I began my Masters quest, uncertain about what to expect from the process. The Master of Creative Writing course at Tabor Adelaide involves writing a 40,000 word creative artefact (in my case, a novel), plus an 8,000 word critical exegesis essay. I began with a vague idea for a young adult novel forming in my heart. I wanted to portray young people grappling with a major world issue such as child slavery, whilst also navigating personal issues such as self-worth, relationships, and figuring out what to do with their lives. But what about the critical exegesis essay? Was it just a dreaded hoop to clear on my path to another academic parchment? Or could it be a useful exercise, enjoyable even?
Pushing away fear, I plunged deeply into the mystery of it all. Happily, dread turned to delight with many surprises along the way. Far from being a dry academic exercise, writing the exegesis became an opportunity for personal and creative discovery.
In my desire to make my story engaging for young people and to avoid didacticism, fantastical elements started to creep into my story-dreaming, elements such as trips across time and place, and a crazy camera. With these flights of fantasy added into the mix, however, it became increasingly unclear to me which genre ‘box’ my novel might fit into. One of my supervisors, Dr Rosanne Hawke, suggested magical realism as a possibility; immediately those two words, linked oxymoronically, gripped my imagination. I’ve always been attracted to the concept of truth bound up in paradox, and sensed that magical realism might be a writerly niche in which I could comfortably work. So like a character from my novel, I stepped through a foggy portal into a new world of discovery, a world more labyrinthine than I was expecting, but no less exciting than I had hoped.
My initial thought was that magical realism simply mixed real and magical (unreal) elements, and I wondered if the magical part might be out of sync with my Christian worldview. As I delved deeper, however, I came to see rich possibilities within the mode of magical realism for exploring all of life, including its spiritual dimensions. It became my thesis that magical realism is not an escape from reality, but rather an amplification of reality. Magical realism goes beyond the observable realities of literary realism, to incorporate realities that are invisible, transcendent, psychological and metaphorical, arguably creating a more holistic ‘realism’.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is considered a seminal work of magical realism, maintained that realism “offered too static and exclusive a vision of reality.” He suggested “the magic text is, paradoxically, more realistic than the realist text” (cited by Simpkins, 1995, p. 148). Clearly, attempting to define magical realism was going to be my main challenge. From a complicated tangle of defining elements, I sought to distil the quintessential features of magical realism. After much juggling, I proposed this working definition:
Magical realism combines various literary devices, including one or more irreducible elements of magic, to portray an amplified reality, one that blends and blurs ordinary and extraordinary, visible and invisible, transcendent and earthly, metaphorical and concrete. Extraordinary elements are presented in a matter-of-fact way, and ordinary elements are presented with a heightened sense of wonder or horror. This strategy of inversion creates a de-familiarising effect, causing the reader to look at everything in a fresh way.
Photography has sometimes been used as a metaphor for literary realism (Kelly, 1991), with the camera’s ability to capture observable reality. In my novel Destiny Puzzle I included a crazy camera as a ‘magical’ device, a camera able to capture a multi-dimensioned picture, with far and near, inner and outer, past and present viewpoints. Just thinking about it, my crazy camera could itself serve as a metaphor for magical realism. I use it to portray various perspectives and deeper realities, to help the reader see afresh, see deeper, and see beyond – in short, to see with eyes of wonder.
To further explain my definition of magical realism, in my exegesis, I unpacked the main terms in the following way:
Magical realism includes irreducible element(s) of magic, i.e. things “we cannot explain according to the laws of the universe as formulated in Western empirically based discourse” (Faris 2004, p. 7). In magical realism the author does not need to justify the mystery of events, as the fantastic writer does, or give explanations for how things work as the science fiction writer does. The magic is simply accepted for what it is.
The irreducible element of magic can take on many forms, from myths and legends, to supernatural phenomena, literalisation of metaphor or emotion — any device that makes the invisible visible and not merely in a figurative way. This is where author creativity shines, and where worldview becomes apparent.
The nature of the magic in magical realism is often symbolic (akin to the parables told by Jesus) unlike the magic associated with sorcery, which is condemned by Old Testament scriptures (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Some magical realism may incorporate sorcery and occultic elements, but the mode can equally be used to express the ‘magic’ of the miraculous, both ordinary and supernatural, and all manner of spiritual truth that is compatible with Christian belief.
Magical realism portrays an expanded reality, by depicting life’s many dimensions, visible and invisible, rational and mysterious (Bowers, 2004, p. 122). Historically, this expansion of reality was associated with postcolonial authors seeking to incorporate into their texts the mythology and beliefs of indigenous populations, to give voice to traditional realities overshadowed by western rational-imperialist thinking. While magical realism is still used to express postcolonial values and draw attention to marginalised voices, it has now become international in scope, with a diversity of authors utilising its potential to express visions that go beyond observable ‘reality.’
Magical realism blends and blurs realistic and fantastic elements in various ways. The relationship between magical and ‘real’ sometimes evokes an antagonistic struggle. The magical collides with the rational, or another world intrudes into this one. At other times there is a more harmonious combination. Faris speaks of “magic that grows organically, almost imperceptibly, out of the reality portrayed” (1995, p. 163).
Magical realist texts often “situate themselves on liminal territory between or among worlds, in phenomenal and spiritual regions where transformation, metamorphosis, dissolution are common” (Saxena, 2011, p. 43).
Magical realism uses a strategy of inversion, which creates a de-familiarising effect. The coexistence of realistic and fantastic elements is insufficient to distinguish magical realism from other genres which also contain heterogeneous elements, such as surrealism, science fiction, or fantasy literature. It is important to consider the manner in which fantastic and realistic elements are presented. Bényei (1997) describes a ‘rhetoric of inversion’ in which magical elements are presented in a matter-of-fact way, and ordinary elements are presented in a magical way. For example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, flying carpets and Father Nicanor’s levitation by chocolate are accepted as normal, while magnets, mirrors, ice and movies are portrayed as hardly believable, even miraculous.
To describe this inversion another way, magical realism grounds, or incarnates, the extraordinary, thereby giving wings to the ordinary.
Paradoxically, the impression that the strange, the implausible and even the impossible are perfectly natural, is attained by applying realist techniques to non-realistic elements (Hegerfeldt, 2005, p. 87). Both real and magical elements are described in rich, realistic detail, having the effect of placing the magical on the same level as the real.
One particular technique used to spotlight the wonder of the ordinary is exaggeration, or hyperbole. Akin to looking through a magnifying glass, hyperbole enlarges the object of focus. The reader is aware of the exaggeration, but is nevertheless drawn into the wonder of it. Take, for example, the description of magnets in One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Melquíades went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades’ magical irons (Garcia Marquez, 1970, p. 11).
Another technique used to incite a sense of wonder is the use of eccentric focalisers, such as children, or ‘mad’ people. Carter observes: “wonder, the capacity for seeing the world as if for the first time, in its purest state, is the prerogative of children and madmen (1992, p. 67).” I would hope that adults too can retain, or rekindle, this capacity. Perhaps that is part of my personal attraction to magical realism.
Magical realism presents ordinary elements with a heightened sense of wonder. But wonder has a dark side. Looking at the ‘real’ world through fresh eyes can also engender a sense of horror. Magical realism uses various techniques to spotlight horrors that have become almost invisible due to their familiarity. For example, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Boyne, 2006) uses fable and fairy tale conventions to write about the Holocaust, highlighting the ‘gross incredulity’ of these real events.
Magical realism uses various techniques, limited only by the author’s creativity. I have discussed irreducible elements of magic, realistic detail, hyperbole, and eccentric focalisers. Literalisation of metaphor is another powerful device used by magical realists. Techniques include rendering figures of speech real, endowing thoughts and concepts with physical existence, and embodying memories. By rendering metaphors ‘real’, authors highlight their influence on human perception of the world.
Subjective impressions, such as people who do not age, or houses that change shape, are rendered as objective fact. Emotions can be touched and smelled, memories are looked for in literal corners, or become cooking ingredients (Hegerfeldt, 2005, p. 56-7). In Like Water For Chocolate (Esquivel, 1993), Tita’s sadness over losing Pedro to her sister is transferred to the wedding cake she bakes, causing guests to exhibit severe symptoms of lost love, as well as physical indigestion.
In my exegesis I built on the above definition to consider magical realism as a meaning-making mode, with particular emphases on religion, adolescent identify formation and engagement with socio-political issues – but that is beyond the scope of this article. My point here has simply been to explain my attraction to magical realism, because of its meaning-making and wonder-inducing potential. I am driven to write for an audience of young people who are exploring the existential issues of this age. I am also aware of the insidious danger of disillusionment in young hearts. Call it magical thinking on my part, but I believe that disenchantment with life is connected to being fed a worldview which has had the ‘enchantment’ sucked out of it. Enter magical realism, mode of re-enchantment, not by escape into illusion, but by re-enchantment of the ‘real’ world in which we live.
In committing myself to the pursuit of wonder through my writing, I have written a prayer poem. I invite you to join me in praying to be ‘wowed by wonder’…
Father, Son, Spirit –
Unwrap Yourself as God
of Wonder, Infinite
God of Grand, of
wonders. Fling wide
my heart to wonder. Open
ears, eyes to wonder.
Smell, taste infuse with wonder.
Let thoughts ignite in wonder,
feelings gasp in awe at wonders
within, beyond. Ordinary,
Reveal wonder’s facets, colours,
detail. Chase away the blahs,
satiate my cravings with
Your Word, Your world, wild
wonder woven nature,
wonder waltzing, pulsing
through friendship and
forgiveness. Drip wonder
into wounds, shine wonder
onto hurt. Leach wonder
into every crack and crevice.
Lift me up to wonder-
full reality, natural,
supernatural. Enthral me
with Your beauty, Your awe-
inspiring love. Cause
worship to well up,
Your Spirit to spill over,
wonder to surge through me
as I write, pray, live
each day. Surprise me
with fresh wonder,
my daily dose of life.
Ann Greer lives in the South Australian coastal community of Goolwa. She recently completed her Master of Creative Writing at Tabor Adelaide and has been a regular contrbutor of poetry to Tales from the Upper Room.
Bényei, T. (1997). Rereading “Magic Realism.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), 3(1), 149–179.
Bowers, M. A. (2004). Magic(al) realism. London; New York: Routledge.
Boyne, J. (2006). The boy in the striped pajamas: a fable. Oxford; New York: David Fickling Books.
Carter, A. (1992). Expletives deleted: selected writings. London: Chatto & Windus.
Esquivel, L. (1993). Like water for chocolate. London: Black Swan.
Faris, W. B. (1995). Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction. In L. P. Zamora & W. B. Faris (Eds.), Magical realism: theory, history, community (pp. 163–190). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Faris, W. B. (2004). Ordinary enchantments magical realism and the remystification of narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
García Márquez, G. (1970). One hundred years of solitude. New York: Harper & Row.
Hegerfeldt, A. C. (2005). Lies that tell the truth magic realism seen through contemporary fiction from Britain. Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi.
Kelly, J. (1991). Photographic Reality and French Literary Realism: Nineteenth-Century Synchronism and Symbiosis. The French Review, 65(2), 195–205.
Saxena, V. (2011). Magical Worlds, Real Encounters: Race and Magical Realism in Young Adult Fiction. ALAN Review, 38(3), 43–51.
Simpkins, S. (1995). Sources of Magic Realism/Supplements to Realism in Contemporary Latin American Literature. In L. P. Zamora & W. B. Faris (Eds.), Magical realism: theory, history, community (pp. 145–159). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.