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September – Week 4 – Why I Love Magical Realism

I’ll admit that when I first decided on this topic, I harboured dreams of spending September devouring one book after another. I wanted to learn more about magical realism in general. But I also just wanted an excuse to read a bunch of books. And while I did manage to learn a lot about magical realism, its history, and its more problematic elements, my dream of devouring one book after another did not come to pass. Unfortunately, life got in the way. However, what I did do this month was spend a lot of time thinking about just exactly why I love magical realism books so much.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a lot of answers to that question. For example, magical realism books are rife with political and social commentary, and I love reading stories that challenge me to think about systems or histories from a different perspective. I also love stories that focus on average people. I’m done with the whole Chosen One narrative that so often dominates speculative fiction genres. I want to read about average, regular people, and how they handle the extraordinary circumstances these stories often put them in. Another hallmark of magical realism books.

And finally, I love that the magical systems/elements in these stories go unexplained. Of course, the magical elements should adhere to some sort of internal consistency. But I don’t need every single rule explained in detail. I often gripe that stories that go out of their way to explain their magical systems often kill the magic along the way. This never seems to be a problem for me with the magical realism genre. The magical elements just simply exist. Furthermore, by simply existing, they challenge you to imagine how our world would change if magic suddenly became a reality. It’s a fascinating thought, and one I love thinking about.

For these, and many other reasons, I love magical realism books. Always have. Probably always will. And while I didn’t get to read nearly as many books as I originally envisioned this month, I did read two. The first was a classic of the genre. Perhaps even the classic. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. And yes, it very much earns the title of being a classic. This book had everything I love about magical realism books, including random magical interludes that are treated as completely normal. A case of insomnia rolls in and suddenly the inhabitants of Macondo can’t sleep for years? Totally normal and unremarked upon. Love it.

The second book I read was The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a relatively recent addition to the magical realism cannon. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this book, as it was unflinching in its description of slavery in the pre-Civil War American south. Meaning it was a hard read to stomach at times. But it is also an incredibly important read. And while I was worried at first that the magical elements would detract from the important subject matter, those worries proved unfounded.

The Water Dancer tells the story of Hiram, a man who can use the power of memory, stories, and water to transport people across great distances. An ability that causes him to be recruited by the Underground Railroad to help enslaved people get to freedom. But the story does so much more than that. It uses Hiram’s powers to examine the incomprehensible trauma that was inflicted on an entire race of people for generations in a way that was both thought provoking and beautiful. Beautifully written, I should clarify. There is nothing beautiful about the horrors of slavery.

But perhaps that’s why this genre as a whole has proved so popular for decades now. It allows us to examine the crimes of history, but with a touch of magical respite. Because history should be examined, and examined thoroughly. But as a species, we have always seemed to have had a stunning ability to hurt one another, and it’s hard to reconcile that. Sometimes, a little bit of magic can go a long way on the path to understanding.

That wraps up this month’s deep dive on magical realism. I’ll be back next week with a new topic for the last month of this year’s challenge. Happy Sunday all!

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!