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What Is Magical Realism? A Giveaway Contest

by nickmamatas

When The Navidad Incident hits the bookstore shelves next month, you might notice a peculiar blurb on the back from Ben Loory, one of the most exciting new writers. (If anyone else has had short stories published in both The New Yorker and the in long-running semi-pro magazine Space and Time and then reprinted both stories in a major collection, I ain’t met him.) He says of the novel:

Breezy and fun, yet tranquil and mysterious…like a Japanese meeting of Kapuściński’s The Emperor and a surrealist A House for Mr Biswas. An entire world.

Interesting, eh? Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor is a work of non-fiction about the Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie. A House for Mr Biswas is the famed novel by V. S. Naipaul, and is based on the life of Naipaul’s own father. It’s a realist novel, with perhaps the slightest hint of magic in that early on someone makes a prediction about Biswas’s life that comes true to a certain extent. Non-fiction and realist fiction—interesting choices to describe a fantasy novel. But is The Navidad Incident fantasy? Or is it magical realism?

In other words, is the bus sinking or is the poor thing actually drowning?

As a phrase, magical realism seems oxymoronic. Indeed, in genre circles, plenty of people dismiss magical realism by saying, “Magical realism was invented by academicians who don’t want to use the ‘F’ word” or “Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish”—claims that to some seem to smack of both jealousy and a little racism. Not too many fantasists have won the Nobel Prize, but a few magical realists have, after all.

Then there are the magical realists themselves. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said of Kafka, and of his own work, “That’s how my grandmother used to tell stories, the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.” That is, his grandmother and her social circle actually believed in the ghosts, devils, prophetic dreams, and spirits encounters with which she described when telling stories about her life. They weren’t fantastical to her. Writer and translator Marcial Souto, who is also well-versed in science fiction and fantasy, once explained magical realism by saying, “It is not magic. Those countries are just like that…Colombia works like that.”

But then again, Latin America doesn’t really have more angels and devils and basements that contain the entire universe than the rest of the world, does it?

The Navidad Incident also works like that. If there are ghosts, then contacting said ghost is about as fantastical as making a telephone call. If a missing bus talks about the weather, spreads a disease to humans called “busitis”, and takes Holy Communion, well that’s just how mass transit in the Republic of Navidad works. Right?

At the same time, author Natsuki Ikezawa isn’t drawing from his own social and cultural background overmuch. I think it’s fairly safe to presume that he doesn’t believe in chatty buses, and that his grandmother didn’t either. He might be said to be writing a fantasy after all, though one in a magical realist mode.

So, what do you think of fantasy, and magical realism? Is there a difference? Does it matter? Give me an answer in the comments, and the four I like best will win a free copy of The Navidad Incident! Be sure to leave your comment by Friday at noon Pacific time, when we will select the best answers. And remember, we ship anywhere, and we take answers in the form of essays, poetry, and dirty limericks. If you would like to answer our question in English, Spanish, Japanese, German, or Greek, that would be fine too!

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17 Responses to “What Is Magical Realism? A Giveaway Contest”

  1. Jay Seaver says:

    Contemporary fantasy by writers who either don’t want to be labeled as “genre” writers or don’t want to give their fantastic elements internal consistency/rules.

  2. Nathan Filizzi says:

    It’s a bit complicated I think, but I would have to say that magical realism is essentially a type of fantasy that is geared primarily towards a more “literary” readership. Of course, this brings up the whole literary fiction vs. genre fiction debate and the whole “Are genres anything more than a convenient marketing tool for publisher and bookstores” debate. I don’t want to go into all that, because the first one tends to annoy people and the second one is boring.

  3. Carrie Laben says:

    I’m no expert, but to me magical realism seems freer and more responsive than most fantasy – more willing to make the supernatural work according to the emotional and structural logic of the story, rather than using it as a plot engine or a world-building trick. That’s in addition to what Nick described above, the matter-of-factness and the social context. After all, mythology itself works according to the emotional and structural logic of the society that develops it.

    That said, it’s a blurry line. And if The Navidad Incident is fantasy in a magical realist mode, it is in excellent company – House of Discarded Dreams by Ekaterina Sedia leaps to mind, as does some of the work of Kelly Link.

  4. Morgan H. says:

    Magic realism for me is more based on present day with fantastic elements that accentuate reality and absurdity. Fantasy for me is more world building with fantastic elements woven into the world like dragons and magic. The fantastic elements in fantasy are accepted as normal. In magic realism, the fantastic elements are extra-ordinary.

  5. Yang-Yang Wang says:

    A certain fiction teacher of mine once taught me that the major genres reflected certain periods of American history, with Fantasy being about the pursuit of the “golden age”, a time where monarchs were wise and tyrants were cruel, men were free to be warriors and conquerors and women were beautiful princesses or powerful queens. They often includes imaginative elements which defy the natural laws of our world, such as magic, however there the rules of each literary world are left up to the individual author and rarely reflect science.

    In my view, magical realism reflects those who have integrated fantastical elements into everyday facets of existing culture. Because they have grown up with them or belong to a larger group that shares the same belief, it becomes part of their collective reality, and is only seen as fantastic by outsiders. Some examples include Santa Claus, La Chupacabra, or even luck. While the core of the beliefs, or events in the case of a story, follow the laws of reality, there may be a fantastical element woven in to add a layer of mystique or as a story catalyst, or to show the intervention of fate or higher powers (which exist to the author). I am sure we have all felt some unlikely events during the course of our lives, and attribute them to more than just simple coincidence.

  6. J. Marshak says:

    I tend to conceive of the difference between Fantasy and magical realism coming primarily from its sense of temporal reference. Fantasy is a backwards looking genera, one that uses the past as its milieu and the place where it draws its tropes and stories. Not even just High Fantasy, mind you, although that’s where its most obvious–all of the tropes of fantasy are drawn from romanticized notions of how the world was understood in the past. Whether we’re talking about magic, a concept only possible in world lacking a scientific understanding of the universe, or its omnipresent pastiche of its social structure’s, Fantasy faces backwards, and that becomes in many ways its defining trait.

    Magical realism… is a little different. At it’s heart its a “presentist” genera, even when its at its most folkloric. Magical realism grounds itself in an alternative understanding of the now, although often that now is the timeless now. This is why it’s been so closely allied with post-modern thought, as opposed to Fantasy, which is very often quite reactionary (c.f. its leading lights Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, or its nut-jobs like Terry Goodkind). Magical realism is about making things skew, about developing a different, but equally conceptually true perspective on life that compliments the work of straight realism. It’s about introducing ambiguity into our perception of the commonplace universe by making things just ever so slightly different. Take another contemporary Japanese example, Tomoyuki Hoshino’s Lonely Hearts Killer. The book is filled with ambiguous conversations with spirits and riding the wind to China, but even more than that, its just pervaded with a sense of the fantastic, of the larger than life. This is all deployed for a very specific purpose, though–Lonely Hearts Killer sets about to imagine a new Japan, one without the safety blanket of the Emperor system to legitimize its collective identity. It’s about today in a way that Fantasy could and has never been.

  7. Casz Brewster says:

    Considering this question, I saw a poor literary agent trying to pitch a book to an editor. Depending on the editor, would determine which genre term the agent would use. It’s Fantasy to Editor A. It’s Magical Realism to Editor B. I’m selling what you’re buying kind of scenario.

    But honestly, I do believe that fantasy has to have its own world ala Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Whereas Magical Realism falls along the lines of the weirdness that happens while you’re running away or trying to find a lost cat as in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore, or even Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. Many of King’s novels, too come to mind, although the action pushes it more towards the Horror genre.

    The whole what genre is it question is exhausting often, because it takes the focus off the story and onto the business of literature, which is confusing for many. I think about China Mieville, who is classified as a fantasy writer sometimes and a weird fiction writer other times, however, many of his stories have a literary component.

    As a reader, I just want to know, is it a good effing story? Yes? Then I don’t give a flip what the genre is. I just want a good story. Sounds as if The Navidad Incident might be one to invest some reading time in.

    By the way, I’m in total agreement with you about Ben Loory.

    Here’s to a great book launch for The Navidad Incident.

  8. […] Haikasoru (Nick Mamatas) on What is Magic Realism. […]

  9. Shelly says:

    A lot of people here seem to think all of fantasy is historical fantasy, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Stories like Little Big, Tamlin, Tea with the Black Dragon, Mythago Wood, Bone Dance, all explore myth in the modern day world, or use myth in the service of explaining our own. They are not exceptions. They are just the quieter side of fantasy, the older sister to urban fantasy which itself is a major subgenre these days. Magic realism is no more than literary fantasy trying to distance itself from its genre by applying another label.

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  11. Susanna P says:

    I had a conversation about this a few weeks ago with my friend, brother, and mom. I found it hard to define magical realism for them because it’s such an odd genre that falls in between so many others.

    Magical realism is definitely not fantasy. Fantasy is consciously set in another world, either an epic one like Middle Earth and Alagaesia or an alternate view of ours, like the Mortal Instruments and Harry Potter. Magical realism is what its name says: a blend of the magical and the real. It’s fiction about current issues, history, or personal reflections but, instead of leaving them by themselves as do most realistic novels, the authors interweave “magic.” It’s not self-conscious, defined magic, as in fantasy, but seemingly commonplace occurrences. Readers just float through the books, occasionally thinking, “oh, well that’s odd,” but it’s not the same as surrealism because it’s not intending to shock. The magic just seems real.

  12. Will says:

    I agree with Shelly. There is far more variety in fantasy fiction written by authors who “own” that label than is represented by well known works such as the Middle Earth stories, the Dark Tower series, the Potter series, etc.

  13. marco says:

    “Magical realism was invented by academicians who don’t want to use the ‘F’ word”
    There’s a degree of truth to this claim. If the word Fantasy were, as it should, used as an umbrella term for all the Literature of the Fantastic, then perhaps the term Magical Realism would be applied more consistently. Since nowadays Fantasy reeks of Tolkien, Orcs and Elves, and/or maniacally laid out magical systems, it seems to me that the “Magical Realist” label is dispensed very liberally.
    Do we gain something by calling Gogol’s “The Nose” magical realist? Aren’t Borges or Cortazar much closer to Surrealism and Postmodernism than to Marquez’s grandmother? Doesn’t “the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice” describe also Aickman, M. R.James, or the ghost stories of Henry James or Edith Wharton? And how many South American (and Colombian) writers over the years have dismissed as simplistic the argument put forward by Marquez and Marcial Souto?
    To me the label remains useful to describe two seemingly antithetic approaches – one that seeks to defamiliarize the real by heightening the mundane to the point of estrangement, and the other that aims to make the magical and/or trascendent seem familiar, incorporating it seamlessly into the real.
    The key factors in both are perception and voice: the world must be recognizably our own, but seen/viewed/narrated from an angle which enables us to see things differently, or to think that we could see the same things if we were able to look in that way.

    So on one side we have, for instance, Anna Maria Ortese’s Il Porto di Toledo – a novel about the childhood of a girl in a Naples “translated” into a Spanish city, wich has no actual presence of the supernatural and yet is surpassingly strange, on the other Sylvia Towsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes in which the entrance of the Devil towards the end of what has been up to that point a realistic story not only does not shatter the suspension of disbelief, but on many levels feels right and logical.

    Some of my favourite writers, in and out of “genre” – M John Harrison, Alan Garner, Barbara Comyns , Anna Maria Ortese, Josè Donoso, Flannery O’ Connor, to name but a few – have written works which combine these two opposing strands, both the hallucinatory realism and the glimpse of the trascendent.

    Of course mine is a narrower interpretation than most (from what I read, I wouldn’t call The Navidad Incident magical realist) and somewhat subjective, since it largely depends on questions of tone and affect. For instance, I’d say that John Crowley’s Little Big has the feel of Magical Realism for much of its length, but the fantastical elements are ultimately too strong for me to call it that; Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Nights at the Circus are magical realist, while The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr.Hoffman and The Passion of New Eve clearly aren’t.

  14. soymE says:

    In my personal opinion Magical Realism does stand on it’s own. I’m not a big MR fan but I think I can tell Fantasy and MR apart. In MR most of the fantastic events can be a given, by this I don’t mean that the rules of the world of the book make it so, I mean that the cosmovision of the places where this genre is written (mostly Latin America) take the fantastical events as a given. In MR you won’t be transported to Narnia but you will meet fantastic characters that live in Guayaquil. Magical Realism stories don’t take place in a fantastic and mystical realm, in a different dimension or a rift in time, they happen in the real world. MR characters are not special, they are treated the same as any regular character. The cultural thread on which Latin America was sown is a mystical fabric that is cross-stitched alongside reality and MR is a product of this particular upbringing.

  15. foomafoo says:

    There’s just something that made me agree on the quote from Wikipedia by Matthew Stretcher regarding magical realism. He defines it as “…what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” Fantasy is a broad genre but I think magical realism does fall under its umbrella — though you can say that magical realism is a very distinct type of fantasy.

    I’m not sure if you guys do know the anime Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko but I believe it shows some aspects of magical realism especially the latest OVA that features the main protagonist contemplating about what a self-proclaimed esper showed him. The self-proclaimed esper basically told him to move 3 steps backwards from his position before /she/ does her trick so the main protagonist would believe that espers do exist. Upon doing so, a meteorite suddenly just fell right where the main protagonist used to stand. Was /she/ really an esper? If not, how was she able to tell where exactly the meteorite would fall? Did she actually cause the fall? Wouldn’t that make her the main protagonist’s savior? But surely, no one knows if that was just a fluke. How could the main protagonist tell if /she/ is an esper just by witnessing that? This is where magical realism enters. It ingeniously blends what’s logical and what is not. It tries to show the reader that there’s a thin line between what’s real and what’s not. In contrast, the broader fantasy genre could show the readers right off the bat that certain things could happen only through our imagination — things that our current understanding of the law of Physics hold us back from doing so.

    Since I just said that magical realism is distinct, I do think that it matters that we differentiate the two. Magical realism overlaps with fantasy but not all fantasy features magical realism.

  16. brock says:

    magical realism is fantasy. As much as fantasy is real. An established fact in magical realism is every bit the same as an established rule in a fantasy. Fantasy transports us to another reality. Magical realism is just like a detour off the main road to your destination. Neil Gaiman’s work straddles fantasy and magical realism with American Gods and Neverwhere. one minute you are walking around london the next you’re in a sewer talking to fantastic creatures. Magical reality is fantasy in that it does not take place in our reality here in America, but somewhere that got lost on the map. Ghost stories can qualify as magical realism in that so many believe in them, but they are still found in fantasy. My point is that fantasy blurs the lines between realities, so why can’t magical realism blur the lines found in fiction.

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