First off, I’d like to say that Jen, my wonderful critique partner, got a dream cover for her debut novel, Tortilla Sun. See? It's stunning, right? :-) There’s been a lot of controversy lately about how multicultural characters have been depicted in cover art. This one, I think, captures both the culture and magic of Tortilla Sun perfectly. Kudos to artist Ana Juan, and to Julie Romeis, Jen’s editor, and the creative team at Chronicle Books!
Jen, thanks so much for joining us on The Enchanted Inkpot! You create such a wonderful sense of place and culture in your stories. (And there's all that delicious Southwestern food you can almost taste as you're reading!) What drew you to writing magical realism, to a Southwestern setting, and specifically to the Hispanic culture?
Jennifer > I love the imagination and hope of magical realism. In magical realism, magic and ordinary meet and are one and the same. Here characters acknowledge magic as a part of their everyday lives, in a world that is often mysterious and enchanting and yet realistic.
I live in New Mexico where you can wake up to the most magnificent sunrise creeping over the mountains and end the day watching swirls of pink and orange dance across the sky. I am truly captivated by the natural beauty of the southwest. It is the kind of place that feeds your spirit and makes you believe anything is possible. I write what I love which is why I incorporate the diversity of the southwest into my books.
I write Hispanic characters for several reasons. It’s what I know. But like Izzy in Tortilla Sun, I am half Hispanic. Yet, I feel connected to the culture at a very deep level. My three daughters really inspired me because I knew I wanted to write a story where they saw themselves reflected in the pages. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write about universal complexities that transcend race, class, gender.
Welcome, Laurie! Thanks for chiming in on this topic. Do you think magical realism falls under the umbrella of the fantasy genre?
Laurie > Sure. Although magical realism tends to fall under the literary fiction category of prose as well.
In what ways do the genres intersect and in what ways are they unique?
Laurie> Magical realism obtains its power from the juxtaposition of magical elements in an otherwise ordinary environment. The term was initially used by German Franz Roh to describe paintings that demonstrated an altered reality, and later the term was used by Venezuelan Arturo Uslar-Pietri to describe the work of certain Latin American writers. So it first came to America’s attention in Hispanic fiction. And when you say magical realism to many people in the publishing industry, their first thought is to associate it with Hispanic authors and locations. Yet today’s magical realism has broadened to include many different styles, tones, locations and ethnicities. Authors Neil Gaiman, with his Neverwhere, American Gods and The Graveyard Book, or China Mieville with UnLunDun and Perdido Street Station are good examples of the breadth of magical realism in fantasy fiction today.
I would say that magical realism is a subset of the larger genre of fantasy which contains many interesting subsets today including steampunk, new weird, cyberpunk, dystopian/apocalyptic fiction, dark fantasy and urban fantasy, among others. And while fantasy as a genre often operates with fantastical characters in imagined timeframes and new worlds, it is the placement of magical elements within the mundane that makes magical realism so interesting. The supernatural within the natural. The polar opposites that somehow are incorporated as to be believable. The unreal within the real.
What qualities would you say sets magical realism apart from contemporary fantasy? For instance, I’ve heard it said that magical realism is more on the literary end of the spectrum than straight fantasy. Would you say that’s true? (Feel free to use examples of other authors’ work!)
Laurie>Yes, magical realism—because of its relentless irony, the technique of authorial ironic distance or perspective, and the overt respect for the magic—tends to be closer to literature than genre fiction. One of the main differences between genre fantasy and literature is that the purpose of the first is pleasurable escape from reality, while the task of the second is to engage the reader about reality by exploring the truth in a new way, not by escaping from it. Magical realism takes place in our world, yet it allows the reader to see this real world through the eyes of someone whose reality is different from our own. The magic inherent in magical realism is a result of this different point of view—a manifestation of an “other” reality.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez are often cited as modern examples of magical realism in literature. Other authors who embrace magical realism include Ben Okri, Kojo Laing and Toni Morrison. Jennifer Cervantes has taken magical realism and applied it to children’s writing. It seems a natural fit since children have the uncanny ability to see the magical in everyday life.
Jennifer> I always start my stories asking “what if…” In the case of Tortilla Sun, what if there was an in-between place we could meet our deceased loved ones? What if the wind could guide us and speak to us in ways that we could understand? Also, the villagers accept the magical reality that Nana can heal their pain with her special tortillas.
I just finished a manuscript that focuses on a world where the moon is part oracle, and where memories have wings and can fly away, only to be harnessed by a memory-stitcher. My current work in progress explores the way one character communicates with heaven using a sacred code.
What I love most about writing magical realism is that there is equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. I can freely navigate my way around a story without feeling boxed in by “real world” rules.
I love all the magical elements in your work, and how seamlessly you blend the real with the magical! One last question, what universal themes did you explore in Tortilla Sun? For instance, if a girl from the suburbs of Boston (like me! :)) picks up your book, what do you hope she'll be able to relate to?
Jennifer> I think readers can relate to the themes of belonging and family. Izzy may be a girl in a northern NM village, but the issues she grapples with are universal.
Thanks, Lena, for taking the time to ask such insightful questions. I’d love to hear from readers. They can email me through my website at www.jennifercervantes.com. I always email back! J
Thank you, Jen! I had a wonderful time doing this interview with you.
And special thanks to your agent Laurie McLean (of Larsen Pomada Literary) for chiming in with her thoughts on Magical Realism and Fantasy. Laurie represents adult genre fiction (romance, fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, horror, new westerns, thrillers) and middle-grade/young-adult children's books. (Laurie’s Blog: www.agentsavant.com
About Tortilla Sun (Chronicle Books, May 5, 2010): a tender, magical story about 12 year old Izzy Roybal who is sent to spend the summer in her nana’s New Mexico village where she is soon caught up in the foreign world of her own culture, from patron saints and soulful food to the curious and magical blessings Nana gives her tortillas. In Nana’s village she meets Mateo, the adventurous, treasure seeking thirteen year old boy who lives on the other side of the bolted door in Izzy’s bedroom and six year old Maggie who is raising her cat, Frida, as a dog and sees marshmallow ghosts float out windows. When the wind begins to whisper to Izzy, she is soon led on an adventure to learn about her father’s mysterious death, who she really is, and to connect the hidden pieces of her past.