Defining Magical Realism in Children's Literature: Voices in Contemporary Fugue, Texts That Speak from the Margins

By Hammer, Yvonne | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Defining Magical Realism in Children's Literature: Voices in Contemporary Fugue, Texts That Speak from the Margins


Hammer, Yvonne, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


During the latter half of the twentieth century authors of children's fictions have explored boundary transgressions between fantastic and mimetic genres. While contemporary narrative texts continue this heritage, magical realist texts are differentiated by an extensive merging of realistic and uncanny events. These magical transgressions infuse and inform textual interpretations that not only record the perspectives of child subjects, but also expose mimetic representations as concomitant fictions with those of more obvious fantasy realms. This paper will examine issues relating to the emergence of Magical Realism in children's literary texts. Magical Realism is identified as a narrative mode because it is a discourse style that infiltrates realistic genres with an associated capacity to redirect textual interpretation. To facilitate the identification of magical realist strategies that are significant to this discussion, two narratives have been selected: David Almond's Secret Heart (2001); and Isabelle Allende's translated children's fiction, City of the Beasts (2003).

Magical Realist texts juxtapose magical and mimetic events in ways that create new lenses. In this sense magical realism mirrors fantasy's textual strategy. Both discourse styles interrogate mimetic representation in order to extend a manner of play that is already firmly established in children's fictions. Both narrative modes also promote magical frames that construct new perspectives in their texts. But, because magical realism redirects fantasy's subversive intent into an exploration of ideological paradox, the interrogation has a different focus: Magical Realist modes sustain conflicting perspectives in order to interrogate cultural ideologies that are associated with the narrative construction of point of view.

Though Magical Realist origins have been identified by Simpkins (1995) and Bowers (2004) in the work of Post-expressionists as early as 1925, the mode's emergence in postcolonial narratives has been noted as a defining moment for a literary form that rejects Eurocentric paradigms. In what Slemon identifies as a 'residuum of resistance toward the imperial centre' (Slemon 1995, p.408) and Faris notes as a 'decolonising effect' (Faris 2004, p. 132), Magical Realist narratives redirect the postcolonialist intention to interrogate assumptions of cultural privilege and racial superiority into a contemporary discourse strategy that examines cultural bias in narrative point of view.

Recent work by Wendy Faris theorises that five elements define Magical Realism:

  a) Texts contain irreducible elements of magic;

  b) Reader hesitation not only encodes suspension of disbelief but may
     inversely require a suspension of belief;

  c) Merged realities and blurred boundaries problematise
     representations of fact and fiction;

  d) The presence of the phenomenal world disturbs the embedding realist
     text;

  e) Notions of time, space and identity in the text are similarly
     destabilized.
  (Faris 2004)

This paper will focus upon the first three elements of Faris' theory and will examine specific features in the children's texts of Allende and Almond.

Faris defines 'irreducible elements of magic' as a primary feature of magical realist discourse. These magical events remain unexplained, even as their textual influence both infiltrates and reinterprets mimetic narrative spaces that encode familiar and realistic details. Whilst Allende and Almond implement what first appears to be a playful manipulation of mimetic perspectives, a closer inspection of narrative aspects indicates that the texts retain postcolonial interrogative links and contest assumptions of social and ideological superiority that are perpetuated by Western cultures, though this is accomplished in two distinctive authorial styles. Because magical interpretations infuse narrative perspectives, mimetic patterns are disrupted by infiltrations of magic that problematise Western epistemologies. …

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