What is Magical Realism?
Writers constantly ask me for a working definition of magical realism. It’s a confusing genre to pinpoint because everyone has a different idea of what it is and what it isn’t. This post helps differentiate magical realism from fantasy (the most common misunderstanding of the genre) by showcasing the many things magical realism is and is not.
Let’s begin by breaking the term into two parts. Magic + realism.
Magic: an extraordinary or mystical influnce, charm, power, etc.
Realism: interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative, etc.
It should be obvious that both of these terms need to be an important part of a magical realism book. Still, you’re probably even more confused now that you’ve read those isolated definitions. The terms magic and realism juxtapose one another. Who thought it was a good idea to put the two together? And doesn’t the existece of magicautomatically make the narrative a fantasy? How can magic be realistic?
Magical realism actually began as an art movement, not a literary genre as most people assume. The term was first used by Franz Roh, a German art critic, in 1925 to explain a painting that tried to capture the mystery of life behind surface reality. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the term was adopted by bookish people like us.
In literature, magical realism is historically attributed to specific Latin-American narratives that include fantastic or mythical elements in seemingly realistic stories. Many believe magical realism is a subset of postcolonial writing. This belief makes sense: if magical realism introduces readers to new (seemingly magical) aspects of life, it is similar to forcing readers to be comfortable with a new culture and its customs. Who is to say that ghosts don’t exist? Some view the existence of ghosts as an inherent truth; for these pople, it is a core, realistic belief to everyday life.
Magical realism is not speculative. It is much more specific than the broad definitions of science fiction and fantasy. While elements of scifi or fantasy may be incorporated into the “magical” aspect of a magical realism story, a manuscript rooted in science fiction or fantasy traditions is not a magical realism novel.
Magical realism shows us the world through our own eyes. This where the realistic part comes out to play. The ordinary is magical. The magical is ordinary. Magical realism books don’t take us to a new place and time. This is not escapist literature. Instead, unusual concepts are presented in a very real way—and written in a way to make us feel like these magical elements could very well be a part of our everyday lives—if only we looked at things from a different perspective.
Unlike in fantasy novels, the magic part in magical realism often lacks an origin or lengthy description. It is simply there, presented as normal and ordinary.
All this information leads us to a definition of magical realism. While some will disagree with a topic or two, the following paragraph includes the most common elements attributed to magical realist novels.
Magical realism is a literary genre in which a realistic narrative is combined with surreal elements. The magic is a natural part of the world. It is often strange (it doesn’t seem to fit in with the world as we know it), but it is accepted in the story by the character experiencing it. Excellent magical realism uses magic without making you think about it—the magic is seamlessly integrated with the real world. Magical realism stories take place in a realistic setting. This usually means that the book is based in the “real world” rather than a fantasy land. Aside from the magical feature, the plot is realistic and believable. The characters in magical realism stories are also realistic and deal with mundane, everyday issues. Magical realism has its own aesthetic style. There’s a poetic nature to the prose—it is a subgenre of literary fiction. Not only is there a magical element in the plot, but there’s also a magical element to the writing. A magical realism novel makes readers feel like the plot is possible, that maybe the magical element really could exist. It is not escapist.
Giving examples is difficult because everyone has slightly different ideas of what magical realism truly is. Still, these are books commonly found under the magical realism label. I’ll let you decide whether you think they belong in this category or not.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Want to learn even more about magical realism? Here are some articles that cover other important magical realism topics like the genre’s most popular debates, its place in politics, and the use of magical realism in TV and film.