Magical Realism: A Brief Definition (in the form of a rebuttal)


Over at Suite 101 they have an article about Magical Realism. While the author lists some excellent examples of the subgenre, I do think she gets one thing quite wrong:

An angel walks into your local grocery story with shiny wings and a glowing halo. Everyone accepts this as a natural occurrence and doesn’t bat an eye.

My problem with this statement isn’t that it’s simplistic–the author admits that as a fault. The problem is that it’s wrong on a fundamental level.

I would argue that Magical Realism is actually an exceptional disconnection of the fantastic from focus. Yes, it is about the acceptance of the fantastic as natural, but it goes beyond that. Magical Realism makes exceptional, both in its form (writing) and its content (characters, etc.), the naturalization and de-mystification of the fantastic; this means that, while Fantasy presents the fantastic in a way that is both exceptional in its presentation (i.e. we see it vividly and in a form that clearly demarcates the elements that make it fantastic) and its content (stories “of” the fantastic), Magical Realism does the exact opposite, taking something that we know doesn’t exist (or at least only exists in a particularly limited supernatural scope) and putting it into the backdrop of an otherwise “real” story. You don’t actually “see” the fantastic elements in Magical Realism unless you’re intentionally looking for it. They become so utterly embedded into the world, so de-emphasized so as to be less than a passing fancy. You don’t see the fantastic in Magical Realism well enough to say that it is a coherent structure of the fiction being portrayed.

So, when an author uses an example like an angel walking into a grocery store, that has far more to do with urban fantasy than it does with magical realism. Why? Because the angel is not de-emphasized; the example clearly allocates considerable textual play to the nature of that angel’s existence, placing such a being outside of the exceptionally naturalized. Magical Realism goes that one step further by making the fantastic natural for us (the readers) too.

Does anyone disagree with me? Let me know what you think about Magical Realism. I’m curious to hear opinions on this.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

4 thoughts on “Magical Realism: A Brief Definition (in the form of a rebuttal)

  1. I wondered what this Magical Realism is in more detailed and explained in depth way, so that I can understand it. I knew that it had to do with de-mystification, but I haven't read it, yet.

    Your explanation helped me understand it and yes, the example you high lighted is more UF than anything. If the example was that the man was as ordinary as any other, but later on his background revealed he was an angel, but accepted as nth shocking, then it would be magic realism. Right?

  2. Harry: Well, this isn't a full explanation of Magical Realism. It's very brief and leaves out a lot of things I simply don't know about the subgenre.

    As for your question: I'd really have to read that story. A provisional "possibly" is in order. The problem with magical realism is that you can't describe a book and then say "this is Magical Realism," because you're almost always talking about something as if it's fantasy in highlighting what makes it Magical Realist. That's the problem with MR. The novels de-emphasize the fantastic, but we constantly draw attention to it as being exceptional.

  3. SMD: Even as brief as it is, it was helpful to clear whatever questions I had about the definition.

    And yeah, I guess that it would be a bit hard to label it, because it is subjective and to a different person it can mean different genres. But I meant that being an angel is treated the same way someone tells that he is a vegetarian or republican. Normal.

  4. Harry: Even that wouldn't necessarily mean it was Magical Realism. Fantasy, for example, treats things like vampires and magic as normal…all the time. Normalcy is too weak a determination. De-emphasized is more important (features that are fantastic, but are treated so limited in the text, that unless you're looking for the fantastic, you won't really notice it, or you shrug it off as nothing).

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