Bees’ Knees Special Edition: What is Magical Realism? Colin Meldrum, Editor A CAPPELLA ZOO helps the Bees’ Understand What it Takes to be Magic.

1. How did A cappella Zoo come about? What lead to its creation?

I had this quirk as a kid that I always had to make my own of everything: my own greeting cards, my own birthday presents. I always loved reading, so it was only a matter of time before I started writing my own stories and novels and eventually assembling my own publication. It was a dream for many years, and then when I graduated with a creative writing degree, it all seemed possible. I started researching other serials and exploring the publishing community like crazy. I gathered up my savings, enlisted a handful of literary buddies, and dove in. To be honest, I really wasn’t sure what would happen, despite the fact that I had thoroughly covered all my bases. I ran into bumps here and there, but A cappella Zoo has always been about being open and flexible, so I was ready to adapt to what I learned along the way, and to grow quickly as a unique publication. When the submissions started rolling in, the feeling was unreal. It has all been incredibly rewarding.

And that name! Where did you find that musical title?

Everyone’s curious about the title! That was the first question shouted out at our debut issue’s release party. First of all, I was attracted to an animal-related title because animals play such interesting roles in literature, and particularly in a lot of magical realism (take “Cat and Goldfish” and “The Snake in the Throat” from our upcoming issue, for example). Stories and poems love to explore what it means to be human and how we interact with our surroundings, and animals are often key players in that investigation. Aside from that ambiguous animal element, to me “A cappella Zoo,” seems to be a collection of diverse, raw, honest voices. But I love to hear others’ interpretations of the title!

2. Your website advertises openings for a person to be a “reader” for A cappella Zoo. What would a reader do and how would this job help a writer grow?

During our reading period months (May & November), each reader reviews 5-10 submissions per week. We debate online which submissions are most memorable, the most ready for publication, and the most exciting contributions to our specific publication. Our current editorial board collaborates via the internet from six states, Canada, and Wales. This gives us some great diversity, which has helped A cappella Zoo grow in an interesting way.

Every bit of this process has been eye-opening for me as a writer, and the other board members have shared similar experiences. All of us were familiar with literature classes and used to dissecting and critiquing work that was already understood to be publishable or even classic, but learning to compare unpublished works and learning to articulate what in a piece of writing is working and what’s not working is a different experience. After reading several dozen submissions I often go back to my own story drafts and find that it’s much easier to “see” my writing for what it is, to view the story and language objectively. I think all writers who hope to be published should volunteer on editorial boards to gain that invaluable perspective.

3. According to your website, A cappella Zoo “is a print journal & ezine of magical realist & experimental writing…interested in shaking up traditional ideas and assumptions about truth and art.” In your editorial opinion, what is the best way for a writer to “shake up tradition”?

I think the best way to shake up tradition is to first be aware of all the stereotypes, clichés, and formulas that end up in your writing and then use them as tools rather than cookie-cutter puzzle pieces. In other words, use them consciously and purposefully to your advantage in order to take a route in writing that is either unexpected or that delivers a unique experience. Here are some examples:

A. During the process of writing, be aware of and contradict your own personal assumptions or pitfalls. I was halfway through a story recently when I realized that I was running into some gender stereotypes that were bogging the story down as flat and cliché. So I switched the sex of every character and sat on that for a few weeks. Part of the experiment worked – I ended up keeping half of the new gender assignments, including that of the protagonist, and the story felt much more organic.

B. Use a story as a vehicle for poking and prodding a societal assumption or pitfall. From our Issue 3, Alexander Weinstein’s “The Pyramid and the Ass” attacks our obsessions with technology, pornography, shortcuts, and capitalism. And your own poem, Nicelle, “Sideshow Serpentina: the Last of the Split-Tailed Mermaids,” flies in the face of the societal norm that we just don’t talk about the lonely, secret depths of our physio-psychological hungers.

C. Play with the definitions of “poem,” “short story,” etc. Drew Lackovic’s “Everything Ends” (from Issue 1) is told through corporate documents, footnotes, and emails, often with a reply to an email given before the original email, which made for quite an intriguing read.

D. Put faces to the old stories or generalizations that we take for granted. JS Simmons’ “The Bluebird” and Pete Pazmino’s “The Singing Bucket” (from Issue 3) are clearly inspired by popular poems and fairy tales, but they’re written with a contemporary, gritty, honest twist, fleshed out, rehashed, and personalized.

4. What are some examples of magical realism?

Generally, magical realism involves inserting something bizarre or magic into an otherwise realistic setting or situation. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most famous magical realists, and I especially love his classic story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” In it, some villagers come upon a winged old man on the beach. They wonder if he’s an angel, but he’s clearly sick and even has mites in his feathers. They take him in and turn him into a lucrative peepshow in a cage in their yard. When he gets well and escapes, they’re glad that this strange creature is finally out of their otherwise normal lives. No scientific explanation is provided, as in much of science fiction, and no new realm with its own laws of nature is revealed, as in much of fantasy.

While magical realism is quite common in many traditions of historical storytelling, like in mythologies, and still quite common in other parts of the world (for example, Kafka’s Metamorphosis), the genre is less traditional in American adult literature. Children’s literature, however, plays with it regularly. Many children’s books extend well within the realm of the fantastic without leaving our world or reality behind, such as The Giving Tree and Stuart Little. Like children’s fiction, adult magical realism often takes the supernatural for granted, as in another of Garcia Marquez’s stories, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” which focuses on the drowned man as an interesting, admirable person rather than on how the corpse could possibly be so perfect and preserved. Adult magical realism also seems especially concerned with the spectrum of human reaction.

A few clear-cut (and short) examples of magical realist stories we’ve published include Lydia Williams’ “Oven of Dreams” (Issue 1), Lesley C. Weston’s “Too Far the Sea” (Issue 2), and Roxane Gay’s “Requiem for a  Glass Heart” (Issue 3).

All that being said, not everything we publish is strict magical realism; in fact, we deliberately keep the definitions and boundaries loose to keep us diverse and to further juxtapose the realms of magic and realism.

5. What does Hybrid writing mean to you? How would you define it? What about hybrid writing excites you?

A hybrid is something taken from elements of two things that don’t “normally” go together. I suppose hybrid writing would most often be associated with combining genres or forms (such as in the prose poem), but the concept can be extended to any sort of writing experiment. Even a metaphor works to produce a hybrid, particularly when seemingly dissimilar things are “yoked by violence together,” as Samuel Johnson would say. This type of experimentation is so exciting to me because of the opportunity it presents to discover something: a new idea, a new feeling, or a new point of view.

6. I just ordered a copy of your novel-in-stories A History of Halves from http://www.colinmeldrum.com; could you give me a small preview of what I have to look forward to?

Well, speaking of hybrids! A History of Halves is an exploration of variation and what happens when the alleged polar opposites within dichotomies are fleshed out and forced to interact or even become one another. A lot went into it. It was immensely fun to write, and I’m sure it will be a rewarding puzzle to read. The book is a series of thirteen stories that follow the Earth-long survival, transformation, and apprenticeship of Echo. Echo and the teacher become the water serpent and firebird that are so important to so many cultures. The stories move from Mount Olympus to Mount Sinai, from the Great Wall of China to an Iranian Friday Mosque, from the Colombian cathedral Santuario de las Lajas to a near-future American dental chapel, and from the tomb to the womb, with just enough magic to blend myth and history. I hope you enjoy it!

7. In your editor’s profile you listed the novel Geek Love as a favorite read. What is it about this book that makes it great by your standards? (As a side note: I love Geek Love too!)

I love how Katherine Dunn took something bizarre, then made it more bizarre, then made the bizarre seem normal and what was “normal” seem strange and dangerous, and then subtly shifted into magic. While highly irreverent and progressively more and more shocking throughout, Geek Love manages somehow to focus on its characters, their humanity, and the intimate details of their everyday lives; they’re so real that I’m simultaneously in love with and terrified of all of them.

Please visit A cappella Zoo.

Also please visit Colin Meldrum to learn more about his upcoming publication.

2 thoughts on “Bees’ Knees Special Edition: What is Magical Realism? Colin Meldrum, Editor A CAPPELLA ZOO helps the Bees’ Understand What it Takes to be Magic.

  1. The sun’s colors lie over the darkening Coast Range,
    blue still high in the vault, black at the far edges,
    and as it settles over the mountain peaks a deeper red blazes, flickers,
    then exhausts itself into a shimmering yellow so translucent
    it becomes white, clear like water, and water runs through my fingers,
    our hands open wet with the thin membrane that separates us—
    we are burned by smoldering coals, then bleached
    into the thin yellow line of color we hold between us.

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