A couple of weeks ago, I (virtually) attended the Fan Studies Association North America conference which was excellent in many different kinds of ways. The first salon I attended discussed embodied fan identities and practices. During the Q&A session, one of the participants proposed that tattoos act as embodied fan practices leading to the question, what do you do when your attachment to the text changes or the creator/artist is outed as being problematic/terrible. “What do I do with this piece of my body that I no longer want to claim?” Somebody shared that they’d written an autoethnographic narrative of their Harry Potter tattoo and I liked the idea so much that I wanted to do something similar.
In previous blog posts and podcast episodes, I’ve described my struggle with J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and its implications for being able to love Harry Potter. It’s a struggle which a large part of the online fandom shares. Some people, including a couple of my co-participants, no longer want to engage with the series because it’s forever tainted for them and they no longer want to contribute to Rowling’s financial, social and cultural capital. And I completely understand. But I find myself completely unable to let go of the series not just because of how important they were to me while I was growing up, but also how important they continue to remain to me. However, this isn’t without its problems – the most public of which are external displays of fannishness. The tattoo is one of them; all my Harry Potter merchandise (both official and unofficial) is another. I own Harry Potter T-shirts, jewelry and leggings all of which I love wearing. But every time I wear it now, I’m always conscious of the fact that I might inadvertently be representing politics I don’t believe in. Every time I whip out a Harry Potter tee or my Time-Turner necklace, I’m tempted to accessorise it with a sign on my back which says, “Trans rights are human rights.” When I met one of my co-participants for a pre-recording meeting to plan our episode, I’d unthinkingly worn a Harry Potter T-shirt and, before the meeting, buttoned my cardigan over it so the camera wouldn’t reveal it. And a tattoo, of course, is a much more permanent part of my body. I do know some fans are now covering up their Harry Potter tattoos or transforming them to something new. Again, something which I completely understand but also something I’m both unable and unwilling to do.
Over the last ten months, I’ve been rereading the Harry Potter books with a more critical gaze and a more intersectional lens. I took breaks in between the books; but with the last three books in the series, I read them in pretty quick succession. This made for an extremely intense, engaged, and emotional experience. Particularly with the Half-Blood Prince and the Deathly Hallows, which I read in mid- and late- October when most of my episodes had been recorded and I was reading to make notes for myself rather than to inform discussions, I fell much more deeply into the books, its characters and its events. And even though I found several things to critique, the critique didn’t take away from my love for the series; it solidified it. The rereading experience this year occurred in light of Rowling’s revelations, the pandemic, and the political situation in different countries all over the world. And because of this, it was full of both pain and joy. I kept drawing parallels to the different, difficult themes in the books and real-world issues – pandemic-related, politics-related, and personal mental health related. If I were to re-read the series in a different year, I’m sure I would find newer analogies relevant to that time and space. But what I realised was how much love I still had for these characters and the books – how much hope and comfort they brought me, even while I was looking at their traumas with fresher, more empathetic eyes. Just this morning, I spent ten minutes crying after Severus Snape is murdered, mentally shouting, “He was so young! He was only 38! What a tragic waste!” And last night, the only way I was able to sleep after Fred Weasley’s death was repeating to myself over and over again, “He lived a good life. It was a short life but he lived it so well and took so much joy in it that the quality of his life makes up for the quantity.” Even typing this no and thinking about this is making me emotional – a feeling perhaps only understood by other fans whose identities are so inextricably linked to the books. And despite finding several things to critique about the books, I realised how much I still love them and how they’re going to be a part of me forever – because they not only saved me during a childhood shaped by domestic violence but also because they saved me in 2020 when I’ve been depressed and anxious and stressed and lonely.
It’s the last week of the data-creation stage of my project which ends on 31st October. I’ve been treating the last two weeks as crunch time and done away with my previous guarding of weekends and carving free time into my schedule. Instead, I’ve worked relentlessly to get as much done as possible before I can shift my brain to another part of the PhD process. I’ve largely been stuck in front of my laptop screen – recording, transcribing, editing, writing blog posts. But every day, I go for a short walk in the middle of the day, during which I’ve been listening to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. And the podcast and its thoughtful and meaningful conversations have become such a source of comfort and inspiration too. While earlier I was listening to episodes out of order to find relevant ones for my own episode, now I’m just listening to them discuss chapters of The Goblet of Fire through different themes including kindness, comfort, grief, betrayal, disillusionment, and love. And much like re-reading the series, walking with these episodes has been intense, engaged and emotional. My supervisors and boyfriend have gently rebuked me in the past for listening to podcasts when I go for a walk because they believe it’s me taking my work outside when I should just be taking a break. My response to them (and myself) was, “What am I supposed to do when I walk if I don’t listen to podcasts? Just be alone with my thoughts?!”
But today, I realised that walking with podcasts hasn’t been an excuse to run away from my thoughts at all. It’s actually really helped me self-reflect and think about my own life and experiences. This has especially been true this week with Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and the themes they chose to focus on. Perhaps it’s because I’m not listening to the episodes for a specific reason i.e. to look for themes I can use in my own project. Instead, I’m just hanging out with the podcast because the hosts make for great company and offer excellent conversation – both flippant and deeply significant. I love the fact that they use Harry Potter chapters to talk about such big topics but also about everyday iterations of these topics and what ordinary people can do to incorporate more radical love in their lives. The hosts and their guests have been trained at the Harvard Divinity School, though the hosts are atheists and offer secular ministry. And the ways in which they frame their ideas – the kind of spirituality they bring to the forefront using both Harry Potter and their own personal experiences – has inspired listeners to offer their own interpretations, experiences, and versions of the spiritual. The idea behind the podcast is to treat Harry Potter as a sacred text, much like religious people treat their religious texts as sacred and engage deeply with its stories and themes to reflect on their own lives and societies. The podcast privileges the imperfectness of a sacred text and also emphasises the importance of doubt. You can’t generate new meanings and conversations if a text is considered perfect. You can’t talk back to the text and bring marginalised voices to the fore if the text is supposed to be untouchable. The podcast also privileges rigour and community – the fact that they committed to meet every week to talk to each other about the books reading each chapter through a different theme; the fact that they take the podcast seriously and carve out time to make notes and think about what they’re going to talk about; the fact that they do this together along with their producer and assorted guests and their listeners – all of this comes together to make their process of podcasting itself a sacred act.
The podcast has provided me with such a different way to think about all these things – what’s sacred and why, the importance of community, why love is a radical act, how I don’t need to run away from ideas of spirituality and self-reflection, and that spirituality and self-reflection can take many different forms – a fan podcast using the framework of popular media texts, for example.
Which brings me back to my tattoo. I got it carved into my skin in my early 20s – nearly a decade ago. It was meant to be the first of several literary tattoos – something which I still hope will cover my hands some day. But for now, it’s the only tattoo I have – tucked away on the inside of my wrist; easy to miss; and facing me so that anybody who wants to see what it is has to tilt their head (though for fellow Harry Potter fans, the symbol is instantly recognisable). After so many years, it’s no longer as vivid as it used to be. The tattoo is much more simple in design than any of the elaborate works of Harry Potter inspired body art I’ve seen over the years. I thought about what design I wanted for quite some time before deciding on this one. Because to me, Platform 9 3/4 represented Harry’s entry into this magical world – my entry into this magical world – full of wonder and torment; of joy and loss; of grief and community; of love and kindness and compassion and empathy – of all these big things and everyday things which the books are full of, which the podcasts are full of (the ones I’ve been listening to and the one I’ve been co-creating), which the world is full of and also desperately needs more of. For better or for worse, Harry Potter has given me a language to engage with the rest of the world. It has changed the architecture of my brain and the shape of my life. The books and the conversations and ideas around them will forever be imperfect and sacred to me. And hopefully, they will help me make more good choices than bad – love rather than hate – as I continue engaging with them throughout different periods of my life.
“Justice is what love looks like in public.”