I found a great online article by Bruce Holland Rogers called “What Is Magical Realism, Really?”
What Magic Realism Is Not
In the piece, he gives an example of how those working in trade magazines misuse the category name:
If a magazine editor these days asks for contributions that are magical realism, what she’s really saying is that she wants contemporary fantasy written to a high literary standard—fantasy that readers who “don’t read escapist literature” will happily read. It’s a marketing label and an attempt to carve out a part of the prestige readership for speculative works.
Magic Realism is Literary Fiction
He then shoots down this use by clarifying that magic realism is serious literary fiction but
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. It’s not a thought experiment. It’s not speculation. Magical realism endeavors to show us the world through other eyes.
Defining Magic Realism
I find his three elements of magic realism truly clarifying for me.
There are three main effects by which magical realism conveys this different world-view, and those effects relate to the ways in which this world-view is different from the “objective” (empirical, positivist) view. In these other realities, time is not linear, causality is subjective, and the magical and the ordinary are one and the same.
I’ve been reading up on definitions of magic(al) realism because I am working on a novel-length project, trying to figure out if it falls into the category. For instance, in the first chapter of my writing project, I bring Juliana, a Northern California caterer, and Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food, together during an evening of cooking. That evening stretches out, perhaps over many days. During the time in the kitchen, Juliana and Annapurna engage with each other and the food production. They are fully present in the moment. Why does Juliana not question Annapurna’s presence? That is a question I may not need to answer, at least at the start of the project, if it does, indeed, fall in the magic realism as defined.
I will continue to try to puzzle through the definition of magic realism. My self-assigned homework is to read examples of magic realism by contemporary American authors (Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Stephanie Hammer) who follow in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, among others.