Posted in Chit Chat

Magical Realism; when did we stop calling a spade a spade?

So I’m a studious type. I love school, education, learning, and from that passion I have earned a BA in Creative Writing and English Literature, and I’ve just now completed a MA in Professional Writing.

Why is this important? Usually it’s not. Just because I can dot my t’s and cross my i’s doesn’t make me ‘special’. I love the academic environment, so I pursued ways to stay in it.

But it’s important here because that damn phrase, ‘magical realism’, popped up in most textbooks or articles when I was researching my essays. And it was like googling ‘blue waffle’ (RATED R, NSFW, DO NOT DO THIS WITHOUT AN ADULT), it simply couldn’t be unseen. It’s one of those things that once you know it, you can’t un-know it, you know?

According to my trusty Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms:

magical realism: A kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report…while retaining a strong contemporary social relevance.

So we’re all agreed on the Harry Potter books falling under this umbrella then?

(Lol, I just types the word ‘bppls’ instead of ‘books’)

[PrettyLadySwag] (18)

Ok, I have to admit, I like the term. It sounds good and it looks brilliant on paper. The thing is, when you take a closer look at who the term is often applied to, it starts to feel less ‘magical’ and more ‘acceptable’.

Salman Rushdie is a real dude. I love his books. But when I was writing about Midnight’s Children, it was all I could do not to throw the textbook at the wall because I would describe it as ‘historical fantasy’. His latest book (great stuff, enormous title) easily falls into the open arms of SF.

Angela Carter; this woman changed my world and the way I wrote and read. The Bloody Chamber = magical realism.

Martel’s Life of Pi: Magical realism.

Perfume, Chocolat, Swamplandia! …yep, you guessed it. The academic journals and textbooks love to use these as examples.

Magical realism… I try and slow down the pronunciation, or say it really fast over and over. It’s such a bloody good piece of phrasing, but it doesn’t feel right.

It might mean that a book will be plucked out of the pile and slapped with a ‘nominee’ sticker for whatever award.

I wonder if the real origins of the term are rooted more in embarrassment than in theorising. Much like the term ‘Young Adult’, it makes reading what were ‘Teen’ books more acceptable for ‘grown ups’. I mean, there are still plenty of adults who will still avoid the YA section, and that’s their loss. But as a culture we have a special way of making things acceptable for our circumstances and needs.

I’m not completely anti-magical realism. Far from it! There will always be a book that fits a term so perfectly that you think it must have been invented for it.

Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap. Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding, for this book defines a term the same way for me ‘John Green’ perfectly explains the words ‘contemporary YA’.

20150926_181928    (I do like taking borderline pretentious pictures of books. #nofilter)

Bone Gap manages to inject just enough ‘that was odd, but totally plausible’ to make me feel like I could accidentally slip through a gap in the universe if my SatNav was having a bad day. ‘turn left in 300 yards’ *looks at open moorland on both sides* And it would be full of these same characters going through the same motions. I mean, I have an overactive imagination at the best of times, so I can probably make most things ‘plausible’, but Ruby does something indeed ‘magical’ with the writing of that book. The language is magic unto itself, and while taking us on a quietly complex journey with humour and wit and beauty, it also feels like it’s gently poking you to think bigger.

Like, the town itself (there is an actual place called Bone Gap. Awesome) And then there’s the bees. The honey. The hive. The horse. The creepy corn. If it wasn’t for Roza you could almost believe that this world they lived in was something not unlike The Truman Show, like if you reached the end of the corn field you’d find a sky-painted wall. If you wanted to analyse it, you could. But most importantly, it’s slammin’ storytelling, with a very healthy shot of real magical realism.

Midnight’s Children? Fantasy. Skellig? Getting there, but still… Fantasy.

Bone Gap? That’s the real deal, my friends. I’m not sure I can properly explain ‘why’ but I think it has a little something to do with the set-up; the ‘magical’ element isn’t made obvious until the story starts reaching its climax.

Magical realism isn’t a subset or an arm of ‘fantasy/SF’, it’s not a genre. It’s a subtle working of the real at odds with the imagination. So let’s just call it as we see it instead of trying to somehow elevate a bona fide piece of the fantastical just so we feel less embarrassed to be reading it. Or something. Do what you do. Call me out. But maybe…

Call a spade a spade and read what you enjoy.

a-sonrix (66)




YA writer. Epic reader. Professional procrastinator.

7 thoughts on “Magical Realism; when did we stop calling a spade a spade?

  1. I will admit that I’m not entirely sure if I understand the term. At first, I was thinking it was describing the use of magic (like wizards and witches) in a way that is believable. The use of magic as an ability of a character is one I always struggle with because I find the parameters of limitations are never clearly defined for me…but I digress.

    It was the Life of Pi bit that got me thinking about magical realism as a plot device or element. You’re right: it isn’t a genre rather it is a means to tell a story. I really enjoyed the Life of Pi and I liked the way the story is told–the idea that you don’t know if the tiger is real or not and the mystery that surrounds it. To me that is magical realism whereas Harry Potter is not. The magic in HP is just magic used in a realistic fashion–not magic used as an element to tell a story. (The English language is so limiting because I cannot find the right word to describe what I am trying to say.)

    Is it the commercial success of these works–specifically the Life of Pi–that makes you feel like it is labelled in such a way to make it more “acceptable”? Because there is nothing worse than people mislabelling things because they only know about it thanks to what they have heard via the media and not because they have actually read the literature…I’m just curious because I have to admit I’m a little confused about all of this!

    1. I think it is quite a slippery thing to try and communicate- I still don’t feel like my post expressed exactly what my brain was trying to say. Thank you for such an interesting response! And you’re right, HP isn’t magical realism, but as you say, the English language can be so limiting that when you try to define certain things, you fall short, and as a result the interpretation of a term becomes loose.

      Hmm. You’ve giving me some things to think about. 😀

      1. Ah, well, studying does fry your brain (at least, it always did mine… which when you think about it makes no sense. Putting knowledge in shouldn’t make it harder to function! Ha ha!)

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