Magical Realism is one of the hardest genres to define in fiction. It’s both speculative and literary, and it involves elements that no one can quite pinpoint. When asked about magical realism, agents and editors will give an answer that resembles something along the lines of “it’s a book where something magical becomes ordinary”.
The problem with that description is that it can also describe some fantasy worlds. For example, in the world of “Marked” by Kristin Cast and PC Cast, vampires are normal. Everyone in the world knows about the existence of vampires. Vampires are something ordinary and they are known by other humans. However, the book is not magical realism.
There’s a recurring problem going on when we talk about magical realism. Some talk about literary magic, some others talk about a book where everything is normal but there are a few occurrences that are strange but you can’t quite put your finger into what they are. And then there’s the thing about MR — everyone wants a book that is magical realism, but very few people can actually write it.
I’ll start this explanation with a bit of history on the Magical Realism genre. Cam from Just a Book Eater blog explains some of it in this thread, but it’s essentially about how Magical Realism was born as a direct response of post colonialism. South and Central America had been colonized for so long that it felt like we didn’t have a history of our own, so we were forced to create it. The history of our countries is a bloody one, full of atrocities, and Magical Realism was created as a response to that. It was created as a way to deal with our history, and with the colonization and the taking away of an identity.
When we talk about the origins of Magical Realism, it has to do with Latin America. It has to do with writers like Gabriel García Marquez, Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges. They write as a way to deal with a history so bloody that it often reads as fantastical, and the only way that might be dealt with is by dosing it with magic and the use of the fantastic inside the narrative.
Magical Realism, ultimately, it’s not about that aesthetic. It’s not Maggie Stiefvater’s books where horses rise from the sea or trees speak latin. It’s about the roots of family, it’s about dealing with the history past and what was lost, and it’s a lot more about finding the meaning of history than it is about the elements of the fantastic. Take Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example. We have several instances where strange things occur, and there’s one particular instance where he narrates, through strange elements, the vanishing of a whole group of people, women and children included. When we go back to look at it, it’s actually about a massacre that killed thousands of people, but it’s described in a such a way that it’s almost too fantastic to believe. Because often our history is so terrible that it is easier to deal with it to treat it as something out of a fantasy book.
García Marquez has some particular good lines on why Magical Realism is such an important genre, and why it singles out as a particular South American reality, from his Nobel prize winner speech.
And if these difficulties, whose essence we share, hinder us, it is understandable that the rational talents on this side of the world, exalted in the contemplation of their own cultures, should have found themselves without valid means to interpret us. It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.
Magical Realism in South America is the story of generations. It’s the story of families and what was taken from them, it’s the story of the struggle in a world where there is no history. It’s finding your feet after South America is no longer a colony, and finding what it means to be born here.
For those still confused, Magical Realism doesn’t rely on the use of any tropes or characteristics used on other genres that deal with the fantastical. You don’t encounter vampires or paranormal creatures usually, but you may encounter a ghost or two — in this case, the ghost is always portrayed as a person, and not a haunting. This means the ghost, instead of possessing supernatural powers, is still there like a person, except is now in ghost form. The ghosts that appear have often more to do with the element of family that is really strong in MR novels rather than the whole existence of the paranormal. For MR, we never really know if the ghost does exist or if it’s just a figment of the imagination of one of the characters.
Magical Realism follows a specific structure when it comes to worldbuilding: they are all magic things, little miracles that happen on the every day life. A girl born with wings. Someone so beautiful they are followed by butterflies. These things are part of the world MR takes place, but they don’t take precedent over the story being told. MR is focused more on the daily life and the life of a generation of families rather than these magical things that punctuate the narrative. Meaning: character and plot are more essential and important than anything else in the novel.
Unlike fantasy, Magical Realism follows no rule of thumb in regards to what is magic. In fantasy, you usually have a strict set of rules, and cohesion inside the narrative. The world follows these rules. MR doesn’t have any rule or guideline by which magic things happen — they simply happen, but they also don’t affect the overall plot. For example, the solution to a problem in the plot is never in the use of magic. Magic may appear in points of the story, but it never affects the main plot as a whole, or changes the course of the story by being there. In MR, the fantastic elements work a lot more like a setting than part of the plot or the characters themselves, fluctuating between existence and non-existence, but going no further than the first layer of the story.
There are several discussions in the literary world whether or not to classify other things as Magical Realism rather than just the South American/Latinx authors. Personally, I don’t believe Magical Realism is an exclusive label, but it shouldn’t be used without knowing its origins. At the same time, we have some African Magical Realism (also born out of the post-colonial reality), and some Russian literature which can be labeled as MR as well (born from the roots of totalitarianism). They are both interesting genres that fall into this spectre, because they also deal with a reality that is violent, and that only people who have experienced it can understand.
However, Magical Realism has also evolved as to encompass a wider, bigger definition — as to anything that focuses solely on character’s journey and the real world, but where occasionally strange and whimsical things happen, but they’re seen by the characters as normal or just inside their reality. Although this is a more unconventional definition, it can also work. But remember — Magical Realism is not just another genre to write or fall into. It has an important history, unlike other genres in fiction, which is rooted in oppression and another reality.
If you’re a non-Latinx or non-African writer writing Magical Realism, you should always consider the reality of the genre and how it was born, and how it’s different for many people. There are other Latinxs who don’t like seeing the label used for other work other than Latinxs, and it’s strange to think that some people don’t know that the concept of Magical Realism was invented in South America. Another label you might want to use instead is ‘fabulism’, which works very much like Magical Realism but doesn’t share the same roots in genre.
Magical Realism is hard to define, by itself, and a lot of people are confused by the concept. It’s something that even experts struggle with classifying. If you want some further reading, this article by Bruce Holland Rogers also works as introducing many concepts of this genre.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you to some examples of good Magical Realism fiction.
Good examples of Latinx Magical Realism: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez, The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.
Non-Latinx Magical Realism: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht.
In YA: When the Moon was Ours by Anne-Marie McLemore (Latinx), Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Dalton.