Thoughts on Magical Realism

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On November - 23 - 2009

…not from me, thankfully, as I am willfully ignorant of the genre. Reading Barbara Jane Reyes’ post on Magical Realism, Mythopoetry and Speculative Fiction so soon after Jorge Volpi’s speech on “The Future of Latin American Fiction” (I mentioned it here and I’ve been updating that post as further parts of the speech are added) was enough to pique my interest though, so I decided to do some quick research, through some old Bibliophile Stalker links and a quick query to Master Google, and thought I’d point any interested parties to some links on the web.

[Long post warning dear readers. Also, please note than any emphasized text in the excerpts will come from me, not the originals.]

Definitions of Magical Realism:


As befits the modern age of convenience, we start with the Wikipedia definition: magical realism, is “an artistic genre in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even “normal” settings… As used today the term is broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous: Matthew Strecher has defined magic realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something ‘too strange to believe’.” Second on Google is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s page on the Modern World / Macondo:  “Literature of this type is usually characterized by elements of the fantastic woven into the story with a deadpan sense of presentation. The term is not without a lot of controversy, however, and has come under attack for numerous reasons. Some claim that it is a postcolonial hangover, a category used by “whites” to marginalize the fiction of the “other.“”

In a 1993 essay published in the Science Fiction Studies Journal entitled “Carlos Fuentes and the Future” Ilan Stavans uses Fuentes to show one way of distinguishing between SF and magical realism (or mythic writing):

Even though the art of Stanislaw Lem and Isaac Asimov does not interest him, the Fuentes oeuvre is useful in distinguishing between SF and mythic writing (also called “magical realism” when speaking of Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, or Salman Rushdie). The one, as defined by Darko Suvin, is marked by the interaction of estrangement and cognition and has as its main formal device an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment;4 the other is an exploration of elements taken as expressing, and therefore as implicitly symbolizing, certain deep-lying aspects of human and transhuman existence. Sometimes the two intertwine, but it is obvious nonetheless that we are dealing here with different modes of literature: one concerned with some sort of scientific knowledge, the other involved with absolute truths. It is therefore not casual that the Americas below the Rio Grande prefer the latter while the industrialized nations prefer the former.

Of course, as with most classifications that try to define something aesthetic or literary, entire books can and have been written on the subject and its associated works.You can also find an article by Allena Tapia exploring the topic in the context of trying to decide whether or not magical realism is a mode for you, as a writer. Still, one aspect of the many definitions that I find interesting, and troubling, is the importance given to the geographic/cultural origin of the writer, so let us deal with that next…

Magical Realism and the Exotic

In an article on (the comments on the post make for a good read as well), Jon Evans relates the following anecdote:

Some years ago I was at a con in Cambridge where Steven Brust, during his otherwise very fine GoH speech, made an offhand crack about “magic realism—which we all know is just fantasy written by a Latin American author!” The crowd laughed and applauded, but I did not.

The joke and Evans’ reaction touches on the dissatisfaction that some feel with regard to the emphasis placed on the  national/cultural identity of the author or the setting–and yet such an aspect seems to be commonly found in the definitions of the genre. Later on, in the context of placing magical realism/surreal fantasy at one extreme of a spectrum of fantasy works, with systematic fantasy at the other end, Evans (in what seems to me to be a strange turn given the reaction to the joke) also makes use of the geographic/cultural origins of the works to contrast the two types of fiction (long excerpt warning):

Consider their pedigrees. Systematic fantasy tends to come from Western writers, who live in nations where “peace, order, and good government” (to use that wonderful Canadian phrase) more or less rule. Oh, there are wars and depressions and tragedies, but by and large, the phones work, the roads are smooth, and you’re not likely to be massacred without warning.

Surreal fantasy comes from more troubled lands. Midnight’s Children is set in post-partition India; The Famished Road in Nigeria; One Hundred Years of Solitude in Colombia. Their magic is random, surreal and arbitrary because their worlds are random, surreal and arbitrary.

When you live amid papered-over blood-soaked horror, like Nigeria’s Biafran civil war and corrupt dictatorships, India’s partition and Emergency, and Colombia’s La Violencia, then the surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational. That’s the well that magic realism draws from. What the surreal fantasists have to say about desperation and tragedy and violence is more powerful because, alas, the desperation and tragedy and violence they’re writing about isn’t fantastic at all.

While not setting out to give any direct definition of it, the most intriguing piece I’ve seen wrestle with the topic is the aforementioned Jorge Volpi speech:

This is not the place to discern the academic, petty things that separate ”magical realism” from the ”real wonderful”: it is enough to underline that the artistic category suddenly became a sociopolitical tag for the whole region. The canonic definition establishes that, unlike traditional fantastic literature, where magic or miracles are not lacking, an essential characteristic of the Latin American current is indifference before the extraordinary. A maiden flies on air, and we lift our shoulders; a corpse asks for his father, and we yawn; time runs backwards, and we make a fastidious grimace; children are born with a pig’s tail, and oh, we prefer a soap opera. Since this lack of reason governs us—a lack which in any other place would be considered unnatural and would unleash curiosity, astonishment, or morbid fascination—these events are a mere distraction. When the critics of Cambridge, Harvard, or Paris fill their mouths with the phrase “magical realism”, we imagine a current of socialist realism.

Volpi tackles the idea of geographic/cultural origin from the standpoint of someone who comes from a land supposedly not governed by reason, and he does not like what this implies. Speaking for his fellow Latin Americans, he states:

In what role does this thesis leave us? Once again we appear as good savages, dominated by superstition and mystery, accustomed to coexisting with the supernatural, or, in the other extreme, as a primitive people who remain apathetic in the face of the very unusual. The social interpretation of the literature thus acquires an unsettling political shade: Latin American people are not distinguished by our fantasy, but by our resignation. A resignation of a murky Catholic origin that explains the conformism which turns us into docile subjects, cannon fodder, the successive victims of Colonialism, Imperialism, Communism, and Capitalism.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I read that portion of the speech, I felt he could just as well have been talking about the treatment given to Filipinos as well. So let us bring the discussion home shall we?

Magical Realism and Philippine Speculative Fiction:

In Barbara Jane Reyes’ piece, she relates magical realism to folk beliefs and mythopoetic poetry:

I’ve been thinking that magical realism is that thing you call ethnic literature when you don’t know what to do with their “folk” beliefs still existing and manifesting themselves in the modern day. You don’t know why those old beliefs still exist, and why the mythical and spiritual are so incorporated or fused into their everyday modern lives.

It defies conventional logic in modern, secular societies, to still believe, but more so, it defies conventional logic in modern, secular societies for those old beliefs and mythical deities to manifest themselves in our modern daily lives. Advanced as we think we are, we decide that such conventionally unexplainable phenomena are the province of the superstitious, backward, third world, unenlightened. We hear their testimonies of encounters with the fantastic with an air of doubt, and we judge them. In high literature, these stories become exoticized, objectified, hence, magical realism. In poetry, perhaps it’s also objectified and othered as the mythopoetic.


She then speaks about  Speculative Fiction in the light of these folk beliefs and the popularity (or, at least vocal online presence?) of the genre here, as spurred by a Dean Alfar interview and the consideration of a certain new webzine *wink*:

Just the other morning I was skimming an interview with Manila based speculative fiction writer Dean Francis Alfar, as well as looking at this new Philippine speculative fiction online journal Usok. I started to wonder why speculative fiction seems to be big in the Philippines, and it dawned on me, especially looking at the image at the Usok website (I love this image, tikbalang in a jeepney, aswang hanging on the back!) that speculative fiction, what I read as a more culturally neutral term than magical realism, is what Philippine writers are calling their own work in which those old “folk” beliefs do indeed find themselves manifested in the present day, in our urban centers, even among the thoroughly educated, urbanized, and modernized. Others would call it magical realism?

Spurred by Reyes’ post, Joey Nacino recently posted his own ruminations on the matter:

For those of us living in the Philippines, magic realism– and to a certain extent, speculative fiction– is a normal fact of life. As an example, just look at our yearly rituals during Lent: the crucifixion would rank us up in the Western world as ‘superstitious’ and ‘third world’ but we take it for granted that people would allow themselves to be nailed to the cross in exchange for or in gratitude of certain divine favors (i.e. small miracles).

And that’s how we translate or write them into our fiction, that the strange and the weird is as normal as morning rush hour traffic or mall-wide sales up to 50%! Unfortunately, like two sides of the same coin, then we’ll always run the risk of being read by the Western world* as being exotic or alien– and not because of the value of our stories.

Joey ends his post on a rather plaintive note, about how Speculative Fiction from the Philippines will also have to wrestle with the lure of the exotic:

Is that the full extent of our contribution to world literature? That our stories are only good for the exoticness of our tales? Or is there a way we can take back our stories so that they’ll be known for– not for their exotic flavor– but because they are good stories, that they are interesting stories?
What do you think?
I’ll have to get back to you on that Joey, once I’m sure I’m being *read* ;)

Off the cuff (in relation to the thoughts expressed in this entire post and not just Joey’s article), I’m not a big fan of classifications meant to be academic or literary, but I do find marketing classifications, a way of telling a reader that this might be the type of story you ‘d like if you loved so-and-so. I love writing about local folklore, and while I’d never consciously paint my homeland as exotic (because precisely since it’s home, to me, it isn’t), I don’t see anything wrong with people picking up a story because it contains elements of a culture/world that he or she is not familiar with–part of promoting Philippine Speculative Fiction is because is waving your arms and shouting “Hey! You! Look at the awesome stuff we’ve got going on over here that you might never have seen before!” and that shout is aimed to people who are strangers to the Philippines and strangers to Speculative Fiction. I also don’t quite see the Filipino experience as being a closer relationship with the fantastic; while magic and miracles are part of our environment, I don’t think it’s any less so in the “developed” world–look at UFO cults or Western faith-healer phenomenons. Nor do I see how any portrayal of Filipinos as being “apathetic to the fantastic” could be accurate, based on the fervor and gossip generated whenever a supposed miracle occurs (we had one in Xavier back when I was in Grade School, and  neither the student body nor the administration treated it with a shrug of the shoulders).

To end, and since I’m on a bit of a Le Guin essay kick at the moment, let’s close with her “take” on magical realism, from an interview with Vice Magazine:

What’s your take on magical realism? Where would you put it in relation to sf?

I think magical realism was invented to describe a certain kind of Latin American fiction—like García Márquez—at a certain period, when it was a useful term. Since then it’s been slung around so loosely it doesn’t mean anything in particular to me. I’ve written a lot that could be called magical realist—like all my Orsinian stories—but does calling them that explain much about them? It could be useful to call them that, though, because magical realism is considered literature, and so people who think sf or fantasy is subliterary might read them without losing their respectability. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the cause of anybody losing their respectability.
[Images of the House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude sourced from their Wikipedia pages, no rights claimed.]

2 Responses to “Thoughts on Magical Realism”

  1. Khorie says:

    Wow!Interesting article! I have two questions though:

    1.What is it in Philippine cultural tradition that predisposed Filipino writers to write in magic realism mode?

    2.Is there a magic realism that is distinctly Filipino? If yes, what distinguished it from its Latin American counterpart?

    Pls. help me with this one, sir.I’m doing a research about Philippine magical realism.


    • Paolo Chikiamco says:

      Hi! As you can probably infer from this post, while I find the analysis of it fascinating, magical realism isn’t really my field. You’d have better luck tracking Barbara down and seeing if she can answer your questions :)

      Good luck!

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