Gosh, I love that term, Magical Realism. Magical Realism added to a story brings to mind all sorts of delicious and unusual story twists, whether delightful, creepy, or just plain enchanting in a unique and unexpected way. Unexpected being the key term here.
In today’s climate of publishing, especially the children’s and young adult realm where vampires, werewolves, fairies and mermaids have been the staple for several years, a reader might say that any book with a supernatural twist falls under the category of “magical realism”. You might even put ghosts into that category, as well as super-powers, and creatures raised from the dead.
I beg to differ. Magical Realism was coined several decades ago, but began to be more widely used in the 1990s to describe a certain type of book that hadn’t been published very much before. Up until that point, bookstores and libraries were filled with well-defined categories such as, “Contemporary” “Mystery”, “Romance”, “Western”, “Science-Fiction”, etc.
The definition of “Magical Realism” is, to me, a story where the author creates a very normal, regular world, populated with ordinary, regular people (no Vampires or Centaurs, Klingons or Doctor Octopus) but adding a touch—mind you, just a touch—of something surreal, fantastic or bizarre that turns the story upside down while staying very much grounded in that regular world setting. Magical Realism is added as an element, NOT in huge doses—but often that one magical realism element turns an otherwise regular story into something entirely different because it affects the characters and the plot in such a unique way. That one element ends up bringing an edge or slant that doesn’t line up quite right with the real world. Instead of looking at the story straight on, it makes the reader look at things in a whole different light—where the story bats its eyelashes and looks askance, perhaps almost coy, and helps the reader understand the truths of the story in an entirely different way. This is not your average contemporary edgy YA.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some edgy contemporary stories and read them a lot. I also read widely in the paranormal genre and am currently reading mermaid stories like the Forbidden Sea by Sheila N. Nielson, as well as dystopian like Across the Universe by Beth Revis, or Possession by Elana Johnson (S&S June, 2011), which I’m very much looking forward to reading. But these are not stories using Magical Realism in the Classic sense. Here’s another great link defining Magical Realism.
Reaching into the depths of my often fuzzy mind, I would have to say that the very first book I read that contained magical realism was, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, a novel that celebrated its 18th birthday this last September and is still selling well in hardcover as well as paperback, audio, Kindle, and you name it.
Esquivel mischievously appropriates the techniques of magical realism to make her heroine of the story, Tita’s, contact with food sensual, emotional, and often explosive. Love, food, and magical recipes in a kitchen where the character’s emotions and fate are determined by the emotions of the cook. If Tita’s sad, then everybody who eats her food is melancholy and weeping. If Tita is happy, then her dinner guests are joyful. Who would have thought you could do something like this in a novel? And it’s done brilliantly.
A few years later, we got the scrumptious novel, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, performing similar dreamlike plot twists through a chocolate confectioner who works her magic on an unsuspecting French village.
Hmm, all this food talk is making me hungry. (*Takes break to pop a few chocolate truffles left over from Valentine’s Day*).
I personally believe that time travel books could fall into a sub-genre of magical realism. You may agree to disagree, but time travel books are grounded completely in ordinary or historical events, but then turn the story upside down by throwing their characters into a vastly different time period from their own where they must often cope with explosive events and try to get back home in one piece.
Such is my book, The Last Snake Runner where a contemporary teenage boy of the Snake Clan ends up in 1599 in the middle of a war—tries to stay alive while fighting next to his dying ancestors during the 3-day battle and meeting a girl that he can’t bear to leave—at the same time knowing he can’t remain in 1599 but has to get back to the future somehow. The events of The Last Snake Runner are based on actual, terrible events when the conquistadors entered the Southwest in the 16th century. The time travel as well as the visions of my main character could be called Magical Realism.
My new novel, The Healing Spell (Scholastic, 2010) is grounded in the very real but often spooky world of the Louisiana bayous with its murky waters and hidden alligators. The story is about a family in crisis and almost everyone is hiding a secret. A Cajun folk healer, or a traiteur, gives Livie, the main character, a nine-knotted healing string that will help wake her mamma from a life-threatening coma. The traiteur sends Livie on a journey to forgive and heal her relationship with her mother—even though Mamma is sound asleep and drooling in the living room. Guilt and secrets and sisters and a wedding and a pet baby gator underpin this story about family and forgiveness—but the ending has a bit of magical realism built in. How else could a nine-knotted healing string strung with tokens and memories of Mamma be otherwise??? (Can a tiny mustard seed of faith really move mountains? That is Magical Realism at its grandest!)
I love books like this! Loved them as a kid and love them as an adult.
In the comments, please share one of your favorite Magical Realism books. I’d love to get more titles for my own towering stack of Books To Be Read Soon!
Thanks to everyone at The Spectacle for inviting me to be their guest today!
One last surprise! You can win a gorgeous hardcover copy of The Healing Spell by commenting here and by visiting me at my blog through this link and commenting there, too, by MIDNIGHT, FEBRUARY 23. Become my friend/follower! I love new friends!
Then mosey on over to my brand new website to view the very cool book trailer for The Healing Spell and download the Teacher’s guides and Book Club Guides.
Meanwhile, keep working on your own terrific speculative fiction, whether it’s a dystopian, some sort of outer-space zombie, or just an ordinary ghost with a terrible secret that lures you into the swamp to die . . . oops! That’s my new novel coming in October, Circle of Secrets . . .