Magic Realism: Do You Really Know What It Is?

What’s the big deal?

Magic realism is a genre getting a lot of interest right now, whether it’s from the people still discovering classics like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits, or from the people catching wind of a complex, detailed, wonder-filled genre and wanting to use it to write the next great novel.

I discovered magic realism when I did a study on García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and magic realism in my Spanish literature class as part of my degree’s minor in Spanish. It was like nothing I’d ever read before and everything I didn’t know I needed, and it’s had a special place in my heart ever since.

I often add it to my MSWL during the annual #RevPit contest, but nine times out of ten, authors labeling their novel as magic realism are doing so incorrectly. So what is magic realism? Is it just a realistic book with magic in it? Is it a specific tool of literature? Is it a product of postmodernism around the globe, or strictly an expression of Latin American identity? Who gets to define it?

If you’ve never asked these questions, you might have the wrong answers. A lot of smart people have written a lot of thoughtful things about magic realism, and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Instead, my goal is to give a brief summary of the basic traits, examples, and background of magic realism and give you links to recommended reading if you want to learn more.

Definition

Merriam Webster calls magic realism “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” A helpful one-sentence explanation I’ve heard and like to share is that this is a genre in which the everyday is seen as magical, and the magical is seen as everyday.

It’s worth noting that the genre is also known as magical realism—back when I was studying it, this term seemed more common, helping to differentiate it from the similarly-named European art movement that was its precursor. From there, the definitions and examples vary wildly depending on which scholar or bookish person you’re talking to. I tried to select the most commonly accepted traits and examples as a starting point, but I encourage you to dig deeper if you’re interested.

Traits

What are the traits of magic realism? Here are some of the most common.

Realism

Magic realism borrows a lot from literary realism, not shying away from the blunter or more mundane descriptions of everyday life. The stories always clearly take place in our physical world. The author usually goes into great detail in these descriptions, often conveying a sense of wonder around things we might normally take for granted or overlook.

Magic

Fantastic, supernatural, or magical elements are present in these stories, but not the same way they would be in fantasy, horror, or paranormal literature. In magic realism, the “magic” doesn’t form a coherent system and generally isn’t viewed as particularly otherworldly or out of the ordinary by those experiencing it. It’s simply part of the real world and everyday life for the characters in the books.

Missing Information

In magic realism, the author doesn’t always bother explaining to the reader what’s going on. Unlike books with a clear system for the magic and obvious reasons for the main character’s experiences, this genre doesn’t call attention to magical elements by explaining them. The reader is expected to simply accept them as part of reality.  

Nonlinear Time

Books in the magic realism genre tend not to view time as linear, and events aren’t always shared in chronological order. Even though we usually think of time as something that moves forward in a straight line, that’s not always the way we remember or perceive it—and magic realism is more concerned with what is true to our experiences than what is strictly logical and factual.

Mystery

Magic realism has a sense of mystery in its pages—not just because the magic is undefined and the time nonlinear, but because it calls readers to embrace the sense of mystery that is present in life if we’re paying a certain amount of attention. This is seen in the great attention and awe given to mundane details we usually overlook, the illogical events presented as everyday reality, and the way the author doesn’t give us every answer we wish we had.

Further Reading

This article from Encyclopedia.com gets in-depth into the traits of magic realism as well as giving an excellent overview of its history and common examples. If you read just one of the links for further reading in this post, pick this one. https://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/literature-other-modern-languages/latin-american-literature/magic-realism

What it isn’t

Besides the traits above, magic realism can also be defined by what it isn’t. Here’s where it differs from common speculative genres:

Fantasy

Fantasy novels generally take place in alternate worlds with their own rules, culture, and magic system. Magic realism, on the other hand, takes place in our world without introducing new cultures, rules, or systems of magic.

Urban fantasy

Urban fantasy novels, along with the stories that some people refer to as contemporary fantasy, take place in our world, but not our world as it actually exists—they take place in a version of our world that has fantastical creatures, supernatural occurrences, and/or other magic systems added in. Unlike magic realism, however, these magical rules and creatures are acknowledged and explained in the books that contain them.

Horror

Horror novels generally take place in our real world, but the supernatural elements they contain are meant to stand out from the ordinary and shock, horrify, and scare readers. While some of the elements of magic realism may be disturbing, they generally are accepted by the characters rather than drastically disrupting their lives and well-being.

Science Fiction

Science fiction novels often have ties to the real world, but their speculative elements are explained by science. These stories also often take place in the future or on a different planet. Magic realism, in contrast, doesn’t explain its own strange situations with science. These are simply accepted as part of the mystery of life.

Further Reading

This Tor.com article digs a little deeper into the issue of people dismissing magic realism as fantasy, including reasons the two are different. https://www.tor.com/2008/10/23/magicrealism/

Examples

Here are some key examples of magic realism in literature.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez’s novel won a Nobel Prize and is considered to be thequintessential example of magic realism. It tells the saga of a single family over a hundred years in a fictional town in Colombia, playing with ideas of time, solitude, war, death, and love in a story that’s difficult to describe but (in my experience) difficult to put down once you pick it up.

The House of the Spirits

Isabelle Allende’s famous novel also tells the tale of a family over multiple generations—in this case, in Chile. Like many other magic realism novels, this story deals with the violence and wars of postcolonial Latin America and the impact they had on the lives of everyday people.

Like Water for Chocolate

Laura Esquivel’s novel tells the story of a Mexican woman who expresses her emotions through her cooking. Since she’s forced to care for her mother instead of marrying, this is her only outlet, creating a story that is full of love, violence, oppression, and time.

Other Global Examples

Latin America produced all the examples of magic realism listed above, along with many other great stories, but there are novels from around the world that have been associated with the same genre. Examples include British Indian author Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, American author Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Each of these authors also wrote other titles categorized as magic realism, and the list of other authors is reasonably lengthy. The genre lines can be blurry: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, often categorized as fantasy, are sometimes listed as magic realism as well, albeit less often.

Further Reading

The first link here is to Goodreads books often shelved as magic realism. The second link is to a list of books and authors that Penguin Random House recommends and considers to be part of this genre. https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/magical-realism
https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/the-read-down/titles-that-prove-the-power-of-magical-realism

History and Controversy

If you care about really getting to know magic realism, I highly recommend reading up on its history and the surrounding controversies, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll only mention it briefly.

Magic realism has its distant roots in the European art of the early 1900s that shared the name, and it established itself as a literary genre in the works of Latin American writers in the mid-1900s. There is disagreement over whether or not earlier European works like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis have a place in the genre, which in turn leads to contention over whether the genre is strictly Latin American or whether it’s a global genre with ties to postmodernism. Either way, Latin American literature is where it was popularized and where most of the greatest classics of the genre find their home.

Further reading:

A fair portion of magic realism’s history is included in the Encyclopedia.com article I linked earlier. I don’t read much from Vox, but I appreciated their easy-to-follow overview of this history and controversy with links to additional reading and sources for both. https://www.vox.com/2014/4/20/5628812/11-questions-youre-too-embarrassed-to-ask-about-magical-realism

How should writers respond?

If you’re a writer, I recommend you read at least one magic realism novel in your life even if you don’t plan on incorporating similar elements into your fiction. It’s good to read a wide variety of genres, and this is one that brings something to the table that not a lot of books do.

If you do plan on incorporating magic realism into your book, do your research. Don’t mistakenly apply this label to your urban fantasy novel just because you like the sound of it. Understand its traits, understand its roots, and understand how your story fits into the big picture. Think of it this way: if magic realism is a conversation, don’t claim the label unless you’re listening to that conversation.

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