Friday, December 7, 2012

What is magical realism? Part 2: Magical Realism (finally)

As for the radio silence of the last few months, let’s just blame it on falling in love. (:D HAPPY DANCE)

I concluded my last post by saying that science fiction succeeds because we believe in the possibilities of science. I’m now going to argue that magical realism works because we believe in the possibilities of magic. Or the supernatural. Or the paranormal. Whatever you want to call it—magical realism works because many (probably most) of us believe in the existence and interference of power that cannot be explained by our science.

Magical realism works in a way that is very similar to science fiction. By inserting an element of magic into the story and then treating that magic as having a reality that is just as legitimate as everything else in the story, it magnifies the meaning of the story, using the power of the strange to drive home its point.
Because of the functional similarities between these two genres, we could perhaps call magical realism the science fiction of the non-Western world. Here’s how I put it on my class PowerPoint (adapted from the Bedford Glossary’s definition of magical realism):
  • It is important to note that the best known magical realism literature has come out of countries once colonized by European powers (particularly in Latin America). Magical realism is a genre often concerned with finding a national literature for a country/peoples often perceived by the Western world to be without a voice. The “magical” parts aren’t simply invented, but have their roots in existing cultural beliefs.
This explains why magical realism isn’t a genre that really flourishes in the United States. We have lots of fantasy, but fantasy is a genre that acknowledges strong lines between the “real” and the “fantasy.” Our prevailing cultural narrative tends to be the scientific one—magic (or the supernatural or the paranormal) is not a part of daily life (of course, there are many individual exceptions to this). When someone claims to experience “magic” as part of their reality, the claim is usually greeted with incredulity and/or hysteria. This stands in stark contrast to large parts of the world where magic is, if not exactly taken for granted, at least accepted as part of the given reality.

A story that a pastor of mine likes to tell is useful in illustrating this point.
John (name changed) was teaching a class on Christianity in an African country. In describing the resurrection of Jesus Christ to his elderly students, he said that it was a unique event, that had opened only once in all of history. The elders gathered together in private conference, then reported back to John. “We agree with you that resurrection is a very rare event. Between us we have over two hundred years of experience, and we have witnessed only four resurrections.”

My pastor always concludes his story by saying that he had no idea how to respond. It’s a radical difference in world view, and it explains why magical realism flourishes in countries that retain cultural beliefs that involve the pervasive existence of “magic,” and also why it is very hard to write true American magical realism.

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