Genre Guide: Matriarchy, Magical Realism and Family Sagas

Minoan society and theology was matriarchal.

Definition and Background
I recently read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (2015 Morris Award Finalist), after having had the ARC on my shelf for months (I’m sorry!) and being begged to by a coworker and about five students. I was amazed by the beautiful writing and loved the story. It also got me thinking a lot about family sagas and how they are such a big part of literature in general, but they don’t seem to appear much in YA. That said, anything that spans generations, like Ava Lavender, should feature and engage adults and teens alike.

Another interesting thing about these stories is that family sagas tend to center around women or follow a woman’s line in a family, when we all know that in general, Serious Literature is about (white) men. And yet books like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende or Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman get critical acclaim anyway. That is seriously feminist.

Did I mention that these books are also subversive when it comes to how they trick everyone into reading magical realism without complaining that they’re reading genre fiction? Genius, I tell you.

This is more of a subgenre than a genre, and this guide is something that could use fleshing out. Reading Ava Lavender whetted my appetite for stories of matriarchal families, but I can’t say that I’ve found many yet. That said, there are many adult authors who may satisfy teens, as well as some stories of young women going off on their own magical realism adventure, possibly to start the first branch of a matriarchal family tree.

As mentioned, these stories tend to employ magic realism elements, and they most commonly come out of traditions that support these notions as par for the course, such as folklore and history from Latin America, West Africa, and the American South. However, that’s not always true, as Ava Lavender itself shows. Often there is a sort of quest or journey involved. Rather than love stories, these tend to be about love lost or love cursed, with an element of destiny attached to that. Family, either born or created, is what ties characters together. Mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaughter, and sister relationships are key. There are some authors who accomplish this type of storytelling through book series, and I’ve noted a few below (you could even count Tamora Pierce’s entire Tortall universe as a big family epic), but in general, I think it’s most interesting when all of these relationships between family members and generations happen in one novel.

For me, it’s about intersectional feminism (the idea that feminism is more than just your position as a genetic female or gender-identified woman but also works with, against, and through your sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and more) and how these stories engage with what it means to be a girl or woman in the world and, on a meta level, what it means to be a woman in a story. There’s also the appeal of magical realism, as mentioned; ethnic and racial diversity; and representations of love as more complicated, possibly lusty, and less saccharine than your average romance novel. Finally, tales of multiple generations of people (and the fact that many books in this genre are published under adult imprints) may be appealing for older teens straddling the YA/adult line and want complex, literary stories with characters they can identify with.

Authors to Know
Isabel Allende (key title: The House of the Spirits)
Julia Alvarez (key titles: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, ¡Yo!)
Francesca Lia Block (2005 Edwards Award winner) (key titles: Weetzie Bat series [YALSA 100 Best Books], How to (un)cage a Girl)
Laura Esquivel (key title: Like Water for Chocolate)
Alice Hoffman (key titles: Practical Magic, The Dovekeepers)
Lisa See (key titles: Shanghai Girls, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan)

Other Recommended Titles
Bliss by Kathryn Littlewood
I Am Lavina Cumming by Susan Lowell
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (1995 Newbery Medal)

All Our Pretty Songs/Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry (read both together) (2014 Outstanding Books for the College Bound)
Blessing’s Bead by Debby Dahl Edwardson (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults)
Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (2009 Printz Award, 2009 Best Books for Young Adults)
Kendra by Coe Booth (2009 Best Books for Young Adults, 2009 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2011 Popular Paperbacks)
Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata
Night Flying by Rita Murphy (2001 Best Books for Young Adults)
Shabanu/Haveli/The House of Djinn by Suzanne Fisher Staples (read all three together) (1990 Newbery Honor, YALSA 100 Best Books)
The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow
Splintered by A.G. Howard (2014 Teens’ Top Ten)
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (2009 Best Books for Young Adults)

Adult for YAs
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (2004, 2009 Outstanding Books for the College Bound)
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (YALSA 100 Best Books)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (2011 Alex Award)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2013 Alex Award)
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Witches of East End (series) by Melissa de la Cruz

–Hannah Gómez, currently reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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Hannah Gómez

Hannah Gómez is a former independent school librarian and now works remotely as a librarian consultant/teacher. She also teaches fitness and writes things. She is on Twitter @shgmclicious

2 thoughts on “Genre Guide: Matriarchy, Magical Realism and Family Sagas”

  1. You missed “Chocolat” by Joanne Harris. The author herself mentioned a friend telling her that the book was essentially a love story about a mother and daughter. The bond of mothers with their children also carries on in the two follow up books “The Girl with No Shadow” and “Peaches for Father Francis”.

    1. What’s funny is that I was watching the movie when I started writing this post! I can’t believe I forgot to add that title to the adult list. Thanks for the reminder! I didn’t know there were companion novels.

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