Getting Acquainted with Magical Realism

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I first came across the term magical realism a few years ago when I was looking for the genre that would best describe a work of short fiction I had begun.

My story was set in the real world. It was realistic in its depiction of events. There were no overtly supernatural or fantasy elements. But there was a mood and an atmosphere that could only be described as uncanny. There were characters who seemed to suggest the mysterious in subtle and curious ways. There were events which I planned to include in future scenes that would be read as miraculous or magical, even though the characters within the story would perceive them as ordinary and entirely acceptable.

This was the kind of storytelling that my soul wanted to tell, and now I had a name for it.

Up to that point, I had written mostly poetry, and this story had a lyrical quality to it as well. So when I read through the many attempts to define magical realism, I was amused to come across one that described it as “a poetic denial of reality” (Arturo Uslar-Pietri).

You may come across several definitions of the genre. It can be tricky to definitively describe it. No one definition is all-encompassing. Alberto Alvaro Rios has put together a good online resource for this genre with a collection of working definitions by scholars and authors.

I’m coming from the point of view of a writer, so one of the definitions I find most useful is from A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory:

[In magical realism we find] bizarre and skillful time shifts, convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous uses of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic description, arcane erudition, the elements of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable.

Another description which intrigues me is:

[Magical realism is] an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite.” (from Twentieth-Century Spanish American Literature)

7 Key Facts About Magical Realism:

  1. A variation of the term was first used in 1925 in reference to German art.
  2. In 1955, critic Angel Flores used the term in an essay, sparking interest in literature which portrayed magical elements in a realistic way.
  3. Latin America is considered the origin of magical realism, but many non-Hispanic authors categorize their work as magical realism. It has been adapted to fit many cultures and is now an international genre.
  4. The authors that are most representative of the genre are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Salman Rushdie, and Toni Morrison.
  5. There are many popular authors whose works feature magical realism. Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, and Alice Hoffman are among the most prolific. There are also several authors who would not have called themselves magical realists but have written isolated works that contain elements of magical realism, including Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Orlando by Virginia Woolf.
  6. Magical realism can be found in film as well. Examples are Pan’s Labyrinth and Birdman. 

Characteristics of Magical Realism:

  • Real world setting, ordinary characters
  • Magical elements can involve time, place, events, or characters, as long as the work maintains realism.
  • The writing style is typically literary.
  • A theme of fate, without too much emphasis on elaborate prophecies or chosen ones or other fantasy elements
  • Meaning (can be spiritual)
  • Subtlety
  • Magical elements are described in a matter-of-fact way.
  • Myths and folktales from a particular culture are often incorporated.
  • Political/social themes or criticism are common.
  • Ambiguity: The reader wonders whether the magical elements are real or not. Are they just psychological? Are they metaphors?
  • The journey of the hero or heroine is often passive–waiting, wandering, wondering. A mystery initiates the journey. It usually hints at a void in their life. It’s not always resolved.

Every Monday I would like to try and focus on this genre as I become more acquainted with it. I will be writing fiction (and poetry) in the genre, as well as reading stories that use elements of magical realism. 

My current to-be read (TBR) list in this genre includes:

~One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
~The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
~The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman
~the first book in the series by Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale

Wealth Management

Need a safe room?
For diamonds? Family heirlooms?
For gold and guns?
Deeds?
Winning lottery ticket
to hide from fawning relations?
Rare paintings?
None of these?

Unless they blind you,
or cut off your hands,
or put you in solitary,
can’t you still make
a cup of tea for pennies?

Until they set up a Payday Loans
where the library used to be,
can’t you always find good books?
Pens? Paper?
Opportunity?
Can’t you wake to sunrise?
Watch it set?
Listen for the winds of change?
Pet a cat?
Smell the coffee?
Forget?

{It’s still poetry month…and although I did not write 30 poems, I did read and write more poetry than last month, so that’s something.

This was inspired by another great Real Toads prompt: Write a poem using questions, and consider answering them. I decided to write the answers in the form of questions also…}

Prayers

In the last year or two,
love rejoiced with the truth,
day by day, each time I prayed–

aware of human crimes,
crashing symbols oftimes–
in the last year, my love.

Our God does not charge,
and love does not fail.
Love speaks truth and fairytale.

Angelic tongues will not prevail,
only prayers to God and you,
day by day, my love

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{It’s already day twelve of poetry month. This is my third poem. I’ve been enjoying practicing new forms, so I thought I would try the cascade poem suggested by dVerse earlier this month. I’m linking to today’s prompt at Toads, which is love. This poem is inspired in part by the love described in chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians–which is a poem in and of itself–as well as the traditional prayer, Day by Day.}

Healed

A child is standing in a gilded church
staring at the backs of strangers
all crowded together
in heavy winter coats,
hands by their sides,
until they make the sign of peace.

She silently mouths the words
to the hymn she knows by heart,
but is too shy to sing aloud–
We hold a treasure, not made of gold…
She is thinking about school,
about a girl in her class
with bright, orange-gold hair.

“It’s red, not orange!” the girl snaps,
and shows off her new necklace
from Hawaii. And the child wonders
why she can’t have hair like that–
like the color of volcanic fire.
Why is her own hair so brown?

The voice behind her is a tenor.
The priest is wearing purple–
the color of royalty.
The gold felt banner by the altar reads: Celebrate!
Her hair is brown like the pews,
like the soft, leather kneelers.

Earthen vessels…She mouths the words.
Her hair is the color of earth,
the color of the ceramic jug
in the corner of the basement
covered with dust and daddy long legs.
Wealth untold…the hymn says.

“I am not worthy,” speaks the congregation in unison.
And for one moment, the child feels worthy.
Because none are worthy.
And she joins in this time, on cue,
“But only say the word…
and I shall be healed.”

[Communion, from The Hours of Catherine Cleves]
{Linking to dVerse for open link night. The final words of this (autobiographical) poem are a bit strange, unless you’re a Catholic. Here is a good explanation. Here is a link to the hymn, Earthen Vessels: https://youtu.be/IAZhIw49ULc }

Morning Ghazal

I take a mind-puzzle from my dreams.
I work it out slowly, silently in my soul.

I lie still, while choreographed images–
like shadow swimmers–form patterns in my soul.

I read the news that feeds me need-to-knows,
and all I don’t know makes a hollow in my soul.

I analyze a thousand perspectives,
turning them over and over in my soul.

I pray holy words–personal, not corporate–
I am imperfect, and I know better in my soul.

Dream {a pantoum}

In my dream, the sun sets pink.
Tall evergreens grow all around
a sturdy house that will not sink.
Snow’s in patches on the ground.

Tall evergreens grow all around.
A house sits on a sloping hill.
Snow’s in patches on the ground,
and I remember still.

A house sits on a sloping hill.
No one knows it’s there,
and I remember still
the way the slope was bare.

No one knows it’s there–
a sturdy house that will not sink,
the way the slope was bare.
In my dream, the sun sets pink.

{Last month at dVerse, the Pantoum was the featured form. I missed the deadline, but I still wanted to try one. I had some difficulty finding the right subject. Then I ended up having a vivid dream that really stuck with me. So I decided to use that as inspiration. I have also been meaning to use more art with my writing–not because I’m any good at it, but because I think it helps to tap into the subconscious.}

Shelter Cat {a rubaiyat}

A cat is curled and sleeping. His clipped ear 
shows. “That’s how we know,” a volunteer 
explained. (It’s all the information we gain)
In his new home he dreams about the year—

twitching, crying out, remembering rain.
His sunny lanai is serene. Then hurricane.
A neighbor child hoots and screeches. Fast
and blatantly brash. It’s her domain.

Repeating words again and again. Outcast.
”Play elsewhere”, they tell young enthusiast.
From carpet austere, cat listens. Places one
mushroom colored paw over his ears at last.

But now is the soft sound of day being done.
All the leaves have fallen, red as the sun.
Grass grown. Engines down. Darkness begun,
waking the cat and the night in unison.

{The rubaiyat is a lovely and challenging form. I learned quite a bit about its origins and about Fitzgerald’s work (a translation with a unique beauty of its own) which popularized it. I am looking forward to reading it in its entirety in the near future. Linking to dVerse.}

Bee at Dawn {a sonnet}

We worked all night, under white-roofed hood,
praying for sun-ripened blooms to bear
fruit forbidden by sullen shadow’s stare.
We who woke to partly cloudy understood
(in part), knowing we were the ones who could.
Day by day, stepping toward our dogged fear,
toward a sweet, petaled puppeteer,
year after pre-dawn year (none yielding as it should).

So I step toward sunlit morning, stubborn
in my own way, cold and soberly clutching
last night’s vigil, last year’s vacuous words to warn.
And with new prayers, I begin again to cling
and crawl, placing word after word on pages torn–
a busy bee, bumbling free, flying from a honeyed thing.

{We’ve been challenged to write a sonnet at dVerse this month and to try using enjambment. I chose the Petrarchan sonnet form. I’m glad we have been given several weeks to write and edit it. I wrote the first version about a week ago. This revision is quite different than my original. I started this poem with just one word– sullen. It just sounded right to me. And then came the words of the turn or volta– So I step toward sunlit morning. The rest of the poem took shape as I wrote it. The form actually helped me. I don’t think it would ever have gone in the direction it did without the constraints of the form.}

Curtain

When I sit at my kitchen table
on a cold morning, the white
of the window curtain
crisp-ironed, pleated,
pure and clean,
warms me. And I think
about the day ahead.
Whatsoever happens,
this morning’s light
on bright linen shines
in my mind like polished silver.
There is work to be done.
There is wonder to behold.

{I love ordinary things. They’re my favorite to write about. I’m so glad dVerse offered this prompt.}

At the 7-Eleven

Long line. He will get there before me.
Swing past the aisle. Don’t hesitate.
Make good time and beat him–quick!
Silver cylinder slung,
air in a can hung…
tube in his nose?
Eye meets eye.
–back up–
slow.

{This is for the prompt at Real Toads–Fussy Little Forms:Nonet. The nonet is 9 lines in a pattern of descending syllables. 9,8,7…1. These little forms are so much fun. This one is based on a personal experience about a month ago.}