Unformatted text preview: Magic Realism in Contemporary
American Women's Fiction
Maria Ruth Noriega Sanchez Ns
COGNOSCOS Thesis submitted to the University of Sheffield
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Department of English Literature
August 2000 Magic Realism in Contemporary American Women's Fiction Maria Ruth Noriega SAnchez ABSTRACT The aim of the study is to illustrate the importance of magic realism in American
women's fiction in the late twentieth century. The term magic realism, which has
traditionally been associatedwith Utin American men's writing, has been known by
different, and often contradictory, definitions. It may be argued that, properly
defined, it can be a valid term to describe a number of characteristicscommon to a
corpus of work, and can be consideredas an aestheticcategory different from others
such as Surrealism or Fantastic literature, with which it has often been compared.
Furthermore,magic realism has viability as a contemporaryinternational mode and is
particularly suitable to women writers from minority ethnic groups. The present
study intends to draw relevant comparative analysesof uses of magic realism that
show various formal and thematic interactions between separateliterary traditions.
The introduction offers an overview of the different conceptions and applications of
the term since its origins within the area of painting, and suggests a working
definition that can be effective for intensive textual analysis of several novels. In
order to offer a new approach which can enable us to move away the paradigm of
magic realism from Latin America towards a more multicultural framework, the
focus will be on three geographical-cultural areas: African American, Native
American and Chicano/Mexican writing.
The implementation of magic realist strategiesin African American writing will be
examined in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977) and Gloria Naylor's Mama
Day (1988), with a particular emphasis on the significance of African mythical
background and the experienceof dispossessionand transferenceof culture. Magic
realist elementsin the novels Tracks (1988) by Louise Erdrich and Ceremony(1977)
by Leslie Marmon Silko will be studied in the context of Native American oral
tradition and cosmologies. The practice of magic realism on both sides of the U. S.Mexico border will be explored in the novels So Far from God (1993), by the
Chicana Ana Castillo, and Like Waterfor Chocolate (1989), by the Mexican Laura
Esquivel. A description of the borderland culture in the American Southwest,as well
as comparisons between North and Latin American uses of magic realism will be
provided. Finally, some connections amongst the discussedliterary traditions and
further lines of researchwill be suggested. This thesis is dedicated to my parents, Victor and Sofia,
who taught me that the dream is the truth,
and to my grandmother Maria, always in my thoughts. Acknowledgments
I am most grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Shirley Foster, for her valuable and
insightful remarks, her constant support, guidance and advice. Particular thanks for
her patiencein reading my sometimes"Spanglish" expressions.
Many thanks to Dr. David Wood from the Hispanic Studies Dept., University of
Sheffield, for his advice on Latin American literature and to Dr. Duco van Oostrum
from the English Literature Dept. for his comments on Native American writers. I
would also like to thank Dr. Miguel Teruel from the University of Valencia (Spain)
for his helpful remarks, and Dr. Canne Manuel and Dr. Marfa Jos6 Coperfas, from
the sameuniversity, for their encouragementand advice.
I am grateful to the University of Sheffield for a part-time fees bursary and to the
English Literature Dept. which has provided me with part-time jobs, academic
support and a friendly atmosphereto complete my studies. Thanks to all its staff and
I am indebted to the FundaciOnBalaguer Gonel Hermanos, from Castell6n (Spain),
and Bancaixa, from Valencia (Spain), for their partial financial assistanceduring the
writing of this thesis.
Above all, my thanks go to my extended and ever-growing family who has put up
with my long absenceand never failed to emotionally (and sometimes financially! )
support me. Gracias to my parents, grandmother and great-aunt, my beloved sister
Soffa and her encouraging calls, brothers Vfctor, Manuel and Guillermo and their
respective families. I could not have done it without their inexhaustible love and
Thanks to all my friends and to my past and present housemates(particularly Nick),
who have helped me through difficult times. Obrigada a minha irmd Sofia Lopes for
her valuable friendship. Special thanks to Chris, for his constant support, affection
and a computer which has made my work so much easier. TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction: Towards a Definition of Magic Realism
.............................. II. African American Writing and Magic Realism
........................................ 2.1 What is True and What a Product of Our Imagination?: Toni Morrison's
Song of Solomon (1977)
............................................................................... 2.2 There is More to Be Known Beyond What the Eyes Can See: Gloria
Naylor's Mama Day (1988)
........................................................................... Ill. Magic Realism in Native American Writing 3.1 SuspendedBetween Worlds: Louise Erdrich's Tracks (1988) 3.2 Weaving a Magical Web: Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony(1977) IV. On Both Sides of the Border: Magic Realism in Chicano and
Mexican Literature. The Children of La Malinche
.................................. 4.1 178
Building Bridges: Ana Castillo's So Farfrom God (1993)
.......................... 4.2 Magical Cooking: Laura Esquivel's Como agua para chocolate / Like
Waterfor Chocolate (1989)
........................................................................... V. Suggested Connections and Conclusions Bibliography 102
.......... 139 244
................................................................................................. CIUPTER ONE INTRODUCTION:
TOWARDS A DEFINITION OF MAGIC REALISM 2 The term magic realism has been known by different, and often contradictory,
definitions ever since it was first applied to painting in Europe in the 1920s. The
lack of critical consensusabout the precise boundaries of magic realism and the
indiscriminate use of the term to refer to almost any work which departs from the
terminological and conceptual
canons of realism,
disagreementsbecameobvious in the XVI International Conferenceof Iberoamerican
Literature held in Michigan in 1973, where some critics advocatedthe abandonment
of a term which,
of stimulating critical
However, in spite of conceptual problems, magic realism continues to have a
2 It can be argued that, properly defined,
poetry, painting and particularly cinema.
magic realism can
considered as an
structural characteristicscommon a corpus of
others such as
The first to use the expressionmagic realism was the German art critic Franz
Roh in 1925. Roh applied this term to a group of painters working in Germany in the
1920s who rejected Expressionism and advocated a return to the representationof
on ordinary objects, the painter
a new perspective:
of transcendingreality as
emphasises realistic 1 Emir Rodrfguez Monegal, 'Realismo mAgico versus literatura fantAstica: un dillogo de sordos', in
Otros mundos, Otrosfuegos.- Fantasta y realismo mdgico en Iberoam4frica, ed. by Donald A. Yates
(East Lansing: Michigan StateUniversity, 1975), pp. 25-37 (p. 27). My own translation. 3
Expressionism did, it attempts to grasp reality with a particularly spiritual intensity.
Roh's description of the way in which the painter Schrimpf approacheslandscapesis
[He] insists that the landscapehas rigorously to be a real landscape,which can be taken
for an existing one. He wants it to be "real", so that it strikes us as something ordinary
smallestweed can refer to the Spirit. According to Roh then magic realism is not a mixture of reality and fantasy, but a
way to uncover the mystery
The Spanish writer and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset had Roh's book
Occidente, and the term magic realism subsequentlybecamewidely used by literary
the myths and cultures of the indigenous populations and thus departed from the
Europeannotion which was more individualistic. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier
of Latin American traditions and contributed to the theorisation of this mode.
Carpentier introduced his concept of lo real maravilloso, the marvellous real,
in the prefaceto his novel El reino de estemundolTheKingdom of this World (1949),
by which he referred to the real objects and events which make America so different
from Europe and which he discovered after a trip to Haiti. For Carpentier, the
and cultural prodigies which
a chronicle of
are 2 For a detailed study of magic realism as an across-the-artsphenomenon,seeSeymourMenton, Magic
Realism Rediscovered,1918-1981 (London and Toronto: AssociatedUniversity Presses,1983).
3 See Franz Roh, 'Realismo m6gico. Problemas de la pintura europea mis reciente', Revista de
Occidente, 16 (48) (June 1927), 274-301 (p. 290). My translation. Roh's original work is NachExpressionismus, Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten Europäischen Malerei (LeipzigKlinkhardt und Biermann, 1925).
4 For a discussion of Roh's theories on painting, see Irene Guenther, 'Magic Realism, New
Objectivity, and the Arts during the Weimar Republic', in Magical Realism. Theory, History,
Community,ed. and intro. by Lois ParkinsonZamora and Wendy B. Faris (Durham and London: Duke
University Press, 1995), pp. 33-73; Marga Paz, 'El realismo m6gico de Franz Roh', Realismo Mdgico.
Franz Roh y la pintura europea 1917-1936 (Valencia: IVAM, 1997), pp. 13-25.
5 SeePrefacein Alejo Carpentier,El reino de estemundo (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1984),
pp. 13-19. 4
lo real maravilloso. The marvellous emerges from an unexpected alteration of
the marvellous reality of
America is essential: 'the senseof the marvellous presupposesa faith. Who does not
believe in saints,cannot cured saints'
In this Preface, Carpentier expressedhis disillusion with Surrealism. This
as a reaction againstthe excessiveemphasison
crisis of values
full play to the imagination, the dream world, and the subconscious. It was deeply
influenced by the work of Freud, and in its simplest form, it was concerned with
Surrealist aestheticswas the search for 'le merveilleux', that marvellous world of
writing, free associationand total experimentationwith
For Carpentier, however, all this was nothing but 'the exhausting pretension
to arousethe marvellous' which characterisedEuropean literatures at the beginning
of the century and
represent a reality modified and
legend. William Spindler observesthat Carpentier's concept is closer to the ideas of
Jung, especially his concept of the collective unconscious, which relates to the
fabrication of myth, rather than to Freudian psychoanalysiswith its emphasison the
individual unconsciouswhich attracted the Surrealists! In fact, Carpentier's lo real
maravilloso implies two contrasting views of the world: one rational, modem, European;the other magical, traditional, mythic. This correspondsto the coexistence 6 Carpentier,Prefaceto El reino..., p. 15. My translation.
7 For a description of French Surrealism and its influence in Latin America, see Gerald J. Langowski,
El surrealismo en laficci6n Hispanoamericana (Madrid: Gredos, 1982), pp. 15-22. It is interesting to
characteristicsare the sameas Surrealism. Therefore, Langowski analyseswriters such as Carpentier
and Miguel Angel Asturias as Surrealists. 5
in Latin America of a modem rational mentality with the myths and beliefs of ethnocultural groups such as Native and African Americans.
Miguel Angel Asturias also moved away from Surrealism in the 1940s
towards ideas similar to Carpentier's. Asturias was fascinatedby the traditions and
myths of the indigenous population of Guatemala, particularly by the Mayas'
conception of reality. In their narrative, there is no division between the reality of the
sensesand that of the imagination. According to Asturias:
Between the "real" and the "magic" there is a third category of reality. It consists of a
fusion of the visible and the tangible, of hallucinations and fantasy. It is similar to what
the Surrealists around Breton wished for, and it is what can be called "magic realism7.
This magic realism, of course, has a direct relation with the original mentality of the
Indians. The Indian thinks in images; he seesthings not so much as phenomenonsin
themselves but as translated into other dimensions, dimensions in which reality
disappearsand dreamsappearand are transformedinto visible and concreteforms.9 Consequently, Asturias aims to produce in his writing a world view different from
the Western one but equally valid. For instance, his novel Hombres de mak/Men of
Maize (1949) juxtaposes two world views without establishing a hierarchy between
them, thus relativizing the dominant Western rational paradigm.
However, further complications arose when Professor Angel Flores delivered a lecture on 'Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction' to the 1954 Annual
Meeting of the Modem LanguageAssociation in New York, which was subsequently
published as an article. Flores departed from Roh's original concept as he defined
magical realism as 'the amalgamationof realism and fantasy' and traced the current
back to European writers such as Marcel Proust and particularly Franz Kafka, with
his 'difficult art of mingling his drab reality with the phantasmal world of his
nightmares'. According to Flores, realism and the magical had already made their
appearanceseparatelyin Latin America: realism since the Colonial Period and the
magical since the earliest writing (in the letters of Columbus, etc.). However, it was
through the influence of Kafka on Jorge Luis Borges (who had translated Kafka's
shorter fiction into Spanish) that magical realism as an amalgamationof realism and 8 William Spindler, 'Magic Realism: A Typology', Forum For Modem Language Studies, 29 (1)
(January 1993), 75-85 (p. 76).
9 M. A. Asturias, interviewed by Ginter W. Lorenz, Altas (December 1967). Quoted in Robert G.
Mead, 'Miguel Angel Asturias y su Premio Nobel en los Estados Unidos', Cuademos Americanos,
159 (4) (July-August 1968), 215-227 (p. 225). My translation. 6
fantasyenteredLatin America. Flores thus signalled 1935,the year of the appearance
of Borges' Historia universal de la infamialA Universal History of Infamy, as the
point of departureof this new phaseof Latin American literature of magical realism.
Together with Borges, Flores listed Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Marfa Luisa
Bornbal and Jos6Bianco among the practitioners of the genre, 'Meticulous craftsmen
all, one finds in them the same preoccupation with style and also the same
transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesomeand the unreal'. "
Flores found in their narrative certain distinctive features: time exists in a kind of
timeless fluidity, the plots are logically conceived, there is a repudiation of mawkish
sentimentalism, and the unreal happens as part of reality: 'The practitioners of magical realism cling to reality as if to prevent "literature" from getting in their way,
tales, to supernaturalrealms'.
as to prevent their myth
Flores' article contributed to the popularisation of the term magic/al realism
among critics, but it also contributed towards the indiscriminate use of the term and
the confusion with a more playful, metafictional and experimental style typical of
Borges and closer to Fantastic Literature. The terms magic/al realism, lo real
maravilloso and Fantastic Literature soon became interchangeable. Furthermore, Flores did not even mention Franz Roh as the first user of the phrase magic realism,
but seemed to adopt the term as his own invention:
13 'This trend I term "magical realisnC. In 1967, the Mexican critic Luis Leal came to clarify some of these
inaccuracies. Leal showed his disagreementwith Flores' definition of magic realism
and with the list of authors he mentioned. He tried to return to Roh's original
formula of making the ordinary seemsupernatural. According to Leal, magic realism
cannot be identified with Fantastic Literature, Surrealism or Psychological Literature.
Above all, magic realism is an attitude towards reality: the writer faces reality and
attempts to discover the mystery which exists in objects, in life, in human actions.
This is what writers such as Arturo Uslar Pietri, Carpentier, Asturias or Rulfo do in 10Angel Flores, 'Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction'. Hispania, 38 (1955), 187-192 (p.
11Flores, 'Magic..., p. 190.
12Flores, 'Magic... ', p. 191.
13Flores, 'Magic... ', p. 188. 7
their narrative. Magic realism does not derive, as Flores suggested,from Kafka's
work and Borges cannot be counted among its practitioners. Magic realism is not
FantasticLiterature since the main focus is not on the creation of imaginary beings or
worlds, but on the existing relationship between man and his context: 'In magic
realism the key eventsdo not have a logical or psychological explanation. The magic
to capturethe mystery
modify (as ...
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