For this episode we looked at the following texts:
Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Cultural Traditions of Magic with Zen Cho
Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Islands in Speculative Fiction: Live from WorldCon
Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Do You Speak Conlang?
Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds In Defense of the Star Wars Holiday Special
Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism
Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Harry Potter Voices Across Borders
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the seventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Aditi Krishnakumar about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds. As readers who grew up in India, there were many cultural stereotypes in Western texts which we just didn’t pick up on. Now, we’ve learned a lot through the collective intelligence of online fandom.
The ways in which mainstream media portrays different cultures influences audience attitudes about people from these cultures. The dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction marginalises other ways of being in the world. In a lot of fantasy worlds, diverse cultures are used either as set-dressing or just for comic relief. The ways in which different languages and foods are depicted can also sideline certain groups of people.
What is considered the norm and what is exotic in popular fantasy? Whose cultures and intellectual histories are privileged? Such conversations about diversity among fans can play a huge role in decolonising traditional ideas of fantasy. Retellings of old stories – both in traditional media and within fandom – are increasingly used to subvert problematic ideas and reflect progressive values.
Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.
Parinita: Today, I’m so glad that I get to chat with Aditi Krishnakumar. Aditi grew up in India and she now works in the finance industry in Singapore. And she enjoys reading and is a published writer. So we share a children’s book publisher – Duckbill Books in India. And when Aditi’s book was due to be released, my editors asked me if I’d like to interview her for their blog because they know I’m a middle-grade fantasy nerd. I fell so completely in love with The Magicians of Madh. And Aditi creates such a fascinating world populated with the most absurd characters – absurd in the best way possible. I love absurd characters. And so she has a bunch of absurd characters and cultures and I just didn’t want to stop reading her world. And if you’re into comic fantasy and middle-grade books, you should definitely check her book out as well. This week, Aditi and I are going to talk about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds – both of us love reading fantasy. And we’re also going to chat about our experiences in online fandom a bit. So Aditi, do you want to introduce your own experiences encountering different cultures – either in fiction, fandom or the real world?
Aditi: This is probably true for lots of us growing up in India – the first things that you read, the first fantasy, everything – it’s all Enid Blyton.
Aditi: And all the magical creatures that you hear about are the brownies and the pixies and –
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Aditi: [laughs] And you know the things they eat, the puddings and cakes and jellies. So that was pretty much it. And then The Hobbit I guess was next. And these are all … they’re just so very, very British. Both of them. Like really British books. Which is fine because they were by British writers. But I think … it has changed now – but growing up, there was definitely not many fantasy books that were really relatable for me.
Aditi: In that world.
Parinita: I’m the same as well. I grew up reading Enid Blyton and other British and American books.
Parinita: So there was The Baby-Sitters Club and things and –
Aditi: Charlotte’s Web.
Parinita: Yeah. So even things that weren’t fantasy, or even if they were fantasy, the fantastical world was a whole other thing. And that real world in the UK or in the US was also this sort of foreign, alien world almost.
Parinita: And I also grew up watching a lot of Bollywood movies. I love Bollywood movies. I grew up in Mumbai.
Aditi: Um hmm.
Parinita: So it is pretty diverse but it’s still a very limited diversity. Even though we have a lot of people from all over the country in the city, especially when you’re younger, you only really interact with a limited group of people.
Aditi: Right, right. ’Cause in school you’ve just got a small bunch of friends.
Parinita: Exactly. Or in your housing society you’ll have neighbours and things. And so Bollywood introduced me to all these different cultures. I’ve never tried to look at Bollywood critically until a few years ago. And there are so many stereotypes in terms of different cultures that they portray in Bollywood movies as well. When it comes to tribal folk in Bollywood movies – and in Hollywood as well, I guess – and their customs, it’s just –
Parinita: So full of stereotypes. Or even different religions or people from different regions – Gujarati stereotypes or South Indian stereotypes or Bengali stereotypes. There are so many. And in Enid Blyton, I know that she’s now being criticized a lot because golliwogs were supposed to represent black people in her books?
Aditi: Right, yeah. I think it’s one of those things that you can still – because I still think some things are really good about her books, especially her school stories, I think. You know they show girls being independent.
Parinita: Oh yeah.
Aditi: You don’t see that in The Famous Five and stuff but where her stories are exclusively about girls … I mean she does have problems and you can acknowledge them. But I think there’s still some great stuff.
Parinita: No, absolutely. I still love Enid Blyton’s books because it made me fall in love with reading.
Parinita: Those are the books that I read when I was six – The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five and things. And obviously at that age, I didn’t pick up on these anti-foreigner sentiments. And golliwogs and racism toh I wouldn’t even have thought of. Because I had no conception –
Aditi: I didn’t even know what a golliwog was.
Parinita: Yeah! Exactly! I mean there were pictures of the golliwog in the books, in some of the toys ones …
Aditi: In Noddy they had some golliwog pictures.
Parinita: Yeah. But I would never have – just because growing up in India, I don’t have that idea that oh this is supposed to represent black people. I just thought oh this is a doll.
Aditi: You know I used to have those trolls when I was a kid right, those troll dolls.
Parinita: Yeah, yeah.
Aditi: Which I just thought it was something like that.
Parinita: It’s like with Harry Potter as well right? You can love the world and the story but you can also critique it. It doesn’t need to pass by unproblematically but you can still love it. I think it’s that balance. And it’s difficult because I think especially the books and things that were written a longer time ago when these conversations weren’t happening, if we read them through 2020 [the year the episode was recorded in] lenses, it might not be as diverse and inclusive as we want them to be. And I think it’s important to have that conversation that this is where it is missing.
Parinita: I would still want to read Enid Blyton books because the stories themselves are something that I have such positive associations with. So just to begin with our episode, a few of the podcast episodes that you and I listened to, touched on the theme of the dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction.
Parinita: And how this either marginalizes or exoticises other cultures and beliefs. And we talked about Enid Blyton a bit. When you were listening to this, did you think of any examples yourself?
Aditi: I mean one was Blyton herself ’cause there’s this some – I forget which one it is, it’s one of these Five Find-Outers books.
Aditi: Where … oh I remember – I think it’s The Missing Prince or The Vanished Prince or something like that. So there’s an Indian price called Bongawi.
Aditi: Or Bongawa or something.
Parinita: Yeah that very Indian name. [laughs]
Aditi: Yes. So I mean that’s the kind of thing I thought – at the time I honestly I’m not sure I even realised they meant Indian like people from India. I don’t know what I thought. But it’s not something –
Parinita: Yeah because they also call Native Americans Indians, right? A lot of these early books, American Indians was this other thing.
Parinita: She was talking about how the fantasy fiction that we read is, it currently depends on which culture is dominant. And mostly the stuff that is dominant right now is Western fantasy. It’s British and it’s American. And even on television. So I didn’t even realise these ideas of fantasy that had been shaped by Western culture. Because you grow up in India, at least if you grow up in certain parts of India, in cities and things, you have access to both Western and Indian culture.
Parinita: You have influences of both. So I thought it was interesting that she pointed this out, because even she is from Malaysia – she’s Malaysian-British. And she pointed out how a lot of Western fantasy is very Judeo-Christian. And it exoticises anything that doesn’t fit within that framework. And I was like oh yeah I actually hadn’t thought about that.
Aditi: It does, right? The other thing that you’d shared, I think the article [she meant podcast episode] about the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Aditi: I like Star Wars but I think that’s part of the reason everyone tends to make fun of that. And you can kind of see why people make fun of it ‘cause it’s just so obviously –
Parinita: Have you watched it? The Star Wars Holiday Special?
Aditi: I hadn’t watched it for years but when I read that article, I saw a bit of it on YouTube.
Parinita: Yeah. Oh my god. So just as an aside, because I have to say I just love that movie so much [laughs].
Parinita: One of my friends introduced it to me a couple of years ago.
Aditi: Um hmm.
Parinita: We were just doing this bad movie night thing where we’d have these regular bad movie nights at their flat. And we watched this and I just couldn’t believe that this cultural touchstone that Star Wars is and The Star Wars Holiday Special, what it is. I don’t even ironically love it, I very sincerely and –
Parinita: Unironically love that ridiculous little movie that even George Lucas has completely divorced himself from.
Parinita: Like nope, I’m not going to do this. But yeah, sorry I interrupted you.
Aditi: I think it started from George Lucas because you always read about how he was influenced by Joseph Campbell and I read this book at some point of how Harry Potter also reflects the hero’s journey from Campbell. But the thing is Joseph Campbell’s books themselves have always felt like they are so … even his books about oriental mythology are still so much from a Western lens.
Aditi: And that’s the proto-text that people very often consider now for fantasy writing or for epic writing. But that itself is such a Western lens that you know that’s –
Parinita: Yeah and even on a couple of the Imaginary Worlds episodes that we listened to. How they were talking about basically science fiction – I don’t know if it was the ones that we listened to but I listen to a lot of his episodes. And just the analogy with science fiction. Things like Star Trek where the whole concept is discovery and whatever, but it is a very Western colonial perspective as well.
Aditi: It is.
Parinita: Which you don’t think about right? At least I don’t. I’ve grown up not thinking critically about media at all.
Parinita: I just – I’m entertained by media. And it’s only now that I found that I have those tools and the vocabulary to articulate these things. But also I enjoy doing it. I enjoy looking at these things critically. I was watching Star Wars the original trilogy the other day and the Ewoks are also so very stereotypically tribal I was like okay yeah this is interesting. I didn’t realise how much …
Aditi: When you see it as a kid, you just think that they’re kind of cute.
Parinita: Yeah! And even The Star Wars Holiday Special. So the first twenty minutes is – and this is what I love telling my friends about this movie, about how ridiculous this movie is – it is twenty minutes of unsubtitled Wookie dialogue.
Aditi: [laughs] I read that.
Parinita: So they’re just –
Aditi: That’s just –
Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] They’re just literally grunting. You have to just imagine what they’re saying to each other and you don’t have this context. But like I said, I unironically love this movie. But because I love critically analyzing it, I was also thinking, to me it was a bit like how someone who doesn’t speak the dominant language in a culture or doesn’t belong to the dominant religion or the race or whatever, depending on where they are, and how for them, their culture is marginalised as well.
Parinita: Like in this Wookie land, obviously nobody understands them. We, the audience don’t understand them. And it’s so easy to make fun of it – to laugh it off.
Aditi: But you know on a somewhat related note, this is one thing I found when watching not the really big-budget Hollywood movies but some TV shows and things like that. When they’re speaking, especially when they’re speaking in Tamil occasionally and very often they’re allegedly speaking in Tamil which I speak. But I don’t know that it’s Tamil.
Aditi: Because it sounds nothing like it. And I have to read the subtitles. So it’s sort of –
Parinita: [laughs] Ohhh right!
Aditi: You’ve not actually even got someone like a decent voice coach. Which they would do if someone was speaking French or Spanish or something.
Parinita: I know we’re going to talk about it a little more later but just because like you said that it’s just the politics of language as well. I was watching um what’s uh I’ve completely blanked out on the name – Hasan Minhaj’s show? The one on Netflix? [Patriot Act]
Parinita: I love that show. And he was doing an episode on India – the Indian political system. I think it was about Modi. I’m not sure. So he started speaking in Hindi at one point and the subtitles said, “speaks in a foreign language”.
Parinita: And I was like ummm first of all, you’re a global platform. You’re on Netflix. I mean it’s produced in the US but it is on a global platform. So foreign for whom? And also you’re literally talking about the Indian elections. It wouldn’t have been so difficult to figure out that it is Hindi or to just look it up or something. Yeah, I sent a very outraged message to one of my friends.
Parinita: Saying, “Foreign to whom?!” So the problem isn’t obviously including diverse cultures in your world. You want diverse cultures. It’s only I think when you use these unfamiliar cultures as if they’re – I think Zen Cho mentioned this – as if they’re set-dressing in your fantasy world.
Parinita: Especially if that culture is marginalised in the real world.
Parinita: One of the things that we read [I meant an episode we listened to] was the whole Native American fiasco that J. K. Rowling had found herself in.
Aditi: Oh my god yeah. With those Skinwalker things. That was just …
Parinita: Yeah! And honestly I have to admit, I don’t know that much about Native American culture and about what they consider really sacred and what they consider really a part of their culture. I think another thing that’s really popular on the internet now – or it was a few years ago – was the term “my spirit animal”.
Parinita: Like something is my spirit animal. Which now a lot of Native people on Twitter and things say that, “No this is offensive to us, we don’t like you using this. So instead why don’t you use Patronus because that’s basically what you mean and that’s not offending anybody.” She’s [Rowling] so rich. Why doesn’t she just hire a research assistant to do this stuff?
Aditi: I know! [laughs]
Parinita: It’s just ridiculous to me.
Aditi: No, I think that’s what’s happened with her is that as long as she was writing about British things in a British setting, she probably knew what was too sacred to be touched simply because she grew up with it. But once anyone, not just J. K. Rowling, once anyone starts writing about something that unfamiliar …
Parinita: But you would think that especially now because this she did not write in the 90s – about Magic in North America on her Pottermore essays
Parinita: It was now. When these conversations are very present. This is happening on the internet. And even if she doesn’t spend time on the internet, the fact that you have this power and your voice is reaching so many people and you know that your franchise is super popular, you would think that you would make more of an effort.
Aditi: You should do a bit more.
Aditi: It’s not just that. It’s like her list of wizarding schools.
Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god.
Aditi: You’ve got three of them in Europe and all of Asia has one wizarding school in Japan.
Parinita: Yeah! In Japan! I was listening to this other podcast Woke Doctor Who where they were doing a Harry Potter thing. And one of them, she’s Chinese-American. And she was like um Japan attacked China a few decades ago.
Parinita: I don’t think Chinese wizards would be really happy to go to Japan just like yeah hello, everything’s all right. And Africa I think has one? The whole of Africa has one wizarding school as well.
Aditi: Yeah. This is basic maths. She just needs to work out the population and figure out where the schools should be, that’s it.
Parinita: Yeah. And the UK I mean it’s such a tiny place and they get this whole British wizarding school. Which of course has its own issues. So I didn’t realise this earlier. All these British politics I’ve only learned the nuances of once I’ve moved to the UK.
Aditi: Um hmm.
Parinita: But Jack, who is Scottish, he had encountered this thing about Seamus Finnigan. He doesn’t read Harry Potter but he knows some things.
Parinita: And Seamus Finnigan, this Irish character who loves blowing things up and setting things on fire.
Parinita: And I was like oh my god what! [laughs] I didn’t even make that connection that your one Irish character loves blowing things up.
Parinita: [laughs] I guess there is an element of parody. I suppose you’re just doing it …
Parinita: Or maybe she thought that she was doing it as parody, I suppose?
Parinita: But I don’t know where that line is between – this North America thing, definitely she’s crossed the line because there have been Native American fans of Harry Potter who’ve called her out on it and she hasn’t yet to my belief, she hasn’t responded to the critique at all.
Aditi: Right. And the other thing is the Nagini thing which has been another disaster I think for her. And in so many ways it’s just so wrong to begin with. She’s not really focused on the mythology. Which is a secondary thing. But also this whole concept. I don’t know if she thought about it at the time when she said that killing Nagini was necessary. I don’t think Harry Potter spoilers count now, do they?
Parinita: No, no. I mean I’ll put a spoiler warning anyway. But yeah.
Aditi: But when you realise then that she was in fact a woman who was forced to be in that form and then killing her is necessary. And it’s just such a really, really terrible thing.
Parinita: And especially in a world where the characters of colour you can count on like maybe if not one hand, on two hands. Even though I think Nagini is from Crimes of Grindelwald?
Aditi: She is, yeah.
Parinita: I haven’t watched that movie yet. It’s on my list. As a proper Harry Potter scholar I suppose I should.
Parinita: But I’ve heard such bad things about it that it’s completely put me off watching it. But yeah even in the Harry Potter world but also in that prequel world, there aren’t that many characters of colour. So the way to include diversity isn’t necessarily to make this dramatic death scene.
Parinita: I don’t know it just seems basic. And some of these ideas you know they become so ingrained in you unconsciously because of what we’re exposed to, because of what we’re reading. We internalize these ideas of fantasy that we don’t even understand that oh this is our idea of fantasy. Which is why I love Terry Pratchett, his Discworld books.
Parinita: Because they push against it so often. They just take these tropes and stereotypes and they turn it upside down in a way that the reader’s like oh yeah you’re subverting it! And in a way that’s not obviously subverting it. Like he’s not saying oh look at me, look at how clever I am.
Parinita: But I mean he is pretty clever. So I love Terry Pratchett.
Parinita: Yeah. And they’re taking witches, for example, or aristocracy or just guards. And it’s taking them and it’s not completely doing away with their identity. It’s not subverting it in a way that their history doesn’t matter if that makes sense.
Parinita: It’s using their history and their identity to subvert, which I really like.
Aditi: No, I think that’s cool. The solution is not to say I’m introducing this character who’s diverse but they’re exactly like all the other characters and it’s just that from their name or the actor playing them or something, that’s how you know that they’re diverse.
Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I’m always torn you know as a writer but also as a reader. Because currently diversity is so … we’re still not there yet where we’ve achieved equal representation.
Parinita: So what’s the better way where you don’t mention anyone’s race or ability or gender, gender identity or whatever. And you just allow people to read themselves into it? Or you explicitly mention all the diverse identities so that it is more explicit?
Aditi: Yeah actually I think both ways work. I mean to an extent. ’Cause if you’re in a fantasy world with made-up names then it’s fine, you don’t have to. People can just imagine anything. Sometimes in the real world, just the sort of names and locations give you a bit of an idea of at least culturally what you mean. Honestly and I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege here because I can afford not to care but it’s just … something I’ve never really thought about one way or another in books. Because all this thing about shipping and who do you want to be dating whom and all that, I’ve never been involved in and never really have I cared about it. It’s always sort of like you know …
Parinita: Yeah like what other people say. I honestly didn’t think about these things either. Until I was listening to this episode um I forget the name of the Harry Potter podcast – oh yeah #WizardTeam. And it’s these two black American fans who are reading each chapter.
Aditi: Um hmm.
Parinita: And they just have a commentary. And they read Hermione but also Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall as black because they’d said that there is nothing that said otherwise in the text. In Harry Potter, all the characters who are not white – their race is mentioned.
Parinita: Whereas everybody else is normal I guess. Or you just don’t need to know their race because they’re obviously white.
Parinita: So I realised that when I’m reading Harry Potter or I’m reading any text that is Western-authored, for me everyone is white. I’ve not yet been able to decolonise my mind that much that I read my race or another race into it. I need to be told that this person is black or this person is Asian just for me to be able to even imagine differently. I suppose because –
Parinita: I’ve only been reading certain kind of books and watching a certain kind of –
Aditi: You know that happens with me too. When it’s a Western writer … yeah you’re right, unless they specifically say this character is whatever they are, you just assume that they are white.
Parinita: Yeah. Which is why I’m trying to … so over the last, I think, year or a bit, I was trying to read more fantasy exclusively authored by women. It just started off randomly but then I realised that I actually really enjoy the different kinds of stories that are here now when it’s women who are authoring these worlds. And in a way that I didn’t even realise I was missing. Because I was reading most of the books that are written by men or TV shows and movies that are created by men.
Parinita: And then I started reading more books from women of colour as they say in the US which now it’s a term I’ve adopted whereas both of us – we are women of colour. We are both from India. Like even in Singapore –
Parinita: There everyone is from … I think it’s very multicultural right? A lot of different countries’ inhabitants?
Aditi: It is, yeah. Especially in the business district and all you could be in any country because there are Chinese and Japanese and Indians and Europeans so there’s like everybody.
Parinita: Yeah. Which I think is so … like there’s so much potential because now at least in a lot of bigger cities, it is so multicultural.
Parinita: In Mumbai, it may not be in terms of – there are of course non-Indians who come and live there as well. Who some people will call expats because immigrants is only for brown people.
Parinita: But there’s also so many people from other parts of the country, right? India is essentially like twenty-seven different countries in one.
Parinita: And there is so much potential. But it seems like the way it’s divided is between dominant and marginalised – that’s the sort of relationship different people share. It’s such a pity because we’re missing out on so much. We as in we from the dominant culture within India or Singapore I guess.
Aditi: Yeah, no we do. But honestly, I’m not quite sure what the way around this is because when you think about it, it just doesn’t end well if you try to force people to interact. So it’s just one of those things that has to happen organically.
Aditi: And I hate that word but that is the only word for it.
Parinita: No, that’s true. Which is why for me, media is such an important way to do this. Because if your media shows these cultures – and whatever media not just books and fantasy but also movies and TV shows and things. If you are showing them only in stereotypes, then that’s how people who don’t know these others – who don’t interact with people who are not like them in the real world will then have this idea of those people, right? I didn’t sound very coherent but –
Aditi: [laughs] No but I know what you mean. You’re right. Because if your only exposure to somebody is through Hollywood which will happen if you’re Indian and you’re maybe living in a smaller town or something. Your only exposure to people from like China may be through movies.
Aditi: And then you’re just going to have this idea that could be really, really wrong.
Parinita: Yeah. And now of course there’s like ugh just mentioning China now is so fraught because just the amount of – I don’t know how it is in Singapore because obviously it’s a very different part of the world. But in the UK there have been so many attacks against not just Chinese people but also East Asian people in general. Because of this whole Coronavirus thing. And it’s just like it – it’s just – it makes me very depressed to talk about, honestly I shouldn’t have brought this up. But I think there is a link between how you consider people from another country just because of the media. Not just entertainment media but news media as well. If they’re so othered that it’s almost like they’re aliens and you know their – even the language that’s used, like in the US, for example, oh aliens.
Parinita: Mexicans are aliens.
Parinita: Of course it would have an effect. The language that you use is important. It is political. In India as well, people from Pakistan or from other parts of the country – if you use a word like cockroaches for them; if you’re a minister of a party who’s using this language, how do you make it better? That organic growth, it’ll be impossible for that to be achieved you know.
Aditi: Right. Yeah, no that’s true. There has to be … I don’t know it’s really depressing to think about it.
Parinita: It is. Let’s move on to some of our fantasy before we get really, really sad about this. Because while it is important, I don’t know how much we can do – what we can do about it.
Aditi: But can you imagine if Trump, when he was talking about Mexicans, if instead of calling them illegal aliens, he called them expats or something?
Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I obviously consider myself an immigrant in the UK currently because I’m living here. But I can’t call myself an expat because first of all that word is … I’m very doubtful of that word.
Parinita: I side-eye it. But also I’m brown so I’m not allowed to call myself an expat. And I’m not rich so I’m definitely not allowed to call myself an expat. So moving on to less depressing topics. Or maybe not. Maybe Harry Potter might also depress us. But I do love Harry Potter. [laughs]
Parinita: Despite all the problems that it has.
Aditi: No, that’s okay. We’ll still have fun.
Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] So perhaps we could think about what is considered the norm and what is considered exotic in some of our favourite worlds. One of the examples that I think you’d shared with me a few weeks ago was from Pratchett.
Parinita: Do you mind just briefly talking about that?
Aditi: Right. So Pratchett whom I mean I love him to bits. I don’t remember which book it was. I think it was Snuff.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Aditi: But there’s this bit where there’s one of the characters whose mother or grandmother or something came from a country that is sort of a stand-in for China.
Aditi: And there’s a running joke throughout the book that she makes a dish called Man Dog Suck Po and then there’s another dish with another similar name. It’s basically played for jokes.
Aditi: I thought that was tragic because Pratchett is so brilliant. He doesn’t need to do this.
Parinita: Yeah I know. And I think even with people who consider themselves progressive, people who consider themselves I suppose above such cultural goof-ups – or just horrible cultural missteps – it’s so important to be on the guard against these things. Because like we were talking about earlier, it’s so internalised.
Parinita: That you don’t even realise what you’re doing is ridiculous or is terrible.
Aditi: Right. And I mean there’s not even a moment which would possibly have redeemed it when people try this thing and say, oh it’s actually good and I liked it or something. It’s just a joke.
Parinita: Yeah. It’s just like diversity for the sake of humour and comic relief. And the Amy Sturgis episode on Reading, Writing, Rowling that we were listening to about indigenous futurism? They were making fun of the horrible way in which Rowling has written about indigenous people. They mentioned, “the radical idea that Native Americans have their own intellectual history.” It’s this thing that to others – to people who are not well-versed with this culture or who are just looking at it from this colonial perspective – don’t realise that Native Americans, even though their knowledge and practices differ from ours, or in India it might be different regions or even or tribal or rural sort of practices, it is still a valid way of understanding the world and interacting with the world. It just doesn’t match your own. And it was reminding me then of other cultures within Harry Potter whose cultures and intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked. So for example, Ron and just I think the magical world in general is so suspicious of goblins. And the way that they engage with magic and objects and whatever.
Aditi: Right. And it’s so silly because when you think about it, the goblins are running the economy. You should be really grateful to them because I don’t think anyone in the wizarding world can do maths.
Parinita: [laughs] No. I mean their system is so complicated like how many Knuts and Sickles and –
Aditi: Can you imagine if you’re trying to make change and you’re going what is twenty-nine into seventeen or something.
Parinita: [laughs] I know. And yeah, so I was also thinking that the Muggle culture within that and the Muggle-born culture as well is also so diminished.
Aditi: It is. And you know there’s one thing that didn’t occur to me at first but later when I re-read and thought about it, I thought it was really awful. Which is right upfront when Hagrid says, we don’t reveal ourselves to Muggles. And the reason is that they’d want magical solutions to their problems. And okay you don’t want to just be fixing people’s glasses and all, I get it. But when you realise that wizarding medicine in Rowling’s world is so advanced.
Aditi: And they’re just keeping it to themselves because they can’t be stuffed. That’s really awful.
Parinita: Yeah! And we were talking about this in an earlier episode – me and my friends. And we were like, could they fix the climate crisis? Why wouldn’t you? You live with the Muggles as well right? Do you not want the planet to be all right?
Parinita: And also the thing is that they have such a paternalistic attitude towards Muggles and Muggle-born culture. So I re-read Philosopher’s Stone recently.
Aditi: Um hmm.
Parinita: And this Hermione’s obsession with reading everything to know about the magical world and being this rule-follower until … she isn’t. But still largely following rules.
Parinita: And I was thinking that that’s so similar to the experiences of an immigrant right?
Parinita: Either in another country or even in another –
Parinita: Like from rural to urban or whatever. And you want to be the best version of yourself because if you go wrong, you will be held as the representative for your entire race or religion or … yeah whatever. And nobody seems to really be that curious about Hermione’s Muggle background – except Arthur Weasley. But even he isn’t – it’s in a way that’s –
Aditi: It’s like he’s looking at something in a zoo.
Parinita: Yeah! Or in a museum. Okay magic is super advanced in some cases. But in other cases, like Muggles, we use ballpoint pens. [laughs]
Aditi: [laughs] They’re using quills and ink.
Parinita: Yeah! We don’t use chamber pots and I don’t know … some of them I think still use chamber pots or was it just Dumbledore – I don’t know. I have this –
Aditi: It’s Dumbledore who found chamber pots in the Room of Requirement.
Parinita: Oh yeah! Yeah! Which like … um plumbing?
Parinita: So no, it’s just like there’s so much that can be achieved through cross-cultural collaboration.
Parinita: If the wizards and witches actually respected or were curious about Muggle culture, imagine how much better Hogwarts would be. Health and safety would definitely be better. Because they don’t seem to have heard about it. Maybe therapy? Some of the professors could also do with therapy, I think.
Parinita: And just the internet! Imagine how much miscommunication has happened in even just the Order of the Phoenix.
Aditi: I mean just imagine if Harry had a cellphone then Sirius would not be dead.
Parinita: I know! [laughs] I know!
Aditi: But you know another thing that I – and that’s another thing that I realised only after you put that thing about food in the Google doc [we use while planning the episode], the other thing that struck me is that in all of Harry Potter, all the food is just exactly like in Enid Blyton.
Parinita: Oh yeah!
Aditi: And I think the most foreign thing they have is like bouillabaisse.
Aditi: Even that is making fun of it but –
Parinita: Yeah because, oh what is this foreign thing that only Fleur seems to want?
Aditi: Yeah. But actual British culture I mean they do have a lot of other food I would think.
Parinita: Oh, you know what the national dish of the UK is? Chicken tikka masala. [laughs]
Aditi: Yeah exactly. But there’s never chicken tikka masala at Hogwarts.
Parinita: Exactly! I’m not even joking. This is something that Scotland claims to have invented which I’m taking with a grain of salt.
Parinita: It was some Bangladeshi immigrants in Scotland that apparently invented chicken tikka masala. Which fine whatever. When I used to read about Enid Blyton food as a kid, it used to seem so exotic and so exciting to me.
Parinita: And when I re-read it as an adult, I was like oh you’re eating boiled eggs with a twist of salt? Okay.
Parinita: That’s cool. I understand because I’ve read this that she’d written about it in the post-Second-World-War atmosphere where there was lots of rationing happening in the UK. So she was trying to make simple food and things sound exciting. Which worked because yeah it was super exciting even to this kid in India who had really yummy food around her. So the diversity in Hogwarts, what are the Patil twins eating? Are they happy with this bland British food?
Aditi: They’re having toast and marmalade for breakfast.
Aditi: Every day.
Parinita: Yeah! Do they not want some masala in their –
Parinita: I know what a struggle it is because I have a white Scottish boyfriend who is used to some spice but is not used to Indian level of spice.
Parinita: So it’s always a compromise in terms of spice. And he knows I like chili in everything. I like chili flakes in most things.
Parinita: So I need some spice. How can you be an Indian or a child of an Indian immigrant in Hogwarts and not want … I don’t know some curry powder in everything.
Aditi: All of them. Or even Cho Chang, she never gets noodles. I think they’re always having –
Parinita: That’s true! There are no noodles in Hogwarts! What a travesty! There’s no fish and chips either. Which is I suppose would be considered more … I don’t know if there’s a class connotation …
Aditi: Maybe they can go to the Hog’s Head and get fish and chips.
Parinita: Ah perhaps. So it’s all healthy food in Hogwarts. Which is quite boring. Even dal would have also – [laughs]
Parinita: Or lentil soup as they call it here. [laughs] That would have been at least more exciting. I never thought about the food in Hogwarts actually, about how narrow it is. What a fixed definition of food there is. And yeah I wonder if there’s fanfiction out there about just having a desi Christmas or a Diwali maybe.
Parinita: Maybe the Patils could celebrate Diwali or I don’t know whatever other – I’m very bad with my Hindu festivals. And in … I don’t know in Star Wars and things, food is not really mentioned … except in the Star Wars Holiday Special where there was another twenty-minute segment which consisted of a person on the TV cooking something.
Parinita: With an increasing number of arms that came out. I’m telling you, everybody needs to go watch this movie because it is amazing. [laughs]
Aditi: [laughs] Food is not … I mean you see a bit of it here and there but it’s not really a focus.
Parinita: Which I don’t understand because for me food is the most important part of any adventure. [laughs] Like why – I suppose they’re busy fighting a genocidal maniac I guess so it’s okay.
Aditi: Maybe Jedi knights don’t care about food.
Parinita: Oh what a sad future! Is this the future that we’re heading towards? Oh no!
Parinita: I know there have been a lot of critiques in A Song of Ice and Fire for his [George R. R. Martin’s] obsession with describing food. And Lord of the Rings as well. No, his [J. R. R. Tolkien] was trees.
Aditi: Yeah. [laughs]
Parinita: [laughs] Even in terms of food of course but there’s also language.
Parinita: We briefly spoke about that before and yeah I was thinking – just like in terms of the Wookie language, but also like in any of the fantasy worlds, of course, English is – because they’re written I suppose in the UK and the US. But the foreign languages that I can think of for example in the Lord of the Rings I think Elvish is one.
Parinita: Right? And the Orcs have their own language.
Aditi: Yeah, yeah.
Parinita: From what I remember. And obviously one is good whereas the other is evil.
Parinita: The people who come from the East are not to be trusted. [laughs] They’re villains. Whereas the Elves, they have this gentle tongue.
Parinita: No problems there.
Aditi: But yeah, no I think the way they handle languages is – and I think that’s a problem with Tolkien definitely ‘cause he’s … I mean I don’t want to speculate because it was so long ago so I don’t want to speculate about whether or not it was intentional. But everything that happens is focused on the West. And the East … I mean there are a lot of these mysterious events that happen there like the elves walk on the shore of the sea and they came to the west and the two blue wizards went there and they were never heard of again. So you have no idea what’s happening there. It’s just the sort of – for all you know there are snake charmers. It’s this sort of mysterious exotic place and we’ve got no clue what’s going on. And a part of it is also I think is that it was Tolkien’s area of study.
Aditi: The Anglo-Saxon and Nordic. And so it’s natural possibly that all the languages he invented should sort of be based on that. But yeah I don’t know I think culturally it’s also that his intention was to create a mythology for England.
Aditi: So he wasn’t trying to be diverse which –
Aditi: I mean that’s not an excuse – it isn’t diverse.
Parinita: No. I mean I do understand what you’re saying. I suppose especially when – he was writing what during the 60s? The 1960s? 50s? Or something like that.
Aditi: Yeah. I mean he started writing a bit earlier than that. Started creating a bit earlier than that. But yeah then the books were coming out then.
Parinita: Yeah so I mean I do understand why diversity wasn’t such a big thing. But then the sort of ideas that we have … because I think Zen Cho said that currently Western culture is global culture. Just because of how cultural imperialism has moved in terms of media. And English itself is considered this language of intelligence.
Parinita: In India.
Parinita: I’m talking specifically of India. One of my neighbours back home in Bombay, she had an interview in a school for her kid. Her kid was three or four so they wanted to get into a this fancy international school.
Aditi: Um hmm.
Parinita: And she was so worried. She wanted me to come to her the night before and teach her English because she was like, I don’t know to speak English. She speaks in Marathi. And she’s like, if I speak in Marathi and if I’m not able to speak in English, they’re going to think I won’t be able to look after my child’s education or they’re going to think I’m not intelligent.
Aditi: Oh god.
Parinita: Yeah! Right?! And this is in Mumbai where it’s full of Maharashtrians. It’s full of people who speak Marathi.
Parinita: And I did tell her don’t worry about the language so much. But also, on the other hand, there are people – people who speak in English – who do equate English with intelligence. And if you don’t speak in English, you’re obviously not as intelligent or your ideas are not as worthy as someone who does speak in English.
Parinita: Yeah it’s so sad. I think just talking about these things, it helps. But if you’re just talking amongst people who think like you, it’s … we’re just coming up with problems on this episode. [laughs] Like here’s a problem!
Aditi: No but actually now that you mention it, so there is this the thing in Lord of the Rings, the book, it doesn’t come in the movies. So Frodo, when he leaves Bag End, he meets these elves who are all going West because everyone goes to the West, it’s amazing.
Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]
Aditi: So there are two forms of Elvish that are primarily spoken in Middle-earth – Sindarin and Quenya. And Quenya is the one that is better and higher and everything. So he knows the Quenya greeting because Bilbo taught him.
Aditi: And he uses that and the elves are immediately like I think they name him Elf-friend on the spot.
Aditi: So that’s pretty much the same thing that’s happened to your neighbour I guess.
Aditi: Or that she thought would happen to her.
Parinita: And also just as a side-note, I find it really interesting that people like Tolkien fans are so excited to learn like Elvish or Star Trek fans are so excited to learn Klingon but not an actual foreign language that might make their neighbour more comfortable or somebody you know more comfortable.
Parinita: You know language is like food as well. I think in one of the episodes that I was listening to after we spoke when we were planning the episode, it was another Imaginary Worlds podcast episode about food in fantasy. And one of the guests was talking about how food is used to express xenophobia. Not just in the real world. Obviously in the real world where if you meet this unfamiliar food –
Aditi: Um hmm
Parinita: You’re like eww what is this, and it meets with disgust. But also in science fiction and fantasy, where if you’re going to this new either planet or country or land or whatever, there’s so much that can be done to push against what happens in the real world rather than just replicating what happens in the real world.
Parinita: I’m happy that even though something is so internalised, it’s difficult to unlearn these things, but still there’s still conversation happening. Like you and I we’re having one but also just on the internet in general. There’s more conversation about diversity so people are becoming aware of these things and it’s helping decolonise traditional ideas of fantasy.
Aditi: Yeah, I’ve learned to re-examine a lot of the things I thought and the way I read fantasy just through like Tumblr and Facebook. Well not Facebook so much, Tumblr. And stuff online.
Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Me too. Because you’re not learning these things in school, right? Nobody is telling you these things. Where else are you learning these things?
Parinita: It’s just the internet and for me fandom. That’s one of the major reasons that I started this podcast for the PhD project because for me, fandom has been such a tremendous learning experience and critically analysing things and unlearning problematic things that I have internalised.
Aditi: I think part of the problem in schools at least might just be that they don’t know how to have these conversations. ’Cause one of the literature texts that I did in school was The Tempest.
Aditi: And I mean I love Shakespeare too but that is also problematic in so many ways. But that’s just something they don’t talk about in schools. And maybe they don’t know how – they can’t you know …
Parinita: Oh yeah! You’re so right. I think more contemporary texts need to be used in schools anyway.
Parinita: But even if you want to place them in conversation with what you consider classic texts, there is such an opportunity to talk about anti-Semitism or to talk about problematic ideas in something like Shakespeare for example.
Parinita: I used to do this reading programme in a school in Mumbai.
Aditi: Um hmm.
Parinita: And one of the people really wanted to get rid of the fairy tale books in the library. Because she said that, which is true, a lot of the fairy tales, they have really problematic ideas of gender.
Parinita: But I told her that I think getting rid of these books would really be a lost opportunity because they’re going to be getting these messages outside anyway. Like we were talking about Disney.
Parinita: It is this huge corporate behemoth which is going to pervade everything.
Parinita: And I think a better use of that would be to read these stories but then teach the kids to problematise them; see what can be challenged in these ideas within the story that you don’t have to accept.
Parinita: And similarly in Shakespeare as well, I’m sure.
Aditi: Right. Because it’s the same thing we were talking about earlier. You can appreciate something and still realise that it’s got problems.
Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. So one of my favourite things is retellings of fairy tales or of mythology.
Parinita: Or just of old stories that were written when everything was really problematic if we look at it from now. But then they subvert the stories in ways that make them really relevant and contemporary and make it more exciting for us.
Aditi: Yeah. But actually you know I was reading this thing on – I think on Tumblr or somewhere a while ago. And I thought it was really cool. So it was about fairy tales and the original fairy tales, not retellings. About the good things even in those. So basically the one I remember is Cinderella ’cause she was saying that obviously it’s full of problems. But then the thing is also that Cinderella manages to stay hopeful despite all the horrible things that are happening to her.
Aditi: And she stays kind and she is still a good person despite everything. And that’s something worth remembering even if there are problems with the rest of it.
Parinita: That’s true! That’s such a good point. Because that’s true even in the texts that we’ve talked about today right? For example Harry Potter.
Parinita: Or you know Lord of the Rings, Pratchett whatever. Some which we love more than others.
Parinita: For me it’s definitely Harry Potter. I’m an avowed Harry Potter fangirl. But also Pratchett. But yeah, you don’t need to toss out the whole thing because you have one problematic element. Or maybe more than one problematic element. You can still search for the good in that. Harry Potter has positively impacted so many people in the world.
Parinita: You see these examples in activism as well where they draw on Harry Potter in the way people might have drawn on religion first. They’re drawing on Harry Potter as a sort of cultural myth almost. And they’re using it to understand the world. That’s why I love fandom so much because there is room for all these different interpretations and you’re learning from each other. So in an academic text that I read, Henry Jenkins, who’s awesome – he’s one of my favourite academics. He’s a fan scholar, so he’s both a fan and a scholar. And he talks about the collective intelligence of fandom.
Parinita: Where one person doesn’t know everything. It’s impossible for one person to know everything.
Parinita: But everybody has different skills and knowledge and you’re coming together in this space around a thing that you love. And you’re drawing on your own experiences and knowledge and backgrounds and whatever. And making sense of it together.
Aditi: Yeah I think actually that’s why I like Tumblr so much ‘cause it’s really a space where that happens. People just join conversations.
Parinita: Like you were saying, you learned a lot of queer perspectives and ideas about queerness and queer ideology and things from Tumblr and fandom right?
Aditi: Yeah. Right. Because that’s just not something that – I mean I knew that queerness existed but it just wasn’t something that was really on my radar when I was reading. Just like I wouldn’t have thought that a character was non-white in a Western book, I would not have thought that a character was queer unless the writer just said it outright.
Parinita: Yeah because if you’re not a part of that marginalised group, I guess you’re not really thinking about these identities. There was another discussion about disability and neurodiversity.
Parinita: I was listening to this other podcast where they read Hermione and Luna as well as Neville I think in Harry Potter as neurodiverse. As autistic.
Parinita: They said something which really struck a chord. That when writers are trying to write or are writing disabled characters into stories, they’re usually really rife with stereotypes. Especially if it’s someone who doesn’t have experience with disability.
Parinita: And they’ve done research but they’re using … they’ve obviously not talked to a person with a disability So it’s a stereotype. So people with these disabilities, they would rather recognise their own identities and practices and behaviours and whatever in characters that are not explicitly said to be disabled.
Aditi: Right. No actually you know that makes sense. ’Cause also I think the problem would be that a writer would be afraid of being accused of bias if they had too many flaws in a disabled character or something of that sort. So they just end up being these perfect people.
Parinita: Yeah, yeah! Or just that one thing gives them this super skill or something.
Parinita: That their disability becomes their magical power. For me, just these fandom conversations are so great. Like I was telling you, fan podcasts have become my new fandom expression.
Parinita: Because Tumblr would have sucked – although fan podcasts suck a lot of my time also. But I don’t have time for two things right now. So luckily I get to do this as a part of my research. So I’ve chosen a good project.
Parinita: Yeah I learn so much. But even within fandom, I feel like even within these conversations … we were talking about cultures earlier; I feel like there are cultures within fandom as well.
Parinita: Not just say Harry Potter would be different and Lord of the Rings would be different. But even within Harry Potter fandom for example. So initially in fanfiction and things, there’s been a lot of conversations about gender and queerness.
Parinita: A lot of engagement with that. But not so much with race. A few years ago I think it was called out. This became a topic of conversation then in fandom that you know there’s this race-blindness that’s happening and people are not really talking about race. Then trans folks were also complaining about this.
Parinita: But now I feel like in terms of diversity, there’s a lot of conversation happening about race. But not so much about other marginalised identities. Not so much for example about disability or class or I don’t know religion I guess. I do see a few things – there were these really cool texts about Muslim students in Hogwarts and how they would celebrate Eid and how they would do the month of Ramzan.
Aditi: Yeah I think you were mentioning that. And that also brings up the question of the same thing, Patil twins and Cho Chang. I mean is everyone a Christian who goes to Hogwarts? Because they seem to celebrate Christmas and Easter.
Aditi: I don’t even know. Because I don’t get the impression that anyone is really overtly a believer.
Parinita: Yeah because they don’t talk about Jesus or anything. Or the birth of Christ or anything.
Aditi: Yeah so Christmas just seems to be for crackers.
Parinita: Yeah. A cultural rather than religious celebration.
Aditi: Right. So in that case there’s no reason why they can’t like you said have Diwali or something. I’m sure they’d have fun doing that too.
Parinita: How fun would Diwali sweets at Hogwarts be though?
Parinita: Like jalebi and I don’t know I just miss Indian food a lot. I wish it was a bigger part of Hogwarts as well.
Aditi: And just think what they could do with the fireworks. [laughs]
Parinita: Yeah! Exactly.
Aditi: They don’t know what they’re missing.
Parinita: I mean maybe the animals like Fang wouldn’t have a great time during Diwali at Hogwarts but some sacrifices have to be made, I guess.
Parinita: But yeah even like Eid or something.
Parinita: Just having you understand each other through your customs and rituals and celebrations without exoticising them.
Aditi: Right. Or Chinese New Year because I’m sure Cho Chang can’t be the only Chinese student there.
Parinita: Yeah! I mean I hope not. Because there seems to be one token diversity everywhere. But yeah, just different cultural, regional, national celebrations would be really good. Scottish as well. They’re in Scotland. We don’t really know anything about Celtic culture.
Parinita: So I think we’re just about running out of time. But thank you so much Aditi for being on this podcast and for being a part of this project. It was so fun talking to somebody who has the same cultural contexts but also different fandoms and just bringing both our fandoms together and just geeking out about what we love and what we love to hate.
Aditi: [laughs] Thanks for having me. It’s been fun – great fun.
You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of diverse cultures in fantasy media. While editing this episode, Jack showed me a great example of encountering unfamiliar food from a different culture in one of his favourite shows Star Trek. Commander Riker participates in an officer cultural exchange programme and begins to understand the Klingon culture through its food. If, like me, you’re curious about checking it out – the episode is called A Matter of Honour. If you know of any other fictional examples of different cultures interacting with each other without the Western colonial perspective, I’d love to hear them! Thanks for such a fun conversation, Aditi. And thanks for all the editing and recommendations, Jack!
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