Sunday, 21 July 2013

What is Magic Realism


This is the first day of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty bloggers are taking part, so when you have finished reading this blog post pop along to the other blogs (see the links below).  

On the 29th July this blog will be one year old. I started the blog as a way of ensuring I finish my magic realism challenge - to read a book a week for a year. And the reason I started the challenge was because I was told I wrote magic realism, but I didn't know what that meant. By reading 52 books, I hoped to have an answer. I deliberately read as widely as possible, both in terms of geographical origin and genre. So what have I discovered?

The first thing I discovered is that there is no easy definition and that there are a number of interpretations of what magic realism is. 

There seem to be three main strands of magic realism. The first is what one might call Latin American magic realism, exemplified by the works of Isabel Allende and Federico Gabriel Marquez. In this form of magic realism, "magical" events are treated as normal occurrences in an otherwise realist world and are not commented on. This magic realism strand is informed by the coming together of two cultures in a post-colonial world: the western realist/rationalist (and dominant) culture and the "magical" indigenous cultures of South America. Whether the post-colonial context is essential is open to debate, but this mixing of two cultures with different belief structures has become so frequent a theme in magic realism, that arguably it is essential to the definition. Examples of this "two cultures" magic realism are not restricted to South America, but also include native American writers such as Silko and Erdrich, Jewish writers such as Alcala and even Kafka, British South Asian writers like Rushdie and Afro-American writers such as Toni Morrison. Arguably this definition also applies to feminist magic realism, such as that by Angela Carter and Virginia Woolf. 

Then there is the European strand. The roots of the European magic realism are in the surrealist and post-expressionist movements. The first use of the phrase "magic realism" was by art critic Franz Roh in 1925 when writing about the post-expressionist movement: 
We recognize the world, although now - not only because we have emerged from a dream - we look on it with new eyes. We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things.
For me this definition is still important: everyday things having deeper-than-expected meaning seems to be a key element of magic realism. 

This European strand has an approach that is very different from Latin American magic realism. It is more self aware, so much so that metafiction regularly features in some leading magic realist novels, such as Life of Pi, or If On a Winter's Night A Traveller. To show that my attempt at definition is fraught with problems, some of the best examples of this approach come from outside of Europe, such as works by Borges and Murakami. And there are plenty of common roots for both strands. Franz Kafka is in many ways not a magic realist writer, he is too surrealist, but he is remarkably influential on the development of magic realism. Arguably he is the root of magic realism - it was his story Metamorphosis that inspired Marquez to write as he does. 

There is a third strand, which is what might be termed popular magic realism. This uses magic realism as a story-telling technique. The magic can be a way of showing the psychology of characters, such as in the Tooth Fairy, or of exploring alienation, such as in The Story Sisters. It can be used to show religious and non-rationalist beliefs that exist even in western society, for example in Fludd. Or it can simply be used to add a touch of magic.

Magic realism in all these strands questions the nature of "reality". In some ways it is unfortunate that it is called magic realism. In the context of our world, which is dominated by rationalism and science, the term "magic" often implies unreality. However magic realism allows the writer to draw a world where there are alternatives to rationalism. It might be better described as "alternative realism". 

Please follow the links below to take you to posts on magic realism from lots of other bloggers. And please come back here tomorrow and Wednesday, when there will be two more posts as part of the blog hop. And there's a giveaway too - a collection of magic realist e-books and a Kafka bookmark. See the Rafflecopter below. Remember leaving a comment on this post gets you an entry.


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17 comments:

allonymbooks said...

Thanks for the signposts, Zoe! I think you've done a great job of mapping a complex area of writing. If any 'genre' showed the potential for cross-genre fusions it's surely magical realism. And thanks too for the book recommendations - great for anyone wanting to start reading magical realism.

Zoe Brooks said...

Thanks, Evie. Tomorrow I will be publishing a post listing and linking to all the magic realism books I have reviewed on this blog, so you will have more books to add to your reading list

karenwyld said...

Zoe, what a great summary of your year of reading magic realism. I find your 3 stream idea very interesting, and it may help to guide blog-hoppers like myself.
Thanks for hosting the magic realism blog-hop. I look forward to everyone's posts, and following the reader-writer discussions that are sure to follow.
Karen

muriellerites said...

Well thought-out and inspiring post. If the magical element is embedded is the character's psyche, the story becomes magic realism.
Great organisation Zoe, the hop is sure to be a success.

Edie Ramer said...

Great post on magical realism. For me, I like the little extra in a book when you believe that magic can happen.

Thanks for organizing this hop! I'm off to read more posts.

Christine Locke said...

What a wonderful explanation! Thank you very much, and I am looking forward to that list of novels tomorrow.

Marsha A. Moore said...

I enjoyed your thorough definition of the three types of magical realism--great stuff!

Nana Cheryl said...

I had no idea what Magic Realism was...which is why I joined the Goodreads group. Now I see why I've been so confused! Thanks for the great summary.

Andres Araujo said...

I am familiar with the Latin American strand and I agree that it somewhat mixes the pre-colonial European rational style and the South American native supernatural elements that flourished mainly in the countryside. However, lots of Spanish pre- and post-colonial literature (e.g. famous Don Quixote) contained magic or surreal elements that came to South America as precursors of the genre. Thanks for the posts, looking forward to reading some more.

Andres Araujo said...

I am familiar with the Latin American strand and I agree that it somewhat mixes the pre-colonial European rational style and the South American native supernatural elements that flourished mainly in the countryside. However, lots of Spanish pre- and post-colonial literature (e.g. famous Don Quixote) contained magic or surreal elements that came to South America as precursors of the genre. Thanks for the posts, looking forward to reading some more.

Tad Crawford said...

Excellent background and insights. I couldn't agree more with "deeper than expected meaning".

Christoph Fischer said...

I am loving this blog. I like it when there is magic in books! ;-)

karenwyld said...

Zoe, thank you for hosting this week's Magic Realism blog-hop. It's been great visiting the other participants' blogs and joining in the discussions.

Willow C Winsham said...

Just a note to say I've been reading through your blog and have thoroughly enjoyed your posts.

I've just had the "Oh! I'm writing magic realism!" epiphany after a long hard search for where my current novel might fit - looking forward to reading more and hopefully getting to know other writers in this area.

Teagan Kearney said...

The generous Karen Wyld sent me the link to your blogpost as I've written some magic realism, and I've had a great time skimming through some of the blogs.
I'll definitely be reading the posts on the blog hop (great idea) and thought your summary of magic realism clear and succinct.

Beth said...

How did you get into magical realism?

Robin Gregory said...

Oh, this is wonderful, Zoe! It explains why there is so much confusion about MR. I love what you have been doing in the FB page, and look forward to seeing the other blogs. Thank you!