Magical Realism – Leslie Tate Interviews Joel D. Hirst

Below I am re-blogging an interview I did for Leslie Tate’s web site (where you can find the original). Leslie is an author and a poet and also blogs extensively, including about Magical Realism. From her site: “Leslie studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He has been shortlisted for the Bridport, Geoff Stevens and Wivenhoe Prizes and is the author of the trilogy, Lavender Blues: Three Shades of Love. Leslie runs a comedy club, a poetry group and a unique mixed arts show in his hometown of Berkhamsted, UK.”

Leslie: How did your childhood in Argentina contribute to your creative development? What experiences stand out most for you from that period?

Joel: Growing up overseas taught me that there are different ways to see things, and showed me how really diverse and remarkable the world is. I’m from Phoenix, USA, going from there to wandering around old Inca Indian ruins looking for pottery, looking for rock art high in the mountains and then going down to the jungles where the Guarani were involved in sacred rituals. It was the interplay between these worlds that made me thoughtful. I was also growing up there at the end of the military Junta, the Falkland wars and the messy transition to democracy. Politics – everything in Latin America is about politics, which is probably why my writing is so political. No facet of life: family, food, magic – is left untouched by the grasping totalitarianism that is widespread in Latin America.

Leslie: Since then, what are the seminal experiences that have influenced your work?

Joel: The single most important experience that affected my work has been my life in Venezuela. I lived there in the early 90’s, in the early and then the late 2000s. Seven years total. It was during this period that I watched Venezuela go from an unequal oligarchy to a communist dictatorship. But the way they did this – through the use of the magical and mystical to cement the authority of the dictators. It was during this time, especially the period of 2004 – 2008 when I was working there, supporting human rights and while watching the collapse of a democracy that I also picked up a copy of Atlas Shrugged. There it was, on the pages of a book written 60 years before by a Russian Jew living in California – everything that the government was up to. How could Ayn Rand have written with such precision what would have happened a hemisphere away and three generations in the future. That affected my work – the politics I’ve talked about before – the magic I experienced in Latin America all melded together in a style that is political but mystical; which nevertheless focuses all of it on the individual struggle to be free.

Leslie: Can you give an overview of your work in fiction and non-fiction, please? How is your work in these two areas related and/or discrete?

Joel: My most important non-fiction work is the first and only comprehensive review of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alliance. How Hugo Chavez set up a regional infrastructure to cement and advance communist dictatorships across the region. I wrote this during a year I took off, as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’ve also written chapters about similar stuff in multiple books: I’m a latinamericanist by interest and creeping authoritarianism has been the great issue surrounding Latin America for the last fifteen years. My fiction, however, is where I have more fun. Books on policy are a dime a dozen; that represent all the opinions across the spectrum. Limited readership, and the lack of creativity make these books dull – to read and to write. My editor once said “good writing trumps all” – I started writing fiction to try and tell the stories of real people – opinions and experiences about what it’s like living in these tumultuous times. There are no villains in my novels – although there are some heroes. Everybody is a rational actor, making decisions to advance his or her interests in the ways they believe will work. We all do this, everybody is a hero in his own mind. Nobody looks in the mirror and says “wow, I’m a real SOB”. I try to capture that. In my most recent novel, coming out in September I write about a Tuareg from Timbuktu who is radicalized through some personal mistakes; and deradicalized because he is human after all and starts to come to grips with the caliphate agenda. ‘The Making and Unmaking of a Jihadist’ – its full of magic too; Saharan, Muslim and Tuareg magic that overlaps in that arid desert. It comes from my 3 years living in Mali working on the peace process. Writing it has been my greatest challenge yet.

Leslie: Who (or what) are your most important creative influences? What have you learned from them?

Joel: I learned magic from Garcia Marquez (not 100 years, but more “Love in the Time of Cholera”) and Allende (Eva Luna). I learned about the power of the individual and the driving factor of the fight to be free from Ayn Rand. And I learned how to tell a story from W. Somerset Maugham and Pearl S. Buck. I suppose those are the greatest influences.

Leslie: Has bilingualism influenced how you write?

Joel: I speak French too. Yes, Spanish makes you think differently – even the basic way they construct sentences and develop ideas. My first novel The Lieutenant has been criticized for having rabbit trails and flashbacks and background stories. ‘Reality of Chavez’s Venezuela was lost’ is the criticism. That is an American way of looking at it – and one that I accept. In Latin American literature however one must weave in the richness of what makes the story come alive; and I have tried to incorporate that into my novels while at the same time respecting the beats and the plot movement necessary for American audiences to enjoy. I hope I succeeded. My new novel about Timbuktu “Lords of Misrule” tries to capture the immensity and antiquity of the Sahara and her Tuareg guardians; lots of colors and flavors. We have to write with all our senses. The interesting thing is that the French version (coming out simultaneously) is 13,000 words longer than the English. The simple translation from English (I write in English) added 15%; which is an example of how Latin based languages are a little more elaborate than English.

Leslie: What helps you to write most effectively? How do you create and maintain a ‘writerly’ persona for yourself?

Joel: It’s hard to bifurcate my mind from my day job which is very programmatic and administrative and the necessity to explore the deeper emotions in my writing. “You’re a great writer; but maybe you reveal too much about yourself” I have been told before – the realization that it maybe is because I allow myself to be vulnerable and reveal my inner tribulations that makes me write. But actually, the reality is that it is hard. What works best for me is to write early in the morning, right when I wake up before my mind is full of budget figures and personality conflicts and authority. When my mind is still clean from the morning – with a cup of coffee and silence. A recommendation, turn off the wifi when you write. The second you open a news report or check out social media, you will ruin the serenity you need to write.

Leslie: As a Magic Realist author, do you recognise any conventions that belong to the genre? If so, how do you use them and break them?

Joel: Its funny, magic realism I think doesn’t really have any conventions. And there are many who would argue that it is even a genre at all. Some would say it’s just a writing tool. At any rate, I use magical realism to capture that which in the world around us is not answered by the rational but which still gives people motivations or helps them make decisions. The best description I’ve heard of magical realism is “it is magical realism if, were you take out the magic, the plot and story would be the same. Everything else is fantasy.” That makes sense to me.

Leslie: What do you feel is your best work so far, and why?

Joel: My best work is the one that has just come out “Lords of Misrule” about a Tuareg Jihadist from Timbuktu. It is my best work because it is unique; trying to understand what makes someone become a terrorist. Because it is about a place that is magical and huge and old – a place many westerners don’t understand. It took me 2 years of research before I started to write. Learning about Tuareg traditions and culture. But, more importantly, about Islam. In my research I found a rational strain of Islam that was the protector of Aristotelian Greek philosophy, which worked to create the golden age of Islam before it was abandoned. Learning about Islamic theology was hard – but I have a degree in Christian theology and a lot of the struggles of these two disciplines are the same. The role of God in the world, the problem of pain and the limits of human responsibility as it relates to God’s omnipotence. But also, because it is a well written story – it is receiving the ‘Editor’s Choice’ award from my publisher.

Leslie: Why do you write?

Joel: I don’t write to lecture, to judge or to preach. I do write to show my interactions with the world around me, to make people human, and to make common cause with their struggles to be free. Individual freedom up against the desperation of poverty and misery and authority is the greatest human motivation and makes for inspiring and remarkable stories. I am always amazed by people that I meet in faraway lands – who have risked everything (and sometimes died) for their liberty. I write to honor them.

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The Untold Story of Cuba

Have you ever seen a painting so beautiful that it stops your heart for a second; reds and greens and golds imprinted upon your essence for eternity? Do you ever listen to a song that is so remarkable that you play and replay and replay it until you’ve memorized every word, and it becomes a part of you? Do you ever read a line in a novel that is so profound that you have to close the book and set it down, to sit in silence for a moment – staring at the wall, letting it sink into your consciousness?

Have you ever encountered a moment of fullness so complete that you know you could die and it would not matter? Has your heart ever surged with such a sense of expectation and impatience at what is to come that it is hard to sleep, to eat? Did your adolescent passion ever lift you atop a majestic wave of emotion – and hold you there for a time in stasis in what you imagined was transcendence? Have you experienced epic moments of victory when you were the world’s master?

And have you agonized over a loss that is so total that you are sure you will never recover – a colossal failure that will mark you for eternity? Has the loss of something like a celebrated love wrenched a hole in your heart too deep to fill? And has a lost opportunity robbed you of words and even tears?

I have had all of these, as I imagine that you have as well – you who are reading this.

So now I ask you, would you give up any of it? Would you forfeit the chance of great opportunity to stay the hand of failure? Would you walk away from that beautiful woman in fear that she will not be yours; settling for something more secure – safer? Would you wish that the heavenly restaurant did not exist – to salve the ire of not being able to eat there? Would you smash the $1000 bottles of wine, knowing that you might never drink of them? Would you stop writing the novels of your choice, to assure that those you hated were burned? Would you stop the songs? The poems?

Would you end the celestial banquet of human existence because it is not your fate to taste of every dish?

Now, further still – would you have all these decisions made for you, and then be told it was for your own good?

Neither would I.

I said I would write no more about the death of a tyrant. I lied. Well, perhaps only changed my mind. Because I read something yesterday – something that nobody in Cuba would be able to read. “The greatest evil of the tyranny” it said “was the theft of six generations of life.”


Credit: Demented Old Woman In Cuba Blog.

Of life

Forget the gulags and the concentration camps and the firing squads. Those are the stories that made the papers at least – stories that were told. No – the most important part of this tragedy is not what happened, but what didn’t happen. The novels that were not written, stories of beach and mountain and freedom and loss; the beautiful paintings that did not come to be, which in turn did not inspire abounding love – the love of storybooks. The cuisine that was not refined; the businesses that did not provide for families; inventions that do not help humanity; diseases that were not cured.

The life that was not lived.

This – for me – is the greatest tragedy of all. We have this life at our fingertips, those of us from America. To a greater measure than others; but even those from Panama, or Chile, or Paraguay can see that which they wish to attain. They can uncork the $1000 bottle of wine and dream of the day they will sit in front of the sheer white tablecloth and drink deeply. They can read the novel, and imagine how they would make the stories unfold, improving them. They can look at the girl across their own malecon and imagine how they will win their fortune and then come for her.

None of these things have been imagined – for six generations – in Cuba.

For those of us who are writers, the unwritten story of Cuba is the saddest of all.


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Fidel is Dead

How many times have we heard those words before? The morbid death-watch for this ailing tyrant has seemed eternal, hasn’t it? Turns out this time it’s true. So much has been written about Fidel. So much will be written. The words ‘Fidel Castro’ were trending on twitter all day yesterday. The leaders of the free world were falling all over themselves to express their remorse for the death of a man who once asked Khrushchev to nuke Miami and Washington D.C.


I’ve never really understood the love affair with Fidel. To be sure, during the heady days of revolution I imagine it could have been easy for the weak minded to get caught up. But as the ‘Cuban Revolution’ became increasingly a geriatric club – an old-folk’s home for the wicked – I have become increasingly baffled.

They talk about universal education and health care – the apologists of absolutism do to justify their fawning. Don’t they know that the ‘education’ is mostly repeating memorized slogans from El Che (the T-Shirt mogul)? Sure, Cubans can read. So can everybody else in Latin America – the difference being that in other countries people can choose what they want to read. I mean, let’s be honest, if Cuba had sent a man to the moon, invented the driverless car, created the internet, solved world hunger; produced great diplomats or engineers or scientists. Made anything at all besides a few whiny ‘protest’ songs and the fostering of a sixty year hemispheric temper tantrum – I suppose I’d be a fan too. And their health care – not what it’s cracked up to be. Oh, don’t take my word for it, ask Hugo Chavez (oh, right. You can’t…).

So what really was Fidel’s Cuba? A huge tick – sucking blood for sixty years. First, during the years of the Soviet Union, turning the country into a client state of that defunct system for a few billion dollars a year; enough to keep people fed, well mostly. Then the USSR fell and the tick crawled elsewhere in the desperate search of lifeblood – and those were terrible years, called the “Periodo Especial” in Cuban nomenclature (google it). Rickets, nutritional-deficiency-induced blindness. Starvation. Then along came Hugo – a product of the temper tantrum that paid huge dividends, and the tick latched on. Until Venezuela dried up – this article is the most poignant I’ve ready for a while. But I also wrote one that went viral, “The Suicide of Venezuela” that could have as easily been called a homicide, perpetuated by warden Fidel.

So the dictator is dead. But Cuba is not yet free. That’s happening more these days; the tyranny abides long after the tyrant is dead. I blame the apologists – yes it might even be your fault too, you who have said ‘Ya, but they do have good health care’. So we – those of us who believe in freedom – will keep fighting the geriatric despotism until the Cuban people can choose their religion, the books they read and the countries they visit and the jobs they love and the movies that give them joy. Till they can own property and invest to build a life for their children and themselves. Till they can be free.

And that’s all I have to say about Fidel.

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“Fidel And The Goat”: An Excerpt from “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio”

Reblogging this excerpt from “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio” about Fidel – fitting for this day.

Joel D. Hirst's Blog

In honor of all the media attention these days on a bankrupt totalitarian island, here’s an excerpt from “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio“.

One day Fidel had been walking down a dirt road not far from Havana when he had come across a goat, with the name Esteban scrawled on a sticker around its neck.  Looking at his register of the farms adjacent to the road he saw that there was no reported goat among the meager possessions of the farmers.  But the goat was beautiful, and since he was the fearless leader he knew he had the right to anything he saw in his path, especially unregistered goats.  He went to pick up the goat, to carry it back to his 1950’s American made military jeep that he’d seized from the house of Batista, having watched the former dictator drive the car he really wanted – the fantastic…

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El Teniente de San Porfirio, crónica de una tragedia de la Venezuela socialista

Por Carlos Vilchez Navamuel Hace unas semanas me enviaron un libro de regalo, llevaba meses de no sentarme a leer como solía hacerlo antes, esto de la Internet y las redes sociales han hecho que mi…

Source: El Teniente de San Porfirio, crónica de una tragedia de la Venezuela socialista

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Leopoldo’s 1001 Nights

1001 nights. Of course our mind goes naturally to that most famous of collections; stories from the Islamic Golden Age. Opulence and intrigue and exotic luxury. Leopoldo Lopez’s 1001 nights have, unfortunately, been much less grand.

Leopoldo Lopez is the world’s most emblematic, yet still somehow unknown, political prisoner. Lopez was arrested 1000 days ago, after the February 12, 2014 rioting against President Nicolas Maduro’s increasingly totalitarian regime prompted him to start a popular non-violent movement called #LaSalida (‘The Exit’ in Spanish). A warrant was issued for his arrest – he was charged with vandalism and rebellion – and on February 18, 2014 he surrendered himself to the ‘authorities’ (I use that word extremely loosely). On September 10, 2015 he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for “subliminal messaging” (meaning they couldn’t find anything he’d said that matched up with the charges), in a trial that was not public, that violated the constitution, and which the prosecutor (who fled to the US – from a guilty conscience) said was completely preposterous – a sham.


The world has closed ranks to call for Lopez’s release. Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Foundation, Amnesty International have all declared his incarceration illegal. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called it, well arbitrary. President Obama demanded that his captors let him go; as has Ban Ki Moon. This October the Dalai Lama tweeted in support of Leopoldo.

Lopez has had a rough time of it. As the regime’s prize hostage – and their greatest bargaining chip – he’s been assaulted. Has his room tossed pretty often. Been placed in solitary confinement. Had to go on a hunger strike. Been drenched with human excrement. Had Hugo Chavez’s speeches blared at him in an endless loop. Has been denied visitation rights and his wife is invasively strip-searched every time she wants to visit him.

There are those who would say Lopez is not Mandela. But of course Mandela didn’t start out Mandela – he became Mandela; through decades of suffering, and patience. I honestly hope Lopez doesn’t have to go through that – becoming Mandela – but he seems perfectly willing. He rejected the offer, upon his surrender, to let him flee. He again rejected being offered his freedom in exchange for calling off the opposition’s recall referendum. His defiance is laudable.

I’ve met Lopez a bunch of times. A few times in Venezuela when I was working there. The last time was at a presentation at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC, maybe in 2011 or 2012. Always, he was warm – engaged. He remembers people; the mark of a charismatic leader, he engages and has a good mind for details and makes people feel important. One of his ancestors – Simon Bolivar – also had that trait, it is said.leopoldo-2

I think of Lopez often. His son is the same age as mine; and while I’ve watched mine sit up, crawl, walk, speak and sing and laugh and dance; Leopoldo has missed all these things. The regime stole them from him – these, the most formative years of a little boy’s life.

Leopoldo’s 1001 nights.

Porfirio CoverI did write a novel – well not about him, but certainly inspired by him and the others who sit in jail. “The Burning of San Porfirio”; a political prisoner released from jail after thirty years to wander the wasteland of a country that forgot who he was. Its fiction – my novel; but it is dedicated to Leopoldo and his sacrifice. It is my way of honoring him – in the only way I know how.

1001 nights; that is a long time. Lets hope it is almost over.

Meanwhile, be free, Leo. If only in your own mind – close your eyes to walk down the quiet dirt paths of your land, bathed in sunshine and adorned by fragrant flowers. Listen to the quiet calls of the turpial in the trees above; looking down on you in gentleness. Let the energy from the endlessly pounding waves of the beaches – the beaches of your country – radiate upward and fill your waiting with purpose and energy and strength. Breathe deeply of the fragrance of your home, Leo – the one that you are fighting for with every unfree breath you take. They cannot take this from you; nor can they deny what your fight has meant to the rest of us. Be free, Leo, be free.

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No, NYT, Mea Culpas Ain’t Gonna Cut It

Peggy Noonan and Mary O’Grady.

Those are the only two writers for a print daily that rational people would spend hard earned money to read. Even George Will went off the deep end this year. Of course, Mr. New York Times Executive Editor, that leaves you with a problem. Namely, neither Noonan nor O’Grady write for the Times.


Alas – what to do?

First, let me tell you what not to do. Don’t write a half-baked “we blew it”; pretending that your error was akin to forgetting an ingredient or two in a recipe for cookies in your homemaking section (if that still exists – I don’t read the Times). You used your hard-built reputation to try and torpedo the candidate of a major political party in the most important democracy in the world by writing lies, half-truths, and spin worthy of or one of the other online rags, of which we expect no better. Worse still, you failed. Own it. Second, don’t send Nicholas Kristof scampering off to discover warm water; writing about how amazed he is at realizing that universities are biased to the left, and intolerant to evangelicals (granted, this article was from May). It looks disingenuous; which is only slightly better than looking downright lost. It also isn’t helpful to deploy Frank Bruni to write a piece about how we conservatives are hurt and confused – trust me, we are neither.

So, again, what to do? You could resign. There isn’t enough of that in American culture, I’ve always felt. When David Cameron royally botched #BREXIT, he had the courtesy to walk away. Saved his party from having to try and figure out what to do with him; and it empowered the British people to own their decisions. Most importantly, it was good faith – because everybody, including the former Prime Minister, knew that he could not put his whole heart into #BREXIT; he didn’t believe in it. Same thing happens quite often in Japan, Israel – and a lot of other places, when you lose the confidence of your constituents. In the case of the Times, let’s call them – oh how about customers, those you tried to bamboozle. Barring that gesture, at least – Mr. Executive Editor – you could bring on some writers from different points of view. Because – let’s be honest – Krugman will never be able to fairly cover classical liberal economics; neither will Friedman give due merits to the current Jacksonian isolationist trends.

Heck, I’d take a job – that would be fun, if I would be allowed to write what I know to be true.

Oh, and stop your news reporters from editorializing. If we wanted spin, we’d take a class.

Finally, let me digress for a moment. Because I think it’s important that you know, Mr. Executive Editor, that it’s not condescension we’re looking for. It’s not that you’re right – and we’re just too stupid to realize it; and it will take time and you’d better be sensitive to our ignorance while we “get there.” It’s that, just as you think you’re right, we know that we are. How to build prosperity; how to construct a country that is fair and just and honest; how to end wars and increase prosperity. How to stitch a social fabric that is vibrant and inclusive and that stands the test of time. These things you have failed to do – but we know how to do them. Let us. Take it from me – at least – whose credentials you should recognize. I have a Masters Degree from one of your elite universities. I was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I, with another 2% of applicants, passed the grueling Foreign Service Officer admissions process (a job I turned down for the same reasons I don’t read the Times). I am a polyglot; an internationalist – well traveled; and with more foreign policy successes under my belt than a roomful of diplomats. A published writer, including three novels in three different languages and a viral blog (this one).

Oh, and incidentally I’m a believer in classical liberal “Austrian” economics; I’m pro-life; and a creationist – and a proud graduate of Moody Bible Institute.

We are all Americans, Mr. Executive Editor. We may not agree on much; but this grand patch of earth is a land that we fought for – that I have bled for. That I call home, just as you do. That I mourn for – that I believe in. And that I love. My faith is very much a part of all of that. My grandpa was a preacher; ministering to people in out-of-the-way places; making his communities better. My parents, missionaries. These are not beliefs I cling to, but that nourish me and provide me a foundation from which to understand how to build a world more abundant, and reach for the stars. You may think we are wrong – but so we to you. Are we at an impasse? I don’t know – why don’t you listen to us more; maybe you’ll learn something. And then, somehow, we can chart a path together – like we used to.

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