Magical Realism as Wonder: Reflections on the Symposium ‘Magical Realism and the City’

Online Symposium, 9th July 2021 

Conveners: Maggie Bowers (U Portsmouth) and Ursula Kluwick (U Bern) 

Drawing on contributions to the recent Symposium ‘Magical Realism and the City’, I attempt here a contemporary re-definition of Magical Realism (MR) applicable across a variety of media including film, theatre and performance, as well as the more traditional domains of visual art and literature. Rather than referring to the characteristics or style of (typically) a text or image, I propose that MR is the product of an intersubjective relationship between the ‘work’ (as broadly defined above) and its audience – socially constructed and mediated according to specific conditions of culture, time and place.[1] The audience might be an individual reading a book or observing a painting, or a group watching a film or theatrical performance, or a wider community of people experiencing an event either directly or via social media. Whatever the material, the essence of MR lies in a particular kind of audience experience, prompted by ‘work’ of any sort that has the capacity to produce this reaction.  

Intersubjectivity and wonder

This intersubjective, relational conception is consistent with Jerónimo Arellano’s analysis of MR in terms of the collective and political construction of ‘wonder’ throughout history.[2] Arellano shows how objects collected by colonial explorers and displayed in ‘cabinets of curiosities’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were perceived as marvellous and exotic by European audiences who were fascinated and shocked by their content. Drawing on current affect theory, he re-evaluates colonial writing that attempted to make sense of such unfamiliar objects, and Alejo Carpentier’s reflections on lo real maravilloso and Latin American fiction. In a brilliant inversion of his earlier account of modern societies’ reaction to the display of artefacts of ‘savages’ from the New World in the colonial period, Arellano highlights the wonder accompanying the importation of material objects and technologies from the ‘developed’ world into ‘backward’ twentieth-century Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’

Arellano’s analysis of historical experiences of wonder is radically different to the conventional classification of MR according to distinguishing characteristics of artistic and literary works. While Franz Roh coined ‘Magic Realism’ to indicate the trend he observed in European painting of the 1920s, the phenomenon so described (the presence of magic/mystery within or behind the real in visual art) preceded his ‘discovery’ in this context. The same may be said of the distinctive Latin American variant of MR fiction later celebrated by Carpentier. The focus on MR as a set of emotional responses to objects or events presumes that magic (or mystery) is inherent in all things, in all cultures, and at all times.[3] ‘Wonder’ may be triggered in various ways in different contexts. For example, it may be prompted by the introduction of unfamiliar objects within otherwise ordinary environments, in which they appear incongruous and therefore strange (as in the case of the Wunderkammer). Or it may be associated with the presentation of ordinary things in an unfamiliar light, leading the audience to appreciate the mundane from a fresh perspective (akin to Shklovsky’s notion of the creative technique of ‘defamiliarization’ or ‘making strange’[4]). While Arellano’s historical analysis is notable for the role he ascribes physical objects as prompts for the emotional response of wonder, the approach may be extended to include a wide range of media beyond objects, texts and images. Regardless of the nature of the ‘work’, MR involves disruption of taken-for-granted understandings of reality and the unveiling of mysteries in life, enabling us to see the world with fresh eyes.  

Before considering the Symposium contributions in this perspective, some brief observations are in order. First, ‘wonder’ in the present sense has a restricted and specific meaning, having nothing to do with what is ‘wonderful’ or ‘wondrous’; nor is it to be confused with other emotional responses such as bewilderment, enjoyment, awe, horror, excitement, or amazement. At the heart of MR is the capacity of the work to provoke a specific sort of emotional reaction coupled with such engagement on the part of an audience. Second, the relationship between ‘work’ and ‘audience’ is subject to ongoing adjustment and renegotiation: the meaning of a work may vary according to culture, time and place; the audience may expand or contract depending on critical reception and public interest; judgments as to the ‘quality’ of the work may fluctuate; reputations may rise and fall. Exhibitions of artworks, new editions of books, re-releases of films, and new theatrical interpretations and performances may all provide opportunities for re-evaluation. The affective experience of MR may be renewed, or be transformed into something different (what appears mysterious in one setting may be considered ordinary and commonplace in another historical or cultural context).  

The city in MR fiction 

The majority of the Symposium contributions discuss works of fiction generally regarded by literary commentators as magical realist. A common thread in these analyses is the use of MR as a methodology to address the contradictions and tensions inherent in the modern city – in South Africa (Chris Warnes), the USA (Shannin Schroeder: New York, Miami, Los Angeles), the Philippines (Tom Sykes: Manila), Turkey (Hamidah Allogmany: Istanbul), and in Britain, India and North America (Ursula Kluwick: London, Bombay and New York). Wonder is embedded within cities, which are paradoxical spaces combining rationality, progress and modernity with all that is mysterious, strange and irrational. Zamora and Faris have emphasised how Magical Realism ‘is a mode suited to exploring – and transgressing – boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical, or generic … Mind and body, spirit and matter, life and death, real and imaginary, self and other, male and female: these are boundaries to be erased, transgressed, blurred, brought together, or otherwise fundamentally refashioned in magical realist texts.’[5] While this quotation refers to works of fiction, it is also relevant to secondary commentaries that analyse texts from an MR perspective.

Chris Warnes draws on Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying (1994) and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001) to expose the dualisms (hope and despair, wealth and poverty, renewal and corruption) that live on in urban South Africa following the end of apartheid in 1984 – economic and social inequalities having displaced formal divisions. Hamidah Allogmany uses Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book (2006) to explore the tensions between capitalist modernity and traditions rooted in Islam in the process of modernisation, showing how religion and the past are major components of Turkey’s modern identity. Ursula Kluwick considers how Salman Rushdie employs MR to expose the ‘quintessentially fantastic’ nature of cities and engage with the potential as well as the challenges of post-colonial urban living. With reference to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, Nina Muždeka analyses the city as a paradoxical construct which is ‘on a knife-edge’ between the real and the uncanny, simultaneously a ‘hopeful messenger’ for liberation’ while remaining a ‘safe haven’ for old and outmoded modes of living and thinking. Maria Takolander explores similar themes in Alexis Wright’s fictional depiction of an Australian coastal town in north-western Queensland in Carpenteria (2006), showing how the novel may be understood in MR terms as a genre operating in a ‘liminal zone’ between the cosmopolitan and the regional, the global and the local, the aesthetic and the political. Shannin Schroeder examines how MR texts depict not only the marginalisation of people on the fringes of cities throughout the USA due to a combination of factors including racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, but also the scope offered by metropolitan spaces for finding and building community in spite of the disparity between the promise and reality of the American dream. 

The approach adopted by Tom Sykes is somewhat different in that his MR analysis is based on texts (both fiction and non-fiction) that are not identified by their authors, or otherwise regarded, as MR. His examination of historical representations of Manila as a ‘city of hell’ draws on Victorian memoirs, North American documentary writing and Western travelogues, as well as on novels by Timothy Mo and Alex Garland, which together tend to depict such cityscapes negatively as urban dystopias symbolising post-colonial social and political failure. Finally Rodanthi Tzanelli’s approach is different again. She analyses problems and contradictions of Japan’s collective identity-making with reference to alternative conceptions of MR (European and post-colonial/non-European), highlighting the difficulties involved in reconciling divergent world versions – one involving the fusion of Japanese spirit and Western technology, while the other presents Tokyo as a spectacle of heritage for the global tourist gaze. 

Film, theatre, performance, community

An MR perspective focusing on the nature of audiences’ emotional reaction and engagement rather than on the work’s ‘inherent’ traits/characteristics appears particularly appropriate to the study of film, theatre and performance. 

Felicity Gee analyses Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating as an example of cinematic magical realism, examining how the film deploys narrative sequences and visual techniques to represent the human figure (in the form of the two protagonists) to the viewer in a new, and sometimes strange and eerie light. Not surprisingly given common theoretical influences, the approach to MR here echoes Arrellano’s notion of wonder: ‘Cinematic magic realism requires hesitation and surprise as affective responses, which (a) trigger philosophical enquiry, and/or (b) establish thought as poetry that does not need to be “explained” or “resolved” even though it may be explored through “reasonings” … The “unsettling doubts” penetrate the very practice of reception, to the point at which uncertainty replaces certainty, and confusion replaces conclusion.’[6] Furthermore, cinematic magic realism cannot be reduced to a ‘style’, rather it is an ‘active discourse’ which ‘exists to help us articulate shifts, weirdness, newness, and so on. It is a world discourse, relevant and visible across regional borders, races, ethnicities, class, genders, and sexes.’[7] MR therefore refers both to the audience’s reaction to the screening of a film, and to the wider discursive response of commentators and the public in its evaluation and interpretation. The more that a film is shown and seen (whether in the cinema, on television or other social media) – and the more that it is discussed, debated and evaluated – the more its meaning is shaped within specific cultural and political discourses.

In the theatrical context, MR plays have tended to be associated with writers from marginalized groups, concerned to challenge dominant social relations and traditional Western assumptions.[8] The medium of theatre has arguably proved particularly effective in undermining rationalist notions of cause/effect and space/time, and in subverting existing structures of power and control. Maggie Ann Bowers shows how limitations imposed by the irreducible physical space of the stage, and the importance of the audience’s imagination in completing the theatrical experience, are turned to positive effect in the magical realist production of Kushner’s Angels in America by the National Theatre in 2017. In contrast to the ‘realist’ HBO TV series based on the same play, the spartan set combined with puppetry and the obvious use of stage props and techniques (such as wires) encourage the audience to accept the reality of the magic that the characters experience. Successful MR productions exploit the potential of theatrical performance to connect the actors/protagonsists with the audience in ways that are not possible with cinema (though of course film has numerous advantages in conveying magical ‘reality’ in other respects). The emotional reaction of wonder (comprising unsettling doubts, uncanny feelings, the questioning of reality) is closely associated with ‘defamiliarization’ – the technique of presenting what is ordinary in an unfamiliar light so that audiences may gain new perspectives and see the world differently, known in Brechtian theatre as the ‘estrangement effect’. While Lisa Giobbi did not frame her video presentation of examples of her aerial choreography explicitly in such an MR perspective, her theatrical and other performances might also be considered in this light.[9]   

Turning to other forms of audience experience, Matt Wingett explained how the publication of his book The Snow Witch led to a festival in Portsmouth in which artists, writers, sculptors, and members of the public gathered over a period of three weeks to celebrate characters and events based on the story. Leaving aside the issue of whether the book is more an example of Fantasy than MR, the interest for present purposes lies in the nature of the audience’s response to the narrative and its active engagement in the festival. As local involvement and participation in the project gathered momentum, so the meaning of the original text was reinterpreted and developed in theatrical and artistic forms that themselves might be considered as bearing at least some of the hallmarks of MR. The question remains: was this an MR experience, or just fantastically good fun (though of course it might be both)?

The Symposium contribution that perhaps best illustrates the fruitfulness of an MR approach based on intersubjectivity and emotional response is Belinda Mitchell’s compelling analysis of the contemporary urban environment, drawing on a case study of Wymering Manor – a sixteenth Century house in Portsmouth (UK) currently in a transitional state between ruination and restoration. The house has become a kind of locus of cultural and historical affect ‘in the middle of a suburban setting’, prompting a range of emotions on the part of visitors, volunteers, and members of the community, and encouraging reflection on urban decay/regeneration and the problems and possibilities of future city making and architecture:

The volunteers are drawn into the house looking to connect with others, with history and the pleasure of being in a historic building. Through the collective daily actions of hoovering, taking tours, dusting, making tea and decorating they embody the manor; as a result of repetition of these gestures the house becomes part of those that visit it. The richness of its surfaces, the smell of damp, the crumbling timber and dust made by larvae beetle slowly eating away at its core all create an overwhelming sense of affect. The overriding desire from the volunteers for the house is that it is owned by the community and through this handed into the care of generations to come.[10]

While again the analysis is not explicitly grounded in an MR perspective, the ‘audience’ experience of Wymering Manor may be considered in such terms. The natural and inevitable process of deterioration in the fabric of the building (‘the crumbling timber and dust made by larvae beetle slowly eating away at its core’) exposes, almost literally, the mystery of its construction, provoking emotional responses on the part of diverse audiences that are unlikely to occur through more conventional media. The sense of mystery is enhanced by the display of LiDAR images which reveal aspects of the building that cannot be captured in ordinary photographs. The house ‘creates a vehicle to re-think architectural production and practices and develops a space to include the everyday longings and desire of the communities in the future of cities, to form resilience through actions of care.’[11] 


Despite the varied nature of the Symposium contributions, I have suggested that in all cases we may consider the ‘work’ under discussion – whether literary, cinematic, theatrical, or performative – in terms of its capacity to prompt a certain type of audience reaction which, following Arellano, we may call ‘wonder.’ Such wonder may result from the introduction of the ‘unfamiliar’ within otherwise commonplace environments, or from the presentation of something ordinary in an unfamiliar light (involving ‘defamiliarization’ or ‘making strange’). Wendy Faris’s keynote presentation further suggests that, at the current stage of global development, the ‘source’ of wonder is increasingly to be found in material conditions within urban environments. Rather than deriving from experience of the exotic/external, or from fascination with the peculiar nature of physical artefacts (as in New Objectivity),[12] MR is replenished internally – from the relationships, events and occurrences of life within the city. 

Peter Vincent-Jones

August 2021


[1]   See ‘What is Magical Realism? Disciplinary Approaches’ (considers MR in different disciplinary traditions, referring to: works of art/literature; attitudes of writers/artists to reality; the deployment of critical or analytical resources; types of worldmaking; and intersubjective relationships involving the creator, the work and its audience).

[2]  Jerónimo Arellano, Magical Realism and the History of the Emotions in Latin America. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press (2015).

[3]  Rodanthi Tzanelli, Magical Realist Sociologies of Belonging and Becoming (The Explorer), Routledge (2020). 

[4]  On Shklovsky’s notion of ‘defamiliarization’ (or ‘making strange’), and its association in theatre with Brechtian ‘estrangement effect’, see: 

[5]  ‘Introduction’, in Zamora and Faris eds., Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Duke University Press (1995), pp 5-6.

[6] Felicity Gee, Magical Realism, World Cinema and the Avant-Garde, Routledge (2021), p 194.

[7] ibid, p 195.

[8]  Ron Smith, ‘Magical Realism and Theatre of the Oppressed in Taiwan: Rectifying Unbalanced Realities with Chung Chiao’s Assignment Theatre’ (2005) 22(1) Asian Theatre Journal, 107-121; Ricci-Jane Evangeline Adams, ‘Seeing in Unordinary Ways: Magical Realism in Australian Theatre’, (2008) PhD Thesis, University of Melbourne.  Smith’s article investigates the relationship between MR and Boalian theatre (after Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal), in which audiences participate in and contribute to the ‘performance’. ‘Simultaneous dramaturgy’ and other experiments with audience involvement are particularly conducive to the experience of MR.   

[9]  Tzanelli analyses another sort of creative work, the spectacular Underwater Gallery staged by Stefanos Kontos in the deep waters surrounding the island of Amorgos in Greece in 2018, in similar MR terms. The exhibition’s display of photographs of sea creatures and marine objects, installed by free-divers in caves ‘on a single breath’ (itself a kind of performance), renders visible and accessible to public discourse aspects of the magic/mystery of Greek culture that are important to the country’s identity-making (Rodanthi Tzanelli, ‘Underwater: Where Environmental Aesthetics meets Magical Realism’, (2020) Transfers Volume 10, Issue 2/3, 110–114). 

[10] Bellinda Mitchell, conference abstract.

[11] ibid.

[12] Grethe Jürgens, a lesser-known exponent of New Objectivity, described the new sense of wonder which she perceived in objects and material reality: ‘New Objectivity … is the discovery of a totally new world. One paints pots and rubbish piles, and then suddenly sees these things quite differently, as if one had never before seen a pot. One paints a landscape, trees, houses, vehicles, and one sees the world anew. One discovers like a child an adventure-filled land. One looks at technological objects with different eyes when one paints them or sees them in new paintings’ (Grethe Jürgens, quoted in Irene Guenther, ‘Magic Realism, New Objectivity, and the Arts during the Weimar Republic’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), p 36).