The Fifth World

About the Fifth World

Animist Realist

Animist realist means:


Harry Garuba argues that the much better-known genre of magical realism actually forms a sub-genre of animist realism. He points to writers like Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Niyi Osundare, Wole Soyinka, Duro Ladipo, Amos Tutuola, and Ben Okri as examples. He describes it as a genre concerned with “continually re-enchanting the world.”

Like magical realism, animist realism arises from the post-colonial experience, with authors who often blend indigenous traditions with Western literary traditions. Again and again, mediation and boundaries appear in this genre. “The plots of magical realist works involve issues of borders, mixing, and change,” Lindsay Moore writes about the more popular sub-genre. “Authors establish these plots to reveal a crucial purpose of magical realism: a more deep and true reality than conventional realist techniques would illustrate.”

A number of anthropologists in recent decades have focused on “taking animism seriously,” like Bird Nurit-David, Tim Ingold, Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and Rane Willerslev, as well as more popular authors like David Abram and Graham Harvey. They point out that otherworldly and supernatural beliefs more often look like the projections of Christian missionaries than the actual concerns of real animists. Animism focuses on other-than-human forms of personhood. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram highlights how animals, and even plants, and even landscapes and the air itself, act like persons in our phenomenological experience. Only with specific training can we convince ourselves that they lack life.

Animist realism doesn’t mean fantasy or delusion. It means “getting back to our senses,” as David Abram put it, trying to peek past our learned responses to remember the animist world bursting with life that presents itself directly to our eyes, ears, and skin. It means expanding our notion of personhood and seeing life in the world again.


Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.

Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World