Rowling, the Navajo, and cultural appropriation

JK-Rowling-interview

A few days ago, J K Rowling began releasing a series of short writings called The History of Magic in North America. These pieces (of which there will be five; four are out, as of the writing of this post) provide snapshots of the development of the wizarding world in what is now the United States, setting the tone for the Fantastic Beasts movies, the first of which will be in theatres by the end of the year. The movies, which chronicle the adventures of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), are largely set in 1920s New York, seventy years before the events of the Harry Potter series. The writings are posted on the new Pottermore website, and are available for anyone, member or not, to read.

Rowling’s first post, ‘Fourteenth Century—Seventeenth Century’, mentions the Navajo legend of the ‘skinwalkers’. According to myth, a skinwalker was ‘a medicine man or witch who has attained the highest level of priesthood in the tribe, but chose to use his or her power for evil by taking the form of an animal to inflict pain and suffering on others.’ In her post, Rowling states that the skin walker legends had their ‘basis in fact’, the skinwalkers being Animagi who were unfairly prosecuted, often by fraudulent ‘No-Maj’ (the North American term for Muggle) medicine men who were afraid of the exposure of their own lack of magical skill.

It seems, on the surface, an innocent enough tie-in to Rowling’s extended Potterverse. The backlash however, has been angry, with a number of Native American activists accusing Rowling of stereotyping of First Nations peoples, generalising specific tribes’ legends and beliefs to encompass all their differing, specific cultures, and affronting their cultural sensibilities (for a well written piece on this, go here). Criticism was only stepped up with the publication of the second in the series (‘Seventeenth Century and Beyond’), where aside from a description of ‘Scourers’, unscrupulous magic users who ‘even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards’, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is washed out of the narrative altogether.

Now, as a general reader, I don’t think Rowling is under any obligation to write a detailed history of the United States, taking into consideration all its major historical landmarks and moments and tying them into her magical narrative. However, I do see the complicated nature of this particular sally. I’m not sure whose ‘side’ I’m on, in this affair, mostly because I find the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’, most of the time, to be a not entirely unmixed affair. But let me lay out my view on this, and you can decide where I come down, if I come down anywhere at all.

  1. It’s true that the Native American genocide and the Slave Trade are both cornerstones of the modern United States, and their repercussions continue to ring through the country today. While Rowling does not dedicate much space to these tragedies, she does not, to be fair, talk of the Revolutionary War either, or the Civil War. The only ‘historical event’ she pays more than passing heed to are the Salem Witch Trials, which leads me to the second point.
  2. Rowling seems to be consciously offering no more than quick, picture postcard-like sketches of a vast history, and to do this, she latches onto the markers that already have some currency in popular imagination. The Salem Witch Trials are, arguably, the most famous mainstream evocation of ‘magic’ in US history. They have been immortalised on screen, in plays (you can’t argue with The Crucible) and are now cemented in the mainstream as a time when ‘witchcraft’ was believed to be real and punishable by death. Though far from the only instance of such widespread witch hunting (which continues to happen in countries across the world), they are arguably the most well-remembered, documented happening. Rowling’s decision, then, to focus on these Trials makes sense, given the context of the world she is building.
  3. To turn to that thorny term, ‘cultural appropriation’. As a reader and writer, I find the term…unnerving. I understand the history and hurt that is loaded onto it, when certain groups that have always been relatively more privileged make use, sometimes an insensitive manner, of the cultural products of those they have actively or unconsciously oppressed. But I think it is far too easy, now, to level this charge at people even when there is no malice intended in their use of such markers. It smacks, to my rather naive thinking, of policing, of wanting to draw lines about who is allowed to ‘use’ what to tell a story or make a song or video. Intention, such a difficult thing to assess and prove, seems to me the basic criterion that should help people decide whether something was ‘borrowed’ or ‘appropriated’. Again, this may just be my own privilege talking.
  4. To be fair, fantasy authors have always ‘culturally appropriated’ things. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, for instance, talks about Eastern countries—in Essos or Sothyros—that sound remarkably similar to Mongolia, China, certain parts of the Middle East. Jordan’s Wheel of Time has an empire whose rulers behave a lot like the rulers of ancient China, lacquering their fingernails and wearing silken robes. When you’re building an entirely new world, you want lots of different cultures and peoples to feature in it, in order to make it realistic, well-rounded. Authors aren’t gods. They have to build something that, while new, also presents a familiar enough aspect that a reader wont be entirely put off (this is why I find fantasy a much more appealing genre than science fiction, but more on that some other time). To this, authors borrow from cultures and histories around the world, knowing that just sticking to their singular perspective does not a universe make. Hell, even Tolkien, who’s been raked across the coals for his racism, fused elements of different cultures together to build Middle Earth.
  5. The reason Rowling has gotten into ‘trouble’ on this front, despite being a fantasy author is because: 
    • The Potterverse, unlike Middle Earth or Westeros, is quite recognisably part of ‘our’ world. It is a secret part of the ‘real’ world we inhabit, and as such, any historical events and beliefs that play a part in our world, there is an understanding that the same should have repercussions on the Potterverse.
    • For this reason, skinwalkers in the Potterverse are held to be the same, in readers’ minds, as skinwalkers in real-world Navajo belief. Rowling is not even pretending to create them anew in an entirely different universe (as Basu reinvented rakshasas in the Gameworld Trilogy, or Stroud djinn and afrits in the Bartimaeus Trilogy), and is borrowing them while making alterations that change their moral position in the original mythology, turning negative beings into misunderstood characters. She is changing not her ‘own’ version of the skinchangers, but those that belong to the Navajo belief system.
    • She is J.K. Rowling, arguably one of the most famous and successful writers working today, and anything she does is bound to attract notice of a lot more people than the writing of most authors. If she writes ‘wrongly’ about a particular group of beings, a lot more people are going to read it and gain what might be, to some people, a ‘warped’ understanding of a folklore that is, sadly, far from the mainstream experience of most readers.

I’ve blathered on. In sum, I’ll say this: i dislike the term cultural appropriation. I don’t like putting down lines about who should be allowed to use what from other cultures. In an age where a lot of us have so much information at our disposal, so many different pantheons and treasure chests of stories to work with, I see no reason to stick to only those marked out as ‘yours’ because of an accident of birth. The longer we police other people, the longer we are policed in turn, I think. As stated, it’s all about the intent. I don’t think Rowling meant to harm anyone, simply to have fun building on a world that’s delighted so many people for years. That being said, I see why activists have gotten upset, and can only be sorry about the history that’s led to this state.

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The Paper Menagerie

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I loved Ken Liu’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings. I found it a highly enjoyable read, by turns comic, sweeping, epic, tragic, but always with that element of wonder that makes fantasy the incredible genre that it is, taking you outside reality but also giving you a new, sometimes literally more magical vantage point from which to view the world and your place within it. I greatly admired Liu’s light, deft way with words, that spun this complex, engaging world into existence, and am looking forward to coming back to Dara and its denizens, later this year.

Paper-Menagerie-his-rezWith his new book, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu shows that he is capable of vast range. Sure, in some of the stories you see the comic master who orchestrated coups and wondrous escapes in Dara, in others you see a thoughtful, poignant writer, who asks tough questions and leaves you with no certain answers. Many of these stories, such the one that gives the collection its title, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, have been published, read and loved before, and this book brings them together, to give it what Liu calls ‘the flavour of a retrospective’, a brief look at his career as a short story writer. Indeed, the idea of memory, and memory as a source of conflict and confluence in communication, seems a running theme in many of these narratives, most powerfully in the last story of the collection, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’.

Though many stories are indeed stitched around the common theme of memory, recording, and how we retell stories, what I can say about Liu’s work is this: it is remarkably wide ranging. From the space-opera-like ‘The Waves’ to  ‘All the Flavors’, the magical-realist novella set in early twentieth century Idaho, Liu presents a vast range of readerly experiences. The stories slip between science fiction and fantasy, and indeed, Liu confesses at the start that he doesn’t ‘pay much attention’ to the distinction between the two genres. He builds worlds that contain elements of both: for instance, in ‘Good Hunting’ (a story that reminded me inexplicably of Gaiman’s work) a young demon hunter meets a hulijing, a spirit who tests his ideas of good and bad. As the world changes around them, he adapts to it with the help of science, learning new principles of engineering and physics, while others, most notably his father, struggle to find a new place in this world without mystery, seemingly without magic. What results is a beautiful blend of the best elements of myth, fantasy and science fiction, the author moving us seamlessly between all three.

What I really like about Liu’s work is the seeming effortlessness of his writing, of being able to introduce a whole new section of readers to worlds and mythologies that have remained ‘outside’ the Western canon for a long time. ‘I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a minority in my work,’ Liu told me in an interview, and that filters through. Rather than explaining painstakingly any references to a non-Western/non-white culture, or consciously building himself up to a ‘representative’ of anything, Liu works these elements into his stories and allows readers to either learn more about them from the context, or look them up online in they’re really interested. For me personally, this is an extremely welcome and emulation-worthy style. Coming from a culture (or cultures, I should say) that is not as well-known to readers of epic fantasy as say, medieval England, it’s sometimes hard to know when to draw the line between fantasising and exoticising. Liu never makes that mistake. When he narrates martial exploits of soldiers from the many now-Chinese kingdoms, or even talks of the encounters between East and West, whether in the gold-springs of the Midwest or the paddy fields of US-held Taiwan, Liu never seems to consciously present one side as more or less ‘real’ or ‘normal’ than the other. ‘…the individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity,’ he had said in the same interview, and he bears that out in his writing. His characters, whether they hail to pasts far distant, or futures beyond our imagining, are all composites of multiple cultures, influences, tastes.

The stories in this volume moved me, none more so than the last, ‘The Man Who Ended History’. I feel it is an especially important story for the time we live in, the sort of conflicts over ‘ownership’, nation and culture that rage around us. Again, perhaps because of where I come from, where these questions have gained even more immediacy, I felt drawn to this story more than any other in his collection. Liu uses the structure of a transcribed documentary to tell the story of a man who, with the help of his physicist wife, builds a time machine, that takes people back to the past, literally, and allows them to observe it for themselves. The period he selects is a controversial, horrifying one in Manchu, China during the Second World War. The conflicts the testimonials give rise to, and the old wounds they dredge up, bring the two countries, China and Japan, and belatedly the US, to the brink of another battle, and I can honestly say that the story definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, and made me think a lot about how we deal with the past, who it can be said to belong to, if anyone at all.

To sum up, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a brilliant read. Savour it, sink into Liu’s words, and allow yourself to be carried away by a master storyteller. He is definitely one of my favourite fantasy authors working today, and inspires me as few others do.