Proving how certain genres defy definition, here’s my fourth attempt to define the magic in magical realism.
I struggled so much with this, I’m leaning into the Masterclass definition:
Magical realism is a genre of literature that depicts the real world as having an undercurrent of magic or fantasy. All magical realism novels take place in a setting in our familiar everyday world.
Fable, Myth and Magic
Grounding the core story in a real world, fantastical elements become normal in this world. Integrating myth or fable or magical elements, magical realism novels and short stories blur the line between fantasy and reality. Magical elements aren’t usually acknowledged as magical or part of a system. The magic is never explained. It’s the opposite of fantasy genre magic which has rules and a system. Weird stuff happens and we accept it as a vehicle for the characters to reflect on something else.
For example, characters talk to ghosts, engage with magical objects, animals and portals to other realities but present as normal within the novel. The character’s concerns are with the present reality.
The genre also normalises unconventional plot structure. Magical realism may not follow a typical narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end like other literary genres. This makes for challenging, unsettling or disturbing reading, shuffling the expected plot points and conflicts like a deck of cards.
A Longer tail
However, this is not a new or recent genre. Academics cite Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges as the first magical realist, based on his collection of short stories Historia Universal de la Infamia (A Universal History of Infamy) in the 1950’s. However, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis from 1915 contains themes that fit the magical realism genre. You find examples in Renaissance literature where superstition and other-worldly creatures are accepted as fact. The ancient Greeks integrate all manner of myth and fable accepted as fact.
Award-winning ‘recent’ examples of magical realism include:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967).
A multi-generational story centred on a patriarch who dreams about a city of mirrors called Macondo, who builds it according to his own perceptions.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981).
Born at midnight on the day of India’s independence, a boy develops telepathic powers.
- The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982).
Another multi-generational story about a woman connected to the spirit world by paranormal powers.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987).
An abusive ghost haunts a freed slave.
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (1989).
A woman whose emotions infuse her cooking, affecting the people who eat it.
Magical realism is a rule-bending, rule-breaking genre where seemingly anything goes. Do it seriously and with commitment, you are lauded as a literary genius.