Monday, January 26, 2015

What Is Magical Realism? From Agent Saba Sulaiman

Today we're welcoming agent Saba Sulaiman as the newest blogger to join Publishing Hub! Saba Sulaiman is a literary agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She’s looking to build her client list in a variety of genres (because that’s the beauty of agenting—see
website for details.) Captivating storytelling with characters who are smart and weird and wonderful and engage in meaningful relationships that evolve over time is what makes her world spin. She’s an unapologetic advocate for all things Bollywood and she really, really just loves soup. You can visit her at her website, and you can follow her on Twitter at @agentsaba . Take it away, Saba!

                                      What is Magical Realism?

Magical realism is my thing. I fell in love with it in college, I studied it in graduate school, and of course, I would love to see it in my query box. There’s just one major problem—I see a lot of queries for books claiming to have a “touch” of magical realism, but they’re usually Paranormal Romance, or stories where there’s really no internal logic or deeper significance to the presence of the magical element in the text. Magical realism isn’t a catch phrase for “throw something magical in and don’t bother to have it make much sense to the reader”; it’s a little more nuanced than that.

Here’s how I would define magical realism—again this isn’t necessarily a universal understanding of the term, but it is my understanding, and it informs what I’d like to see more of in my inbox.

Very simply put, magical realism is when something strange (or “magical”) happens that doesn’t fit the laws of our universe. There’s usually a gradual build-up of hesitation, uncertainty, and anticipation on our part in response to these magical elements; however, they are usually presented in a rather matter-of-fact way, and the characters often don’t react overtly to their occurrence. But the use of magic in these texts is never “random” or “just whimsical”; in fact, it almost always questions conventional notions of time, space and identity, and in doing so, it reveals undeniable truths about the world we live in.

I always like to stress the “realism” in magical realism when I try to explain the term. In the end, these stories use a magical element to reflect the reality of a character’s situation or state of mind, in way that feel fresh and compelling. It can be strange or jarring to see these elements operate in an ordinary world, but if the characters fixate on these changes and use them to “escape” their realities, it isn’t magical realism anymore. Magical realism isn’t “escapist literature”—I like to think of it as rather serious literature where magic forces characters to confront truths in their lives.

One of the many reasons I enjoy magical realism is because of its scope for presenting diverse perspectives and experiences. It often examines the realities of characters and communities that live on the fringes of mainstream society in some way. And it’s a great way to add layers of complexity to that classic underdog narrative, which we can all respond and relate to.

So there you have it—magical realism in a nutshell!


  1. Thanks for your post and maybe you will be kind enough to confirm, or deny, if there is magical realism in my two fairly realistic contemporary commercial YA novels.
    In my Mexican novel one there is a story over a few chapters about a mermaid and her connection with the Heroine. Magical realism?
    In my American-German novel the heroine find magical glasses allowing her to see the truth that others can not see. Magical realism?
    Thanks and best wishes in finding wonderful clients and novels to represent.

    1. Thank you! This is one of the best explanations of magical realism that I've ever read, and I've read quite a few. It's a difficult concept to explain and it probably takes several expert opinions on the matter for most of us to wrap our heads around it. What helps me distinguish it from fantasy or paranormal stories is what you said: "if the characters fixate on these changes and use them to 'escape' their realities, it isn't magical realism anymore." As I've come to understand it, in MR, the magic is not something secretive and precious; it's not something to keep hidden from the rest of society. It is more a matter-of-fact reality, however odd, to the characters to whom it pertains. I would say the way author Alice Hoffman treats both the Third Angel storyline and the heron storyline in her novel, The Third Angel, are examples of MR, whereas the ghost storyline in the same novel is not MR. But as I'm not an expert, I could be wrong! :)

  2. This is great to read! I'm currently working on a MG magical realism story that takes place in Brussels during 2 parallel time periods. Magritte and a few of his friends also make important appearances alongside the main characters, a 12 year-old Belgian boy and a 12 year-old American expat. :)

    1. That sounds very interesting! Don't forget to query me :)