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