What is Magical Realism?
Posted on 02/05/2013 at 8:08pm



photo of acrobat bathed in mystical light

The acrobat hidden in the swirling prism of light in the photo would not likely survive an actual fall from the swings 60 feet above the ground. In magical realism such a fall and what becomes of her during that fall is within the realm of magically real.

Magical Realism (MR) explores the paradox of the union of opposites within the plot/narrative and through characters. Magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality.

Unlike fantasy, including urban fantasy, Magical Realism is set in the usual modern world where average Janes & Joes go about their daily life. What makes MR so intriguing to so many readers (and writers) is the ability explore a worldview where the natural, physical laws of the universe are not the only plausible explanation for events in the story (or in real life, for that matter). Fantastical elements are weaved into the narrator’s voice and the normal perception of characters within the plot. While the reader realizes that the rational and irrational are conflicting polarities, they are not disconcerted because the author has established the mystical/ metaphysical/ fantastical within the context of the natural or ordinary world.

Writers of MR craft stories from the perspective of people who live in our world but who experience a different reality from what we consider objective, linear or natural. Demons in a story of magical realism, are not fantasy elements but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe demons exist and experience them as such. Think about the people who call upon the services of an exorcist. In their worldview, demons are real, they possess human souls and a priest is required to expel them and hopefully, save the life of the possessed. Bruce Holland Rogers goes on to say that in MR there are three key elements:
  1. time is not linear,
  2. causality is subjective,
  3. and the magical and the ordinary are one and the same
It is interesting to note that both magical and mystical realism originated in the art world– as ways to describe and classify paintings (Google Mystical or Magical Realism in Art). The key elements remain the same whether the terms are applied to visual arts or literature. By the way, mystical realism appears to be a recent addition to the categorization of literature. The only real difference I could find is that  MYSTICAL Realism in storytelling is deals with themes and plots regarding the nature of the divine/Divine. It may be more closely linked to Visionary Fiction (think, Celestine Prophecy) than Spiritual Fiction, the latter incorporating more moral and dogmatic themes than the others.

Holland Rogers also distinguishes MR from fantasy and other speculative and “escapist” reading pursuits:  “magical realism is always serious, never escapist, because it is trying to convey the reality of one or several worldviews that actually exist, or have existed. Magical realism is a kind of realism, but one different from the realism that most [people] of our culture now experience.” For example, in the image above: The acrobat falls through swirling prismatic light, but unlike Alice, she doesn’t land in some hidden world. She falls, she survives and is somehow unharmed yet in falling the experience exposes a worldview that parallels the ordinary and is intricately woven into it. How so, what it means is all open to the writer’s imagination.

Authors Who Write Magical Realism

Perhaps the best loved contemporary author of magical realism is Alice Hoffman. She’s also one of my favorite writers (that is a gross understatement; I love her books and short stories). Other authors include:
  • Paul Corso
  • Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)
  • Aimee Bender
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Sara Addison Allen (Garden Spells)
  • Joanne Harris (Chocolat — film starred Johnny depp)
  • Audrey Niffengger (Time Traveler’s Wife)

Share Your Thoughts

  • Who’s your favorite Mystical/ Magical Realism Author? Your Favorite book?
  • Have you found other descriptions of MR?  Share your wisdom and sources.

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Filed Under: magical realism