Deep Dive into Magical Realism with Kaitlyn Ellison
Asia Society at Home
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Kaitlyn Ellison is the Performing Arts and Culture Program Manager at the Asia Society. She loves to spend her free time creating art, exploring the world, gardening, and reading. Though she loves many genres, magical realism is the closest to her heart.
A note about magical realism
The definition of the term "magical realism" is widely debated. I use it here in reference to the literary movement (though it can be applied to visual arts as well). It is a creative storytelling technique rooted in the real world, but one that also contains magical elements and mythologies — for me, the best of the genre are able to strike a careful balance in creating dramatic and moving stories that speak to serious human issues while also revealing an unexpected layer to the world.
Some could argue there are selections below that don't count as magical realism, but what I've focused on is the feeling these works created for me, invoking that strange hybrid space that makes this genre so captivating.
What I am currently enjoying
I recently finished Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I will admit I needed a couple attempts to get into it, but once I did, I was pulled in by the structure of the narrative: one of two refugees who must flee from land to land in search of a safe place to stay, not through the use of traditional transportation, but through magical doorways. This book is a love story in reverse — the relationship between the protagonists is strongest at the beginning and, as their journey progresses, the couple is pulled apart by forces bigger than their love.
Find it on: Penguin Random House (with links to purchase)
Authors I find myself returning to again and again
Two of my pillars of magical realism are Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. I was introduced to both these authors in high school, and while I've been a reader for my entire life, when I first encountered them, the way these authors were able to create worlds simultaneously real and surreal spoke to me in a way that I have never forgotten. I have not read the full works by either author (I have strategically spaced out my consumption of their writing over the years), but I can make some recommendations for my favorites:
While it's worth mentioning the classic The Windup Bird Chronicle as a great work by Murakami, my two favorites of his are A Wild Sheep Chase and 1Q84. A Wild Sheep Chase is a strange detective story that is ultimately about identity and the relationships we have with ourselves and others, while 1Q84 features Murakami's first female protagonist, a woman who through unexpected circumstances climbs down through an emergency escape onto an expressway into an alternate reality. I also have on my reading list two of Murakami's most well-known works, Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore.
With Salman Rushdie, maybe this is a predictable recommendation, but I have to pick one of his most famous books: Midnight's Children. The magic he creates is so viscerally imperfect — the story is about a flawed hero with a dripping nose who is constantly encountering harrowing challenges, but is accompanied and defined by his relationship with a group of children who were all born on the same day and the same time as he was (the hour of India's independence) — and who all have magical powers. Next on my list from Rushdie is The Enchantress of Florence, which explores a story at the intersection of Mughdal India and Renaissance Florence.
Find it on: Salman Rushdie's website
Projects that I am looking forward to
I would love to read work by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. She's a professor of writing at the University of Houston and though her work spans many genres, she works often in magical realism and with the themes that I'm drawn to in my favorite literature: strong women, mythology, history, multiculturalism, and more. I can't believe I haven't read any of her work yet!
Find it on: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's website
An author who excites me is
I recently read C. Pam Zhang's extraordinary debut novel How Much of These Hills is Gold, and I will be following her going forward. This story is much closer to the "elements of magical realism" rather than being a purer example of the genre, but its spirit is present in her reliance on mythology and hypnotizing descriptions of the natural world contrasted against a devastating story exploring the fraught history of the American West. She has created a world that simultaneously makes me nostalgic about the natural environment where I grew up, but also challenges the narratives taught to us about that environment's history in an exploration of family and relationships, land, and identity.
Find it on: C. Pam Zhang's website
My wildcard recommendation is
The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I have mentioned this in an edition of our Friday Favorites, but it is worth a mention in this context as well. While I wouldn't consider this book strict magical realism, it is a work of horror/fiction that contains so many of the things that make magical realism so engrossing. Rather than the dream quality you usually find in these kinds of stories, this one is an exceptionally vivid nightmare — and as the story gets worse and worse, the final third of the book delves into a storyline that feels like it escapes the ordinary world.
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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