Supernatural experiences of relationality: shifts in the magical realism of twenty-first-century transnational literature

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This project argues that twenty-first century transnational novelists have reconfigured magical realism in response to conditions of heightened migration in the first few decades of this century. The project demonstrates how contemporary magical realist techniques grow out of the methods developed in the twentieth century but diverge to reflect the different encounters the novels depict. The study examines four novels that chronicle transnational experiences: Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl (2006) combines the United Kingdom with Nigeria; Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) traverses an undefined region of the ‘global south’, the United Kingdom, the United States and other nations; Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day (2009) incorporates Malaysia, India and the United States; Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) brings together the United States and the Dominican Republic. These novels indicate explicit influences of the magical realism of the twentieth century and enable comparison to the changes the authors have made. They adopt those techniques, sources and themes but subvert, uproot, complicate and innovate them.

Since its first definition by Franz Roh in 1925 and Alejo Carpentier’s classic 1949 essay that introduced the concept of lo real maravilloso to the Americas, and the 1960s boom of magical realist fiction from Central and South America, the mode has been adopted and transformed by practitioners worldwide. Notable examples include Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende and Ben Okri. Since the 1980s and into the twenty-first century, it has remained one of the most popular modes of writing globally.

Scholars at the forefront of postcolonialism such as Fredric Jameson and Homi Bhabha note the rise of magical realism in postcolonial countries. They claimed it as a postcolonial mode, and subsequent critics continue to read it from this framework. As a result, much scholarship on magical realism has stagnated in its postcolonial formations, despite it having continued to evolve in more transnational examples. These have rendered certain influential critical definitions out of date.

Addressing the lack of consideration of the contemporary emergence of magical realism, this thesis traces a move towards the representation of, rather than resistance to, traumatic events. The project argues that authors deploying magical realism have reconfigured the mode to demonstrate an intensified correlation with aesthetic magical realist tropes and the characters’ transnational experiences. They reveal shifts towards interiority in their representations of the supernatural to capture the experiential tensions arising in the lives of migrants and their families.

Probing and building on definitions formulated by Amaryll Chanady (1985), Wendy Faris (2004) and Christopher Warnes (2009), this study develops a characterisation of magical realism that reflects its changes and evolution during the first decades of the twenty-first century. I identify it as a mode in which characters perceive the supernatural as impossible but pay little attention to the contradiction this implies.

This thesis then analyses how the selected authors differ in their uses of magical realism alongside their texts’ increased transnationality. I argue scholars of transnationalism such as Alejandro Portes, Steve Vertovec and Deborah Bryceson reveal relationality as a key foundational component of the experiences of migrants. As the thesis will explore, the term relationality in psychoanalysis, as developed by Stephen Mitchell among others, depicts the self as dependent on a network of connections to others. In this model, aspects of the self such as identity and nationality become fluid and dynamic, shifting in their relationship to other people. Drawing on this framework, I compare the way the novelists adapt the techniques established by Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie to capture these transnational changes. I contend that the supernatural in these contemporary iterations resembles literalised metaphors of tensions between conflicting affective states for migrants and their descendants. In these texts, interconnected, interdependent and interpersonal qualities of nationality, identity, home, class and family distinguish the characters’ transnationalities. The protagonists of the selected novels experience these categories as relational; however, the protagonists face entrenched notions of static, objective, mutually exclusive categories. The authors represent the resultant emotional tension and trauma through the emergence of the supernatural.

In The Icarus Girl (2006), Helen Oyeyemi reconfigures a prevalent magical realist technique of opposing two world views. As with texts of Carpentier, Asturias and Okri, one such world view is mapped onto a Eurocentric notion of rationality and another aligns with the supernatural beliefs of a colonised culture. Oyeyemi undermines this dichotomy to interrogate essentialised categories of identity that are tied to race and nation and which the protagonist’s transnationality has rendered relational. It therefore shows oppositional thinking as a cause of trauma in her transnational context. Oyeyemi uses the postcolonial notions of resistance to imagine the supernatural emerging from the cosmology of colonised people in West Africa; however, she uproots it and relocates it in British suburbia. She isolates the phenomenon to the interior perspective of the child protagonist. She thereby places the mythological in connection with the psychoanalytical by simultaneously representing an emerging understanding of trauma through the same supernatural trope.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) overlaps the supernatural and technological, bringing magical realism to a twenty-first-century milieu of intensified migration. He deterritorialises magical realism by rendering it intrinsically global, mirroring the increased connectivity that has been wrought by communication technology. He simultaneously represents these globalising influences in a portrayal of magical portals. Both portals and technology contribute to the disconnectedness and homelessness migrants may feel in Hamid’s text; he likewise applies this experience of dislocation and disorientation to all individuals facing globalising processes of change and loss. Like Oyeyemi, he depicts the resistance of mutually exclusive ideologies, in his case of national borders, which collapse on account of the literalised metaphor of the portals. His novel argues that human relatedness is the only stable basis for establishing home in the twenty-first-century conditions of increased transnationality.

In Evening is the Whole Day (2009), Preeta Samarasan critiques a wealthy transnational family that dehumanises its servants. Complicating the postcolonial tendency to deploy ghosts as intrusions of the colonial past into the present, she combines this trope with a spirit that speaks of the perpetuity of classism in contemporary, transnational elites. The novel demonstrates further links between postcolonial magical realism and the contemporary turn which she exemplifies by making intertextual references to Rushdie. In this regard she demonstrates an increasing trend in the mode’s self-referentiality. Like Oyeyemi, Samarasan’s text directs focalisation of the supernatural towards the interior. She literalises the experience of perceived differences between the rich and poor simultaneously collapsing and being reinforced. The novel implicates the wealthy family’s moral poverty and lack of ethical relationality as the cause of their prejudice towards, and exploitation of, the poor.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) innovates magical realist techniques to focus on family and history connectedness. Taking inspiration from science fiction and fantasy, Díaz establishes several unprecedented alternative sources for the supernatural. He deploys these to relate the histories of colonialism, imperialism and extant neoliberalism. He intensifies the relationship between self-referentiality and magical realism by shifting the supernatural to the metafictional level of the text. His narrator claims the novel itself to be supernatural, furthering the metafictionality through intertextual references to postcolonial magical realism. He weaves magical-realist–science-fiction metaphors into the narrative structure, which allow him to creatively express the traumatic consequences of oppression from colonialism, totalitarianism and racism. These effects are borne out in the fragmentary and isolating experiences of an underprivileged migrant family. Díaz fixates on the value of family connectivity in maintaining emotional wellbeing in transnational circumstances. He emphasises, as do Oyeyemi, Hamid and Samarasan, that the relational aspects of transnationality need to be better understood and embraced as hallmarks of transnational experience. For migrants and their descendants, the denial of relationality in social contexts inspires disconnection and isolation, a contradiction to the increased connectivity manifesting in the twenty-first century. Magical realism thus embodies these transnational experiences of paradox, and their resolution, by blurring the distinction between the supernatural and the mundane.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorRuvani Ranasinha (Supervisor) & Anna Snaith (Supervisor)

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