Everything You Want to Know About Magical Realism: Pt I

By Rachel.Adams via Flickr cc
This is one of a two-part series on Magical Realism. This article focuses on what Magical Realism is and is not. 

I decided to write this series after I was invited to discuss the topic on the Firsts in Fiction podcast (itunes - YouTube - Google+). Check out the Magical Realism Episode!

What exactly is Magical Realism?

Magical Realism or Magic Realism is a genre of fiction and film that blends magical elements with reality in a way that blurs the edges until seamless. The stories are generally but not always characterized by a unique tone and atmosphere of wonder, magic, mystery, or just a sense of strangeness.

Magical Realism is not a genre of its own because it is applied to other genres, such as romance, historical, or contemporary. By its nature, a title considered to fit within the Magical Realism genre will always be a cross-genre title.

When a work only uses a small element of Magical Realism and the other genre characteristics are so prevalent as to outweigh that element, the work would not be considered a magical realistic work, but one that uses an element or technique from Magical Realism.

As far as my knowledge and experience goes as an author of Magical Realism, I have seen two major types:

The first type is what you might call the traditional form because it is the same type originally termed Magical Realism (origin and history coming up next). This type incorporates magical elements throughout the story. These things are generally not acknowledged or explained as being magical but are treated by the author and characters as a part of reality. The magical elements are not the focus of the plot as they are not seen as significant in the characters eyes, rather they color the realistic world in a new way and create a strong sense of mood/atmosphere.

Examples include: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Red Garden, The Girl Who Chased the Moon.

The second type is seen a lot in film although there are plenty of books. It is different than the first type, but still stays in line with the definition of blending magic and reality. In this type, there is one major magical element set within our reality. Characters will respond to the element as being out of the ordinary, and it may be the focus or catalyst for the plot. Still, there is usually very little to know explanation ever discovered beyond character theories if they are given at all.

This type of Magical Realism appeared in literature before the terminology of Magical Realism came about, for example in Virginia Wolf's Orlando (1928), in which a man wakes up one day as a woman and lives for centuries without explanation.

This could lead to a lively debate about the origin of Magical Realism in European literature - or at least this type - but when it comes to scholarly discussion of Magical Realism, it is usually discussed as originating in Latin America where the term first came into use to describe elements of Latin American fiction. Thus this could also lead to a debate that this type is not Magical Realism but the sake of this series and as far as general approaches go, it generally still included because it fits the definition of blending magic and reality. 

Examples include: The Green Mile, Lady in the Water, Big, fables in general.

Check out the definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica which I included below. It speaks to this debate a little.
Where did Magical Realism originate from?

According to The Encyclopedia Britannica: “Magic realism, chiefly Latin-American narrative strategy that is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction. Although this strategy is known in the literature of many cultures in many ages, the term magic realism is a relatively recent designation, first applied in the 1940s by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who recognized this characteristic in much Latin-American literature. . .

"Prominent among the Latin-American magic realists are the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, the Brazilian Jorge Amado, the Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, and the Chilean Isabel Allende.”

Why does everyone always bring up Gabriel Garcia Marquez with Magical Realism?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is often cited as the first or most significant Latin-American author who used Magical Realism. His most well-known works are One Hundred Years of Solitude & Love in the Time of Cholera. He was born in Columbia in 1928. One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967, and in 1982, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Magical Realism and Elements from Religion including Christianity and Catholicism

Despite the definition of blending magic with reality, the magical element can also be one of religious influence or origin. 

For example in the story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez an angel falls to the earth because of a violent rainstorm. When the angel is found the characters are shocked to see an angel, and yet they never question its existence. The reality of this occurrence is never mistrusted.

Although some would argue that religion should not be consider "magical," the origin of Magical Realism is deeply ingrained in Latin American culture including prevalent religions from that area, such as Catholicism and the remnants of various pre-colonial belief systems. Native and Christian religions were blended during colonization and many native religious histories and stories were mixed with Christianity until the edges were blurred . . . ah, you see that? 

According to The Encyclopedia Britannica: "Some scholars have posited that magic realism is a natural outcome of postcolonial writing, which must make sense of at least two separate realities—the reality of the conquerors as well as that of the conquered."

According to Study.com: “In Latin America, the continent from which the genre of magical realism originated, there is an attitude among certain portions of the population that anything can happen. In this way, magical realism is closely connected to the Catholic religion, which believes in miracles and other spontaneous and indescribable phenomena. The genre of magical realism is defined as a literary genre in which fantastical things are treated not just as possible, but also as realistic.”

This should not be seen as suggesting Christianity and magic are the same. Despite it's name, Magical Realism does not deal solely with magic but more with things that are in the realm of belief.

What are the differences between Magical Realism and other genres in the speculative fiction category?

According to Wikipedia: “Speculative fiction is a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements, notably science fiction, fantasy and horror.”

Magical Realism is generally considered to fall under the Speculative Fiction umbrella. In fact Amazon categorizes it as a subgenre of fantasy; however, the main difference is that Magical Realism is set in a reality that is extremely similar to our own.

It is different than most stories about a haunted house or the discovery of a thousand year old vampire not by the subject but by the way it is presented. Magical and fantastical elements are presented as ordinary, plausible, and even mundane.

This might sound confusing at first because supernatural and horror stories are generally set in our reality, but it is different than Magical Realism.

For example, in a supernatural story, the discovery of a vampire often leads to the character being plunged into an alternate world where vampires exist in secret and where there is an explanation of why they exist at all, such as in Twilight and the Anne Rice Books.

In a Magical Realistic take, the discovery of a vampire might not really change anything about the characters' world and is presented in in way that blends the magical idea of a vampire with our idea of reality to the point of blurring the lines between the two, such as in Immortality with Jude Law. Last I checked, that movie is available via Netflix Instant.

Is Magical Realism the same thing as metaphysical or visionary fiction?

No, but it can be and often is blended with these genres.

Metaphysical Fiction

According to Tahlia Newland, author, editor and artist: “Where physics is a study of the nature of reality at its most subtle level, metaphysics is speculation on, or ideas about, the nature of reality. Therefore it is the philosophy or thought-provoking nature of metaphysical fiction that sets it apart from ordinary Magical Realism and supernatural fantasy.

“In the same way, a story about a ghost is not metaphysical fiction unless it explores the nature of life after death in relation to a comprehensive vision of reality.”

Visionary Fiction

According to Visionary Fiction Alliance: “Visionary Fiction embraces spiritual and esoteric wisdom, often from ancient sources, and makes it relevant for our modern life. Gems of this spiritual wisdom are brought forth in story form so that readers can experience the wisdom from within themselves. Visionary fiction emphasizes the future and envisions humanity’s transition into evolved consciousness. While there is a strong theme, it in no way proselytizes or preaches.

“Visionary is a tone as well as a genre. The ‘visionary’ element can technically be present in any genre and set in any time.”

What are some popular examples of Magical Realism in literature?

The Library of Babel - Jorge Luis Borges

White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Beloved - Toni Morrison

What are some popular films that make use of Magical Realism?

Many of the books above have also been made into movies but then there is:

Lady in the Water by M. Night Shyamalan

Immortality (The Wisdom of Crocodiles)

Scholarly Non-Fiction Magical Realism Books.

For more on Magical Realism and How to Use it In Your Writing, Check Out Part II on Using Magical Realism in Your Writing or check out the Firsts in Fiction Podcast!

Help me add to the list! What Magical Realism titles would you add to these?