Kathleen Alcalá is the author of six books of fiction and non-fiction, including the three novels, Spirits of the Ordinary, The Flower in the Skull and Treasures in Heaven. Considered works of magical realism, the trilogy both tells a family history and reflects the realities of a Latinx family with deep roots in both the old world and the new.

Kathleen was born in California to parents from Mexico, and makes her home in the Pacific Northwest. With degrees from Stanford, the University of Washington, and the University of New Orleans, Kathleen is also a graduate and one-time instructor of the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop. She has been a guest professor at Seattle University and the University of New Mexico, and has held residencies at The Amerind Foundation, Hedgebrook, and Hugo House.

Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist by Kathleen Alcalá

Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist is a collection of 14 stories set in Mexico and the Southwest. Written in the tradition of magic realism, each is a story of transformation from one reality to another. They are arranged roughly in chronological order from adolescence to old age (and beyond).

Like the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, I have tried to tell the stories my characters would tell if they were writers. Most of the protagonists are women, some weak, some strong, but all driven by their connection to a power far more compelling than the restricted circumstances of their lives. Science fiction writer Joanna Russ told me my stories were important because I am writing about women whose stories would otherwise not be told.

I write about a culture in which miracles continue to flower in neglected inner courtyards, and old women grapple with the devil or converse with angels. Because these stories are difficult to classify by genre, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Calyx, a Journal of Art and Literature by Women, to Isaac Asimov's Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Half of them were published individually, and two nominated for the General Electric Young Writers Award.


Kathleen Alcala locates her stories in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, and like Rosalie Morales Kearns entwines realism and magic to produce a dreamy series of stories. – Silvia Moreno-Garcia



  • "Thoroughly satisfying."

    – New York Times Book Review
  • "This is a book of wonders. Each story unfolds with humor and simplicity and perfect naturalness into something original and totally unpredictable. Not one tale is like another, yet all together they form a beautiful whole, a world where one would like to stay forever. The kingdoms of Borges and Garcia Marquez lie just over the horizon, but this landscape of desert towns and dreaming hearts, of lost sisters and ghost scientists, canary singers and road readers, is Alcalá-land. It lies across the border between the living and the dead, across all the borders – a true new world."

    – Ursula K. Le Guin
  • "Kathleen Alcalá captures the essence of the magical realism in her work. Her stories convincingly move the reader from one reality to the other. Kathleen's craft illuminates the souls of her characters: the Mexican women who carry the universe in their hearts."

    – Rudolfo Anaya




There is a garden surrounded by a crumbling stucco wall where the flowers always bloom and the sound of running water is incessant. There is no time and all time. Cool shadows fall across the warmth of the courtyard, a later afternoon in late summer, a time for remembering. The people who wander through this garden – a bruja, an ugly young woman, and a woman as gracious to dead guests as live ones – find it is time to move on to another form of existence; for others, it is time to take control of the lives they have. Miracles flower in this neglected courtyard, and old women grapple with the devil or converse with angels. A priest seeks immortality through the smell of beauty, and the undertaker misses his own cue.

Like the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, I have tried to tell the stories my characters would tell if they were writers. Many of the stories concern the women who came of age in the United States within a Mexican social structure, surrounded by a pre-Columbian landscape and sensibility. I owe a special debt to Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer who gave voice to the blood-soaked earth of the Mexican Revolution and gave portrayed a people who endure. "La Esmeralda," the final story, goes back a little farther in time to people already bufffeted by the forces that will tear the country apart fifty years later.

These stories are about inner landscapes; they explore the invisible world behind the visible, and the characters who move in both worlds through the windows of dream and imagination.

This is the "interior" West that must accompany the exterior one, the cactus and gunsmoke reflection in an obsidian mirror. When the reader looks in that mirror, I expect her to see a room not the room in which she stands, a hint of roses in the air, or is it copal? the sound of the ocean that must be a thousand miles away, a piano, and empty cradle… where is the pianist? where is the baby? there are so many stories to tell….