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.

Four Awesome Ideas for an Indian Fantasy Novel

I admit it. I caved. I want clicks more than I want appreciation of my long-winded, well-crafted, writing. I need traffic so that Google Ads will pay me (apparently they will. They’re not saying no anyway). I nurse ambitions of going viral. I want people to think I’m smart and share my thoughts with the world so I can make my own path to world domination smoother.

Just kidding. I hope it’ll be a while before I write a listicle that is not Tom Hiddleston-inspired.

Aw.

Aw.

I think there are a couple of reasons why I find writing fantasy, as a ‘coloured’, female, non-‘Western’ writer, so hard. I think a couple of those reasons could also be traced to the fact that I am, for all intents and purposes, a Hindu. It’s the one genre that I really, really love and that I can spend hours and weeks and days reading and discussing (as you all know too well), and I really want to write it, but there are a couple of things that trip me up and that, being a good millenial, I blame on my upbringing, parents, and socioeconomic background.

lotr‘Fantasy’, or ‘epic fantasy’ as we know it today has a distinctly Tolkienien feel. Whether it’s the medieval European setting, the formal register of the language, or the prevalence of Elves and uncrowned kings, Tolkien’s left us a legacy we can’t entirely ignore, or escape. I spoke about this in an earlier post (No, It’s not Okay), but left out one important thing:

Tolkien supposedly wrote his epics as a way to build a mythological past for England. He wanted to give to his country what Greece and Italy already had in the form of the Iliad and the Aeneid. He took elements of local folk tales and sweeping Pan-European legends (and Arthurian chronicles) and put together a world where the little Englishman in his pastoral home ventured forth and saved the world (or as much of it as mattered anyway, which was Western and Southern Europe).

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Building this sort of mythologized past requires one thing: a distance from it. By and large, most of the Western world, the kind that writes mainstream, Tolkien-derived fantasy now, does not believe that Elves, Dwarves and other fantastic creatures are real. More importantly, the stories that they use and fall back on, including both Greek/Roman myth and denizens of other pantheons, do not influence modern life to the extent that mythology in India tends to do.

Let me elaborate on this. When you write a story that follows, vaguely, the trajectory of Arthurian tales (uncrowned king, bearded mentor, staunch companions in arms, ‘black’ foe), you are using something that has already been sanctified as distant, part of the past, something that is up for interpretation without running the risk of really offending anyone. This distance is what allows Rick Riordan to write the Percy Jackson chronicles, where a goddess like Athena can be accused of having had a child. Imagine if someone were to write a story where Durga has a one night stand with a man and produces a girl child who displays amazing martial skills—do you see people putting up with:

a) The idea that Durga would have a one night stand.

b) The idea that that baby was not worthy of being worshipped herself and could possibly grow up in a state of complete normalcy and not have some grand, wisdomous words to impart to her fellows.

Awesome Idea 1—A daughter of Durga grows up in Calcutta and discovers she has godly abilities. She then rains hellfire upon the mutinous hordes. 

But see, here’s problem #2: how do you distinguish between mythological and fantasy fiction in a country like ours? It depends really on the audience you’re writing it for. For instance, last night I watched a dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai. She performed a piece on Karthikeya, Shiva’s second son. While she danced and described him, I realised hey, Karthikeya is an amazing fantasy hero. He is young, he is martially inclined (being the god of war and beauty), he has a romantic and rather crazy love life, he broke conventions to get his second wife and he puts brawn over brain and gets upstaged by his own brother. Plus, he rides a peacock and was created simply to kill off a demon—the latter being a trait common to most epic fantasy heroes.

If I were to write a book detailing his exploits, I could probably sell it to a non-Indian audience as ‘fantasy’. But here, someone or the other would see through my pretence and call me out on my shit. This is not fantasy, they would say. this is the retelling of a myth, and it’s great because we don’t have anything on this particular god, but could you possibly write Kunti’s version of the Mahabharata next? Personally, I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it: to me, it would be mostly like transcribing the stories I’ve heard from my grandmothers or my dance teacher, and not something I myself have ‘created’.

Awesome idea 2: Write a series of ‘fantasy’ novels on Murugan, and have him be an angsty, tortured hero who’s always wondering if his parents love him as much as they love his brother, Ganesha.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t done this already.

Now this is a problem.

Now this is a problem.

The third problem, again tied to the second is this: how do I make a fantasy novel set in India different from others without resorting to exoticising everything? In other words, how do I please both the big name publishers in New York as well as my poco-pomo-postfem colleagues here in India?

(For those of you not familiar with my casual academese, poco pomo postfem refers to postcolonial, postmodern, post feminist writers and thinkers. No, I don’t know what that really means either.)

I just read this long, insightful piece on the problem with South Asian literature by Jabeen Akhtar, where she speaks about the Western need to see this region in a particular light, as a world of ‘mangoes, spices and monsoons…saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and oppression with Western culture.’ Epic fantasy relies to a great extent on regional stereotypes: Tolkien’s ‘English’ hobbits are bookish, stodgy and love their afternoon tea; Martin’s northmen are hardy men of few words who speak (in the HBO series) in vaguely Scots accents; even Rothfuss’s Adem seem vaguely Japanese (or at least subscribe to ‘Western’ notions of Japanese behaviour espoused in martial arts movies). It’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticising this culture, because people (read: the Western canon) has been doing it for years and we know it works to pull in the publishing bigwigs sitting in their corner offices on 6th Avenue.

So how do I do it? How do I write an epic fantasy that doesn’t rely on ‘Oriental’ stereotypes that might offend the poco-watchers but also stands out as ‘Indian’ or exotic enough to interest the agents in HarperCollins NY? I think Samit Basu managed this with the Gameworld Trilogy , where he actually turned cultural and literary stereotypes of flying carpets and exotic Indian princesses back on the reader, as well as used those tropes to further the story—but even he was relegated to having an elephant headed Ganesha on simoqinthe cover of the German edition of The Simoqin Prophecies. Please note that this is in a book which has no elephants, let alone elephant headed gods, on-screen.

It’s a curse: write what you, as an English-educated, city-bred millennial know and the West won’t take you seriously; write what you’re ‘supposed’ to and don’t get taken seriously by your fellow Indians, who will dismiss it as pandering, and perhaps, rightly so. Who do you please?

And don’t tell me writers write for themselves and no one else because that is just not true in an age where everyone is living on the Imax screen of social media.

Awesome idea 3: Write a fantasy novel where the hero is must save the world, but has to choose which of two worlds to save. Choosing one ensures the complete destruction of the other. Chances are, if he is a real hero, he will choose neither and end up destroying himself so that everyone else can just deal with their own shit.

rivendell

And finally, perhaps the biggest problem facing an Indian fantasy writer: who is going to make the movie version of it? I know it’s really superficial, but hey, all of us want to see our books/stories get the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings treatment. We want big budget Hollywood studios to take an interest and WETA to spend months building props and sets. But since none of my main characters are white, chances of them spending millions of dollars on bringing the book to life are pretty minimal.

Sad, but true.

Awesome idea 4: Write a fantasy novel set in an India-like space where all the main characters are white thanks to some genetic accident. These white characters are the ones who will end up saving the world because that’s just how things play out in Hollywood.

Okay, enough complaining. I shall get cracking on writing one if not all of these proposed fantasy novels.