Genre Exploration: Magical Realism

Another day, another installment of my Genre Exploration series, where I discuss genres I don’t normally pick up, define them, talk about their classics and new releases, recommend books and authors, and much more.

This time I want to talk about magical realism. I’ll be focusing on Latin American magical realism to honor Latinx Heritage Month, given that this genre originated and flourished here. I know some people are often confused by it and don’t really know where to draw the line between magical realism and fantasy, so today I want to explain the differences between both genres and talk about some of its classics. That way, I’ll share my love for this genre with anyone who is on the fence or confused about it. Let’s go!

Even though the original term of magical realism was coined by Franz Roh, a German art critic, when we talk about magical realism in literature we have to pinpoint it to Latin America. Arturo Uslar Pietri, from Venezuela (like me), was one of the first to bring the term to the continent and started writing short stories based on it. The genre just grew from there and it has permeated literature all across the world.

what-is-it

Magical realism portrays fantastical elements in our regular world as if they were ordinary occurrences. They are not given an explanation, they are simply accepted. In this genre, the setting is always realistic. When a book’s world doesn’t resemble our own or the magical elements stand out from the rest, it stops being magical realism.

How is it different from fantasy?

Fantasy can also include fantastical elements in our regular setting (urban fantasy) or it can create whole new worlds, such as Narnia or the Middle-earth (high fantasy). However, the main difference between magical realism and fantasy is how reality and fantasy blend.

For example, in magical realism a character trait might be that they grew wings, just as if we were saying they dyed their hair. The wings hold a deep meaning, of course, but it’s not treated like that in the narrative. It’s up to the reader to figure out the significance. In fantasy, those wings might mean something entirely different, like the character is a supernatural creature or has special powers.

Criticism towards Magical Realism

Given the subjective nature of its definition, magical realism has received endless criticism. Some people don’t acknowledge its existence and simply call it fantasy. For example…

“Magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish” – Gene Wolfe

I literally laughed out loud and rolled my eyes at the same time when I read that quote. People don’t seem to want to acknowledge magical realism as a separate genre and I can’t help to think that’s just because it was born and became prominent in Latin America.

Latin American magical realism often blends reality with its own myths, folk tales and fables, but to say that it’s just fantasy in Spanish dismisses the genre’s unique approach towards those fantastical elements and the fact that it can stand as a literary movement on its own. In doing so, this type of criticism misses the point of what the genre really is about and denies the possibility of a new genre’s existence just because it’s in Spanish or because it comes from Latin America.

Magical realism is one of my favorite genres and I’ve read it since I was a kid. Because I’ve read a bunch of magical realism and fantasy, I have an easier time recognizing each genre on its own. So, if you are having a hard time grasping the concept, check some of the following books and I’m sure it’ll make things easier 🙂

major-works

Here are some magical realism novels and short story collections from Latinx authors that I believe are representative of this amazing genre.

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  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de Soledad) by Gabriel García Márquez | A family’s tale through generations in the fictional town of Macondo. You can expect levitation, a genealogical tree with identical names generation after generation, the prophecy of a baby with a pig’s tale, characters that die and come to life again, and much more.
  • Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua para Chocolate) by Laura Esquivel | I’ve talked about this book before. You can expect a tragic love story and recipes woven into the narrative.
  • The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los Espíritus) by Isabel Allende | Although I haven’t read this one yet. I’ve studied this book and heard so much about it that I feel like I have. It deals with a family tale, forbidden love and political unrest.
  • Cuentos de Amor, Locura y Muerte by Horacio Quiroga |  He was like the Edgar Allan Poe of Latin America, so clearly I was captivated by his writing. His short stories are dark, creepy, and gory. I haven’t read them all, so I can’t be sure if they are all magical realism, but I had to mention them nonetheless. This particular collection doesn’t seem to have an English title, but I found these other two: Jungle Tales and The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories.

Are you a fan of magical realism? Are you confused by it?

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22 thoughts on “Genre Exploration: Magical Realism

  1. I’m not a very strict genre definer, I suppose. I’ve always classes magical realism as a subgenre of fantasy, but that might not even be correct. I’ve really thought about the exact definition, I’ve always just based my classification on what feels right, but the way you explained it makes sense, how magical realism is our world but with some magical elements that are just accepted as normal. I don’t read it a ton, but I do read it sometimes 🙂 I still have The Weight of Feathers on my bookshelf just waiting to be read actually lol, I think that’s magical realism. Great post!

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    1. I don’t see magical realism as a subgenre of fantasy because I really believe their origins and their approach to those fantastical elements is quite different, but I do understand why people can see it that way. I guess it depends on how you define each genre 😛 I just checked the blurb for The Weight of Feathers quickly and I think that’s just fantasy. But people have also classifed it as magical realism, which is confusing. I beliebe I don’t understand other people’s concepts for the genre lmao

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  2. I think I enjoy it, but I definitely get confused about what individual books get classified as magical realism. Your explanations and examples make a lot of sense and will help a LOT when I try to read another one. 🙂

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    1. I’m glad I wasn’t more confusing haha. I think that if people read Latinx authors and get accustomed to their way of doing magical realism, they would get the genre better because that’s where it is at its purest form. It’s hard to explain 😛 Maybe it’s because I grew up reading them.

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  3. I’ve never been a fan of magical realism. It’s too hard for my brain to get used it: is it fantasy or is it just fiction? My brain HAS to put it in one of these boxes, and since it’s can’t, I struggle too much with it. Like I can never settle down and just accept the world, if that makes sense? Maybe one day I’ll enjoy it, but so far I haven’t been able to. I can’t even get very far in Marquez’s most accessible novel because it’s too much for me!

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    1. Hahah I totally understand, but that’s exactly the reason why I love it. It’s that blend that makes it so cool for me. It’s smart to stay away from Marquez’s work then 😛 Most of his books are full blown magical realism, not just little elements like others.

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  4. I adore magical realism (though I actually prefer Alejo Carpentier’s term “the marvellous real”, as I think it’s a better description of the genre). And I hate the weird snobbery and linguistic pedantry that not only tries to classify all vaguely fantasy-based books from Latin America as magical realism, despite this being an actual genre and not just Hispanophone fantasy (I have Argentinian acquaintances who are pissed off about Argentinian fantasy authors being classed as magical realists when the genre never gained much popularity in Argentina and writers like Borges and Bioy Cesares considering themselves fantasists). Well, that and denying that magical realism can be written by anyone from outside Latin America (TELL THAT TO BEN OKRI, ASSHOLES).

    Totally agree on One Hundred Years of Solitude and Like Water for Chocolate. My father is a huge fan of Latin American literature and we have Gabo’s entire literary output at home, and I loved OHYoS so much I definitely want to read more of his work.

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    1. Ugh, I know. The comments I’ve read calling it second-hand fantasy are so awful and snobby. Thank you for bringing Carpentier’s term into the discussion! From what I remember, he actually thought the marvellous real was different from what others considered magical realism. I don’t know much about that, my memories from literature in elementary school are foggy, oops.
      There’s fantastic magical realism outside Latin America, it’s a genre that’s all over the world, which I love. Of course, Latin Americans do it a certain way, they add their own myths and such. I think all of us in Latin America grew up reading Marquez’, so a lot despise him (required reading can do that, sadly). But I enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude so much in school, I would love to reread it one day and see what I think of it now. I want to read Amor en Tiempos de Cólera (can’t remember the English translation, sorry) because it’s his next best known work and I’ve had it for a long time in my shelf. I’m not even sure if it has magical realism, but I’m hoping it does.

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      1. Yes, I remember watching an interview with Isabel Allende after Gabriel García Márquez’s death that talked about magical realism and its legacy in Latin America, and she pointed out that Cortés’ letters from Mexico, which are generally considered to be the start of Latin American literature, are full of this fabulous descriptions of wondrous cities and strange places with stranger flora and fauna; with that legacy, she argued that magical realism makes perfect sense in the context of LA literature. I remember it struck me especially since I’d had to recently read Cortés for university!

        I believe Amor en Tiempos de Cólera is Love in the Time of Cholera in English, so just a straightforward translation. I’ve also heard good things about No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada), but I’m not sure if they’re magical realism or not.

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      2. What a coincidence! And I’ll look up that interview, it sounds wonderful. I read Chronicle of a Death Foretold for school and I can’t quite remember much of it because I didnt’ love it. I don’t think it was magical realism, so maybe that’s why 😛

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  5. I love love love magical realism SO MUCH. I really need to read more books from the genre. I got so excited when I saw this post, haha. I think magical realism is bsolutely fascinating. I know people don’t like it because they can’t seem to wrap their head around it, but I just love the idea of all these magical and mystical things actually existing in our world. I love how it takes themes from contemporary novels like love, life and death and twists it with magic. I added Like Water for Chocolate to my TBR.

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  6. I am currently reading 100 years of solitude…. And I love it.. It’s totally different from all the fantasy books I have read and it certainly deserves to have a separate genre to explain its beauty. Great post 🙂

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