Magical Realism, Discussed and Listed

I have been to three “readings” lately, at local bookstores. If you haven’t been to a reading, I suggest that you go to one and make sure to buy a book while you are there. Readings are interesting and cool and they are in danger of becoming extinct if people don’t show up, just as independent bookstores are in danger of becoming extinct if no one buys from them. (At the very least, if your indie bookstore has online ordering, you could check there before buying elsewhere and place orders to pick up.)

One of the readings I attended was for my friend, Thomas Wolf (there are three of them; the one who wrote I Am Charlotte Simmons and The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe) is deceased, as is the North Carolina Thomas Wolfe. The internet has a hard time distinguishing between them). My friend writes historical true crime with his partner, Patricia L. Bryan, and historical baseball books. He has published two of these baseball books in the past few years (and is under contract for another) and was reading for The Called Shot, his latest.

At his reading, I learned that Daniel Wallace was coming to the same bookstore two weeks out. A fan of Big Fish, I had been to a Daniel Wallace reading years before, but I decided to come back for this one, where he would talk about his first nonfiction book, This Isn’t Going to End Well, about his deceased brother-in-law. Then I got a text from a friend asking me to go to a third reading, for a Chapel Hill author named Brian Biswas, a friend of hers. He would be reading from The Astronomer. Turns out that The Astronomer is magical realism, my favorite genre of all time, which is also the genre of Big Fish. I was intrigued to learn that Biswas took some of his own experiences and shook them up into a fiction account that crosses the hallucinations of mental illness with magical realism, bending the rules of magical realism a bit. He was funny and interesting, and he read so calmly. I had to leave early to make an appointment, but I was fascinated and walked away with a signed copy of the book (and used copies of Never Let Me Go (a magical realism author) and Salvage the Bones).

Image from Whiskey Tit

I have begun lists of best magical realism books before. I was surprised, though, when I couldn’t find a posted blog on The Starving Artist for them. Perhaps I had given up. Perhaps it just seemed like a repeat of so many other categories mashed together. I mean, magical realism is sort of a sub-genre, or a category that can encompass books from a few genres. But I have always loved magical realism; I often write magical realism, and so I made the list. And then I thought we might talk about it a little bit, first.

As is appropriate in so many situations, let us begin with a definition. Magical realism—sometimes called magic realism—is a fiction style (or perhaps a genre or sub-genre) that begins with realism and then weaves in components of speculative fiction that remain unqualified. I am drawn to this writing because I think our lives and the world are woven with components of the supernatural. Plus it’s just fun to take normal people and circumstances and chuck in a little of the fantastic, see how it goes, and don’t bother explaining it because this is fiction, this is the author’s world. I often define it as the real world with just a splash or two of fantasy thrown in. Usually the definition of magical realism also includes a little history: it was first popularized and used widely by Latinx authors in the 1900s and some scholars argue that it is bound to this history, so that authors outside of the Latinx culture cannot produce real magical realism. While this is a distinct type of magical realism which deserves a nod and some applause, I do not think magical realism is limited to it (or even began there—there is nothing new under the sun). Indeed, it exemplifies a very universal way of thinking and of telling story, so there should be some name for it as a more meta category, even if we then have a specific name for this 20th century Latin-American magical realism. (My introduction to magical realism, like so many others, was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and I moved on to Isabel Allende.)

I found an interesting article on Reedsy Discovery that parses out three essentials of magical realism: a real-world setting, supernatural happenings that are left unexplained, and a literary fiction tone. As opposed to urban fantasy, which often features magical beings in a more realistic world, magical realism stars normal peeps in a world we would recognize as either our own or a historical one. This means that magical realism is often a commentary on social ills, like in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and can also be used to explore the mental, the emotional, or—in the case of my own magical realism—a deeper reality. Urban fantasy also explains the magic to some extent, while magical realism never really does. In the Discovery article, it says, “The characters seem to take it for granted: they react to it emotionally instead of questioning how it works. And although it’s never subjected to the cold light of logic, it makes a kind of dream-like, internal sense.” (I would change the word “logic” here to “the world’s logic,” because plenty of speculative fiction explains things only in relation to the fantasy or science fiction world that it is set in, not really logic or science. Magical realism doesn’t even explain things in relation to their fictional worlds, which is—again—our world.) Sometimes this allows the reader to experience a feeling on the page. Sometimes it just lives in the mystery of life. Other, more scholarly, definitions include that it must be matter-of-fact (which is a great way to put it) and use the fantasy element(s) as an extended metaphor.

Is magical realism a more “literary” category? Must it be a sub-genre of literary fiction? Or can it just be a category of realism—that part in the bookstore that contains all the usual, fiction books? It is interesting to think of it as the love child of fantasy and literary fiction, because that is basically the way I explain it to people: What do you write? Oh, I write on a spectrum from literary fiction to fantasy and I often land on magical realism, which is right there in the middle. I’ve said this like a hundred times. But does it have to be literary? Let’s just say that it tends to be literary, meaning high-falutin’, with lush descriptions and poetic conventions. Magical realism is often slower, more experimental, and prettier sounding due to careful word-smithing, than the average fantasy novel. But I don’t think it would have to be, would it? Just like you can write fantasy or science fiction that is literary. Would that make it literary fiction? Or speculative fiction? Or both? Perhaps most magical realism is literary fiction. I don’t think we need to get our knickers in a twist too much about genres and categories—that’s more just something publishers need to trade in books: to buy and market and sell (though plenty of academics like to talk subjects like these to death). Let’s suffice it to say that magical realism has a better reputation for being fancy than speculative fiction, but let’s not limit either of them. Magical realism also hob-knobs with categories and subgenres like curio fiction, surrealism, fabulism, and even Gothic fiction.)

All this does mean that my first book, Benevolent (self-published) is definitely magical realism. It takes place in the Detroit suburbs in the 1990s and is about a fairly normal girl, Gabby, who likes to do good and who is loved by a boy. The Arthurian-like legends in the novel, however, are peopled by an ancient queen, angel, and sage, and completely without warning or explanation these characters show up at key moments in the story—they just whisk in and then back out. It is also in the style of literary fiction, the structure is alternative in a constant flux of flashback and varying POVs, and the magic is meant as a metaphor for religion or—more aptly—the actual supernatural or unexplained-but-widely-experienced. I have a few other short stories and novels in the works that also neatly fit into what we just discussed. (I am currently working on two fantasy novels/series, however.)

So now, without further ado, here is my compiled-from-internet-lists list of best magical realism books/TBR:

(Note: There are definitely some disputed titles on here. Are they magical realism? Let’s give them a try.)

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez ***
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel ***
  • Red Sorghum, Mo Yan
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  • The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulkagov
  • Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
  • Mrs. Caliban, Rachel Ingalls
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • The Famished Road, Ben Okri
  • Tropic of Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
  • The Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson
  • The Upstairs House, Julia Fine
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender
  • The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint, Edward Swift
  • The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton
  • The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin
  • The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak *
  • Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  • The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris,
  • The Scent Keeper, Erica Bauermeister
  • Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson
  • Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
  • Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop, Roselle Lim
  • In a Holidaze, Christian Lauren
  • How to Stop Time, Matt Haig
  • Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, Ruth Emmie Lang
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloane
  • The Midnight Library, Matt Haig
  • The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
  • Echo, Pam Nunoz Ryan
  • “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Land of Big Numbers,” Te-Ping Chen
  • “The Office of Historical Corrections,” Danielle Evans
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow
  • Once Upon a River, Diane Setterfield
  • The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton
  • One Italian Summer, Rebecca Serle
  • House on the Cerulean Sea, T. J. Klune
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V. E. Schwab
  • The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, Mitch Album
  • Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Girl with Glass Feet, Ali Shaw
  • Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • The Rage of Dragons, Evan Winter
  • Kaikeyi, Vaishnavi Patel
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman *
  • Miss Marvel, G. Willow Wilson
  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
  • The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki
  • Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie
  • A Man Was Going Down the Road, Otar Chiladze
  • The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, H. G. Parry
  • Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • The Tin Drum, Gunter Glass
  • Things Invisible to See, Nancy Willard
  • Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
  • Dona Barbara, Romulo Gallegos
  • Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • The River King, Alice Hoffman
  • Gold Diggers, Sanjena Sathian
  • Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges
  • Sweep, Jonathan Auxier
  • Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness
  • The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  • Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown *
  • The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemison
  • The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
  • Ghosts, Raina Telgemeier ***
  • The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea
  • Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar
  • The Island of Missing Trees, Elif Shafak
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich
  • The Stories of Eva Luna, Isabel Allende
  • Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Jorge Amado
  • The War of the Saints, Jorge Amado
  • The Road to Tamazunchale, Ron Arias
  • The Man Who Walked Through Walls, Marcel Ayme
  • The Tartar Steppe, Dino Buzzati
  • The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
  • Explosion in a Cathedral, Alejo Carpentier
  • The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier
  • So Far from God, Ana Castillo
  • Sacred River, Syl Cheney-Coker
  • A Man Was Going Down the Road, Otar Childze
  • Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  • The Mistress of Spices, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr
  • The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso
  • Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez
  • Tracks, Louise Erdrich
  • The Law of Love, Laura Esquivel
  • Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia
  • The Nose, Nikolai Gogol
  • The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass
  • The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff
  • Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin
  • Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss
  • The Bleeding of the Stone, Ibrahim al-Koni
  • Search Sweet Country, Kojo Liang
  • Chronicle of Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez *
  • When the Moon Was Ours, Anna Marie McLemore
  • Wild Beauty, Anna Marie McLemore
  • The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, Meg Medina
  • Paradise, Toni Morrison
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland or the End of the World, Haruki Murakami
  • Pale Fire, Vladimir Nobokov
  • The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht
  • A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
  • The Famished Road, Ben Okri
  • Songs of Enchantment, Ben Okri
  • Infinite Riches, Ben Okri
  • The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
  • The Icarus Girl, Helen Oyeyemi
  • Snow, Orhan Pamuk
  • The White Castle, Orhan Pamuk
  • The Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavic
  • Geographies of Home, Loida Maritza Perez
  • Mumbo Jumbo, Ismael Reed
  • …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Tomas Rivera
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie
  • Swamplandia!, Karen Russell
  • Of Bees and Mist, Erick Setiawan
  • Weaving Water, Ryhaan Shah
  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith ***
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Amy Tan
  • Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi wa Thiang’o
  • The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutola
  • Big Fish, Daniel Wallace *
  • Orlando, Virginia Woolf
  • The Waves, Virginia Woolf
  • Through the Arc of the Rainforest, Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Land of Love and Drowning, Tiphanie Yanique
  • How to Escape from a Leper Colony, Tiphanie Yanique

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