Here’s another true story that forms the basis of my magical realist novel, Blue Woman Burning, recently picked up by Red Penguin for publication this fall!
Reality was always being tested by my adventurous English professor parents, who couldn’t be accused of abusing us, with the globe-trotting upbringing they provided, but who might be accused of lacking empathy (My father is pictured to the right).
In 1975, our mother put me and my two brothers on a 24-hour plane ride to Santiago, Chile (just three years after a bloody military coup) alone, where my father met us with friends, Maria Ester (far left) and Rene. That’s me and my older brother in the center, and just the head of my younger brother at the door’s edge.
My father brought us that same afternoon to meet the principle of Nido de Aguilas (Nest of the Eagles), Mrs. Grover, (looking somewhat like Mrs. Partridge!), in the hills of Lo Barnechea, where we enrolled in that international School.
Finally, my father brought us to our new home in a modern, concrete development off Las Condes, Golfo De Darien, where Maria Ester taught us how to say, “Stop, please,” in Spanish and how to ride the public bus.
It was a beautiful house, unlike anything I’d ever seen, with a garden and patio at the center, red tiled floors which I later had to learn to wax, and sliding glass doors on every bedroom, opening to the little back yard. It was the first time I had my own room.
The very next morning, I donned my brand new national public school uniform (still creased from the suitcase), posed next to the lemon tree in the backyard, and smiled way more bravely than I felt at age 11…
Our father sent us off (again, alone, are you seeing a theme here?) to the bus stop on Las Condes to catch the public bus to school while he caught the bus in the opposite direction to the Universidad Catolica. Those are the snow-capped Andes in the distance, home to the Incas. This picture is from some time later, when we realized no one wore uniforms at Nido– or maybe we are going off to fly kites with the local kids.
Surviving the usual heckling and name calling that comes with being the perennial new kid, as we so often were, I eventually made friends. Hope to reconnect some day.
Most definitions of magic realism ascribe it solely to South America, and with this kind of daily scenery, it’s easy to see why a worldview might be tinged with magic. However, I think it’s spawned by the culture clash of the Spanish Catholic invaders and the indigenous people and by tyranny and political upheaval. You find similar surrealism in, say Kafka’s Europe.
Chile’s fantastical beauty, which lay casually beyond even the most banal settings, has, as I say about the children in my novel, written itself into my psyche.
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One strong memory I have from childhood is lying on a sprawling branch of an ancient apple tree on my father’s farm in Pennsylvania. This branch was so wide that I could lie on it without falling off. I used to imagine that some loving entity was watching me there, in the shade, like a guardian angel, or a parent, or the tree itself…
See attached video for the rest of the story. On June 23, 2020, three storytellers told at Caffe Lena for the pandemic Stay at Home series.
Barbara Palumbo tells Nathaniel Hawthorn’s story “The Great Stone Face” and Frank Stockton’s story, “The Lady or the Tiger,” at the beginning.
My original story blended with norse creation mythology, “Speaking the Language of Trees,” starts at minute 27:40.
Finally, Mary Murphy rounds out the evening with a great “old haunted house story,” starts at minute 58:00.
Eclectica Magazine published my my story “My Sister’s Labyrinth” today. It’s a companion story to “The Opal Maker” published by The Collagist and which was a finalist for Eckleburg Review’s Franz Kafka prize, and was also listed as one 2015’s top 50 by Wigleaf.I like to imagine that this woman, after leaving her first sister’s house, decided to go in search of her other siblings and came to her other sister’s house.
Eclectica has been publishing online for 21 years and publishes “outstanding writing” that “doesn’t fit” into easy categories.” They pride themselves on being one of the “longest-running and most consistent literary ezines on the web.” I’m honored to be part of this issue. They also published my story, “Death’s Debut” in 2014.
I think I also mentioned somewhere else that my hand bound chapbook Strange Appetites won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s People’s Choice Award for book of the year.
Also, the charming Hillview Free Library at Diamond Point, NY, invited me to present “Two Paths to Writing Your Life: The Magical and the Real” on August 23, 7-9. I’ll read excerpts from two stories that used to be one and are both (very) loosely based on my life, “Hitting the Wall” and “The Gatekeeper’s Mistake,” in order to illuminate the uses of magical realism as well as the writing process. Powerpoint will be included and the lecture is open to the public.
Finally, I’ll be presenting a lecture at SUNY Adirondack’s Continuing Education Lecture and Lunch series for seniors, “Ecuadorian Literature,” on September 19, 2017, 11:30 – 12:45pm at the Scoville Auditorium on the main campus. While there’s a small fee for the day of lectures and the lunch, I believe the lecture itself is open to the public.
I very much enjoyed working with my editor at Big Lucks, An Tran, who gave an excellent critique and good reasons for the critique. Working together, I believe we improved the story. Below are his answers to my questions about the magazine.
Your “about” page says that Big Lucks wants to be like a “nuclear submarine” that helps literary lifeforms that lurk in “the unlit depths of the ocean…breach the repetitive ebb-and-tide…” of, one assumes, the literary surface. What does that mean to you?
Submarines are fascinating in that they are, more or less, wholly self-sufficient communities submerged in the sea. We don’t think about them much, but they are there. And, in isolation, communities develop their own unique cultures. We want to bring up what is often overlooked; we want to take chances and give voice to those that don’t fit into more traditional stylistics found in literature today.
John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction was famed for shaping an entire school of science fiction by sounding a call for a particular aesthetic and then selecting those who adhered to his ideas. Other editors try to keep their finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist of the times and select works to represent it. Most editors today will say they just pick what moves them and don’t adhere to any particular aesthetic. Which role more closely describes your approach to editing Big Lucks?
Our one rubric is: does this excite us? We aren’t looking for a specific aesthetic; we don’t want to be boxed in that way. If a piece is experimental or avant-garde, great! If it’s traditional, great! What matters is if it’s well-crafted, emotionally resonant, and reveals something about ‘truth’ that we hadn’t considered before, or presents itself in a way we haven’t seen before.
Our editors all have unique tastes and personal biases; one of us might bring something to the group that we’re really excited about, but something falls short for the others. But when we all get really excited about a piece—no matter what style it comes in—we know it’s more than just good, because it transcends personal tastes or one individual’s stylistic preferences. When we agree on a piece, it’s magical, because we’re all excited and all on board.
We know that people do things in patterns even when they think they are not. Looking back on your past issues does the magazine have an aesthetic or a pattern that tends to show up either by unconscious or conscious design?
I think any patterns one might observe are more indicative of cultural shifts in literary aesthetic as a whole and less of any conscious or unconscious factors in the selection process. We choose works that resonate on many different layers, works that accurately reflect the rich complexity of being human and being alive in the early 21st century. If there is a cohesiveness to that resonance, it is because (we hope) there are experiences and modes of expression that speak to this time and this culture with greater relevance and intensity than do others.
In the early 20th century when modernism was budding, the world population was only 2 billion. There were literary stars who were generally recognized, like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway and William Faulkner. As the world reaches a population of seven and a half billion, with more than 600,000 books being published a year, it gets harder to see the literary movements and stars of this era. Could you speak about the literary patterns or movements budding today in your neck of the woods? How is the literary world different today than it was in the twentieth century?
Prior to the 20th century, most literary artists were sharing their work in smaller communities, with the stylistics appreciated by the aristocracy being vastly different from the stylistics enjoyed by commoners. The 20th century of English literature was an outlier in human history, as far as the consumption of literature is concerned, and even still there were many many contemporary writers of the time that published, gained moderate popularity, and then faded into obscurity as time went on.
It is typically only fiction writers that have any ideas of ‘stardom’ through writing, so this kind of conversation can be alienating to poets, essayists, playwrights, screenwriters, etc. I think, more and more, writers are letting go of the idea of some kind of central celebrity or realm of prominence, are growing more happy with just having their work out there and consumed at any public scale. This is a good thing; it’s the way it was meant to be.
How has Big Lucks changed since its inception?
The masthead has definitely gone through some changes. The presentation too. We moved from a print journal to an online model and have gone through a number of different designs in order to facilitate a deeper reading experience. And we opened up Big Lucks Books to an incredible reception. In many ways, it’s all stayed the same: we are interested in bringing daring, innovative and powerful work to a wider public and we are pursuing all of the ways we can think to most effectively do this. But that central idea has certainly blossomed into something I don’t think Mark and Laura, who founded the journal, could’ve conceived of when it all began; certainly, I couldn’t have conceived of this when I was first brought on board.
How would you describe the relationship between Big Lucks and Big Lucks Books?
Big Lucks Books is the natural culmination of the journal’s original aim. Through it, we can bring incredible works that don’t fit in well with other publishers to a much wider audience. Poetry books, chapbooks of flash fiction, novellas and works like these are often produced as complete visions, but represent tremendous risk to traditional publishers. These works are often too long to be included in a journal and are considered too short to stand alone, but they are often works that must stand alone and something very valuable is lost if the work is padded to a greater length or reduced to a shorter one. We take amazing works of literature and make it public; that is what we do and who we are, whether we do this through the journal or through pressing books.
True confession here. I don’t believe in fairies (sorry Tinkerbell), I don’t really believe in ghosts (sorry Dad), and I think psychics are just very good intuitionists…so why do I love magic realism and fantasy? Why is this literature and movie genre thriving?
Here’s one of many reasons. We know from cognitive and brain science that we have several brains, the more primitive brain at the center – the brain stem and the neocortex. In the central brain stem resides the amygdala which governs our limbic system which governs our emotions (this is explained very well in Roseann Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block.
This part of the brain is geared toward survival. It reacts instantaneously to fuzzy perceptions. It knows only three reactions, fight, flight or freeze. It sees a snakelike object in the grass and prompts you to jump or shoot. You jump and THEN you take a closer look and your cerebral cortex says, “Oh, that’s not a snake. It’s a stick.” Evolutionarily, the cortex developed later and surrounds the primitive brain and is where you do all your rational, creative, sorting, organizing, and planning thinking.
The point is, that part of our brain still sees the world in terms of magic – it sees ghosts in the flickers of peripheral vision, it sees zombies in that unexpected manikins you run into in the attic, it sees a weeping woman in the snow capped sign post in your low-beams at night, it provides the stories and images in your dreams for your thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism also help us explore our deepest fears in safe ways. Bruno Bethlehem, in his book The Uses of Enchantment, famously asserted that the sanitizing of fairytales and folktales left children less equipped to handle the stress of life. Who knew, for example, that in Cinderella, the wicked sisters cut off their toes to fit their feet into the shoe?
Also, these genres feed our need for a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves and to the inherent interconnectedness of all things.
Before I end, I ned to add a respectful disclaimer, in case I insulted all the ghost hunters and psychics out there. I don’t disbelieve in anything completely. I truly think anything is possible, but not exactly probable, so I look or the rational explanation first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sound bounce in unexpected ways to create the illusion of thumping up above when it’s really coming from next door.
I must also say that I see the possible danger of grandiosity, narcissism and avoidance when people start asserting they have special powers. However, to those friends of mine who make such assertions, I believe in radio waves, microwaves and other forms of communication that are undetectable to the human eye and ear, and I think you should keep honing your craft whatever it is, because above all, I believe in the inner wisdom of all things and the magic of the atom.