On Magical Realism
I had never before encountered the term ‘Magical Realism’ before poet Jonathan Johnson mentioned it to me . Sometimes confused with fantasy or what I have heard described as ‘The New Weird’ Magical Realism has its roots more closely connected to folktales and mythology. A brief definition would say that Magical Realism is where “magical elements are a part of an otherwise mundane environment.”
For example: Imagine ‘Benjamin Button’ – the magic is in the McGuffin of the lead going through an opposite aging process. In the ‘Metamorphosis’ by Kafka, Gregory Samsas’s transformation highlights the terror and dread of his everyday life in his family. The drama of the story takes places in the everydayness of it all but the driving McGuffin is the magic which is itself a bit mundane. Gregory Samsa has become a giant bug, which is in all a bit embarrassing to the family but Gregory did have a tendency to be an embarrassment before he was a bug.
The Mexican literary critic Luis Leal has said that if you can define a story as being Magical Realism – or identify it’s parts as being Magical Realism – then, most likely, it is not Magical Realism. While I personally feel this is a broad statement I can attest to having known several authors who write what could be called Magical Realism who stop short of giving a definition or explanation of their work. The magic, it seems, is used to highlight the mundane, the incredible, the heart-breaking and the awe-making.
As a ‘text’ (book, film, TV, internet) Magical Realism has emerged in literature all over the world, and with its roots in mythology and folklore it could be said to be one of our older forms of literature. Others have claimed that Magical Realism is a product of the 20th century – an expression of and precursor to postmodernism. While this argument can be made I am not sure it is the best argument, ignoring as it does the fluidity of genre, story, narrative and conversation. That Magical Realism has reemerged in the postmodern era, and has new currency, is of no doubt.
Some have made the claim that Latin America has exclusive ties to the literature form, noting that its development and use have so closely followed liberation movements in Latin America in their Marxist, Democratic, Liberation Theology and more recent Post-Modern forms. Western audiences, with our – in general – suspicion of the mythological, may be quick to even dismiss Magical Realism as belonging exclusively to Latin America.
North America has yet to produce a Massimo Bontempelli, arguably the father of Magical Realism, whose blurring of the magical and the realistic sought to inspire a nation governed by fascism. After all some of our major contributions – Aimee Bender for example – seem to have a distinctly middle class voice with only a little social commentary.
Such a quick dismissal, though, tends to ignore some of North Americas better contributions to the genre: the recent film Beasts of The Southern Wild and its commentary on childhood and poverty and the CBC (Canadian) series Being Erica and its explorations of brokenness and healing.
Where North America has produced a quality amount of Magical Realism is in YA and children’s literature. This comes to no surprise to anyone as we are all more than aware of the power of young adult imagination and its capacity to explore the mythological, playful, fantastic and realistic as not distinct voices but as coexistent.
I harbour no illusions that Magical Realism will become the dominant literary expression of the world anytime soon. Like The New Weird it will fit inside the niches, cracks and gaps of other literary genres, drawing on and building on a passionate fan base. From time to time a story of Magical Realism may grab the mainstreams attention – the recent film ‘A Winters Tale’ for example – and bring a new audience to a living and thriving genre.
About Jason Derr
Jason Derr is the author of The Boston 395 and the YA short story Her Red Wings. His fiction has appeared in Relief, The Midnight Diner, Green Briar Review and Literary Orphans. He studied Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University and has an MA in Theological Studies from the Vancouver School of Theology on the campus of the University of British Columbia. He lives in Portland, Or with his wife and son.