Books, Writing

What the Hell is Magical Realism

If you’ve been around this blog for a while, you probably already know that I take great issue with the way genre is treated in the academic world. Specifically, the way that scifi and fantasy and other “genre fiction” get relegated to the “popular” and therefore unworthy of study category, while “literature” is lauded as GREAT WRITING ZOMG. My issues with this trend are many and emphatic. I have talked about it before. Seriously, people, stop saying genre fiction can’t be “Literature” because it FUCKING IS DEAL WITH IT.

That said, there is a certain mindset among many fantasy enthusiasts that I also take issue with, and that is the assertion that magical realism is just fantasy with an academic stamp of approval. It seriously drives me crazy when people conflate the two, considering that magical realism is one of my favorite genres, and also very much a separate category from fantasy, heavily rooted in its own traditions and with entirely its own rules and tropes. But I can understand where the confusion comes from, so here I present a crash course in Magical Realism.

The History: Magical Realism grew out of Latin American culture in the early 1900s, particularly South American countries like Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. Jorge Luis Borges is widely credited with having originated it and encouraged its propagation, but most people nowadays associate the genre more closely with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is widely speculated that the genre grew out of the conflict between the rich mythological stories of Latin American culture, including both the older native myths and the heavy influence of Catholicism, and the often harsh realities of living as an oppressed people under European (or, in the case of Mexico, American) colonizers.

How it Works: While notoriously difficult to define, the main hallmark of Magical Realism is a mundane setting that features fantastic events, which are nevertheless treated as perfectly ordinary. To the people in a magical realist work, none of the “magic” is actually magic–it’s business as usual. This is opposed to a fantasy work in which magic is regularly used, but still recognized as magic; there is no magic in magical realism–just weird “normal” things that happen, usually as a result of strong emotion from one of the characters. The magical event is also out of the control of the person who incited it, and usually heavily symbolic. For example, I’ve just finished reading Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, in which the main character, Tita, bakes a wedding cake while sobbing with longing for her lover who is marrying her sister, and subsequently everyone who eats the cake is overcome by the sadness infused within it and they all get horribly sick from the longing and some of them even die. Things always escalate quickly. Tita isn’t in control of the magic here–it’s not a spell, or a potion, or anything. It’s more like a thematic natural disaster, triggered by emotions. Whenever she cries, her tears literally flood the room that she is in, and after they’ve dried she uses the remaining salt for baking. Do you see what I mean? It’s magic, but the magic is not a commodity or a tool or anything that can be controlled. If anything, the magic is an ongoing commentary on the story and the people in it.

The Tropes: As mentioned above, the “magic” in magical realism usually stems from a character’s strong emotions. Like in a movie, weather usually reflects the feelings of the characters, like in Love in the Time of Cholera when Florentino’s sadness results in a rain storm that floods the entire city. Folk remedies and what one might call voodoo also usually work in magical realism, but they work in the same matter-of-fact way that Western society expects medicine to work; you don’t call the shaman so much as just sing the healing song and then everybody moves past it without further comment. It’s also common for individual characters to have bizarre traits that highlight some aspect of their personality, which are never remarked upon as odd by other characters. For example, in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest, the American corporate bureaucrat J. B. Tweep has three arms, symbolizing his obsession with productivity and material production; similarly, his trophy wife has three breasts.

Other common elements of magical realism include characters living 100 years or longer, characters dying as a direct and immediate result of emotional situations, super powers that are treated like minor personality quirks, revolutionary/wartime settings, a simultaneously poetic and jarring prose style (alternating between detailed visual descriptions and sudden, alarming plot twists), an indifferent narrator who refuses to explain anything, a heavy dose of meta, and a general concern about the inner lives of characters despite the large-scale world changes happening around them. The revolution may be on, the environment may be going to shit, the country may be losing its autonomy, but the book mostly worries about how people feel.

Some Books to Read:

1. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
2. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
3. Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita
4. The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
5. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

There are tons of other great magical realism novels, but of the ones I’ve read, the above are my favorites. I hope this gives you a better understanding of what, exactly, magical realism is, as much as anyone can really understand this bizarre genre.

Indifferently yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Realism can break a writer’s heart.” -Salman Rushdie

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