This term ‘Magic realism’, which has a long and quite distinctive history in Latin American criticism, was first used in a broader post-colonial context in the foundational essay by Jacques Stephen Alexis, ‘Of the magical realism of the Haitians’. Alexis sought to reconcile the arguments of post-war, radical intellectuals in favour of social realism as a tool for revolutionary social representation, with a recognition that in many post-colonial societies a peasant, pre-industrial population had its imaginative life rooted in a living tradition of the mythic, the legendary and the magical.
The term became popularised when it was employed to characterise the work of South American writers widely translated into English and other languages, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It tended to be used indiscriminately during the “Boom” period of the 1960s and 1970s by some critics who saw it as a defining feature of all Latin American writing, in stark contrast to its older, more specific usage in Latin American criticism, a usage that differed in marked ways from the new slightly loose and generalised use of the term.
However, its origins in the 1950s lay in the specific need to wed Caribbean social revolution to local cultural tradition. Mythic and magical traditions, Alexis argued, far from being alienated from the people, or mere mystifications were the distinctive feature of their regional and national cultures. They were the collective forms by which they gave expression to their identity and articulated their difference from the dominant colonial and racial oppressors.
They were, in other words, the modes of expression of that culture’s reality. Radical social visions of art and culture thus regarded myth and magic as integral. For Alexis, ‘The treasure of tales and legends, all the musical, choreographic and plastic symbolism, all the forms of Haitian popular art are there to help the nation in accomplishing the tasks before it’. More recently, the term has been used in a less specific way to refer to the inclusion of any mythic or legendary material from local written or oral cultural traditions in the contemporary narrative.
The material so used is seen to interrogate the assumptions of Western, rational, linear narrative and to enclose it within an indigenous metatext, a body of textual forms that recuperate the pre-colonial culture. In this way it can be seen to be a structuring device in texts as varied as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight ‘ Children, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People or Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water. In texts like these and many others, the rational, linear world of Western realist fiction is placed against alter/native narrative modes that expose the hidden and naturalized cultural formations on which Western narratives are based. Although the term has been useful, its increasingly ubiquitous use for any text that has a fabulous or mythic dimension has tended to bring it into disrepute with some critics who suggest that it has become a catch-all for any narrative device that does not adhere to Western realist conventions.