When magic is the reality

735011_10151317440863518_1886868707_nLike attempting to compare a fish to a bird, Magical Realism is not akin to Fantasy.

To begin with: lets remove that ‘magical’ tag that has recently crept in, and return to the original title of ‘magic’ realism, for what we discuss here is not magical at all; there is no fantasy within this genre. I must confess, I am a fan of magic realism; although slightly pedantic in what I feel deserves to carry that well-earned title. Yes, its genre we are talking about here – well, sort of. I hope you didn’t think this was a post about magic? I suppose the heading and picture were somewhat deceiving, but they got your attention; so I hope you do read on.

Luckily, I am not an academic or a genre-expert, so you will not find a long-winded, heavily researched piece here. And I have a short-attention span when it comes to discussions on genre, so we may just skim over that. Anyway, I tend to see genre as a (somewhat necessary) box that writers are often forced into for the sake of marketing our work. And perhaps sometimes genre is used as a form of elitism among writers, publishers, academics and reviewers; especially when the term ‘literary fiction’ is thrown in to the pit for them all to scramble over. Instead, what you will find here is written from a reader’s point of view; someone who aspires to be a writer of magic realism.

Like all stories, this post needs a beginning, so let’s make that ‘this morning’. So, this morning….actually, it was the afternoon: late night with friends + weekend = sleep in. Anyway, today I woke with the awareness that it was once again time to compose a new post for my blog, but with a deep sense of: what do I have to say that anyone would want to hear today, or perhaps ever? Before I could be dragged into that fiery pit of despair, known more commonly as Writers Block, I was saved. Thankfully, a chance sighting of a post on the ever-a-pool-of-knowledge for us writers – the Indies Unlimited blog (check it out at: http://tinyurl.com/cogmryp) – gave me the inspiration I was seeking.

It lay in just one sentence, a harmless one really, which was repeated as a question on the Indies Unlimited facebook page: Do you think that magical realism [is] nothing but fantasy with an accent?

This question (or shall I say challenge) was put forward by Lynne Cantwell; fellow blogger, published author and frequent contributor to Indies Unlimited (information on her books can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/ccr2g4m). It’s important to note here that my post is not a critique of Lynn’s post, and the only point in common is the interesting idea that magic realism is a posh form of fantasy.

Well, simply put, the answer to Lynn’s question is: No

And now the non-simple response:

Fantasy and magic realism come from totally different places, written by authors who see the world from a unique angle, because of the way that they belong in this world, their realities; their identity, their cultural knowledge and the historical experiences that continue to impact on their kin and homelands.

If we look at the works, lives and origins of the masters in magic realism, we see some common threads. I speak of authors such as: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Alejo Carpentier, Franz Kafta and Toni Morrison. They have all experienced, or are descendants of those who have experienced, massive social upheaval such as: colonisation, slavery, genocide, diaspora, loss of land, conflicts and wars, and other forms of inhumanity that humans continue to inflict on each other. These things, and the telling of them, are truths, they are real; they are not akin to fantasy.

An author uses magic realism to tell of these big picture (macro) moments within their lives, or the lives of their ancestors. However, their stories focus on the little picture (micro) happenings; broken down to simpler terms, relationships among families and communities, and those from outside that sphere of belonging and identity. Their stories are based on reality, on history and truths that many would prefer were buried; never to be spoken off again.

There are no glittering vampires here, no trips to the underworld, no dancing with the pixies, or transportation to other realms. There is just reality, a different view of history, that the author is asking you to accept as realism.

Magic realism uses devices still found within indigenous storytelling; an oral tradition which continues despite all attempts of cultural genocide. It subtly tells historical facts by blending the difficult-to-swallow parts with the ‘magic’  or arcane elements found within traditional storytelling; for the purpose of planting greater understanding in a reader’s awareness of humanity, to gently shift the worldviews of those who have not had the experiences that the author endures/has endured.

Indigenous peoples use stories in a multi-leveled manner; like an onion, there are many layers to carefully uncover. On a simple level, a story is a form of entertainment, told around the communal fire to both children and adults. This story often has the dual purpose of being educative: a cautionary tale as to what may happen if a child strays too close to the fire, or a person steps beyond the cultural norms; breaching law or lore. As a person grows in their understanding of the world, and are judged ready for more knowledge, the same story would be re-told, but with some additions. This adding of layers to a story continues until it reaches an arcane level; usually only accessible by Elders – that which is secret-sacred.

To be fair, I have read some books labelled as magic realism, written by authors who are not indigenous and/or do not have a lived or ancestral experience of the historical events I have mentioned. However, I would hazard a guess that they have a deep connection to the land on which they live, and a respectful understanding of the hidden side of history.

Now for the (more?) controversial statement: I believe that it is the lived or hereditary factor of social and/or political upheaval, and a continuing connection to culture and identity, that forms an author of magic realism.

We might give you a peek into our worlds, share with you parts of our culture, or you may feel a deep connection to country, or even a sense of shame for what has happened/continues to happen to our peoples, but you can never fully step into our realities. Instead, we give you magic realism, so that you may have a glimpse of our worlds for a fleeting moment, and perhaps accept a new realism, one which will hopefully help you to grow in your understandings. Just like the stories of old.

Back to that notion that magic realism is fantasy with an accent. It may not be fantasy but it does have an accent. Not a hoity-toity accent, like that of ‘esteemed’ literary fiction. It has the accent of the many (or their descendents) who have seen the horrors that humans can and do inflict on other humans; and have survived to continue their way of life, their culture, their deep connection to country and treasured sense of identity.

As I said in my opening, I aspire to write magic realism. I may never reach that goal, but still I can try. For an example of my work, please see the (for now) opening to a novel I am writing (http://tinyurl.com/c9qs4wg). On the surface, yes this extract could be confused for fantasy. However the intent of this piece is to set the scene for the bigger story, which explores themes such as: identity, colonisation, stolen generations, belonging, culture, diaspora and Country. This piece asks the reader to put aside their worldviews and values for just a moment, and accept that Aboriginal people have always been on Country and always will be; despite the social-political upheaval that they have had to/continue to endure.

Image downloaded on 4/5/13 from:  http://tinyurl.com/c726fnu  

23 thoughts on “When magic is the reality

  1. I find the, seemingly, multi-splintering of genres a little frustrating at times. I have myself been described as a multi genre writer; when I label a book, for the purpose of marketing et cetera, I feel I am only guessing at what genre it falls into. The only ones that seem to fit comfortably into any labelled, genre are memoirs.

    From your description of magic realism I feel my historical fiction (based on fact but from the point of view of a first nation people who, for all practical purposes, were eradicated to the point of extinction) might just fit it. Another of my books is set near the end of this century, but it’s definitely not science fiction, and because it is a speculation on a possible future I have called it speculative fiction; however, after checking out other speculative fiction novels, I feel that it is miss labelled, and to its detriment.

    Excellent post by the way, Karen.


    • Ahh, a fellow genre-hopper. And someone who has picked Australia as their new home (I peeked at your author page). In addition to being a descendant of First Nations peoples of Australia, I have Scottish/Irish/English ancestors. So, welcome to my blog T.D., and to this discussion.

      Us multi-genre writers have the freedom to write in new ways, cage-free, wild as we like. And this is all fine – until it comes time to market our work. It seems as if we are now faced with an ever growing list of genres and sub-genres. Its like watching a tree constantly shooting new branches, and bearing all sorts of fruits. So, its little wonder writers get confused, let alone the readers.
      Even memoirs are not totally safe from mislabeling, as there have been occurrences where one has sold well, only to be later revealed as fiction (i.e. the author hoodwinked everyone, often even changing their gender or ethnicity).

      Without reading your book, from the synopsis on your author page, I would hazard a guess that it is historical fiction (and not magic realism); regardless of the point-of-view you have used. I agree with you on your final point (‘…mislabeled…to its detriment.’), as when our works are labelled incorrectly, there are consequences; such as poor sales.
      So, to help our novels find their ways to readers who will appreciate them, we need to learn how to label them smartly, by: 1) reading widely across genres, so that we understand the finer points of each genre and 2) be objective when we finally bestow a genre-tag on our own work. Finding someone with the right expertise, and powers of persuasion, is another good approach.

      All the best with your work-in-progress, the maybe-speculative fiction novel.


  2. Genre is less intimidating when we think of it as umbrella heading for various elements. I’m happy to consider anything with a magic element to fit nicely under fantasy as that genre explores the speculation of the ‘what if’ world when magic or impossibility are added. Magic Realism does vary greatly from High Fantasy, but all books ultimately reflect on our own current societies and humanities. Genre also helps readers find works that are similar to books they’ve enjoyed before, and make navigating bookstores a lot easier 🙂

    So, I guess I’m a bit of a fan of genre.


    • Genres are a necessary infringement on the creative process of writers. We need to allow our work to be labelled to make selling and buying easier. Equally so, care needs to be taken when labeling so that books are not put in the wrong section on those bookstore shelves. However, the fantasy:magic realism debate is like comparing apples to oranges; both fruits but with entirely different textures and tastes.
      I remember reading how Terry Pratchett’s work is often mistaken for magic realism, which is nonsense – he is a well respected fantasy writer (recently stepping into SciFi; or is it Spec Fic?), and is proud to be a writer of fantasy. I think this mislabel occurred because some marketers/reviewers were unable to accept that such a popular author, whose works are full of social and political commentary, could possibly be labelled as fantasy. This is just elitism, as no genre is better than another. Each serves a purpose, and caters to eager audiences.
      So, I am not intimidated by genre, neither am I a fan; but can accept its function as being necessary.


  3. Karen,

    First, I love this post. 🙂

    Second, I think what you’re saying is that magic realism (and thanks for lopping off the -al; I was pretty sure it didn’t belong there, but couldn’t put my finger on why) is a modern outgrowth, in a way, of myth. (I’m using the word “myth” in the folklore/archaeology sense, not in the modern, disparaging sense.) I totally endorse that idea.

    Third, my offhand remark was originally in reaction to the way MFA programs regard fantasy: it’s not okay to read anything that includes any sort of magic, unless it’s written by someone “authentic” who is writing about how their culture was downtrodden by the white man, etc. Those are “magic realism” and are okay to read; every other type of fantastic literature is dreck. It’s an elitist view that annoyed the crap out of me when I was in grad school.

    Fourth, I’ll be writing a response for my own blog tomorrow. So thanks for the post idea! 🙂


    • I should probably clarify, for the sake of anyone reading these comments, that your (Lynne) post that I based my post on was actually about writers ‘borrowing’ from other genres. A idea I totally support. For example, I am editing a novella which probably fits in general fiction, but just for the hell of it, I planted a few elements of fantasy (like a walking cat and a cameo from man that is supposed to be deceased). It might make it hard when it comes time to genre-label but why not learn, borrow and steal from other genres?

      Now, the more serious subject of elitism. Yes, it exists within writing and among people in the industry; and its annoying and pointless.
      I am not sure what a MFA program is, but am guessing its some type of formal literary study program. If so, it sounds as if your lecturer/s were correct in aspects of magic realism: it is written by authors with certain lived experiences (‘…authentic…’), it does concern itself with cultural clash and differing worldviews (‘…culture was downtrodden…’) and explores issues of power & privilege (‘…by the white man…’). Apologies if I have misquoted or interpreted you incorrectly here.

      Where I would disagree with your lecturer/s is this idea of elitism towards fantasy. Magic realism and fantasy are not, and never will be, the same thing. Some ‘borrowing’ may occur, but a fish is still a fish even if it dons wings. That is not to imply that one of these genres is better than the other; and a person should never be judged for what they read.
      However, When studying literature, there is some rationale for being selective if reading material – as in choosing novels/resources that fit the topic you are studying, or will assist you to complete assignments/exams. Also, making students read or write outside of their usual genres is like how art students are made to create things they may not (initially) care for, in mediums they may be reluctant to touch – its part of the learning and development process.
      When reading for informal study (i.e. honing your writing skills) read in your chosen genre, pick up a genre you have never heard of before or one you have been avoiding; just read, and read widely. And read with an open mind and eagle-eye, so you learn from that author and genre (maybe even borrow elements for your own writing).
      When reading for any other purposes – its totally up to you; follow your tastes or your heart, take advice from the old lady down the road or the weekend paper; and thumb your nose at anyone who tries to tempt you with elitist drivel.

      Can’t wait to see your pending post – should I be scared?


      • LOL, not at all. Somehow I missed this reply (it was kind of a crazy weekend), but I think I touched on your points in my blog post yesterday anyway. 🙂

        Yes, MFA stands for Master’s in Fine Arts, and it’s usually considered the terminal degree in the US for artistic programs of study. (Although technically, what I earned was an MA because my program didn’t call it an MFA; still, there was no doctorate-level degree offered, so there ya go.)


  4. Hi, Karen. I enjoyed your post, though I am still a little confused. What is your definition of ‘magic’ in the context of ‘magic realism’? I also read your extract, which is beautifully written. The first part of that was what I would call fantasy, since the likelihood of sea creatures knowing they fancy being land creatures so deciding to grow ‘buds’ they then develop into legs, is way out there in fantasy land. But then, the part with the old woman & the girl is gorgeous: ‘magical’ in the sense of amazingly beautiful. You have that great ability to ‘conjure’ up a whole other place from where I live. In that sense it is ‘magic’. Is that the sense you mean?


    • Thanks for the well thought out comment, which has made me think things through with more care. I suppose, in my post, I didn’t give enough attention to the ‘magic’ aspect of this genre, so thanks for the reminder. I suppose magic is the arcane aspects of life, that which usually goes unnoticed and unexplained. The way I see it, the authors of magic realism will occasionally throw in a piece of information that is beyond belief, not at all logical. For example, a character that is well over 100 years old, or one which is supposed to be dead, or maybe the sighting of something that cannot possibly be real. Its my belief that this is done with the purpose of stirring a listener/reader who has started to drift off (at the micro level) or to make the audience think ‘there is something here, a truth, that I need to grasp.’ (macro).
      Taking it back to devices used in indigenous storytelling, there are many characters (ancestors) who take on the form of an animal or landmass, and this was not questioned by the audience. Instead, it helped people to understand 1) there is much more to the world then what we could ever know, and 2) we are connected to every other being on the earth, seas and skies, including to the very earth that we stand on. Which of course leads to a greater respect for that which is beyond human form, and reminds us that we must care for the earth and all creatures as if they are our brothers, sisters and grandparents.
      And yes, the opening of my extract is ‘way out there’ but I use it as a device to get the reader to open up, lay aside the way that they see the world, see the continuation of life from primordial beings to human; ready to receive the story that I have created for them. This novel isn’t completed as yet, so maybe my device will work, and maybe it won’t.
      Hope this answers your questions?


      • Thank you, Karen. Yes, it answers my question in that I now know what you mean when you speak of ‘magic realism’ as a genre. I suppose the closest dictionary definition of magic to what you describe is one I found that states it is ‘a mysterious quality of enchantment’. Or do you think of it more as ‘the practice of charms, spells and sorcery’?
        Like you, I see wonderment in all of creation and nowadays, I think the word ‘magic’ is often used to describe that sense of awe or wonderment without reference to the supernatural necessarily.
        Interesting. A thought provoking post. Well done, Karen. 🙂


        • The ‘magic’ in this genre does cause confusion; but I am not sure what would have fit.
          Totally agree with you about the sense of awe and wonderment, and I can recall this element being within magic realism novels. Its usually the power and beauty of the natural world (the story setting and/or driver of conflict) and sudden actions of characters (such as courage or love at first sight) that evokes this feeling; and not something supernatural.
          A simple definition of magic within this genre might be: the power to (or appear to) influence the course of events using mysterious means.
          So, its events that are hard to explain with logic but are still believed, the arcane with a touch of metaphysics, a touch of unreality within a otherwise very real setting/story; which are all used to change/drive the chain of events within the novel.
          Again – this is all just my take on it, so I could be off track.


          • I have problems with the word magic – it tends to be devalued in many people’s eyes. As I said over on Lynne’s blog I prefer the word “alternative”. It is an alternative way of seeing the world instead of through rationalism. A key point in magic realism is that the “magic” is presented as real – certainly in the eyes of the central characters.


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