What Is Magical Realism,
Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers
realism" has become a debased term. When
it first came into use to describe the work of certain Latin American writers,
and then a small number of writers from many places in the world, it had a
specific meaning that made it useful for critics.
If someone made a list of recent magical realist works, there were
certain characteristics that works on the list would share.
The term also pointed to a particular array of techniques that writers
could put to specialized use. Now
the words have been applied so haphazardly that to call a work "magical
realism" doesn't convey a very clear sense of what the work will be like.
a magazine editor these days asks for contributions that are magical realism,
what she's really saying is that she wants contemporary fantasy written to a
high literary standard---fantasy that readers who "don't read escapist
literature" will happily read. It's
a marketing label and an attempt to carve out a part of the prestige readership
for speculative works.
don't object to using labels to make readers more comfortable, to draw them to
work that they might otherwise unfairly dismiss. But by over-using the term, we've obscured a distinctive
branch of literature. More
importantly from my perspective, we've made it harder for new writers to
discover the tools of magical realism as a distinct set allowing them to create
work that portrays particular ways of looking at the world.
If writers read a hundred works labeled "magical realism," they
will encounter such a hodgepodge that they may not recognize the minority of
such works that are doing something different, something those writers may want
to try themselves.
what is magical realism?
is, first of all, a branch of serious fiction, which is to say, it is not
escapist. Let me be clear:
I like escapist fiction, and some of what I write is escapism.
I'm with C.S. Lewis when he observes that the only person who opposes
escape is, by definition, a jailer. Entertainment,
release, fun...these are all good reasons to read and to write.
But serious fiction's task is not escape, but engagement.
Serious fiction helps us to name our world and see our place in it.
It conveys or explores truth.
genre of fiction can get at truths, of course. Some science fiction and fantasy do so, and are serious
fiction. Some SF and fantasy are
escapist. But magical realism is always
serious, never escapist, because it is trying to convey the reality of one or
several worldviews that actually exist, or have existed.
Magical realism is a kind of realism, but one different from the realism
that most of our culture now experiences.
fiction and fantasy are always speculative.
They are always positing that some aspect of objective reality were
different. What if vampires were
real? What if we could travel
faster than light?
realism is not speculative and does not conduct thought experiments.
Instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who live in
our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objective.
If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a
fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and
have "real" experiences of ghosts.
Magical realist fiction depicts the real world of people whose reality is
different from ours. It's not a
thought experiment. It's not speculation. Magical
realism endeavors to show us the world through other eyes.
When it works, as I think it does very well in, say, Leslie Marmon
Silko's novel Ceremony, some readers will inhabit this other reality so
thoroughly that the "unreal" elements of the story, such as witches,
will seem frighteningly real long after the book is finished.
A fantasy about southwestern Indian witches allows you to put down the
book with perhaps a little shiver but reassurance that what you just read is
made up. Magical realism leaves you with the understanding that this
world of witches is one that people really live in and the feeling that
maybe this view is correct.
possible to read magical realism as fantasy, just as it's possible to dismiss
people who believe in witches as primitives or fools. But the literature at its best invites the reader to
compassionately experience the world as many of our fellow human beings see it.
are three main effects by which magical realism conveys this different
world-view, and those effects relate to the ways in which this world-view is
different from the "objective" (empirical, positivist) view.
In these other realities, time is not linear, causality is subjective,
and the magical and the ordinary are one and the same.
the structure of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, One Hundred Years of
Solitude. As readers sense from
the first first page which begins with a firing squad and then a very, very long
flashback, time does not always march forward in the magical realist world view.
The distant past is present in every moment, and the future has already
happened. Great shifts in the narrative's time sequence reflect a
reality that is almost outside of time. This
accounts for ghosts, for premonitions, and the feeling that time is a great
repetition rather than a progression. In
Garcia Marquez's novel, certain events keep returning in the present focus, even
as time does gradually wind through generations.
for causality, the objective view tells us that one person's emotion can't kill
someone else. We believe this so
strongly that a world view in which emotion can kill won't convince us---we'll
write it off as fantasy. So magical
realist works put causally connected events side by side in a way that doesn't
appear to violate objective reality, but attempts to convince us by details that
the events described are linked by more than chance.
In Ceremony, for example, there is a scene in which a spurned
woman is dancing very angrily. Miles
away, the man who betrayed her is checking the commotion his cattle are making
in the night. Descriptions of the
woman's heels stamping the floor are alternated with descriptions of the cattle
trampling the man to death, back and forth from one to the other.
No assertion of causality is made, but the dancer's heels and the
animals' hooves become linked so powerfully that the reader doesn't just
"get it." What's conveyed
is not a symbol or a metaphor, but the reality that a woman can be so angry that
when she dances, her lover dies.
third effect is my favorite. If
your view of the world includes miracles and angels, beast-men and women of
unearthly beauty, gods walking among us and ceremonies that can end a drought,
then all of these things are as ordinary to you as automobiles, desert streams,
and ice in the tropics. At the same
time, the whole world is enchanted, mysterious. Automobiles, desert streams, and ice are all as astonishing
convey this, magical realist writers write the ordinary as miraculous and the
miraculous as ordinary. The ice
that gypsies bring to the tropical village of Macondo in One Hundred Years of
Solitude is described with awe. How
can such a substance exist? It is
so awesomely beautiful that characters find it difficult to account for or
describe. But it's not just
novelties such as a first encounter with ice that merit such description.
The natural world comes in for similar attention.
The behavior of ants or the atmosphere of a streamside oasis are
described in details that match objective experience, but which remind us that
the world is surprising and seemingly full of design and purpose.
miraculous, on the other hand, is described with a precision that fits it into
the ordinariness of daily life. When
one of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude is shot in the
head, the blood from his body flows out into the street in a path that takes it
all the way to the feet of the character's grandmother---a miracle.
But along the way, the path of the blood is described in great detail,
and the miraculous journey is rooted in the day-to-day activities of the village
and the grandmother's household. An
even better example is the character who is so beautiful that she is followed
everywhere by a cloud of butterflies. This
extraordinary trait is brought to earth somewhat by the observation that all of
the butterflies have tattered wings. The
miraculous, looked at closely, is mundane.
written this essay from memory, without consulting the novels to which I allude.
I may have a detail or two wrong. My
point remains valid: Magical
realism is a distinctive form of fiction that aims to produce the experience of
a non-objective world view. Its
techniques are particular to that world view, and while they may at first look
something like the techniques of sophisticated fantasy, magical realism is
trying to do more than play with reality's rules.
It is conveying realities that other people really do experience, or once
a tool, magical realism can be used to explore the realities of characters or
communities who are outside of the objective mainstream of our culture.
It's not just South Americans, Indians, or African slaves who may offer
these alternative views. Religious believers for whom the numinous is always present
and miracles are right around the corner, believers to whom angels really do
appear and to whom God reveals Himself directly, they too inhabit a magical
I don't expect the words "magical realism" to revert to their
specialized use, I hope that writers won't lose sight of the special literature
those words once pointed to exclusively. Magical
realism is fascinating to read, and I hope to see more writers exploring its
possibilities and conveying to "mainstream" readers ways of thinking
that can help all of us to somewhat re-enchant the world.
Holland Rogers is the author of Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer,
to be published in the spring of 2002 by Invisible Cities Press.