How to Write a Work of Magic Realism

In Literary Essay by Sandro F. Piedrahita

How to Write a Work of Magic Realism
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As a preliminary matter, let me state that I do not believe in “rules” for writing fiction and certainly not for writing works of magic realism.  The following essay will provide guidelines and nothing more. I will be describing what I have learned by writing short stories using magic realism and hopefully give you some ideas as to how to do the same. I shall be using the word “rules” for lack of a better term, but please understand that I do not mean to suggest that you must abide by my tips on writing when you approach your own short stories or novels.

The first rule is to let your imagination run wild. Everything is possible when you write magic realism. You can write about a pregnant man, a dog who becomes a computer, a ventriloquist parrot.  As long as your tropes make sense within the world of your story, it doesn’t matter how impossible they are in the “real world.” Indeed, the more outlandish the idea, the more fascinating the story will be. Push yourself. Don’t be shy. As explained in greater detail below, in my own stories I have written about a college undergraduate who levitates, a person who becomes a rock, a woman who grows a beard, a virgin who gets pregnant by swallowing an emerald. None of these things can happen in the “real world,” but they certainly can in a magic realist fiction. As long as the instances of magic propel the story forward, there are no limits as to what you can put on the page. The only caveat is that the magic events must not be gratuitous and included merely to bedazzle by their novelty. In a successful work of magic realism, the supernatural must illuminate the ordinary. The magic must lead us to a better understanding of reality, in a word, tell us something about the human condition.

The second “rule” of writing magic realism is to seek inspiration in history. The great magic realist writers – Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende – all subtly allude to the great events of Latin American history, with its unlikely conquistadors, its never-ending wars, its dictators and its saints. What could be more fantastic than the fact that an army of five-hundred men under the command of Francisco Pizarro could conquer an Inca empire of millions after capturing its leader Atahualpa?  What could be more outlandish than the fact that millions of Aztecs were converted to Catholicism because an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on an Indian’s cloak? What could be more improbable than Toussaint Louverture’s ousting of the French from Haiti and his creation of a country ruled by former slaves? The reason Alejo Carpentier believed magic realism was inherently appropriate in Latin America is that he concluded that Latin American history was aberrant and sui generis. The “marvelous” events of Latin American history could not have happened in Europe. I should say in passing that I do not altogether agree with Carpentier on this point. I think magic realism can be written on every continent of the planet because magic – however we define it – is a part of the human condition. Toni Morrison, an American magic realist writer, finds the aberrant and the outlandish in American history and uses references to magic events to elucidate our country’s legacy of slavery.

The third “rule” of magic realism is to seek inspiration in myths, whether we’re referring to the Norse sagas used by J.R.R. Tolkien in his work or the Mayan Popol Vuh referenced in the work of the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias. The world of myth is a rich source of inspiration to the magic realist writer, full of magic events and whimsical heroes. In the Mayan Popol Vuh, for example, we read that the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque killed Vucub-Caquix because in his pride he claimed to be the sun. In the quechuas’ myth of the Pishtaco, we learn about a white blue-eyed, blonde-haired ghoul who suctions off the fat from the Amerindians in order to sell it to American airplane companies as a source of fuel. In the Amerindian myth of Cavillaca, we hear about a woman who ate some fruit which contained the sperm of the god Coniraya and became pregnant. What all these myths have in common is that they are based on the sudden irruption of the supernatural onto the real world, the very definition of magic realism. As such, the writer of modern magic realism would be well-served to become familiar with the foundational myths of his or her culture in order to better elucidate its reality.

The fourth “rule” of magic realism is to find inspiration in the world’s great religions. All of them refer to supernatural events, whether it is the Resurrection of Jesus in the Christian faith or the Jewish belief that the souls of the dead – called ibburs – can inhabit the souls of living souls in order to protect them. The point is not whether or not you actually believe in such miraculous events but that you can use them to inspire your writing of magic realism. The hagiographies of the saints of the Catholic faith provide a deep well of inspiration for magic realist texts, from the stories of Saint Martin de Porres levitating and bilocating in the sixteenth century to the tales of the fourth century virgin martyrs who often grew a beard to avoid unwelcome suitors. Many of the most celebrated writers of magic realism have used religious tropes to inform their stories. Gabriel Garcia Marquez alludes to the assumption into heaven of one of his characters just like the Virgin Mary. Isaac Bashevis Singer alludes to Jewish folklore about ibburs (benevolent spirits) and dybbuks (malevolent spirits) in his novels.

In the next section of this essay, I shall examine how each of the four “rules” cited above have informed my own writing and what you can learn from my experience.

1. Let your imagination run wild

The first thing a writer of magic realism must do is trust in her own imagination. In my story, “Puka Inti,” I use multiple “magic” events in order to help define the character. As I suggested above, in a work of magic realism, the “magic” must always be at the service of the telling.

“Puka Inti” tells the story of a quechua peasant in Peru who refuses to believe Presidente Gonzalo, founder of the Shining Path terrorist group, is actually dead after all the newspapers in Lima have reported his demise. All the “magic events” reported in the story are told from the point of view of the young Champi, who was traumatized after his grandfather’s death at the orders of Presidente Gonzalo. The “magic” events are not included for the mere purpose of sensationalizing the story but because they help dramatize Champi’s spiritual scars. From the beginning of the story, it is clear that Champi does not trust reports of Presidente Gonzalo’s death because Champi believes he was not an ordinary man but an evil spirit: “Champi saw him as a great supay who would never die, a figure from the Inca underworld… The military men who had announced his death were trying to conceal the fact that he had simply disappeared or become a rabbit.” In a flashback, when Champi witnesses the assassination of his grandfather Achiyaku, his belief that Presidente Gonzalo is a malevolent spirit is suddenly confirmed. “As soon as Champi locked his eyes with those of Presidente Gonzalo, the homicidal professor simply vanished. And suddenly the runa boy saw a condor flying across the heavens, a black kuntur among the clouds.”

As the story progresses, I refer to various supernatural events which illustrate Champi’s ongoing spiritual pain. “And wasn’t it common knowledge,” muses the young Champi, “that one time during a massacre of quechua peasants [Presidente Gonzalo] had turned into a rock and that his followers had used that very rock to crush the skulls of dozens of Amerindians?” Later on, Champi summarizes his ongoing fears. “I think Presidente Gonzalo has magical powers, that he could come back as a guinea pig or a long-billed macaw. At a minimum, he’s protected by dark Inca spirits....”  In a flashback, the story describes when Presidente Gonzalo’s Shining Path guerrillas attacked his friend, Brother Anselmo, as a punishment for selling Bibles to the Amerindian peasants. Again, I use magic realism to illustrate Champi’s ongoing phobia: “So Presidente Gonzalo “did the next best thing – Champi was sure it was done at his behest, perhaps while he was watching from a distance disguised as a pigeon or a stray dog – and he sent a team of senderistas to kill those who were selling Bibles.”

In sum, I refer to the story “Puka Inti” to demonstrate two things that are characteristic of all magic realist works. First, that the writer must not limit his imagination and must give it free rein, as when I describe Presidente Gonzalo turning into a rock, a rabbit, a stray dog or a long-billed macaw. Second, that the “magic” elements of a story must serve the same function as every other part of the narrative – to develop character, move the plot forward and keep the reader guessing.

2. Seek inspiration in history

The writer of a magic realist text always benefits by looking at the “magic” events of history as a source of inspiration. Human history is littered with supernatural, and inexplicable events which a writer can use to inspire his fictional work. To illustrate this point, I shall refer to my short story, “The Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc is a historical character who accomplished things which can only be described as supernatural. At the age of seventeen, she convinced the powers that be to allow her to lead the soldiers of France in a great war against the English. And she prevailed. That’s a fact of history, not any writer’s invention. You can believe or disbelieve that she was directed in battle by the voices of the archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine, but you cannot deny that there is no other rational explanation. Following Alejo Carpentier’s advise to mine history to find “lo real maravilloso” – the marvelous reality – I decided to write a magic realist tale inspired by the true history of Saint Joan of Arc. Of course, I say inspired rather than duplicated. While generally following the outlines of Saint Joan’s story – the divine locutions, the success in battle, the execution for cross-dressing – my tale about the seventeen-year-old Juana Espinosa is entirely fictionalized and takes place in 1920’s Mexico during the anticlerical regime of President Plutarco Elias Calles. I should say in passing that the story of Saint Joan of Arc is not the only history I use as a springboard for my piece. I also use the history of the Cristero war in Mexico as a point of reference for the story.

As in the life of Saint Joan of Arc, Juana Espinosa hears Voices directing her to battle, not against the French but against the Calles regime in order to restore the Catholic faith in Mexico. Among the Voices she hears is not only that of the Virgin of Guadalupe but also that of Saint Joan of Arc herself. As her boyfriend explains it to a friend, “Juana reports that Saint Joan of Arc told her that her battle on behalf of the Cristeros would be even more noble than the mission of Saint Joan of Arc. While Saint Joan of Arc fought to rid her country of the English usurper, the Cristeros are literally fighting on behalf of God, sacrificing their lives to rid Mexico of the Antichrist who is trying to crush the Catholic faith in myriad ways.” In a subsequent scene, Juana Espinosa convinces Enrique Gorostieta, the leader of the Cristeros, to allow her to lead his men in battle as a seventeen-year-old with absolutely no experience after his daughter is saved from a deadly fever thanks to Juana’s prayers to the Virgin of Guadalupe. I think it is fair to say that miracles are the stuff of magic realism. As an aside, I wrote that scene thinking of how the Indian Saint Juan Diego convinced Bishop Zumarraga to build a special temple – a teocalli – in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the sixteenth century.

The rest of the story details how Juana defeats Calles’ military in battle. As in the case of Saint Joan of Arc, Juana is directed in battle by Heavenly Voices and succeeds. In the end, Juana is eventually burnt at the stake for cross-dressing and alleged homosexuality. This also follows the history of Saint Joan of Arc, who was tried and executed for cross-dressing. Despite the similarities, however, “The Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc” is ultimately an entirely different tale, illustrating a chapter in Mexican history through the use of magic realism. By alluding to the history of Saint Joan of Arc, I make a statement about the Cristeros’ defiance of Calles’ anti-Catholic regime. Again, the magic serves a purpose – to shed light on a particular period in Mexican history and hopefully tell an engrossing tale.

3. Seek inspiration from mythology

Just as history can be used as an inspiration for works of magic realism, so can mythology, whether the mythology is Scandinavian, Greek or Amerindian. Mythology is full of stories where the ordinary and the supernatural are juxtaposed, providing fertile ground for magic realism. In many of my short stories, I allude to Amerindian mythology as an homage to the Guatemalan Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias.

In “Pishtaco,” an allegory of anorexia nervosa, I tell the tale of an epidemic of the disease in the highlands of Peru. Steven, an American doctor and expert on eating disorders, is hired by USAID to investigate the epidemic, which he does with his quechua assistant, Mariana Monasterios. The rumor has spread among the quechua peasants that the epidemic is the work of the Pishtaco, a legendary ghoul, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. When a group of Amerindian children flee upon seeing Steven, thinking he is the Pishtaco, Mariana explains the myth to him: “As my mother told the story to me in my childhood, the Pishtaco appears in the middle of the night and attacks solitary travelers with a special potion made from human bones that makes them fall asleep.  The Pishtaco then uses a special syringe to extract all of the person’s fat.  The victim wakes up and doesn’t realize he has been degreased but eventually he dies as a result of the lack of fat.”

Then Mariana explains why the quechua boys have mistaken him for the Pishtaco: “The Pishtaco has always been identified as a white man.  It is believed the story started soon after the Conquest of the Incas by the Spaniards.  The Pishtaco was initially seen as a Spanish bearded priest who stole his victim’s fat to use in lubricating his church bells or perhaps to eat as chicharrones.1 During colonial times, the Pishtaco appeared as a white gamonal2 who took the Indians’ fat to use in curing white ailments.  And during the time of the senderista3 civil war, the Pishtaco was seen as a Shining Path guerrilla and as the Peruvian soldier who sought to destroy him.  Both were seen as enemies of the Runa people.  In modern times, the Pishtaco appears as a North American – a gringo – with hair the color of gold and riding on a white steed who steals the Indians’ fat to use in his airplanes and machines.”

By the end of the story, the peasants of Caixabamba who had never seen a white man are convinced Steve is the Pishtaco and kill him in an act of imagined self-defense. The reader never knows whether the epidemic is caused by a real Pishtaco or whether it’s actually an epidemic of anorexia. At all events, the myth of the Pishtaco is the springboard for the story. The piece aptly illustrates how myths can be used as an inspiration for magic realist fiction.

4. Seek inspiration from religion

Among the other sources for inspiration for magic realist writers are the great religious traditions of the world’s different faiths. Certainly, a treasure trove can be found in the stories and beliefs of the world’s three greatest faiths, Catholicism, Judaism and Islam. Almost by definition, religion is about the supernatural, and its tropes can thus be used by the writer of magic realism in writing their own stories.

In “Baptism of Blood,” I allude to tales from both the Catholic and Jewish imaginations, which is fitting given that the work is about two families, one Catholic and the other Jewish. The story was initially inspired by the real history of the Ulmas, a Catholic family who allowed a Jewish family to seek refuge in their attic in Nazi-controlled Poland. Eventually the Gestapo found them and annihilated both families. When the entire Ulma family was beatified by Pope Francis, he also beatified the unborn son of Mrs. Ulma, finding he had undergone a “Baptism of Blood.” My story is very loosely based on the actual history. Instead, I tell a magic realist tale about how benevolent spirits invaded the home where the two families resided in an effort to protect them.

From the story’s very first sentence, it is clear that the story will be one of magic realism for Death appears in anthropomorphic form. “Death appeared in the town of Markowa in March of 1942,” starts the story, “and Aleksander and Julia both saw her at the same time. From a distance, she looked like a beautiful woman, a lovely Aryan maiden, but the closer she came to them the uglier and uglier she became, until at the end she was a decrepit crone dressed in black, with bleeding pustules on her face, warts as big as eggs on her arms and neck and a crown of white hair upon her head.” As the story unfolds, supernatural beings from Jewish kabalistic culture begin to appear on the page. Ruth, eldest of the Jewish couple’s children, warns against allowing Officer Kaluzniacki to know where the Jewish family would be hiding. Kaluznicaki is a policeman who helped hide the Jews for money. Ruth reports that she distrusts Kaluzniacki because she had been “inhabited” by her deceased mother’s ibbur – her soul – and the ibbur had told her Kaluzniacki was a dangerous man. From that moment on I refer to multiple figures from Jewish folklore throughout the piece – not only ibburs but also golems4 and dybbuks5 – and the tale becomes one of sheer magic realism.  As stated above, the “magic” in a short story written as magic realism must propel the story forward. In “Baptism of Blood,” it is the ibburs who control the plot. The “magic” is not meant for decorative purposes but is at the very core of the narrative.

Eventually, the ibburs engage in all sorts of supernatural acts, not to frighten the two families but to warn them the Gestapo would soon be appearing. The incidents caused by the ibburs would be unbelievable in a realist piece of fiction, but they work well in a work of magic realism. “It all started with creaking noises, mysterious knocks in the room where Antoni and Franciszek had once slept and beneath the floor, the sound of inexplicable footsteps in the kitchen, the ringing of bells in the living room and groaning sounds everywhere. The family heard the noise of trembling beneath the beds, invisible cats fighting, the dragging of chains along the floor as well as the music of Jewish hymns and disembodied prayers to the Black Madonna. Soon the events became more frightening. The rumbling beneath the floor became strong enough to blow a mirror off a wall, overturn chairs and knock the books in Aleksander’s study off their shelves. The wooden table in the dining room split in two and the entire house began to vibrate. Objects in the home soon started to levitate and all the knives in the kitchen made a ceaseless, rattling sound like portents of evil.”

Although Aleksander Gayewski, head of the Catholic family, believes that the supernatural events are the work of evil spirits, his daughter Hanna, who has herself been possessed by two ibburs, tells him their actions were a warning of dangerous days ahead. Hanna correctly divines that the ibburs are alerting the two families about the imminent visit by the Gestapo, prompting Isaac Goldberg, head of the Jewish family, to decide to leave in order not to imperil the lives of the Gayewskis. After Isaac says he will ask the policeman Kaluzniacki to hide him in another Christian home, Hanna warns that the ibburs think such an action would be suicidal because the policeman would turn them in. Not knowing what else to do, Isaac contacts Kaluzniacki anyway and the fate of both families is sealed. After extorting the last piece of jewelry from Isaac, Kaluzniacki tells his fellow officers where the Jews are hiding, and they massacre most of the members of the two families on the next day.

In “The Ecstasies of Adalenie Santaliz,” I tell a tale that those who believe in outlandish miracles may see as a work of realism, but which the nonbeliever would certainly read as a work of magic realism. At all events, the distinction doesn’t matter for our purposes since the events are supernatural, and the way the story is told may be instructive to writers of magic realism whether they are Catholics or not. Borrowing from an actual event in the life of Saint Edith Stein, I describe Adalenie Santaliz’s abrupt conversion to the Catholic faith after reading The Interior Castle by Saint Teresa of Avila in a single night. Thereafter, Adalenie becomes increasingly religious and begins to enter mystic trances. That’s where the magic realist element kicks in. During her ecstasies, Adalenie falls into a catatonic state and believes that she has levitated and her heart has been pierced by a seraph’s lance. Her close friend Javier, who takes her to a hospital’s psychiatric ward after one incident of catatonia, believes that she is mad. After she recovers from her catatonic state, the following exchange takes place between Javier and the psychiatrist on call:

“I must confess to being somewhat perplexed,” says the doctor. “Catatonic episodes usually happen when the person is already suffering from another serious mental disorder… Taking the words of Saint Teresa of Avila literally does not qualify as madness…We might have an authentic mystic in our midst....”

“Or a madwoman on the road to the insane asylum,” Javier replied.

At all events, there are many magic realist texts that are influenced by the Catholic imagination. The Catholic faith has influenced the fictional works of so many magic realist writers that the subject is almost inexhaustible and warrants the writing of an entire book instead of a brief essay. One can think of Toni Morrison or Don De Lillo or Graham Greene, who were Catholics as well as writers of magic realism, to say nothing of lapsed Catholics like Isabel Allende and Garcia Marquez whose novels are informed by the Catholic faith, notwithstanding their status as agnostics.

In “Alma, Virgin and Martyr,” I write a work of magic realism inspired not only by the hagiographies of Catholic saints but also by Amerindian myths. That is the beauty of magic realism: there are multiple sources from which to derive inspiration.  The story begins when Alma Vereau is crying after the stoning of her father by the Shining Path. In a scene reminiscent of a scene in Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World regarding blood, Alma’s tears become a stream that follows the corpse of her father as it is paraded through the streets. Soon Juan Carlos Ramos, son of the Shining Path leader Lalo Cuchillazo Ramos, begins to follow the trail of tears to find its source and finds Alma sitting in the plaza. Immediately, he is captivated by her beauty and decides to make her his lover. When she resists, he takes increasingly fierce actions in an effort to possess her. Knowing of his intentions, Alma visits the town curandera Mama Josefina, who invokes both Catholic saints and Inca deities in an effort to obtain protection for Alma before the anticipated rape.

“I want you to try to get in touch with various virgin-martyrs,” says Mama Josefina, deep in her trance. “Not only the virgin-martyrs of the Catholic faith but also the virgins of our quechua peoples. Pray with me to Santa Ines, Santa Barbada, Santa Agata, Santa Lucia, all of whom were tortured or killed for refusing a man’s sexual advances. But also pray to the virgin Chasca, known as the protector of all virgins, and to the Inca virgins of the Sun. They lived their entire lives cloistered like nuns, forbidden from ever seeing a male, often sacrificed like doves or calves to appease their heavenly spouse. And now that they are in Heaven, they are powerful intercessors. Pray to them for delivery from your enemy.”

Thereafter, Juan Carlos makes numerous attempts to force Alma to satisfy his lust. At each turn, Alma’s spiritual allies thwart his plans. First, he locks her up in her room preparing to rape her. Like Saint Wilgefortis and numerous other virgin-martyrs of the Catholic faith, she grows a beard that repels her would-be rapist. Then, like Saint Agatha, she is sent to a brothel by Juan Carlos in an attempt to convince her to accept him instead of being used by a hundred johns. The spirits she has invoked help her again, and every time a man goes into her bedroom at the brothel, he becomes blind such that she remains a virgin. Then, again like Saint Agatha, she is brutally tortured, but the saints miraculously heal her wounds. By the end, Juan Carlos’ furious father decides to burn her at the stake. While he is preparing to do so, Alma’s betrothed, who has just returned from battle, shoots him in the head.

“Alma, Virgin and Martyr” incorporates the tales of the virgin-martyrs in two separate ways. First, they are protagonists in the story as they actively work to protect Alma from rape. Second, they are an inspiration for the Alma character in that she experiences many of the same experiences through which they suffered.

5. Conclusion

I hope the foregoing has given you some idea of how to “fill the well” before attempting to write a work of magic realist fiction. The possibilities are endless because the human imagination is endless too. Whether you borrow from history, myth or religion, you can write marvelous works of magic realism if you just follow your imagination.

1 Chicharrones are fried pork, but the Pishtaco ate fried human fat.

2 A gamonal is an owner of an hacienda or large farm.

3 A senderista is a member of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, also known as Sendero Luminoso.

4 Jewish tradition tells us that a rabbi created the golem to rescue the Jews from persecution.

5 A dybbuk is an evil spirit as opposed to an ibbur who is a benevolent spirit.
About the Author

Sandro F. Piedrahita

Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic author of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College. Most of his stories revolve around Latin American mythical or historic themes, told with a modern twist. Mr. Piedrahita's short stories have been accepted for publication in The Write Launch, The Acentos Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Carmina Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, The Ganga Review, Limit Experience Journal and Foreshadow Magazine.

Read more work by Sandro F. Piedrahita .