Magic Realism: An Overview

signMagic Realism, or Magical Realism, has become a hotly discussed term among writers of both fiction and non-fiction. Indeed, some would argue that it has no place in fiction. Others disagree. It is also discussed in other art forms but I will stick to writing in this post.

I have been participating in a few groups where these discussions take place, mostly as a fly on the wall, listening and learning, occasionally offering a beginner’s question or comment. My interest was piqued when two other writers suggested that my books could fall into that category. So with the qualifier that I still have a lot to learn I will attempt to pass on some of what I have discovered.

Firstly the term itself seems to be contradictory. How can ‘magic’ which most of us perceive as illusion, be reconciled with ‘real’? The ‘magic’ that is referred to here is not the illusionist’s tricks or sleight of hand. In this case the ‘magic’ is viewed, especially by non-fiction writers, as very ‘real’. They argue that magic exists and that it can be experienced in a very real way. Societies and cultures abound whose belief systems and daily life are infused with magic’s influences and effects on their daily lives. These can be found on every continent:  many African and South American cultures, the Caribbean, and among Amerindian peoples and the indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand. Even in more remote areas of Europe vestiges of these beliefs remain.

My understanding is that these peoples believe in and relate to ‘spirits’ in many forms, many animistic in nature; that their practitioners, such as shamans, medicine men and spiritual leaders interact in a very real way with entities the rest of us cannot see or feel. These interactions are an integral part of the daily lives of all members of that society and dictate how they view the world and their place in it. They can include spells, and even physical transformations into other forms, at least to those viewing them. In these societies even those who cannot interact directly with these entities still feel their effects. I recently read and enjoyed a memoir by Ian Mathie (Sorcerers and Orange Peel), a man who has travelled extensively in Africa and has encountered, first hand, some of these systems in action. He will tell you they are very real and that he has had many ‘magical’ experiences that have affected his view of reality. After reading one of his books, and having done a good bit of reading and research on North American aboriginal cultures, I find myself far less skeptical than my western empirical upbringing would lead me to be. I am left open to possibilities many would find untenable. Am I a believer? I don’t know. Let’s say that I am still looking for answers.

Which brings me to the question, “Does magic realism have a place in fiction and what would that look like? I believe it does and, from her writing, I think Lynne Cantwell would agree with me. But, when creating fiction, the line between fantasy and magic realism can become blurred. The writer is no longer disclosing what he/she sees as truth, but rather incorporating a semblance of that truth into an imagined story. The paranormal elements of the story can quickly cross the line from being so plausible as to have the reader accept them as ‘real’ for those characters and their world, to stretching credulity into the realm of fantasy. In fiction the world in which the ‘magic’ happens is made up. Yet it can be, and often is, based on solid research into actual societies and cultures. In these cases I think one can argue that the work has a legitimate claim to the label ‘magic realism’.

So where does it cross the line into fantasy? Ah, there’s the rub. Some say my trilogy Earth’s Pendulum falls within the accepted parameters. Others disagree and tell me it must be called fantasy. I use a ‘seer’ as a character, a woman who can occasionally communicate with certain animals, who can tell if someone is telling the truth and who is in communication with the goddess. In many ‘real’ societies this is well within the realm of possible and would be accepted as real. In that sense it fits the understanding of ‘magic realism’. On the other hand, the world I have created is not real. It loosely resembles a real one, but has never existed. As a result, the belief system that seems so convincing also never existed. In that sense it is, strictly speaking, fantasy. Arguments can be made for either interpretation. I don’t even know if it matters. I only bring it up to illustrate various points of view on the subject and to, perhaps, bring some more folks into the discussion. You decide.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio


Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

49 thoughts on “Magic Realism: An Overview”

  1. Hi Yvonne,
    I enjoyed this post – it’s the first thing I’ve read this morning with my second cup of coffee.
    For me, Fantasy is world that the writer creates. The Hobbit, Dune, et cetera. Magic Realism is more of a blending of actual events, the present let’s say, with dreams or a spirit world. I think MR is a very tough genre to write well. I have tried a couple of books in the last year and felt like I was hallucinating… and that may have been the intention of the author. 🙂
    In your research of African culture did you come across the religion Santeria? This religion also believes that the line between the living and the dead is blurred. Santera’s or babalao’s can communicate with orisha’s, sort of like angels, and ask them to intercede for mortals. There are very involved ceremonies with chicken or four-footed animal sacrifices. I did quite a bit of research for my last book and found it to be different than what I thought.
    Very interesting post.

    1. My understanding, when I did a (very tiny) bit of research into African religions for Annealed, was that orishas were gods in certain native African religions. They came to the New World with the slave trade and their worship evolved into Santeria as it’s practiced today. You’re right, Lois, that Santeria is not the evil Satanic religion that a lot of people think it is. The Christian Church created that message, the same way it has for other pagan religions.

  2. “when creating fiction, the line between fantasy and magic realism can become blurred” and “Arguments can be made for either interpretation. I don’t even know if it matters” –

    these seem to hit it where it’s important for me as a writer

    very nice Yvonne, interesting info 🙂

    1. Thank you Filipe. Whether it’s important will depend on the person reading or writing. The discussions I have been in have some folks with very definite interpretations. Others bend much more. I tend to be on the outer edge of bend, I think. 😉

  3. Hello Yvonne, great post….on one of my favorite genres. I dipped my feet into it with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende – I am Indian, from India, so magical realism is quite commonplace to me! You would have to live here to know what i mean – i grew up with the supernatural in a host of ways and it has completely colored my worldview. Today I write spiritual fiction — and my first novel which did the rounds in Manhattan was often referred to as magical realism — but for a strange reason — it was because the eastern concepts I had delineated and which were so important to my book – were unknown to these western publishers. I found myself in a strange position…today i think terms like kundalini, chakras etc are far more popular. Again, thanks very much for a wonderful post.

    1. Thank you, Mira. As a ‘western’ woman, and so taught that it’s all poppycock, I have always been interested in but not involved. But the more I delve into it the more there seems to be something to it. I have had a couple of unusual experiences myself which have helped to open my mind more.

  4. Very thought-provoking! Thanks for the excellent post, Yvonne. I tend to view magic as ‘the unexplainable,’ whether it be spiritual or something scientific or technological that we haven’t unraveled yet (i.e., dark matter & dark energy, etc.). The concept of ‘ancient aliens’ comes to mind as well, with ancient peoples possibly encountering technologically-advanced extra-terrestrials and interpreting them as gods or magical beings. Good stuff!

  5. Magical Realism is a fascinating genre and very hard to pin down. It can have the elements of MR and not really “feel” like MR. I would love to understand it well enough to write it well, and I’m reading it whenever I can get hands on some. So far the closest accurate description I can come up with for the “essence” or “feel” of Magical Realism is that it always reads a bit like an episode of the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits to me. There’s that echo of was it real? or did that really happen? The MR stories I’ve read are held together almost by a refusal to make it easy for the reader and say, yes, it was magic, or no, it was all in the character’s mind. I love that about it and it also drives me batty!

    1. Yes, Frances, it is exacty that quality of not being sure that makes it so hard to pin down. But I know people, and know of many others, that swear it very real indeed. And it is mostly these folks who claim it does not belong in fiction – or rather that when it is in fiction it cannot rightly be called magic realism.

      1. That makes a lot of sense. I suppose if someone’s Magical Realism dealt with magick and chakras or ancient spirits than you could be treading into cultural appropriation and issues along that line.
        Most of the magical realism I’ve read deals with things like “Brain spiders” that eat all the left socks” or microscopic martians clogging up city plumbing. More like twilight zone and less like contemporary fantasy. I actually write contemp. fantasy that deals with kundalini energy and chakras, etc. in a fictional setting, but fiction because the kundalini turns into rampaging dragons. 🙂 I hope it still counts as fiction.. But I see the issue that could come from calling certain cultural/religious systems fictional. I suppose as long as your fiction element is not just that the things exist, but that the characters and situation are fictional that’s truly the definition of fiction.
        I also know people who believe in fairies and elves and I’ve never heard them argue that fantasy should be called non-fiction. Fictional characters in fictional situations (ie: this specific incident never happened. This specific person never lived.) otherwise all contemporary fiction would be non-fiction?
        Because it’s plausible? I think the real concern is if the fiction will be used to debunk or trivialize the belief system. So long as its not history or biography, it would still be fiction, even if the author believed in the “magical element” too.

        1. Frances – Things are fictional if you don’t believe them, but many cultures have different perspectives on life and are, perhaps, aware of aspects that western technological society has long ago abandoned. To them these things are still true, and I think their belief deserves some measure of respect – even if we can’t make sense of it.

          We might describe something as magic, whereas they will describe it as normal. This has been my experience all over Africa, and even though I cannot explain some of the things I witnessed, I know they happened and were real.

  6. Thanks for dropping my name into this, Yvonne. 😀

    In some books of magic realism, the magical stuff is an outer manifestation of emotions that the characters can’t express. If you’ve read “Like Water for Chocolate”, or seen the movie, the technique will be familiar to you: the main character is oppressed by her mother, and so her feelings all go into the food she cooks for the family and their guests, with interesting results. This technique has been adopted by indigenous cultures the world over as a way to chronicle their experiences at the hands of their conquerors. As Mira has said, it’s a different mindset — one that accepts the existence of the magical in everyday life. As such, it can be difficult for rational Western thinkers to wrap their brains around. 😉

    I wouldn’t presume to call my stuff magic realism; I’ve been referring to it as urban fantasy. But I’ve been tempted. Both the Pipe Woman Chronicles and the Land, Sea, Sky trilogy are set in our own world, and otherworldly stuff happens thanks to the intervention of the gods. So I dunno.

    1. Thanks, Lynne. It’s not an easy concept to grasp. Just when I think I begin to understand it it slips away from my peripheral vision and I have to wait for it to appear again. That’s the kind of elusive quality it has for me.

      1. In the orient the saying goes that until you are ready for an experience, its essence will always escape you, even though you may be aware of its presence.
        You just proved the adage, Yvonne.

  7. I live with magical realism in my daily life. My wife is a psychic translator and visionary who uses these abilities in her role as a life counselor for clients around the world, including some very prominent people. She sees things that most people can’t. Her clients treasure her work and pay her more per hour than most attorneys make. My nonfiction writing approached these topics with spiritual visionary experiences and spending time with Timothy Leary before I ever met her. I’m still trying to figure out how to write about the work she does and how it fits into my background as a neuroscience scientist.

  8. I wouldn’t see Magical Realism as being involved so much with animist religious groups. I tend to see it as closer to surrealism. Nobody really believes there are tigers coming out of the sky or bugs in their clocks, but accept it as an artistic gesture.
    Which I mention mostly just to say, if you like this sort of thing, don’t feel you have to read up on voodoo or set your story in Old World jungles or whatever. It’s an opportunity to create something new, that gives a unique perspective.
    People accept vampires and zombies in stories, there is no reason they can’t be seduced into accepting some kid in the inner city or suburbs or trailer park being able move in a cloud of bees or play frisbee with angels and ancestors or have his dead pet turn into a spray of flowers, or whatever.
    And in fact, there is a lot of that sort in Folk Art… much would be called “surrealist” if it wasn’t done by an old black woman in New Orleans or whatever.

    1. What you say when it is fiction may fit, Lin. But from what I have been reading those that write about magic realism as non-fiction really do believe that a person, eg. a shaman, can become an animal temporarily and that he/she can perform actual spells (as in voodoo). To say that no one believes these things are possible is incorrect. There are many people(s) who believe exactly that. Ian Mathie, for instance, who travelled extensively throughout Africa before all of those societies had been affected by western interference, swears that he saw a hyena that was actually a sorcerer in the guise of that animal. His story is very compelling. His memoirs are full of such stories. And he is not alone. We may scoff, but it is difficult to simply dismiss these stories.

      1. Thanks you for picking up on my book, Yvonne. I’m please you got so much out of it.

        What Linton suggests opens up tremendous scope for fiction writers and it’s right that they should exploit this to the full. But as you have clearly recognised, there are other aspects that are not purely imaginary.

        I’m not a particularly imaginative man, and I’m not given to flights of fancy. In Africa I recorded what I saw and experienced at the time. I had lived intimately with bush cultures for many years, and was able to understand many of their beliefs and customs. Sharing the experiences so directly gave me an inside view, and whilst I couldn’t always explain what I saw, I am certain of what happened and what didn’t.

        Magic in those cultures has a very different role and function from the superficial entertainment that western society generally ascribes to it. So it should be, and generally is, taken seriously. It is simply a form of reality, which others are unable to recognise, so they call it magic and make it sound mysterious and even evil. Sometimes, of course, it can be evil, but this is not always the case. Most of it is beneficial in the terms by which the society where it occurs operates.
        Reality is, in a very real sense, a cultural perspective.

  9. I would emphatically say that if you are invoking chakras and santeria and witch doctors and things like that, it’s not really Magical Realism. Is that what you’re seeing in somebody like Garcia Marquez, for instance? He doesn’t give a crutch or backstory or “sci fi intodump explanation”, just has a girl transported directly up to heaven or a corpse turn into a flock of starlings or whatever.
    The more you free your mind to roam and don’t feel you need to have a “how’d that happen”, the more magical–and realistic–your story will be.

  10. And I think something note is that Laurel Esquivel, who wrote “Water for Chocolate” is an aristocrtatic, sophisticated TV exec in Mexico city. Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were high educated intellectuals. Their stuff isn’t springing from primitive village life or oddball religions. So there’s not reason can be as magic realistic as you want wherever you are or whoever you are.
    These are the last graphs in a feature story reprinted in the book “Imaginary Lines” by myself and Anita Corona…
    “…if a certain man says certain words he can convert ordinary wine and bread into the actual, literal blood and flesh of a man who died twenty centuries ago but it’s certainly nothing I would try to prove to anyone. It is one of the oldest and most widely held beliefs in the world; scientifically ridiculous. So should I laugh at the superstitions of the ignorant? Or condemn them as inferior competitors of the true faith? Or sympathize with the odd perversions and contaminations we render to the spirit when we try to apply it to the weakness of the flesh?
    Life, health and sanity are all circles of light surrounded by endless darkness. Perhaps it is in the twilight between the two that the nature of both become more clear to us. If we’re going to have faith, we might as well have blind faith: if we’re going to be realists, we might as well be a magical realists.”

    1. I think the name of the genre is where a lot of the misconceptions come from. You are correct. You can write fiction about real magical systems that is not automatically Magical Realism.
      It has to hit the other genre marks too.
      Most people think Magical Realism, translates to fiction about real magic, but it is absolutely more like surrealism.

      You can write a non fiction count of psychic phenomena or a biography of a psychic.
      You can write a fictional story about a made-up psychic,
      But its not Magical Realism until it is.

      Say she makes up fake futures for dramatic effect and every time she does it a flying monkey attaches to her back chittering, and the more she lies the more monkeys cling to her until she can’t hear the real fortunes for all the chittering, manifested lies clinging to her….then we’re approaching Magical Realism.

      Its a very specific feeling genre and just writing fiction about real magic isn’t the same thing.

    2. If you want yo employ magical realism as a literary tool, that’s fine. But don’t fall into the trap of suggesting that just because the likes of Esquivel, Borgez and Marquez were well educated that they couldn’t have beliefs than harboured the unexplainable. They were Latin Americans, where this is a strong cultural component of the societies in which they lived. Not to have used such tecniques would have completely devalued their writing.
      As to what they actually believed, how are we to know? And does it matter?

  11. I don’t think that Magical Realism has to have anything to do with any specific belief system, it’s more the blending of the real and the unreal (or the surreal, as Linton Robinson observed above.)

    My favorite Magical Realism author is Tim Powers, who is a historian and blends real history with the occult and hermetic in a very matter of fact way.

    For example, Powers’ novel “Declare” is about Kim Philby, the British Intelligence officer who was a Soviet spy. Powers refused to alter any known facts, he used the real facts of the case and added to them to create a story in which the British and Soviets fought a secret war to control a colony of Djin that had been discovered in the Arab desert during WWII.

  12. Intriguing discussion. I’ve been told some of my flash fiction stories are a modern American brand of magical realism, but I’ve never really grasped what magical realism is, so I haven’t claimed that label. I’ve always been drawn to surrealism, so I like that it entered into this exchange of ideas. You’ve all expanded my notions of what magical realism could be and provided much food for thought.

  13. I think we must be careful not to get “reality” mixed up with “realism.” The reality of the publishing world is that these genre labels are a marketing technique to inform readers what kind of story they are about to buy. Any connection we make to the real world is writing technique that allows the reader to enter into the world we have created. So if a character seems realistic, that means we believe that character could exist.
    Authors of fantasy have been borrowing real-world religious, mythical, etc. lore (as in beliefs that somebody actually believes in, in the real world) to add “realism” (perhaps I should use the word “veracity,”) to their stories. But most of us do not expect our readers to believe that Thor, or Zeus, or the Great God A@S#D$ really exists.
    I think the point is that, as long as the story is fiction, nobody expects the reader to actually believe in the “magic.” However, it is a great selling point if people think, “Golly, this could be true.” The same applies to conspiracy theory fiction writers and UFO believers as well. (Not UFO nonfiction nuts, who think that the stories they are writing actually happened.)
    It’s still fiction, folks. By coining the term “Magical Realism,” you’re trying to persuade the reader that the magic in your stories exists in the real world, just like most Christian fiction does. It’s a great technique for selling your book, but it has nothing to do with the real world.
    Unless you’re L. Ron Hubbard, of course.

    1. Gordon – You obviously don’t want to believe in anything that you cannot directly attribute to a measurable process. The fact of something isn’t enough fr you so you classify it all as fiction. Okay, you’re entitled to that point of view, but I would ask you to respect that sometimes people are able to report direct and valid observations of events, even if the mechanism by which they occurred cannot be explained. Others describe these events a magic as it’s a catch-all word to accommodate the unexplainable. But this label doesn’t in any way detract from the reality of the event.

      Mr Hubbard managed to invent a new reality for himself and, being a persuasive fellow, convinced numerous others to accept it too. Bully for him. I think he was out in the left field, near the boundary, but to him it was real enough. So what’s wrong with that?

      1. These are exactly the points that make this so interesting. Gordon, you are a western man, with no belief in what cannot be explained. Ian, you are on the other side, a man who has had personal experiences that cannot be scientifically explained and that have influenced your life. While I cannot label them as magic, I have had a couple of experiences that science would tell me are not real. Those have opened my mind to possibilities that otherwise would be alien to me. For those of us who have not been brought up to believe in such things the idea that magic realism is ‘real’ and exists in the real world is hard to accept. For the rest it is everyday reality.

        1. I think the issue we are discussing is not what any author believes or doesn’t believe. It’s whether my intention is to make others believe through direct or indirect means. If it is by direct means, ie. telling them “this concept is true” then I am writing non-fiction. If it is by indirect means, as in telling a convincing fictional story involving the concept, then it is fiction.
          In this aspect, there should be no different between your “Magical Realism” and “Historical Fiction.” In both cases, the author is taking something that may be arguably true (although there is always some doubt about history) and writing a fictional story about it.
          I simply think it is useful, in order to keep our heads on straight, to know where the truth and the fiction separate. Different places for different people, of course.

          1. That’s fair enough Gordon, as long as you don’t simply brush aside as fiction things which are actually factual and true but seem so extraordinary as to make one wonder. The extraordinary is commonplace and very much real in many cultures, even if in western society it is discredited.

  14. Magical Realism belongs with fiction. “Realism” does not necessarily mean “reality” but rather fictional situations described realistically, so there is really no contradiction of terms. In addition, it most certainly belongs in Western society as well as any tribal society, even if it treated a little differrently. If you want a really good example read “The Nose” by Gogol. In the end, it can be simply defined as the merging, or interweaving, of seemingly supernatural occurences with everyday

    1. Thank you. Certainly that is how some see it. Others would disagree and say that it is ‘reality’ and belongs in non-fiction. That’s what makes this so fascinating to discuss.

      1. From all the comments offered in this discussion it is clear that MR has a foot firmly i both the fiction and non-fiction camps. Quite right that it should have, too.

  15. If you go to “The Myth of the Moon Goddess” on Amazon,
    a-t’t know whether the URL will publish)
    and read the author’s note in the free sample, you will see that this author states that she firmly believes that she is channelling the stories of a person from a past life, around the year 1350. She does a very good job of persuading us that she believes this.
    Thus I assume she would fall into the category of “magic realism” that we are discussing.
    In order to decide, we must ask ourselves if she honestly believes this, (which is very possible; as I say, she is very convincing) or whether she is just a good author creating a credible background for her fantasy(which is also possible; she is very convincing)?
    My friend who is a scientologist will probably like to believe the former. However, he will view it as non-fiction, or historical fiction at the least.
    While I am quite open to the possibility of reincarnation, the ability to actually pass information in large chunks from a former self stretches my credibility, so I consider this at the most historical fiction, and would probably prefer fantasy.
    When I write my review on this book, I will take neither of these approaches into account. I will analyze the quality of the writing, and try to appraise the reader of the experience he or she might have in reading through the book. If I tell the reader that the book is “magic realism” and the reader asks me “what does that mean?” What do I say?
    1. this is a modern day fantasy with magic which closely resembles actual beliefs?
    2.This is non-fiction written for scientologists?
    3.The writer is a nutter who believes all this junk but it’s a kick to read anyway, because it sounds like great fiction?
    4. This is a modern day fantasy where the writer, to create a realistic story, pretends to believe that the magic really exists?
    5. All of the above?
    At the risk of repetition, I am assuming that “magic realism” is a genre label. This is a name that is designed to help readers understand the thematic and other content of the work, as an aid to purchase.
    I would be fascinated to speak author-to-author with a writer who will tell me “this is not fiction. These events really happened.” And then I would say, “Great. It is therefore non-fiction.”
    When I read “Joan of Arc,” where her religious belief is a firm and solid reality in the play, I still have no trouble labelling it fiction.
    Going back to Yvonne’s original post, I think the whole discussion gets sidetracked by people who “argue that magic exists.” These people are trying to validate and create hype for their religious beliefs by tacking them to a literary discussion, which I consider rather duplicitous.
    Just because I label “Joan of Arc” fiction, therefore I negate all the beliefs of Christianity? Just because Yvonne’s work contains a lot of thematic material that is believable and apt to the modern experience, it is therefore nonfiction?
    I don’t think so.

    BTW thanks for a great topic, Yvonne!

    1. Thanks, Gordon, for pulling things back. I have no idea where past life memories would fit into this. I agree that it is a label that can help identify what the reader is looking for but it is still too varied to be considered a genre. Time will tell.

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