy. The Woman Who Fell From The Sky. From the poet: "Every day is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff."
Herrick, Amy. At the Sign of the Naked Waiter. "This novel portrays the ebb and flow of the imaginary and real worlds in the life of a contemporary woman named Sarah.…A quick-paced first novel that intermingles the imaginary and real worlds in an unobtrusive yet fervent style."—Library Journal
Hoffman, Alice B.. Here on Earth; Illumination Night; Practical Magic; The River King; Turtle Moon. "I don't think magic belongs to one culture or another. It is a part of family, history, tradition—it's everywhere."—the author, in an interview with Kenyon Review
Hong Kinston, Maxine. The Woman Warrior. "The Woman Warrior is a novel about magical realism and is overtly about finding the difference between the 'real' and the 'fake' aspects of Chinese culture with which the heroine is confronted."—Maggie Ann Bowers, Magic(al) Realism
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. From Living On Earth Today: "Zora Neale Hurston may be well-known today as one of the prominent voices of the Harlem Renaissance, but few realize that she was the first African-American to chronicle African-American folklore and voodoo."
Krauss, Nicole. The History of Love. From The Jewish Reader: "A narrative that carries within it three distinct prose works that comfortably nest inside each other like a set of Matrushka dolls. Nicole Krauss has injected magical realism into the post-modern novel."
Leegant, Joan. An Hour in Paradise. "The fleeting nature of wondrous, sometimes miraculous, experiences is alluded to in Leegant's title, derived from a Yiddish proverb, 'Even an hour in Paradise is worthwhile.' "—Forward
LeGuin, Ursula K.. "There are… writers… whose work is really magic realism… and others whose work is classified as science fiction. The irrepressible Ursula LeGuin crosses back and forth at will… " —author Kathleen Alcalá
Morrison, Toni. Beloved; Song of Solomon; Sula; Tar Baby. "Morrison pulls readers into her own amplified reality—a reality solidly rooted in the world of African Americans, in black cultural traditions. The faith that is a necessary component of magic realism is organic to the cosmology upon which Morrison draws. For this reason, magic is clearly present throughout Morrison's fiction."—literary scholar P. Gabrielle Foreman
Naylor, Gloria. Bailey's Cafe; Mama Day. "There are just too many sides to the whole story."—Cocoa, in Mama Day.
Orlock, Carol. The Hedge, The Ribbon. "Carol Orlock is a Scheherazade come to Our Town, weaving a magical storytelling pattern into a bittersweet affirmation of life."—author Lesley Hazleton
Ozick, Cynthia. The Puttermesser Papers. From critic and author Michael Upchurch: "Combining a folktale wisdom, a wry urbanity and a dash of Talmudic mysticism, Ozick creates a heroine [Ruth Puttermesser] who seems as at home in the realm of myth as on the IRT."
Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto. From Amazon.com's Best Books of 2001: "With the omniscience of magic realism, Ann Patchett flits in and out of the hearts and psyches of hostage and terrorist alike, and in doing so reveals a profound, shared humanity. Her voice is suitably lyrical, melodic, full of warmth and compassion."
Power, Susan. The Grass Dancer; Roofwalker. From the author: "Given the culture I was raised in, this is not magical realism, this is actually reality to me."
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. "A visionary who presents the interrelatedness of all things, Silko brings to life the courageous and challenging existence of people often overlooked and dismissed."—The Learning Place
Tafolla, Carmen. Curandera. Many of her works, she says, are dictated by ancestors "whispering over my shoulder."
Tan, Amy. The Bonesetter's Daughter; The Hundred Secret Senses; The Kitchen God's Wife. In an interview with BookReporter.com: "Part of me would like to be a skeptic about the mystical. I like to think of myself as a rational person, not easily given to suggestibility and wishful thinking. But so much of what has happened to me is outside the ken of my ordinary senses, outside of logic. I have had more than my share of invisible footsteps in broad daylight, apparitions, and prophetic dreams."
Walker, Alice. By the Light of My Father's Smile; Now is the Time to Open Your Heart: A Novel; The Temple of My Familiar. From the New Georgia Encyclopedia: "Reflecting upon the unique perspective and versatility of her literary career, Walker says, 'One thing I try to have in my life and my fiction is an awareness of and openness to mystery, which, to me, is deeper than any politics, race, or geographical location.' With elements of ancestral fable and spirituality, womanist insight, literary realism, and the grotesque, Walker's writing embodies an abundant cultural landscape of its own.
Windling, Terri. The Green Man; The Wood Wife. From the author: "Magic Realism is not new. The label's new, the specific Latin American form of it is new, its modern popularity is new, but it's been around as long as literature has been around."
Woolf, Virginia. Nurse Lugton's Curtain; Orlando; To the Lighthouse. "[Gabriel] García Márquez… has said that reading a sentence of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway completely changed his sense of time and may have given him the idea for Macondo's process of decomposition."—from literary scholar Wendy B. Faris in Ordinary Enchantments
Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rainforest; Tropic of Orange. From Rain Taxi Review of Books: "With Tropic of Orange, Yamashita experiments with magical realism… While some newer Latin American writers are rejecting that writing style as too stereotypical, Yamashita keeps it alive, literally dragging it north to the U.S. and using it to clash and mix the two cultures in disturbing and clever ways."
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