"American community uses the slang term No-Maj, short for ‘No Magic’."
March 9, 2016 3:13 PM   Subscribe

JK Rowling has been accused of appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalized people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in new story. [The Guardian]
The Harry Potter author posted the first part of a four-part series, the History of Magic in North America on her website Pottermore, on Tuesday. Subsequent episodes are being published each day at 2pm until Friday. Tying in to the release in November of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the short piece of writing deals with the magical New World in the 14th to 17th centuries. Although the new insights into the universe of Harry Potter were welcomed by many, the author was strongly criticised online by a number of voices from Native American communities, particularly over her writing about skinwalkers, which in Navajo legend are said to be evil witches or wizards who can take on the form of animals.
- History of Magic in North America by J.K. Rowling [Pottermore]
- Magic schools in JK Rowling's wizarding world - what you need to know. by Lily Golding [The Guardian]
With the brand new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them out in November, all eyes will be turning to the wizarding society of America and the North American wizarding school, Ilvermorny. But Ilvermorny is only one of 11 schools located worldwide, so we thought we’d give you a quick summary of what we know so far. We gleaned most of our precious information from the font of wisdom – AKA Pottermore – where marvellous updates from JK Rowling herself are being posted over the next few days.
- In the second installment of J.K. Rowling's North American–wizardry history lesson, now live on Pottermore, she delves into the most well-known tragedy in American witchcraft: Salem. [Vulture]
Enter the Scourers, an immoral group of wizards who, without any kind of Ministry of Magic to regulate magic in America yet, took it upon themselves to govern the small wizarding population however they saw fit. "Far away from the jurisdiction of their native magical governments, many indulged a love of authority and cruelty unjustified by their mission," Rowling writes. "Such Scourers enjoyed bloodshed and torture, and even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards."
- Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh. by Adrienne K. [Native Appropriations]
There are a number of things that stand out and deeply concern me, but the response to my critiques on my twitter [@NativeApprops] timeline is even worse. I’ll talk about that after I walk you through the text. Because, like with everything I critique, it’s not just the mascot/image/text/movie/fashion itself, it’s the response, how it’s used, and the impact. This has the perfect storm of all of those categories. I really could write a dissertation about this, but I have a million papers to grade and work to do, so a quick rundown:
- “Magic in North America”: The Harry Potter franchise veers too close to home. [Native Appropriations]
The problem, Jo (can I call you Jo? I hope so), is that we as Indigenous peoples are constantly situated as fantasy creatures. Think about Peter Pan, where Neverland has mermaids, pirates…and Indians. Or on Halloween, children dress up as monsters, zombies, princesses, disney characters…and Indians. Beyond the positioning as “not real,” there is also a pervasive and problematic narrative wherein Native peoples are always “mystical” and “magical” and “spiritual”–able to talk to animals, conjure spirits, perform magic, heal with “medicine” and destroy with “curses.” Think about Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas, or Tonto talking to his bird and horse in The Lone Ranger, or the wolfpack in Twilight…or any other number of examples.

But we’re not magical creatures, we’re contemporary peoples who are still here, and still practice our spiritual traditions, traditions that are not akin to a completely imaginary wizarding world (as badass as that wizarding world is). In a fact I quote often on this blog, it wasn’t until 1978 that we as Native peoples were even legally allowed to practice our religious beliefs or possess sacred objects like eagle feathers. Up until that point, there was a coordinated effort through assimilation policies, missionary systems, and cultural genocide to stamp out these traditions, and with them, our existence as Indigenous peoples. We’ve fought and worked incredibly hard to maintain these practices and pass them on.
- Magic & Marginalization: Et tu, JK? :( by Taté Walker [Righting Red] [@MissusTWalker]
We’re marginalized in real life and we’re marginalized in media. To have a powerhouse like Rowling (though any non-Native author really) profit off our continued erasure and harmful representations is something I am totally not here for. The argument that it’s “fiction” is worthless to me. If we (as consumers) had diverse representation of Native people the same way white people do, Rowling’s latest wouldn’t be so problem, because consumers would have other representations to base opinions off of. As it is, so much of the Native narrative is romanticized and fantastical and now one of the world’s most successful authors has thrown her mighty magical empire against our fragile reemergence from near-total cultural genocide.
- William Apess (Pequot) on Depictions of Native People in Stories by Debbie Reese [American Indians in Children's Literature]
What J.K. Rowling did yesterday (March 8, 2016) in the first story of her "History of Magic in North America" is the most recent example of white people misrepresenting Native people. Her misrepresentations are harmful. And yet, countless people are cheering what Rowling did, and, dismissing our objections. That, too, is not ok. It is, as Megan wrote, a long haul. And in that long haul, people are being hurt by those who cry "it is only fiction." It isn't only fiction. Stories do work. They socialize. They educate. Or--I should say, they mis-educate. Do your part. Join us in pushing back on misrepresentation. It has been a long haul. Let's bring that to an end, together.
- The Long Haul by Megan Schliesman [Reading While White]
It’s 2016 and the increased attention given to discussion of multicultural literature, race, and racism in children’s and young adult literature over the past two years, including the launch and ongoing work of We Need Diverse Books (which looks at all aspects of diversity), and important if sometimes painful discussions of books like A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, among others, feels like a turning point of some kind.

And yet this increased visibility comes with an increased sense of resentment, sometimes vague, sometimes overt. Why are activists calling for changes and challenging racism in children’s and young adult literature so demanding, so radical, so angry, so sensitive, so unwilling to give kids credit? And why can’t we understand that change takes time? I want to talk about that one in particular. That change takes time. It’s true. Change does take time. But it’s 2016. And as we look at recent, welcome examples of change and progress, it’s important to understand and remember that this work—to get more books published that authentically reflect the diverse lives of children and teens, to get those in the children’s and young adult book world who are gatekeepers in one way or another to do something that is not only meaningful but lasting—has been going on for a long time. A very long time.
posted by Fizz (157 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
The always great NK Jemisin also wrote about this.
posted by kmz at 3:31 PM on March 9, 2016 [23 favorites]


Based on the entry on Africa it not only seemed like she was out of her element, but that she didn't really make an effort to truly research and consult with members of the cultures she was writing about.
posted by melissam at 3:32 PM on March 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


Harry Potter's friend then causes the Evil Tiger to run around the tree so fast that it turns into butter!
posted by jeff-o-matic at 3:34 PM on March 9, 2016 [18 favorites]


Animagi
No-Maj


I suppose we're long past the point where anyone could tell her that she really needs an editor to help her name things.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:36 PM on March 9, 2016 [29 favorites]


In a fact I quote often on this blog, it wasn’t until 1978 that we as Native peoples were even legally allowed to practice our religious beliefs or possess sacred objects like eagle feathers.

I'd never heard of this before. It is simultaneously mindblowingly, horrifyingly impossible to believe and somehow not surprising at all.
posted by dng at 3:39 PM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


I similarly felt that the treatment of Australian Aborigines and other indigenous groups in George R R Martin's Wild Cards shared-world stories was a bit off. I don't want to say that people can only write about their own backgrounds, but I do think we have a duty to be careful with the way we talk about the culture of marginalised people, because incorporating it into a fictional world is almost inherently subordinating.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:46 PM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


[A comment removed.Whether your being sincere or sarcastic, beginning with "I don't see what the problem is" is likely to be a less-good comment than you are capable of making. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 3:47 PM on March 9, 2016 [17 favorites]


I hope that what comes out of this is JKR having her attention brought to many of the brilliant native american writers and artists who are talking about this head-on and subsequently getting air-time that they would never have had before. It is terrible that such blunders are being made in the first place but if talking about it brings information and awareness to people who wouldn't care in the first place then that's at least a silver lining.

I don't expect a british person to be educated on this but I do expect one of the richest and most powerful people in the world to have the forethought to ask if there's anyone with expertise on a subject who would share their knowledge and experience with her. I don't understand the people defending this. It's not like she's lacking resources, you know?
posted by Mizu at 3:48 PM on March 9, 2016 [17 favorites]


I feel so betrayed. It makes my heart hurt.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:49 PM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Not expecting better but somehow still being disappointed is the perpetual state of the FN fantasy fan.
posted by northernish at 3:51 PM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


When I first heard about this expansion to the Potterverse I distinctly remember thinking, "This cannot possibly go well." After browsing all these links (great post, Fizz!), I'm now convinced it very well could have been done well. Somehow, that's even more depressing.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:53 PM on March 9, 2016 [10 favorites]


This is infuriating on so many levels, particularly because there has been no official response to the well-articulated feedback provided to Pottermore/Rowling across multiple media platforms. I complained about this on the Pottermore Facebook page as soon as I saw the first piece posted and after 24 hours I'm one of the only people in the thread to not have received a personalized response back from who ever is moderating the page. They're carefully avoiding all dissenting comments on Facebook and Twitter except those that have to do with the change in Pottermore's purpose (game --> database). It's like Umbridge was hired to provide new chapters of "A History of Magic".
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:53 PM on March 9, 2016 [16 favorites]


Saw gifs of the trailer for this and was enjoying the look and idea of it all...

...and then the word "skinwalkers" popped up and my brain made that record scratching noise, and I sighed and went, "Oh, no, why?"

I don't know exactly HOW this all could have been handled better, but I'm sure that surely somewhere out there was a way that was miles better than THIS.
posted by angeline at 3:54 PM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I suppose we're long past the point where anyone could tell her that she really needs an editor to help her name things.

Have you read those Harry Potter books? As an adult?

So, so, so many cringeworthy names.
posted by rokusan at 3:55 PM on March 9, 2016 [10 favorites]


It's like Umbridge was hired to provide new chapters of "A History of Magic".

Goddamn that's a sick burn
posted by Mizu at 3:55 PM on March 9, 2016 [41 favorites]


For people who aren't going to read the skinshifters links, and maybe, like me, would starting from a default of "Whatever, fantasy lifts stuff from everything", here is a quick synopsis of what I got from them:

Writing a story where something that has a complicated and important role in an ongoing spiritual tradition can be dismissed as malevolent superstition is uncomfortably close to justifications used for genocide and attempted destruction of that cultural tradition and is a Bad Thing.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:57 PM on March 9, 2016 [21 favorites]


I think that Jemisin is giving too much credit to Rowling:

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.

She may not have lumped them all as "European wizarding tradition", but the unique flavor that she gave them was all about regional stereotypes (Those Beauxbatons' students are so pretty and have you seen the eyebrows on that Durmstrang hunk?). She's not a subtle writer.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:02 PM on March 9, 2016 [42 favorites]


Has she done the Middle East school yet?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 4:04 PM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I don't know exactly HOW this all could have been handled better

I know other authors have written New World based Fantasy (from a European POV), but I don't know much about how it's been received w/r/t this kind of issue
posted by thelonius at 4:04 PM on March 9, 2016


If she can shift Merlin forward a few centuries for the sake of giving him a Hogwarts house, she can make the obvious connection between legendary animal-wizards and Animagi. Most of the non-British worldbuilding is cursory anyway; look at North America, playing a game that's basically Hot Potato competitively. And as It's Never Lurgi points out, this happens with non-English Europeans too. Sure it's low-effort and stereotype-laden storytelling, but there's no need to treat one culture with greater care or deference than another.
posted by Rangi at 4:06 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


I don't expect a british person to be educated on this but I do expect one of the richest and most powerful people in the world to have the forethought to ask if there's anyone with expertise on a subject who would share their knowledge and experience with her.

I don't think research is the sort of thing that Rowling does. The difference between this and things like the ludicrous wizardly economics and demographics is that appropriating people's culture tends to upset them. So it's not a research fail – making an honest attempt but getting things wrong – it's an empathy fail. She didn't imagine that people would care.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:07 PM on March 9, 2016 [16 favorites]


Please please everyone I implore you to read the links to understand why this is not at all the same as lumping white people together or getting stuff wrong in regards to *Merlin* who is a fictional character.

This is harming real live people, and they have been kind enough to write calm and informative articles about how this is the case. It would be swell if you could read them before jumping in with your Very Important Opinions.
posted by stoneweaver at 4:10 PM on March 9, 2016 [61 favorites]


She didn't imagine that people would care

Exactly.
posted by suelac at 4:13 PM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


When I first heard about this expansion to the Potterverse I distinctly remember thinking, "This cannot possibly go well." After browsing all these links (great post, Fizz!), I'm now convinced it very well could have been done well. Somehow, that's even more depressing.

There's an RPG called 7th Sea, which is currently Kickstarting its second edition. 7th Sea is set in an exaggerated, overblown fake-17th-century-Europe-with-magic. As one of the stretch goals for the campaign, the guy running it decided to do a few sourcebooks in fake-17th-century-Africa-with-magic. So what does he do? He brings in someone who knows what they're talking about, and hires Jerry Grayson, who has a long history of writing fantasy adventures with African heroes. Now the sourcebooks in question haven't come out yet, but from everything that's been released in the campaign they're shaping up to be an interesting, thoughtful fantasy Africa to match the existing fantasy Europe, with multiple kingdoms and cultures as rich and detailed as Africa's real history.

This stuff can be done well! You just need to be willing to actually do your damn research, or if not, then tap in somebody who knows what they're talking about.
posted by Itaxpica at 4:13 PM on March 9, 2016 [57 favorites]


Sure it's low-effort and stereotype-laden storytelling, but there's no need to treat one culture with greater care or deference than another.

Why is that? When the culture and histories of marginalized peoples are used as background props to exclusively enhance the narrative of white Americans/Europeans, those marginalized people gain nothing. There is absolutely a need to treat those people with greater care and deference, and that can be accomplished by having teams of people from the cultures you're writing about on staff to tell you the fantastical narrative you've constructed by appropriating concepts you have no first-hand knowledge of = wrong. Rowling has an empire at her command. She can do better -- and given her supposed commitment to championing the rights of marginalized people, she should be ashamed of how lazy and racist these new Pottermore pieces are.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:14 PM on March 9, 2016 [40 favorites]


If she can shift Merlin forward a few centuries for the sake of giving him a Hogwarts house, she can make the obvious connection between legendary animal-wizards and Animagi.

I dubiously suppose that's true...but perhaps she could do it in a way that doesn't throw Medicine Men under the bus? That being about the least of what's wrong with this. I strongly suggest you read the links to the Native American scholars and their critiques.
posted by angeline at 4:14 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I must confess I was at first unable to see why this was so problematic, but then I actually read the links and listened to the voices of people who had firsthand experience of this kind of culture appropriation. A lightbulb went off in my head and I was like, "Hey, wait, why didn't she hire someone or actually do better about making this part of the HP universe? This is terrible and First Nations people should be upset about this careless use of their history."
posted by Kitteh at 4:18 PM on March 9, 2016 [8 favorites]


It's not just history and that's a big part of the problem. Having it presented this way reinforces the idea that this is not modern or current or active beliefs.
posted by stoneweaver at 4:27 PM on March 9, 2016 [13 favorites]


Rowling has an empire at her command. She can do better -- and given her supposed commitment to championing the rights of marginalized people, she should be ashamed of how lazy and racist these new Pottermore pieces are.

And this is not to say that the subject matter at hand is off limits. Rowling could have consulted from within the Native/First Nations community. She could have set this up as a kind of writing contest and/or championed writers from those communities to create their own stories set inside of her Harry Potter/Wizarding-world universe. There are any number of different ways that she could have tackled these issues with more sensitivity and respect.
posted by Fizz at 4:33 PM on March 9, 2016 [13 favorites]


My apologies for getting that wrong, stoneweaver.
posted by Kitteh at 4:35 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


This stuff can be done well! You just need to be willing to actually do your damn research, or if not, then tap in somebody who knows what they're talking about.

Yes, this. And while I desperately want to see more diversity in the writers of these things, if you're an existing super-famous white fantasy writer, it's not like you absolutely have to only ever write about Europe forever. You just have to do the work. Guy Gavriel Kay's books are all a sort of historically-inspired fantasy, and the two set in what-is-basically-China are beautiful and not at all about reducing people to silly stereotypes... exactly like the ones set in almost-Italy and mostly-France, and if anything he's getting better at it as he goes. You can tell he likes the research. He said something on Twitter at one point about drinking mezcal "for research" and on the one hand it was probably a joke, and on the other hand I would give my right arm for the book he's currently working on to turn out to be set in Latin America. I'd give the left one to get more Latinx people writing the sort of sci-fi and fantasy I like, but I'll take that, you know? He's given me the evidence to trust him.

Rowling hasn't. I love the world of Harry Potter in a lot of ways, but... I don't get the feeling that Rowling really likes having to do homework before she writes. And if that's the case, she should stick to what she knows.
posted by Sequence at 4:37 PM on March 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


Guy Gavriel Kay is a treasure. Canada is very lucky to have him.
posted by Fizz at 4:39 PM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Where were these strong, sharp writers when Werewolf: The Apocalypse was coming down the pike?

(Probably still in high school, like me, but I'm serious. White Wolf was hell of cultural appropriation and I am so embarrassed when I remember how into my Wendigo character I was.)
posted by Countess Elena at 4:39 PM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Obviously these pieces being posted to Pottermore are meant to be primers for Fantastic Beasts, little teasers designed to titillate and build a very basic foundation on which to set the first film. But they are so bizarrely shallow that I feel like they were designed as if Rowling's PR team assumes we'd turn away from the franchise if given too many details, a la that line from OOTP where Hagrid says, "[...] giants like Karkus – overload ’em with information an’ they’ll kill yeh jus’ to simplify things." "Give us more!" has been the rallying cry for Potter fans since 2007. How does her team not see that if they went really in depth with all this stuff they'd expand the franchise's reach a thousand fold AND become the impetus behind a huge and positive cultural shift towards being interested in authentic depictions of non-white people?
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:44 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh okay, so Rowling has begun responding to some people on Twitter, but again, not the people actively criticizing her.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:55 PM on March 9, 2016


I see she's going for the "it's OK because in my appropriated re-write of their history, none of the historical prejudices and problems that still harm their descendants today happened" gambit.

Wonderful.
posted by tocts at 5:03 PM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


This is a terrific post. Thanks.
posted by rtha at 5:04 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Exploratory and predator/prey behavior has a lot to do with this. Conquistadors were explorers as much as they were predators. The curious, open, exploratory part of you is also the part of you which instantaneously recognizes blood, teeth, staring eyes--predatory images--before your conscious self does. What does it mean if you've discovered something new and your physiology isn't triggering a fear response? It means it's (probably) not going to eat you and in fact you can possibly eat it, or make use of it somehow. So curiosity and openness to other cultures often manifests as: 1) you're not threatened by it so its your plaything or 2) you ARE threatened and therefore you must regard it seriously and extract useful knowledge from your encounter with it. The problem is that if you can't picture yourself fearing something or someone, then you can't respect it, and your representation of that person or thing will lack potency, legitimacy, complexity, and strength.
posted by Taft at 5:05 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Could be worse, I guess... The "Frontier Magic" series, which has a magical American frontier just retroactively eliminates native Americans. In the book's universe, humans never came to the Americas until Europeans showed up. Problem solved!
posted by BungaDunga at 5:20 PM on March 9, 2016


Sure it's low-effort and stereotype-laden storytelling, but there's no need to treat one culture with greater care or deference than another.

I remember as a kid, reading the books, and seeing all the Pottermania around me, and not really getting it - to me, it was just another fantasy story. It was cool, but I never really had any dreams of being whisked away to Hogwarts when I turned eleven as many of my peers would loudly talk about. As I've grown up, I've realized that it's because I've never really seen myself reflected in the story. The only Asian character was Cho Chang, and she seemed like a total walking stereotype. It was just another abstract story to me, about white people in a faraway land, living life as white people do. I was an avid reader of books, and they were all like that; it was nothing I hadn't seen before.

It was also around this time that my teacher made me write an essay on who my hero was. I had to make my response up - I ended up choosing Jackie Chan, because he was the only person I could think of that looked like me. But the characters he played was nothing I really aspired to. He was bumbling and sexless. He had this weirdly exaggerated accent. And his whole life revolved around martial arts.

JK Rowling had a chance to extend the story to people who had never seen themselves reflected in our popular media and culture before. It would have been huge - the Potter universe is such a huge and enduring part of our culture. She had all of the resources too, both formal and informal - she could have drawn on the countless number of Aboriginal people creating fan content. But instead, she decided to do what our society does to minority cultures, and draw an caricature of it. She treated the culture like a novelty.

It's not about "deference". The details are important, because they tell you who the audience is. White people won't notice. To them, the story is just another fantastic foray into an exotic land. But for Aboriginal people, they will notice. They will notice that they're being tokenized; they will notice that they're being told bastardized, stolen, whitesplained versions of their tales; they will notice that the people in it that look like them are soulless stereotypes. And it tells them: this story isn't for you.

To me, wandering through a library sometimes feels like wandering through the main street of a racist town that I'm permanently stuck in. I walk through the street, and I see in the window of every shop, every office, every public building: "WE ONLY SERVE WHITE PEOPLE". And that's jarring enough, but I keep walking, and I see that every window, every door, has that sign hung. I'm living here. Where do I buy groceries, for basic subsistence? Where do I go if I need to learn, to find out more about myself? Where do I go if I'm sick, and I need my heart healed?
posted by Conspire at 5:20 PM on March 9, 2016 [101 favorites]


To be fair, JKR only has time to work on this in her spare time, as trolling the Scottish government seems to be her main job these days.
posted by scruss at 5:30 PM on March 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


I saw the "skinwalkers were a thing mundane White people made up to villify Native American wixen" thing as a reflection of how White people tend to assume that indigenous or POC practices are "demonic" or alternatively woobify them (e.g. Kali as either satanic demon or gentle mother Goddess). She could have used a different way to say this though!
posted by divabat at 5:37 PM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


The only Asian character was Cho Chang

A small detail, and one reason I mention it, is because there were so few Asians in this series to begin with I ended up paying that much more attention any time they were on page/screen, but you forgot about the Patil twins. They were mostly footnotes. They were there to be dates for two of our main protagonists at the Yule Ball. Aside from that, I cannot really recall them doing much else in the series.
posted by Fizz at 5:38 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


"Sure it's low-effort and stereotype-laden storytelling, but there's no need to treat one culture with greater care or deference than another."

Dunno, man, if you're not gonna treat cultures that have faced intentional genocide with more care or deference than the ones attempting the genocide, you're gonna look like a huge dick to most people.

This does seem like a legit opportunity to have A People's History of the Wizarding World that directly addresses all the bullshit racism and imperialism implicit in the Comte de Buffon's Fantastic Beasts.
posted by klangklangston at 5:39 PM on March 9, 2016 [17 favorites]


From Taté Walker's piece in the FPP:

When heroes disappoint, the letdown is very real heartache. Yep. It’s just a book. Got that. But a large chunk of my life has been utterly devoted to the story and characters and I simply can’t help the betrayal I feel. Coming off of her awesome pro “Hermoine as a Black woman” storyline for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was sure Rowling would embrace creativity and leave her white-washed, European-centric version of Native culture out of the canon. Or perhaps she’d develop a wizard character who just happened to be Native.

As a lover of pop culture, I often have to check my Lakota feminist lenses at the door, or else spend the whole TV show or movie being angry and dissatisfied (I’m thinking of “The Revenant,” right now as a for instance). Sometimes I’m able to get past the ignorance and marginalization. But… Rowling could have done this so much better. SO MUCH BETTER. I’m not willing to give Rowling a pass here.


And here's the thing, I think, about SO MUCH BETTER:

This got me thinking about recently seeing Marlon James give a talk, and (paraphrasing extensively here) he raised the issue of "Why wasn't there a more diverse cast in The Hobbit?" He countered his own question with the response he's gotten that said "Oh, well, you see, JRR Tolkien's world is based on Celtic or Norse mythology, so it's inherently European, blah blah blah," which he in turn countered by saying "BUT IT'S NOT REAL."

You can hear the whole thing here.

His point of course being that you can include all sorts of people in this fictional world and not treat them as cariciatures. Take, for example, JKR's assertion that Dumbledore is gay. Well, he just is and is just part of this fictional world and is a fully-developed character.

So namely, if JKR is constructing this fictional world, Walker's point, "Or perhaps she’d develop a wizard character who just happened to be Native" makes such basic practical sense. And you know what? If JKR were to say "I didn't think about that. Now I am," things would be a little better.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:48 PM on March 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


Slight derail: I've mentioned it before, but its worth mentioning again. A year or two ago, my sister was sitting on the couch watching television with me. I was channel surfing and I landed upon an episode of Sanjay and Craig. The show is about a young boy named Sanjay and his talking pet snake. My sister got all excited and grabs my arm: "Look how far we've come, look at how cool that is. A cartoon character that is Indian-American, one that isn't speaking in stereotypical thick accent or is implicitly good at math. It's just a boy and his snake and he happens to be Indian and his name is Sanjay. It's so normal."

I smiled for a moment at her happiness and then I frowned thinking at how sad this commentary was. That this was exciting to her, to see something as normal as a cartoon character that is a visible minority. That its not normal, is the most tragic thing of all, that its worth noting, that its worth talking about in this way.

We have so much more work to do with regard to representation of: ethnicity, sexuality, identity, etc.

*sighs*
posted by Fizz at 5:54 PM on March 9, 2016 [23 favorites]


There is some really great reading in these links, and exposed me to some fascinating ethnographic concepts I didn't know nearly enough about. That said, I'm still not totally clear on what "good" could have looked like, here.

Adrienne K makes it pretty clear that this area is pretty much "outsiders stay out" territory, more than once, eg:
In addition are the crew who “would love to know the real history” of these concepts (again, not for you to know)
which is fine, though I can see the net's "mine any culture to tickle our curiosity for a second or two before we meme it and move on brutally" culture reacting badly to the whole idea of cultural privacy (as a glance at Twitter suggests it is).

But if Rowling was to have said "this is a private area, I should steer clear", it would surely have been worse if she'd taken the Frontier Magic approach and erased the Native American cultures entirely.

So is there actually a "better" way she could have done this, or was the project wrong-headed from the start, like a German holocaust comedy?
posted by bonaldi at 6:05 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I saw a really good comment about this on Reddit, of all places. Most of the thread is just as dismissive and awful as you'd expect from Reddit, but this particular comment thread was started by a moderator of a Reddit community for discussion of Native cultures, and it does a good job of laying out all of the issues at hand and explaining exactly what's upsetting people about the stuff that JK is doing.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:14 PM on March 9, 2016 [8 favorites]


One of my closest internet friends is Native American and we know each other due entirely to her brilliant Harry Potter fanfiction. In general she tends to use fanfiction to channel her annoyance to productive ends and part of me is secretly hoping this makes her mad enough that she writes the Real Wizarding History of the United States.

The rest of me is hoping she has too much other stuff going on right now and this news blip completely passes her by so she doesn't waste her energy on getting mad about it. Ugh.
posted by town of cats at 6:16 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ugh, some of the comments on Native Appropriations are just asking my question in increasingly mean ways, and getting cross with them makes the answer obvious to me.

Rowling should have bloody well talked to the people whose culture she was appropriating, to find out exactly what they thought and where she could go. Hell, she's writing in a genre packed full of secret information known only to the privileged, it'd easy enough to draw a veil of mystery over areas where shouldn't tread.
posted by bonaldi at 6:25 PM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


The thing that I think it's important to remember about JK Rowling and the Potterverse, and in paticular, the nerdy love of the Potterverse and what it did for so many of us, is that the best of it and has always been not from JK Rowling.

JK Rowling, flatly, is not a very good author. She took a genre of literature - the wizarding boarding school - and managed a popularly successful series. But it is, by and large, populated by stereotypes, one-dimensional caricatures that are not worthy of the meaning we give them.

I was talking to a friend about some of the characters I love in the series, only to be brought up short by the fact that the characters as I knew them were fundamentally not the characters JK Rowling had written, but their fanon versions - better versions that have come about so often in fanfic that they are accepted as fanfic standards. JK Rowling's Snape is not actually nearly as complex as I thought - but Anubis Ankh's Snape in Pride of Time is, and that is the Snape I was thinking of when I thought of his characterization - not the racist Nice Guy that Rowling writes. Likewise, Hermione in JK Rowling is not nearly the strong, passionate, tough yet funny girl/woman we see in fanon - she's kind of irritating and not written nearly as sensitively as we think she is.

We think of Rowling as writing above her class because we filled in the blank slates of the bones of her stories with something better - and because Harry Potter exploded fanfiction into the rich and wonderful mess it is today. We love the fandom, and so we love Rowling, but it is important to note Rowling is not and never has been deserving of that love.

The 'Hermione is maybe black' thing that Rowling was kind of coy about after the Cursed Child cast a black actress - it is important to remember that is not what she intended when she wrote it. She was happy to capitalize on the good casting choices of someone else and get a reputation as progressive and race conscious, but it is an entirely unearned reputation. The minorities in her stories are shit. They are not nuanced at all and have little behind them other than the fact that they Are A Minority and are kind of background.

She is not good at race and culture. She has never been good at race and culture. It's possibly someday she will be, but to act as though she's somehow betrayed fans by writing stereotypes? She's done nothing but write stereotypes from Day 1.
posted by corb at 6:28 PM on March 9, 2016 [60 favorites]


And because I missed the edit window, link goodness if you would like to read the fanfic I referenced.
posted by corb at 6:35 PM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


Joe in Australia: "... but I do think we have a duty to be careful with the way we talk about the culture of marginalised people, because incorporating it into a fictional world is almost inherently subordinating."

You remind me that it's well past time for someone to do a critical analysis of the appropriation of the term mana from Pacific cultures in just about every RPG from the last 20 years.
posted by barnacles at 6:41 PM on March 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


I saw the "skinwalkers were a thing mundane White people made up to villify Native American wixen" thing as a reflection of how White people tend to assume that indigenous or POC practices are "demonic" or alternatively woobify them (e.g. Kali as either satanic demon or gentle mother Goddess). She could have used a different way to say this though!
A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.
So the legend was not from white people, it was made up by native "medicine men" who didn't actually have any supernatural abilities(!) and were slandering the Wizards who actually did(!). So it implies that some large chunk of the stories around skinwalkers were made up by Native "medicine men" who were frauds who persecuted Real Wizards out of fear. So any "actual magic" that natives did have would appear to be identical with European magic, and their legends are otherwise bunk.

I think it would be roughly as offensive as saying that Jesus was actually a Wizard who tricked a dozen muggles into believing he was God, faked his resurrection and ran away...
posted by BungaDunga at 6:43 PM on March 9, 2016 [23 favorites]


Rowling should have bloody well talked to the people whose culture she was appropriating, to find out exactly what they thought and where she could go.

That’s a key point. The Navajos (many of them at least) didn’t seem to mind when Tony Hillerman incorporated their legends/beliefs into his detective novels – one of the most famous was even titled Skinwalkers. Obviously, when Rowling refers to ‘the Native American community’ as a single entity she is out of her element.
posted by LeLiLo at 6:54 PM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


They can appropriate my butt for biting. I'm fine with that.
posted by Docrailgun at 7:00 PM on March 9, 2016


This is a great post - so well put together. It's a really substantive discussion, it's important, and if you don't have Native Appropriations bookmarked already, you should, because Adrienne Keene is the shit and I can't overstate that. That's all I have to say at the moment and I look forward to more good links and listening.

I know it's offensive to Western mindsets to be told something is private and not for you. One thing I've learned about white/western supremacy is that core to it is the idea that "we are arbiters of all things; everything is fair game for us." Opposing that supremacy means accepting that maybe some things are not for you to discover, discuss and mine. It can feel hard. That's OK.
posted by Miko at 7:02 PM on March 9, 2016 [18 favorites]


JK Rowling, flatly, is not a very good author.

I think she's pretty great if many many people are so obsessed with her universe and characters that they have to write their own stories about them.
posted by edeezy at 7:05 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, w/r/t the comments that she should have at least consulted knowledgeable people in this area: it's a good place for a public humanities maxim "Nothing about me without me."
posted by Miko at 7:06 PM on March 9, 2016 [16 favorites]


You remind me that it's well past time for someone to do a critical analysis of the appropriation of the term mana from Pacific cultures in just about every RPG from the last 20 years.

It could certainly benefit from more attention and expansion, but there's already a good piece on this topic.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:08 PM on March 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


I think she's pretty great if many many people are so obsessed with her universe and characters that they have to write their own stories about them.

That only makes her as good as Stephanie Meyer.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:13 PM on March 9, 2016 [10 favorites]


I think she's pretty great if many many people are so obsessed with her universe and characters that they have to write their own stories about them.

It's interesting. Rowling is excellent in a few areas - imagining detail and creating character - at least certain kinds of character that are easily within her ken. But it's also true that she did all her imagining on the platform of a pre-existing set of literary tropes - English-language youth magic fiction and the boarding-school story. She's rich in detail but a lot of the detail represents fairly small updates/iterations/adapations of concepts from Tolkien, Edward Eager, C. S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Wodehouse and lots of others. Her work asks "what would this magical realm look like played out in a contemporary world?" and she does a great job of describing what that might feel and look like. But I think her work adapts to fanfic so well precisely because it already is fanfic - it's fanfic she has created about the imaginary, magic-driven world already posited by authors who came before her by decades, maybe a century. It's a world that feels familiar because it's already been explored, just not with this tone and voice and sense of character .

I don't mean this to downplay her achievement. Her books are engrossing and well plotted and really worth getting invested in - and I came to them as an adult reader. BUt I would be wary of praising her originality - which is relatively low - above her character sketching, her elaboration of detail and her application-of-conceit skills - which are high. But in the Potter series she is always writing within the conventions of a couple of well-defined genres that predated her contribution.
posted by Miko at 7:15 PM on March 9, 2016 [21 favorites]


Bunga Bunga, I think the No-Maj medicine men thing is referring to white snake oil salesmen, not Native healers or medicine men. I think she's trying to say that white people are the reason behind the persecution of Native wizards, but in doing so she's also saying that white people came up with the idea of skin walkers, which they did not. By incorporating a real, pre-existing Navajo concept into her fantasy narrative without correctly representing it or giving credit to its origins, she's complicit in the ongoing oppression and erasure of First Nation people.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:30 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think she's pretty great if many many people are so obsessed with her universe and characters that they have to write their own stories about them.

Enh, it's my experience as someone who's been on the fic-writing side of fandom for twenty years that the sources that inspire the most fanfiction fall into a sweet spot between "lacking" and "excellent." There's a reason there's a lot more fic about Supernatural than about The Wire. Most long-term fic writers (myself included) have different criteria for a work that inspires fannishness and a work that stands alone as a good piece of art.
posted by northernish at 7:37 PM on March 9, 2016 [13 favorites]


Anyone want to do better with me? We can do a blog about diverse wizarding experiences in North America. I've got the Jewish perspective; would anyone here be interested in creating the history of their ancestors in the Harry Potter universe?
posted by dialMforMara at 7:50 PM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Bunga Bunga, I think the No-Maj medicine men thing is referring to white snake oil salesmen, not Native healers or medicine men.

Yeah, no, I really doubt "medicine men" refers to anything other than, like, medicine men.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:51 PM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


Anyone want to do better with me? We can do a blog about diverse wizarding experiences in North America. I've got the Jewish perspective; would anyone here be interested in creating the history of their ancestors in the Harry Potter universe?

I was born in India, raised in Texas, and am now a Canadian citizen. I'm all about exploring a more diverse wizarding experience!?!
posted by Fizz at 7:56 PM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't have the time to put in, but I've always loved the depictions of spells and sorcery that feature in Huckleberry Finn. Through both his white-Celtic milieu and friendships with African-American slaves, Huck has all of these spells, protections, curses, beliefs about 'haints', and the like. It would make for a great Wizarding guide. Appalachian Folk Magic is a productive search term.
posted by Miko at 7:58 PM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


White snake oil salesmen regularly referred to themselves as medicine men and deliberately co-opted the phrase because of how it was used among Native Americans. They would even trot out Native Americans to promote how "natural" an ointment was, or claim that the recipe was given to them by a specific tribal healer because it invoked mysticism and trust among uneducated prairie folk. Regardless, that line in the Pottermore piece is hella flawed and has a buttload of problems associated with it.
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:02 PM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


In support of Hermione Granger, white snake oil salesmen definitely appropriated notions associated with Native medicine though they had no legitimate claim to be "medicine men." It was a common sales tactic for a snake oil huckster to say they got a particular remedy from a shaman or medicine man or healer, and use a made-up faux-Indian name or a tribe's name to add legitimacy. It was also not that uncommon for such people to dress up in redface, take a faux-Indian name, and pose as a "medicine man" themselves. It's easily found in primary sources. That's probably what Rowling was after with this "No-Maj" crap, but her entire framing of this made-up story is otherwise really harmful, sucking away any benefit there would be in understanding how misapprehensions of Native medicine have been co-opted and used for financial and cultural profit by dominant classes.

It's pretty heartbreaking to see the level of harassment going on about this on Twitter. Rowling fans are not representing themselves well.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on March 9, 2016


It is a real bummer that there aren't more sci-fi and fantasy stories in non-Western settings. Part of the problem is that writing fiction based on a culture that you are not already intimately familiar with is really hard. I've tried my hand at some African and Islamic cultural settings for some sci-fi stories. It is a lot of work to get even very minor details right. This entails many hours of research on top of the already arduous creative task of writing fiction. It's much easier to write about Western characters or create a secondary world that resembles your own culture.

I wish I knew a fix for this. I don't think it should be necessary to completely adhere to historically accurate depictions of every ethnic/cultural group when constructing a secondary world. Most fantasy authors seemingly have no idea how longswords work, for example, and the depiction of "barbarians" in typical fantasy settings reveals an ignorance of the culture of pre-Roman Germanic and Celtic peoples. But clearly Rowling got it wrong, since her world is our own. She has the burden of getting all the details right. She should have either done the work or recognized that this was too hard to get right and kept it to herself.
posted by deathpanels at 8:31 PM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Wow, reading this is scaring me off of reading the actual thing now, because it seems to me that doing this well isn't just possible, but wouldn't be particularly difficult from her perspective, and that the fun of the research would be most of the fun of doing it to begin with. A plethora of different First Peoples with different iconography, followed by Spanish explorers, French, Dutch and English settlers, the African slave trade, Creole and Appalachian and Tejano cultural melting pots, Asian immigration and influence...

This could have been, and I guess could still be, a celebration of the cultures and histories of the entire world as through the lens of North America, which increasingly has and must continue to find a place for all of them. It's such a great opportunity, and the concept of "magic" does indeed seem to exist across all humanity, in amazing culturally-specific ways. Please please please right the ship, Jo.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:33 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


No argument on the base complaint re: portraying marginalized people. Haven't read any Harry Potter, either. Wasn't my thing.

However. This is a thing for me:

JK Rowling, flatly, is not a very good author.
posted by corb

I think she's pretty great if many many people are so obsessed with her universe and characters that they have to write their own stories about them.
That only makes her as good as Stephanie Meyer.
posted by LogicalDash


Since I don't want to encourage anyone to violate Metafilter's "no self-linking" rule: folks, please MeMail me with the titles and/or buy links of the books you have written.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:35 PM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Ok so I am extremely torn about sharing this because it is /hilarious/ and an excellent example of how it is possible to joke about things. I feel like humor is an important tool in combatting ignorance. But ... Just please don't make me regret it, ok?

Tlo'chi'iin News:
Yazzie said, “you give me one of Harry Potter’s finger nails and his magic wand won’t be of any use. And what is this about Native American magic being so complex? It didn’t take us nine or ten movie installments to tell one story about a boy learning how to play with his magic stick. Europeans underestimate their own complexity.”

[tlo'chi'iin is the Navajo word for Onion. This is a satirical piece and you should read it and laugh]
posted by stoneweaver at 8:41 PM on March 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


> However. This is a thing for me:

I don't understand. Is criticism (or praise, presumably) of an author only allowed if one has also written a book?

The no-self-links thing only applies to fpps you make, not to comments you may put in a thread, assuming they are relevant.
posted by rtha at 8:53 PM on March 9, 2016 [19 favorites]


I know it's offensive to Western mindsets to be told something is private and not for you

I found this idea to be the most interesting part of all the linked text I read up there. I can admit I had a visceral reaction of distaste to having someone's personal spiritual taboo applied to me, because I have seen all kinds of kooky nonsense using that kind of argument as a protective barrier.

I also have a negative reaction to the idea of someone asking a question about spiritual practices being a horrible faux pas. It's definitely a cultural difference, and I will say that while I understand how it works in a vague way intellectually, it's hard for me to swallow, and If I'm being honest -- I'm not entirely convinced of it.
posted by smidgen at 8:54 PM on March 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


I don't understand. Is criticism (or praise, presumably) of an author only allowed if one has also written a book?

It certainly carries more weight with me if you can show me that you've done it better yourself. Mileage varies.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:56 PM on March 9, 2016


Just to head it off at the pass, I'm talking about my internal reactions wrt to culture not arguing I should be less sensitive :-)
posted by smidgen at 8:56 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


...the sources that inspire the most fanfiction fall into a sweet spot between "lacking" and "excellent." There's a reason there's a lot more fic about Supernatural than about The Wire.

At the risk of offending people myself, maybe fanfiction is one of the more masturbatory forms of writing? Even more than, you know, writing in general. (There, now everyone's offended.)

What I mean is, it's easy to imagine masturbating while thinking about a shallow, plastic media star or starlet, but when you're thinking about someone you really respect... hmm... difficult.
posted by rokusan at 8:59 PM on March 9, 2016


[insert joke about john carmack here]
posted by smidgen at 9:00 PM on March 9, 2016


scaryblackdeath: "Since I don't want to encourage anyone to violate Metafilter's "no self-linking" rule:"

Self links in comments are fine if you aren't spamming the site with them.
posted by Mitheral at 9:01 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks, Mitheral!

< self promo >
Anyway, I emailed Scaryblackdeath links to my latest novel, Doors (published last month!) since he so kindly asked. As I told him, it's an SF romance about alternate timelines. Think Sliding Doors meets Lathe of Heaven with a Lebanese-American comic artist heroine. Here's a link to my blog with a longer blurb and to-buy links.
< / self promo >

All right. Enough self-promo-y stuff. Re: JKR-- it's disappointing, this is not hugely surprising given her half-baked and lazy descriptions of the magic schools in Africa, South America and Japan. She's rich enough-- can't she hire an intern to help her research stuff? Blah.

Seconding corb's excellent comment.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 9:28 PM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


...purchased immediately.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:31 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


The thing that strikes me about the first installment and today's installment covering the 18th and 19th centuries is the continued to discussion of the non-magical world. There was very little exploration of the Muggle world in the 4,224 pages of the 7 Harry Potter books. Perhaps that's because the reader is assumed to know about that world already. And I remember very little about the history of European wizardry, never mind non-magical European history.

Would people have been hurt or angry if she had a few paragraphs in The Philosopher's Stone on the Spanish Inquisition that explained that it hadn't actually begun as an attempt to brutally police the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity, but was actually an initiative led by a dark wizard named Tomás de Torquemada to rid Spain of Muggle-born wizards?

I suspect there would have been a little fuss. Well, maybe not back then in the first book when so many of us were falling in love with the imaginary world she created for us to enjoy. But if she had decided to write that history now that she is successful, rich, and celebrated? Yup, I suspect there would have been a similar outcry.

And I, like smidgen, feel like we do set up some double-binds when people in the offended culture write things like "I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal."

That feels like: "Don't leave us out of the narrative--don't erase us. And don't ask us about it because it is none of your business. And don't make it up. And don't leave us out."

Uh...ok...well...if I leave it out at least it is just a sin of omission and not commission I guess.

I'm sure I could be missing something here (many somethings), but it seems passive aggressive and self-defeating from my privilege perch up here in the dominant "white" culture built on racism and genocide.
posted by Cassford at 9:32 PM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Would people have been hurt or angry if she had a few paragraphs in The Philosopher's Stone on the Spanish Inquisition that explained that it hadn't actually begun as an attempt to brutally police the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity, but was actually an initiative led by a dark wizard named Tomás de Torquemada to rid Spain of Muggle-born wizards?

So it's really, really clear the Rowling steers clear of actual English religious practice in the Harry Potter books. There's a wedding, but no church, something pretty odd for such an old-fashioned bunch like wizards. There's mention of graveyards and churches in the way that little ancient churches are omnipresent across all of England, but at no point does Rowling poke the hornet's nest that is mixing actual real Catholic or Anglican religious practice into the wizarding world. (at least not that I remember)

And I think it's pretty obvious that she does this for a reason because she knows it will get people up in arms. So she just writes around it and it's fine. Spend all your time detailing magical dinners but skip the dreary weekly trips to the chapel to endure the homily.

The trouble is that she somehow lost this point when writing about other cultures. Who knows why. Well, probably because she's simply not any good at it from the available evidence.

And as an aside to that, while I don't think how Beaubaxtons & Durmstrang were portrayed is nearly as bad as what she's apparently done with First Nations cultures here, it's not like those are examples of tact and cultural inclusion. They're about as ham-fisted a national caricature as you could get. They're not a gross misappropriation of a different culture, but she certainly didn't treat the other white folks with a lot of sensitivity either.
posted by GuyZero at 9:44 PM on March 9, 2016 [14 favorites]


Some non-European HP headcanon from Tumblr.
posted by airmail at 9:59 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm also from the dominant white culture built on racism and genocide and I really, really don't get your criticism, Cassford. The fact is that JKR has already fucked up, and these people are saying, "The harm is done, and I don't owe it to anyone to now break my cultural taboos to explain to you exactly why this was offensive. Use your fucking imagination." JKR had the option to bring people from the many, many indigenous North American cultures into the conversation when she was getting started working on this idea. I'm sure there are people other than me on this thread who have personal friends who would have been beyond thrilled to work with her to come up with a respectful way to portray their tribes' cultures and traditions. And I'm sure in collaboration they would have come up with something new and interesting, and a lot of why I'm upset about all this is that I'm mourning the creative project that might have been, instead of the ignorant Eurocentric bullshit we're apparently going to get instead. Because you know what? I don't trust JKR with the rest of American history either. I don't think she's going to have any more luck doing justice to 1920s New York in the new movies she's writing. She doesn't care about getting it right.

She has a huge megaphone and she can use it for literally anything she wants. And what she uses it for, consistently, over multiple decades, is the most surface-level gloss of stereotypes and cultural appropriation imaginable. That's embarrassing and stupid when the culture you're offending is the French, but we expect that kind of crap from a British author. It's way less excusable when it's a set of cultures whose languages are literally on death's doorstep because the people have been wiped out and subjugated by a colonizing force.

What's the silver lining here? The fanfiction that comes out of this rubbish heap of a canon is going to be fucking glorious. I have been wanting to read about the Potterverse's American wizarding culture for years and I'm so stoked for fandom to take it on and do it right.
posted by town of cats at 10:04 PM on March 9, 2016 [19 favorites]


And as an aside to that, while I don't think how Beauxbatons & Durmstrang were portrayed is nearly as bad as what she's apparently done with First Nations cultures here, it's not like those are examples of tact and cultural inclusion. They're about as ham-fisted a national caricature as you could get. They're not a gross misappropriation of a different culture, but she certainly didn't treat the other white folks with a lot of sensitivity either.

Yep. ("Durmstrang" made my wife crack up.) On the positive side, continental Europe and international diplomacy are portrayed in the Harry Potter world. But they're basically stereotypes.

The difference here is that France and Germany (or, to be more precise, the Central/East European melange represented by Durmstrang) aren't marginalized the way that Native Americans are; navigating around the issues of how to represent Native Americans is much trickier. It's one thing to talk about historical grievances held by goblins, say, or the mistreatment of house-elves, which have obvious analogies, but which don't raise people's blood pressure the way that current, real-life injustices do.

I think Rowling is actually really good at portraying prejudice, and advocating for inclusion. But venturing into Native American and post-colonial/Third World issues (even in a fictional way) is like walking into a minefield.
posted by russilwvong at 10:05 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


That feels like: "Don't leave us out of the narrative--don't erase us. And don't ask us about it because it is none of your business. And don't make it up. And don't leave us out."

So to be a little clearer on my reaction above, and my reaction to this complaint about JK specifically: what drives me nuts is when people throw out criticisms and dismissive commentary that suggests this stuff is easy, because it isn't. This isn't easy at all. It's extremely hard, and in the end, you know you're gonna fuck it up no matter what you do. (Please forgive me for getting a little off the specific topic of JK for a second.)

I'm six books into my writing career, and no, I'm not a big deal. Seven books, really, since the next sci-fi drops as soon as the cover art is done. My books are all UF comedy-smut and sci-fi nonsense lasers, and even so, I care about getting representation and inclusion right. I care a lot about that, and I know I've fucked it up. How could I not fuck it up? So far, I've been really lucky: most of the complaints I've gotten about my portrayals of women, minorities, LGBT, etc have dripped with so much white male privilege that I've taken them as compliments. But I know it's coming. Sooner or later some reader will point out that thing that I fucked up and how it really hurt them, and knowing that is...not pleasant.

The internet is full of articles on "Five Easy Ways to Tell If Your Story Is Sexist" or racist or whatever, and that's important--except that word "easy" gives the wrong impression. Yes, those five ways might be easy to spot, but the writing of such articles always treats it like all this shit should be super obvious to every writer.

The truth is, you can watch for racist/sexist/other-ist tropes and work to avoid them, but often by deliberately avoiding one, you back right up into another. It's a minefield, and it's a layered minefield, because there's race, sex, gender (not the same thing as sex!), class, religion, ableism, history...and you'll never get it all right. Showing a spectrum and intersectionality helps, but the more you include, the more what you're writing grows, and sooner or later you have to pay attention to that word count or that page limit and oh, yeah, didn't you have a plot to get to?

You'll never include enough. Someone is always left out, and if you don't show a spectrum of a given population, then you run the risk of implying that your one representative of X population is your idea of all people of said population. Doesn't matter if you actually know better; if that's all you have in the text, you're done. You're That Author, and you're awful.

The work is worthwhile. It's important. It's necessary. It's the right thing to do. I agree with all that. I only get angry when people act like it's easy.

In JK's case, yes, I'm disappointed in seeing all this. I wouldn't for a second cast doubt on the complaints linked in this post (particularly as I'm not a member of a marginalized population & I haven't experienced this sort of thing.) JK Rowling certainly has far more resources and time to get this sort of thing right than most other authors (or at least right-er), and so far it doesn't look like she made use of that. Also, when you screw it up, you apologize (I take it as a given that I'll have to apologize inevitably), and we haven't seen JK do that yet...though this is still developing and hopefully she's composing that apology and re-thinking how to tackle all this now.

This is all important. No argument. I only ask that people consider that no, this shit isn't easy at all.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:21 PM on March 9, 2016 [14 favorites]


I think about inclusion all the time as well, and I don't think even I would want to take an alternate American history infused with magic, because... ugh. Ugh! I'm trying to imagine A People's History of the United States, but with wizards added, and I'm having a hard time imagining how it WOULDN'T be an appalling trainwreck. Maybe a brilliant author like Guy Gavriel Kay could pull it off, but it looks like Rowling bit off far, far more than she could chew.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 10:34 PM on March 9, 2016


Would people have been hurt or angry if she had a few paragraphs in The Philosopher's Stone on the Spanish Inquisition that explained that it hadn't actually begun as an attempt to brutally police the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity, but was actually an initiative led by a dark wizard named Tomás de Torquemada to rid Spain of Muggle-born wizards?

So I read about 3 pages worth of Harry Potter many years ago (sorry) and haven't seen any of the movies.... But out of curiosity , I browsed the HP wiki and it seems to say that WW2 and to a lesser extent WW1 are mentioned in the books?!?!? And that WW2 is implied to be a big wizard war?!?

Was there any outcry about that?
How was the real life death of millions worldwide including due to genocide handled in the books , if at all ?
posted by Bwithh at 10:37 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


> It certainly carries more weight with me if you can show me that you've done it better yourself. Mileage varies.

I guess it sure does. Writers write for readers, and readers may be positioned to judge whether or not an author has succeeded, even if they themselves have not written a book. Is a lot of this subjective? Of course. But I've written a lot of sentences over the years and can tell a poorly constructed one from an elegant one. I can discern when a plot has huge holes in it without having constructed one from scratch. There are a lot of books I don't like that are still good books, and there are a lot of books I do like in spite of them being deeply flawed, and there are a lot of books that are just crap.

I don't know how many of the authors in the links here in the fpp have written actual novels, but I would hope you would not discount their criticisms if they haven't.
posted by rtha at 10:50 PM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


There's mention of graveyards and churches in the way that little ancient churches are omnipresent across all of England, but at no point does Rowling poke the hornet's nest that is mixing actual real Catholic or Anglican religious practice into the wizarding world. (at least not that I remember)

That's because the UK isn't obsessed with religion like the US is. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to find actually believing in god a little embarrassing.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:50 PM on March 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


So it's really, really clear the Rowling steers clear of actual English religious practice in the Harry Potter books.

I agree with betweenthebars that this is more to do with UK society and culture than a considered decision by Rowling. But it's an interesting point because Rowling writes only what she knows and experiences. She's basically a writer of the Shire, that's what she does best and that is why the first couple of Harry Potter books were the best ones before she expanded her canvas and her ability was stretched thin.

So she writes in a middle class Labour voting British world where personal religion is much more in the background than it is in America, certainly in its books and its popular culture. Where Rowling knows that Britain includes non white people and sincerely wants to include them, so she has Cho Chang and the Patil twins, but the latter are barely cardboard cut outs and the former is given a name which sounds kind of right to a non Chinese speaker but is actually virtually meaningless, like the only English character in a non-English novel being named Jones Datrick. She writes about Native American wizards because she knows that they have been treated poorly by Europeans and would like the wizarding world to be inclusive, perhaps, but doesn't at all go beyond this facile understanding to consider how to write about them. Well meaning, but ultimately rather small, like a writer from Tolkien's Shire who has not really felt a challenge to their assumptions about the world.

Harry Potter is an expression of a particular mindset and set of assumptions which exists in different forms everywhere. It's 'the world as seen from xyz' like those maps of the world as seen from Texas, only Rowling happens to be a literary phenomenon. She's just not a big enough writer to live up to everything others have invested in her world and work through the problems, or to realise that she should question the assumptions of the cosy little world she writes in. She seems to be a nice,rather well meaning person within this context and I imagine that she was upset and horrified at how her Native American magic has been, justifiably, received.
posted by tavegyl at 11:03 PM on March 9, 2016 [20 favorites]


Adrienne K makes it pretty clear that this area is pretty much "outsiders stay out" territory

For the religious stuff, yeah. It's less than 40 years since they stopped being actively denied the right to practice their religions; I really don't see what the big deal is about not stepping on the protected, sacred parts of their religions, especially given how thoroughly White Settlers in the US attempted to destroy and then appropriate those practices and symbols.

There's an awful lot that some people are willing to share, though, and someone with Rowling resources would be able to contact and pay them to teach her about reasonable and respectful ways of representing the very complicated histories of hundreds of tribes on an enormous land mass. Given how hands off Rowling was about Christianity, I don't see why she wouldn't be able to behave similarly toward the religions of the many tribes in North America as well.

In support of Hermione Granger, white snake oil salesmen definitely appropriated notions associated with Native medicine though they had no legitimate claim to be "medicine men."

To expand on this, "medicine man" was an anthropological term (now replaced by "shaman" which is similarly taken from a group of people without their consent), and white people still sell "Native American" religion. One of the more racist sub-categories of New Age Person are obsessed with Lakota spirituality while excluding Lakota people entirely. The whole explosion of "smudging", the commodification of "dream catchers", and the nauseating appropriation of Lakota Eagle Feather Bonnets is part of erasing actual tribal practices and members through re-imagining them as non-existent symbols of purity, spirituality, and peace with the natural world. Rowling is, sadly, expanding on this erasure and mythification, and that sucks.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:16 PM on March 9, 2016 [16 favorites]


I'm trying to imagine A People's History of the United States, but with wizards added, and I'm having a hard time imagining how it WOULDN'T be an appalling trainwreck.

Didn't Card do this a bit?
posted by ODiV at 11:17 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Did he? I tried to read Ender's Game and couldn't get into it. I know that Card's books tend to be considered problematic for a wide variety of reasons...

Oh man, I made the mistake of looking at the comments on the Guardian article. It's like the British version of Reddit, with lots of very thinly veiled racism and complete ignorance of the history of First Nations cultural appropriation and erasure.

*shudders*
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 12:41 AM on March 10, 2016


scaryblackdeath's comment, a hundred times.
posted by JHarris at 12:55 AM on March 10, 2016


The non-response from Rowling herself on this (it's morning in the UK, and she's already tweeted something Harry Potter-related, while completely ignoring the criticism) is all the more maddening because this is not that hard to fix. It's not like she screwed up and now her book is printed and ready and all she can do is apologize (though she hasn't even done that...) or retract every single copy waiting to ship.

This was less than 500 words posted on her fandom playground of a website. (plus a publicly released trailer, which again is no big deal). She could easily take it down. She's got creative control of the medium, no money has changed hands - sure, this was meant to set up the tie-in movie coming out, but that's not for several months yet. So she could take it down.

She could own up to screwing up, hurting people, and continuing a long tradition of white people being (intentionally and slightly less intentionally) shitty to Native American people . Not only has she always had all the resources in the world at her fingertips - she has now made exceedingly well aware of why she should employ them before turning real people into backdrops for her fictional fun. It would take moral fibre to reach out, but it would be the easiest thing in the world - less than 140 characters.

I keep hoping that maybe she will? But she hasn't. And she's had two days of this to act fast and do the right thing, and instead she's choosing to ignore the voices of the community she has hurt, and - through her silence - fight for her right to appropriate others' cultures. That is deeply disappointing, especially because it would take so little effort on her end to start making things right.
posted by harujion at 12:59 AM on March 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


I sometimes feel like these conversations between activists and "normal people". It's not that "normal people" don't think about cultural appropriation at all, it's that they don't know what the hell it is. I think when Rowling wrote Harry Potter she had specific ideas in her head, and the idea of representation probably didn't cross her mind. After all, it's not like the Worst Witch books, which are a good comparator I think, ever got that much attention, and they are quite similar, and actually quite successful!

I don't think that it's not worth engaging with authors of all levels of success on ideas of representation, on appreciating cultures before appropriating them, and all that good stuff, but it doesn't really surprise me at all that Rowling fails. She doesn't engage with these ideas on anything but the barest level, while activists spend a considerable amount of time thinking about them.

I can't speak to how this 500 word snippet is or isn't bad, but I can guess at Rowling's thought process here. I suspect she had some vague background knowedge, skimmed some wikipedia articles maybe, and wrote something which is tonally similar to many of her other stories: look at how she engages with the practice of witch burning, for instance. This is not to necessarily excuse her, it'd be great if she would have tried a bit harder, and not to say that we shouldn't engage with her. But I don't know how I'd react if a 500 word passage I'd written somewhat unthinkingly got such a huge reaction (and, no doubt, really huge for her. As much as all those articles are carefully and respectfully written, we don't see the no doubt thousands of tweets, emails, phone calls she will get from people who are not careful or respectful. Not to mention endless journalists trying to get her to say something stupid so they can crank out another article from it).
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:30 AM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


Didn't Card do this a bit?

Card has other issues, but from my recollection of his (still unfinished?) Alvin Maker series his treatment of Native Americans was considerably less horrible than it might have been. Basically, they were treated badly enough that they retreated across the Mississippi and erected a magical barrier. The USA is one of three (I think) entities on the Eastern Seaboard; the others are a kingdom ruled by the Stuarts and a colony ruled by a republican England. There's a bit of "Indians Living In Harmony With Nature," but ... well, I'm not the right person to say whether it's offensive, but I didn't find it very offensive in itself, considering.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:39 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


I can't wait for JKR to take on the history of magic in the Middle East next - maybe with a special focus on some famous witches and wizards of the Old Testament, as well as the really influential one in the first few decades AD? I'm sure that'll go down splendidly.

(My point being: the fact that that would never fly in Potterverse but it's somehow OK to do that to Native belief systems speaks all the volumes you need.)
posted by sively at 2:30 AM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


Rowling incorporates European mythology, gets it all wrong, turns diverse cultures into stereotypes, and people line up for more. Then she does the same to North America and suddenly people are shocked--shocked--that her work isn't culturally sensitive or well-researched? Just where did the idea that Rowling is a good author come from, anyway? Sure, she's popular, wealthy, and connected, but she couldn't even get her own universe correct (to say nothing of how randomly she integrated it with ours).

I'm not saying her lack of awareness is right. Just the "she should have known better" disappointment above doesn't make sense to me. The details Adrienne K and others highlighted are exactly the details Rowling has never cared about in her writing. What else were fans expecting here?
posted by exact_change at 3:07 AM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


exact_change, I'm really curious to know what in your mind would be the appropriate response then?
posted by sively at 3:21 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


In my mind, a shrug and moving on to better things, but I've clearly never idolized Rowling or her work. I don't expect her to understand any of the criticism she's been given or to use it to produce better stories. This is clearly not my fight though, so no idea.
posted by exact_change at 3:52 AM on March 10, 2016


The details Adrienne K and others highlighted are exactly the details Rowling has never cared about in her writing. What else were fans expecting here?

People were expecting exactly the sort of sensitivity that she does show in her European-based works, it's only that you (and she) don't see it as being sensitive or culturally aware because it's implicitly expected. So like people have pointed out, she doesn't turn Jesus into a wizard, or make the Holocaust Voldemort's doing, or kick any of the other culturally sensitive European areas.

If she had shown similar sensitivity while also doing her usual stereotyping and bastardising of the safer areas of American history, I don't think there'd be nearly the same outcry.
posted by bonaldi at 4:26 AM on March 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


exact_change, well I totally disagree about shrugging and moving on. In my mind it's important that people voice their opinions and criticism - especially people personally hurt by misappropriation, misrepresentation or erasure - even when, in retrospect, there was good reason to suspect that the author isn't particularly good at cultural sensitivity. (Which people have long suspected she isn't.) At least it all contributes to a larger discourse, where people are called out for the hurtful or harmful things they do, and the disenfranchised at least get to speak out, and eventually, hopefully, everyone learns something. And the next generation's JKR may even do her homework better.

I also think there's no reason to mock her readers for "suddenly" being "shocked" by this turn of events. At least in the parts of fandom I'm familiar with, this was something people have been worried about for a while now, and some of their fears just got confirmed.

Personally, I have for many years now fervently wished she had closed the door to the entire Potterverse after publishing the final book, and left the rest for fanfic writers. I mean, I sort of love her, and that's precisely why I wish she wouldn't go bulldozing all over the beautiful garden she herself planted for others to play in.
posted by sively at 4:27 AM on March 10, 2016 [14 favorites]


Some weird posts here.

Rowling has got to be the most widely-read author of the 21st century, and many of her readers are children. She is shaping the perceptions of people who are going to be alive in the 22nd century. If she's spreading ideas that harm or insult already-marginalized people, then of course they should should say something. Why on earth should they shrug and move on? Who exactly said "the remedy for bad speech is to do nothing, because who the fuck do you think you are, and you're stupid for caring anyway"?

And "only published authors can criticize a book" is almost too dumb to respond to, but I will say this. There has been a lot of work done recently exposing inequities in publishing, especially children's book publishing, which make it more difficult for members of marginalized communities to get published. It is not easy for Native American kids' book authors to find publishers, especially if they refuse to tailor their books to the interests and preconceptions of non-Native American readers. So when you imply that only published authors can comment, you largely shut out members of the affected community. That's gross, and I wish you would think before you did it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:34 AM on March 10, 2016 [38 favorites]


sively, I like your "everybody still wins from the discourse, think of the future" answer better than my current high levels of cynicism. Also, apologies for being flippant. I didn't sleep last night, and should've remembered that crankiness + Internet does not a good comment make.
posted by exact_change at 7:20 AM on March 10, 2016


I think it would be roughly as offensive as saying that Jesus was actually a Wizard who tricked a dozen muggles into believing he was God, faked his resurrection and ran away...
That's a pretty good comparison. I would also have suggested (vague spoilers follow):

One of Asimov's most famous short stories, where the universe is cyclic and God is just a computer.

A Clarke novel, where all that "devil" stuff is just nonsense spread by people who couldn't understand transcendence.

Heinlein's Job, where it turns out that Yahweh is again tormenting a faithful follower because He's just kind of an ass.

Star Trek: TNG, where one episode centers around "how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!"


That's the trouble with world-building: if you really want to get into epic detail, then you end up building a world-builder or a lack thereof too.

I bet Pullman is even more annoyed now. "...I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God." Turns out that you just have to be pickier about whose gods you kill.
posted by roystgnr at 7:30 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm not Christian, so it's probably not my place to speak, but I see Pullman as doing something really fundamentally different from what we're talking about with Rowling. Pullman is participating in a conversation. He comes from a Christian background, and he's responding to Christian ideas and texts with which he's really familiar. (I think he spent part of his childhood living with his grandfather, who was a Christian minister.) He presumes that his readers will have access to a lot of different representations of Christianity, and his critique is not the only thing that they'll be exposed to. Actually, I think that Pullman's books are probably a lot richer if you have significant exposure to Christianity before you read them. Putting aside questions of appropriation, Rowling couldn't do that with Native American religious traditions, because she doesn't know or care enough about them to go there. That just seems like a really different thing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:50 AM on March 10, 2016 [19 favorites]


I want to read more about this Jones Datrick fellow.
posted by valkane at 7:57 AM on March 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


please MeMail me with the titles and/or buy links of the books you have written.

That's really a zinger there but you might be surprised at the number of MeFites who have written a book, or who write in other genres for a living. I mean, it's somewhat overdetermined - we're hanging out in a text-based environment. Without thinking hard I can name a solid basketful of MeFite-authored books. I've also written a book and a half (the half with a co-author), though it's non-fiction, not fantasy, and some academic pieces. Am I allowed to critique? And then we have people who teach literature to secondary and university students. But even those who aren't writers or teachers of writing and literature are still permitted to criticize writing. I mean, defintely it's great to speak from your perspective as an author and I'm glad you came back to do so, as you do know from experience some things that non-authors do not. But it's not as great to deny the legitimacy of other perspectives. Audiences are empowered to judge writing, because writing is for audiences.

I had a visceral reaction of distaste to having someone's personal spiritual taboo applied to me, because I have seen all kinds of kooky nonsense using that kind of argument as a protective barrier. I also have a negative reaction to the idea of someone asking a question about spiritual practices being a horrible faux pas. It's definitely a cultural difference, and I will say that while I understand how it works in a vague way intellectually, it's hard for me to swallow, and If I'm being honest -- I'm not entirely convinced of it.

That feels like: "Don't leave us out of the narrative--don't erase us. And don't ask us about it because it is none of your business. And don't make it up. And don't leave us out."

Right; my point is that I think we should all examine this as not just a personal reaction or a reasoned position, but as a component of privilege, because that is exactly what it is. It inherently assumes that an inherited worldview that treats all information as accessible regardless of community membership and legitimized access is superior to the worldviews that do not - to the point of being vital, or necessary. In my observation this is the most pernicious, deepest root of cultural bias: "everything you know and have, I am entitled to know and have as well."

In my mind, a shrug and moving on to better things

Oh man. For Adrienne Keene and other scholars and activists working in the realm of Native representations, there is no "better thing" than discussing the representation of your entire individual life and culture and how that impacts opportunity, perception, and policy. It is not just an important issue, it's the important issue. I can hardly imagine a "better thing" for someone with her training and perspective to be doing. I can understand saying "it's not my fight," but please don't minimize that work as if it's not an important thing to be doing.
posted by Miko at 7:57 AM on March 10, 2016 [11 favorites]


The comparisons to Christianity still fall short as a comparison since it is still a dominating cultural force in one of the most dominating cultural forces in the world. Of course White Christian People would be offended but they would be offended without any fear of further erasure and marginalization.

As a someone who enjoys writing and spends a lot of time writing characters who are not white or heterosexual (in very fantastical settings) I spend a lot of time thinking about how it might feel to be a real-life parallel of the characters I'm writing and trying to do as much research (mostly by reading and listening to people who aren't like me) as I can and ... it's hard work, but totally worthwhile. What I'm trying to say is - I'm an amateur and I spend a lot of time thinking about this. Rowling is a professional and has demonstrated she hasn't thought about it at all. It's massively disappointing.
posted by Tevin at 8:17 AM on March 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


That feels like: "Don't leave us out of the narrative--don't erase us. And don't ask us about it because it is none of your business. And don't make it up. And don't leave us out."

There is an actual narrative (both historic and present-day) of actual people with actual living beliefs that deserves and needs telling. That narrative is comprised of many, many stories. When we tell those stories — or when we tell fictional stories that derive from that narrative — they need to be told in a way that does justice to the reality of that narrative.

No one is saying "don't ask us about it." Quite the contrary. Dr. Keene, who makes a conscious "ethnographic refusal," also specifically refers interested writers to a colleague who consults on these matters.

I think the analogy of "Wizard Jesus tricked a dozen muggles" is somewhat helpful here. Imagine writing the "Wizard Jesus" story, and then consulting with a Christian on how to make it respectful. It's perfectly reasonable for the consultant to respond, "This concept fundamentally misrepresents my beliefs. If you don't already understand why that is, I have to assume that the more you learn, the more you'll get wrong."

A few years ago I met a white, retired, rich guy in a campground. He told me about the "historical coming-of-age novel" he had written about a Paiute teenage boy. In his telling, he described the main character's grandmother as "an old squaw" and mentioned that he hoped the book would "help Indians regain their dignity."

JK Rowling reminded me of this guy. Until she makes some visible and genuine effort to understand the criticism, no amount of explaining skinwalkers is going to improve the situation.
posted by compartment at 8:18 AM on March 10, 2016 [7 favorites]


Let me also add that I am in Northern Arizona and I would very much like to meet up with other interested Mefites to discuss these issues in person. I'm a hiking guide, and a lot of the questions I get from clients overlap with what we're talking about in this thread. Answering those questions with respect and appropriate context is important to me. If there's any interest at all I would be happy to set up a regional IRL meetup.
posted by compartment at 8:46 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


I would really like to know of any instances of JK Rowling showing cultural sensitivity in anything but a negative space. I just don't buy this "she was culturally sensitive by not making Jesus a wizard", because JK Rowling has never really filled out wizarding history well enough for it to line up with anything. I think this is much more likely to have come about through laziness and a desire to have a truck full of money backed up to her castle to pay for maintenance costs.

It doesn't mean it can't be criticized, but it does mean the critiques are trying to ask Rowling to do a thing she has never, to my eye, done before, and so may be unsuccessful simply because Rowling doesn't work with research when she writes.

With that in mind, I don't know what an equitable solution would be. My suggestion would be a big flaming disclaimer in the front page of the book, where dedications normally go, saying "These works are works of fiction, and in no way are an accurate representation of actual Native American or other spiritual beliefs. For more on those, check out (insert native website here)." Because that is an accommodation I think it might be possible to push Rowling to, where the other I think is doomed to go nowhere.
posted by corb at 9:01 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


That's really a zinger there but you might be surprised at the number of MeFites who have written a book, or who write in other genres for a living.

I'm aware, and I buy them all the time. You're right in that it's a zinger, and it was also flippant and came out of a place of frustration. I could have expressed my thoughts more fully from the beginning, and not simply thrown out something that might shut people down, and for that, I apologize. (Note that point in my longer comment about inevitably apologizing? Turns out...)

I've also written a book and a half (the half with a co-author), though it's non-fiction, not fantasy, and some academic pieces. Am I allowed to critique? And then we have people who teach literature to secondary and university students. But even those who aren't writers or teachers of writing and literature are still permitted to criticize writing. I mean, defintely it's great to speak from your perspective as an author and I'm glad you came back to do so, as you do know from experience some things that non-authors do not. But it's not as great to deny the legitimacy of other perspectives. Audiences are empowered to judge writing, because writing is for audiences.


Sure. Everyone's allowed to criticize. I never said they aren't, and I'm certainly not the great arbiter of such things regardless.
I don't think I denied anyone's legitimacy so much as speaking from my own perspective (as everyone else does), and if I did deny that legitimacy, I apologize.

That said: are critics above critique? Are they above reproach? I'm seeing thoughtful criticism in a lot of these comments. I'm also seeing plain old "JK sucks," which isn't terribly helpful or insightful. That's the kind of shit you learn to ignore as an author, 'cause you're always going to get that. And that sort of thing is absolutely dismissive, because it completely ignores the level of thoughtful work involved in writing a book, let alone a book that is so influential. It's one thing to say something isn't for you; it's another entirely to simply say a creator sucks. That's a lesson that didn't really sink in for me until I got serious about writing myself.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:16 AM on March 10, 2016


So today is Lupin's birthday, so Rowling released another new piece of writing on Pottermore that's just about him. And it is so, so different than the shit she's putting out for Fantastic Beasts. It rings true. By contrast, the latest bit about Dorcas Whatsherface and the Rappaport decree feels as tacky as the epilogue in Deathly Hallows. What entity on her team is allowing this crap to go through?
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:00 AM on March 10, 2016


See, that shit I also find insincere. "I used Remus as a standin for AIDS/HIV." Yes, you're saying this now that you are successful and can say anything. But just like Dumbledore being gay, where is the textual evidence you were putting that in the story before you wanted to get gold star progressive awards?
posted by corb at 10:07 AM on March 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


It does look like she's doing a lot of socially conscious ret-conning after the (mostly) well-received reveal that Dumbledore was (implicitly, vaguely) gay.

Next it's going to be how Death Eaters in OOTP is about police brutality.
posted by Tevin at 10:14 AM on March 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


That's fair, Corb. I thought perhaps she had drawn the parallel as early as 2006, when Deathly Hallows hadn't been released yet, but it would appear that she only started talking about in 2010-2012 (particularly during the Rowling vs HP Lexicon case).
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:15 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Re: Death Eaters

Pretty sure she's mentioned a few times that they were modeled after the KKK, Gestapo, and similar groups.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:18 AM on March 10, 2016


where is the textual evidence you were putting that in the story before you wanted to get gold star progressive awards?

Right, because there's no chance that she grew as an author as her work progressed, is there? No reason to believe these opportunities only became obvious to her after she'd already gotten started?

Personal growth is a thing that happens. Not everyone is a fully-formed progressive when they take their first steps into the world.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:30 AM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


Right! That's why I'm saying it would be ret-conning the meaning to be a more contemporary issue.

I dunno, I admit I'm feeling cynical. Like Sively said above I wish more and more like she had left well enough alone. It was more fun to imagine my own additional Potterverse stories and wonder "what if" instead of getting disappointing follow ups.
posted by Tevin at 10:31 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm honestly sceptical of the response that it's a Native American thing to have community-based religions. It's a particularly Protestant (perhaps even Church of England if we're talking about English authors) ethnocentrism that everything needs to be open in the vernacular for anyone to adopt as a matter of conscience. Community-based and initiatory religions are not unheard of in European culture, and I don't see that the problems of understanding them are that alien.

I don't think that's it's uniquely Dine or Lakota to say that to understand the religion requires understanding the lived experience of a marginalized community that has experienced genocide. Although the near totality of the physical and cultural genocide does color problems of representation and commercialization. Namedropping Native American ideas to give your fiction some credibility happens in the same context as the massive commercialization of "Braves" and "R**s***.

There are a lot of brilliant authors doing some great things with LGBT people in Fantasy and YA right now. Bujold just published a novel (alas, not her best) with a bisexual male co-protagonist, which is very important if you understand how bisexuality has been treated in fiction. I think Rowling should probably develop more new and brilliant work, and use twitter a bit less to tell us why her old work is new and brilliant if we look at the subtext.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:53 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Right, because there's no chance that she grew as an author as her work progressed, is there? No reason to believe these opportunities only became obvious to her after she'd already gotten started?

I have zero beef with people who come to progressivism on social issues late in life, and change how they are writing in the future to reflect their new ideas. I have enormous beef with people who come to progressivism late in life and retcon all their previous work such that they have always been down with progressivism, it's just that everyone happened not to catch their magical vague progressive insertion.
posted by corb at 11:23 AM on March 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


There are a lot of brilliant authors doing some great things with LGBT people in Fantasy and YA right now.

TEAM RONAN LYNCH 4 EVAH
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:50 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Team Jonesmione Forever
posted by Rock Steady at 12:08 PM on March 10, 2016


I'm honestly sceptical of the response that it's a Native American thing to have community-based religions

I'm not asserting it's only a Native American thing (though it is a Native American thing). There are certainly notions in Catholicism and Mormonism (just to name a couple of obvious ones) that even garden-variety adherents are not permitted to know, let alone outsiders. It's just a particularly sensitive issue for Native religions because of wholesale and continuing efforts to completely stamp them out and how that has been attached to genocidal campaigns for hundreds of years.
posted by Miko at 2:47 PM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I bet Pullman is even more annoyed now. "...I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God." Turns out that you just have to be pickier about whose gods you kill.

Some Christians raised a certain amount of hell over his books. But, he's obviously criticizing the Catholic church, and doing it very intentionally. The whole thing is Paradise Lost! He's writing it as an insider, or at least someone who's very familiar with the culture and practice of a certain type of Christianity.

So I read about 3 pages worth of Harry Potter many years ago (sorry) and haven't seen any of the movies.... But out of curiosity , I browsed the HP wiki and it seems to say that WW2 and to a lesser extent WW1 are mentioned in the books?!?!? And that WW2 is implied to be a big wizard war?!?
Was there any outcry about that?
How was the real life death of millions worldwide including due to genocide handled in the books , if at all ?


The Wizarding War paralleled WWII; there was more or less a German Wizard Hitler. The real WWII actually happened; but there was a hidden Wizardy war that happened, too. The genocide isn't mentioned explicitly at all; British wizards are shockingly insular, and to the extent that they care, they care about the wizards that Wizard Hitler killed. It's all kept vague enough that I don't think anyone would have cause to complain.

(cstross makes more mention of WWII than JKR, he has Hitler using the death camps to power occult invocations of chthonic powers, which... is juuust on the edge of being iffy, imho)

Now I'm trying to imagine what JKR would make of the Mormons and... I shudder slightly. The Mormons were actually a group of persecuted Wizards? The golden plates were part of a spell? It would go down spectacularly badly...
posted by BungaDunga at 2:48 PM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm not asserting it's only a Native American thing (though it is a Native American thing).

I wasn't mentioning anyone in particular, and I probably should have made it clearer that I'm skeptical that it's just a Native American thing, which is often the claim made whenever issues such as pop-culture translation or repatriation of remains and artifacts are at stake. Usually the suggestion is that the conflict develops because Native American groups are just so different and out of touch with the dominant zeitgeist of freedom of information without legal or cultural borders. And I don't see what's at stake here as all that fundamentally different from, for example, the cultural theft of Klimt to support an Austrian nationalist agenda.

Beyond initiatory mysteries, I think a fair chunk of what goes on in religion is what we call tacit or contextual knowledge. The only way to understand what happens on a cultural or experiential level is to set your ass in the pew and participate so to speak. I don't know that the concept of a "Skin Walker" is particularly occult, but it's likely a concept that doesn't translate well into contemporary fantasy fiction without some cultural background. If you walk down the genre fic aisle you'll see at least one series making money using the concept as window dressing.

Fantasy IMO works because it recontextualizes literary traditions with conflicts. Having an intimate understanding of both the tradition and conflict strikes me as fairly important.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:29 PM on March 10, 2016


I don't see what's at stake here as all that fundamentally different from, for example, the cultural theft of Klimt to support an Austrian nationalist agenda.

I think it's pretty hard to draw these kinds of equivalencies and derive any real meaning or best practice from them. Generally the ethics of appropriation are situational; that allows it to work in a much more finely calibrated way, because you avoid simplistic "good for the goose, good for the gander" arguments. Also, different communities have different ideas and preferences about what the central problems are with appropriations, and what reasonable solutions might look like. So it becomes impossible to create a standard that is both universal and specific.
posted by Miko at 9:43 PM on March 10, 2016


The mouth of this funnel is wide but the spout is so narrow (many places, not just here). At the beginning of the discussion are profound insights for most everyone. At the end it's down to minutiae about who has standing to comment on what. It would be fantastic to open the funnel back up and reiterate the important things so that we remember them once this tempest subsides: there are cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere which we should all listen to if we haven't already. That's true for other parts of the world, too. Also, don't write what you don't know.
posted by SakuraK at 12:52 AM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty boggled at holding holding up Guy Kay as a good example. I bailed out from Under Heaven because of the incredibly annoying Orientalism.
posted by tavella at 5:35 AM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Miko: The sentence you quoted doesn't draw an equivalence it draws a similarity (which would have been clear if you were not in the habit of quoting stuff out of context). The point of which is to express skepticism regarding the utter incomprehensibility of Native American views regarding appropriation and representation.

That doesn't mean that all cases are equal. It does mean that people like Dr. Keene shouldn't be considered marginal outsiders within the larger discourse regarding appropriation and repatriation in the humanities.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:05 AM on March 11, 2016


Dr. Keene shouldn't be considered marginal outsiders within the larger discourse regarding appropriation and repatriation in the humanities.

Well, she is not a a marginal outsider, so I don't know that that needs to be asserted.

I'm sorry, I'm still unclear as to what your central point is. Yes, there is an international discussion about cultural patrimony, appropriation, representation, and repatriation associated with the general human rights and potential movement of the past 50 years or so. One example of that discussion is the discourse on conditions surrounding various Native representations. One specific example of that discussion is the misrepresentation of a particular Navajo tradition in Rowling's work. The note I wanted to make in working through these issues, is that it is rarely enlightening, in specific, to compare something like WWII looting to the appropriation of a Navajo spiritual entity, even though, yes, they're both part of a vast international discussion and may grow from similar impulses to cultural hegemony. The "similarity" you're arguing for is at a fairly high conceptual level and that means it's necessarily removed from particulars. Once you step into the detail of repatriation issues, to pick just one component of the discussion, it is immediately clear that the legal, social, economic, and personal contexts are distinct and rarely subject to the same set of simple rules. You may not intend an equivalence, but setting them side-by-side is inevitably reductive of the particular issues.

I don't know that the concept of a "Skin Walker" is particularly occult, but it's likely a concept that doesn't translate well into contemporary fantasy fiction without some cultural background.

I think the issue under consideration is whether it should translate into contemporary fantasy fiction at all. Dr. Keene argues: "the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that....What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all."

Navajo people, at least those whose words we're reading here and who hold themselves accountable to a wide Navajo community, are saying it is private and not to be shared. So it doesn't matter what you [or any other outsiders] think you know or might judge about how protected ("occult") the concept of Skinwalkers is or should be; what we're hearing is that you don't know, and that pushing to know is a culturally violent act.
posted by Miko at 8:08 AM on March 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure I can buy into the idea that trying to learn what is secret is a culturally violent act. That is a protected status that we grant to no religion, even previously persecuted or currently persecuted ones. Mormons and Scientologists both have things that are private to them, but that doesn't stop people from trying to find out and broadcast the truth or their perception of the truth.

JK Rowling is shit at culture, but that doesn't automatically make Adrienne K. right.
posted by corb at 9:06 AM on March 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think drawing in modern beliefs like Scientology and Mormonism is rather missing the point? It's the same as with Christianity in the discussion above - short history aside (as that would be quite a derail), they are predominantly white, and their followers have never been the target of intentional genocide and serious attempts at erasing their culture. I'm not sure it's possible for anyone to be culturally violent against them, because those churches are made up out of people who are in the cultural majority in every other way.

And hey, if JK Rowling disparaged them, I'm sure members of those communities could let us know how they feel (or, in the case of one of them, just sue her for all she's worth), and we could have a discussion about that. In the meantime, I feel it's really weird to imply that someone who is Native American (and has a PhD in Native American studies) is wrong when she states what her culture's view on the matter is.
posted by harujion at 9:44 AM on March 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm not Christian, so it's probably not my place to speak, but I see Pullman as doing something really fundamentally different from what we're talking about with Rowling. Pullman is participating in a conversation. He comes from a Christian background, and he's responding to Christian ideas and texts with which he's really familiar.

Rather than his use of Christianity, I'd say the thing most similar to what JK Rowling is doing here is what Philip Pullman did with his representations of Roma/Traveller cultures in his books. And which again was something he seems to have done which much more thought, care, empathy and purpose.
posted by dng at 9:59 AM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


That is a protected status that we grant to no religion, even previously persecuted or currently persecuted ones.

Actually, we (as in the US government) do grant protected status to secrets in Native American religions, as a matter of law and regulation. Federal land managers are obligated to consult with Native American tribes regarding projects and management policies on federal land. Tribal leaders and elders can and do provide information about tribal resources that may be affected by federal activity. Those tribal resources can be physical things, like grasses used for traditional basketry, protected treaty rights like access to traditional fishing locations, or undefined places/resources of a sacred nature.

The federal agency can ask for more information about such sacred sites, but the tribe is under no obligation to provide that information (although it may complicate federal decision-making). Likewise, if the tribe does provide confidential information regarding burial sites or other types of sacred sites, the federal agency is obligated to protect that information. In fact, the agency should not ask for confidential information unless it can protect it -- which may mean never writing it down, or making sure that it is filed/coded in such a way to exempt it from FOIA requests.

Secrecy can be a fundamental element of what makes something sacred: think of the Eleusinian Mysteries, or in a more modern sense, the higher ranks in Scientology. Breaking open something sacred & secret for anything less than a fundamental and vital purpose could be a violation of the First Amendment, because it would interfere with the practitioners' free exercise of their religion.
posted by suelac at 10:03 AM on March 11, 2016 [6 favorites]


Miko: No, you're just being argumentative for the sake of argument. My point has been clearly stated multiple times, as was my agreement that context and specifics do matter.

But, I'm an old-fashioned SJW, which means that I can walk and chew gum, compare and contrast, and talk about a subject from multiple dimensions without obviating the other perspectives. The question of why people like Keene are considered "oversensitive" while Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles are "artists" (mentioned because they just hit my inbox with an update) begs to be considered. I see a double-standard in how Dine cultural heritage is being discussed this week, and we can talk about how that double standard is in evidence without without denying that the specifics are, in specific, specific.

Speaking of context and specifics. It might be less argumentative if you bothered to read, or at least quote things in context. My discussion of occult (requiring initiation) vs. tacit (requiring participation) knowledge was to make the point that even tacit knowledge shouldn't be shared without a great deal of ethnographic understanding, sensitivity, and permission from the groups in question.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2016


To grind the axe still further:

There are certainly notions in Catholicism and Mormonism (just to name a couple of obvious ones) that even garden-variety adherents are not permitted to know, let alone outsiders.

I think it's difficult to ethically discuss even the public doctrines and rituals of mainstream religions (and atheism) absent participation. Even "public" discourse is intertextual in ways that can't be fully decoded (or worse misinterpreted) without participation.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:08 AM on March 11, 2016


There are certainly notions in Catholicism and Mormonism (just to name a couple of obvious ones) that even garden-variety adherents are not permitted to know

Er... Mormonism maybe, but Catholicism? Care to elaborate?
posted by Justinian at 2:58 PM on March 11, 2016


My point has been clearly stated multiple times

You and I have a different definition of "clear." Your use of "occult" struck me as idiosyncratic that I looked it up just to make sure, and and yes, it seems to have shadings for you; you're using the word in a particular way, not the commonest usage. You also seem to have an idiosyncratic definition of "tacit." Using these terms without providing your idiosyncratic or cant gloss on them makes your communications much harder to parse, especially in a lay environment. I can see that you love critical theory jargon, but I am not trying to lob an insult when I suggest that it is working against your communication of a coherent point.

double standard

Who is holding the double standard? As far as I can see, Keene and the artists are making cimilar kinds of commentaries in different realms of endeavor. Those who oppose Keene would presumably oppose the repatriation of Egyptian sculpture, as well. I don't know because I don't know anyone who believes differently, and I don't know who you are specifically talking about; you've articulated an argument that there is a double standard, but I am not sure that I agree because I can't see an example of a double standard. So, if you'd like to convince us that there is a double standard, perhaps you can provide an example. Also, there are a number of Native American artists who commentaries similar to the artists you've linked to, and are still called "artists" - James Luna and David Bradley come immediately to mind. Finally, the bust of Nefertiti is arguably cultural property, but does not seem to be an object that Egyptian cultural representatives have asked not to be displayed, so it is not analogous to the notion of skinwalkers.
posted by Miko at 3:31 PM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Miko: The mass media habitually uses anthropological language to discuss Native American concerns. That language is rarely used in talking about other groups with similar concerns. Part of the double standard I'm objecting to that Egyptian antiquities are a matter of diplomacy, Jewish art a matter of international law, but Native American representation is a "taboo violation." Taboos were violated all around, but that's not the only reason we consider culture theft important.

As for the rest, you're just being argumentative. The definitions for those terms were given adjacent to the text you quoted. My standards regarding right speech about religion likely exceed your own. And I'm not interested in trivial bickering about why we agree with Dr. Keene.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:55 PM on March 11, 2016


And if you don't see a double-standard in how Keene is treated? Great. You're probably reading better media and discussion sources than I am this week.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:04 PM on March 11, 2016


"I think drawing in modern beliefs like Scientology and Mormonism is rather missing the point? It's the same as with Christianity in the discussion above - short history aside (as that would be quite a derail), they are predominantly white, and their followers have never been the target of intentional genocide and serious attempts at erasing their culture. I'm not sure it's possible for anyone to be culturally violent against them, because those churches are made up out of people who are in the cultural majority in every other way. "

To be fair, in parts of Daesh-controlled Iraq and Syria, there are Christian groups (along with others, including Sunni, Yazidi, etc.) being intentionally targeted for genocide right now.
posted by klangklangston at 1:21 AM on March 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sure, but that does not represent an existential threat to the Christian religion itself. Maybe to idiosyncratic beliefs of specific sects in those areas being targeted, but Christianity itself will go on, and so will the majority of the beliefs held by the people under threat of genocide.

The genocide of the Navaho people almost did and may yet truly wipe the Navaho religion from the face of the earth.

It's a totally different scale.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:20 AM on March 12, 2016


"Modern" is a problem term that can't be taken superficially in this discussion.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:51 AM on March 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


The definitions for those terms were given adjacent to the text you quoted.

The second time, yes.

The mass media habitually uses anthropological language to discuss Native American concerns. That language is rarely used in talking about other groups with similar concerns. Part of the double standard I'm objecting to that Egyptian antiquities are a matter of diplomacy, Jewish art a matter of international law, but Native American representation is a "taboo violation."

Ah, OK. Thank you for calling that out clearly. It's absolutely true - Native concerns about cultural property tend to get essentialized in the mass media, reducing them to exoticized religious caricatures, contributing to shallow narratives about Native religions and minimizing the role of law.

One confounding effect w/r/t Jewish and Egyptian material and other non-Native cultural material is the patchwork of international law and precedent that offers mechanisms for seeking redress. Once those are in place, that does tend to shift discussion to a platform of legal negotiation and intergovernmental relations, simply because formal mechanisms now exist to broker disagreement. The state of affairs for the international repatriation of indigenous objects is much less well developed. For a detailed view of the current standing of indigenous international repatriation, check out the International Repatriation blog and download a PDF copy of "What Is International Repatriation?" on the right-hand tab. It's a book-length summary of the history of the issue and an excellent primer on how these issues are currently working their way through international institutions. The AAIA is also taking leadership on extending protections internationally. Until some of the legal asymmetries are eliminated and the body of cultural-property law becomes more settled, mainstream media will likely continue to revert to language that advances moral and ethical issues above legal ones, and communicates moral and ethical arguments in essentializing religious terms rather than the terms they might apply to Western religions. This is why, for instance, the recent recovery of Hopi objects offered at auction in France tended to emphasize claims of religious import and cultural centrality - because what legal tools were available were insufficient to base a repatriation argument upon. Every avenue to stretch case law to cover the issue, or apply international law or diplomacy, came up against French business law, and that was that. What was left to discuss was the purely ethical argument about the sacred nature of the objects.

I also think it's tricky to compare art - painting, statuary - with objects that are central to religious observance or considered to be alive. There are good arguments to repatriate cultural property that has little centrality to religious observance, like a Klimt. But when it comes to religious and funerary objects, there is additional import. making direct comparisons weaker. Better analogues to Native religious objects might be other objects often repatriated, such as scrolls, Torah mantles, or Buddhist scroll paintings.

And if you don't see a double-standard in how Keene is treated? Great. You're probably reading better media and discussion sources than I am this week.

Well, maybe. I get much of my news about issues like this from Native voices, through social media and friends who are active in these issues, or through channels the museum field uses to communicate about the constantly iterating world of repatriation. Now that I understand you're talking about how these issues are represented in the mainstream, I agree that we're living in a time when awareness is really shifting. There is a tremendous amount of unconscious bias in media and popular culture, though over the past decade that has begun to improve, largely through the work of indigenous activists. I'm certainly frustrated when I see bias expressed toward people speaking out; I think you might be surprised that there is also bias expressed against Jewish and Egyptian (or whomever) activists who stick their necks out, too (since the possible technological deception of the Nefertiti artists are now being called into question, you can see it on Twitter, where the narrative has determined it is a "hoax'"; also check out the comment here "By all means, let's repatriate art and artifacts so their home populations can blow them up as idolatrous, burn them in bonfires, or loot them to sell back to us;" "best it stay in Germany lest rampant islam take over the area and its destroyed by zealot barbarians") but there is so much intersectionality that each form is somewhat distinct. But you're right that I pay less attention to mainstream news reports and more to community- and museum-specific discussions.
posted by Miko at 10:39 AM on March 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


their followers have never been the target of intentional genocide and serious attempts at erasing their culture

I am no fan of Mormons, but they do have a history of persecution (as well as a history of being persecutors). When I visited the temple in SLC a few years ago, to enter I had to wade through a cordon of red-faced, screaming anti-Mormon protestors. Apparently, they're there every day. There is a reason the promised land was located in a desert no other settlers wanted.
posted by Miko at 10:41 AM on March 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oops, I forgot to add the link to the International [Indigenous] Repatriation blog
posted by Miko at 11:01 AM on March 12, 2016


i will just say this in her favour, that from the UK the USA is further than Africa, Russia etc, and almost mentally as far (if you don't travel, which you don't if you're poor, as she was). I know it is possible to research everything now on the internet and that whatever you write is read around the world, but when we were young (i am older than her by a decade) nothing you wrote was read outside your country and you weren't aware of outside your country, it was far far away. The Iron Curtain made east Germany an exotic country at the extent that North Korea is now (minus the dictator - it was dictatorial, but didn't have one dictator, just a party/system). Now it's somewhere you travel to with no more security & passport checks than you do within your own country (UK) and no bigger time difference. I know it's changed, i know. But you keep returning to the assumptions that were facts for the first decades of your life. To young people, it's like "how could you not know?" but to old people, these were facts and sometime when you weren't looking they changed into gone, dead, which makes them now assumptions, but you didn't know or notice and you act on them. One i've noticed even in myself and a lot in others my age is tendency to ask others things not look it up on the internet, and to believe the answer. Once that was your only option, short of buying a book on the subject and how would you find out what books there were on the subject? Except going to the library. I'm just saying that once, "foreign" didn't mean, "in another country, reading this as i type it," it meant, "in another place far away that takes a lot of money and trouble to get to where everyone is very different and won't even have heard of your country maybe certainly won't have read anything you wrote". It wasn't just that you didn't have to care about other people's feelings, or that they didn't come into it, but that you were other, objects, far different, not connected, to each other: not through ill will, but through fact. For instance, if you went abroad, your information was 1) things people had told you and 2) one or max two guidebooks that you had bought. You found out what it was like and where everything was when you got there, by spending days looking for it and getting lost, in part because every guide book was quite out of date (think of the process of getting a book published). "Foreign" meant "you have to save up, plan & go over there, and find it, on foot, and try to communicate with it using a dictionary if you bought one, otherwise failing badly" (few foreigners then spoke much english). It didn't mean "the person you are chatting to on an internet forum". It's not necessarily a lack of care for the other person's feelings, but an inability to comprehend, or to remember although you were told and reverting to your "knowledge" that is now outdated, that the "other person" isn't someone you read about on wikipedia but sitting listening to you. Magic in north america and the Viking sagas are equally foreign to me, nobody worries about the feelings of the subjects of the viking sagas, which are long gone and long dead, or objects to my treating them as "foreign" in this way, but once, the whole world, north america included, especially the native culture, which was only represented over here as part of cowboy & indian films and that was in my grandparents' time, long over, was as foreign, inanimate, not present, not sentient, it was object, not subject, not because of racism, but because impossibility of communication, scarce and thirdhand information, total distance, rendered it such. I do hope that makes sense. Racism is when you do that to someone who is present is what i'm saying, treating as objects that which is in your world isn't, not the ideal way to say it but i'm lost for accurate words, and anyone our age can fall into that without remembering it's changed easily, i think
posted by maiamaia at 5:18 AM on March 13, 2016


n b i haven't read any of her stuff, as i was too old when it came out and i don't like kids' books, except i did read one by that Swedish guy who wrote detective stories on telly, famous guy, called pictures in the fire? and it was good, biography of an african girl he met. But not read an jk rowling, just biased in her favour cos she's the only rich british person who actually pays taxes
posted by maiamaia at 5:22 AM on March 13, 2016


maiamaia: All of this material around North American wizardry is written very recently, where J.K. Rowling has tons of access to travel and research and resources. "Oh it's too far~~~" is not an acceptable excuse.

There's plenty of multicultural Potterverse writing out there, come join us.

Lupin as a representation of HIV/AIDS has been around for a long time, since the books were first in print. Similarly, Dementors as a representation of depression.
posted by divabat at 6:45 AM on March 13, 2016


I'm a crank on the subject of literary world-building as a project, largely because the diversity of human experience is too vast for anyone to reasonably cover it all. Few books actually do, they cover those parts that are relevant to advancing the story and leave the rest unacknowledged. And it's not like anyone really thinks Shakespeare's stories suffer for not understanding much of the world beyond London, or Tolkien's stories suffer for giving us heavily romanticized fake medieval literature translated by fallible Hobbits, scribes of Gondor, and himself. I'm starting to prefer fantasy fiction that does a few things exceptionally well, with open spaces for the reader's imagination to fill in background details.

I suspect a reasonable alternative to the quixotic and arguably irresponsible task of being a know-it-all fantasy writer, is to become the curator of a shared universe. Of course, as curator you'd have to pick your co-authors carefully, because published fantasy authors are routinely bad in dealing with certain areas of history.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:18 AM on March 13, 2016


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