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24 February 2010 @ 09:22 am
Is Magical Realism Fantasy? an interview with Jennifer Cervantes and her agent, Laurie McLean  
Today, I’m chatting with Jennifer Cervantes, author of Tortilla Sun, and her agent Laurie McLean of Larsen Pomada Literary Agents on the topic of Is Magical Realism Fantasy?

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!

Click on image to view larger
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.

Jen, could you speak specifically to the magic you explore in your stories?

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.

Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing your opinion. I think this is a topic that has no easy answers.
katecoombs on February 24th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think it's interesting that Laurie seems to consider magical realism as an umbrella for so many kinds of fantasy--all with an anchor in contemporary reality, I assume. I think I agree with her more when she talks about magical realism as generally being more "literary" and fantasy as being more escapist, although even there, we can cite a lot of serious and thought-provoking fantasy.

My own take on it is that in magical realism, the magic is presented in touches, but in fantasy, the magic is more fundamental to the story and/or culture being presented. More important, magical realism seems to have a sense of yearning and imagination about it, evoking the feeling of dreaming. It's poetic, even mystical, rather than adventurous. I would never call The Lightning Thief magical realism, for example.

I was SUCH a Gabriel Garcia Marquez fan back in college. I wrote a series of poems about 100 Years of Solitude, even. So it's nice to see more magical realism in children's books, where it's been underrepresented as compared with traditional fantasy.

Definitions aside, I can't wait to read Jennifer's book!

Edited at 2010-02-24 03:05 pm (UTC)
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
"More important, magical realism seems to have a sense of yearning and imagination about it, evoking the feeling of dreaming. It's poetic, even mystical, rather than adventurous."

I think that's a wonderful definition, Kate. It captures the essence of magical realism, at least as I know it, very well.
ebooraem on February 24th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
This is shaping up as an interesting discussion--wish I were more knowledgeable about Allende and Marquez, who are both on my unread Shelf of Shame. But I want to know more, Kate, about your thought that the magic in MR is offered in "touches" and the magic in fantasy is more fundamental to a story or culture. Can you give examples? The little I know about hispanic MR, for example, makes me think that, even in touches, the magic is fundamental to the Hispanic culture. Am I misinterpreting what you said?

By the way, TORTILLA SUN sounds amazing. I'll try to keep it off my Shelf of Shame. :o>
katecoombs on February 24th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
Ellen, I probably got myself in trouble with the word "culture" in that the magic usually does seem woven into the culture presented, almost shamanically. I guess what I mean is that in magical realism, the magic is more subtle. It doesn't dominate plot in flashy ways, but more often reflects, symbolizes, and supports characters and their growth. (Literary, right?) Whereas in fantasy, the magic seems more overt and is used more frankly as a tool or plot device. Thanks for helping me pin that down a little better!

Edited at 2010-02-24 03:32 pm (UTC)
ebooraem on February 24th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
Ah, that makes sense. I was wondering about the definitions in the post, which sounded as if all reality-based fantasy would be MR. The line between the two genres sounds like something you'd recognize if you already know what it looks like--and a hard one to define for others.
charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com on February 24th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
I am not quite sure what I think myself about the definition of magical realism, so I'll just say that this particular book sounds lovely and I'll be looking for it!
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
I know, right? It's a wonderful story!

This line from the description always makes me smile: "and six year old Maggie who is raising her cat, Frida, as a dog". :-)
marissa_doylemarissa_doyle on February 24th, 2010 03:20 pm (UTC)
Excellent topic, and it was lovely to have Jennifer and Laurie here.

One of my all-time favorite, take to a desert island books is Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale...but I've never been able to decide if it's magical realism or fantasy. Thinking about Marquez and Love in the Time of Cholera (and about Winter's Tale, too, now that I think of it), the magic always seems to be in a pervasive, underlying layer in the world and in the characters' lives, not always called upon or used, but definitely there (like an extra component in the air, maybe.) There's a slight sense of difference to me, that maybe the worlds in these books are right next door to ours, but never the same.
(Anonymous) on February 24th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
Great interview!

To me, magickal realism is a blend. Probably because it's the way I write.

Linda Wisdom
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Linda! After reading Jen's work, it makes me wish I could write MR too.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
@Ellen: Ah, the "unread Shelf of Shame," I have one of those too.

And, Marissa, I love your descriptions of MR. There is something organic & yet mystical about magical realism...
nandinibnandinib on February 24th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
Very interesting! At least it's safe to say that Magic Realism as a genre is one of the hardest to define. Salman Rushdie called it "Truth, by other means." Is is correct that while fantasy can be escapist, magic realism engages with reality more? I too think of it as dealing with universal truths, and weaving mystical/magical elements with the actual world. Tortilla Sun sounds absolutely amazing!
keelyinkster on February 24th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
Magic realisim
I read or heard, that in magic realism the surreal magical elements are portrayed as a normal part of life, and the normal events in life are the unexpected bizarre elements. So the characters in Marquez or in something like Water for Chocolate consider magic to be a part of their daily lives and humans irrational behaviour to be surreal.

Just wish I could remember where I heard it, they did give that as a definition of magic realism though. Great post Lena.

On definitions, I think they are really morphing together these days, yes 1984 is sci-fi + dystopian but steampunk is sci-fi + fantasy sometimes, like The Golden Compass, and it all makes for fascinating reading and writing.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Magic realisim
That's an interesting quote, Keely. For me, the magic in magical realism seems to be accepted without much comment or fanfare. (i.e. Of course the wind speaks to people. Of course an old tree has a spirit of its own. Or a piece of chocolate can change your life (we all knew that already, right?? LOL As a side note: would you call Chocolat magical realism?)

@Nandini: I like this idea of MR engaging reality more and fantasy being more escapist. There are probably exceptions (as with anything), but I think there's something to that.
(Anonymous) on February 24th, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Magic realisim
Mmm tough one, for me I'd say 'Chocolat' has elements of magic realism, I don't know why, it just seems too commercial i.e. not literary enough to be labeled magic realism --eek I'm a lit snob!!
And of course real chocolate as every knows is the essence of magic!
keelyinkster on February 24th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Magic realisim
Oops meant to sign my name!
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 24th, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Magic realisim
"I read or heard, that in magic realism the surreal magical elements are portrayed as a normal part of life, and the normal events in life are the unexpected bizarre elements."

I think this is one of the best definitions I've heard yet! I'm going to run it by my mother-in-law, who's a professor of Latin American literature and has made many failed attempts to explain magic realism to me in the past...
(Deleted comment)
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on February 24th, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC)
Just wanted to chime in, though I'm a new member here. I enjoyed the interview and admit that I have been a bit confused as to the differentiation between all of these sub-genres. One thing I can say though is that even in Fantasy, good writers explore truths and human dilemmas/situations. Isn't that what really attracts us to a good story no matter what the setting? We have to be able to connect in some way.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 05:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks for chiming in, Lisa! And welcome to the Inkpot! :)

"even in Fantasy, good writers explore truths and human dilemmas/situations"

Yes! That's what I was trying to express in my reply to Malinda.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 05:46 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of a conversation I had with my son a while back. He was trying to convince me (in that way only tweens can master) that his reading non-fiction was somehow better than reading fiction because non-fiction was real/true and fiction was "kind of like lying."

We had an interesting discussion, I assure you. LOL But my response was that fiction 1) WASN'T LYING! and 2) that it offered a way to explore *emotional* truth, by using made up plots, characters, etc... (I like the phrase universal truths too.)

Perhaps we could say, magical realism is "more on the Literary Fiction* end of the spectrum" and fantasy is "more on the "genre end of the spectrum"? Where the spectrum is all literature**...

*as in the shelving/marketing category
**as in the collection of fictional works
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 24th, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
I kind of blinked at that quote too... but if you want to restate it, I think it might be fair to argue that genre literature has more of an emphasis on enjoying the act of reading the book, while "literature" might focus more on what you'll learn once you're finished reading the book. Each can do both (and the best definitely do!), but the distinction is which is more important to the readers of that particular type of fiction.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 08:08 pm (UTC)
I wonder if that's why much genre fiction tends to end with a happily-ever-after ending, as that feels more emotionally satsfying. And literary fiction tends to leave the ending more open-ended and subject to interpretation, i.e. thought-provoking. (*Insert disclaimers about there being exceptions to that and overlaps.)

And reeling myself back in, ;) does this hold true for magical realism? Do the endings tend to be more open-ended & thought-provoking?
A Deserving Porcupinerockinlibrarian on February 25th, 2010 12:50 am (UTC)
Oh! Something about this comment-- maybe the line "It's an old, old belief..." paired with the cover of your fairy-tale retelling book-- made me think of yet another element to throw into this magical realism vs. fantasy discussion: where do folktales fit? They are even older than any beliefs about written literature, and are full of fantasy elements that are accepted as everyday, and often have a sort of magic realism feel to them, but your retellings are most likely going to be considered straight-up fantasies....
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 25th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Amy (rockinlibrarian)and everyone, for your comments on magical realism. It's been an interesting discussion!

I hope if nothing else, it makes us more curious about this subgenre and propels us to pick up more books, like Jen's , and read, read, read. :)
Kate Milfordkatemilford on February 24th, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC)
This is just my opinion, but if it was easy to draw distinctions between genres, that would mean none of them were evolving. (Why is it so absurd to think someone might identify Neil Gaiman as utilizing elements of magic realism? Seems to me the idea of the middle American roadside attraction being a place of deep power is a perfect example of magic realism, even if American Gods, taken as a whole, might not be.) It's by that blending of elements that writers find new ways to tell the stories that have all been told already.

I have added Tortilla Sun to my to-be-read shelf! It sounds absolutely delightful!
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC)
@KateM- And perhaps some are harder to pin down than others. :)

I enjoy seeing new genres, or rather sub-genres, evolve. Steampunk seems like an emerging hot sub-genre, for instance. But it's not really new, is it? Anyone remember the old TV show "The Wild Wild West"? I loved that show, not so much the movie remake. I'd make an argument that one could classify that as Steampunk. (Yet another example of how influenced I've been by commercial media! )
jencervantesjencervantes on February 24th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
Wow! I love all of this rich dialogue. One of the things I love most about magical realism is actually erasing the line between fantasy and reality. For example, in Tortilla Sun, the wind whispers to Izzy (to her it is startling since she is not a member of the village) but to the villagers, it is an acceptable element in their world and as normal as the tree swaying in the wind.

And thanks to all who have added Tortilla Sun to your reading list. I'm honored!
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC)
Hi, Jen! *waving madly*

Welcome to the discussion. :) We've had a lot of interesting comments about magical realism and fantasy. I've enjoyed reading what everyone has to say.
jencervantesjencervantes on February 24th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
Waving back atcha,Lena! I'm so happy to be here. Thanks for having me :)
Kate Milfordkatemilford on February 24th, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, boy, yes. Wild Wild West is a great example. Plus, if you really want to geek out steampunk has long roots you can lose yourself tracing backward. Edisonades of the industrial revolution, Jules Verne, E.T.A. Hoffmann, even Edgar Allan Poe...all long, long before the term "steampunk" was coined. And it's another genre people go nuts debating "is it or isn't it?" But, like well-done magic realism, some of the best examples of it are the ones that take elements and combine them in new and interesting ways. That's what I think, anyway!
Kate Milfordkatemilford on February 24th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
Yikes, sorry
That was in reply to Lena's reply to my comment--not meaning to hijack. :)
(Deleted comment)
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Yikes, sorry
No worries! I was the one who mentioned steampunk. And I thought you did a good job steering me back on topic! ;)
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 24th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
Just the lyricism of Jen's description of the southwest would make me want to read Tortilla Sun, if it wasn't already on my list after reading about it on the Tenners! I'm an east coaster, and I like it here (though it's not the greatest area to be in right this second :) ), but I think the American southwest is one of the most beautiful places I have ever traveled to.
jencervantesjencervantes on February 24th, 2010 09:13 pm (UTC)
Hey Leah!
Each region has its own wondrous elements to offer. I love the buzzing energy of the east.

Can't wait to read your book, too :)
cindy_poncindy_pon on February 24th, 2010 09:39 pm (UTC)
congratulations on your debut, jennifer! the cover is gorgeous and the story sounds fascinating! and thanks for joining us too, laurie. great interview, lena as well as discussion!

i think genre definitions are ever evolving--and i believe there can be literary fantasy and literary fiction itself is a genre. i think good fantasy grounds you no matter how fantastic the realm or the situation.
yes, it can be escapism, but not to the point where you are alienated and confused. you can still relate to the very fundamental emotions of love, hate, envy, desire, lust, bravery, friendship, family, etc.

if magical realism helps the reader see the magical in everyday life, then perhaps traditional fantasy helps the reader to see the "common" emotions that every person (or protagonist) feels within a fantastic backdrop.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on February 24th, 2010 09:52 pm (UTC)
"if magical realism helps the reader see the magical in everyday life, then perhaps traditional fantasy helps the reader to see the "common" emotions that every person (or protagonist) feels within a fantastic backdrop."

Oooh, I LIKE that! Thanks for sharing, Cindy!
jencervantesjencervantes on February 27th, 2010 12:22 am (UTC)
Thanks, Cindy! I agree that these definitions are evolving.
dawn_metcalf: Smile!dawn_metcalf on March 1st, 2010 05:33 pm (UTC)
I *just* read this book, and it's a mouthwateringly good read!