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 18, , we discussed the following texts:
1) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Special Edition Owl Post and Marya Bangee (listen from 19 minutes 40 seconds till the end of the episode)
This episode discusses how Hermione has to leave behind her Muggle culture to assimilate into the magical world and how witches and wizards have so many stereotypes about Muggles
One of the listeners believes that Hermione must have thought there were so many easier Muggle technologies to use in the magical world rather than relying on inconvenient magical things. Hermione never talks about her Muggle background and culture, even though so many people in the magical world have some really strange assumptions about and biases against non-magical people. The listener believes that Hermione has internalised the magical world’s dismissal of the Muggle world. She feels like she needs to assimilate to the new culture in order to fit in and consequently leaves her own culture behind. The listener draws parallels between this and her own experiences living abroad where she felt she had to set aside her cultural values and experiences because people in her new culture weren’t really interested in knowing these things. I empathise with this as an Indian immigrant living in the UK. Rarely anybody else seems to really care about what’s happening in India, either culturally or politically.
There are so many Muggle things that Hermione or any other Muggleborn student could introduce to the magical world and make the world better through cultural exchange. This isn’t just limited to science, travel, technology and communication but also literature and art. Hermione and other Muggleborn students seem to live in a society which largely resembles their society’s history. Nobody in the magical world seems to be interested in making life easier because witches and wizards think they are above learning from Muggle cultures. Visibility isn’t just important for people from marginalised cultures for their own sense of identity but also for people from dominant cultures to understand them in non-stereotypical ways.
The politics of language – Fudge’s attitude to his Bulgarian counterpart at the World Cup in Goblet of Fire+ goblin languages which are depicted negatively and harshly. Barty Crouch Sr. and Dumbledore seem to be the only ones who speak several languages – shouldn’t this be a more normalised part of the world? Shouldn’t Muggle Studies be a compulsory part of the Hogwarts curriculum?
When Marya Bangee is asked why she thinks Hermione doesn’t always share her Muggle knowledge in the magical world, the guest, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the US, relates to Hermione’s insider/outsider status. This is similar to my experience in the UK though I do have the privilege of cultural and social capital. Marya thinks that people don’t always want to point out their differences and want to be a part of the community and connect with other people. She thinks Hermione already has noticeable differences thanks to her origin as well as her intelligence and social justice advocacy.
One of the problems with the dominant culture not having a more nuanced and complex view of marginalised cultures is that it can lead to negative stereotypes. It can also lead to a lack of self-esteem and harmful internalised social conditioning among the marginalised cultures. Witches and wizards in the Potterverse have so many biases against other magical people like goblins, giants, werewolves. What would the magical world be like if there was more cross-cultural exchange? You see more of this in Fantastic Beasts with relationships among magical and non-magical folks but it is still exceptionalised.
2) Tumblr post – Imagine A Muslim Witch
This Tumblr post imagines what the life of a Muslim student in and outside of Hogwarts would be like
I love this headcanon so much! Even though it speaks specifically of a Muslim Muggleborn witch’s experiences at Hogwarts – something that the books don’t explore at all – it makes me think of other experiences which are missing in the book and how they would fit in within the magical world. This applies not just to real-life religions and cultures but also different magical world creatures and cultures. This is why I love fandom so much. Fans of a popular series like Harry Potter come from such a diverse range of backgrounds. Obviously it’s not possible to represent EVERYONE in the text, knowing Rowling’s own limited perspectives and experiences. But the world is broad enough to host a myriad of experiences.
What would a Parvati’s-eye view of Hogwarts and her home life be like? And Cho Chang? I’d also love to see Hogwarts welcoming in non-human creatures within its walls too. What about a Hogwarts full of centaurs, merpeople, giants, werewolves, goblins and house elves – as students and teachers? Even for those who don’t have access to the witch/wizarding magic, surely there are some things which don’t require magic? Does making potions always require a wand? What about learning from their skills – which may not necessarily be magical or may be a different kind of magic but interesting and important all the same? Why don’t the witches and wizards learn about the others who share their world – their cultures and beliefs? Harry thinks merpeople might eat humans or murder humans when they’re actually lovely. And this doesn’t come of bigotry – as some of Ron’s beliefs do – but just pure ignorance.
Even in terms of food, language, culture, and religion, surely Hogwarts and the magical world has room for different kinds of people from diverse backgrounds? Maybe they have their own magical traditions that they could share and raise awareness about? What about vegetarians at Hogwarts? Vegans? People with allergies or other food restrictions? It doesn’t just have implications on food but also Potions and spells in Charms and Transfiguration which seem to employ a lot of different animals and birds.
Through the years, though, things she never considered comes up. Like how she’s basically a vegetarian at Hogwarts in her first year cause the house-elves don’t know about halaal meat, or how everyone looks at her funnily when in Third Year she gets special permission from Dumbledore to break from classes for prayer (and she learns to be quiet for Fajr when her roommates complain).
Or how Madame Pomfrey gets worried about her fasting in Ramadan, and the house-elves are insulted when she won’t eat their food until she explains, and then stuff her full of food half an hour before Fajr and at Maghrib.
Or that she takes to healing the muggle way because not all those potions have ingredients that she can ingest, and she talks to a sheikh for advice on if salamanders and bat eyes are actually halaal.
In one of The Gayly Prophet episodes, they wondered about vegan substitutes for some of the Potions and spells which need animals and animal products. Surely there are magical researchers looking into these things? It may be a slow process like real-world academia but that’s why we need more diverse researchers, no? How about magical researchers from Muggle backgrounds who find ways to incorporate both magical and non-magical aspects into new discoveries?
And how annoying it is when the only holidays that get celebrated are Christian ones, and that’s when she makes friends with Anthony Goldstein, who agrees that there should be more religious diversity so he can really enjoy Hannukah at school.
This is something that we briefly spoke of in Episode 7 – where’s Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi and Pateti other desi festivals? Surely it’ll be a more fun, diverse, multicultural environment where everyone gets to understand and try different kinds of customs, clothes, and – to me, most importantly – food?
The politics of language rears its head here in a way I’d never considered before. English is the dominant language even in magical spells which draw from Latin words. Super Eurocentric. It’s also strange that people in Hogwarts don’t study other languages to not only talk to foreign witches and wizards but also to British magical creatures who speak different languages like goblins and merpeople, for example. Dumbledore and Barty Crouch Sr. know several languages, but I’m assuming they studied it on their own time. There’s also no study of Muggle culture in Hogwarts which is strange since they live in a Muggle-dominant society.
She gets in trouble for saying her spells in Arabic instead of English, to the consternation of all her professors who don’t understand the language and insist that its dangerous if they can’t govern her spell-casting.
So she starts a duelling club, and Padma joins her and casts spells in Punjabi, and Anthony who does his spells in Hebrew (they’re not making up spells, just changing the language, and isn’t it funny that the spells are always a teensy bit different?), and others trickle in, and new magic gets practiced under the supervision of a Ministry hire who encourages them and speaks sixteen different languages.
Again, I am so in love with this headcanon exploring religious diversity at Hogwarts in different ways. Ugh I love fan creativity so much!
She worries about the practical non-existence of Muslims in Wizarding Britain, and will that affect the jobs she can get, because wizards and witches are a bit funny about religion?
Muggles are also RIDICULOUS about religion – does magical Britain inherit the same prejudices as their Muggle counterpart?
3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Cultural Traditions of Magic
This episode talks about how most popular fantasy is so Western and Christianity centric and what non-Western fantasy worlds and creatures could look like. They do refer to the guest Zen Cho’s books but you don’t need to have read the books to make sense of the conversation – it brings up some really interesting points
(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 7, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)
While popular Western fantasy has taken over the world, we still manage to imbibe our own cultural traditions of fantasy and storytelling as non-Western fans. In India, we have our mythological texts which are very much a part of our culture as well as popular folktales which we’ve grown up with. At the same time, we were also exposed to Western fairy tales and mythologies, so there’s a lot of cultural mishmash.
The language used in these Western SFF texts is unusual for people outside the context. We had to fill in the gaps of our knowledge when it came to words that were used in Harry Potter and Enid Blyton – jumpers, food etc. These things didn’t get in the way of the story but readers had to work harder to build a contextual understanding. This reflects systems of power too – which readers are used to/open to doing this about unfamiliar cultures? Relatedly, what ideas of magic have we internalised? Which elements do we take for granted that we can’t imagine a fantasy world without? A shift in perspective by setting the fictional world in another country/culture or focalising it through a non-Eurocentric lens is valuable because it disrupts our notions of what we take for granted and allows us to examine why we feel discomfited and find it so unfamiliar. What feels like it’s the default and what is othered?
Zen Cho mentions using Malaysian English whereas we have Indian English. I grew up wanting to perfect the British version of English reflecting my school and society’s priorities and emphasis on the “Queen’s English” even though India has been independent from the queen for several decades! We have to fit the language based on ideas of who and what you believe to be superior. You end up feeling inferior because your language doesn’t match this aspirational other and you also end up dismissing what makes your own language unique. There are several versions of English so what does standard English even mean? It used to be an issue (and still is for some) in children’s books where examples of Indian English were looked down upon. This also impacts what things which you consider exotic on the printed page. Words and phrases are italicised even if you’re writing for an audience which wouldn’t consider those words and phrases unfamiliar and foreign.
Zen Cho mentions that in Malaysia, even middle-class or wealthier, urban, educated people believe in spirits. They don’t see anything contradictory between these different beliefs; they’re just different aspects of their identity and they see no need to separate them. She also mentions how she’s grown up with certain cultural superstitions which impacts how she thinks about the world. It reminds me of similar superstitions we have – some of which are universal and others of which are very specific to India. Totally resonate with Zen Cho when she says she doesn’t believe in spirits but sometimes she worries that the spirits don’t care whether she believes in them or not! It’s interesting dating a Scottish man and coming from such a different background not just nationally but also regionally – I’m from a big city, he’s from a small town (those sound like song lyrics!) – and how we make room for our different cultural habits and experiences. In terms of language, we used to get into arguments because the way we converse is different. For him, as a Scottish person (and perhaps as a man), someone interrupting him while talking is super rude. For me, interrupting someone while talking is how you show you’re engaged and active and listening to the conversation.
What terms are considered normal and which are considered political? As one of the hosts says, “people have opinions” if you use Allah instead of god, for example. This controversy itself is also very contextual, historically and geographically. People in the past or in other parts of the world may not take umbrage with the same things. Different religions and cultures have different ideas of the importance of magic and who is allowed to use this magic. I loved The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho because it so organically incorporated both British and Asian magical cultures and creatures – along with explorations of race and national identity as well as a badass powerful older witch and a fantastic female protagonist.
This article lists some recent popular fantasy books and series written by Muslim women who move beyond the traditionally white, Eurocentric fantasy worlds and incorporate their own mythologies, stories, and religions into the narratives
I love that there’s this surge in science fiction and fantasy which doesn’t focus on primarily Western, Eurocentric cultures. This article specifically talks about Muslim women writing SFF, drawing on their own perspectives, experiences and knowledges. But increasingly, there’s also been room for other cultures. Rick Riordan’s imprint, for example, does a brilliant job promoting lesser-known cultures on the world stage. He’s using his privilege and voice to promote those who don’t have the same power as him.
The women writers mentioned in this article disrupt traditional notions of Muslim women in their books and automatically address the lack of diversity in SFF. This is why you need to not just increase diversity in terms of representation but also who’s doing the representing. These women are drawing on their own cultures and histories and storytelling traditions:
That’s a change from the past, when speculative fiction was dominated by stories that drew on Norse, Christian and Arthurian sagas and mythologies.
A lot of these books have also been popular enough to launch online fan communities complete with fanfic and fan art. I love that diversity is becoming mainstream in this way! I wonder how many of these writers were inspired by popular books like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings etc. which have huge fandoms but not a huge amount of diversity. Were they perhaps inspired to create their own worlds in which they could see themselves reflected?
The article mentions Ms Marvel’s creator. I only got into comics relatively recently. I didn’t know where to start until I picked up the first in the Ms Marvel book in a Leeds public library a couple of years ago and had my mind completely blown. The representation of a desi superhero felt so completely authentic and not tokenistic, and it’s someone I recognised even though I grew up in India and I’m not Muslim.
In 2007, G. Willow Wilson — then a journalist writing on the Middle East and religious affairs, now a top comics writer most known for co-creating Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book — published the magical-realist thriller “Cairo.”
The dense urban fantasy played with Islamic and Arabic mythology, from jinns to flying prayer rugs to Arabian Nights, while also commenting on Arab-Israeli politics.
This extract reminds me of the article which studied Arab fans of Game of Thrones and how they used the fictional framework to explore the geopolitics in the world they inhabited. The flying prayer rugs reminds me of Ali Bashir in Goblet of Fire whose name keeps cropping up because he wants to import flying carpets into the UK as a family vehicle – something that’s currently illegal in the British magical world. Perhaps an unintended hint of British cultural imperialism even when it comes to ideas of which modes of magical transportation are appropriate?
As a science fiction editor, Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali says her biggest grievance was seeing stories about imaginary worlds where only white people exist.
“It really bugs me to see a far-off future-flung store, and everyone is white, and everyone is assumed to be Judeo-Christian or atheist,” the World Fantasy Award-nominated editor said. “Because we are in this world. I don’t believe that 100 or 200 or 400 years in the future, we will cease to exist, yet we don’t show up in stories about the future.”
Muslim and Indian history has had such a huge impact on events as well as scientific and technological advancements, but you’d think it was only the West that ever contributed anything to society. This creates false attitudes not just within Western audiences but also Eastern ones – superiority versus inferiority.
“It became very important to me as I was learning to be a writer myself, to write worlds where the people I loved and the cultures I find beauty in were present and real,” Intisar Khanani told Religion News Service. “Because we have the right to take up space in this world, and in our imagined worlds.”
A new wave of Muslim speculative fiction writers is chipping away at outdated notions of what belongs in the genre. Their stories often feature strong Muslim women protagonists and integrate themes from Islamic theology, folklore and history.
Mainstream entertainment and news media has such limited ideas of what it means to be a Muslim person or a Muslim woman and have an inaccurate version of Muslim history and beliefs. Normalising these cultures by letting Muslim women write their own stories is a fantastic way to disrupt biases and assumptions.
“I chose this word to reflect the fact that these women are claiming their history and their traditions to themselves and refusing to be erased from it or suppressed in this world,” Ausma Zehanat Khan said. “I wanted to take the Islamic tradition and put it in the hands of women and have them be its defenders.”
These writers have also used the framework of SFF to explore feminist themes within their culture:
“The genre allows them to break forms, imagining these utopian spaces where women can have certain kinds of power, often magical or otherworldly powers, that we can see as ciphers for a kind of critique or a reflection on women’s empowerment,” Hashem said.
And by drawing on Islamic history and culture in their settings and characters, Hashem argued, many Muslim authors implicitly rebuke anti-Muslim ideas of Islam as backward, while also critiquing notions that speculative fiction was born out of the European Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.
“Oppressed people are primed to imagine what things could look like if they were not the victim of so many different systems of oppression,” Safiyah Cheatam said. “I think we see a wider range of what futures could be available to us.”