Ponderings on Magical Realism

Well, its been awhile.

School has just been blowing by so fast! Hence the lack of posting… 

Anyway, as promised, I thought I’d share what I’ve been learning in my classes. Today’s subject is magical realism.

What is magical realism?

That’s a very good question, and I’ve discovered that the answer kind of changes depending on who you ask. But, you’ve asked me. So here’s what I’ve gathered my class focusing on the genre in Children’s and YA literature. 

The term stared with the South American Writers, and they’re also the ones that popularized it, but they didn’t really begin the genre and it’s not limited to them. 

A magical realism text is a book in which fantastic events are included in the text that otherwise maintains a realistic narrative. No one is surprised by these events/ fantastic elements and they are accepted without questions – maybe a bit of marveling. OKAY. In other-words, it mixes magic with the mundane. These magical events/ elements help the characters (and reader) examine the realistic elements of the story through a different lens. For example: (The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber) the appearance of a unicorn in a man’s garden highlights the problems in his marriage and then the man and his wife get a divorce. Without the unicorn in the garden, the man might never have noticed the things that were wrong with his marriage. 

You might be saying, “Hey, this sounds a lot like fantasy. What’s the difference?”

I’m so glad that you asked. Because I do have an answer to that.

In magical realism these fantastic elements are generally limited to one kind of magic or are somehow related. The magic tends to be localized – the entire world isn’t magic, it’s the regular mundane world and then there just happens to be a talking elephant. Or a unicorn. Or a yard gnome that’s actually a Norse god. 

Also, in magical realism, the story is not littered with tons of magical objects or creatures. The woods aren’t filled with pixies, elves, and there aren’t any knights that wield magic swords and have enchanted shields. Lastly, the narrator is just a regular ole’ human being. 

So here are some magical realism devices:

  • Multiple planes of reality: Things/ people can experience realistic events simultaneously in the same place but different times, or vice versa. Being in two places at the same time. Confused? Think about Cameron in Going Bovine and how he’s both in the hospital and galavanting around the country 
  • Metafiction: Where a fictitious reader enters into a story within a story or where the textual world enters into our world. 
  • Inanimate objects may be “alive
  • “Mythical” creatures may appear but not as a normal creature of the place. So – not Harry Potter where they roam the forest.       

Well, that’s the best that I’ve got on the subject. I think that magical realism is this kind of thing where you can read a story and say “oh, yeah, this is magical realism” or “dear, God. This is sooo not it.” But it tends to be harder to define. 

Granted, I can’t take credit for all these notes. I got them from my class. Which, has turned out to be an amazingly fun class. Woo!

Now, hasn’t this post been worth waiting for?

2 thoughts on “Ponderings on Magical Realism

  1. Hi, Caroline –
    Children's and YA? Yikes. Preparatory to publishing a magical realist novel in the fall, I'm reading through everything Google dredges up, read yours, good job! Except as you sort of point out, the roots of magical realism are in Eastern Europe, South America owning only the popularization. If it's not already in your course reading, take a look at Bruno Schultz's THE STREET OF CROCODILES. But my question is this: Did you or anybody in your class question the consignment of American magical realism (assuming there may be such a thing) to kiddie and YA lit? Did anyone ask why “magic” in contemporary American literature is, if acknowledged at all, assumed to be be purview only of children, the cruelly oppressed and the mad? Thanks for your thoughts if you have time to share them.

  2. Wow! I'm so glad that you not only commented but found my post on point. That makes me very happy.

    The class that I am in is a craft class where we looked a (sadly only a few examples all of which I hope to post on in the very near future including Block's MISSING ANGEL JUAN of the WEETZIE BAT books; two short stories by LeGuin; GOING BOVINE by Bray; and lastly SKELLIG by Almond) and not only identify the magic realism elements, how they worked in the story, and what purpose they served. And then worked on writing our own magical realism short stories.

    However, no, no one asked that question in my class and I think it's an excellent one. We only have two meetings left, and I will pose you question to the class and get their feedback.

    That's awesome that you've got your own magical realism book being published this fall! I will be on the lookout for it! I am always looking for new things to read. I will get back to you on what my class thinks about your question 🙂

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