(A table of contents is available. It will be kept updated throughout the series, and I will reblog it upon completion of the series. This series will remain open for additional posts.)
Part 15: Do You Believe in Magic?
Comparatively speaking, magical realism is not particularly old–certainly not when compared to fables and folklore which are as old as human consciousness. Magical realism really got its feet on the ground as part of the post-colonialist literary movement. Wholly embraced by Latin American authors in the 1940s, the genre soon became a staple for writers from around the world to express an alternate world view as not just possible but as fact.
What makes a magical realist story?
Magical realism is all about taking the fantastic, the marvelous, the magical and making it read true. I don’t just mean in the simple way that fantasy makes magic real, but in the more anthropological meaning of believing these magical elements are a real, physical, tangible, expected part of our reality–not the story reality, the real-world reality. That’s where the realism comes in. These stories are not set in a created universe. The characters are on Earth, in our world, in our timeline, in our own actual existence; they’re taking care of real problems, everyday, ordinary life events; but there is some kind of fantastical element. The biggest characteristic of the genre is that this element, this magic, this fantastic thing is treated completely normally. The fantastic is completely ordinary.
These fantastic elements may be treated in such a way as to be unable to determine if the element is truly fantastic or simply a taken-for-granted, normal occurrence. Things like ghosts are common elements, but the reader is so tuned to the normalcy of the rest of the story that the ghost may seem completely obviously not out-of-place. Magical realism also plays with the idea of altered states inducing a version of normal that may not seem normal to us but is completely normal to the character. This altered normal becomes the story’s normal, becoming the reader’s normal. Another tactic that’s been used is an uncertain quality to the fantastical elements’ sources. Is the character having a mental breakdown or is there really a ghost?
It’s crucial for authors to stay neutral about “the truth” of the reality they are conveying. This sometimes requires the author to suspend their own belief or disbelief in order to portray a reality without the accidental nagging feeling through word choice or details that sew doubt into the reader about the reality of the reality. It’s not the author’s job to tell readers angels are or are not real. It’s the author’s job to portray an Earth where angels are real and everyday and unquestioned in their existence (at least by the POV character). This is called authorial reticence.
An additional characteristic has been that the ordinary is treated as extraordinary, however, this is less a requirement and more a fun exploration. Time is often cyclical in magical realist tales–what has happened before will happen again. Characters rarely achieve the promise of a better life, and terror nearly always outweighs any kind of rejuvenation promised in magical realism.
Clearly this genre has a lot of things in common with fantasy and urban fantasy especially, however it’s important to remember that fantasy in a fantasy story is treated fantastically while fantasy in magical realism is entirely ordinary. Magical realism is often seen side-by-side with Gothic literature as well.
What are your views on Latin American authors and literature? Any authors or books you can recommend, as well as advice from Latin American authors, kinda in the vein of Stephen King's On Writing?
I think that asking someone what their “view” is of literature is probably not the right thing to ask. Views are what you have on politics, philosophy, and religion; not so much on literature. But I guess my view on Latin American literature is that it’s important and inspiring, and also that there is not enough of it to be found in most bookstores. I view it as annoying that in some places, you’ll only find it on two shelves in the specially marked section, in the back, next to the two-shelf LGBT section and the two-shelf African-American section and the two-shelf Asian-American section and so forth. Most of my viewing of Latin American authors is done via the Internet or their author photos on the dust jackets.
Julia Alvarez (In the Time of the Butterflies), Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street), Pablo Neruda (tons of poetry), Francisco Hinojosa (Hectic Ethics), Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) are the ones I have on my bookshelf. Here is a list of books Goodreads came up with to cover for my appalling lack.
Unfortunately, I am also lacking in Latin American author advice. Anyone have any books or articles I could add?
From the ask box:
Anonymous: On Latin american books: Brazil has lots of interesting classicals such as Machado de Assis (anything by him, but specially The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, Quincas Borba and Sir Dour). Nowadays fantastical literature has grown and Raphael Draccon is an author that can be found in some countries in America or Europe.
mctumblovin said: The book specifically on writing as in advice for writers that I can think of by a Latin American novelist would be Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa. Also, The Paris Review does excellent long writer interviews which are some of the best places I know of to learn about writing from, with interviews with everyone from Nabokov and Hemingway etc through to current authors like Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides, and that includes a lot of authors from all over the world including Latin American ones, so you can look up specific author interviews there. They’re all free online last I knew of, and also available in compiled volumes.
“Today, when our habit is to willfully confuse literature with sociology, with sorting, with trading in skins, we imagine the point of a ‘life’ is to address some sort of numerical average, common obstacle or persecution. Here is a book 'about' teenaged Chinese-American girls. So it is shelved.”