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Find more Letting the Magic Speak
In the YA world, the term “magic realism” gets applied to a lot of different types of books—whimsical books, books that skirt the edges of fantasy, books that tap into the mythical. But what is true magic realism? Who has a right to claim the term? Here we talk to four Latinx authors—Michelle Ruiz Keil (All of Us with Wings, 2019), Samantha Mabry (Tigers, Not Daughters, 2020), Anna-Marie McLemore (Dark and Deepest Red, 2020), and Lilliam Rivera (Never Look Back, 2020)—about where the magic in their writing comes from and how it shapes the stories they tell.
REAGAN: I’m curious to hear about the elements you all think a book has to contain to be true magic realism.
Lilliam Rivera: Writing for me is rooted in being Latinx, but I always feel uncomfortable with being labeled because magic realism is such a heavy term. A lot of people feel really passionate about who gets to tell that story. I just want to write stories that incorporate magic that is as real to me as in my every day. I don’t know if what I’m writing is magic realism. I just know that it’s the way I’m writing about trauma and pain—I’m writing through a lens of magic.
Samantha Mabry: I always think about magic realism being tied to land, to actual soil—land and the sort of conflicts and trauma that have happened to the land that then create the people who live there, which creates the magic. Or the magic creates the people. I think that there has to be some kind of colonization, the effect of culture clash and oppression, that manifests in the land to create these kinds of stories. I think what a lot of people who think they’re writing magic realism are really doing sometimes is writing fables, which don’t necessarily have that kind of generational trauma that a lot of true magic realism comes from.
Michelle Ruiz Keil: I love what both of you said about trauma and the land. The land connection is huge. All of Us with Wings is set in San Francisco and I write about the wild parrots that live there. They’re part of the magic realism of the story—they’re these displaced, sort of stolen, oppressed animals that have then reclaimed their wildness. And magic realism allows me to express the internal complexity of trauma and healing externally in a way that feels almost more real to me than if I were to write a straight contemporary story. And I do think that magic realism is a term that’s used a little more loosely than I would like in the publishing industry.
Anna-Marie McLemore: In Wild Beauty, I write about these gardens that are beautiful, but that also murder people—that’s how I talk about colonialism, that’s how I talk about displacement, the rage that’s held inside the land, the idea of fighting back. So for me, a lot of magical realism is these things that become visible or tangible to talk about things that communities either feel that they are not allowed to talk about or things that they have refused to talk about. The magic is going to tell your secrets. Sometimes it’s going to tell you your secrets, if you’re not really aware of them, and sometimes it’s going to make your community face things that it’s not facing. And that magic is also a language, it’s an undercurrent. It’s something that no one is really going to control. It’s something that belongs to a community. The magic is speaking, the land is speaking, your own history is speaking.
Mabry: Early in the editorial process for All the Wind in the World, one of the questions that kept coming up from my editor was, “What is the locus of the magic?” Well, it’s coming from the land. The book’s very specific, it’s set at what’s now the U.S.–Mexico border. There’s millennia of history there, and certainly centuries of recent history that we know. Is it just like a Latinx thing where it makes sense that a place creates the magic?
Rivera: I felt the same way when I was writing Never Look Back. I was thinking about the structures—buildings in the Bronx and the pain within those buildings, lasting generation upon generation, no matter who lives in them. There’s pain in the streets that we’re walking in that no one is talking about.
Keil: I feel like in a lot of magic realism, there is that element of what I think people are now calling eco-horror, where the earth is rising up and angry and expressing the things we can’t express. There are these water creatures in All of Us with Wings that are really holding both the trauma of the earth and the trauma of the body, and those come together.
REAGAN: The four of you seem to write with a strong awareness of culture. Is magic realism actively tied to an exploration of culture for you?
Mabry: I don’t like to say that I write about culture. I’m one-fourth Puerto Rican, half Mexican American, real assimilated, white kind of. I have this really small sliver that I try to speak to. The weight of talking about being a writer of culture is sort of frightening for me.
McLemore: Magical realism wasn’t a term I really knew until someone told me that’s what I was writing. It was just how we told stories in my family. So when I think about writing about culture and writing about community, I cannot separate being Latinx, being mixed-race, being queer, being trans, being nonbinary, from my stories, because I can’t separate any of that from myself. Magical realism was how I understood stories, how I came to understand stories growing up.
Rivera: Every story I write, I’m tackling subjects that I’m struggling with. Never Look Back is a story about generational trauma seen through the eyes of the Caribbean and Caribbean American experience while using the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as my structure. This particular novel speaks on the trauma that came to these islands decades ago and how the pain has passed through generations. How do we combat that pain? I’m not saying magic is the tool, I’m saying love is and love is magical.
Keil: I came to magic realism through visual art. I saw Frida Kahlo’s work, I think when I was 18 or 19, and I was like, “That. That’s a picture of what it’s like for me.” My family was a super-assimilated Mexican family and I’m also Colombian, but that side of the family actually passed as Spanish and hid, and we didn’t find out the truth until I was an adult. So there’s a lot of this liminality: I grew up in a lot of white space and in the era of multiculturalism where it was almost rude to talk about the fact that I was not white with my friends, because it would make them uncomfortable. They weren’t seeing it, so why should I see it? So for me, writing about culture is writing about liminality. That comes through in magic realism because its neither here nor there. There aren’t rules. I’m writing about identity, but it’s almost about not feeling like I have enough of it.
McLemore: I’ve had trans and nonbinary characters in my last four books. And when we talk about the way magic tells secrets, I wrote four books with trans characters before realizing I was trans and nonbinary. So, we have those experiences in our own lives, where our stories speak to us, even if we’re not ready to listen. Other people’s stories speak to us. The stories that we tell and the stories that we listen to, the stories we take in, they’re seeds in us, going back to that idea of land.
REAGAN: Do you set any rules for yourselves while working through these worlds? I know it’s a little different from building a high fantasy novel.
Mabry: Yes! The answer is yes, for me. Because I’m not creating a different world. You have to honor the fact that people lived in the places that you’re writing about and they have histories and you can’t just play fast and loose. I do try to be respectful and honorable and honor the fact that people have histories in these places.
Rivera: To me, it’s world-building even if I’m writing in a contemporary setting. For Never Look Back, my setting is in the Bronx, and although I was raised there, I don’t live there, so I have to do as much research as if I’m creating a world that’s based out of a fantasy. In Never Look Back, my character Pheus is a history buff—that’s my chance to show how buildings hold violent histories: “This area right here is filled with blood, with Black and brown people dying because somebody wanted a Central Park.” That fight between land and modernization and gentrification and capitalism, all those things are clashing within my characters. I do take a lot of time when it comes to worldbuilding.
Keil: My newest book is set in Portland and I didn’t grow up here. I’ve lived here for a long time, but I didn’t come of age here. So I did a lot of research into this place and into all of the cultural history that is here. I’ve had so many conflicting feelings about being here and being away from California, which is where my family lived for generations. The main thing I think I’m trying to do is find the voice of the place and listen to it and make sure it sounds authentic to you, just as you would with your characters’ dialogue.
McLemore: In Dark and Deepest Red, part of the narrative is set in this very specific time, in 1518, during the dancing plague in Strasbourg. All of these people dancing uncontrollably, it sounds like something made up in a fairy tale, but it’s something that really happened, and something that resonates with magical realism because when you start to get into why this probably happened, there was so much oppression in this city and so much that was going unspoken. So I wanted to be very respectful and very diligent toward honoring the people who lived there, especially the people that are often left out of historical record. Communities of color, and queer and trans and nonbinary communities, we were there. Wherever you’re talking about in history, we were there. So my question was, how is magic now going to address what has gone unspoken?
Recommended Reading: Magic Realism and Latinx Fantasy
Read on for a list of titles by (and recommended by) the roundtable authors.
All of Us with Wings. By Michelle Ruiz Keil. 2019.
All the Wind in the World. By Samantha Mabry. 2017.
American Street. By Ibi Zoboi. 2017.
Blanca & Roja. By Anna-Marie McLemore. 2018.
Dark and Deepest Red. By Anna-Marie McLemore. 2020.
Dealing in Dreams. By Lilliam Rivera. 2019.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison. By Samantha Mabry. 2016.
Never Look Back. By Lilliam Rivera. Sept. 2020.
Reverie. By Ryan La Sala. 2019.
Summer of the Mariposas. By Guadalupe Garcia McCall. 2012.
Tigers, Not Daughters. By Samantha Mabry. 2020.
The Weight of Feathers. By Anna-Marie McLemore. 2015.
When the Moon Was Ours. By Anna-Marie McLemore. 2016.
Wild Beauty. By Anna-Marie McLemore. 2017.
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