Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.
For Episode 7, There’s Never Chicken Tikka Masala At Hogwarts: Different Cultures in Fantasy Media we discussed the following texts:
1) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Cultural Traditions of Magic with Zen Cho
The fantasy fiction that exists depends on which culture is dominant in the real world. The magic systems and fictional worlds it creates and that we eventually grow used to as being the norm depends very much on this dominant culture and religion. This also means that cultures, religions, and practices which aren’t dominant are othered, exoticised and generally marginalised. Traditionally, the dominant framework in the West has been Judeo-Christian and since Western culture has been globalised, this has an impact all over the world. This is definitely true in my case where I grew up reading British and American literature and I still read largely Western fantasy, so this shapes my mind. However, I am trying to look for more diverse fantasy books now.
My experiences are similar to the ones Malaysian-British author Zen Cho describes. As someone who grew up in a former colony, we had access to British books. She says that reading Regency fiction was like reading about a new world – different language, food, customs, technology. For me, this applies to even things like Enid Blyton or the Baby-Sitters Club, for example. It’s all a foreign world.
Her writing is influenced by both – a mix of British fantasy traditions as well as local Malaysian folklore, as is mine (maybe less folklore, but Indian contexts for sure). What is magic like in Western fantasy? What ideas have we unwittingly internalised? When I sit to write, I don’t deliberately think about only using one or the other because I grew up in India but largely consume Western media – as did many people – so it’s a mix of both.
In Discworld the wizards were academic magic whereas the witches were community magic. There’s also a rational approach to magic versus wild magic (for example, in Uprooted by Naomi Novik where the Dragon’s magic is intellectual and bookish whereas Nishka’s magic is emotional and earth-based). Does this reflct gendered beliefs and/or Western/pagan belief where Western is academic and proper? There are elements of colonisation where non-Judeo Christian magic is almost considered to be not as good as Western conceptions of magic. Where Western ideas replace the native magic, similar to what we see in Rowling’s Magic in North America controversy. Even within the West, as Jack says, there are many Celtic beliefs which are largely overlooked. I don’t even know what an Indian idea of magic would be. I feel like my brain is so full of other ideas of magic that I’d need to do a lot of research to familiarise myself with Indian magic. Do our ideas of magic change depending on historical contexts as well? Or just what we read first and which imprinted on our mind?
Zen’s world explores cultural clashes in terms of moving to a different country and encountering the different magic systems there. But she also reversed that in a way which I find very interesting. In the True Queen, she goes from Malaysia to Britain and British systems are seen as foreign rather than what is traditionally the other way round where other countries and cultures are considered unfamiliar and exotic. Zen points out that the way the air feels, the light looks, the landscape is, the climate, the food – the default has been European and not tropical. Using Malaysian English, eating Malaysian food, the kind of drinks – all this troubles the conception of what we take for granted – no hard bread and cheese. Enid Blyton’s food has shaped SO much of my brain and Indian imaginations in general.
As Zen points out, Western culture is more or less global culture now. And media is our glimpse into cultures you’re not familiar with – even if you are from that culture yourself, like me in India. Media shapes your ideas of the place you inhabit as well. In Western culture, it appears like the Enlightenment replaced earlier ideas of magic – we’re now rational and don’t believe in magic – except if it’s religion, I suppose. I think this is similar to my experiences as well where when I was younger I railed against any ideas which went against rational and scientific – which is basically against what is prevalent in most of India, including with my mother. It’s just a different way of understanding the world and I was very snobby about it – convinced I was correct and was so unbearably self-righteous. (Though I’m still very impatient with what I consider irrationality so maybe I’ve only changed the slightest bit).
Magic is universal and every culture has different ideas of it – but for a lot of people, it’s no longer acceptable to believe in these ideas if you’re a certain kind of person (urban, educated, middle-class/upper-class). Shamanic magic appears in different parts of the world. You do need to be respectful of people who still practise these and believe in this. Places where they consider the world less knowable. For people in the past, religion played a much more central part of their life than it does now (though this is very contextual, of course; large parts of India are extremely religious). So perhaps writing a fantasy set in the past, or the fictional past, may include everyday engagement with religion in the background of fantastical magic – as Zen does in The True Queen where she deliberately chose to show that magic and religion co-existed. But in her world, British culture is foreign whereas Malay culture is the norm, which is why she uses Allah rather than god since Malay culture is predominantly Muslim. This seems like such a little thing but has such a significant impact. The way that god is normalised but Allah is political. As one of the hosts mentioned that in Texas, the Harry Potter books were banned because of their associations with paganism and witchcraft (whereas it clearly is based on a Christian framework).
2) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Islands in Speculative Fiction: Live from WorldCon
According to the panelists, some favourite fictional islands include Earthsea, Abarat, the Odyssey, the Voyage of the Dawn Treader in Narnia visiting different islands where the islands are different magical spaces full of different creatures and rules, Circe, the Amazons (with the last two, islands with women being more empowering and potentially feminist spaces). I can also think of Neverland, Gullstruck Island (Frances Hardinge), Lost … Terry Pratchett had one too, I think? And George R. R. Martin had his isles which were far-off and mysterious too.
Vida Cruz, a writer from the Philippines, which consists of several islands, offers a non-dominant view of the islands and cultures – centering an islander perspective rather than a mainlander one. She points out that when most people write about islands, they write about the ocean or the sea with fear as opposed to the one in Abarat or in Moana, the sea is a friend which can sometimes be dangerous but isn’t something which you only engage with fearfully. Two panelists connect islands as mysterious and magical. Exoticising islands as someone who doesn’t come from an island culture reflects mainland stereotypes and notions about islands and the people who inhabit them.
“The view of islands as isolated and a place of exile is a very mainlander view of viewing islands.” – Vida
As Vida points out, she comes from a community which has always lived on the archipelago, so it has never occurred to her to feel like it’s isolated or fearful. The water itself isn’t considered to be something which separates the islands, but something which connects them. Constructed bridges only appeared with the colonisers. For her the island is just normal. The exoticisation of islands is something which is common with mainlanders who view the islands as an escape. However, they are dismissive of the disruption caused to the ecosystem and lives of the people who actually live on those islands. They do bring tourism and economic benefits with them but it should be in a way that is sustainable and does not destroy the island infrastructure and ecosystem. This is similar to colonisers’ view of the places unfamiliar to them as well as contemporary tourism from wealthier countries to more impoverished countries and cultures. Vida’s opinion is that for people in the West, they were the last to “conquer” water whereas other seafaring cultures saw it in terms of providing and mutual relationships with water. This reflects the former’s land-locked nature. They looked at the sea with fear since it was unknown. And this has shaped how people today also view islands versus mainlands.
One of the panelists says that in fiction, islands are seen as spaces where rules can be amended or broken down (Lord of the Flies? Robinson Crusoe?) – “Do we need distance to imagine new ways of living?” A questionable trope because it reiterates preconceived notions of “the other” – one person’s exotic is another’s norm. As another of the panelists says, you can think of both how other cultures are different from us as well as how they are similar to us – the combination of the two can go a great way in evoking empathy for different experiences. Vida’s points educated the others on the panel – but some appeared more on board than others.
Swiss Family Robinson is a very colonial story of island-living – I disliked the book very much, in a way which I wasn’t able to articulate why – but all of it made me very angry! I think I was expecting something very different – and I love some of these books written more than a hundred years ago – Lucy Maud Montgomery, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott. The idea of Lord of the Flies is a very limited conception of what would happen in a crisis situation with a group of white teenage boys – which goes against documented examples of what happens in real life instances where people tend to come together. The recent Guardian article about a group of boys who were stranded on an island is a popular example. Also the meme of how everyone thought a dystopian pandemic would involve looting and murder but the real-life version includes lots of free art and baking. Istead of being scared of each other, you’re helping each other and trusting each other. We’re all cut off in our own separate islands/homes but still connected to others (of course, this is speaking as someone with immense privilege which many Indian migrant labourers don’t share).
The Spanish colonisation of the Philippines ruined the egalitarian relationships between men and women – reflective of other cultures and countries. In traditional fantasy, islands are always secondary spaces whereas the focus is always on the mainland. Vida proposes that islands are places for resources, where you can steal these resources from. While I was listening to this podcast, Jack pointed out that the popular idea of islands as new frontiers comes from a Western perspective i.e. the American Wild West – somewhere where you can be a new person and have a new life. Is this similar to Western people retiring to islands in different countries?
Islands can also be used as spaces to highlight cultural diversity, diversity of thought and lifestyles. Vida says that when she visits a local Philippines island, it had its own culture of magic and customs which are unfamiliar to her.
As one of the panelists who is Welsh and whose husband is from Ireland points out, even within the British island, there are different countries, cultures and politics. Ireland was the first decolonised country of the British empire. She proposed that Ireland was able to retain its independent culture and customs more easily than Scotland and Wales which shares a land border with England. The water border allowed for independence – both politically and culturally – thereby making separation a positive thing. This made me think of internet islands full of different spaces with different cultures – where you can be isolated in your own bubble but can also use it as a bridge of communication with other cultures. Can fandoms be seen as islands with different cultures in different fandoms?
3) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Do You Speak Conlang?
The episode explores the history of constructed languages or “con lang”. People have been inventing languages for fun for several centuries but they usually died out because of a limited reception. With fictional worlds, imaginary languages also belong to imagined cultures which provide a more in-depth engagement with both the language and the culture. How do you encounter and get to know an unfamiliar culture (fictional + real) through its language? Studying the language of a new culture allows us to understand the culture and the things it considers important. It also allows us to look at our own language and culture with a fresh perspective and question things we otherwise take for granted. When you’re creating a new language in a fictional world, you’re creating at a whole new history for the people through its lexicon – what is important, how the people engage with the world and with each other, their ideologies and politics. To me, moving to the UK achieved this, but not everyone can just up and move to a new country. Travel does this as well, but only if you’re inhabiting the place and engaging with the language in an active way.
I find it interesting that people take so much effort to learn a fictional language like Elvish and Klingon to understand and engage with a fictional culture but not a real unfamiliar culture. For me, I usually have these phases of wanting to master languages I know but don’t speak super well – Hindi and Marathi is something I’ve completely lost practice with. I want to read more literature in both Hindi and Marathi and now that I’m in England, I don’t even really watch Hindi movies that much (except sometimes on Netflix and once memorably in a theatre in Leeds where I went to watch Gully Boy with Jack and, as a white Scottish man, he was the minority in this desi space).
The politics of language is interesting – especially in India where English has so much more status than any other language. My neighbour had a school interview in an international school for her young son and she was so nervous because she doesn’t speak English much and was so ashamed of it. She was worried her lack of language skills would have a negative impact on her son’s education and future. In many cases, English is linked to intelligence. Even in my own case, my parents began speaking to me in English at home so that it helped me in school – a convent school. It worked – English is my first language, but at the cost of other languages – I am terrible at Tulu because nobody really taught me Tulu.
4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds In Defense of the Star Wars Holiday Special
Now I love The Star Wars Holiday Special very unironically because it’s such a wonderfully terrible movie. And I enjoy analysing things that I love – so this episode made me very happy. The force – as one of the religions/faiths in the Stars Wars world – this is so obvious now that I think about it; especially after watching some more Star Wars movies – Rogue One in particular – where the parallels with Buddhism are much more apparent. Throughout the movies, you get brief glimpses into different cultures. In The Holiday Special, the Wookie culture, society and religion are centered so the audience is knee-deep in this and has to navigate their own way through it.
One of the guests reads it as a refugee story in the middle of its goofiness. The Wookie planet has been taken over by a hostile force which doesn’t care about its happiness or its civil liberties. It’s really easy to laugh at the movie for its absurdity especially the untranslated Wookie dialogue – which constitute the first twenty minutes of the movie. But then thinking about it critically, this reflects the experiences of immigrants, people with disabilities, marginalised races and religions all over the world when they’re either trying to or are forced to assimilate with the dominant culture. It reminded me a little bit of The Arrival by Shaun Tan – a wordless graphic novel featuring an immigrant to a fantastical world. But it can also be read as just an immigrant encountering a land, animals, food, and language that is alien to him – and learning to navigate this.
There’s also a parallel here where people from dominant cultures often don’t make the same effort when visiting/inhabiting another region/country/culture. For example, the group of British people living in Spain who voted for Brexit who think that foreigners who don’t speak English should be kicked out of the UK when they don’t bother learning the language of the country they are living in. The arrogance which comes with cultural imperialism. This is true of Americans as well where the culture of American exceptionalism for many means a very American-centric view of the world even when they do travel. This is certainly true in India where the dominant urban or northern group centers their own lifes, experiences and languages when travelling to other parts of the country. This also reflects such a limited view of cultural exchange – multiculturalism which means you have to assimilate to the dominant culture rather than having a mix of cultures thrive with different food, language, clothes, customs – all equally respected and valued.
5) Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism
(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 5, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)
“The radical idea that native Americans have their own intellectual history” – this reminds me of other cultures whose intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked including indigenous forms of knowledge in both western and Indian contexts. In Harry Potter, Muggle culture is much belittled.
As the episode points out, Rowling relies on tired stereotypes and centres the experiences of white European wizards. She includes Native American history and culture in a cursory way without doing proper research. People shouldn’t write about indigenous (or any unfamiliar) culture without researching them. Rowling’s article exoticises the native people and treats them as if they are no longer around. This isn’t equivalent to ancient Greek mythology whose practices aren’t around whereas native culture and lives are very much a part of contemporary contexts. They think that JKR probably wouldn’t do this with other religions – maybe not with religions, but definitely with cultures, races, and countries. It displays a British colonial perspective. Rowling doesn’t listen to critics and learn from.their point of view even when called out on her ignorance/offensive understanding of certain marginalised aspects of the real world. It exhibits a lack of empathy as well as a failure of imagination by erasing people’s cultural, historical and social experiences.
As the episode discusses, “Magic in North America” treated native people as set-dressing in their own environment by centering the lives, perspectives and technologies of white people. It also implied that white magic is superior to native practices because that’s when magical history begins. Apart from this, it features a mishmash of Native cultures without doing any research into their actual individual and separate beliefs. Native beliefs and cultures are seen as a museum object – not something which is alive and practised by people even today. It’s disrespectful and full of tropes. While she researched things like Greek mythology in great detail and drew heavily from in the form of fantastical creatures and fantasy history, Native American experiences are not accorded the same respect. It reeks of a European coloniser attitude where native Americans eventually just disappear from her world.
They also discussed how Native Americans were given new names and language in the residential schools, something which Anne With An E provides a heartbreaking glimpse into. I also found this similar to Chinese students in the UK, all of whom have an English name that they use. Presumably in the latter case, they have more agency that Native American children did; however, the role of cultural and social pressures isn’t to be discounted.
As the episode asserts, parody without subversion can be harmful, especially when it’s targeting cultures and groups which are already marginalised or oppressed. “Cultural short-sightedness or cultural myopia” is born out the restrictions of your experience and imagination – which is understandable. What is less understandable is when this goes hand-in-hand with a lack of engagement or curiousity about unfamiliar cultures.
Amy and Katie – the guest and the host – are historians, so they know better than to be snobby about popular culture and popular things. What has been popular has changed and what is now popular culture was often considered high culture. Popular doesn’t necessarily mean bad.
Towards the end of the episode, they discuss the term wonderworks as an alternative way to envision science fiction and fantasy. Wonder is a question not an answer so it provides a perfect framework for speculative fiction – what if? You don’t come with preconceived answers and are willing to go beyond your knowledge and experiences to discover things you may not have otherwise considered. Indigenous futurism and Afrofuturism which imagines indigenous people and black people as present and respected in visions of the future.
Recommended article: Amy Sturgis’s article about Rowling’s failures.
Besides this, the episode recommends a bunch of Native American writers who write science fiction and fantasy stories.
6) Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Harry Potter Voices Across Borders
The guest is in this episode is Dr. M’Balia Thomas, a scholar and fan of colour. She proposes that Harry, Hermione and Muggle-born students as foreigners and border-crossers to the wizarding world where they have to grapple with a new language, new cultural, social and political contexts and learn to navigate these as outsiders. This is similar to English language learners who have to navigate new rules sometimes in new contexts – things that they didn’t grow up knowing and have to learn. She thinks this analogy and imagined context can be used to evoke empathy in real life contexts where people have to experience this as well i.e. where people are growing accustomed to difference (in terms of race, religion, immigrants, migrants, class). Using a popular cultural text like Harry Potter where many people are familiar with the characters and the world, is very valuable.
When Hermione enters the new magical universe, she reads ALL the books about it to understand it so that she can fit in. Of course, this does come from a place of relative social and intellectual privilege, but this privilege intersects with the lack of privilege as an outsider who is seen as lesser than by some purebloods in the community she is about to enter. Her approach is different to Harry’s who learns about the new world through an immersive experience rather than an intellectual one. Colin Creevey holds onto his camera, Dean Thomas holds onto his football posters and teams. This reveals a diversity of experiences while navigating a new world. Muggle-borns don’t represent a monolithic culture – similar to real-world English as a Second Language learners who come from different backgrounds. It can be helpful to use this as an analogy with TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) students who may not know people for whom English isn’t the first language. Delving into the personal histories and diverse contexts of the characters can be compared to the students’ own multiple experiences.
Is Hermione such a stickler to rules because she is an immigrant to this new world and doesn’t want to mess things up? This may be similar to teachers of colour in predominantly white spaces as well. Dr. M’Balia’s experiences reflect this where she struggled to fit into these new spaces and drew on the experiences of Hermione, Harry, as well as Lupin and the challenges he faced.
Dr M’Balia read the books through a teacher’s perspective and really identified with the teachers in Hogwarts. This especially came to the fore in her role as a teacher educator. As a teacher-educator, she and her students studied the educators and pedagogy employed at Hogwarts. It’s interesting how different this is to the Witch, Please hosts who discuss the pedagogy of Hogwarts as educators too, but they don’t think it reflects well on the teaching practices at Hogwarts. Perhaps there’s lessons to be learned from how not to do things too. There’s also an analogy between Hogwarts teachers, Muggle-borns and teachers of colour in academic spaces as border-crossing which may involve racial prejudices, doubting their ability, and fighting lots of Death Eaters in these spaces. “Mediating experiences through characters helped her find her voice.”
Western media fandom itself is a white-dominated spaces where fans of colour work to disrupt the cultural and racial hegemony through their fan works and discussions. This is similar to navigating academia as a scholar with any aspect of difference. Both the host and the guest encourage scholars studying popular culture and Harry Potter. As one of the many valuable examples, they point to wizard rock such as Harry and the Potters, a band which now engages with social and political issues and activism. This is similar to Harry Potter scholarship and fandom which is increasingly concerned with social and political activism. Fans use Harry Potter as a way to make meaning in our culture. They think that its popularity shouldn’t be held against it. I think the popularity makes it even more important because it makes the themes and discussions accessible to a larger group of people which can include people from wildly different backgrounds.
Trauma, Harry Potter, and the Demented World of Academia by Dr. M’Balia Thomas
The article explores how psychology, like many academic disciplines, has a Western focus and tends to apply Western studies, populations and insights as universal principles, overlooking the fact that a person’s cultural context impacts their psychology, attitudes and behaviours. The latter idea is something which psychologists have been arguing more recently – called ‘cross-cultural psychology’.
According to the article and some research, Western participants tend to display an analytical thinking approach whereas Eastern participants display a holistic thinking approach. Of course, this is also essentialising both the West and the East without interrogating the nuances and complexities inherent within both environments – neither the West nor the East is a monolith.
“Subsequent studies have shown that cultural differences in thinking styles are pervasive in cognition – affecting memory, attention, perception, reasoning and how we talk and think.”
Even something like mental health and what is considered “normal” differs in diverse cultural contexts – what is normal in one culture may be weird in another – what impact does this have on what is considered mental illness and how this is addressed? This article is also as good a reason as any to question our ideas of normal and what we take for granted – it is so situationally dependent. What’s normal when I live in India is very different from my life in the UK. Even within the UK, what is normal in Scotland is different from what is normal in England – and it’s such a tiny island anyway!
8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Fantastical Feasts
After we planned our episode, I listened to this episode which explores what food can reveal in fantasy worlds. One of the guests engages in this thought experiment when creating a new fantastical world:
Imagine how a character in your world would boil water and include all the steps in the process. Is there a well? How do you draw water? Is there engineering? A heat source? Stove/fire?
What kind of food are you eating when you’re travelling/on the road? Not the same as when you’re stationary.
In a scarcity economy (in fantasy or in a dystopian universe), characters will care where their food is coming from because they’re constantly hungry
“An abundance of food can be used as a social critique” – Eric
Food in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (both scarcity in Charlie Bucket’s family and abundance in the chocolate factory), Narnia, Enid Blyton’s books which results from the rationing culture after World War II.
In SFF, food can be used to express xenophobia where the food is unfamiliar when a person enters a new world. In the real world, the food of people from non-dominant cultures is often met with disgust and/or exocticisation. To flip this concept, the character can be made to eat this unfamiliar food and eat it badly and it’s just how you negotiate unfamiliar things rather than treat them as alien and with disgust. There was a scene showing just this with Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even food from the past is unfamiliar – not just food from different parts of the country and world.
Food is politics – supply chain logistics – class warfare – environmental crisis – reimagining food may not just be necessary for creativity in the future but it may be important for survival. During the pandemic, we also have a different relationship with food based on what’s available – flour is disappearing – panic buying – people with resources and time can afford to panic buy – what do you make when you have the time to cook things from scratch? Or have the brainspace and energy to envision healthy meals?