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