Magic Realism discussion

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What does magic realism mean to you?

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message 1: by Julie (new)

Julie Weinstein (julieannw) | 5 comments I have a new post on my blog, http://flashesfromtheotherworld.com/2... asking this very question. There are also links to some pretty neat articles on magic realism. I hope you'll stop by and share your perspective.


message 2: by Derek (new)

Derek (derek_broughton) I'd rather not, because I'd rather discuss here :-)

After reading your links, I still don't know how to define "Magical Realism". According to "http://www.writing-world.com/sf/reali... of your links two of my favorite Canadian authors should qualify - Thomas King and Charles de Lint, and yet in that article Rogers seems to deplore that the term is being used for anything but what Gene Wolfe called "fantasy in Spanish".

otoh, Carlos Castaneda clearly meets the criteria - except that my wife insists it's non-fiction!


message 3: by Lina (last edited Jul 11, 2011 08:01PM) (new)

Lina (lcyberlina) | 2 comments I don't believe magical realism "slightly bends" reality. Its a way of making the ordinary, extraordinary. Things that would seem simple and mundane are made fantastic by the people who tell the stories. For example, when Laura Esquivel wrote in "Like Water for Chocolate" that Tita saw her sister afire and burned the bathhouse, that didn't literaly happen. It was how Tita saw it and lived it in her imagination.


message 4: by James (new)

James (eisigeyes) | 16 comments Lina, I'm with you in that magical realism presents a fantastical viewpoint as viewed from an outsider's perspective. It's a subjective way of telling the story (as always stories are subjectively told), but to someone from America who does not believe in animism, it would be difficult to not see a story from the viewpoint of an animist as anything but fantastic. So in that way, it's a great way to view cultural perspectives from those outside of our own, but even American and similar Judeo-Christian cultures have their own perspectives realized within their stories. We call it fabulism, but it's no different than magical realism except that it uses Christianity and folktales vs. Catholicism and African religions, etc. as its background. A lot of magical realism can be, and is, metaphorical, but when the fantastic is unarguably present within a story, its purpose is more to illuminate the mundane. In a way, it's a device. That's why a lot of realist writers I know don't care for magical realism. They feel like the authors are just pulling out these flashy tricks when they could easily illuminate the mundane without them, but in doing so, they are also robbing cultures of their cultural perspectives, which is why someone from another culture will never truly understand the viewpoint of someone within a respective culture (big anthropological debate here).


message 5: by Charlie (new)

Charlie (cwesley94) | 2 comments I wouldn't call using magical realist techniques "robbing cultures of their cultural perspectives." And what does it mean to "truly understand?" I distrust these ideas of "knowing" predicated on identity. Further, how can a book rob a culture of culture? That's attributing - and assuming - quite a bit about textual interpretation. Fernando Oritz's work is useful here. He coined the term "transculturation" which suggests an exchange of ideas between two or more cultures. Pastiche, melange, palimpsest, and even the postcolonial cliche "hybridity" are all part of this. Far from damaging culture new authors using "flashy tricks" expands it, altering genre and style forever.


message 6: by James (last edited Jul 13, 2011 06:00AM) (new)

James (eisigeyes) | 16 comments I'm sorry I wasn't clearer when I communicated that message, but I meant that in criticizing the use of magical realism that they are also implicitly criticizing the cultural viewpoint itself, which is a reaction that would come from either not being interested in magical realist techniques or not understanding the culture, which if you are not from it, will never happen. You can understand aspects of another culture and exchange ideas and become a blending of it, but you're just not going to ever 100% have the perspective of the person from it. If that makes sense. I think you may have interpreted what I wrote as the use of magical realism robbing the culture of its identity when I was talking about the act of denying the use of magical realism being something that would deny cultural identity. Apologies for the confusion!


message 7: by Charlie (new)

Charlie (cwesley94) | 2 comments Please allow me to play devils advocate to many of your points. I respect you but strongly disagree with most of what you said.

On the contrary to your position, I think those who criticize magical realism are quite interested in it...

As to your tenuous links between a literary technique, "cultural identity" and perspective, I do not think these things are connected in such an overt way, or even necessarily. I also see the idea of knowing one's cultural perspective 100% as a bit of a straw man, and I don't think I even understand my own "cultural perspective" very well...

Do you really think those who "deny" (whatever that means) magical realism have the power to also "deny" cultural identity? Is cultural identity really that tenuous?


message 8: by James (new)

James (eisigeyes) | 16 comments I'm cool with the disagreement. It definitely gives me more to think about, and, yes, I agree that knowing your own culture 100% is a bit of straw man as you put it. There are conscious and unconscious factors to all writing and any other form or art or action for that matter. The conscious elements are those we notice as present or absent in ourselves or others, but the unconscious aspects are those things we have no choice in relaying in our work. This is a product of where we are from. I, for instance, cannot help but write with the influence that a Judeo-Christian background has given me even if I am not Christian. The same would go for someone who grew up around Catholicism and spirit belief. This is why when most people write as individuals from other cultures, they tend to fail. They might convince other people who don't know much about the culture, but it's the same as language learning. If you weren't born into the culture, you'll never achieve native fluency just like you'll never fully have the perspective, conscious or not, of someone else's culture.

As far as the critic's point of view, you should probably know that I come from the artist's perspective, which doesn't always jibe with the aforementioned. And, I place a lot less power in the critic's hand than I think you may. That being said, I definitely think critics can try to rob a culture of some of its identity by scoffing at magical realism, but I think there are definitely critics who are interested in it. Obviously, there wouldn't be the level of scholarship on it now if there wasn't, but that is definitely a minority of work. Having researched much of the availability of these critical pieces, I'm sure you can also agree that there is a limited number of works published on the subject in comparison to magical realism's cousin, surrealism.

Obviously, many Latin American writers and critics went to the trouble of adopting magical realism by connecting it to Don Quixote, before claiming it as a unique Latin American phenomenon, which it is widely--and falsely--accepted as by the literary world at large (mostly because it makes categorizing much easier).

Magical realism is a way for Latin American culture to express itself just as it is for any culture writing in the mode. But with groups like the McCondo movement and other anti-magical realist writers banding together to weed out what they consider to be culturally damaging, one could argue that magical realism not only enrichens but also distorts culture. At the least, this distortion can be seen as a trivialization or romanticization of the culture, which is especially true for what happened to Latin America during the magical realism boom. I, for one, began reading magical realism based upon this sense of romanticization, which has since transformed into something else (hopefully bringing me a little closer to the type of understanding I want from this fascinating area of literature).

This is more of an anthropological look at things, though. I'm certainly no expert by any means in criticism, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt. I also suspect you're more informed about the subject matter than I am (I think you've read a lot more magical realism and criticism than I have at least).

Please pick apart more of this, as I really do appreciate seeing holes in my logic and how people disagree (I tend to be stubborn and need the disagreement, otherwise I wind up living in a vacuum).


message 9: by Alan (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Garcia Marquez has said when asked about his work that he was merely following the tradition of story telling he grew up hearing as a child from family members. No formal structures, just a simple a way to tell stories. And this links to something Borges has written. In the short story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" he says: “The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, nor even for an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement.” I think this reflects a key part of magic realism, and what it offers to the reader and author, which is a chance to dazzle the mind with fantastical constructions. I can still remember discovering One Hundred Years of Solitude and being mesmerized. This has without doubt been one key influence in my own work.
I use this style to captivate the reader, and make possible transitions that are far more imaginatively rich than might otherwise be the case. I've written a bog entry that refects on this, and gives an example: http://raincoastimages.ca/raincoastfi...
There is much that is mystical about the way we live our lives, and I think this genre is a way we reflect that in literature, and by grounding the fantastical in a concreteness that underpins our mundane existence we can both dazzle and be dazzled.


message 10: by Laura (new)

Laura | 3 comments I consider myself a huge Magical Realism fan although compared to comments already made mine is a simplistic view. For me the genre is about the impossible being made possible in our every day lives, with no explanation of the how this is could be. For example Murakami's talking cat or Doctorow's hero whose Father is a mountain and Mother is a washing machine. I have enjoyed reading the comments above as it has highlighted to me there is a lot to learn about the genre but for the moment I will just enjoy getting lost in the story and hope one day I get to meet some of the fantastic characters I have read about!


message 11: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Brooks (potok) | 115 comments One of the reasons I like magic realism is that it acknowledges the magical in the real. I think one might turn this question on its head and say what is realism without magic? It excludes a huge part of human experience - religion, mysticism, superstition are intrinsic to most people's lives, even those who live in the 1st World. So what is real about realism without magic?

BTW I don't think magic realism is a genre, more of an approach to storytelling.


message 12: by Alan (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Zoe wrote: "what is real about realism without magic? ... magic realism is ... an approach to storytelling. "

The conscious apprehension of life is a series of infinitely nuanced reflections. We can know things (the real) but we live our lives among the connections that lie between. This is the world of long shadows that embraces our music, art, poetry and enchantment.


message 13: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Brooks (potok) | 115 comments James wrote: "I'm cool with the disagreement. It definitely gives me more to think about, and, yes, I agree that knowing your own culture 100% is a bit of straw man as you put it. There are conscious and unconsc..."

It seems to me from my reading, that one aspect of magic realism is as a means of expression for the culturally oppressed. It is usually their magic against the reality of the oppressor. At the same time it can also be used to address horrendous issues, such as genocide and slavery, in a way which both makes the issue approachable and explores the bigger picture.

But the oppressed and excluded are everywhere. What interests me is how a writer can use it to give voice to these people. As a woman I am very interested in magic realism in fiction about women, but equally it could be about the homeless, drug users, prisoners or the mentally ill.


message 14: by Alan (last edited Feb 13, 2013 05:54PM) (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Zoe wrote: "the oppressed and excluded are everywhere. What interests me is how a writer can use it to give voice to these people. As a woman I am very interested in magic realism in fiction about women,"

How especially would you use it in these contexts? For me, I like the way it loosens boundaries, and the imaginative, evocative flow it can engender. I wrote a blog post on using this for transitions in characters http://tinyurl.com/8blbht8 I wonder if this is one sense of what you refer to, how it can used to illustrate hard to comprehend events in the passage of a narrative.


message 15: by Zoe (last edited Feb 14, 2013 03:53AM) (new)

Zoe Brooks (potok) | 115 comments Alan wrote: "Zoe wrote: "the oppressed and excluded are everywhere. What interests me is how a writer can use it to give voice to these people. As a woman I am very interested in magic realism in fiction about ..."

That is one aspect. But it can work in a number of other ways, such as creating an inner life for a character which is as real as the outer and when the outer is particularly oppressive then the inner is all the more important. This then can spill into the fiction's world, particularly so if that character is the narrator or the story is seen from their POV.

As westerners we are taught that reason and logic are superior to intuition and feelings. Obviously one could talk about gender here - the portrayal of the illogical, intuitive female. But think also of how someone who is crippled with pain so much so that they cannot think may find that their intuition is enhanced.

Then of course there is the use of magic realism to explore issues beyond normal circumstances - for example the way Virginia Woolf uses it in Orlando. Men don't turn into women, but what if they did, what would be the difference. It is important to keep the context real to make the exploration work.

And finally (for the time being) it can be used to explore the horrific. This can be a character shift such as one you talk about - eg in Beloved. Or it can be used to create a detachment for example when the abused child turns the abusing father into a monster. Or it can used to express the experience of a whole community.

Magic realism allows the writer to go deeper, further into the pysche, both individual and collective. I have always been interested in the function of fairytales and it seems to me they have been doing much of what I am talking about for centuries. It is the realist approach which is the new kid on block, not magic realism.


message 16: by Traveller (last edited Feb 14, 2013 12:29PM) (new)

Traveller (moontravlr) | 3 comments James wrote: "I'm sorry I wasn't clearer when I communicated that message, but I meant that in criticizing the use of magical realism that they are also implicitly criticizing the cultural viewpoint itself, whic..."

Um, you know James, i understood exactly what you were saying in your first post, and think you were quite clear enough. ..and i think you make quite valid points. I suspect that when what one says is so radically misconstrued by another poster, one might seek for the origin under a bridge. (If you know what i mean. ;))

Anyway, i've intuitively loved MR since i read my first GGM as a teenager. Especially of the South American variety- GGM is one of my faves, and i enjoy Isabel Allende as well.


message 17: by Laura (last edited Feb 18, 2013 06:33AM) (new)

Laura Pratt (nongermane) I'm new here and love the discussion, espceially the notes on magical realism and gender.
I don't generally believe in absolutes. Therefor, for me, magical realism and its blending of reality and the fantastical, can reach some of our deeper truths.


message 18: by Annie (new)

Annie (aschoate) | 1 comments Magic Realism is found when two different cultures are combined in the same place or person. One culture usually predominates. It is the language most people speak, the religion they believe in. their social interactions. Even their politics may define who they are.

The secondary group varies enough from the predominant group that their actions are unbelievable. Sometimes the secondary group is so difficult to accept that it becomes invisible to the predominate group. In other circumstances the secondary group only exists in the thoughts of the predominate group.

The magic occurs when something beyond the familiar appears and we must make sense of it. It is the land of the subconscious that artists, writers and magicians must draw from to create. Can we accept the implausible as real?


message 19: by Alan (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Zoe wrote: "Alan wrote: "Zoe wrote: "the oppressed and excluded are everywhere. What interests me is how a writer can use it to give voice to these people. As a woman I am very interested in magic realism in f..."

So as a device or strategy to show aspects of human life that often escape description, or which can never be translated into concrete terms?


message 20: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Brooks (potok) | 115 comments Alan wrote: "Zoe wrote: "Alan wrote: "Zoe wrote: "the oppressed and excluded are everywhere. What interests me is how a writer can use it to give voice to these people. As a woman I am very interested in magic ..."

I am not sure about a device, but a way of looking through another person's eyes, where that person belongs to a group/culture that is not the dominant one. I worked for over twenty years with disadvantaged people and I am conscious that they often see things very differently. Obviously ethnic minorities fall into that category and their treatment fits with the more conventional view of magic realism, but there are other subcultures.

Here in Europe the rationalist agnostic/atheist view is the dominant intellectual one. Part of the problem in this discussion about magic realism is that the people discussing it are those same intellectuals who have no idea how many of their fellow citizens believe in magic. They can see magic realism in terms of different ethnic cultures but not within their own, For example I live in the most agnostic/atheist country in the West according to the census (the Czech Republic) and yet my builder suggested putting out a gift to the house fairy


message 21: by Laura (last edited Feb 20, 2013 04:54AM) (new)

Laura Pratt (nongermane) I agree it is a device to show the aspects of human life which cannot be described in concrete term, and
In think of Like Water for Chocolate when I state this. Tita's mother literally haunts her until she has accepted that her mother and the limitations she has placed on her are fully lifted. The ghost cannot leave until she has finished with her grief and anger.
Then again, I don't think it has to be singularly used for cultures where "magic" or "fairies" are accepted. This is an amazing article form The Guardian that is arguing magical realism in North American is finding a new path and definition with Generation X. They name Garden State, Monsters, Lost in Translation, Finding a Friend for the End of the World, and of course Beasts of the Southern Wild (which really could prove a counter point that magical realism is for the marginalized).
http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmbl...


message 22: by Alan (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Laura wrote: "I don't think it has to be singularly used for cultures where "magic" or "fairies" are accepted"

Magic realism taps into an unconscious life of symbol and metaphor, as opposed to fact and analysis. You might not believe in fairies, but are secretly convinced that your lottery numbers have magical properties. The other part of magical realism, and the part that I value as much as any other, is the power it lends to mesmerise the reader with fantastical constructions bound to an observable world (the juxtaposition is a powerful imaginative tool). The aesthetics of the style (including the potential for endlessly long, spellbinding, lyrical sentences)) is one of its great strengths.


message 23: by Laura (new)

Laura Pratt (nongermane) Alan wrote: "Laura wrote: "I don't think it has to be singularly used for cultures where "magic" or "fairies" are accepted"

Magic realism taps into an unconscious life of symbol and metaphor, as opposed to fac..."



First of all, get me on the right day and I'll totally believe in any fairy you send me.

Second, I agree with you that magical realism taps into our unconcscoious with symbolsim and metaphor. What about taking it a step further and agreeing it plays with classic archetypes as well. Have you ever read or seen any bits of Joseph Cambell's interview with Bill Moyers on The Power of Myth? Part of his idea is we are so connected to these myhtologies and fairy tales because it taps into our own deeper psychological truth. That, in fact, literature genres such as magical realism, are more alligned with our human nature than any kind of biography on the shelf.


message 24: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Brooks (potok) | 115 comments Joseph Campbell's writing - particularly The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been tremendously influential on theories of story structure. The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is a rehash of Campbell's book and virtually every film produced in Hollywood conforms to the formula set out in that book. Of course Campbell is a Jungian and his theories are based on Jung's interpretation of archetypes and fairytales and myths.

I refered to fairytales earlier in this discussion. They are arguably the purest form of story, they come from an oral tradition which has refined them over centuries. As children a fairytale is the first story we experience and that has a profound resonance in our later experiences of fiction. It also has a profound impact on how we interpret the world.

It is possible to look at many of the great works of fiction and say which fairytale plot we are dealing with - eg Jane Eyre = Cinderella meets Beast. This works because a) the fairytale is dealing with archetypes eg the rejected child and b) we subconsciously identify the story structure. Of course Jung was talking about the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and not Walt Disney.

As a writer I was overjoyed recently when a reviewer said of one of my magic realism books that it was reminiscent of Grimm's original fairytales.


message 25: by Alan (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Laura wrote: "Second, I agree with you that magical realism taps into our unconcscoious with symbolism and metaphor. What about taking it a step further and agreeing it plays with classic archetypes"

Always been a fan of Levi-Strauss, but we could take it yet further and consider The Large, the Small and the Human Mind and the possibility that our mind works on the quantum level, with all the non-locality thus implied (some of what we imagine might be true, somewhere). If so, then magical realism becomes an actual blending of realities?


message 26: by Laura (new)

Laura Pratt (nongermane) Alan wrote: "Laura wrote: "Second, I agree with you that magical realism taps into our unconcscoious with symbolism and metaphor. What about taking it a step further and agreeing it plays with classic archetype..."

I'm kind of loving this idea. I have not read The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind, but give me a couple weeks and I'll get back to you on this idea.


message 27: by Alan (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Laura wrote: "I'm kind of loving this idea."

We might find that magic realism is the literary equivalent of Platonism.


message 28: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Brooks (potok) | 115 comments Alan check out The Tooth Fairy for a book that is all about using magic realism to portray the psychology of the main character


message 29: by Alan (new)

Alan Dean (raincoastfiction) | 12 comments Zoe wrote: "Alan check out The Tooth Fairy for a book that is all about using magic realism to portray the psychology of the main character"

A great opening sentence - I'll put it on the list! I see it has very mixed reviews, which can be a good thing. Thanks.


message 30: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Karakai | 8 comments Magic Realism is a powerfully complex medium. My first novel was Magic Realism, and was inspired by everything I had read up until that point. I think there is a fine line between fantasy and MR, and the key difference between each is the way the story presents itself.

MR blends the fantastical with reality, without obvious acknowledgement. For example, The Alchemist does this to great effect. The story does not prompt you to think 'Wow,' rather, it expects you to genuinely believe that these fantastical elements are occurring.

The Magic is in the Realism.

The Realism is in the Magic.

It is, to me, the most important mode of writing we have, as it allows one to appreciate the seemingly impossible in an ordinary reality.


message 31: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Brooks (potok) | 115 comments Following my year of reading magic realism I have tried to answer this question in this blog post: http://magic-realism-books.blogspot.c...

It was part of the magic realism blog hop and you can find out what a number of bloggers have to say on the subject by clicking on the links at the bottom of my post


message 32: by Craig (last edited Aug 10, 2013 09:15AM) (new)

Craig Magical realism in books is when the supernatural is interwoven in "real world" settings such as a modern city like New York or Kyoto, but doesn't necessarily dominate the story. I think The Bestiary is a good example of that. Just speaking for myself, it's an often elusive element that appears inexplicably in a story, but isn't supposed to be there in the protagonist's mind.


message 33: by Liz (new)

Liz Skewes (lizaskew) | 3 comments To be honest, I really don't think it's worth being a "stickler" over what truly constitutes something one might refer to as "magical realism". To me, it is any story which reconciles its more fantastical elements with reality as the target audience knows it, so as to ease the suspension of disbelief, and convince the reader that "this could really happen", or even just show someone a perspective on the world that is fantastic, yet also possible. I even thought I had coined the term "magical realism" myself until I did a little searching on the matter! I had defined it in a more accessible and practical way, which at the end of the day is the point of genre classifications. No?


Charlie wrote: "I wouldn't call using magical realist techniques "robbing cultures of their cultural perspectives." And what does it mean to "truly understand?" I distrust these ideas of "knowing" predicated on ..."


message 34: by Liz (new)

Liz Skewes (lizaskew) | 3 comments Zoe wrote: "James wrote: "I'm cool with the disagreement. It definitely gives me more to think about, and, yes, I agree that knowing your own culture 100% is a bit of straw man as you put it. There are conscio..."

Hey! You're onto something with that! Oppression is the whole reason why I find magical realism so enticing to begin with, but not just cultural oppression. Human oppression in general is the oldest theme there is. The oppression of simply being human at all! The laws of physics and nature are oppressive, to all living things. As sure as those laws define us, they oppress us. They make all our most important decisions for us and overwhelm us. Nature is so much bigger and more powerful than we are. Why wouldn't we want to bend its laws, and read stories that can make us believe, just for a little while, that they REALLY can be bent? Why else would we love vampires and werewolves, and other creatures which defy nature as much as we do? They don't age, they are not soft, malleable, delicate creatures like we are, they are not confined to only walking the earth but can fly or swim under water for hours with no need for air. This is why I love magical realism. Exactly.


message 35: by Tyler (new)

Tyler Taylor | 1 comments To me, it's about memory and perception, on either a cultural or personal level. To paraphrase Garcia Marquez, it can have to do with remembering your life/experience in the way truest to yourself or your culture, not necessarily a recitation of historical facts.


message 36: by Curt (new)

Curt Simmons (cksimmons) | 1 comments Hello everyone. Just joined the group and I love the robust controversy. I would never have found my way here had I not recently finished narration of an audiobook considered Magic Realism. After having been deep in character study, motivation, and justification of the choices I made in my narrative delivery, I find Magic Realism more alluring than ever. So I am seeking a broader understanding of how others experience it.

I am not certain what makes a genre a genre. As a narrator I find the idea of genre too limiting to my interpretation and storytelling. However, I agree, of course, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss and organize literature without some form of categorization.

So many thought provoking ways of describing it as I read through the discussion. All I know is when story and character begin to entice me to consider that my perception of the possible could be incomplete, it fires my imagination and gives me hope.


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