Kathleen Alcalá


Macondo as a State of Mind

Once upon a time I came across a book called One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. First published in 1967, it was translated into English in 1970. It’s overwhelming success heralded the translation of much more work from Spanish, once American publishers realized what a gold mine lay at their doorstep.

For the first time, I read about families like mine – great passions, impossible family expectations, and nonsensical yearnings for something bigger than a town like Macondo – or San Bernardino. I knew my mother would enjoy it, and found a paperback copy in Spanish that I sent to her. Yes, she said, it was so much like her family stories from Mexico. Later, I gave a copy to my future husband, to make sure he was willing to be part of this adventure.

I was in graduate school at the University of Washington when someone first called my work magical realism. I had never heard the term. But I attended a production of Blood Wedding, by Federico García Lorca, and the program included an article and reading list by a professor in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures. Here was a world I recognized, books by people whose humor and tragedy did not need to be translated. I understood them, because they were mine. That earlier book by García Márquez, it turned out, was part of a much larger tradition, the one in which my family told stories.

Along with James Joyce, who saw art as “the cracked lookingglass of a servant,'' Thomas Pynchon’s hallucinatory world, Virginia Woolf, and science fiction writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, I continued to read Latin American fiction as I worked on my own stories. Here I found permission to bend the meanings of words, or leave situations ambiguous, or let my characters miss their appointments with death. Professors like Charles Johnson and Joanna Russ set my imagination loose. Margarita Donnelly, then Managing Editor of Calyx Books, welcomed me with open arms and published my first book, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist. Having grown up in Venezuela, she knew exactly what I was talking about.
This gave me the courage to tackle the novel form. Meanwhile, some of my colleagues managed to set off a little boom in the United States. Ana Castillo, Luis Alberto Urrea, Denise Chavez and others found their voices along the paths provided by García Márquez. Sandra Cisneros even named her writing program in San Antonio, “Macondo,” after his mythological town. After all, Macondo is really a state of mind in which anything is possible.

García Márquez built a cast of characters he could call on from one book to the next. Each novel introduced us to a new aspect of his world, another commentary that could be something outrageous, or nothing at all. Or maybe it meant exactly the opposite of what he seemed to have said.

With each new book, thousands of readers argued over thousands of cups of coffee, beer, or wine as to what, exactly, he meant. It was important, because we saw ourselves in those books. We were the virgins and the old men with enormous wings. We were the dictators and the nuns, the jealous lovers and the lonely spinsters. We are the yellow butterflies. García Márquez understood that we all have elements of the irrational and unexplained in our lives; just because we cannot explain something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Irrational dreams are what keep many of us going.

His secret to writing magic realism was simply, "I say extraordinary things in an ordinary tone. It's possible to get away with ANYTHING as long as you make it believable."
We owe García Márquez a great debt for providing “the largest diamond in the world,” the multifaceted mirror of his work, held up to reflect all aspects of the human condition.

Selected Works

From the early literature of the Americas to the late 20th Century
Creative Nonfiction
Essays on Family and Writing

The Desert Remembers My Name makes an important contribution to discussions of ethnicity, identity, and the literature of place.”
Bloomsbury Review
"...a mesmerizing tale... the author explores the fascinating confusions and contradictions plaguing a culture precariously poised between tradition and modernization."
"She never forgot the power of storytelling as testimony."
The Utne Reader
"Kathleen Alcalá's Spirits of the Ordinary is an enthralling book..."
–Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Books

"This book entered my dreams."
–Alberto Rios
Short Fiction
"Thoroughly satisfying."
The New York Times Book Review

"By turns touching, entertaining, and surprising, and uniquely her own."
Publishers Weekly

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