Cultural Realism: Reconsidering Magical Realism in the Works of Contemporary American Women Writers

by Nasrin Babakhani (Author)
©2022 Thesis 198 Pages


This book is committed to women as writers and storytellers; all the selected novels are female-centric in that the main characters are women. The authors, also women, are from three diverse American ethnic groups from both the North and South. Through a close reading of several novels, Babakhani shows how the reinvention of cultural traditions serves these women writers as a political, decolonial, and feminist tool. Babakhani situates her readings in a critique of the concepts of realism and magical realism.  Because magical realism sets realism against magic and implies binary oppositions, Babakhani proposes "cultural realism" as a revisionary concept that takes the cultural importance of rituals and beliefs seriously, without simply dismissing them as superstition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 Realism
  • 1.2 Magical Realism
  • 1.3 Cultural Realism
  • 1.4 Feminism and the Novel
  • 1.5 Chapter Synopsis
  • 2. Latin America and the Tradition of Magical Realism
  • 2.1 Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits
  • 3. Cultural Realism and African American Women Writers
  • 3.1 Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  • 3.2 Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day
  • 4. Cultural Realism and Native American Women Writers
  • 4.1 Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony
  • 4.2 Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine
  • 4.3 Susan Power’s The Grass Dancer
  • 5. Conclusion
  • 5.1 Women, History, and Memory
  • 5.2 Women’s Solidarity and Collectivity
  • 5.3 Women and Magical Power
  • Bibliography
  • Series Index

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Perhaps for many people, there is nothing magical about writing a book, but I like to think of writing this book as a magical exchange—a crossing of different views, and an overlapping of personal and political concerns. Acknowledging all the people who have helped me to cross the margins, and prevail the life’s obstacles is unattainable, but I would like to mention those who through the act of overt generosity helped its completion.

First and foremost, my heartfelt thanks go to Professor Andrew Gross who read the various draft versions of this book, sometimes repeatedly. Without his invaluable feedback, comments, continuous support, and encouragement, writing this book could not have been possible. This research comes to fruition only after our frequent fruitful discussions. Professor Gross’s expertise and unflagging support upgraded the outcome of this project. Thanks are also due to my second reader, Professor Jens Elze for his crucial criticism and cogent comments. He not only provided valuable guidance but also helped to organize a conference at the University of Göttingen and publish a proceeding article. I owe special thanks to Professor Matthew Potolsky for his invitation to visit the University of Utah and finalize my dissertation under his direction, though the appeal has been turned down and I was refused a visa. Professor Potolsky’s constructive feedback and comments on realism genuinely added another critical perspective. During the faculty colloquia, my colleagues and friends in the Department of North American Studies at the University of Göttingen offered further insights, for which I’m grateful.

With great gratitude, I acknowledge generous support from the Graduate school of the Humanities (GSGG) for providing various grants and allowance for conference trips. I am especially obliged to the managing director of GSGG, Dr. Nele Hoffmann, whose how-to, a practical guide has helped me avoid the detours and kept me on track. I also take the opportunity to acknowledge the support of Unibund in funding the organization of the conference in Göttingen.

Last but not least, I would like to thank my family, as always, my appreciation is too deep to express their impact in this acknowledgment. My ←7 | 8→parents—Faramarz and Jamaleh, and my brother Dr. Peyman Babakhani and my cousin, Abdolah Babakhani and his wife Parvin Naderian made writing this book possible by providing financial and emotional support. My greatest debt is also to my beloved sisters, Reihaneh, Delbar, Zivar, and Fozieh whose generous attentions were heartwarming on gloomy gray days. I am also immensely indebted to my friends, Ana Pofahl for her sisterly love, warmth, and humor, Shima Gaviri for her patience and support, Dr. Fazil Moradi for his inspiring insights, Mohammad (Danyar) Ahmadi for being so generous and patient, Robert Smith for his precious letters that encouraged me to keep the faith, and finally I would like to give my special thanks to Dr. Chris McDaniel, Shela Fletcher, Severin Discher for proofreading these chapters, also to X. Black for teaching me to hear the words, read the context, and mark the meaning.

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1 Introduction

Magical realism is a narrative style that represents alternative epistemologies sensitive to the concerns of cross-culturalism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism. It also seems to be a marketing catchphrase because, after all, as Kumkum Sangari has pointed out, “the principle of innovation is also the principle of the market in general” (915). Some critics see magical realism as a problematic trend that is either “an effect of and a vehicle for globalization” (Michael Valdez Moses 105) or the “commercial imposition” of a cosmopolitan style “on a new generation of authors” (Faris 62), or it has even been accused of harboring “pernicious – even racist – ideologies” (Martin 104). Others praise it as a way of inserting forgotten voices into realist conventions that otherwise exclude them. While more than half a century has passed since the first appearance of the term “magical realism” in English, there is still no consensus about its significance or even definition. Formally, the style is often described as a narrative strategy that subverts the line between realism and the fantastic so that supernatural events seem natural and congruent with everyday life. Yet, this definition seems to be incomplete when the literature of marginalized cultures is taken into consideration. I propose the term “cultural realism” to draw attention to how the style voices the cultural experiences otherwise marginalized in current definitions of magical realism. In this study, I aim to provide a comprehensive description of the literary modes of realism and magical realism in order to argue that what I call cultural realism should be considered a feminist cultural and literary movement.

Many magical realist authors who have been marginalized politically, ethnically, and culturally have repudiated the label of magical realism because they dissociate themselves from fantasy and the magic that it implies. In various interviews, the women writers of my study—Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Susan Power—reveal their disapproval of the term magical realism, as do some male writers from disenfranchised cultures. To mention but a few, Tashi Dawa (in Mandarin, Zhaxi Dawa,) a well-known Tibetan author, has firmly stated that “those supernatural beliefs and phenomena that critics label as magic, in Tibet are part of daily life” (qtd. in Hartley 209). Jack ←9 | 10→Hodgins makes a similar point in an interview with Geoff Hancock: “What I write is to me ‘realistic,’ though not everyone thinks I’m describing reality” (qtd in Hancock 48). Salman Rushdie likewise argues that his novels represent reality even better than traditional literary realism:

I don’t even really like the word fantasy as a description of that kind of non-naturalistic material in my books, because fantasy seems to contain that idea of whimsy and randomness, whereas I now think of it as a method of producing intensified images of reality – images which have their roots in observable, verifiable fact. (qtd in Reder 43)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez—whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most universally acclaimed examples of magical realism, maintains his own personal conception of magic and claims that in Latin America, “magical realism” is simply “realism.” Sangari believes Marquez “moves beyond the simplifying oppositions of rational and irrational” (910). For Marquez, the Caribbean reality incorporates supernatural elements as part of daily life (Kutzinski 69). In another series of interviews published as “The Fragrance of Guava Marquez,” the author points out that the Latin American reality enables him to write One Hundred Years of Solitude “simply by looking at reality, our reality, without the limitation which rationalists or Stalinists through the ages have tried to impose on it to make it easier for them to understand” (59–60). Thus, as Kumkum Sangari maintains, Marquez “does not set up the real and the marvelous as antithetical realms” (901).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (June)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 198 pp.

Biographical notes

Nasrin Babakhani (Author)

Nasrin Babakhani researches in the areas of literary criticism, magical realism, realism postcolonialism, and feminism. She holds a Ph.D. in North American studies from the University of Göttingen.


Title: Cultural Realism: Reconsidering Magical Realism in the Works of Contemporary American Women Writers
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200 pages