It could’ve been great

You know, the thing I always try to remember when I’m borrowing from mythology is to be a shit-ton more careful with still-living traditions than I am with those long gone or transformed away from their roots. I feel relatively safe treading on the threads of Egyptian myth because there isn’t a centuries-long-and-ongoing history of using, say, the worship of Bast as an excuse to steal people’s ancestral land and children in the name of Christianity. But you know what? I’m still careful, even with “dead” faiths, because I don’t know how playing with these things might hurt real people. Nations have been built upon and torn down by the concepts I’m playing with. The least I can do is research the hell out of a thing before I put a toe in that ancient water.

It’s even more crucial for religions that are alive, and whose adherents still suffer for misconceptions and misappropriations. But these are easier to research, and it’s often much easier to figure out when you’re about to put a foot right into a morass of discrimination and objectification. All the evidence is there, sometimes still wet with blood. You just need to read. You just need to ask people. You just need to think.

And whether I believe in a thing or not, I always try to recognize that these concepts, these names, these words, have power. Power is always to be respected, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, present or past.

(For example, I was careful as hell with the Inheritance Trilogy, because so much of that was inspired by real, living traditions. Sieh is a combo of Loki and Anansi and Coyote and Japanese foxes and more, but I did everything I could to strip recognizable elements of those actual gods from him, leaving only the archetypal bones. It’s never wise to antagonize trickster gods.)

Anyway. This is just to say that there’s a number of ways Rowling could’ve made her Magical North America work without causing real harm to a lot of real people. That would be for her to have treated American peoples — all of us — with the same respect that she did European. Pretty sure she would never have dreamt of reducing all of Europe’s cultures to “European wizarding tradition”; instead she created Durmstrang and Beauxbatons and so on to capture the unique flavor of each of those cultures. It would’ve taken some work for her to research Navajo stories and pick (or request) some elements from that tradition that weren’t stereotypical or sacred — and then for her to do it again with the Paiutes and again with the Iroquois and so on. But that is work she should’ve done — for the sake of her readers who live those traditions, if not for her own edification as a writer. And how much more delightful could Magic in North America have been if she’d put an ancient, still-thriving Macchu Picchu magic school alongside a brash, newer New York school? How much richer could her history have been if she’d mentioned the ruins of a “lost” school at Cahokia, full of dangerous magical artifacts and the signs of mysterious, hasty abandonment? Or a New Orleanian school founded by Marie Laveau, that practiced real vodoun and was open/known to the locals as a temple — and in the old days as a safe place to plan slave rebellions, a la Congo Square? Or what if she’d mentioned that ancient Death Eater-ish wizards deliberately destroyed the magical school of Hawai’i — but native Hawai’ians are rebuilding it now as Liliuokalani Institute, better than before and open to all?

Sigh. She just shouldn’t have touched North America if she was going to gloss over everything that makes this part of the world what it is — the grotesque along with the sweet. This is who we are, for better or worse. Our history — all Americans’ history — needs respect, not pablum and stereotypes.

I’m a HP fan. It’s been tough over the years, as I’ve realized just how representationally flawed the books are (the real UK is far, far more diverse than Hogwarts, for example), but mostly I stuck it out for the seven books. Hadn’t paid attention to the whole Pottermore thing before now, though, because tooth-gritting frustration does not make for lifelong loyalty, surprisingly. But my interest in HP could’ve been reawakened by good worldbuilding. That would’ve shown me that Rowling has grown in the years since the books’ end, and that her afterthoughts are sincere, if belated. Also, this could’ve made for a much better story.

Oh well. Coulda woulda shoulda.

56 Responses »

  1. I’m from Peru and I really wished JK Rowling had put another school there in Machu Picchu and not just in Brazil. Like another person said, Brazil is the only country in South America that speaks portuguese! But i also think it was a missed opportunity. Machu Picchu is super close to Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire, which covered. Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, even a bit of Colombia. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a school at the center of that Empire. But considering what she did with North Amercia maybe it’s for the best she didn’tt do this.
    I also want to point out that it’s important for fans to do their research also if they are going to make gifs or inages about the schools. I saw a gifset of all the schools and in the place of Castelobruxo, they put what was obviously a Mayan or Aztecan Piramid. That has nothing to do with Brazil. Just because it’s also from Latin America doesn’t mean you can put something from Mexico. The cultures are torally different. Just don’t.

  2. Concerning PoC in Harry Potter, I am sure I remember one black girl who was on the Quidditch team, who hasn’t been listed here. That’d probably increase the percentages.

    The representation of Europe is underwhelming, but I don’t mind much – I actually think it is rather funny to see what Brits think Germany is like.

    Misrepresenting cultures that the British and European invaders did their best to eradicate is a bigger deal.

    @Brit R.:

    “Personally, at this rate, I would love for Native and Indigenous authors to be able to write a “magical world” from their own tribal history and perspective so that we can see ourselves most actually represented and be able to be empowered as we imagine ourselves in this “magical” what now known as North America – world.”

    That’s what I thought when I read that Rowling failed at this – she should have asked people who know about those cultures to come up with something to cover the Americas.

    I hope she will do this. The research necessary to properly cover the magical history of the whole world is too much for one person, and there are so many interesting local myths only locals would know about.

    It would be awesome if you could explore a sort of parallel universe on Pottermore, with each country’s description written by a person who is from there.

  3. That’s a very well written post. :) As you said, research and empathy are incredibly important when fictionalizing foreign cultures.

    Also, an unrelated beef I have with Rowling is the way she’s chosen to extend the story through these short snippets and regular tweets on her twitter account. When reading a book, I feel immersed in the world, and my willing suspension of disbelief makes it magical and surreal. This just feels like words on paper that mean very little. I would’ve loved it if she chose to continue the story through proper novels rather than these slapdash chunks.

    Also unrelated, but I must say that I absolutely loved The Fifth Season. The sheer imagination at work coupled with the blending of sci-fi and fantasy along with some rich character development and great dialogue totally blew me away. Ah, dammit, I’m gushing. Anyway, I hope to keep reading great fiction from you. :)

  4. to the author, you mention she did it again to the Iroquois and Paiute. What was it? Appropriate something? I’m following closely and lost on that! Please help and great read! Thanks!
    Wendy, a concerned Paiute…

  5. @Rose, Angelina Johnson is described as being black in one of the later books, and Dean Thomas is heavily implied to be black in the UK editions of the books, and I think explicitly black in the US versions. Still, not enough diversity, though.

    I agree with other commenters that her depiction of all cultures tends to be shallow and not well thought through, but most cultures (e.g. European cultures) have not been systematically erased through centuries of oppression. Western Europe is not going to suffer through misconceptions perpetuated by JKR, but in the absence of more thorough and diverse media depictions, many people will fail to interrogate her depictions of Native Americans in this shoddy and thoughtless piece, and will unfortunately believe much of what they hear/read.

  6. Great post and why I love your work so much. Great world building makes a richer story. She doesn’t take the time and research necessary to do it, you do.