Writing magical realism: The ultimate guide

How modern writers seamlessly blend fantasy with reality.

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Magical realism – sounds a bit like an oxymoron, does it not?

Let’s begin with realism. Nineteenth-century realism was a revolt against romanticism, with its use of the supernatural and its unreal picture of life – after all, how many Ahabs are out there feverishly chasing whales, and how many Roderick Ushers are immured in darkened gothic castles, about to descend into a dark tarn?

Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne are the major literary exponents of American Romanticism, but as with any literary movement, it ran its course. Under the aegis of William Dean Howells and Henry James, literary realism evoked the kind of life ordinary people lived, at first the middle or business class. Gritty naturalism in the hands of Stephen Crane soon brought this down to the working class and to the seamy side, prefiguring the hard-boiled fiction almost a century later of Raymond Carver (with other precursors, of course, such as Flannery O’Connor).

Still, the gritty, or – as it’s sometimes called – “low-rent” fiction didn’t supplant the work of a New Yorker realist like John Updike, who typically reflects a world many readers take in during the ordinary course of their day in contemporary suburbia, the freeway, and the shopping mall. The writer who wants to represent this world must soak it all in and select details that represent it with verisimilitude, or accuracy of detail, a governing principle of realism. “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost,” James famously said, speaking of “impressions” as “experience.”

Impressions of lived experience – that’s realism.

What, then, is magical realism?

When you think of magical realism, many think of Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Jorge Luis Borges. Or perhaps American authors Toni Morrison and Alice Hoffman, British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, or Japanese magical realist Haruki Murakami. But there are a number of magical realists from the past not mentioned here, and we continue to see works of magical realism today by such writers as Aimee Bender and Paul Yoon. Is there a growing interest in the form?

Bender, a novelist and short story writer, believes there is, but “it has been present and alive in international fiction always,” she says.

On the other hand, according to Kate Bernheimer, novelist, short story writer, scholar of fairy tales, and editor, “I don’t think there is a growing interest in this form because I don’t think interest in this form has waned since storytelling began, whenever that was – we’ve had it at least since cave writing. If you are talking about interest among dominant (mainstream) American publishers, sure: They increasingly market magical realism, because they realize it sells.”

To get a better handle on the nature of magical realism, let’s consider its various characteristics, the techniques employed in writing it, and some rich examples that illustrate the magical realist at work.

And let’s also focus on this: How can magic be part of realism?

Characteristics of magical realism

One definite characteristic of this genre, says Bender, is that a magical element is interwoven with ordinary realism. “The magic is proportional – that is, it fits with the world; it doesn’t distort but adds layers and imagery to deepen what is already happening.” A key founder of magical realism, as she points out, is Márquez, who, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, claimed that “he was just writing the world as he saw it, that he wasn’t trying to embellish.” In the work, such magical elements as ghosts are seamlessly worked into the ordinary world of the novel as well as improbable details like a rain that lasts almost five years. 

Kellie Wells, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, reserves the term “magical realism” for Latin American magical realists, such as Juan Rulfo, Márquez, and Allende, but in a larger sense, she links magical realism with fabulism. “Both magical realism and fabulist fiction are generally grounded in a world that is recognizable to a greater or lesser degree (there’s a spectrum) but in which magical, fantastical, or otherwise improbable things occur.”

Fabulist fiction isn’t bound by the constraints of ordinary reality, says Wells, and “nearly anything can happen.” It’s fiction “unfettered by empirical reality, in which human beings suddenly sprout wings or apes deliver disquisitions on what it is to be human.” It can also include “fiction set in historical theme parks built according to verisimilitude, tips acquired from ghosts, fiction of the supernatural, paranormal, surreal, metaphysical, the oneiric, unlikely, implausible, the uncanny, the marvelous, fiction in which magic, myth, and dream construct a cosmos at a tilt,” she says.

For Wells, there is a compelling existential reason that helps to explain writers’ as well as readers’ interest in this form. “All art wrestles, in one way or another, with the fact that we’re mortal, and I think mortality disposes us to an interest in magic, so until the conundrum of death is solved, we’ll likely always have an appetite, in art, for exceeding the limitations of what is observably possible,” she says.

If fabulist fiction is one expression of magical realism, another is the Marvelous Real, as scholar and fiction writer Michael Mejia notes. Though the term “magical realism” has roots in European modernist art criticism, he says Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier “reframed the European concept” by linking it to “indigenous American cultures’ unique ways of perceiving and being.” In doing so, says Mejia, this genre exhibits “an authentic belief in the spiritual-magical potentials of the more-than-human world of which we’re a part, and acknowledges these potentials as just as real as any scientifically ‘provable’ reality Western Enlightenment logic might insist upon.”

In further defining this form, Mejia first states several things the Marvelous Real is not: “The Marvelous Real is not dream or hallucination (products of the mind), it is not legend or fable or fairy tale (with those forms’ inclinations toward critique or instruction), and it is not the Surreal (a suppressed reality, allegedly obscured by urban, industrially oriented reason). It is not invented or imagined by us.” What is it, then? According to Mejia, “It is the real that exists without us, indifferent to human priorities, not a style or a genre, but a condition, a state of being in (of being capable of) wonder.”

Bernheimer resists strict definitions: “Magical realism survives because it resists boundaries, like all minoritarian art forms. It’s a kind of story (like a fairy tale, a fabulist story, or a myth): Any of these can be instructive, surreal, or even fascist. Magical realism depends on the artist and her relationship to the real to become the art that we encounter with wonder.”

Magical realism techniques 

It’s one thing to have a general grasp of a literary form, definition-wise – to understand its various expressions and parameters – but it’s another to be able to employ the relevant techniques. If you want to write magical realism, what techniques might you use? What are some key ones?

With magical realism, the magic becomes part of everyday reality. For the characters, there’s nothing surprising at all about it.

According to Bernheimer, she is “definitely looking for an amplified use of the technique of ‘everyday magic’ most of all.” If the magic is not “counterfactual in a story,” she considers the story to have a relationship to magical realism. With magical realism, the magic becomes part of everyday reality. For the characters, there’s nothing surprising at all about it.

According to Bender, one specific technique is altering historical context, which is “changed or deepened by a magical presence.” But, she cautions, this is “never weirdness for the sake of weirdness”; instead, it’s “weirdness to describe life genuinely, which is then no longer officially weirdness.” A second technique combines “a sense of language and inventive imagery to develop character and scene.”

For Wells, this inventive imagery can come in the form of literalization of metaphor, which provides a “fresh angle on commonplace themes or hackneyed tropes.”

She explains, using an example from Bender’s short story “Marzipan”: “Let’s say you want to write a story about grief, about loss. You have a character who is grieving the loss of a loved one and who experiences this as a gaping emptiness inside him. In a fabulist story, that character might wake up one morning to discover he has a perfectly formed absence in his abdomen, a hole through which he can reach his hand.”

Wells appreciates the use of this litaralized metaphor in Bender’s story but also in her work as a whole. “What makes Bender a brilliant literalizer of metaphor is that this translation is never as emotionally simple as it might first appear. There are always complexities that lie beneath the surface of the tilted premise,” Wells says.

What about the Marvelous Real? As with magical realism, notes Mejia, it also “juxtaposes realistic representation – presented with realism’s substantial detail – with the potentiality of that representation to produce irreal, but organic, encountersmeaning the ‘magic’ emerges with a natural logic (physical or psychic) from its environment.”

“Wind or physical or emotional lightness, for example, might produce flight without the benefit of wings,” he continues.

“The so-called magic may be the least magical thing in the story: survival or hope may be the most remarkable, astonishing thing.”

Again, the taken-for-granted “reality” of the magic: Keep in mind, says Mejia, that the form does not involve characters’ reflections on such magic. “Characters within a work of the Marvelous Real tend not to be surprised by the occasional wonders they encounter. They treat them as everyday challenges or questions, much like Gregor Samsa [in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis], discovering he’s become a ‘horrible vermin’ overnight, worries first about the difficult nature of his job as a traveling salesman (not about why he is a vermin).”

Mejia sees the Marvelous Real as an “act of collage,” wherein “two seemingly unrelated media are joined in a surprising, even shocking encounter.”

Bernheimer reminds the reader that in such a story, “the so-called magic may be the least magical thing in the story: survival or hope may be the most remarkable, astonishing thing.”

Themes and ideas in magical realism 

As a form with rich metaphorical possibilities, magical realism lends itself well to themes and ideas – that is, abstract levels larger than the surface level of character and plot. Thematically, it can function in different ways, from the psychological to the social and political.

If you write magical realism, your work need not be entirely in this vein; you can employ an element or two of magical realism. We see this in Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which takes up the nature of power. “The main character develops a ‘power’ to taste the emotional life of the cook in the food she’s eating,” says Bender.

Certainly this is not what we would expect in standard literary realism. Yet this story isn’t as filled with magical realism as some stories one encounters, says Bender. “It doesn’t have the scope of a lot of magical realism, as it’s a pretty tight focus on a family, but the magic is supposed to fit fairly naturally inside the storyline.” However minimal in its story reach, the magic is there nonetheless, and it is integral to character, plot, and theme.

Kellie Wells’ novel Fat Girl, Terrestrial provides another valuable framework for thematic ideas, in this case centering on the issue of gigantism. According to Wells, the protagonist, Wallis Armstrong, has “grown to an improbable height” of nearly nine feet tall. Yet the issue Wells focuses on is not a medical one.

“The point of her towering was not to consider the suffering of a body burdened by a literal pathology but rather to examine that of a body burdened by a social, ideological pathology,” Wells says.

In Wells’ novel, gigantism provides the framework for a psychosocial study, one with existential import as to the matter of humans occupying more than their fair share of terrestrial space: “Wallis Armstrong goes through life feeling as though she takes up more space than she’s entitled to, the fundamental quandary of any marginalized person,” states Wells.

Mejia’s novel Tokyo is set mostly at Tokyo’s Central Wholesale Market, Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world. His novel turns on the provocative image of a bluefin tuna containing a human body. In drafting the novel, says Mejia, he was sensitive to “irreal potentials.” What eventually transpired was “the unique organism on which the whole book hinges, an embodiment of private, public, and environmental disturbance” – the collage of bluefin tuna with human body, “an object organic to the setting but resonant with layers of mystery and potential implications.” Magical realism works here at several levels: the individual, the social, the ethical. With the human body being fused with the tuna, Mejia’s novel interrogates the question of commodification – and market value. If the fish, why not the human? What gives a human, and not a fish, moral consideration in terms of not being viewed as a commodity only?

Bernheimer’s “A Tulip’s Tale” is a work of magical realism that utilizes a non-human narrator, a “bulbette, or young tulip bulb,” says Bernheimer, “who befriends a girl who is auctioned off to a man as a child.” Authors who inspire Bernheimer’s work in this vein include Clarice Lispector, Primo Levi, and Mercè Rodoreda. The particular vantage point of an organic but non-human form gives Bernheimer a unique perspective on various social and political evils: “It’s a story about childhood sexual abuse, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and anorexia – illnesses of a patriarchy. None of these words show up in the story itself. A flower bulb might experience life without these words but not, science tells us today, without emotion and language. Flowers experience friendship, daughterhood, and separation. This is a very political story for me. Magical realism often emerges amidst dangerous axes of power.”

As a scholar of magical realism, Bernheimer particularly appreciates Brazilian writer Lispector’s “The Smallest Woman in the World,” with its contemporary political message. She contrasts this story with the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Style serves an important thematic function: “The Brothers Grimm perfected a spare style with very few embellishments; this downplays its details.” In the Grimms’ fairy tale, Gretel is not “physically described at all,” states Bernheimer. We know only that she is “very young, around 6 or so years old,” but somehow she’s able to shove “a fully grown adult” into an oven. This is “everyday magic,” says Bernheimer, “but the magical qualities of this even happening are not the emphasis.” On the other hand, Lispector emphasizes the “size and appearance” of Little Flower – 26.5 inches tall – who is from a race of pigmies in equatorial Africa. Because of her race, and Lispector’s specificity regarding her size, Little Flower becomes emblematic of the Other – in terms of Western thinking. Bernheimer sees an anti-hierarchical message here that’s missing in the Grimms’ story: “The Grimms, by de-emphasizing the power differential, have written a story that rebalances horizontal axes of power; Lispector here more overtly highlights verticality’s dangers to us.”

 

Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews. His book of articles on fiction writing, Inventing the World, is soon to be released by Serving House Books.