Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cultural Appropriation

It looks like Ms. Rowling is going to need some beta readers.

Recently she came up with some glimpses of a new Potter tale set in North America, and while doing that she managed to offend Native Americans.  Here’s Dr. Adrienne Keene’s account of both Ms. Rowling’s material and her own reaction.

For starters, I’m thrilled that Ms. Rowling is returning to kidfic. I haven’t read her adult books because I heard they were mysteries, not my favorite genre. Like many people, I’m a Harry Potter fan, in fact I carry the entire series around with me on my phone. Since I’m kind of a folklore nerd myself, I was well aware she was borrowing her creatures from a variety of European cultures, Greek centaurs and Scottish Banshees alongside mythical British creatures. European appropriation is fair game, to some extent.

I’m going to move briefly to the subject of pixies and menehunes. Both are rumored to be small, mischievous humanoids with magical propensities who are susceptible to being bribed with food (from Wales and Hawai’i, respectively – the rumor is that they split up the English language, with most of the vowels going to the Hawai’ians and most of the consonants going to the Welsh).

I saw nothing about it in the Wikipedia entry and assume the theory must have been overruled by historians, but I recall reading a piece about how possibly the pixies were actually the picts, small people overrun by my hulking Celt ancestors many centuries ago. I have also read speculation about menehunes actually reflecting legends about the people from the Marquesas who settled Hawai’i prior to being overrun by the next wave of immigrants from Tahiti.

Cute, roly poly midgets that love dessert – cute!  Beleagured original inhabitants (tiny due to malnutrition) hunkering in the hills, conducting late night guerilla raids in the hopes of stealing back some of the food that was originally theirs but now rests in the larders of those irritating giants who sailed up one day, murdered most of the local people and declared themselves conquerors – not as cute.  Horrifying, actually.  In a nutshell, that’s what appropriation is about.  Adding insult to injury. Reducing their history to kiddie tales about funny little men desperate enough to, say, perform laborious cobbler work throughout the night in exchange for a few crappy bowls of bread and milk. 

Part of this process involves reducing a conquered peoples’ religious practices to magic, and their gods to pesky malevolent spirits, or demons (see the works of H.P. Lovecraft, among others).  I’m praying for rain, you’re chanting a heathen incantation to the rain spirit. I’m asking the Lord to bless my marriage, you’re performing a fertility rite. My crucifix wins against your undead blood-drinkers who can turn into wolves, and my holy water turns your zombies to dust.

In recent years, there has been a revisionist backlash along the lines of “actually those conquered people had the real magic, and the colonizing monotheists were really the ones venerating evil spirits.”  That’s sort of the tradition Rowling is coming from, even though her wizards all celebrate Christmas, except for possibly that Jewish guy. Her witches and wizards seem to be secular humanists who never shout religious words when threatened or startled, and it is noted that a few of them have been burned at the stake by muggles throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, they have a cozy relationship with civilization, and the Potter stories revolve around welcoming newcomers to society. 

Oh, and by the way, why aren’t there more Irish students at Hogwarts?  There are leprechauns … you know, small jolly humanoids who have weird magical powers and are secretly hiding all their gold from their rightfully entitled conquerors …

Hey, maybe the house elves are the last surviving remnants of Legolas’ people … reduced into diminutive, debased, fearful servants. They do have weird magical powers.

I could probably go on at least for a couple of pages about wizards during the revolutionary war, but the real issue that’s annoying people has to do with the positioning between Ms. Rowling’s magic – cobbled-together fragments of pre-Christian cultures sprinkled with Latin -- and the Native Americans’ cultural beliefs, which have survived in an unbroken chain despite strenuous attempts to eradicate them. Including trying to write them off as weird magic.

N.K. Jemisin has a few good ideas about a better way to do this.  Personally, I’d go the other way and invent an entirely fictitious tribe of Native American wizards who intermarried with equally fictitious immigrant wizards (because the wizards recognized each other and cooperated while the muggles were busy beating each other to a bloody pulp, probably because they had been in secret telephonic contact the entire time) and built their own wizarding town that interfaces with NYC similar to the way London connects to the Potterverse. 

Even more personally, I’d probably sideskirt the whole issue by writing books set in the far future. If Ms. Rowling really wants to do this right, she’s going to need a boatload of beta readers.

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