Is Magic Realism Just A Latin American Thing?

“Magic realism or magical realism is a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment.”             by Wendy B. Faris and Lois Parkinson Zamora

Cover image for One Hundred Years of Solitude
Cover image for One Hundred Years of Solitude

The Nuts and Bolts of Magic Realism

Nowadays, it is generally believed that anybody can write Magic Realism, not just verbose Latin American authors. Just to prove how widespread this idea is, I will recent a recent article in Writer’s Digest that explains the basis of such a literary task. Among the building blocks of Magic Realism that author Kristin O’Keeffe cites is creating a realistic and mundane world from which your magic elements can spring forth. Miss O’Keefe goes on to say that no logical explanation is needed for those strange things that might occur during the course of your story……they just happen. Still, keep in mind that Magic Realism is not fantasy, for it is always grounded in a real (and often mundane) world.

The Hummingbird's Daughter introduces elements of Native American mysticism to contemporary writing
The Hummingbird’s Daughter introduces elements of Native American mysticism to contemporary writing

Golden Age of Magic Realism

The Golden Age of Latin American Magic Realism probably occurred during the 40s, 50s and 60s, culminating with the Marquez classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Today, the popular genre has been replaced by more realistic historical and political stories about some of the horrendous and tumultuous events that have shaped some Latin American nations in the second half of the 20th century. For example, Julia Alvarez’s novel, In the Time of Butterflies, sounds like it be of the genre. But instead it is basically a historical novel underlining the cruelty and barbarity of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. In fact, Alvarez’s story may be typical of what is going on among Latin writers today with a movement away from the slightly unreal to the coarse reality of everyday life.

Heart of the Jaguar by Pax introduces animal mysticism to the realm of Magic Realism
Heart of the Jaguar by Jax introduces animal mysticism to the realm of Magic Realism

Magic Realism Abounds Today

Just as authors South of the Border may be moving away from floating and flying characters, numerous other writers from the U.S., Europe and Asia, seem more than ready to embrace the concept. A Magic Realism reading list put forth by Kristin O’Keeffe embraces such literary stars as Toni Morrison, Huruki Murakami, Yann Martel, Karen Russell and Alice Hoffman. The Magic Realism of Folk Tales To my way of thinking, Fairy Tales are a great source of Magical Realism that has been overlooked by this literary discussion. True they do have strong fantasy elements, but for the most part, the stories are grounded in rather real and mundane worlds, especially if you consider the time period, when they were written. What is most important here is the way fairy tales have been re-adapted and re-told by contemporary authors to convey a modern dilemma. With this genre contemporary writing has a rich and fertile ground from which to introduce new elements of magic to readers everywhere.

The Passing of A Literary Giant

Cover for the Marquez novel, One Hundred Tears of Solitude, from Wikipedia

One of Those Rare Reads

Even though I read One Hundred Years of Solitude over 30 years ago, the vivid images and spicy storytelling  still sticks in my mind. Even today, this tragic-comedy from the Caribbean coast of Columbia, counts as one of the most impressive novels that I have ever read. For the English-reading audience, this is a tale that introduced “Magic Realism” to the world, as well as a whole flurry of capitivating Latin American authors. For years, writers like Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes and Jorge Luis Borges had been presenting their slightly skewed version of Hispanic reality to the world; but now with the stories of Marquez came a new label. Loosely defined, magic realism combines the advent of magical happenings with the mundane reality of day-to-day life. Its roots are distinctly Central and South American with authors like Alejo Carpentier, José Ortega y Gasset and Arturo Uslar-Pietri paving the way for a modern group of practitioners that stretches around the globe.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wearing a “sombrero vueltiao”, a head garment that is popular along the Caribbean coast of Columbia.

Marquez the Writer

Gabriel (or “Gabo, as he is affectionately known by many) was born in a coastal city of Columbia, called Aracataca. Aracataca is a small, isolated city on the Caribbean, where many of Marquez’s stories are set. The special uniqueness of this  hot tropical land permeates Gabriel’s writing.

The Gabriel Garcia Marquez Wall in Aracatac, Columbia
The Gabriel Garcia Marquez Wall in Aracatac, Columbia

About the Region

Aracataca is a river town located on a South American river of the same name. The coastal lowlands here are hot and humid year round. As a result the area supports an active agricultural commerce that includes bananas, palm oil, sugar cane, cotton and rice. Thanks to the success of the United Fruit Company in cultivating large plantations, the coastal lands  have sometimes fallen under the label of “Banana Republic“. It is from this  isolated birthplace and childhood home that Gabo has fashioned most of his stories.

Marquez and Castro

Marquez and Castro

In early 1959, Gabriel Garcia Marquez went to Cuba as a journalist, covering the revolution that eventually replaced Juan Batista with Fidel Castro. Though not always in complete agreement with the bearded guerilla fighter, the two men became close friends. This alliance on occasion brought criticism from other Latin American writers, who felt that Marquez was ignoring dissidents imprisioned by the Castro regime. Nonetheless, Castro definitely admired the Columbian author and  is quoted as referring to Marquez as having “the goodness of a child and a cosmic talent.”