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Postethnic Narrative Criticism

Postethnic Narrative Criticism
Magicorealism in Oscar 'Zeta' Acosta, Anna Castillo, Julie Dash, Hanif Kureishi, and Salman Rushdie

This book seeks to redeem and refine the theory of magical realism in U.S. multiethnic and British postcolonial literature and film.

April 2003
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157 pages | 6 x 9 |

Magical realism has become almost synonymous with Latin American fiction, but this way of representing the layered and often contradictory reality of the topsy-turvy, late-capitalist, globalizing world finds equally vivid expression in U.S. multiethnic and British postcolonial literature and film. Writers and filmmakers such as Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, Ana Castillo, Julie Dash, Hanif Kureishi, and Salman Rushdie have made brilliant use of magical realism to articulate the trauma of dislocation and the legacies of colonialism that people of color experience in the postcolonial, multiethnic world.

This book seeks to redeem and refine the theory of magical realism in U.S. multiethnic and British postcolonial literature and film. Frederick Aldama engages in theoretically sophisticated readings of Ana Castillo's So Far from God, Oscar "Zeta" Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, and The Moor's Last Sigh, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, and Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi's Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Coining the term "magicorealism" to characterize these works, Aldama not only creates a postethnic critical methodology for enlarging the contact zone between the genres of novel, film, and autobiography, but also shatters the interpretive lens that traditionally confuses the transcription of the real world, where truth and falsity apply, with narrative modes governed by other criteria.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Rethreading the Magical Realist Debate
  • 1. Rebellious Aesthetic Acts
  • 2. Dash's and Kureishi's Rebellious Magicoreels
  • 3. Oscar "Zeta" Acosta's De-formed Auto-bio-graphé
  • 4. Ana Castillo's (En)Gendered Magicorealism
  • 5. Salman Rushdie's Fourthspace Narrative Re-Conquistas
  • Coda: Mapping the Postethnic Critical Method
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University


Rethreading the Magical Realist Debate

"Magical realism": Does the term identify a subtype of basic prose epic genre, a storytelling style, or an ethnopolitics of representation? Furthermore, if identified as a subtype, is magical realism to be located within a particular cultural and historical period such as the postcolonial or postmodern, or does it transcend periodization? If magical realism differs from its next of kin--realism and the fantastic--then how does it differ and why? As more postcolonial and multiethnic writers and directors gravitate toward magical realism as a form for telling stories, does this trend allow for an identification of it as an ethnopoetics? Is there something about magical realism as a storytelling mode that allows an author or director to do a "better" job at destabilizing colonial and Western knowledge paradigms than, say, realism or the fantastic? Why do practitioners of magical realism commonly invent storyworlds where Firstworlds (traditionally coded as Western, metropolitan, pure, civilized, and "real") and Thirdworlds (traditionally coded as non-Western, rural, impure, and "unreal") fuse; why are the protagonists of those narratives usually identified as an ethnic hybrid and/or diasporic postcolonial subject? What might be the problematic relationship between an author or director representing his or her worldview through this kind of narrative and the narrators and characters depicted in them? Are magical realist authors and directors using the privilege of a cosmopolitan erudition to candy-coat the "real" experiences of peoples violently dislocated and/or submitted to brutal acts of genocide to turn a profit? What is at stake when a mainstream comes to identify ethnic American and postcolonial writers and directors as capable only of producing magical realist worlds? Who is given, as Said discusses more generally of Orientalism and the East, "the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging" (Culture and Imperialism, xiii). Finally, is magical realism dead, as some would suggest? These questions and more make up the hugely confusing tapestry that scholarship on magical realism has become. Postethnic Narrative Criticism: Magicorealism in Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, Ana Castillo, Julie Dash, Hanif Kureishi, and Salman Rushdie aims to unthread the different strands that make the discussion of magical realism such a vital, oft-contradictory, and heated area in today's European postcolonial and ethnic American (U.S., Latino/Chicano, and Caribbean) scholarship.

One of the reasons why magical realism remains a heated subject for scholarly study and debate is the long history (especially through the last half of the twentieth century) of confusing its literary and ethnographic components. Since the mid-twentieth-century writings of Alejo Carpentier and Miguel de Asturias, there has been a conflation of the literary form with ethnographic content: a confusion of narrative with ontology.

More recent scholarship has tended to focus on identifying magical realism as ethnographic artifact. Of course, since magical realist narratives--novels, autobiographies, and films--gravitate around the ethnic and/or postcolonial subject's identity formation and experience within larger hegemonic structures, it is not surprising that the anthropological has subsumed the literary. Pick any number of magical realist novels--for example, Gabriel García Márquez's Cien Años de Soledad, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Ana Castillo's So Far from God, and Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things--and they have been either celebrated as the local voice of resistance to imperial domination or damned for their leveling out of the violence of colonialism to pander to a cosmopolitan audience hungry for the exotic. In Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye, Brenda Cooper rescues magical realism as a postcolonial scholarly rubric not so much by focusing on its literary-ness, but by emphasizing its ontological status. Her magical realist authors--Syl Cheney-Coker (Sierra Leone and the United States), Ben Okri (Nigeria and Britain) and Kojo Laing (Ghana and Scotland)--represent the "real" of their postcolonial reality as a seamlessly real and magical entity. Following an ethnographic model--anchored in the facts of her authors' various dislocations--Cooper seeks to demonstrate that magical realism in the African novel reflects these authors' vision by means of "a third eye" (1). According to her, the particular experiences of these authors who grew up in Africa and abroad allow them to see with a third eye and to make visible both the culture and history that make their respective nations unique, as well as to affirm the formation of culturally hybrid subjects. Cooper conflates storytelling theme and biographical fact to develop a strategic essentialist concept. Here, magical realism can both acknowledge the materialist conditions of enunciation--the author's biography and his or her racially constituted character's experiences--and affirm the in-flux, hybrid identity at the site where Self (coded as West and civilized) and Other (coded as African and primitive) dissolve. Taking her cue from Frederic Jameson's essay "On Magical Realism in Film," Cooper reads magical realism not only as ethnographic marker, but also as the narrative structure that reveals the political unconscious of a historical period in African postcolonial nation-state formation where capitalist and precapitalist features coexist. (See Jameson's "On Magic Realism in Film" in Critical Inquiry 12 [1986].) So, for Cooper, magical realism is the creolizing of pre- and postcolonial capitalist knowledge systems that grows out of "transition," "change," "borders," and "ambiguity" (15). Hence Cooper's move to locate her magical realist "third eye" vision within both a global capitalist and a colonialist paradigm and also within local forms of enunciation: folklore and regional African belief systems. Her authors, as she writes, "are as at home in London or Paris as any of their cosmopolitan counterparts, and have also selectively appropriated global intellectual and aesthetic traditions, along with the local" (58). For Cooper, then, African authors who employ magical realism come to occupy a third position in the geographical and social present informed by local (underdeveloped) and global cultures.

Convincing as Brenda Copper's argument is at first glance, it is flawed by her reading of magical realism as an ethnopoetics. Her African authors possess a third-eye vision because they are identified as ontologically different. And Cooper can celebrate the power of magical realism as a mode of political change because for her fictional narrative is the same as the real out there. Indeed, Cooper's locating magical realism within the interstices of a colonial and postcolonial, precapitalist and late-capitalist Africa falls back on a poststructuralist paradigm. The formal structures of magical realism are not just about the use of a novel language to represent transitions between a precolonial and postcolonial moment: "like language, narrative structure is not neutral" (35). So if the author concerned changes the language (grammar, point of view, various narrative techniques) of representation in the novel, then that novel will not only reflect on the asymmetries of power in the world, it will also provide a critical intervention into it that will effect change. Ultimately, Cooper's magical realism is a language ("its strange relationships, weird linkages and multidimensional spaces," [216]) that comes to represent a dislocated, hybrid African essence and that can enact political change.

Taking the ethnographic line on magical realism does not necessarily lead to an uncritical affirmation of localized epistemological and ontological resistances to hegemonic forces (imperial and capitalist). Yet, in The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies, Alberto Moreiras follows the magical-realism-as-ethnopoetics to an apocalyptic end. Moreiras positions his death of magical realism within a more general clarion call directed at Latin American scholars to cultivate a "locational" thinking that anchors what he identifies as "translative digging" within the specific contours of localized history and culture (17). Such scholarly diggers or localized thinkers (their efforts are also variously labeled "critical regionalism," "second-order Latin Americanism," "savage atopics," and "restitutional excess") would also be aware of working within dominant colonial paradigms and would ultimately negate the presence of the subaltern. Within this tautological space--localized thinking makes visible the local conditions experienced and represented by the subaltern and at the same time participates in its erasure--Moreiras recommends the use of "modes of destructive critique" that would make for a "reflective space that would open Latin Americanist thought to nonknowledge and that would transform it into a nonholder of the nontruth of the (Latin American) real" (25). So, where does magical realism fit into this house of mirrors--this postructuralist paradox? For Moreiras, magical realism represents a localized knowledge system or regional enunciation that has been caught up and tamed by capitalist forces of globalization. According to the logic of his argument, magical realism would be caught up in and mobilized "within new social regimes of rule" (29). Magical realism, then, acts to homogenize the local textures of Latin American culture and, in a global reading economy, reduces the Latin American Other to exotic sameness. Moreiras concludes more generally, "Within accomplished globalization there is only room for repetition and the production of simulacra: even so-called difference is nothing more than homogenized difference" (37). Of course, this is true. But it is also incomplete. Capitalism works through a simultaneous impulse to diversify and homogenize. Magical realism in film and literature is no exception to this rule (I will go into this in more detail later). However, Moreiras's notion of a localized, resistant knowledge (or as he calls it on another occasion, "nonconsumptive singularity" [53]) within a globalizing capitalist economy presumes that something like a magical realist novel, or more generally the politics of difference that magical realism has come to represent--or any Latin Americanist cultural artifact--could at some earlier precontact moment function as a form of resistance to dominant, reifying systems. Michael Taussig's brand of magical realism is considered just such a revolutionary, antistate "counterrepresentational instance of Latin Americanism" (145). However, Moreiras's position depends on a blurring of lines between magical realism as aesthetic practice and magical realism as a putative politically resistant, localized knowledge and form of being.

Moreiras conflates the two categories and thus renders them ineffective. Indeed, the flip side of Moreiras's identification of magical realism as episteme reflective of a localized ontology is that it unintentionally reproduces an Us/Them paradigm, where any localized knowledge resists dominant paradigms until swept up into a global capitalist marketplace that transforms a "savage atopics" into the "latest avatar of melodramatic consciousness at the global level" (53). Moreiras wants to complicate the theorization of "difference" and "hybridity" as de facto resistant knowledges articulated in postcolonial theory, and he identifies magical realism--and other forms of localized knowledge--with a Latin American way of being in the world. This argument betrays a primitivist bent. For magical realism to either reify racial difference or to present a concrete political act, it must exist as other than a narrative strategy linked to an aesthetic. In a chapter titled "The End of Magical Realism: José María Arguedas's Passionate Signifier," Moreiras reads the death of magical realism in the literal death of the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas. Text-act and being conflate once again.

Moreiras closes the gap between reading magical realism as narrative and as ontological trace marker when he identifies magical realism as a transculturative process: where the juxtaposition of opposites in magical realism is analogous with the syncretism seen in regionalist and criollista writing that hybridizes cultural forms--Euro-Spanish with indigenous--but, in so doing, covers over ideologies of the casta system. For Moreiras, transculturation is that "war machine" that feeds "on cultural difference whose principal function is the reduction of the possibility of radical cultural heterogeneity" (195-196). The juxtaposition and hybridization of form seen in magical realism serves an analogous function to this transculturative "war machine" that pretends to diversify but in actuality homogenizes. According to Moreiras, magical realism is that same smooth veneer that covers over (much like Roland Barthes's l'effet du reel) age-old colonialist ideologies that seek to "whiten" bodies and texts. Because magical realism reproduces ideologies of whiteness, it ultimately fails to capture a more localized "mestizo space of incoherence" (190).

The second step Moreiras takes after blurring the line between Latin American transculturative epistemes and magical realism is to blur the line between episteme and ontology. More than the novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (written between 1966 and 1969), which Moreiras says "reveals that its conditions of possibility are also at the same time its conditions of its impossibility" (194), it is the biographical author José María Arguedas that becomes the site for this (con)fusion. According to Moreiras, Arguedas kills magical realism not just at this moment in his writing that signals the awareness of its inability to signify, but also and as definitely when Arguedas commits suicide. Moreiras concludes:

Arguedas shows that the magical-real moment is tendentially a moment in which the national allegory, on the other side of its utopian directives, opens onto its colonizing substratum. Magical realism comes with Arguedas to its theoretical impossibility because Arguedas shows how magical realism is an impossible scene of emancipatory representation staged from a colonizing perspective.(206)

So, more than El zorro itself representing its own failure to represent localized knowledge, it is Arguedas's suicide that acts as a "denarrativization" of the subject and language of magical realism and that marks the end of "any utopian impulse" (206). Moreiras ends with identifying a post-Arguedas's magical realist nonexistence that ultimately proves a site of atopic savagism and, paradoxically, opens up to the "possibility of an actual critique of empire" (207).

In "Magical Realism and Postmodernism," Theo L. D'haen celebrates magical realism as a postmodern voice that destabilizes epistemic and ontological centers. He takes as his cue, he writes, the "magic realism in the sense of Carpentier's lo real maravilloso: indigenous magic" (198) to demonstrate how magical realism, like postmodernism generally, destabilizes centers of power. Much like Linda Hutcheon in her understanding of postmodern narrative, D'haen identifies how magical realism first appropriates the techniques of dominant discourse (the "centr-al line" [sic] as he calls it) to "duplicate existing reality as perceived by the theoretical or philosophical tenets" only to turn this on its head by creating an "alternative world" that can "right the wrongs" of reality out there (195). Like quite a few other critics, D'haen believes that magical realism is not only a discourse that can alter a reader's lived reality, but that it also offers the self-reflexive means for postcolonial writers to both reflect critically on their own position of privilege--narrating subject--all while speaking "on behalf of the ex-centric and un-privileged" (195). D'haen reads Rushdie's novels as a localized knowledge that reverses the West's colonial gaze, allowing the reader to see the "exotic" as a construct projected onto the Indian subaltern. In the postcolonial novel, according to D'haen, the magical functions as a local, everyday site of resistance that allows the Indian subject to deflect and redirect the imperial gaze back at the West.

So what is at stake when a Brenda Cooper, an Alberto Moreiras, or a Theo L. D'haen confuses and conflates magical realism-as-aesthetic with magical realism-as-localized-knowledge and/or magical realism-as-ontology? Clearly, there is a referential component to magical realism as aesthetic. The language used is mostly our everyday language, and the objects and characters (for the most part) can be measured against the reader's sense of reality beyond the text. However, the most basic property of a literary text is that it performs within society (the consuming public, the reviewers, the critics, and so on) as a literary text. That is, a text is a piece of literature when and only when the community of readers does not regard it primarily as a source of information or as a conveyor of truth or falsity, but, instead, reads it as a narrative with its own kind of rationale. The error of confusing the contents (dialogues, plot, theme, etc.) of literary texts with such and such aspects of the empirical world is the same error as confusing realism with an "objective" report of events taking place outside of literary texts. A literary text is the result of a specific social convention or act; a nonliterary text is the result of a different convention, one where the referential content is paramount. This is not to say that the literary text does not "refer" to the extratextual world; it only means that the "reference" possesses its own rationale. When a narrator gives an account of such and such events using such and such narrative techniques and conventions (realism, magical realism, the fantastic, etc.), those events stand on their own; they are not considered by the reader as a report of anything happening or having really happened in the empirical world of some empirical people's lives. For the reader, there is the account furnished by the narrator, and there is nothing out there to show that the account is true or false; there is no event in the empirical world to compare the narrator's account to. As John M. Ellis once put it, "that account is the event in itself. All of what the narrator tells us is a composition, and the very scene itself is his creation as he reports it" (23-24).

The fundamental issue in the discussion of magical realism as seen by the theorists so far discussed is that they all reify in one way or another the literary text and then conflate it in this reified form with an empirical world they equate with the fictional world by considering that the empirical world is a narrative and as such could be changed by merely rewriting it. It is the confusion of aesthetic categories with social, ethnological, and psychological categories that results in this double reification. To doubly reify magical realism and identify it as an ethnographic trace marker of Latin American or Thirdworld knowledge and being is finally to reproduce the type of primitivism practiced by early-twentieth-century modernist painters and writer/intellectuals (for example, Sigmund Freud, André Breton, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot) who excavated knowledge and identity from an invented, primitivist Africa.

This reification is not unique to Brenda Cooper, Alberto Moreiras, or Theo L. D'haen. Generally, the proclaimed aim of postructurally informed postcolonial theory (I think here generally of the Asian and Latin American Subaltern Studies Groups) is to identify localized texts and knowledges that are considered to resist hegemonic paradigms--colonial and capitalist. As Moreiras proposes, tracing the localized subaltern-enunciated knowledges that act as ruptures in the antinomies of power and the identification of the power of the subaltern to strike back is important. However, by placing such responsibility in a given magical realist narrative fiction leads, as we have already begun to see, to a theoretical dead end. If magical realism is to function as ontological repository when in fact it is categorically not, then it can only lead to the kind of paradoxical death that Moreiras identifies. Its death is its only way out for those who have fashioned it as an aesthetic/ontological Gordian knot.

Untangling Magical Realist Split-ends

Cooper, Moreiras, and D'haen are not alone in their categorical fusion of aesthetic and ethnographic artifact. Most contemporary theorists of magical realism--María-Elena Angulo, Jaime Alazraki, Erik Camayd-Freixas, Roberto González Echevarría, Gloria Bautista Gutiérrez, and Alicia Llarena, along with the Euro-Anglo and postcolonial essayists collected in the anthology Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community--participate to varying degrees in this confusion. This is partly the result of the strong poststructuralist impulse to have the ex-centric text-act mean in ways that it has the potential to alter reality. It also predates the poststructuralist wave. To understand better the two threads--aesthetic and ethnographic--that are confused in today's scholarship on magical realism, it bears reviewing swiftly the history of the debate as it falls into the aesthetic versus socioanthropological camp. When German art critic Franz Roh first introduced the term magical realism in his book Nach Expressionismus, Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europätscher Malerie in 1925, the concept was used primarily to identify a painterly style and mode of visual communication. Before Roh's aesthetic-based definition would appear in essays by Angel Flores in the 1950s or more recently in Seymour Menton's book-length studies, it was reshaped by the hands of Venezuelan Arturo Uslar Pietri, Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, and Cuban Alejo Carpentier in the late 1940s. Newly identified as lo real maravilloso, magical realism now came to identify a unique Latin American knowledge system and way of being. Asturias, Arturo Uslar Pietri, and Carpentier shared a strong anti-imperialist (identified as modernist) stance mostly associated with laissez faire capitalism and the consequent exploitation of the Amerindian subject. Such writers and pensadores celebrated an oral-based, folkloric mestizo spirit that would resist the modernist machines of progress. Lo real maravilloso was just such a spirit and worldview. For Uslar Pietri, Asturias, and Carpentier, lo real maravilloso spoke to the Latin American subject's (Amerindian and other) simultaneous inhabiting of a real and unreal reality; it identified a stereoscopic vision that would see the layers of pre-columbian, colonial, and postcolonial histories simultaneously. For example, in a 1948 essay, Uslar Pietri asserted that lo real maravilloso portrayed "the view of man as mystery in the midst of realist detail" (161–162, my trans.). And in 1949 Alejo Carpentier prefaced his novel El Reino de este mundo with a how-to-read guide of sorts, describing lo real maravilloso as that unique Amerindian subjectivity that could see an "amplification of the measures and categories of reality, perceived with particular intensity due to an exaltation of the spirit that elevates it to a kind of 'limit state'" (9, my trans.).

Though the definition was debated at various conferences throughout the 1950s, it was lo real maravilloso and its celebration of the emotionalism of regional resistance to dominant forces of capitalism that prevailed. In 1954 Angel Flores presented a paper titled "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction" at the Modern Language Association meeting in New York. Here he tried to wrench the discussion away from its identity politics and to promote an analysis of its transnational aesthetic characteristics. And in 1956 writer Jacques Stephen Alexis took up lo real maravilloso to describe how Haitians "express their own consciousness of reality by the use of the Marvelous" (195). In the summer of 1967, Luis Leal's essay "El realismo mágico en la literatura hispanomericana" had firmly established magical realism as a pan-Latinidad way of being wherein the magical realist writer simply "captures the mystery that palpitates in things" (234, my trans.). And in December of that same year, Asturias in his essay "Hearing the Scream" solidified his stance regarding magical realism:

I will try to tell you as simply as possible what magical realism means to me. You can know an indian who describes to you how he has seen a huge rock change into a person or a cloud change into a rock. This situation is a tangible reality that for the indian encloses a comprehension of supernatural forces. When I have to give a literary name to this supernatural phenomenon, I call it "magical realism." There are also other kinds of similar phenomena on account of an unfortunate accident when a woman falls into a crevice or a horseback rider is thrown off his horse and he falls on a rock. These accidents as they could be called could also be transformed into a magical event. Suddenly the woman did not fall into a crevice, rather it is the crevice that called the woman in and the horseback rider did not fall from the horse, rather it is the stone that called him. (Cited in Gloria Bautista Gutiérrez's Realismo Magico, Cosmos Latinoamericano [25], my trans.)

Both Asturias and Carpentier, we discover, were extremely invested in promoting the idea of a magical realist consciousness in the Americas. This was more than just an anti-imperialist, antimodernist standpoint. Asturias published his novel Hombres de Maiz in 1949 but before had become known for being the first to translate the Popul Vuh into Spanish from the French; also, he wanted to believe in the idea of a Latin American consciousness foreign to Western master narratives and existing within some mystical, mythical space that was prerational, childlike, and primitive. Asturias and Carpentier not so coincidentally were living in Paris during the height of French philosopher, psychologist, and arm-chair anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl's fame. In his study of the so-called primitive mentality entitled How Natives Think (1926), he suggested that "primitive" thought and perceptions are pervaded by mysticism and that "primitive mentality" is not governed exclusively by the laws of logic and is therefore mainly prelogical and analogous to the mentality of a child. This formulation and stance by a scholar in academia was also that of colonial administrators, who considered the people they administered to be children and their job to act in loco parentis, as it were. The link between lo real maravilloso and Levy-Bruhl's influential book is readily apparent: it had a clear though unintended role in fixing and justifying the political propaganda of colonialist and neocolonialists everywhere.

So, as Jean-Pierre Durix informs, while Carpentier articulated a lo maravilloso Latin American ontology, he also developed a particular form of ethnocentrism: "In typical colonial fashion, Europe is reality, whereas America is the materialization of dreams. One is not very far from conceptions of the Noble Savage, with the New Continent being endowed with all the qualities which Europe does not possess. Europe is the reference, unlike America which becomes the object to man's desires" (105).

Presumably, Carpentier needed a manifesto to promote his book. In it, magical realism defined a Latin American ontological essence that existed in the same way that the novel was structured. For the novel to have practical effects, Carpentier asserted a one-to-one correspondence between its storytelling mode and reality. The success of Carpentier's novel and its prologue (especially among the urban-dwelling Latino male elite) solidified its presence as the authoritative definition of magical realism.

This brings us to the contemporary scholarship on magical realism in Latin America. A quick review serves several purposes. First to drive home the point of Asturias and Carpentier's strong influence on the study of magical realism today. Second, to make visible the contemporary Latin American scholarship on the subject that is crucially left out of Wendy Faris and Lois Parkinson Zamora's anthology, Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.

Two scholars in particular begin to complicate the ethnographic identification of magical realism. Alicia Llarena, in her essay "Claves Para Una Discusion: El 'Realismo Magico' Y 'Lo Real Maravilloso Americano,'" adds "americano" to "lo real maravilloso" in order to firmly locate her analysis within the contexts of the Americas. While Llarena is a little more self-reflexive of her conflation of the narrative form with the anthropological/ethnosocial/historical category, she ultimately opts for the later definition to describe a poetics--narrators and characters must not differentiate between the magical and the real within the storyworld--that speaks to how a continent of people (North and South America) see the world through a magical realist lens. Though Llarena continues to uphold the ethnopoetic model of interpretation, she makes the more radical shift away from Carpentier and Asturias (both of whom implicitly identified their fictions as being written for a white readership, hence the various manifestos): she centrally positions a reader of the Americas. For such American-oriented novels, the narrative structures supply the codes for understanding that the point of view is magical realist. How-to guides are not necessary for Llarena's real maravilloso americano where, as she writes, the "characters collectivize the magical perception and establish its continuity" (31, my trans.). For Llarena, it is Gabriel García Márquez who achieved this to its perfection. In Cien Años de Soledad, García Márquez invents characters who all participate in the magical realist verisimilitude and where, she writes, "Macondo is the place in which all the possibilities of narrative space as an a priori form of the fantastic are developed" (34, my trans.). In García Márquez's novel, characters and narrators do not distinguish between the unreal and the real, and the space of Macondo is more and more open to the world: inhabitants travel outside of Macondo and travelers arrive; Macondo rubs against and is changed by the world just as the world is changed by Macondo. Llarena provides an interesting counterpoint when analyzing the more narratologically simple novel by Asturias, Hombres de Maiz. According to Llarena, Asturias's reliance on the mythical and fantastical excuses it from having to develop more sophisticated narrative bridges with its readership. Here the Mayan cosmology depicts the Amerindian as primitive and beyond any reader's reality, to the point that it does not have to account for a disbelieving reader. While Llarena does not go too deeply into the García Márquez versus Asturias brand of magical realism, her analysis marks the first important distinction between what we identify as magical realism--a vital and sophisticated use of language and storytelling device--and what has been termed lo real maravilloso--a more commercially oriented, lazy, and clumsy storytelling form--that as we will see, plays out in more contemporary cases.

What Alicia Llarena lacks in transnational literary comparative work, Seymour Menton begins to make up. In his book Historia Verdadera del Realismo Mágico (mostly based on a series of published articles), Menton not only develops a comparative method, he also begins to unravel the long history of confusion between the narrative genre he calls el realismo magico and the ontologically identified lo real maravilloso. To sidestep the problematic metaphysics of the latter category, he simply applies Franz Roh's original typology (in reduced form) of magical realism to analyze Simone Schwartz-Bart, Ana Castillo, Truman Capote, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, and Juan José Arreola--he even includes a discussion of Icelandic visual arts. For example, his analysis of Ana Castillo's So Far from God (a novel he finds less interesting than Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban because of its realistic "human" depiction) reveals how her novel combines magical realism--"the mysterious power of characters to cure, to speak with the dead, and to see the future" (197, my trans.)--with lo real maravilloso--her representation of "social protest" (198). Seymour Menton's approach benefits from its broad comparative brush strokes and also from his deft move away from a paradigm that sets lo real maravilloso and magical realism into a simple binary opposition. He measures how different chirographic and visual texts contain varying degrees of lo real maravilloso (ideologically identified) and/or magical realism (narrative technique). However, while he is critical of others who stretch the concept too wide, his critical purview is finally overstretched. His seven identified characteristics are too vague a typology and make for a specious analysis between radically different genres and modes of representation.

Magical Realism as Comparative Matrix

If this aforementioned categorical confusion remains at the heart of the problem not just with Latin American, but also with postcolonial criticism generally, then why return to magical realism as a possible concept for comparative U.S. ethnic and postcolonial literary and film studies? Why not simply follow another path, that of comparing resonant thematics (homelessness and hybridity, for example) to weave together a variety of ethnic and postcolonial texts? For example, in Narratives for a New Belonging: Diasporic Cultural Fictions, Roger Bromley develops a cogent comparative study of ex-centric writers by identifying authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Gloria Anzaldúa, Amy Tan, Ghish Jen, Hanif Kureishi, and Chang-Rae Lee as "border writers." However, what we soon discover is that such a comparative study based only on thematics loses itself in its plunge toward large, baggy, ideological paradigms: in Bromley's case, novels from U.S. ethnic, Indian diaspora, Africa, Caribbean, Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, and Ireland all share common ground in their thematic representation of "incomplete signification and hybridity" (3). And though Bromley makes a special effort to move away from misreading novels as only allegories of nation and to connect with "concerns which are properly literary" (8), he ultimately ends up in a poststructural Nowhere: an analytic space where the postcolonial and the literary meet and deliver what he calls "an archeology of identity" (110) that grows from an "unyieldingness," a sense of postcolonial "intransigence," and finally a nebulous resistance (10).

Though David Punter avoids the trappings of a comparative exoticism--Bromley reads Kureishi's work as an example of the "rhizomorphic, fractal structure of the transcultural" (148)--in his Postcolonial Imaginings: Fictions of a New World Order, he too organizes his study around clusters of themes such as trauma of loss/wound, dislocation, globalization, storytelling, transformation. A critical purview limited to points of contact between stories (theme, character, and event, for example)--and not to those intersections at the level of discourse (genre, mode, technique, and language, for example), leads to studies that are difficult to build on and/or productively retheorize. When points of contact are identified only as the appearance of new cultural strategies inflected by dimensions of class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, readings are more likely to miss the very nuance and complexity that its multilingual, multicultural and racially hybrid subjects require.

As a last example of potential rubrics for a comparative ethnic/postcolonial literary study, I turn briefly to Karen Christian's Show and Tell: Identity as Performance in U.S. Latina/o Fiction and Ellen McCracken's New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity. First, Christian and McCracken read (for the most part) with an understanding of the tripartite system--reference/story/discourse--that makes up narrative fiction. This allows for a discussion of a variety of texts as they intersect along referential, narratological, and thematic points of contact. For Christian, this helps her to develop an analytic rubric to affirmatively answer her own question, "Is it possible to formulate a global approach to U.S. Latina/o writing that does not perpetuate a reductive, totalizing view of the literature?" (7). McCracken's nuanced reading of parody in Latina fiction moves from a dismissal of an Ana Castillo and a Cristina Garcia as seeming peddlers in the exotic, and exhibits their craft as novelists who create a "feminine ruptural space" that shatters a romanticized multiculturalism (8). This is not to say that Christian's and McCracken's analyses do not slip occasionally into a strategic essentialist paradigm, but that their close look at narrative structure--whether paratextual codes like dust-jacket blurbs and author-photo mise en scènes or the double-valenced parodic narrative act--render the nuances of the textual analysis that is necessary for comparative studies. Unlike ostensibly antiessentialist critics who finally resort to clearly delineating an essential Chicano/Latino experience, Christian and McCracken pay careful attention to how literature performs: this, I believe, is a respectful response to the complexity of ethnic, postcolonial--human--identity and experience.

Magicorealist Wrappings

Again, then, why develop a magical realist analytic matrix for studying Chicano/a, Afro-Caribbean, British postcolonial narratives? First, magical realism as an analytic concept for approaching U.S. ethnic and British postcolonial film, autobiography, and literature has the potential--if broken down into its reference/discourse/story constituent parts--to reveal both the uniqueness of these texts and their dialogic relationship to networks of world fictions. Second, precisely because it is at the center of the more general two-pronged debate about the status of ex-centric fiction--aesthetic or ethnographic--this analytic concept has the potential to radically redefine how we study U.S. ethnic and British postcolonial film and literature. Last, at the heart of the magical realist text is its delight in play; a study of magical realism has the potential to point out the seriousness of colonialism and capitalism that continue to exploit and oppress, and also to put us back in the sandbox of narrative play where the discovery of new toys and reconfigured spaces can bring deep pleasure and hope for humanity's future.

Have we witnessed the death of magical realism? Certainly not. After all, for every magical realist text that is formulaic and out to peddle an exotic to the mainstream, there is the one that challenges readers, self-reflexively deforms convention, and opens eyes. For every House of the Spirits there is a Midnight's Children; for every film like Walk in the Clouds or film adaptation such as Like Water for Chocolate, there is an El Norte or a Daughters of the Dust. What is needed here is a careful balancing between a structural and a hermeneutic approach that will not confuse narrative fiction for anthropological artifact.

The purpose of this study is to redeem and refine the concept by developing, testing, and revising a theory of magical realism in U.S. multiethnic and British postcolonial literature, autobiography, and film. This includes, but is not limited to, a discussion of magical realism as a storytelling mode and as a specific worldview emerging from this kind of narrative. It includes, but is not limited to, an analysis of its storyworld--theme, characterization, plot, event. It includes, but is not limited to, an analysis of discourse--genre, mode, point of view, technique, and language. To this end, the study rechristens "magic realism" as magicorealism--a term that not only does away with any linguistic lean toward binary oppositionality, but identifies a new study that is careful not to confuse the transcription of the real world, where the criteria of truth and falsity apply, with the narrative mode governed by other criteria. To reiterate: a study of magicorealism articulates both the how and the why of the subgenre by identifying the storytelling mode's specific storytelling contours--both at the level of the narrator's "slant" within the discourse and at the level of the character's "filter" and the thematic content within the story. This is not to say that I neglect the sociopolitical and historical positioning of the text, but that such identifications of local knowledge remain firmly linked to a discussion of a given text's storyworld. This is not to say either that I neglect the materiality of the text, but that this remains firmly linked to discussions of, for example, a given text's paratextual components. By investigating the following magicorealist novels, autobiographies, and films, I explore the "how" and "why" of contemporary Chicano/a, African American, and Indo-British magicorealist narratives: Ana Castillo's So Far from God (1993); Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972); Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses (1987), and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995); Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust (1991); and Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi's film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987).



“In this exciting new book, Frederick Luis Aldama has done an outstanding job of remapping ‘magical realism.”
Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of Afro-American Studies, Harvard University


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