Fantasy’s Half Sister-Magic Realism

Reeling for the Empire

“Reeling for the Empire” by Karen Russell. Illustration by Daehyun Kim

If you’re reading about dragons, chances are, you’re reading fantasy. But if you’re reading about women ascending bodily to heaven, you’re probably reading magic realism, or what New York Times reviewer Joy Williams calls “the new uncanny.”

Confused? You’re not alone.  The most common definition of fantasy is “literature in which magical things occur” or, as the Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms defines it, literature which creates its own coherently organized worlds and myths” (82).

Of course, magical things happen in both fantasy and magic realism, so that doesn’t help us. I’ve heard people say that the big difference is that in fantasy, the characters are amazed, stunned and shocked by the magical events, as when the glass suddenly disappears at the zoo in Harry Potter, and everyone screams.  In magic realism, by contrast, the characters react to the magical as though it is ordinary.

“Reeling for the Empire.” Watercolor by Margaret Sloan.

Complicating both these definitions is the fact that the concept of reality is culturally defined. Orthodox Christians consider God and the Bible real. Atheists consider both fantasy. Roman mythology was at one time was considered real; now the word myth is synonymous with lie. Native American writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko write about things that most Caucasian Americans would call unreal, but which are very real to her.

reeling for the empire by sloan

“Reeling for the Empire.” Watercolor by Margaret Sloan.

Gabriel García Márquez, the king of magic realism and author of the Nobel Prize winning 100 Years of Solitude, said, “Fantasy has nothing to do with the reality of the world we live in; it is purely fantastic invention, an inspiration, and certainly a diversion ill-advised in the arts” (quoted in Kroeber 130).

However, anyone who has heard a woman screaming in the forest and followed the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion will find the origins of fantasy very real. The flicker we all get in the peripheral vision, and secrets our parents tried to keep but which we all  felt,  is where ghosts come from. The amygdala is a crude but lightning fast instrument. So I have to respectfully disagree with the king.

I think the best way to consider the difference between fantasy and reality is to consider its impact on the reader. Tsvetan Todorov, a literary theorist famous for his treatment of the fantastic, said that magic realism disrupts the reader’s sense of reality whereas fantasy creates another completely enclosed reality. Whereas fantasy “imposes absolute closure” and “implies complicity on the part of the readers,” the literary fantastic seeks reader hesitancy” (Armitt 7). The story begins in the “real world” and when something unreal happens, and the reader is never sure if the cause is supernatural or natural, such as a psychotic break or a drug induced hallucination (Armitt 8).


Illustration from the serialization of “The Turn of the Screw” in Collier’s Weekly, published in 1898, by John La Farge

According to this definition, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example of the literary fantastic: did the governess see a ghost or hallucinate it? Did the ghost kill the boy, or did she scare him to death? The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is likewise an example: Is she alive or dead at the end? Did imagination save her or kill her?

However, this definition doesn’t work for the poster child of magic realism, 100 Years of Solitude.  No one doubts that Remedios the Beauty ascended bodily to heaven and that a man’s blood flowed out the front door, down the block, turned left and went into his mother’s house.  As Lucy Armitt says in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction, there are no “competing readings of the text… revolving around two choices, the psychological or the supernatural” (Armitt 8).


Jorge Luis Borges

However, you do feel ill at ease in Jorge Luis Borge’s short stories.  In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” you aren’t even sure that anything magical happens, it’s just an incredible coincidence that a spy randomly walks into the house of a man who has been studying his ancestor’s life work.  Is Borges just a bad writer, you find yourself wondering. Is this even a story?

That’s why you also need this other defining characteristic of magic realism to understand it.  Jon Evans says magic realism “draws from the well” of political disruption, violence and chaos, where the “surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational.”

Magic realism is often the intersection of culturally competing definitions of reality, and that creates an inherent tension. In the case of 100 Years, it’s the intersection of indigenous and Catholic culture. This is the kind of tension you find in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the tension between White and Black culture) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (the tension between Native American and White culture), even Karen Russel’s story, “Reeling for the Empire,” about Japanese women sold into slavery and turned into human silk worms by poisoned tea (the tension between the rich and poor).

Tiger Mending by Amy Cutler

Amy Cutler’s painting inspired the story “Tiger Mending” by Aimee Bender.

I’m not sure how I explain why I would put Aimee Bender and Amber Sparks in the category of magic realism rather than fantasy, especially as Bender has representatives of both in the same collection. Perhaps it comes down to a third distinguishing characteristic.

In fantasy, the magic is orderly and even predictable, rules apply.  In contrast –and this is why I prefer it–mystery lies at its heart of magic realism.  We don’t really know why the tigers come out of the forests with split skins, patiently waiting to be sewn back together by two sisters in Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending,” but the trope shimmers in our minds like an image on water, hard to grasp, unforgettable, and necessary.


Karen Russell

So I’d say a pretty good, all-inclusive definition of magic realism is: literature  which causes the reader to experience tension between competing views of reality, which is most often derived from violent political and cultural clashes, in which magical things occur, often with no clear explanation, and to which the characters in the story are often oddly accustomed.

Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.

Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler. Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms.  Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2006.

Evans, Jon. “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry.” Tor Books. 23 October 2008. Web. 12 March 2014.

Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists.” The Secret History of Fantasy. Ed. Peter S. Beagle. San Francisco: Tachyan Publications, 2010. 355-366.

Pan’s Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López. Warner Brothers, 2006. Film.

Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove. New York: Knopf, 2013.

“Thursday, March 6, 2014.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. American Public Media, 6 March, 2014. Web. March 12, 2014.

Williams, Joy.  “The New Uncanny: ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell.” The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Feb. 7, 2013.




Cone Oddyssey


Walking in Saratoga Spa State Park last weekend, I came across this conelith. Did the cone fall from the tree, and via the mysteries of chaos and order, land upright? Or did some quixotic human being plant it here for the love of oddity and future passers by? Perhaps, as the narrator of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sentinel,” which inspired 2001 Space Odyssey), surmised, “something from the stars swept through the Solar System, [and] left this token of its passage.” We will never know, but it compelled me to make this short film.


Music: Strauss, Richard. “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Greatest Classical Music in Movie Soundtrack. Opening music for 2001 Space Odyssey.

Radio Interviews


I think I forgot to announce this on my website.

Here is the most recent, only eight months ago:  Writers Forum on Vox Pop, “Writers on Writing. Me and Barbara Chepaitis.

And here we are with“Family Stories,” on the Vox Pop’s Writer’s Forum. Not sure of the date. 2016?

Cimarron Review


Cimarron REview.jpgCimarron Review
Winter 2017
Issue 198
Review by Lâle Davidson

With prosy poems and poetic prose, Cimarron Review provides fodder for intelligent readers. Founded in 1967 and a member of CLMP, the magazine regularly nominates its writers to “notable contests.” The Winter 2017 issue is a clean, slim volume, the pages almost square and formatted with a lot of white space so the reader can breeze through. Of the 25 writers, 14 are male, and a different 14 had published one or more books, while 8 were either MFA graduates without publications, or had published in fairly unknown magazines.

Most of the poetry in this issue leans toward spare prose, sometimes based on a vivid anecdote that leaps deftly into philosophy. For example, Karen Skofield’s “Abbreviated Guide to Unusual Phobias” begins with a wry list of eccentric fears posed as questions, “If I abide crowds but not the man in the fringed vest…If children are welcome but identical twins cause sweating.” Then it builds to fears that have shaped civilization: “The fear that I will outlive/ my children is called parenting” and “A fear that the lion will never lie down with the lamb/ is called Revelations…”

Michael T. Young’s “High Dive” explores how body and mind navigates the laws of gravity, while Michelle Menting and Katharine Kaufman’s poems enter and exit dreams. Amy O’Reilly’s poem “Girls in the City” paints a vivid picture of girls playing sidewalk games that grow into adult despair: “…Like so many girls/ who become bigger girls. Fish in dim,/ shallow bowls. Their suns,/ wounds in the sky’s flesh…”

Just when you think you’ve figured out this magazines’ prosy esthetic, it springs a few poems on you which experiment with form, like Doug Ramspeck’s “Field Anatomy,” which is formatted like a double-spaced prose poem, but is written with choppy syntax and juxtaposed images, or a highly abstract poem, like Michael Hurley’s “Samuel Explains Departure:”

It will discredit you
to look too longingly
at a thing like this,

the way a laugh is
for the other person.

The poems make you work some, but not too hard before they yield rewards, which is always my personal preference.

In addition to the 25 poems, there are four short stories and two essays. The stories range between 8 and 14 pages, some straight up realism, and two that challenge.

Jessica Hollander’s “Oracle,” explores a relationship from a man’s point of view, whose emotions flicker on and off like the streetlight outside his apartment at twilight…”nervous about its judgment.” It finishes with a de rigueur unresolved but thought-provoking ending. Miriam Cohen’s realistic “Wife” deals with an old story in a vivid yet humble way, a woman’s rage at being cheated on, while William Haas narrates the downward mental spiral of a “one-hit wonder” in prose that is dense logic defying.

My favorite was Michael Biel’s “La Négresse,” narrated in first person, which starts out seemingly realistic, but gets stranger and stranger. The first person narrator tells the unlikely story of twins who turn out to be doppelgängers, who join him at a café in France. Narrated in tongue-in-cheek, false-British style, using words like “moue,” “chap,” and “a frisson of delight,” the narrator wanders farther and farther afield of logic, with observations, like, “I would have despaired of telling the two apart had I not noticed almost right from the start that Jack was right-handed and Jed was left… Shouldn’t all Jacks be left-handed? Marys right and Marthas left?” I’m not sure I understood it, but I think a send-up of narcissism.

That leaves me with the two essays. Both are richly figured, written by men dealing with male issues in not particularly male ways. “If It Had to Perish Twice,” contrasts childhood vignettes with adult vignettes to explore the complexity of intentional and unintentional racism and aggression. “A Man of Action” features the aggressions latent in a relationship of father and son.

All in all, Issue 198 of Cimarron Review delivers highly but subtly crafted mainstream writing with some boundary pushing pieces that provide fodder for the intelligent reader without demanding more than their due.

I wrote this review for, which posts news, information, and guides to literary magazines, independent publishers, creative writing programs, alternative periodicals, indie bookstores, writing contests, and more. Check it out here!

“My Sister’sLabyrinth” in Eclectica


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.

One Hundred Years of Solitude 50th Anniversary


Yellow ButterflyWhen I grabbed Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude off the shelf to re-read, I didn’t realize it was the 50th anniversary. Stifling my academic urge to write a long literary analysis, I’ll just tell you a few things that struck me the second and third time through.

There’s very little dialogue in the novel. It’s almost all narration, more like a vivid summary rather than a series of scenes. He’s taking a leaf from his grandmother’s storytelling oral tradition, in which the beauty of the story is in its shape rather than the individual characters’ progress. Add to this the narrative’s digressive tendency and spiraling treatment of time, and you get transported.

The narrative describes event after event, covering years in a paragraph, pausing to provide half a scene, then galloping twenty years into the future, then spiraling back to whatever the present was, and twirling off in a different direction following another character’s trajectory. Sometimes, he’ll be talking about one character and he’ll digress into other character’s life and follow them up to their death, then return to the original time period, but not necessarily the original character, and then follow the line of another character, like he’s tracing the branches of an enormous tree, which of course he is, the Buendía family tree.

He doesn’t use the past perfect tense to make clear when he’s going into flashback, or the subjective tense to flash forward,  or any other signal when he returns to the main time period, as the famous first sentence exemplifies, encompassing three time periods, the first of which is never clarified: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelian Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). It isn’t until the middle of the book that we get to the rest of the firing squad story, and then it’s almost a side note.

This tendency casts the reader awash in time, and develops the novel’s theme of time’s circularity and stagnant pockets, much like the mythical book Jorge Louis Borges wrote about in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”100 Years

The novel traces 100 years in the town of Macondo, from its founding by the Buendía family, through 32 civil wars lead by Colonel Buendía, through the arrival of capitalist enterprises in the form of the banana company with the attendant immigration of white foreigners, prostitutes and gamblers. The arrival of the capitalists culminates in a massacre of thousands of labor union protestors which the government hushes up. Then the town is washed away by “four years, eleven months and two days” (320) of rain, ending in the wildly decadent but transcendently pure lovemaking of the last Aureliano with his own aunt.

Having just recently traveled to Ecuador and studied Ecuador’s history and modern novels, I see better how the absurdity and circularity of the novel is shaped by Colombia and South America’s history.

Just like Ecuador, Colombia was invaded by the Spaniards who imposed an oppressive feudal system on the indigenous people, and it was both oppressed and liberated by the Catholic church. While Ecuador had 17 different constitutions since its independence, Colombia had nine civil wars between its independence from Spain in 1810 and 1850. Then there was the war of 1000 days from 1899-1903 in which 120,000 were killed, and then another civil war, “La Violencia” between 1848 and 1957 in which another 300,000 were killed, all between the liberals and conservatives (Britannica).

This is what much of the novel is about, and perhaps explains the theme of solitude that is the clear center of the book, though I must confess I don’t quite understand how. In what way is/was Columbia any more cut off from the world than any other Latin American country? Was he implying that Columbia is somehow more inbred and isolated than most countries? Is the rise and fall of Macondo an analogy for the whole country or just for Columbia’s rural past? Or just a certain kind of family? Why does he say that the Buendías were a “race…condemned to one hundred years of solitude” with “no second opportunity on earth?”

Garcia MarquezThough there are characters in this novel, they keep repeating, as do their names, so there are many Aurelian’s and José Arcadios, and after a while they all get mixed up in your mind, underscoring the circularity of time.

I love the character of “active, small and indomitable” Úrsula, Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s mother, who lives to be more than 100, running the household and family business until she is blind. I love the story Remedios the Beauty, who ascends bodily to heaven, and I love Úrsula’s great granddaughter Amaranta Úrsula who has a genius “for erotic mischief” and arrives home from Europe “leading her husband by a silk rope tied around his neck” and who shouts with laughter rather than alarm when she finds the family home is total chaos.

Though I can’t pretend to grasp it all, I adore this novel because of the whimsical blend of history, farce, passion, and magic typified in this winding sentence: “Jose Arcadio Buendía…gathered the men of the village… and he demonstrated to them, with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east. The whole village was convinced that Jose Arcadio Buendía had lost his reason, when Melquíades [the traveling gypsy] returned to set things straight. He gave public praise to the intelligence of a man who from pure astronomical speculation had evolved a theory that had already been proved in practice, although unknown, in Macondo until then…” (5).

I think I’ll have to read it again.

Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper and Row. 1970.

How to overcome reading resistance


IMG_2880I never afford myself enough time to read. Yet it’s integral to good writing.  Guilty confession? Netflix is my nightly addiction.

However, when you truly give into an addiction for a good 25 years, it finally gets boring. I noticed this when I began to eat while watching… clearly the watching experience just wasn’t filling me up, so I was seeking other ways to connect.

So, why do I persistently resist reading when my bed is surrounded by stacks of books that I genuinely want to read?  I often buy a book thinking I’m buying the time and dedication to read it also. During the school year, I need most of my time to read for school, but I have no excuse for not reading in the summer. Actually, I have a long list of excuses.

First of all, reading is harder work than watching. The eye muscles have to do a complex activity of focusing, tracking, converging and using peripheral vision. The brain has to do a complex decoding process, then you have to create the images yourself, all the while managing your inner dialogue in response to the reading.

For some people, this process has become so rote that they don’t even notice they are doing it, like the way you can touch-type without knowing where the letters are on the keyboard, or shift gears in a car without thinking, or feed the cat and forget you did it.

For others, there is a cognitive or eye muscle coordination glitch somewhere along the complex process that creates a hardship of varying sizes. I suspect I have a slight eye muscle glitch, so that I have to apply myself and reapply myself whereas my avid reader friends do not. For others, it can be an information processing issue or a slight or severe dyslexia.  It’s important to note that dyslexia is a developmental issue that can be corrected over time.

Then there’s the problem of focus. If all goes well, you get into a dialogue with the thing you are reading, but that can take you a million miles away. Fifteen minutes later, you find yourself in the middle of a paragraph you thought you were reading but totally failed to absorb. You have to backtrack to figure out where your mind trailed off.

Then there’s emotional reactions. Sometimes, you decide you don’t like the author or the main character, and that makes you angry at the book, unwilling to slog through and glean what you can or figure out what it’s really saying.

Then there’s the problem of a physical reading position. Reading in bed sends me to sleep, and I’m always amazed at people who sit in straight chairs and read with head bowed. Add to that, I’m a naturally fidgety person, and sitting still too long literally hurts my bones.

I think the biggest problem, however, is that I unconsciously regard reading as wasting time. I don’t know where I developed that idea, coming from a family of two English professors who read constantly. I worry about reading taking over my writing time. But we all know that reading is essential for life – for being a responsible citizen of the United States, and for writers especially, to learn how others have done it, to enrich our creativity pool, and to avoid cliché.

So yesterday, taking a page from my mother’s book (I’ve taken a lot of her pages from her book), I set up one of those zero gravity chairs in the backyard. Feet raised, back raised, head supported, I pulled out One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezI enjoyed every minute of it. When I needed to take a break and rest my eyes or brain, I’d stretch my neck and look up at the teardrop birch leaves or cast my eyes over daisies and purple cone flowers.

I have been re-reading One Hundred Years over the past month. I have a copy on Audible that I listen to while driving or walking the dog, and then at night, when I pull out the physical book, I have to reread passages to find my place, discovering I’d missed things while I was listening. The next day, I’d re-listen to passages to find my place in the recording, and in doing so, I pick up all the things I missed while reading it on the page. It’s a great way to read the book twice as you go, which helps with keeping things straight, perceiving patterns, and remembering.

The sun faded from the sky as I read last night, and my cats came to sit quietly around me, one underneath my chair, and the other nosing the flowers and contemplating a blade of grass. My dog appeared beside me, and I calmed her whenever she began to bark. A slight breeze stirred the humid air, the last Aureliano made crazy silent love to a woman he later found was his aunt while the world of Macondo whirled into oblivion.

Even after the sun went down and I came inside, I had the satisfying feeling that I had done something deeply beautiful for the last few hours.

Quick Take: Black Warrior Review


BWR43.2-cover1.jpgThe Black Warrior Review Fiction/Prose contest winner “Videoteca Fin del Mundo” by Ava Tomasula y Garcia is a difficult but rare read.

On first read, the story—or essay—felt incomprehensible, but as I forged ahead, the gist of the piece became clear: she is talking about how terrible things go on every day all around us, specifically the abuse of migrant workers who are then swept up into deportation centers, and how the “intolerable” becomes tolerable in our every day life, and how that fact is intolerable.

She’s saying that when we really think about it, the way this country uses, abuses, dehumanizes, and discards migrant workers is an ongoing apocalyptic disaster movie that we all sort of accept it as an every day thing as we, enjoy our “hot water, [our] clean air, [our] free right of movement, [our] microwave, [our] strawberry jam on bread this morning” (9).

She raises the question of how some of us want the impossible, a world without borders, while others of us see that as the apocalypse. She suggests that wishing for a world without borders is contradictory, since it’s akin to being “anti-systemic,” (14) and the system of the body is what keeps us alive. As impossible as a world without borders is, she contends, it’s the kind of world  world that the very rich enjoy, so it’s not so impossible, after all (15).

If you want to read it, you have to purchase it the magazine, but a great interview with her is published here.

Is this a story? No. The narrator has a problem, but it’s an abstract problem about the “dissonance of the everyday” (9). The first four paragraphs are all meditation and no action, something any fiction writing workshop would tell you not to do.

The only action that occurs is in the fifth paragraph when the narrator wades “through strawberry hydroponics fields” (11). There is some action in relating facts about how undocumented works spray strawberry crops with “fourteen million pounds of pesticides a year,” and how migrant workers emerge out of “poisonous cloud[s] of gas that that was “used to kill people in World War I” (10). It’s footnoted. These are facts. Not fiction.

As always, when I read a difficult text, I am thrown into a decades-old meta debate.

What is the purpose of writing difficult texts? How difficult is too difficult? Does the writer know how difficult this is? Do I want to write like this? Should I? Do I want to work this hard to read this? Should I?

Also, why did these editors publish this as a piece of fiction? It reads more like an Avant-garde non-fiction essay. It’s the contest winner for the fiction/prose category, and it is, after all a work of prose. But they have a nonfiction category. Why didn’t they give it the award for non-fiction?

Obviously, they published it because that’s the kind of magazine they are. They like densely written, thought-provoking work that pushes on the boundaries of form. All of their stories, essays and poetry isn’t this difficult, as in the case of Scott Fenton’s “Possible Origin Stories for an Aspiring Boy Wonder,” which is just that, a series of paragraph-long origin stories. It’s playful and accessible on the surface, but yields more with each pass, which is my preferred reading mode.

But reading Tomasula y Garcia’s story/essay is a much different experience than reading this blog post. The hard work of tracking her words creates a certain pleasure, a certain convergence of many thoughts in a single blow that when unpacked at the same time, transport you to a new, dreamy, nightmarish, soulful place.

Flannery O’Connor once said, you write a story to say something you couldn’t say any other way.

In the end, Ava Tomasula y Garcia wrote her essay/story this way because she wanted readers to experience it in just that way and no other, a devastating and beautiful meditation  that might wake us from a nightmare long enough to do something about it.

Those darned submission guidelines


Lit Mag 2Most literary magazines submission guidelines tell you to read their magazine to see what kind of work they publish.

This can be daunting when you are struggling to find enough time to write, let alone publish.

Furthermore, when you follow their directions and do the reading, it’s hard to decide which magazines to read (there are so many!), and it’s hard to extract their aesthetic. Finally, magazines often have guest editors and their slush pile readers often rotate, so it is certainly not an exact science.

Nevertheless reading broadly is a good idea not just for other writers, but for you.  It speaks to the fundamental reason you (we) write. While many of us started to write out of need to hear ourselves, to witness, or to express ourselves, in the end, that can’t be the only impetus or result.  It’s like going to a party and monologuing. As satisfying as that might be short term, we are social animals who need to be part of a larger community conversation.

Ultimately, we write as a way of interacting with the world, and reading is an important give and take in that interaction.

So, where to start?  I recommend that you go to Poets and Writers’ website,, scroll down to “Tools for Writers” and click on Literary Magazines. This is not an exhaustive list,and not all the magazines listed will survive or be well known, but it’s an easy way to browse.  You can also Google “Top literary magazines” and get a good list of the most famous ones– the ones that if you get published there will help others taken you more seriously by publishers.

Also, explore some of the many, amazing independent presses. Check out “25 Independent Presses That Prove this is the Golden Age of Indie Publishing.”

Remember, as the editor of Bellevue Literary Press said (publisher of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding, if you’re not buying, no one is (especially if Trump has his way and defunds the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities).

With this in mind, I’m starting new Quick Take series. I’ll spot-read issues of various literary magazines and presses that come across my radar, and I’ll write short reviews of pieces which exemplify that magazine’s or press’s aesthetic.

See you around, soon.


From the Andes to the Amazon: What I did this summer (essay for school)


IMG_3576 (1)Riding horseback high in the Páramo of Cotapaxi National Park, overlooking a valley crested on either side by volcanoes, I tried to mold myself to my horse’s back. At first, as my white horse labored uphill, I couldn’t find a rhythm with him, and every one of his steps threw me gently against the back of his saddle, worrying me about the pain I was causing him. The sky was steel gray and low, but the colors of the ponchos of my fellow riders were saturated red, and striped, cream and brown.
ConqueredAt the crest of the hill, at 14,000 feet, we stopped under a bare rock promontory. The wind blew hard and cold, rippling the silvery grass and billowing my ochre poncho around me as our guides served us hot, clear tea. It was tangy with a hint of cinnamon and naranjilla. After a few hours of riding, I fell into a peaceful rhythm with my horse. Below, us the thatched-roof hacienda blended with its surrounds, and far below that, the emerald squares of cultivated fields quilted the broad valley. It was hard to absorb. Up ahead, silvery threads of sunlight sifted through the clouds, and illuminated the black safety helmets of the riders so that they looked silver, like the helmets of the conquistadores five hundred years ago. Rather than conquering, though, we were conquered by otherworldly light and unbelievable beauty.

Only a few days later, gliding in dugout canoes along the Cuyabeno river at night, I rested my head against the back of the seat and delivered myself up to the starry sky, which for the first time, didn’t look like a sequined tent roof, but rather like the dimensional space it really was. I could feel the space between the planets and stars, flung far and near. I felt myself just a small being, plastered to the side of the planet, looking over the balcony of earth into infinity.

You have asked the students of SUNY Adirondack’s International Education course 204 (INT 204) to explain what we learned about the culture of Ecuador and how the experience changed us. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that teachers ask us to sum up and categorize things which are beyond words. We learn by telling a story, but we also know that the telling of the story changes the shape of what happened, rendering it lost, in a way. One way or another, the experience dissolves, the traces it leaves in us sometimes indecipherable.

Emotionally, on this trip, I went into a wordless place, where I took copious notes on everything I saw and heard, but could think of little to say to the other people on the trip. I listened to people talking on the bus and wondered what they were talking about.  I know, when I’m in this space, that big shifts are going on somewhere deep in my mind, but they rise in their own time, not on command. I came on this trip to feed my imagination since so much of my writing seems to stem from my year and a half in Chile when I was between the ages of eleven and thirteen.

I grew up traveling, embedded in cultures different from my own, so this was not an entirely new experience. But it has been nearly 30 years since I’ve left the country. I was excited to see the Andes again, because the mountains, volcanoes and rain forests of Chile had carved a space in me that nothing else could fill.

Before the trip, I had reviewed some of the Spanish I had lost over the last 30 years, and as we traveled around the country I found myself entering first that confused space where my English began to wither as my Spanish returned. Then, I’d alternate between moments of a sudden ability to speak in complete sentences and a complete inability to speak in either English or Spanish. Often, I’d search for the Spanish word for something, and it would appear in my mind as if by magic. Other times I had to ask.

At the end of the trip in Quito, I had an elemental conversation at the Indian Market with a woman from Loja, the southernmost province of Ecuador. I was buying a black and white designed plate that was different from everything else I’d seen and which reminded me vaguely of Acoma pottery, as well as a small wooden mask of a fox. I said in Spanish, “I’m crazy. I’ve been buying too many things.”

“But think of the good memories you’ll have when you look at them,” she said.

Otavalo Market

We Americans descend on the Otavalo market eager
to spend, hoping to capture
a piece of Ecuador
forever. We buy
prisms of color woven into fabric,
stories rolled into clay fingers,
night creatures carved into wood masks.
Here philosophy spirals onto gourds,
and the confetti of life is painted in petals
on bowls and spoons
in carnival colors.
We try to buy the stray smile
of the Otavaleña, or wisdom that has guided deft hands
along Intiñan, the pathway of the sun,
to reap corn under the volcanoes
for five thousand years,
only to find, when we open our suitcases back
home, that all we brought back
were things.


I felt guilty about my American display of materialism and of the hole I made in my family’s bank account as I went into a buying frenzy the first three days of the trip. That is something I’d do differently if I had to do it again, wait until the end of the trip to buy, and buy less. On the other hand, I felt good about paying these artisans, who had been doing their work for thousands and thousands of years, as we saw in The Museo Casa Del Abado in Quito that very first day. Clay and stone figures from the Valdivia, the Tolita, the Guangala, the Manteño, the Napo, and the Jama Caoque manifested intricate world views and rituals.

Diego Vidal, who I will forever think of as Diego “Indiana Jones” Vidal.

Diego, our gracious host who was constantly generous with his copious knowledge, pointed out an accordion figure carved by the Valdivia from stone 4000 years ago. A figure of a man was carved on either end. His head was a big square and his eyes were wide and large, like an owl. The ridges between front and back, Diego said, represented all the different dimensions we live in through time. The largeness of the head symbolized a big spirit. Visiting the markets felt a little like that.

These same people from thousands of years ago had accordioned themselves through the rise and fall of the Incas, the rise and fall of the Spanish, and no less than twenty different constitutions as the country of Ecuador birthed itself, and here they still are, dressed in their embroidered blouses, wrapped in skirts and tightly woven belts, telling their stories, weaving, painting, carving and making their art.

  Returning to grounds that were both literally and figuratively similar to Chile was stirring in a wordless way. I was delighted to see that little had changed. People still sold quail eggs on street corners from makeshift tin stands, and knit sweaters with their babies wound to their backs with scarves, and school children still wore navy uniforms. After eight days of wide-eyed wonder, I found myself growing emotionally sensitive as the some of the students formed cliques.

On an episode of her podcast show, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talked about how we have two selves, our social selves and our essential selves. I think because I’ve traveled so much, my social self has not been one I could rely on – because social behaviors are transient, temporary and sometimes random. Living at the edge of so many different cultures, landscapes and income brackets may have demanded that I live and operate from my essential self—the self that endures no matter what the surroundings, no matter what language you’re speaking, no matter where you are.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been waiting for the wordless thoughts to form into thoughts with words so I could answer the questions your assignment posed, Finally, I realized that was just going to have give you this kaleidoscope or collage of thought. I struggled just now with the spelling of kaleidoscope, because on the trip, I had ventured pretty far into Ecuadorian spelling…. the “k” sound is usually spelled with “que,” the “wa” sound is either spelled “gua” or “hua,” and a jaguar is pronounced yaguar, and the “I” sound is spelled “ai.” In big ways and small, the trip continues to reverberate.

One of of the many, many murals painted in every town and village.

What stood out for me the most tour of Ecuador was the country’s geographical and cultural diversity. About twice the size as New York State, it has 3 million less people than New York, yet, geographically, it has some of the most active volcanoes in the world, and at least five distinct ecosystems, according to Diego, the high altitude páramo, the higher nival (tundra), the dry forest, the rain forest and the Chokó (the cloud forest?). Reports on the diversity of the population vary, with the Moon guide to Ecuador reporting that 25% of the population is indigenous, and Diego told us as much as 40% of the population is indigenous.

The indigenous people themselves are comprised of numerous different cultures. In addition, it has had a diverse political history, with no less than 20 different constitutions. This diversity is what I loved the most about Ecuador, I think. People dressed in a variety of traditional attire was a common sight in every city and town, from the Otavalo with their embroidered blouses and wrap-around skirts, to the other Andean Indians with their derby hats and shawls. Even though I got the distinct sense that there is still a great deal of tension between the mestizos and the more traditional indigenous people living in the Andes and the Amazon (as when an Ecuadorian visitor to the Tapir Lodge on the Cuyobeno told me this was her first time on the Amazon, and that most Ecuadorians don’t vacation here), the diversity of Ecuador seemed woven into is fabric at every level, like it’s woven into me.

For that reason I’d be hard put to say which part of the trip was my favorite part. Certainly the fruits we were introduced to us at the Alpaca Wasi, were as much a part of the magic of the country as was everything else: the passion fruit with its orange breakable shell, filled with a white sack of jellied seeds, or the tree tomato and goose berries, or the sweet, floral, custardy cherimoya, and the marshmallow fruit or guava that came in a long wide bean pod like those that hang off coffee trees or catalpa trees.

Or maybe what stood out most was eating lemony termites, or chewing on the bitter quinine bark of the calla brillo tree with our hawk-nosed guide, “Condor,” during our knee deep slosh through the swampy inlands of the rainforest. Or maybe it was spotting the Saqui money in tree branches, or listening to the careful Spanish of the red painted Curaca/Shaman who translated for us into his mother’s Siona language and his father’s Cofan, which sounded almost Chinese or like a bushman dialect from Africa. Then again the visit to Italo Espina’s house to see his “diablo” sculpture with Trump and Hitler in its mouth was a favorite, or the Indigenous village where we listened to the musician and then went to the weaving workshop, or the Paylon Del Diablo waterfall, or the cable car up to Pichincha, or the basket cable car across the chasm… we did so much!

I know that today, as I walk my dog, the sun is shining and a mythical wind is blowing, similar to the one on the high sweeps of Cotapaxi, only warmer. The cottonwood tree is shedding its seeds, which fall like fairy snow summer snow down. Through it, Saratoga Springs high school students drift homeward on their last days of the school year. Even though it’s beautiful here, I can’t help but think that the way the mountains and volcanoes rise about everything in Ecuador, literally overpowering the identical cinderblock constructions that sprawled like termite nests in the crevices of their volcanic arms, the way the black water of the Amazon is so smooth on top and so opaque that you can’t see what it hides, the way the Ceibo tree spreads its arms over all, makes it harder to forget that earth rules us, and that we are part of a mystery deeper than we can ever understand.

I really can’t put the whole trip into one unified message. All I can say is this:

Rapture to Raptor

After the spit and frenzy of buying,
We mount the bus triumphant,
Our bags bulging with “compras.”
We step past the tiny Otavaleña woman who
barely reached my chest
in black skirt, red head scarf, and gold beads,

her face creased and chipped,
like an old clay figurine,
her lips collapsed inward over her toothless gums.
She smiles, her eyes slanted slits.
She tilts her head,
presses her palms together and opens them,
splaying her crooked joints

We roar out of town,
leaving behind the farmer who leads four goats
down the street,
selling fresh milk from their udders.

Excitedly, we showcase our purchases to each other,
Laughing, pointing, congratulating and exclaiming.

Later, atop the mountain
at Condor Park,
Reina, the gray raptor, soars overhead.
She splays her edge feathers to navigate the gray sky,
carving a circle out of rain-pricked wind.
Again, and again, the falconer throws her over the wall
into the abyss between Cotacachi and Imbaburra.

Again and again,
she spreads her wings and rises,
sweeping us,
aching necks and all,
into silence.