Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

C O L U M N
PRACTICAL MAGIC
n a r r a t i v e    s t r a t e g i e s

Want to write magical realism?
Check your motives first

It's not unusual for a writer to pen a manuscript, only to learn later that it has distinctly magical realist qualities. Magical realism as a literary form sneaks up on many of us, arriving without our intention and digging in its heels well after we've discovered its presence.

But occasionally a writer may decide, going into a story, to give it a magical realist sensibility. At that point, and as with any chosen form, a writer must then ask himself why magical realism is the best form to choose for a particular story.

While the number of reasons for and against choosing magical realism are perhaps incalculable, I offer five -- logical and questionable -- reasons for writing such a tale, for all of those authors who are entertaining the possibility.

l o g i c a l   r e a s o n s

1. Because it's what thrills you and what you love to read.
If you swooned over Love in the Time of Cholera, couldn't put down Nights at the Circus or Midnight's Children, if you thrive on the Kafkaesque or the Borgesian, the enthusiasm from those literary experiences is bound to energize and inform your writing in many positive ways. Writing instructors always cite that writers should "write what they know." This is one version of that advice, but applied more personally: write what you would love to read. If you love to read magical realism, and have read lots of it, you'll have a running start on your own magical realist manuscript.

2. Because you can't help it.
Seriously. It just happens. And if it "just happens," then you've got a natural inclination. No need to keep a strong, natural inclination down. Let it develop and deepen. Magical realism built on a storytelling foundation that is organic to the writer, has a better chance of succeeding.

3. Because you understand the importance of writing between worlds and ideas.
You tend to notice the white space in life: you hear the unheard, see the unseen, fill in the blanks with amazing accuracy. You wish to speak for those who can't. You wish to examine possibilities in your writing without having to build worlds to do it; the current Real World will do just fine, thank you very much. You recognize that objects have secret lives, not in any spooky way, but in the way that demonstrates how you understand that the whole world is alive and has something to say. You think of your writing as a kind of bridge-building.

4. Because you almost always prefer metaphor over device.
Not that magical realism doesn't have its devices. Butterflies as a metaphor have become a device in magical realism stories, for instance (as well as cliché, so try something fresh, okay?). But generally, it's the metaphors and symbolism in a magical realist story that do the work that devices like elves, space portals, technology and dreams do in stories of fantasy and/or science fiction. If you're more comfortable using the creative distance of metaphors over the immediate presence and significance of devices, then magical realism will likely work well for you.

5. Because your work is political and truthtelling, and you need a form that can convey these things in ways that appeal to the reader.
The truth can be damning, bleak, depressing, ugly. Still, you are driven to tell it, but what good is writing a story if no one will want to read it? It takes finesse. Magical realism infuses political and social upheaval with hope, humor, beauty, humanity. These are story traits that readers cleave to when they engage a story that has a dark truth to reveal. Think about it. Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude could be reduced to a simple statement: "The failure of Man to evolve." And yet, despite its spiraling tales of bloodshed, violence and corruption there are statements of beauty, comedy, possibility and idealizations about human nature.

q u e s t i o n a b l e   r e a s o n s

1. Because you want your imaginative writing to be accepted in the literary world.
The division between so-called literary writing and genre writing is an imagined one fomented by marketing interests. Don't fall into that abyss. Writers waste entirely too much time and energy worrying about being accepted by one or the other. Write what it is that you are driven to write. If it turns out to be magical realism, then so be it. If it remains a work of science fiction or fantasy, that's fine as well. There are readers for every kind of book. Your job as a writer is to build that connection between your reader and your narrative. Let the publishers and agents and editors duke it out in the categorization department. That's their job anyway.

2. Because it's hip and science fiction and fantasy are both on the outs.
Reports of the end of sci-fi and fantasy literature are so much hubris. There's plenty out there to read, with more to follow. These genres will always have fans, just as they will always have publishing cycles that wax and wane. Magical realism isn't necessarily more hip than any other story form, besides. It depends upon who is reading it, who is publishing it, and what readers want to cull from it. Besides, it's been around a long time, despite those who would dismiss it as "trendy" or call it "high-brow fantasy." It's neither. Your energy is better spent writing what comes to you, and making it your own.

3. Because you wish to escape personal reality through your writing.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing to escape. I confess to a therapeutic drive during my childhood to write, and write, and write. But acting out fantasies on the page or avoiding the grim realities of your life are not good reasons for launching a career as a magical realist writer. Magical realism isn't about running away, it's about revelation. It relies on realism. In order to write it well, you have to be engaged in the tangible, real moments of the everyday, which is, in fact, the opposite of escapism.

4. Because magical realism allows you to be ambiguous and to use narrative that doesn't require explanation.
Writers have to do their work, no matter what form they choose. Magical realism doesn't exist to answer all questions, but it has to answer some. It needs rootedness, logic, plausibility. And that means that writers of magical realism must do their research. In fact, its the devil in the details that gives magical realism its added punch. So push up your sleeves, scrutinize your characters, the objects of place, cultural histories, emotional landscapes, the logic of the storyline. Good magical realism -- well, any good writing -- never comes from lazy writers.

5. Because your background is Hispanic and it's what you think you are expected to write.
If your goal is to be published, and you think that being part of a group or holding fast to perceived trends will get you there, think again. Magical realism may have been popularized by South American writers, but it's a form that's made rounds across the globe since the early days of world literature. Good magical realism is not about who is writing it, but rather, how it is written. In fact, if you are Hispanic, you may be interested in the Hispanic writers' backlash to magical realism, a movement collected under the name McOndo, a revision of the name of Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude fame. The echoing reference McDonald's (the American fast food chain) is not coincidental. Believing that you must write magical realism because it is expected of you is downright degrading. Write what you are driven to write. Good writing will always find a good home.

Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of MARGIN.
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