When I hear “magical realism” I think of the works of Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Angel Carter, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, Jeannette Winterson. On the surface it is a genre that is barely speculative fiction, that is perhaps a slipstream attempt to write fantasy while remaining in the respectable realm of literary fiction. And on the other hand, most of the magical realist stories we have published over the years (‘Letting Go’, ‘Pianissimo’) have been social rather than political, moving rather than rousing. As the “magic” is typically underplayed in this type of fiction, what we are left with is human action and interaction, the heart of all good writing.
But there is more to magical realism than fantasy-lite. All of the authors listed above write unrelentingly political work, with settings where mythology and folklore, or the bizarre and the surreal, bleed into the all-too-real world; rather than providing escapism and excitement, the presence of magic serves to put the ugliness and violence of political abuse into starker contrast. This is the realism of our world, not safely distanced by a fantastic setting. This is the core to understanding our attraction to magical realism: the “realism” part of its name suggests that there is a tough core to the genre, a grittiness that puts it at (or slightly beyond) the darkest edge of the respectable literary spectrum.
In a magical realist story (like ‘Apala’, ‘In the Shadow of Kakadu’ or ‘Nasmina’s Black Box’) mysterious powers may seep into the “real” word without anyone batting an eyelid, and it may be handled realistically and with attention to human reactions and behaviour, but it doesn’t change the world. Corrupt politicians can still cover up their crimes; brutal military regimes can still repress all opposition; an ugly, bigoted mob can still brutalize a woman who dares to stand up; a native child can still be taken from his home by well-meaning colonials. Because a magical realist plot, like those of the best socio-political speculative fiction works, recognizes that it is human behaviour, cultural reactions, social interactions and political power that drive the world, not possession of a laser gun, ninja abilities, a divine parent or the power to speak to animals.