“Magical realism[I] is not speculative and does not conduct thought experiments. Instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objectivity. . . . Magical realist fiction depicts the real world of people whose reality is different from ours. . . . Magical realism endeavors to show us the world through other eyes” (Rogers). For anyone who does not know what Magic Realism is, this preceding quote by Bruce Holland Rogers sums it up quite well. It is a literary genre that is not commonly known, and when asked, many people relate it to fantasy or they wonder how magic can be realistic. But Magic Realism is something completely different from fantasy. The setting is always realistic and only a few magic elements occur. This essay will give a brief history of the development of Magic Realism. It will also suggest why Magic Realism is mostly common in Latin America and why Canadian writers have similar prerequisites. Then it will discuss some features that are used in Magic Realist writing and finally show examples of Magic Realist elements in the short story The Dav I Sat with Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts (hereafter: The Day I Sat) by Canadian author Gloria Sawai.
Magic Realism is a term which was invented by the art historian Franz Roh in Germany in 1925. During that time it was used to describe a new European visual arts movement which was about to replace Expressionism. According to Franz Roh “Expressionism shows an exaggerated preference for fantastic, extraterrestrial, remote objects” (Roh 16) whereas by Magic Realism “we are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane” (Roh 17). Firstly, this shows that Magic Realism was not used to denote a literary genre at that time and secondly that its features concerning arts were quite different to the literary ones. Magic Realism in the literary sense shows “the magic inherent in reality” (Magic Realism 2), whereas Magic Realism as an arts movement tried to show reality in a ‘static’, ‘quiet’ and ‘thorough’ way (Guenther 35). Through expanding Franz Roh’s essay about Magic Realism into the book Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism, which was translated into Spanish and distributed not only in Spain but also in Latin America, the expression Magic Realism made its way to becoming a literary genre. “Within a year [after the book’s release], the term Magic Realism was being applied to the prose of European writers in the literary circles of Buenos Aires” (Magic Realism 1). Influential essays around 1950 “further defined both the genre’s characteristics and its pertinence to contemporary Latin American Literature” (Magic Realism 2). Even though Magic Realist stories are written internationally, the “success of such Magic Realist writers as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garciá Márquez” (Magic Realism 2) emphasises the association of this genre with Latin American writers.
But why is Magic Realism originally associated with Latin American writers? “A most important influence is certainly the continent’s natural landscape” (Magic Realism 7). It varies “from lush vegetation to high desert” (Magic Realism 7) and is therefore the perfect basis for the contrastive scenery that is often used in Magic Realist stories. There is simply a lot more variety in nature than for example in Europe, be it animal species, plants or the diversity of rivers. Canada also has this great variety in nature: the prairies, the waterfalls and the wild animals to name just a few. “Indigenous cultures [in Latin America] are another strong influence ... because of their spiritual traditions” (Magic Realism 7) as these “require the participant’s active faith in the mysterious, and promote the writers’ leap of imagination” (Magic Realism 8). Gabrielle P. Foreman makes the connection between traditional cultures and Magic Realist writing very clear by saying: “Magical realism, unlike the fantastic or the surreal, presumes that the individual requires a bond with traditions and the faith of the community, that s/he is historically constructed and connected” (286). As the Amerindians in Latin America, there are indigenous cultures in Canada, namely the First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis, who still speak their own languages, who keep up old traditions and who live in communities that connect their people.
Although, according to Foreman, faith in the mysterious and a bond with traditions are a good basis for Magic Realist writing, it is a genre that is very different from fantasy, as mentioned earlier in this essay. As opposed to fantasy, it always stays grounded in the phenomenal world and is never set in the unreal. Magic Realism overcomes literary realism by accepting the magic immanent in reality, which is then experienced in the ordinary. In other words, it “stretches the boundaries of realism in order to stretch the definition of reality” (Magic Realism 2), so that the magic becomes natural.
[I] The terms Magical Realism and Magic Realism are used as synonyms in this essay, as they are in general, too. The spelling concerning the capitalization of ‘Magic Realism’ varies. I decided to capitalize the term but not all sources did.