As with any genre categorization, the edges of magical realism short stories are blurry. The term “magical realism” itself seems to be an oxymoron: if it’s magical, how can it be real? The definition, however nebulous, depends on whom you ask.
How do you define magical realism short stories?
I tried to reduce the definition to its most simplistic qualities: the world of the story is realistic, just like this one, or maybe a little worse. Magical elements are introduced to the world of the story, and the characters in the world treat them as though they are real, a part of their crappy world. The characters are not astounded by the presence of what seems (to the reader) magical.
Naturally there are some dissenting opinions, and because humans like to categorize things, there are some distinct sub-genres. Surrealism is “concerned with upending accepted realities,” and fabulism “is known for putting fables and myths into a contemporary setting.” (For more on these topics, click here.)
For our purposes, we have another chunk of that genre to define as well: what is a short story? What qualifies as “short,” and what makes a “story.” Again, I tried to reduce this definition to its most simplistic qualities: if I can read it in one sitting, then it’s “short.” If I have to get up for snack breaks, to check my email, et cetera, it doesn’t qualify. As far as defining “story”: there needs to be a narrative. That means, to me, SOMETHING HAPPENS. Something happens after which nothing is the same, a new status quo is reached. Much of the time, the magical entering the realistic world works as the “something,” but not always.
With those VERY loose terms defined, here are some of the most impactful magical realism short stories, including magical realism short story collections and magical realism short story authors.
The Best Magical Realism Short Stories Authors
Gabriel García Márquez
Gabo is the author who usually comes to mind when someone mentions magical realism authors, but his more famous works are novels. Did you know, though, that he also has written magical realism short stories and novellas? Among his most popular, shorter works are the often-anthologized “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” and the novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Both are excellent examples of his writing style in that they evoke the setting and issues of early 20th century Latin America, and each has its particular element of magic that disrupts that realist setting.
This fantastic queen is also a staple among magical realism authors. Some of her most notable collections of magical realism short stories are The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures, and The Color Master, though she also has written several book-length works. Her stories generally take place in America, but not always, and they bend reality in a way that is not quite surreal, but will leave the reader wondering…”Wait, what happened? No, I mean, WHY did that happen?” My favorite of her works is “The Rememberer,” in which the protagonist’s lover begins to experience reverse-evolution.
Karen Russell is another powerhouse among magical realism authors. You probably recognize the titles St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I love these collections because several of these magical realism short stories take characters that we know from popular culture or mythology and place them in settings where they don’t belong. For example, what is a 200-year-old vampire doing in southern Italy? Or, what happens when a family of minotaurs takes the Oregon Trail? Or, what if all of the American presidents were reincarnated as horses in the same stable?
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is one of Russia’s leading contemporary fiction writers. Her collections of magical realism short stories aim to explain human connection in macabre and burlesque ways. Some titles of her collections include the following: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories and There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. Petrushevskaya has also written several novella and novels.
The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret, the most famous of Israel’s magical realism authors, contains his most successful short stories, and they all deal with the idea of life in Israel, but in metaphorical, magical ways that although not factual, are somehow truer. Some of the collections from which this selection came are The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God; Suddenly, A Knock on the Door; and The Nimrod Flipout. He also writes graphic novels, and his writing has inspired the movies Wristcutters: A Love Story and Jellyfish.
Magical Realism Short Story Collections and anthologies
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
This collection of magical realism short stories involve macabre scenarios. One of my favorites retells the urban legend of the “Girl with the Velvet Ribbon.” Another of my favorites, “Inventory,” is chronicle of lists which the protagonist writes after the apocalypse. This collection is truly amazing—they’re stories for the adults that the children who loved spooky stories grew into.
Unclean Jobs for Women & Girls by Alissa Nutting
“In this darkly comic and surreal collection from celebrated author Alissa Nutting, misfit women scramble for agency in a series of uncanny circumstances. Throughout these breathtakingly creative seventeen stories spread across time, space, and differing planes of reality, we encounter a host of women and girls in a wide range of unusual jobs. Though the settings these women find themselves in are as shocking and unique as they come, the emotional battles they face are searing and real.”
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
This book veers toward the fabulist sub-genre of magical realism short stories, but more importantly, it’s Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir! She uses tales of Fa Mu Lan, drowned ghosts, and other Chinese myths and histories to tell her own coming-of-age experience in California as a Chinese American in the 1960s–’70s.
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me by Kate Bernheimer (editor)
This anthology of retold fairy tales includes heavy-hitters like Aimee Bender and more, and they have a RANGE. From esoteric fairytales to retellings of Rumpelstiltskin, Kate Bernheimer’s anthology has it all. (If you like this collection, you might also consider The Fairy Tale Review for some online reading, or her collection of re-told myths, xo Orpheus.)
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
“A Guide to Being Born is organized around the stages of life—love, conception, gestation, birth—and the transformations that happen as people experience deeply altering life events, falling in love, becoming parents, looking toward the end of life. In each of these eleven stories Ausubel’s stunning imagination and humor are moving, entertaining, and provocative, leading readers to see the familiar world in a new way.”
The Best Magical Realism short stories
“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka
This is a novella, so while it might take a LONG sitting to read it, I’m counting it as a short story. The magical thing that happens is that Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug. Kafka’s is one of the classics, so if you love magical realism short stories but you haven’t read this one, you should definitely look into it. You can read it for free, along with many others, on Project Gutenberg.
“Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner
This piece from Last Day on Earth by Eric Puchner is a great example of magical realism short stories: humans have become immortal Perennials, but in order to do so, they have to remain children forever. What happens when a grown man shows up throws everything out of perspective. This story is also available through Tin House.
“The Idea of Marcel” by Marie-Helene Bertino
What happens when you go on a date with the idea of your ex? What happens when you meet his ideal of you? This strange story explores the idea of idealizing a significant other and what happens when everyone meets. This piece—along with several other magical realism short stories—is available online at The Common: A Modern Sense of Place. You can also find it in her collection Safe as Houses.
“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link
Depending on whom you ask, “Stone Animals” might be more horror than magical realism, but many things can be true. This story starts off with a young couple buying a house, and the discomfort of living there spirals quickly out of their control. Her magical realism short stories are also found in many of her collections, as well, such as Get in Trouble and Magic for Beginners.
“My Pet Heart” by Emily Hipchen
This magical realism short story begins with a girl fantasizing about the model heart in her doctor’s office, and then owning it as a pet. Of course, though, the heart can’t be owned. What’s even more interesting about this piece is that it is also nonfiction. You can read this essay for free online at Madcap Review.
For more examples of the magical realism genre, click here!