Magical Realism: Interpretation and Creation
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
I’m not usually into magical realism. Even when I watch movies, I like the boring stories about family or romance over special effects and imaginary worlds. But I just finished reading and planning a new unit on Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid and it changed my mind. It took me back to reading The Giver in middle school. Many of the stories in my unit on very short prose allow the reader to enter into the oxymoron that is magical realism. Many of the stories come from Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, edited by Alan Ziegler (Persea, 2014).
My favorite is “Domestic Scene”, by Barry Yourgrau, a parody of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, that starts with the fantastic sentence:
I am turned into an animal: a weasel.
We later learn that his girlfriend is an elephant, and that neither of them noticed the transformation. At first, it might seem silly to interpret such a ridiculous situation, but the magical quality of the story opens up all kinds of possibilities. What in life prevents us from really noticing each other? From connecting on a deeper level? Why do we become wrapped up in ourselves – our responsibilities, our needs, our desires? How do those needs get in the way of happiness, of intimacy, of affection?
“Lily Pad”, by Kim White, starts with two surprising sentences:
The man saw that there was the bud of a flower growing in the palm of his hand. It
was firm and pink, and when it opened there was a shiny, tiny face inside.
With these kinds of stories, there are no rights and wrongs. It forces the reader to use their imagination. The flower could be a reimagining of an old relationship, the hope of a new one, or a parent protecting their child. I even thought of the phone in our hand that we allow to take over so much of our lives.
It might be worthwhile to have students write an essay that interprets very short magical realism, but they will have much more fun writing a story of their own. In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin describes reading the satirical essays in The Spectator, and then trying to become a better writer by imitating Addison and Steele:
I bought [The Spectator], read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I
thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it … By comparing my
work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I
sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I
had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language, and this
encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English
writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
When a student interprets magical realism or any literary technique, they are on the receiving end. They must imagine the writer’s objective or frame the story in terms of their own experiences, even though that might not work or be appropriate. When a student goes from critical thinking to creative writing, they go from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat. They can then create the world they want to see and go where they want to go. They become responsible not only for their own end destination, but the end destination of anyone willing to get in the car with them.
Magical realism goes beyond the place that a metaphor takes us. It goes beyond the realm of comparison. Unlike irony where we encounter a defiance of expectation, in magical realism, we encounter extraordinary surprises in every sentence. Everything we read is a defiance of our expectations. We must enter a world that is much different than the one we live in, one that forces us to question the one we live in, and one where we imagine the possibilities of the one we live in, not the limitations and restrictions.
I love assigning creative writing, because I get to tell my students, anything is possible.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers