A while ago I saw a lecture for the University of Chicago’s Humanities Day called “Preserving the Spell: Fairy Tales and the Future of Storytelling”. I have to admit I wasn’t all that impressed with the speaker’s thesis or presentation, but I tend to have unattainably high standards for scholarly work that deals with storytelling.
One thing that did strike me, however, was a question he asked: “How can you connect reality and mythology?” That question is at the core of the work I do with magical realism, because that’s essentially what magical realism is: the use of unreal symbolism to express real conditions.
When I talk about magical realism to people, I tend to get a lot of recommendations for urban fantasy books. They’re not quite the same thing, though the line is blurry and occasionally depends on some rather snobbish anti-genre assumptions about fantasy, which I’d like to avoid. Let’s see how that goes.
Urban fantasy places fantastical elements, figures from myth, and magical concepts within a modern setting, usually urban or suburban. The degree to which this happens can vary, from full-on alternate worlds where magic is a part of city life to books like DeLint’s The Blue Girl, where mythological fantasy elements creep into the ordinary lives of teenagers.
Magical Realism is more about using unreal elements as symbols. That’s not to say urban fantasy can’t, but it usually doesn’t. In The Blue Girl, for example, one of the characters is the ghost of a high school student, and he causes a lot of the trauma and conflict that exist in the story. In magical realism, he might not be an active, driving character; he would stand for some larger issue in the protagonist’s life, or some larger cultural issue with which the protagonist has to interact. The idea of “ghost” isn’t as important as the idea of “haunting”.
This is difficult stuff to vocalize, and certainly I imagine people will want to make the case that he does represent a larger issue, but the point is that it’s not his central purpose in the story.
The way unreal elements function in magical reality tends to be self-contained. Rules are specific, and may not reflect rules we are accustomed to in fairy tales or in mythology. These elements don’t necessarily belong to more universal systems; they exist within the story because that specific story requires them. In urban fantasy, people who encounter magic or the unreal in urban fantasy are often driven — as part of the plot — to find an explanation for it or a system to which it belongs. A lot of times, the magic in magical realism is confined to a specific community or geographic area, and it’s implicit that the community either protects this magic without seeking full understanding or interacts with it without acknowledging it. In this sense, writers of magical realism go back to the most basic function of storytelling.
Myths are not simply stories we tell each other. Many of the myths that develop at the inception of a culture are designed to help us understand the world and to codify social laws within our community. They have an implicit connection to reality because they concern our perception of it.
Magical realism uses this technique as well; the localized, communal mythology that exists in works of magical realism is designed to show the reader an interpretation of reality that appeals to emotions and instincts. The magic generally isn’t explicitly explained within the story, because the precise, direct function isn’t as important as the reaction it causes in the reader. On some level it’s an intentional gut-punch, and those work better with less exposition.
It’s difficult for me to get a full spectrum and history of magical realism in terms of connections and influences, but I think it’s also relevant to point out that it doesn’t seem to have its roots in the English-speaking world, and further than that it usually doesn’t concern dominant culture. Much of the magical realism that’s been written comes out of Latin America, and particularly concerns the lives of the poor and marginalized. Part of the impact of the unreal is that it provides a source of power to the powerless — as in The War Of The Saints by Jorge Amado, wherein a folk statue of a Catholic saint comes to life and begins influencing the lives of the heavily Catholic community around her. I unconsciously did this in my own novel Trace, where the majority of the magical and unreal concerns the inmates of a penitentiary, a tightly closed community of people who have very little influence over their day to day existence.
It seems a little bit as though I lack a thesis in this discussion, but it’s important to understand the laws and tropes of the genre in which one writes. In one sense, it means you can adhere to the genre and use it as a guideline; in another, of course, you can’t subvert a genre without knowing how it functions.
I like to work in both fantasy and magical realism because they’re a particular playground for the imagination, a place where you can get outside of the normal world and explore possibilities, nurturing a sense of wonder. But magical realism in particular appeals to me because those places outside of the normal world don’t require an explanation: they force both the writer and the reader to simply accept the strange and wonderful, and I find that very freeing.