When people find out that I write, their inevitable first question is: “What do you write?”
Content warning: mentions of colonisation
When people find out that I write, their inevitable first question is: “What do you write?”
I dread this question, as warranted as it is. I fear that in trying to explain myself, I will sound like an excitable six-year-old babbling about her imaginary friends that go on adventures with a pirate king in a boat that sails across the stars.
Granted, I haven’t written that book, or anything much like it, but I do find my inspiration in the whimsical and unreal. And, like how the family Madrigal of Disney’s Encanto (2021) cannot help but talk about Bruno, I cannot help but talk about the fact that yes, I do write.
A response that satisfies these inquisitive people, myself and the truth is: “I’ll try anything, but I enjoy writing magical realism the most.”
For those who don’t know what it is, magical realism sounds close enough to fantasy that they assume an understanding even if they have never heard of the genre before. For me, it offers an express route to vacating the spotlight so I can focus on not sweating through my shirt. Yet, by not elaborating on exactly what it is that I write, I have been relegating this fascinating genre to little more than “fantasy-adjacent” in the eyes of my non-literary peers.
Let’s set the record straight. There is a distinct difference between the two.
Fantasy or Magical Realism?
You know what a fantasy world is. You’re picturing one now. Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros, The Land of Oz, Neverland, Wonderland, and a boundless number of other lands. They exist independent of the human world and are defined by systems of magic and logic that make sense within their respective fictional contexts.
But what is the context of magical realism?
In short, it’s real.
Well, it has a real setting, at least. One that could be discovered on a map of our world. However, within that setting, the strange and magical is considered totally, indisputably normal.
The most famous example of magical realism is One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez. While the characters reside in a fictional town called Macondo, García Márquez places the story within Colombia and follows seven generations of the Buendía family as they live and die along a timeline that is not strictly linear. That is because magical realism does not typically follow a traditional three-act structure. The past, present and future seem to occur at once, ad infinitum, giving the story a dream-like quality where infinity could feasibly exist between the front and back covers of a book.
When magical elements are presented as normal within the world of the narrative, they don’t necessitate explanation. No one reacts to the toddler that spontaneously combusts mid-tantrum; they roll their eyes, put out the spot fires before the house burns, and consult with the ghost of their grandmother for the best way to calm him down. In this way, magical or supernatural events become as mundane as stopping by the store to pick up a bottle of milk.
Origins and Evolution
I did not include a reference to Encanto simply because it is an excellent, topical film about multigenerational trauma with a list of certified bops by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I included it because it is one of the most recent examples of Latin American magical realism in media.
And yes, the fact that it is Latin American is noteworthy.
Magical realism as we know it today developed in Latin America throughout the mid-20th century, despite being first conceptualised in 1925 by Franz Roh, a German art critic. He referred to the term “magischer realismus” in his book Nach-Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus (After Expressionism: Magical Realism) to describe a popular style of painting in Germany called “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity), which was an alternative to the romanticism of expressionism. The term translates to “magic realism” and was used by Roh to emphasise the fantastical, strange nature of real-world objects and phenomena when we observe them closely.
When Roh’s book was translated into Spanish in 1927, the genre grew in popularity in South America, and Russian Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier furthered the concept into what he termed “marvellous realism”. This distinction, he felt, was more representative of Latin American literature.
In 1955, “magical realism” was fully realised by literary critic Angel Flores, who stated that magical realism combined elements of magic realism and marvellous realism. For reference, Jorge Luis Borges’s collection of short stories such as The Book of Sand (1975), The Aleph (1949), and A Universal History of Infamy (1935) were and still are considered prime examples of the genre defined by Flores, given that Flores deemed Borges to be the first magical realist author.
Due to the way magical realism subverts the expectations of linear, realistic storytelling, the emergence of it as a genre could be understood as a post-colonial move to resist European realism. Indigenous communities in the Americas drew a less distinct line between the natural and supernatural than their European counterparts. Therefore, Carpentier argued that it became a natural vehicle for authors to facilitate a critique of European society and colonial power structures. They achieved it by reflecting their criticisms through extended metaphors and symbolism.
In the 21st century, we see a vast array of authors employing the conventions and styles of magical realism, such as Neil Gaiman and Anjali Sachdeva. But enthusiasm for the genre is not shared by all.
Though magical realism owes many of its defining characteristics to Latin American literature, there is a sentiment among Latin American writers that their works are pushed into the magical realist genre by publishers and critics when it is not true to the essence of their work. In the words of Mexican novelist and essayist Jorge Volpi, it has become “a choke-chain for those
writers who [don’t] show any interest in magic”.
Writing Magical Realism
What I have always found the most appealing about writing the genre is its ability to challenge big genre conventions, which leaves room for conflict in the form of character growth and the testing of faith and relationships. Complex ethical decisions tend to be the focus, rather than external catalysts inciting action. And though the detail of the prose serves to portray reality, it does not necessarily explain the story’s magical components. Not understanding the intricacies of the magic preserves the romance of day-to-day life.
To give you an idea of how I go about writing magical realism, here is an excerpt from my unpublished manuscript, The Analogue Apprentice.
The foliage tucked the shopfronts away, only revealing them when passers-by gave them more than a cursory glance. Yet, traffic was steady for the vendors of Dobson’s Lane. Word-of-mouth brought patrons to them all, including his dad’s shop.
Especially his dad’s shop.
You only found a Thaumaturge through a friend, who knew someone, who had a cousin who could give you an address on a little slip of paper. No advertising needed, except on commercial notice boards. “Keeps people from wandering in and swamping the place,” his dad said.
The only people who came knocking at the door of Ingram Thaumaturgy were those who knew where to look. The rest picked up their hearts’ desires along with their morning coffee order.
Logan warmed his hands with a quick puff of his breath and walked across the way to unchain his bike from the front of Grant’s workshop. A drop of water plonked on his head from somewhere high above and trickled down the back of his neck, sending a static crackle to the tips of his fingers. He shook out his hands with a shower of sparks and pressed his thumbs into the tyres. They were sturdy again. The chain was slick with new grease, too. He secured his cargo to the back tray, swung a leg over the seat onto the peddle, kicked off and rolled along the cobblestones.
In the jostling motion of delivery, the contents of the crates Logan delivered to his dad’s partner distributors left a trail of magenta light pollution in his wake, shimmering for a moment before dissipating. It never lingered long enough to distract anyone or land him a fine. If anything, Logan distracted himself. He caught occasional glimpses in the tinted glass of shop windows and ground-level offices as he passed, dodging disembarking tram passengers; a lanky guyin chinos with a mop of untidy hair squashed beneath a helmet, perched on top of a messenger bike. It gave him a funny feeling, seeing the streets speed past while he seemed to stay motionless; a bright comet on course to nowhere.
I feel there will rarely be a time when my writing is not infused with the strange. I write with an ode to Borges, García Márquez, Sachdeva and Gaiman, because I spend all my time looking for the wonder in the mundane. I am a sceptic who wants to believe.
So, there you have it. I have finally, truthfully answered the question I most dread.
I’m not sure why I am averse to outing myself as a grown adult fascinated by magic. Perhaps the cynic in me assumes that I won’t be taken seriously by other grown adults who don’t have time for magic.
So be it.
Like the authors that came before me, I will continue to speak truth to power through the impossible because I concur with the sentiment of Salman Rushdie.
True stories don’t tell the whole truth.