The Magic in Magical Realism

October 16, 2015 | By | 4 Replies More

SLilyMac_3-12-15hireso much has been said about magic realism that it’s difficult to add anything new to the conversation. However, I wondered if putting on my poet’s hat and parsing the two words might crack open another perspective.

The term magic implies some slight of hand, an ability to make things appear and disappear at will. In a magic show, magicians exercise their ability to draw viewers’ attention away from what the magicians are doing so they can convince those watching that a rabbit really does appear at random out of an empty hat, or that any number of equally fantastic events can occur.

In this case, the magic isn’t really magical in the sense of a supernatural intervention because there’s a trick at its foundation based on perception and how skillful the magician is at keeping the audience distracted enough not to notice the hoax involved.

Something similar happens with writers. They capture our attention through assembling strings of words that become a compelling narrative we follow. Just as a viewer at a magic show sets aside his/her momentary doubts about what’s happening before his/her eyes, so too do readers enter the narrative dream. That enables the writer to convince readers that the setting, characters, and events taking place are actually happening in real time when, in truth, they aren’t.

They only come to life in the readers’ imagination as readers let go of their immediate world to undertake this journey into the unknown. Put this way, reading can seem like a potentially dangerous endeavor, and it can be if a writer’s ideas and images shatter some preconceived notion about the world and about us.

Fling_Frontcover_4-13-15 copyMagic also has the ability to temporarily take people out of the constraints of everyday life and make them feel they can transcend it. Instead of being locked inside the usual routines that structure our days, we find release when something magical happens, such as when we watch a play in a theatre and suddenly our world is transformed. We’re no longer our daily selves, but we begin to identify with what’s occurring on the stage and participate in all of the characters involved, good guys and bad guys. We’re under the actors’ and director’s spell, convinced that the action unfolding in front of us is real, though it’s only make believe.

From these examples I’ve given, it’s easy to see that any writing, whether it’s a novel or a play, has a magical component to it. Words themselves are transformative in that they can so easily metamorphose into other words: world contains word and old. Add or subtract a letter here or there and we’ve landed in a different meaning. Words in themselves are slippery and magical, calling forth images just by naming things: red chair, oak table, 2006 Honda Accord, green plaid coat, eucalyptus tree. Read the text and suddenly something appears in our mind’s eye. Amazing!

And then there’s the way the wind can blow open a door, filling the house with a gust of cold air, or the sun can illuminate a field and immediately transform our experience of that place. Or the timer on our living room lamp switches on silently and the room is now swathed in light, creating a totally different atmosphere. That’s one reason we talk about something magical happening, or of a place as being magical. In fact, the world is magical not only in its inherent changeability but also because of our interaction with it.

That’s where “realism” enters the discussion. Reality is both magical and “real,” if by real we mean something that isn’t imagined. I’m not a philosopher, but this computer I’m typing on has a life distinct from mine. My husband, who is sitting reading in a chair across from me, can see it and agree on its reality. But it also exists in a world where objects can become symbols for something else, so while my computer retains its identify as a writer’s tool, it also can represent a window into another universe. It can become a metaphor for many things, just as most objects can.

This, then, seems to be the foundation for what we call magic realism. Language by its very nature is magical, transforming our everyday reality in multiple ways, carrying us aloft on the wings of thought.

Lily Iona MacKenzie has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 145 American and Canadian venues. Fling, one of her novels, was published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She teaches writing at the University of San Francisco and is vice-president of their part-time faculty union. Visit her blog:

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

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  1. The Magic in Magical Realism | WordHarbour | October 17, 2015
  1. Lyn Farrell says:

    I’m a huge fan (and in awe) of magic realism in novels. Peter Carey and Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ spring to mind. I love the way you set out how magic is part of ‘ordinary’ description and the leap to magic realism not really that far. Really thought provoking article and has reminded me to go read more magic realism novels. Thank you.

  2. I love this genre and wish it was more widely taught in UK schools – I was lucky enough to teach the IB which gave me the freedom to explore Allende, Marquez and Angela Carter with teenage boys, not the most obvious audience you would think but they loved the sheer exuberant playfulness of the writers and the way rules were broken. Great post.

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