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  Features 05/04/02

Studies in 'magic realism' keep the pot boiling for master's student

By Hilary Ingoldsby

"When she first felt his hot gaze burning her skin. She turned her head, and her eyes met Pedro's. It was then she understood how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil. The heat that invaded her body was so real she was afraid she would start to bubble¨her face, her stomach, her heart, her breasts¨like batter, and unable to endure his gaze she lowered her eyes and hastily crossed the room. . ."

Passion described through food. Passion transmitted through food. The use of magic realism in Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

Carey Emmons, a graduate student in American literature studies, first became interested in magic realism when she read Like Water for Chocolate. Emmons said she quickly became fascinated with the combination of fantasy and dreams in the book and others like it. Books with magic realism commonly have people coming back from the dead, riding flying carpets, transmitting emotion in different ways and, as shown above, receiving passion from food as easily as catching a food-borne illness from under cooked meat and a variety of other supernatural events .

English professor Andrea Tinnemeyer, Emmons' adviser, said "There is no checklist to determine that a work is or is not magic realism." The online encyclopedia at defines magic realism as "Latin-American literary phenomenon characterized by the matter-of-fact incorporation of fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction."

In the novel, Tita, a young woman growing up in Mexico, is not allowed to marry the man she loves and who loves her. He marries Tita's sister in order to still be close to her. To show her emotion Tita cooks and serves the family food that transmits her passion or anger. In one scene Pedro brings Tita a flower, which she later uses in a dish she cooks for the family. Her passion for Pedro is transmitted to all members of the family leaving them all "horny," Emmons said.

"Oh, it's a hilarious novel. It challenges what was typically female literature," Emmons said.

As Emmons' interest in magic realism grew her focus narrowed to the use of magic realism in books written by Latin American women, highlighting Esquivel. In the last three years Emmons said she has probably read more than 100 books and at one time was ordering at least three books a week through inter-library loan. Emmons even attempted to get in contact with Esquivel but never got past her publicist. Emmons kept plugging away at anything she could get her hands on so she could start writing her thesis.

"You just have to read everything so you can pick what it is you think and want to say, compared to what others are saying about the subject and make sure you're not repeating anyone," Emmons said.

Emmons believes that the use of magic realism has allowed Chicana women to create a new voice for themselves in their literature. Magic realism has been popular since the 1950s but it wasn't until at least 20 years later that women writers started getting noticed for their use of the form of literature. Magic realism allows the Latin American female authors to "revise history" by giving the women in the novels more power than they or have now, Emmons said.

"So many Chicana women want equal rights and autonomy, but are stuck in a paradigm of saint or whore. They are very stuck in their roles of a patriarch society so in ways they fight to preserve that structure , but write in ways to get out," Emmons said.

The attention magic realism has drawn to Latin American women authors is also important. Like Water for Chocolate was turned into a movie by Esquivel's husband at the time and became popular in the United States. The movie helped bring attention to Latin American writers and literature even though many Americans see Mexico as third class or a "bastard country," Emmons said.

Emmons had the opportunity in February to spend a week in Mexico and gain a greater understanding of the society Chicana authors are trying to revise through magic realism. Emmons, a tall blonde in her mid-twenties, found herself uncomfortable as she stayed with a Mexican family and the woman of the house cooked for the guests and waited on them.

"It's so interesting to see it in play outside of the books. I'm this woman from the United States who feels liberated and comes from a more feminist society so it was like stepping back into another century," Emmons said. Tinnemeyer agrees that her Emmons' experiences in Mexico will benefit her research.

"Having a panoramic view of Mexican literature and culture on both sides of the border will enable her to contextualize the novels of Laura Esquivel in a responsible and thoughtful manner," Tinnemeyer said.

The large part history plays in Chicana writing has also been important to Emmons research.

"I've learned how important history is. You can't study anything outside of history. You have to know the background," Emmons' said.

Emmons will present and defend her at- least 60 -page masters thesis on May 17, which just happens to be her birthday. A committee off three professors will analyze and question her about her work.

"Carey's investigation of the national and gendered aspects of magic realism in the novels of Laura Esquivel will do much to reframe the genre [of magic realism]," Tinnemeyer said.

And to celebrate her completion of three years of work? Disneyland?

"I'm going to Moab. I'm planning a lot of fun trips for the summer," she said.

And after Moab? Although she once pictured herself in a power suit and high-heels in Washington, D.C. , Emmons said she would now love to teach literature. However, she said it is more likely she'll end up a "masters- degree -holding waitress" until the market for professors improves.



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