What is Magic Realism?
I was at a fantasy writers' conference last year and was asked over lunch what sort of fantasy I wrote. I said it was not full-on fantasy, but more realistic with a bit of fantasy.
“Oh,” said the seasoned writer seated opposite, “You mean magic realism.”
Did I? I had never heard of the phrase.
“You know,” he continued, “Terry Pratchett says magic realism is fantasy written by people with friends who went to Oxford or Cambridge universities.”
Yup, that’s me. When I got home, I googled “magic realism,” and found that not only did I write it, but so did some of my favourite writers. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez) is on my list of top ten books, as is The Master and Margarita (Bulgakov) and American Gods (Gaiman). But I soon found that there were lots of other writers I had never heard of. I therefore set myself a challenge I would read a magic realism book a week for a year. I am now exactly half way through the challenge and it has been fascinating.
So what is magic realism – the definition I used for the challenge was the simplest: “a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” My observation is that it is not so much as genre as a way of approaching writing fiction. The books I have read could be slotted in to several different genres, e.g. women’s fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, paranormal, but they have a common magic realism approach.
A key aspect seems to be that not only is the realism magical but the magic is regarded as reality and is not commented on or explained, eg in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis Samsa wakes up as a large insect, but no explanation is given by the author or sought by the characters. Not all readers can cope with that, they feel that all aspects of the story should be explained by the author. But I like the way the magic realism approach has a way of shifting reality and making the reader think again, not only about the story but also their attitudes to the world.
Magic realism is often used to explore the worlds of the oppression – black slaves in Toni Morrison’s Beloved or migrant workers in Alfredo Vea’s The Silver Cloud Cafe. A realistic approach would merely show the oppression but not the aspiration and inner hopes. In some ways magic realism is more real, because it explores and dramatizes the inner beliefs. If you want to write a novel set in the Middle Ages with a first-person narrative, then your narrator would interpret certain events as being miracles and magic. It is not surprising that some of the foremost exponents of magic realism are from South America where there is both oppression and strong Roman Catholicism.
Magic realism is not restricted to the margins, it can be mainstream popular fiction – look at the success of Alice Hoffman. Here one of its appeals undoubtedly is that it brings to mind fairytales and myths. Hoffman’s The Story Sisters deals with difficult issues, but then the Grimm brother’s tales often dealt with hard issues, such as abuse and child abandonment. It seems to me we still need fairytales and that is where magic realism comes in.
Guest post by Zoe Brooks. Zoe Brooks is a British writer and poet, who spends half her life in a partly restored old farmhouse in the
, where she
writes all her novels and poetry. She aims to write popular books, which have
complex characters and themes that get under the reader's skin. Czech
Zoe was a successful published poet in her teens and twenties, (featuring in the Grandchildren of Albion anthology). Girl In The Glass - the first novel in a trilogy about the woman and healer Anya was published on Amazon in March 2012, followed by Mother of Wolves and Love of Shadows. In May 2012 she published her long poem for voices Fool's Paradise as an ebook on Amazon.
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Amazon author page http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0034P3TDS
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