Student Engagement

Young Writers Embrace Magical Realism (Remembering Gabriel García Márquez)

May 20, 2014 Updated April 30, 2014
Photo credit: Muladar News via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Garcia Marquez was probably the most famous Spanish-language author since his 1969 novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was published. He died less than two weeks ago in his home in Mexico City at the age of 87.

While an undergrad student, I read Solitude and immediately followed it with, Love in the Time of Cholera -- both books taking me on a journey of mystical imagery, humor, and the unexpected. His stories are written in a style commonly referred to as magical realism. Considered by many as the maestro of magical realism, García Márquez (and those who write in this style) create fiction that combines the everyday with a healthy dose of the fantastical, for instance, the sudden ascending to heaven of a woman hanging her laundry on a clothesline or an elderly homeless man with buzzard-like wings.

During my second year teaching at an urban public high school, I chose to read García Márquez' short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings with a creative writing class. It was a tough group as it was an elective, one that many of the students had not chose but were enrolled in by their counselors. Disappointed, they didn't hesitate to tell me (often) they had wanted art, music, or computers instead and that, frankly, they were not down with having "a second English class."

Using Mentor Text

So I spent the first few months experimenting with various writing assignments and readings. It was a struggle. I learned early on that finding engaging and culturally relevant text was crucial. (They did not want anything to do with reading The Hobbit. Fair enough.)

Sometime before winter hit, I decided to give Enormous Wings a try. In it, the old man, maimed, can no longer fly and is discovered by a couple who take him in. His arrival causes a great stir in their small town and many come to see him, hoping he can perform miracles (he can't). Drama ensues, including the sudden arrival of a "freak show" which draws visitors away from the man. Then one day, he suddenly spreads his wings and flies away.

I had followed the hunch that this mysteriously weird yet touching story would pique the ninth- and tenth-graders' interests. It did. After reading the story together, we discussed it at length.

Some of what we admired together:

  • blending the fantastical with the everyday
  • the turn of events
  • use of dialogue so as "to show" not tell readers
  • the humor

Then something unexpected happened. Their writing exploded.

The piece had served as a mentor text. In their writing, students embraced the literary elements García Márquez used to take his audience on a ride filled with imagery that dripped from all sides of the page.

Crafting Their Stories

The assignment was to create a short story using magical realism elements and literary devices found in the mentor text. As they wrote, students revised, talking about their ideas and sharing their drafts with classmates then adding imagery, dialogue and more vivid, descriptive language. I remember one student, Ramon, wrote about a very real situation in his apartment complex where a man would frequently yell at his wife and all the people living in the building felt sorry for the woman and concerned. In his story, Ramon described how the woman discovered she was telepathic and was able to see her husband's temper floating above his head before he'd lose it. She left him quickly after that, using her telepathic powers as she traveled throughout the country with "Mind Reader for Hire" painted on the side of her van.

Another student wrote about a delivery man with a tail, while another told the account of a child who could run as fast as a high speed train, and another, a girl with gigantic feet -- all of whom were integrated into the everyday that the students observed and experienced firsthand. Some stories had an obvious moral, some did not, though the author's purpose was always clear: to entertain, to surprise, to both shock and delight readers.

Thank you Mr. García Márquez, for inspiring my students to write like they had never written before.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Literacy
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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