Mel from Books on Wings began this discussion by tweeting: “Apart from all the mess that is MS’ new book, I’ve always been hesitant about non-latinx people writing magical realism. It’s prominently a Latin American genre and she took inspiration from Isabel Allende and García Márquez. But why would we need her voice and story?”
I studied magical realism and the fantastic in college, and wrote my senior thesis on it, so I decided to jump in, because this has often bothered me as well. So here it is: You can write magical realism without appropriating Latin-American stories or Latinx magical realism. It’s easy. Here’s why.
Magical Realism as a genre was founded by Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits are two examples of the genre. This genre is largely a reaction against colonialism and Western realism. The idea is that mythology and spirituality are not as separate from the ‘real world’ in non-Western storytelling traditions. Here’s a way of explaining this: when I was a kid, my parents and grandparents told me a lot of stories about our history that are exaggerated, added-to, mythologized a little bit, etc. If I told a family history, I would tell those stories instead of finding the real ones, because these stories actually explain my family better. It’s an argument that it’s actually sort of more real if you include those tales rather than the ‘historically correct ones.’ You can pull inspiration from this genre successfully without appropriating it. For example, Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex uses the same sort of family/historical epic framework, dotted with magical realism, to tell his story.
Magical realism is used in the literature of many cultures, from Balkan to Japanese to African-American novels and stories. It’s often used to project an anti-Western outlook, but with postmodernism, many Western writers began to utilize it as well. But outside of Latin America, magical realism is a mode, not a genre. It is a literary tool to enhance your story and give it depth, or mystery. It’s used, just for example, by The Master and Margarita, Ulysses, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Lincoln in the Bardo, the short stories of Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. Would you put those all into the same genre? No, me neither. That’s because these all use magical realism but don’t try to appropriate the genre of magical realism, which is a Latin American genre. They use it as a mode to create a certain feeling, experience, and depth for the reader, but are not directly using the styles of Marquez.
That’s my problem with Maggie Stiefvater’s new novel. There is no reason why you need to appropriate Latinx stories or tropes from the genre of magical realism in order to write a novel that has magical realism in it. As Mel added, non-Latinx people can use it as a mode—but there’s no reason to take Latinx stories away. I agree. Do you want to write a novel with magical realism in it? Great—so do I, in fact. But why do you need to write a Latin American story to do so? The answer is that you really don’t.