Alberto Álvaro Ríos

Magical realism, both its study and its enjoyment, often comes to us now with a great deal of baggage.  We likely have ideas about it ahead of time, positive ones that suggest new directions for literature and for thinking about narrative, but negative ideas as well, ideas that often slight the work as being a literature of ghosts and tricks or somesuch, and perhaps not to be taken seriously.

What distinguishes what I would call genuine magical realism is that it derives from a life lived, not a life imagined.  In that way, it is news of us the same way any great literature is.  Indeed, Gabriel García Márquez is quoted by Gerald Martin in his new biography, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, as saying, “There’s not a line in any of my books which I can’t connect to a real experience.  There is always a reference to a concrete reality.”  Martin goes on to say about his subject, “This is why he has always asserted that far from being a ‘magical realist,’ he is just a ‘poor notary’ who copies down what is placed on his desk.”  So we begin, looking for our own ideas about magical realism, understood from the literature itself and the lives whose stories it tells.—AR

Course Sensibility

Abracadabra.  This word of medieval magic is traced to a mythical Persian sun god, summoned to the magician’s aid.  But also, in numerology its letters add to 365, so that it encompasses the entire year, and the powers of the 365 attendant spirits of the Lord.  It is not a corruption of the Cabalistic Hebrew habraha dabar, bless the object.

     This is one kind of magic word.





Celia Cruz, the great Cuban-American salsa performer, opened up all her concerts with this solitary word.  Not hello, not welcome, not ladeez and gennelmen.

¡Azúcar!  Here is another magic word.  This is the kind of magic word we will be using.  Saying this word became a benediction, an invocation, a summary judgment—all of these, all at once, gathered into that single declaration, sugar!  More than its literalness, the word was far eclipsed by its metaphoric extension: sweetness.  Celia Cruz shouting it was a moment of transformation, which was then the evening, which was then life itself, at least for that night.  It was a world view in half a second, forged by the invocation of a word.  It was a contemporary and real abracadabra, a word that leapt you from its sound to its taste.

This course will, essentially, attempt an understanding of the literature termed “magical realism,” or lo real maravilloso, translated literally from the Spanish as “the marvelous real.”

Further, the course will be a half-reading, half-writing, half-discussion class in which you will half-fun.  Since this is a course for writers, the act of examination will not consist of traditional tests, but of testing both the literature and ourselves by responding with creative, interesting writing and invention.  We will do this to better understand and show how the literature provokes rather than simply entertains.

We will not set out to imitate the literature, but to widen the road we ourselves travel—to find something in this literature of and for us, something inherently ours even as we look very far away.  And in that spirit we will together move in some remarkable directions.

I will ask as prerequisites a substantial literature and creative writing background and MFA or PhD status, unless some arrangement is made before the semester begins.  Any genre of experience is fine.  The class will be mixed-genre in approach, both in materials and responses.  Of course, the class will include writing but will reach far beyond it as well.

Each member of the class will be responsible for all books on the primary reading list and will formally introduce one, perhaps with a partner.  Further, you will be responsible for one book not on the reading list and that book’s author as well—or a topic related to that book.  I’ll ask that you prepare a short report on both the extra book and its author for the class.  You will also be asked to do one cultural topic presentation.  And, finally, you will be responsible for one (or two) song, which I will explain in class.  I will provide a secondary reading list and a list of cultural topics from which you may choose your presentation, or you can suggest one to me—but you must clear it first.  I will also supply the songs you will work with.  All readings will be in English, though some of you may choose to explore the original languages, which are primarily Spanish and Portuguese.  The course will cover some North American and Eastern European works, but Latin/South American writers will constitute the clear majority and emphasis.  We will also look to some early influences on this literature, particularly Surrealism and Dada.

In a word, this will be a class in “el boom.”  This is not to be confused with John Lee Hooker, who passed away not so very long ago, and his fine song “Boom Boom,” memorable in its own right for its uncompromising lyric: “Boom boom boom boom, boom boom boom boom....”  This is the recent Literature of, and a Welcome to, the New World.

Try this as a starting point: Monday, Sunday, Saturday, Friday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, and Monday.

You know the words, and you know the pattern.  But listening to these words backward: If that shakes us up, if that surprises us, imagine what else might be possible—all in the middle of what is absolutely familiar.  Possible and simple.

Looking at the days of our week in this way—nothing more mysterious or magical than backward—what is routine or mundane starts to look odd, almost misspelled, and not so easy to say.  Time as “regular” or irregular—this is a new, immediate way to think about time.  It’s things like this that we’ll be discussing and looking for.  Okay, Einstein thought about this, too.  The point is that Habit turned inside out will compellingly surprise us.

So begins the adventure of the New, made of what is Old.  Magic, maybe, out of the regular.  The magical, the marvelous, the real.  Or, the more or less real: We will as well explore approximate reality, heavy on the leeway.  Reality driving down the leeway freeway.  It is all in where we look, and even more so in the value we assign to that glance.

Don’t worry, or think that you are lost.  It’s too late.  In these worlds, you are never lost, because to be lost you need to know where you have been, which may not be where you thought.  You will not—cannot—get lost; you will, simply, always be somewhere.  Perhaps this requires a new kind of patience; but its reward, too, is a new kind of seeing.  This is the equation of writers.  This is the best poem, the best part of the story, the strongest moment in a play, the long note in a song: being somewhere.

Our job, out of all of this, will be uncomplicated.  Our plan will be to find movement in standing still.  This will be a wonderful class.   ###


“You see there are in our countries rivers which have no names, trees which nobody knows, and birds which nobody has described....  Our duty, then, as we understand it, is to express what is unheard of.”—Pablo Neruda


Alberto Álvaro Ríos


Department of English, Box 870302, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ 85287-0302 · 480-965-3800—office · 480-965-3168—department

©2015, Alberto Ríos.  Not for re-use without permission/attribution.

©2015 Alberto Ríos.  Not for re-use without permission/attribution.

“I admit that two-and-two-makes-four is an excellent thing, but if all things are to be praised, I should say that two-and-two-makes-five is also a delightful thing.”—Dostoevsky

“We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two.  We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about ‘and.’“—Sir Arthur Eddington

“Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.”—André Breton

“It is spring, the needle goes wild in the compass. . .”—Jacques Prévert