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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.
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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.
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Re: Magic realisim - keelyinkster on February 24th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Magic realisim - leah_cypess on February 24th, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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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.
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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! )
(no subject) - jencervantes on February 24th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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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. :)
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Re: Yikes, sorry - lena_writes on February 24th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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 :)
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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!
(no subject) - jencervantes on February 27th, 2010 12:22 am (UTC) (Expand)
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!