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Old 02-27-2009, 02:37 AM   #1
Sharon Mock
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Magical Realism

Split off from the Definitions thread. Copied for context:

More definitions

Magical Realism
... is not so easy to define, actually. (I don't recommend Wikipedia for this one, at least not with the article in its current state.)

Kitty Pryde has pointed to an awesome collection of links on the subject.

Bruce Holland Rogers has an excellent essay on magical realism and how it differs from genre fantasy here:

Quote:
Science fiction and fantasy are always speculative. They are always positing that some aspect of objective reality were different. [...]

Magical realism 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 objective. If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have "real" experiences of ghosts. 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. [...]



It's possible to read magical realism as fantasy, just as it's possible to dismiss people who believe in witches as primitives or fools. But the literature at its best invites the reader to compassionately experience the world as many of our fellow human beings see it.
Another essay, from a more academic/literary perspective, is here:

Quote:
Magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality. Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society [ed. note: I don't actually think this is a useful diagnostic criterion]. According to Angel Flores, magical realism involves the fusion of the real and the fantastic, or as he claims, "an amalgamation of realism and fantasy".
Magical realism is strongly associated with South American literature, but not, most people agree, confined to it.

Last edited by Sharon Mock; 03-03-2009 at 09:01 AM.
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Old 02-27-2009, 03:17 AM   #2
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Can you help me to understand how those essays are defining magical realism? It seems like they are saying it's any story set in the regular modernish world, in which the narrating characters take for granted their belief that some not-real fantastic element (like ghosts, prophecies, whatever) is real. So...Jim Butcher writes magical realism? Charles de Lint? Heaps of other urban fantasy writers? Is 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town' by Cory Doctorow a science fiction magical realism novel?

I can see where the magical realism writers of S. America have that aspect of nonchalant acceptance of the supernatural, but isn't there something more to it? Like when I have read that stuff, I had a sense of it being dreamlike and almost following dream logic in some parts. Some of the later bits of that essay made sense to me, where he said that magical realism included non-linear time, non-causality, and writing 'the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary'.
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Old 02-27-2009, 06:06 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by Kitty Pryde View Post
I can see where the magical realism writers of S. America have that aspect of nonchalant acceptance of the supernatural, but isn't there something more to it? Like when I have read that stuff, I had a sense of it being dreamlike and almost following dream logic in some parts. Some of the later bits of that essay made sense to me, where he said that magical realism included non-linear time, non-causality, and writing 'the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary'.
...Maybe it's saying that this sort of thing (dream logic, non-causality) is taken for granted, rather than just the existence of supernatural elements?

I tend to think of magical realism as being "Night brain" storytelling in a superficially "Day brain" world. Plus, you know,its original cultural context. I wonder if we can even think about the modern instantiation, taken out of its cultural context, and its effects on modern fantasy, without raising the cultural appropriation issue? Which perhaps everyone in this mix'nmatch group should at least be aware is an issue...
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Old 02-27-2009, 09:33 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by Kitty Pryde View Post
Can you help me to understand how those essays are defining magical realism? It seems like they are saying it's any story set in the regular modernish world, in which the narrating characters take for granted their belief that some not-real fantastic element (like ghosts, prophecies, whatever) is real. So...Jim Butcher writes magical realism? Charles de Lint? Heaps of other urban fantasy writers? Is 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town' by Cory Doctorow a science fiction magical realism novel?
This is why I really like Rogers' claim that magical realism isn't speculative. (And why "normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society" gets up my nose a bit.) I think it puts a finger on a fundamental difference between genre spec fic and... well... the slipperier stuff.

Jim Butcher is speculative: what if magic were a real part of modern life? So is most other urban fantasy. And I finally know why War for the Oaks isn't magical realism (what if Faerie came to Minneapolis?).

Someone Comes To Town... on the other hand, is different. "What if a mountain and a washing machine had children?" doesn't even make sense, really. That's not what the book's about. Alan's family is part of its world, no more or less alien than free wi-fi for everyone.

Now, I don't think Someone Comes... quite qualifies as magical realism, myself, but for other reasons. For me, an essential trait of magical realism is that its non-realist bits are integrated into its milieu--and parental mountains and washing machines are not, I believe, a part of any milieu any broader than Cory Doctorow's brain. (Although, if anybody's brain were to qualify as its own community...) But it's definitely a closely related animal.

I cannot speak for Charles de Lint, never having read him (the gaps in my knowledge are astonishing, I know). But I believe at least some readers do consider his stuff to be magical realism. It may well be at least another closely related animal.

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I can see where the magical realism writers of S. America have that aspect of nonchalant acceptance of the supernatural, but isn't there something more to it? Like when I have read that stuff, I had a sense of it being dreamlike and almost following dream logic in some parts. Some of the later bits of that essay made sense to me, where he said that magical realism included non-linear time, non-causality, and writing 'the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary'.
I tend to think of it in terms of making metaphors concrete, and having the world obey that narrative logic that is so often lacking in everyday life. But I might well be completely missing the boat on that one.
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Old 02-27-2009, 10:21 PM   #5
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...Maybe it's saying that this sort of thing (dream logic, non-causality) is taken for granted, rather than just the existence of supernatural elements?

I tend to think of magical realism as being "Night brain" storytelling in a superficially "Day brain" world. Plus, you know,its original cultural context. I wonder if we can even think about the modern instantiation, taken out of its cultural context, and its effects on modern fantasy, without raising the cultural appropriation issue? Which perhaps everyone in this mix'nmatch group should at least be aware is an issue...
I love the term 'night brain' and I shall think mightily upon it. That's a helpful way of considering magical realism. And, AH! I love the ABW! And yeah, I think a thread on cultural appropriation would be awesome in this forum, as it applies to the roots of magical realism. And maybe also the same thread or a different one about how being the minority/The Other relates to Interstitial as a genre, would be awesomesauce and make us all smarter.

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This is why I really like Rogers' claim that magical realism isn't speculative. (And why "normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society" gets up my nose a bit.) I think it puts a finger on a fundamental difference between genre spec fic and... well... the slipperier stuff.

Jim Butcher is speculative: what if magic were a real part of modern life? So is most other urban fantasy. And I finally know why War for the Oaks isn't magical realism (what if Faerie came to Minneapolis?).

I tend to think of it in terms of making metaphors concrete, and having the world obey that narrative logic that is so often lacking in everyday life. But I might well be completely missing the boat on that one.
OK, so I've been thinking on the idea that magical realism isn't speculative. But what about 'A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings' by Marquez? Can't that be described as, 'What if some people found a sad old downtrodden angel in their tiny fishing village?' or alternatively 'What if angels were real and fell out of the sky?' So what makes it not speculative/fantasy?

I'm not trying to be contrary, really. I just have a logical-must-categorize-all-things brain, and the idea of this is rattling the bars of the cage a little bit. This topic may be immune to logic? I'm sort of thinking it's feelings that make something MR, rather than concrete content. <shakes fist angrily at feelings>

PS Some awesome links about MR here.
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Old 03-02-2009, 01:37 PM   #6
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OK, so I've been thinking on the idea that magical realism isn't speculative. But what about 'A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings' by Marquez? Can't that be described as, 'What if some people found a sad old downtrodden angel in their tiny fishing village?' or alternatively 'What if angels were real and fell out of the sky?' So what makes it not speculative/fantasy?
What if the ride the reader takes is not intended to be "What if angels were real and fell out of the sky?" but "A creature that may be an angel did fall out of the sky"? No what-if about it. The symbolism/allegory/etc chosen is for reasons other than what-if, and the author finds the what-if question irrelevant, while angels are very relevant.

I hope my thoughts make sense; it's hard to put into words
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Old 03-03-2009, 04:47 AM   #7
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I think magical realism is a mode that just isn't easy to explain in concrete terms. I'm no more than an interested layman on the subject; there are things I've read that I think of as being in that mode, not all of which are canonical (W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, made into the movie Field of Dreams), and to a certain extent I try to think of magical realism in terms that will encompass the works I think ought to fit under that umbrella.

Which is, obviously, quite dangerous indeed.

That said, I agree with what backslashbaby said about speculative vs. non-speculative. But I also think it shows just how squishy some of this stuff can be, and how happy it will be to squirt through our fingers if we try to grasp it too tightly. Which is why it's the stuff you find in the interstices, of course.

Kitty Pryde, that collection of links is awesome. I've incorporated it into the original definition post on Magical Realism, in case this discussion gets split off into its own thread (I'm thinking it will). I hope you don't mind--if you do, let me know!
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Old 03-03-2009, 05:35 AM   #8
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Uh Sharon, you realize it'll get split off if you split it off, right?
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Old 03-03-2009, 06:01 AM   #9
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Shweta: I realize that, but I wanted to discuss it with you first.
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Old 03-03-2009, 06:27 AM   #10
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Shweta: I realize that, but I wanted to discuss it with you first.
oh right, cause you're the nice one
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Old 03-03-2009, 06:31 AM   #11
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I got a short story back from my teacher, and she commented, "This is one of the greatest magical realism pieces that I've ever seen." And I just kind of blinked and thought, Oh, THAT'S magical realism. Lol.
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Old 03-03-2009, 07:43 AM   #12
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I don't actually think it's that hard to define really. There's always been a clear line to me: if there is an explanation offered, then it's speculative. If there isn't it's magical realism. More importantly if the point of the story has nothing to do with the "magical" elements, that too makes it magical realism.

I know that then brings up a host of clarification questions, but this simple definition is the basis that works for me.

Urban fantasy: in new york, a guy has a friend who is a faery. The reason this guy has a friend who is a faery is that a rift one day opened up in his apartment connecting the faery world with our reality, and she hasn't been able to get home since.

Magical realism: in new york, a guy has a friend who is a faery. This faery is also the head of publicity for the publishing firm he runs.

The latter does not explain why there is a faery in new york, no one in the book questions that there is a faery in new york, and we are more concerned with how the faery does as the head of publicity than her faeryness.

This might not work for everyone, and granted I haven't read every example that you guys have posted where the lines were blurred. But I hope this might have helped somewhat. I wrote a blog post about Magical Realism with some more links, though Kitty's are more than adequate . . .if anyone is interested.
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Old 03-03-2009, 08:08 AM   #13
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I don't actually think it's that hard to define really. There's always been a clear line to me: if there is an explanation offered, then it's speculative. If there isn't it's magical realism. More importantly if the point of the story has nothing to do with the "magical" elements, that too makes it magical realism.
except that this ends up labelling an awful lot of fantasy "Magical Realism", and I don't think that's helpful. There is... a taste... to MR that isn't going to be easily given necessary and sufficient conditions.

By this definition, War for the Oaks, one of the founding Urban Fantasy titles,is magical realism. So is ... gah, most of the Urban Fantasy I like, which just does not have the same feel to me. Meanwhile, Patricia McKillip's stories, which have much of the dream-feel of MR, would not be (explanation: secondary world).
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Old 03-03-2009, 08:11 AM   #14
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I don't actually think it's that hard to define really. There's always been a clear line to me: if there is an explanation offered, then it's speculative. If there isn't it's magical realism. More importantly if the point of the story has nothing to do with the "magical" elements, that too makes it magical realism.

I know that then brings up a host of clarification questions, but this simple definition is the basis that works for me.

Urban fantasy: in new york, a guy has a friend who is a faery. The reason this guy has a friend who is a faery is that a rift one day opened up in his apartment connecting the faery world with our reality, and she hasn't been able to get home since.

Magical realism: in new york, a guy has a friend who is a faery. This faery is also the head of publicity for the publishing firm he runs.

The latter does not explain why there is a faery in new york, no one in the book questions that there is a faery in new york, and we are more concerned with how the faery does as the head of publicity than her faeryness.

This might not work for everyone, and granted I haven't read every example that you guys have posted where the lines were blurred. But I hope this might have helped somewhat. I wrote a blog post about Magical Realism with some more links, though Kitty's are more than adequate . . .if anyone is interested.

I think this basically sums it up. Urban fantasy(etc) has this need to explain the elements. Magical Realism doesn't.
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Old 03-03-2009, 08:48 AM   #15
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except that this ends up labelling an awful lot of fantasy "Magical Realism", and I don't think that's helpful. There is... a taste... to MR that isn't going to be easily given necessary and sufficient conditions.

By this definition, War for the Oaks, one of the founding Urban Fantasy titles,is magical realism. So is ... gah, most of the Urban Fantasy I like, which just does not have the same feel to me. Meanwhile, Patricia McKillip's stories, which have much of the dream-feel of MR, would not be (explanation: secondary world).

Not really. I'm not sure you quite understood my explanation then. I didn't know what that book was about that you mentioned and so I googled it. It looks to me to be a story about faeries in our world, and the battle between their courts. This is quintessential Urban Fantasy, fantastical creatures using our world as a staging ground. Whatever the reason, parallel dimension, alternate reality where fae live amongst us, the fact is there is still a reason given. I bet too that when that girl first meets these fae she's pretty surprised isn't she? Well that is the total opposite reaction from a protagonist of Magical Realism.

Magical Realism supports a world where everything is exactly as it is now, a world where having a fae as a friend ought to be considered odd because this is the normal world, not any of the above suggested settings. But no one considers them odd. I'll also postulate that the "magical" elements of Magical Realism are rarely the point of the plot. We aren't watching an epic battle between werewolves and vampires, we are watching the story of John Smith who's wife just left him and who is trying to figure out if he should quit his job at the bank and travel the world. For advice he turns to his faery buddy who tells him, "Hey I dunno man, can you afford it?" His faery buddy isn't going to help him magically, he isn't going to send him to a magic world, he's just some dude who's his friend.

If there is any explanation offered. Any at all. Even if it comes from the conceit of the novel itself, that is not magical realism.

Think Family Guy. Brian is a dog. He behaves like a dog, he doesn't like the vacuum cleaner and goes to the washroom on the lawn. He also talks. Is an alcoholic. And dates human women. In fact, he has a human son. And no one bats an eyelash. No one comments. We aren't in some parallel world where all animals can talk. We are most distinctly still on our Earth. And yet, Brian is what he is.

Many cartoons actually could be categorised as Magical Realism really. Though there are more serious undertones to the genre, and it isn't meant as a diversion only.

Anyway, I hope this clarifies my explanation somewhat.

ETA: After all this I will add that there are exceptions to every rule of course, but that goes with every genre. I just personally don't see why Magical Realism has to be considered such a difficult genre to define because of that. Why can't we say, "For the most part, this is what it is, but of course there are always exceptions"?
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Old 03-03-2009, 09:25 AM   #16
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Not really. I'm not sure you quite understood my explanation then. I didn't know what that book was about that you mentioned and so I googled it. It looks to me to be a story about faeries in our world, and the battle between their courts. This is quintessential Urban Fantasy, fantastical creatures using our world as a staging ground. Whatever the reason, parallel dimension, alternate reality where fae live amongst us, the fact is there is still a reason given.
No. There isn't. It's just not true.

The Seelie and Unseelie Courts are duking it out in Minneapolis. Why Minneapolis? Because that's what's happening. Why do they exist? Because they do. The "explanation" thing is just not valid in a lot of current fantasy. The need to Explain Everything is classic SF, and it's something that a lot of fantasy writers just don't feel the need for. This is a false distinction.

War for the Oaks is not just som book, by the way. To a lot of people it's definitional urban fantasy. (Urban fantasy is like, two different genres by one name, btw -- the fantasy-but-our-world that has its roots in books like War for the Oaks, and the paranormal-romance-or-thriller that got renamed, that has its roots more in adventure/romance books. The two groups have oddly little overlap, the ways they handle character and place are different, and often the second group doesn't know the first ever existed, let alone was there first.)

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I bet too that when that girl first meets these fae she's pretty surprised isn't she? Well that is the total opposite reaction from a protagonist of Magical Realism.
This, I think, is a much clearer part of the difference. As it happens, the girl is scared out of her mind, but it's effectively the same thing.

The humans in this-world fantasy follow this world's assumptions, and respond as we would. The humans in secondary-world fantasy follow that world's assumptions, which the reader is clued into, and respond as we would if we grew up in that world.

But I think this goes back to the night-brain thing. In Magical Realism, characters respond as we would in a dream.
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Old 03-03-2009, 09:58 AM   #17
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I don't think War for the Oaks is magical realism either, but explaining why means displaying my reasoning, freshly downloaded from pulledoutofmynotcompletelyuninformedbehind.com.

One of the things that I think defines magical realism is that the magic is part of its milieu... part of the identity of the place, or of the people who dwell in that place. The magic--the concrete metaphors--are bound to the world. (This is how I justify things like Shoeless Joe and L.A. Story as magical realism, BTW.)

In War for the Oaks, though, the Faerie Courts have nothing to do with Minneapolis. They're just there. And there's no explicit (or even implicit, really) tie between Eddi's heritage and her connection to Faerie. She's just the right person at the right place in the right time.

I do think the previous argument--that War for the Oaks is inherently speculative, it's exploring its speculative element rather than taking it for granted--is also valid. It's just not the argument I've been making in my head.
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Old 03-03-2009, 10:06 AM   #18
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I do think the previous argument--that War for the Oaks is inherently speculative, it's exploring its speculative element rather than taking it for granted--is also valid. It's just not the argument I've been making in my head.
Agreed. And I think it's a good test cas of what's not magical realism, because it's a really strong example of urban fantasy.

And I don't think it's about anything as simple as explanation. I think it has to do with deep connections between characters, cultures, and the magic. There is realism in magical realism, which has always seemed to me to be emotional realism.
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Old 03-03-2009, 10:56 AM   #19
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The way it's typically used in a Lit Crit context, because I'm a litcrit geek:

"magic realism" The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris Baldick. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. UC - Los Angeles. 3 March 2009

Most people won't be able to use the URL; it's subscription based.

PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO THE EXAMPLES GIVEN. Those example texts say more than I ever could about the actual nature of Magical Realism -- of which, YES, South American writers have been an important contingent. But they're hardly the only writers to do it, NOR were they the first writers to do it.

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magic realism (magical realism) A kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report. The term was once applied to a trend in German fiction of the early 1950s, but is now associated chiefly with certain leading novelists of Central and South America, notably Miguel Ángel Asturias , Alejo Carpentier , and Gabriel García Márquez . The latter's Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967 ) is often cited as a leading example, celebrated for the moment at which one character unexpectedly ascends to heaven while hanging her washing on a line. The term has also been extended to works from very different cultures, designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable , folktale and myth while retaining a strong contemporary social relevance. Thus Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959 ), Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting ( 1979 ), and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children ( 1981 ) have been described as magic realist novels along with Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus ( 1984 ) and Rushdie's The Satanic Verses ( 1988 ). The fantastic attributes given to characters in such novels—levitation, flight, telepathy, telekinesis—are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagoric political realities of the 20th century. See also fabulation . For a fuller account, consult Maggie Ann Bowers , Magic(al) Realism ( 2004 ).
Bluntly, part of what the conversation about Magical Realism seems to be missing is an understanding of how very political the literary tradition tends to be.
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Old 03-03-2009, 11:16 AM   #20
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Bluntly, part of what the conversation about Magical Realism seems to be missing is an understanding of how very political the literary tradition tends to be.
So my knowledge on this front comes down to "Er, I know it's political". Which is why I hadn't gone there :sheepish grin:

Maybe elaborate?
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Old 03-03-2009, 11:32 AM   #21
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In terms of the specifics, if we look at the political situations preceding or surrounding the writers and texts primarily identified as MR, generally we'll see a political climate of turbulence, violence, opposition, suppression, and very real danger -- in many cases, danger to the writer. This is true of the both earlier German movement (primarily Jewish-identified writers, btw) and the somewhat later Latin American writers, as well.

Isabelle Allende is a terrific case in point.

So what you have is a level of tension in the text illustrating a very real, political/physical peril -- but simultaneously manage to transcend the physical reality of the situation. Thus, you have a dynamic opposition between personal/political, magical/real, physical/metaphysical, damnation/transcendence. That dynamic, that tension, serves to illustrate a fairly specific kind of experience. Now, that's not to say that the movement cannot grow beyond this stage, but there's definitely a dynamic opposition inherent to Magical Realism (as demonstrated by the name itself.)

Oh dear. I'm not actually sure I explained that very well at all.
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Old 03-03-2009, 11:37 AM   #22
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Well, it makes sense, if that helps you at all.

I understand what you're saying, and I think it's an interesting part of the history of MR, so to speak. My question then becomes: is it a necessary ingredient to be able to categorize a work as MR?
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Old 03-03-2009, 11:39 AM   #23
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That not only makes sense to me but makes a) entire chunks of history and b) a story of mine suddenly make sense!

I now know why I had to take an approach that was closer to magical realist than standard fantasy in my Beastly Bride story, and it's because of real (though personal/cultural rather than political) risk on my part. It didn't allow the distance that "being speculative" gives us.
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Old 03-03-2009, 12:12 PM   #24
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Well, it makes sense, if that helps you at all.

I understand what you're saying, and I think it's an interesting part of the history of MR, so to speak. My question then becomes: is it a necessary ingredient to be able to categorize a work as MR?
Cranky, I don't know the specifically political aspect necessarily must still be inherent -- but certainly I'd argue that the dynamic opposition between disparate elements, as a narrative method to illustrate some deeper truth or tension regarding the reality the text reflects? Sure. I think that's gotta be present.
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Old 03-03-2009, 12:15 PM   #25
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Check. I was wondering about the political aspect, as you guessed (can't believe I left that part of of my reply, sorry for making you try to mind-read, lol). That's what happens when I try to wrap my brain around new concepts at 2:30 in the morning, lol.

Lots of stuff to cogitate on.
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