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J. K. Rowling and #MagicInNorthAmerica

Over at Pottermore, J. K. Rowling has been releasing background information and history about magic in North America, and … okay, I loved the Harry Potter books, and I have a lot of respect for Rowling as a person, but this is a mess.

Others are talking about this far better than I could.

“‘The Native American community.’ Oh man that loaded “the.” One of the largest fights in the world of representations is to recognize Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another. There is no such thing as one ‘Native American’ anything. Even in a fictional wizarding world.”

-From the Native Appropriations blog post Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh

“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.

Magic & Marginalization: Et tu, JK?

“Pretty sure [Rowling] 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 … [H]ow much more delightful could Magic in North America have been if she’d put an ancient, still-thriving Macchu Picchu magic school alongside a brash, newer New York school? How much richer could her history have been if she’d mentioned the ruins of a “lost” school at Cahokia, full of dangerous magical artifacts and the signs of mysterious, hasty abandonment? Or a New Orleanian school founded by Marie Laveau, that practiced real vodoun and was open/known to the locals as a temple — and in the old days as a safe place to plan slave rebellions, a la Congo Square? Or what if she’d mentioned that ancient Death Eater-ish wizards deliberately destroyed the magical school of Hawai’i — but native Hawai’ians are rebuilding it now as Liliuokalani Institute, better than before and open to all?”

-N. K. Jemisin, It Could’ve Been Great

“It’s fear of erasure, another white story brick built on top of 400 years worth of erasure and destructive lies … If you think the work this does is harmless, ask yourself how many years of Native North American history you took in school. How many native people have taught you about our real histories? How much of what you know is from Hollywood, or non-native authors?”

Mari Kurisato

The Washington Post had an article with more roundup and reactions.

There’s also a lot of good discussion on the #MagicInNorthAmerica hashtag on Twitter.

#

I recommend reading the articles and discussion. Listen to why people are angry and upset. Try to recognize that this is part of a larger problem against people the U.S. has a long and ongoing history of trying to erase.

And please don’t be one of these fools. (Sadly, this is just a small sampling of the backlash.)

"So fantasy cannot have history roots or basis?"

Colin: Sure it can! If you base your fantasy story on actual, you know, history, as opposed to racist stereotypes and ignorant generalizations.

"You can't complain your culture is under-represented in books and films and then tear it to shreds when it is."

April: The word you’re looking for in this case is “misrepresented.” I think it’s fair for people to ask for more than to be portrayed as homogeneous stereotypes or else erased altogether.

"This faux-outrage over #MagicinNorthAmerica might be the most ridiculous thing I've seen on Twitter. Good God, people. Chill out."

Jason: Thanks for this. It’s okay everybody! A white dude has arrived to tell you your anger isn’t real, and you’re all overreacting.

"Muggles getting their undies in a bunch over these short stories geez #FICTION"

"She's just writing a STORY not history. She didnt attack or insulted anyone. Writers make their own characters & world."

Jessie & Emily: And everyone else making the weak-ass “It’s just fiction!” argument. Y’all just blew out my ignorance-meter. Story is one of the most powerful things we have. Stories save lives. People go to war over stories. Fiction can change a person’s life and change the course of history. So, yeah. Just don’t.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
deborahblakehps
Mar. 10th, 2016 08:24 pm (UTC)
ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
suricattus
Mar. 10th, 2016 08:26 pm (UTC)
I had someone who should know better say "if you don't like it, don't read it!" during a Facebook discussion (https://www.facebook.com/lauraanne.gilman/posts/10207223345076039).

I think we finally got through to her why that was NOT a good response. But for various reasons both personal and professional, I may have wanted to put a chair through the wall. :-(


There's also some interesting discussion about how Rowling managed to mess up with her other school choices as well:

"Why I'll never be a witch in the Harry Potter World" by Vida Cruz
(https://vidacruz.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/why-ill-never-be-a-witch-in-harry-potters-world-language-politics-and-the-elitism-of-a-magical-education/)


This could have been such a glorious addition - she had the time and ability to get it right. That she didn't seem to even try...

Edited at 2016-03-10 08:27 pm (UTC)
cairea
Mar. 10th, 2016 08:51 pm (UTC)
When I first saw the announcement with just the names and locations of the other wizarding schools I was pretty put off by the existence of only one school each for entire continents. Europe gets three, and all of North America has one school? All of South America and Africa, too? I had so many questions about the logistics of how that was going to work. (Language barriers ahoy! How big are these schools?)

I did not have high hopes for Native American representation, but I'd kind of hoped for better than this.
joycemocha
Mar. 10th, 2016 09:04 pm (UTC)
I'm not really happy with the naming of the North American school, too. It's very British and not at all a North American naming custom. The more I read about this whole issue the more annoyed I get by the way she handled this. If she'd only said that these might be the most recognized, or prestigious wizarding schools it might be acceptable. For that matter, setting Hogwarts up as the only British school is silly as well.
ravens_shadow
Mar. 10th, 2016 10:15 pm (UTC)
Ooo, I didn't read N.K. Jemisin's post yet, but I am so there for the ideas of other America/U.S.-based magic schools. The Hawaii example would actually be quite true to the history (missionaries came in, did their damnedest to wipe out the language and culture, and Native Hawaiians have been working hard practically ever since to rediscover and preserve their culture).
rimrunner
Mar. 10th, 2016 10:52 pm (UTC)
I totally want Jemisin to write this now.

A friend of mine is working on a project right now that has a character from a particular Native culture and tradition in it--and also another character who's basically a fake and puts a lot of trappings of what people think of as Native on her new-agey business to attract clients. I think he might be making some kind of point. ;)
Christianna Furman
Mar. 10th, 2016 11:28 pm (UTC)
I'm very confused on this issue. Which parts of her writing show misrepresentation and stereotypes? I would like to see some quotes and evidence backing this argument up. I haven't really read any of her recent Pottermore writings, so I apologize for that.
starcat_jewel
Mar. 11th, 2016 02:46 am (UTC)
I suggest that you go and read the material first. Then if you're still confused, asking for clarification won't sound like wanting someone else to do all your homework for you.
Christianna Furman
Mar. 11th, 2016 03:40 am (UTC)
I only ask for a few examples, like maybe a quote or two, not all of the issues in her writings. .-. I plan on reading it later when I'm not busy though.

I have a problem with this because so far I haven't read any examples in other peoples responses to this issue. Evidence is a key element to debating.

Edited at 2016-03-11 03:44 am (UTC)
starcat_jewel
Mar. 11th, 2016 04:52 am (UTC)
Reading the first segment, which is specifically the part under discussion here, takes 3 minutes. There's a link to it from the first item in Jim's post.
rhoda_rants
Mar. 11th, 2016 12:46 am (UTC)
Or a New Orleanian school founded by Marie Laveau, that practiced real vodoun and was open/known to the locals as a temple — and in the old days as a safe place to plan slave rebellions, a la Congo Square?
OMG I WANNA READ *THAT* BOOK NOW!!

Man, this whole exchange is just uncomfortable. I was excited about the "Magic in North America" thing for about three seconds (longtime fan of JK, witness my Hermione avatar), but damn. That got so weird and ugly so fast.
northernwalker
Mar. 13th, 2016 01:49 am (UTC)
I want that book too!
brendanpodger
Mar. 11th, 2016 03:15 am (UTC)
There seems to be a lot of fuss about what JK Rowling did and did not decide to put into a piece of writing of 413 words that was meant to convey the meagrest morsel of a preview of to people around the globe

Much of the criticisms seem to be based on the assumption that the North American world of wizarding would operate just like the "no-mag" population despite at least one obvious difference. The magical community was likely more homogeneous due the relative ease in travelling across the continent.
l_o_lostshadows
Mar. 11th, 2016 02:26 pm (UTC)
The ease of traveling across NA is a pretty recent development. Read up on the Donner Party if you don't believe me.

If you mean just by magical means, there's no reason traveling across NA would be easier than traveling across Europe, especially when you consider their sizes. Yet Europe has at least three distinct schools.
brendanpodger
Mar. 12th, 2016 06:50 am (UTC)
Yes I meant by magical means. Rowling in her 413 word mentioned that NA wizards could apparate and could fly. On the subject of schools, while I always thought the lack of schooling alternates rather stupid in HP, if you follow the HP Universe demographics NA would have a population that could be dealt with with one school.

The population estimates for NA and Europe, data seems to show the NA had a no-maj population of ~10 mil in 1700, whereas just France, Germany and the UK had a population of 44 mil. As I understand the Muggle/No-Maj populations are supposedly proportional to wizarding communities so if three schools were enough for Europe, one would be more than ample(prior to colonisation) for NA.
siege
Mar. 13th, 2016 03:03 am (UTC)
Sheer numbers don't resemble culture. One school would technically have been appropriate for the entire Greek city of Rome, back in the day, yet there were at least three "university" level schools, plus dozens of teaching-groups, including the Cynics and several religious cults dedicated to gods of knowledge.

And that's just ONE ancient city-state in an area no larger than 300 hectares (about 30 square miles counting the agricultural fields nearby).
brendanpodger
Mar. 14th, 2016 08:33 am (UTC)
By that reasoning there should be a lot more wizard schools in Europe as well.
siege
Mar. 16th, 2016 12:23 am (UTC)
Exactly. They may not have been mentioned in the books, but I presume the wizarding world has a major magical school for every two to three nations. This comes from little knowledge of the world as described by Rowling, of course.
kshandra
Mar. 11th, 2016 03:58 am (UTC)
Check out this particular tumblrite's wizarding schools tag; I've been in love with her posts for ages, and I'm totally staying with them as my headcanon.
djonn
Mar. 12th, 2016 07:13 am (UTC)
I've been semi-offline for the last several weeks, but I've now read the first three pieces in the series, and while I agree that there are issues here, I also think that a great deal of detailed criticism is being levied against a body of material which is, by its nature, not intended to be detailed.

As starcat_jewel and brendanpodger point out, these are very short pieces of text -- they are, in effect, very brief background notes or encyclopedia/Wiki entries laying down the broad outline of a chronology. Evaluating this sort of summary material as if it were the equivalent of a detailed scholarly treatment of the historical periods and cultures in question is, bluntly, inappropriate. This is a general survey, and it is hardly surprising that it is, therefore, general. Also, in terms of creative process, this kind of material is often very preliminary in nature, and subject to revision and expansion as further content is developed. (One might make reasonable comparisons between the very earliest development "bibles" for original-series Star Trek; what was in those early notes does not always reflect what was put on film once the show was actually put into production.)

Looking at the first three segments, I'm also struck by the observation that Rowling's apparent historical errors are not limited to her treatment of Native American culture. For my own part, I looked sharply askance at her use of the phrase "United States of America" in connection with a legislative body formed in 1693. At first that looks extraordinarily sloppy...

...but then I went back, reread the segments again, and realized that taking that usage together with some of the statements about Native populations, what looks inconsistent at first glance may be less so than it appears. When Rowling says that Native Americans in the Potterverse were more familiar with African and other Eastern peoples at much earlier dates than in our world, and that Native Americans traveled more easily and widely via magic than was common real-world history -- and when she then asserts that there was a "United States of America" in 1693 -- I read that as carrying the very strong implication that the many diverse Native American populations with which we're familiar had, in Rowling's world, met and mingled and developed into a much more homogenized "Native American community" by the time Europeans arrived than was the case in our own reality.

I think, in short, that it's much too early for outrage here. That said, I do think a degree of concern is reasonable -- but I would hope that such concern would be framed appropriately and constructively, as this is clearly an area in which Rowling's worldbuilding is very much still in the developmental stages and therefore subject to revision and amplification.

A side note specifically about "skinwalker" lore: I seem to recall that the late Tom Deitz's series of novels blending Celtic and Cherokee lore included a volume featuring a skinwalker-like adversary and a shamanic character who acquires shape-changing abilities (Stoneskin's Revenge, if memory serves). Given that I recall Deitz's presentation of Cherokee material as singularly well researched, I would hesitate to accept too quickly a characterization that "skinwalker" myths are exclusive to the Navajo.
kalimac
Mar. 12th, 2016 10:56 pm (UTC)
If your arguments are true, then it would have been exceedingly wise for Rowling to have filled out the background a little further before issuing her comments. The world-creation in them sounded exceedingly sketchy to me (which is basically the source of the complaints), and given the amount of detail she provided in the books themselves, sketchiness does not become her.
kalimac
Mar. 12th, 2016 10:53 pm (UTC)
I entirely agree: "It's just fiction" is a weak-ass argument. Story is one of the most powerful tools we have.

And "It's just fiction" was also a weak-ass argument when it was deployed years ago against Dan Quayle for his denunciation of Murphy Brown for being an unwed mother.

We could have had a serious discussion of the importance of depicting single mothers in television shows. Or we could have mocked Dan Quayle by pretending that he was ignorant of the fact that Murphy Brown was a fictional character.

Sadly, too many chose the latter course.
northernwalker
Mar. 13th, 2016 04:35 am (UTC)
So she's got one magical school for North America. The area of North America is 9.54 million miles. Africa also has one magical school, and an area of 11.67 million miles. She's got three in Europe, which has an area of 3.931 million miles.

I think her worldbuilding skills need some work.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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