The Rise of Magical Realism in Young Adult Fiction

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A report by Josie Meléndez for Tor. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

The Young Adult category has grown rapidly in the last few years. Within those years, two genres have always remained consistent in popularity: contemporary and fantasy. But what happens when you have books that are both or neither? You might be looking at a work of magical realism.

According to the simplest dictionary definition, magical realism is “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.”

Magical realism is a perfect blend between realistic stories and elements that you may find in fantasy reads. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a fantasy book. In fantasy, you have to explain the rules of the world. In magical realism, it simply is. The magic is there, but it’s not what the story revolves around.

The term is believed to have surfaced in Germany, but it was not considered a new style until it gained popularity in Latin America and the Caribbean. Like many artistic movements, it was a reaction to what came before it. Magical realism became an alternative to adding flourish and exaggerating the beauty of what surrounded the writers of the time the way it was done in romanticism, or showing life exactly as it was the way realism did. The new subgenre had a mission to showcase reality as if it were a dream. This blending of reality with illusory ideas and occurrences allows for the genre to play with atmosphere, time, mood, and setting the way our mind does when we go to sleep.

The most significant contributors to the genre began popping up after 1935, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Frida Kahlo, Isabel Allende, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Jose Marti. All of these artists were well known for stepping out of the box and creating art that defied genre convention. The ability to show an alternate reality mixed with fantastic elements became a valuable tool when responding to oppression. Magical realism gave a voice to the culture and beliefs endangered by colonialism, allowing writers to emphasize spirituality as opposed to religion.

A number of recent YA titles blend magical elements into otherwise realist novels, often drawing from the magical realism tradition.

Nina Moreno’s debut novel Don’t Date Rosa Santos closely reflects the magical realism tradition. The story takes place in Port Coral, an enchanting small town on the coast of Florida where the sun meets the sea and the shore sends promises of adventure. Rosa Santos, a young Cuban-American girl, lives afraid of the sea because of a family curse that has drowned her father and her grandfather. Everybody knows this. Some people even ward her off, afraid that the curse will rub off on them. The magical realism is subtle as it works its way through the narrative until the second half where it is more than noticeable. You see it in Abuela’s renowned garden, in Rosa’s backpack that is able to fit everything she needs, and in the way Rosa and her mother experience visions of loved ones. At the beginning of the novel, Rosa finds herself explaining why it was her first time at the dock.

“The last time my family stood on those docks, my teenage mother was pregnant with me, screaming at the sea for stealing her love.”

YA author Anna-Marie McLemore has called magical realism “a literary and cultural language.” Magical realism is most present in Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon Was Ours through its beautiful prose. The strange is considered enchanting when the water recognizes and empathizes as if it holds a heart and a soul, secrets hold their own magic, and hanging moons and irresistible rose scents from flowers that grow from people’s skin are just as possible as anything known in ordinary life.

Ibi Zoboi has spoken about exploring magical realism through a Haitian-American tradition in her work. She includes it vividly in American Street through the exploration of culture and Loa, spirits of Haitian Vodou.

“For many in Haiti, magic is reality, and reality is magic. The lines are blurred. I am writing from that perspective. And this magic is also what I consider to be spirituality. I always have my characters pray. And sometimes, their prayers are answered. This is both magical and real. And as a writer, I don’t explain this to the reader.” (Ibi Zoboi)

Elizabeth Acevedo’s sophomore novel, With the Fire on High, has made many categorize it as magical realism. This is due to the narrative of young Emoni, a single teen mother with a passion for cooking, drawing comparisons to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, a classic Mexican novel about a young girl in love with a man she can’t have. Tita mixes her emotions into her dishes similar to Acevedo’s heroine. The way Emoni is able to craft food that sends people into thoughts and memories instantly with just a taste is very reminiscent of Esquivel’s novel, a classic of magical realism.

But what about works that aren’t written in a Latin-American tradition? Blending a contemporary story with magical vision sequences, Emily X. R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After has been categorized by many as magical realism. When asked about this in a 2018 interview, however, Pan distanced her debut novel from that label:

“I think of this book as “contemporary with magical elements” rather than magical realism, since the bit of magic that exists in the book is not in response to oppression and colonialism, which is how the magical realism genre was born.”

Pan suggests that the essential element of magical realism isn’t its region of origin, but instead its use as a response to contemporary pressures. From the beginning, magical realism was used to combat the harsh reality many of its contributors were living. Many authors mix the elements of the genre with their realistic fiction in order to add an escape to the problems many authors from Latin America and the Caribbean still face today. Authors like Nina Moreno, Elizabeth Acevedo, Ibi Zoboi, and Anna-Marie McLemore have been part of those that have brought in and nurtured the genre within YA, be it intentional or not, and this has stemmed from love and expression of culture. That, in turn, adds an extra layer to magical realism that other literary genres can’t quite reach.

There is also a level of intimate wonder when it comes to Young Adult books mixed in with magical realism. It’s literature that contains endless possibilities capable of creating a true and unique catharsis in the reader. Magical realism in YA books trusts the reader to decide on their own what’s real or not and let their imagination take over. What primarily distinguishes Young Adult magical realism from any other kind are its themes and the topics discussed within it. It is marked and narrated by the voices of young adult characters experiencing life decisions and situations that can sometimes only be found when one is navigating the world of high school and everything that surrounds it. It’s a time of heightened emotions where everything seems new, exciting, and somewhat frightening. Oftentimes, young adults feel misunderstood because they process every single emotion so deeply whereas older generations might’ve already forgotten what it felt like to see the world as endless possibilities. Perhaps someone looking for magical realism from an adult perspective won’t have the same connection to the magic within Don’t Date Rosa Santos or understand why the food in With the Fire on High carries such weight and importance.

You’re speaking to an audience that wants to believe that they don’t have to let the world dim their light. The lessons oftentimes are that it’s perfectly fine to still be hopeful and to feel emotions without being afraid of how strong they are because there’s magic in recognizing this. By the end of With the Fire on HighEmoni Santiago goes beyond being a “cautionary tale” and transforms herself into a young woman that lives life to fulfill her own expectations and live up to her own standards. She doesn’t shy away from feeling vulnerable and accepting that despite her situation not being the mold for perfection, she is setting a path that meets what she needs in life. She will no longer hold herself back from reaching for what she wants because of self-imposed limitations. There is no magic in perfection, only in self-acceptance.

It’s easier for YA readers to believe that magic can exist in a realistic setting without question. As well, if magical realism is a worldview, nobody can see the world the way the intended age audience can.

At the end of the day, magical realism is still as mysterious as the works classified under it. Some people consider it much more than a genre. “I also don’t think magical realism is a genre. It’s a worldview,” Ibi Zoboi told Woy Magazine. “If I include spirituality into my story, it’s how my characters experience the world. Magic is woven into the setting.”

The important part is not to use the term lightly. There is a historical weight that comes with it, representing cultures and people. More than that, it stands for a fire born from years of questioning the reality of oppression. Labeling a book “magical realism” demands to take into consideration the historical context and those that paved the way for this outlet to speak up, speak loudly, and speak proudly.

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