Storyville: Writing Contemporary Magical Realism
Today I’m going to talk about magical realism as a genre (or sub-genre) and how I define it. There are a lot of different influences as far as this voice, but I want to focus on contemporary examples and ways that I think you can incorporate magical realism into your writing.
A literary genre or style (associated especially with Latin America) that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.
I think the key here is “otherwise realistic fiction.” What separates magical realism from fantasy is exactly this—starting your story in a grounded reality, something we can all relate to, imagine, and empathize with, based on your typical day, mundane details, and common rituals. It’s going to the Pumpkin Jamboree and deciding to walk the corn maze, only to discover the Minotaur at the end (“Labyrinth,” Amelia Gray, The New Yorker). It’s the resurrection of Aunt Bernie, come back from the dead to lecture and chastise, in a satirical setting where men work at restaurants like Joysticks (“Sea Oak,” George Saunders, Barcelona Review). It’s the magic and darkness of The Dead Game, of the identical twins Claire and Samantha, and what lurks inside one special hat (“The Specialist’s Hat,” Kelly Link, Event Horizon). Let’s dig deeper.
This is a crucial element of magical realism, this is where you start—in a reality we can recognize, something familiar and accessible. Now, we still have to start with our narrative hook, our inciting incident, that sense of urgency, of course we do. But unlike fantasy, we begin with something more realistic. Why is it so important to start with a grounded reality? Several reasons. First, we need to establish a setting, something we can grab hold of, since this story (or novel) will soon get weird, get magical, tossing out ideas, concepts, and magic that is beyond the norm. We need a foundation filled with details that are accessible—here is the small town, and the things we do here, the ways we work, what we do for fun, the weekends, the relationships we all have, as readers, in our lives. Here is the city, and the way we commute, the jobs that can only exist amidst skyscrapers and L trains, the hustle and bustle, lost in a crowd, a cog in a wheel. Here are the ways we exist as children, playing games, seeking the approval of our parents, moments to rebel. It’s all of that, and then something happens, either planned or unexpected, something magical. We are revealing something that was previously unseen.
How and when your story takes a weird turn, well, that’s up to you, right? In the aforementioned “Labyrinth,” while there are hints here and there as we lead up to the corn maze, they are subtle, building over time, until the ending crashes in around us, something spilling up out of the earth, the monster revealed. It is a slow burn, that is earned over time, bits and pieces of magic doled out like candy. Or bread crumbs, perhaps. In a realistic tone we tap into myth, and fable, and lore, with a contemporary social relevance—these are updated legends, old stories made new, in ways that haven’t been seen before. It can be the emergence of a historical creature, thought to be merely a story, as with the Minotaur. It can be a previously unknown ability—levitation, telekinesis, or telepathy. It can be a fated event or random occurrence. It’s waking up as a cockroach, in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—the title character born as an old man, who slowly ages backwards. It’s in virtually everything that Haruki Murakami writes, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example—alternate realities, a psychic prostitute, dreamlike sequences, an abandoned house, and a secret well. When you look at the balance between reality and magic in this genre, the dominating voice is grounded realism, the magic sprinkled in, and throughout.
You know how in most fantasy and science fiction there is a lot of world building, huge information dumps where we not only set up these new places, but explain how it all works—not just the culture and politics and government, but the magic, and science, and horror? We don’t get that with magical realism. We do not take the time to explain how the Minotaur arrived at the end of the corn maze. We do not elaborate on how exactly Aunt Bernie came back from the dead. We do not give you a scientific breakdown of the strange abilities and occurrences that run through the story, we merely accept them. That’s not the point, not the focus. Where it might be essential to the plot and story if you are writing fantasy and science fiction, it is not with magical realism. It is a logical progression, an ordinary event to your main characters—something they grew up with, or believe in, or embrace without question. In order to maintain their authority and integrity, they do not question or hesitate, but immediately accept, and without flourish, these magical moments.
THE SURREAL AND DISORIENTATION
Other compelling aspects of magical realism are the surreal, disorienting moments that happen throughout the story. Just because we are grounded in reality, just because we accept the magic without question, doesn’t mean it isn’t overwhelming, upsetting, enlightening, or dizzying. In fact, these moments are some of the strongest scenes in your magical realism stories and novels. To come face to face with the Minotaur, to descend into a basement where a tentacled creature is revealed, to transport across one plane to another, to face your Doppelganger, or see alternative realities—these can all be sensory overloads, and very exciting. Quite often we see time stretch and condense, rules bent, laws broken. We are shown things that are almost beyond comprehension—sometimes an epiphany and enlightenment, sometimes the horror of a mind fracturing. Accepting as fact? Sure. Accepting the tragedy within? No, it’s still unsettling. Use all fives senses when writing these scenes, and you’ll pull your readers into your story.
HEIGHTENED AWARENESS OF MYSTERY
Another element of magical realism is the awareness of things going on around you that others don’t see, or don’t choose to see. This heightened sense is often what drives your protagonist, and main characters, to chase people and things down rabbit holes, things most people would leave alone. There is a driving sense of mystery throughout—life’s mysteries—and the desire to understand, to see the magical up close and personal, to witness what has been imagined for so many years. In magical realism there is hidden meaning in everything, clues scattered around, other worlds, and lives, and creatures just beneath the surface, just into the shadows, if only we’d open our eyes and see. Sometimes it is the innocence of children, the ability to still believe in magic, not yet tainted by “reality” and the often harsh, cruel world around us. Sometimes it is the wise old souls who have born witness to such magical events, always open to it, accepting and embracing, while passing that knowledge on to others. Sometimes it is a specialized individual born to be different, or manufactured, created, and molded into something more aware.
Some of the most exciting work going on these days, in my opinion, is hybrid writing that crosses over several genres, taking the best from all worlds, to weave together an enticing narrative, something we haven’t seen before. It blends rural and urban, East and West, light and dark, thoughtful and base, high and low. Magic crosses all of these lines, it does not discriminate—it does not care about status or job or culture. With magical realism you can tap into the tension and disgust of horror; the science and technology of science fiction; the magic and wonder of fantasy; the uncertainty and revelation of mystery; the history and atmosphere of Southern gothic; the taboo and depravity of transgressive fiction. Feel free to experiment, to explore, and spice your dish with new combinations, creating a meal we’ve never eaten before, something salty, spicy, sweet, sour, and bitter—umami.
While you can certainly focus on the giants of magical realism, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabel Allende, also be open to contemporary masters such as George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, and Kelly Link. At the end of the day, while we certainly want to explore what makes magical realism work, take the time to make the story, and novel, your own. When editors accept your work, it’ll be because of the telling— the emotional impact, the fresh perspective, and the characters they’ve come to embrace. Find your own brand of magic, and sprinkle it throughout your writing—with wonder, and mystery, and surprise.
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