Recently I found myself in a reading groove where I was reading a lot of books from a specific “genre”: magical realism… lots of recently published books from authors from lots of different backgrounds. As I started to talk about these books to other JCLS staff, I discovered I knew how to recognize magical realism, but found I was having a really hard time explaining what exactly it was to others who weren’t already familiar with it.
Magic realism is one of those weird fictive styles that is sometimes called a sub-genre of fantasy, but really doesn’t fit in with fantasy as a whole. It lends itself to beautiful language, gorgeous imagery, subversive thematic content, and a certain amount of unapologetic weirdness. It’s not for everyone, but those who love it tend to want more of it. Somehow, though, the most complicated thing about magic realism turns out to be explaining what it actually is. If you’ve read it, you know what it is… if you haven’t, well, maybe this blog can help you out.
I tried to write a paragraph about the origin story of magic realism… and it’s often described as having Latin American roots. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was referred to as the “father of magic realism” in his obituary. There is another group that cropped up separately of women who write magic realism: Virginia Wolff, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter… and Isabelle Allende who crosses both foundational groups. But Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami are both big name authors who are magic realists and fit into neither of those groups. You can read a lot more about this unique and diverse group of writers here.
…and there’s this other piece about magic realism: it has deep roots in the oral tradition, including folk and fairy tales… so maybe it didn’t so much explode out of the creative and talented minds of the above list of authors (who deserve all kinds of credit for being the first to write it down), but as an evolution of the oral storytelling around them… and as such, it has deep, deep roots in anticolonialism. You can see this in Marquez’ work, but also in literature written by many indigenous authors (for example, The Removed by Brandon Hobson), authors of African American descent (like Toni Morrison), and Salman Rushdie who writes about the after effects of colonialism like the Partition of India in Midnight’s Children. And if you want to explore an example from Africa, try The Old Drift by Narmwali Serpel; she is Zambian.
But WHAT IS IT ACTUALLY? The best definition I’ve found is this: a highly realistic setting juxtaposed against something unbelievably strange and unrealistic. Ghosts in a book that isn’t horror? Magic realism. Everything appears normal, but laws of physics are ignored? Magic realism. Characters have body parts not found in our typical biology (like wings or tails)? Magic realism.
My favorite book to use as an example of what magic realism IS is a book by Angela Carter called Nights at the Circus. Sadly, we do not own this book, so we aren’t linking to it. But it’s an easy book to use to explain magic realism because the realism and the magic are so obvious in just a very brief description. So, imagine this: you’re reading a book of historical fiction set at the turn of the century. Welcome to Victorian England. You’ve read books about Victorian England before. Everything seems pretty much as you’d expect. In a book. About Victorian England. But, meet the main character: her name is Sophie Fevvers. She has wings. That’s it, that’s all. (OK, not exactly, it does get weirder, but that weirdness is perceived by all the characters as being pretty mundane rather than inherently weird or in any way magical). That’s what magical realism is. Totally normal realistic setting.. .but there’s this weird thing that is super glaringly obvious, and also not realistic, but also totally unremarkable within the world of the story itself. “Of course,” the other characters in the book might say, “there is a woman with wings, I mean, you don’t see ‘em every day, but there she is, standing right there, so I guess, here we are, interacting with a be-winged woman with a broad Cockney accent” *shrug.* Compare this to another more recent novel (which we do have) with a similar title, set at an overtly magical circus during the Victorian era, that a lot of you may have read: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This one is clearly low fantasy. Low fantasy is set in the world in which we live (the terminology comes from its juxtaposition to “high” or “other worlds” fantasy and does not imply it’s low brow or of lesser status). In this book, magic exists, magic is talked about, but magic is still, well, magical. AND NOW YOU SEE WHY/HOW IT’S SO GOSH DARNED HARD TO EXPLAIN!!! Head Exploding emoji.
At any rate, it’s one of those things that is easier to understand once you’ve read some of it. So read a book from this list today!