When most people hear magical realism, they immediately think of Gabriel García Márquez and his book One Hundred Years of Solitude. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Márquez tells the story of the fictional town of Macondo and the generations of families that live there. It includes people coming back from the dead, a plague of insomnia, and thunderstorms of yellow flowers. If not Márquez, many know of contemporary writer Isabel Allende, arguably the most popular current writer of magical realism. But, some well-known books, authors, and movies also fit into the magical realism category – ones you might not expect. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami have all written magical realism. Movies like The Green Mile, Chocolat (as well as the book by the same name by Joanne Harris) and Big Fish (also a book by Daniel Wallace) can be grouped in the genre as well as the TV series The Leftovers on HBO. Books like Life of Pi, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Lovely Bones, and 11/22/63 can also fit into the genre of magical realism.
Then what is magical realism exactly? Is it fantasy? Literary fiction? The simple definition of magical realism is when a story is set in the real world, but the people in the world accept that some magical elements exist – when magical elements are a natural part of the world as we know it and are accepted as such. Stories in this genre may include retellings of fables and cultural myths to bring them back into contemporary social relevance, such as the book The Alchemist. Latin American writer Alejo Carpentier coined the phrase “lo real maravilloso” or “the marvelous real,” but Maggie Bowers is often credited as the originator of Latin American Realism, from which all magical realism stems.
When considering the definition, it becomes clear just how broad and inclusive magical realism really is. It’s also a genre that tends to overlap with other genres. Many books in the magical realism genre are also part of other genres, usually literary fiction and fantasy. There aren’t very many set rules as to what makes a book magical realism, but there are a few.
One of the rules or exclusions of magical realism is surrealism, a different genre that has more to do with psychology and the mind. Magical realism deals with the material, tangible world. Another widely accepted rule of magical realism is that the story takes place in the world as we know it, and the characters have the same needs and limitations as we do. This differs from fantasy where the setting is typically a far-away land and magic is wide-spread and known, and tends to be a power that comes from within. Magical realism simply adds a magical element into the story, such as a man with giant wings (“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez) or an epidemic makes an entire city go suddenly blind (Blindness by José Saramago).
Magical realism presents a very interesting opportunity for literary fiction and fantasy authors. Authors can enjoy a blending of both worlds by creating a playful and unorthodox story that sparks readers’ imaginations.
Recommended reading to examine magical realism in different cultures:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
- The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
- Blindness by José Saramago
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
If it walks like a fantasy, and it squawks like a fantasy… Call it “Magical Realism” so Barnes & Noble will shelve it with the mainstream fiction.