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.

I hope this brief piece has stimulated you to explore magic realism further. If you want to follow my magic realism challenge, you can do so on my blog http://www.magic-realism.net. There is also a magic realism facebook group on  https://www.facebook.com/groups/442828489103204/ 

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 Czech Republic, 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.

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.

Social Media Links
Blog: http://zoebrooks.blogspot.com
Twitter http://twitter.com/ZoeBrooks2
Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/ZoeBrooksAuthor
Amazon author page http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0034P3TDS
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5772880

Zoe will be awarding a $25 Amazon gift card to a randomly drawn commenter during the tour so I encourage you to follow the tour and comment; the more you comment, the better your chances of winning. The tour dates can be found here:


  1. Great explanation of magic realism. It really clears up a lot for me.

  2. Thank you for including my post. If anyone wants to ask me anything I will try to answer.

  3. I'm not really into magic realism. I mean, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and I did not find myself super loving it like many people (sorry!). But I did enjoy the characters and their relationships. I did appreciate Love of Shadows (and Girl in Glass) because of those. :)

  4. That's funny you googled Magic Realism and found you wrote it.


  5. It sounds very intriguing!


  6. Interesting post :)


  7. Leah, I am glad you can enjoy my book without liking magic realism.

  8. What a great idea, to read your way through all magical realism authors! The broadest definition of it covers pretty much all the writers I admire. Still, I may find myself flagging if I were to subsist on a diet of it and nothing else. Have you been alternating with other kinds of reading?

  9. That's the first time I have heard the term "magic realism". I rather like it. It fits.


  10. Yes, Marina I do read other types of books. I have a policy of trying to read a lot of books from different cultures. So few books are translated into English that they tend to be very special if they make it into our language. What's great about magic realism is that it really is an international genre. And of course it appears in so many genres that it offers a lot of variety.

  11. Excellent excerpt, this books sounds intriguing.


  12. Thanks for the chance to win!

    hense1kk AT cmich DOT edu

  13. I really loved this post! Magic Realism is something that NEEDS to be included in speculative fiction nowadays. If I can't "believe" it...I don't wanna read about it! Thanks for the post!

    andralynn7 AT gmail DOT com


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