Seriously, What Even Is Magical Realism?

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Spend enough time in literary circles or delving into Latin American history, and you’ll come across a term that’s been bandied about for decades: magical realism.

I could just link you to the Wikipedia page and be done with it, but that’s lazy even for me. And recently, after debating with a friend about the 2017 movie The Shape of Water, and what Guillermo del Toro wants to achieve with his surreal cinema, I thought I’d take a shot at trying to define and defend this genre myself.

To wit, magical realism is a literary genre where magical elements are dropped into a realistic world. It’s a style of storytelling that first emerged in the German Expressionist movement. In 1925, art critic Franz Roh coined the term “Magischer Realismus” to try and capture its ethos. And when you look at classic works like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you begin to see where Roh was coming from. His term would then emigrate to Latin America, becoming “realismo mágico” within the same decade.

At a time when colonial cultures, modern conflicts, and indigenous revivalism were boiling together, writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier were finding a new way to tell stories using old myths and legends. Carpentier tackled Cuban politics with stories that spoke to bizarre yet plausible antics, while García Márquez addressed political violence and familial conflicts through stories where tornadoes wiped out whole towns and some children were born with pig’s tails. Most critics at the time only saw such novels as fantastic tales, but they missed the underlying reality, let alone the critique of modern-day issues.

In the last few years, I’ve become more attuned to my Latino identity. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about an artistic ethos that I dubbed “Latinofuturism.” I still enjoy the article, but if I had to write it again, I’d go back and add “magical realism” to the list of things under that cultural umbrella. Being looser with the boundaries between the mundane and the fantastic is something that I hope new readers will be eager for.

As a writer, I know I’m interested to see new kind of stories. In fact, I wrote one.

A couple of years back, I wrote a short story that I posted on this site under the name “The Foghorn Man.” It was born out of a failed draft of a monster story that I’d tried to write months before, about an eyeless monster that belched ammonia and stalked its victims in the dead of night in a small town. But, you know, I was never satisfied with the premise. I had this whole idea about a sheriff torn between his duty to the town’s prosperity and the horror of this man-shaped creature that made it all possible (because of the ammonia and its value to the local auto industry, a sentiment that probably made way more sense in my head at the time). But try as I might, I couldn’t get the conflict right.

And then, it hit me. What if the monster isn’t the threat? What if it’s the guy trying to expose the monster?

Maybe the scientist Kevin Lemarque is morally in the right, but in the story, he’s a tragic antagonist to Deputy Sheriff Nate Rogers. His “meddling” puts the town of Odyssey at risk. And that Foghorn Man… well, he don’t mean much harm, right? Not in Nate’s eyes anyway. So Nate has to break off his relationship with Kevin for the good of the town. It’s a poignant conflict, and I knew it as soon as I began writing it all down.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “The hell does this have to do with genre?” Well, it’s because of the monster’s role. On its own, a shuffling, gray-skinned beast of a man with no eyes is pretty creepy. But I needed to really sell the horror of it. So I made the sheriff’s deputy—and the whole town, by extension—its accomplice. They knew the Foghorn Man was horrifying, but because they were doing well, they figured they’d go along with his ravenous, unspoken needs.

That’s the magical realism element. We can wrap our minds around a monster invading our ordinary world, but a known monster whose crimes go unmentioned? That’s harder to confront. And in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, as we face the monstrous behaviors of the accused and the once-silent suffering of their victims, we find ourselves grappling with similar questions. How did we not see this before? When are some behaviors “too far” and others “not that bad”?

From the perspective of Kevin Lemarque, and from the POV of women and men hurt by abusers in the halls of power, those who stand up to defend their idols must seem as nauseating as Nate Rogers standing beside a bellowing nightmare figure.

I hope that this analysis provides some idea of where I’m going where. I’m all for traditional boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, and realism. But given the changing tides of our world, and given how many new voices are fighting to be heard against traditional narratives, there’s a lot to be said for the value of magical realism and its place in our libraries, our classrooms, and our minds.

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