A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Category: Harry Potter

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Tomorrow officially marks the last date of my data creation stage and I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this morning. Re-reading the series both for the project and situated in the midst of all the tumultuous events of 2020 has been an extremely illuminating, valuable, comforting, and emotional experience. It’s made me excited about re-reading the series again at another time and space – perhaps not the usual annual re-read of my early 20s but once every two years at least.

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the seventh book:

  • I like how similar Dudley and Draco’s trajectories are from privileged spoiled bullies to young men who develop compassion and empathy. The damage their parents have done to them coupled with their wealth and being used to getting everything they want – for good or ill – is astoundingly terrible. And it takes traumatic events for both of them to begin to unlearn their terribleness. They’d both benefit from therapy and also better adult/peer influences than their parents
  • Tonks knocks over a mug-tree at one point and I realised I’ve never never known what that meant. I used to think it was a special kind of indoor tree called mug? Understanding at last! Only took moving to the UK, of course.
  • More theme of women are men’s possessions in the books. Ron throws Lupin a “furtive, guilty look” before he holds onto Tonks’s waist. Oh Ron. I know I point out your inadequacies quite a bit, but I really do think you’re brilliant. But address your internalised misogyny, please and thank you
  • Hedwig’s death had so much more of an emotional impact now than when I was first reading it as a teenager, especially since it followed on the heels of Harry losing his Firebolt – his last connection to Sirius (well, nearly – there’s a mirror shard lying around somewhere). It made me think of child refugees who have to leave everything they know behind as they’re forced to leave home and don’t even have the comfort of their favourite things or pets. I know Harry is 17 in this book but that’s hardly any better than a child. His traumatic experiences and childhood may have aged him prematurely but he’s still a child. And Hedwig was his hope, comfort and companion in the otherwise hostile and abusive Dursley home
  • Ted Tonks, a Muggle-born wizard, refers to Arthur Weasley’s modifications on Hagrid’s flying motorbike as “Arthur and his Muggle contraptions.” His Muggle contraptions! How much has he assimilated into the magical community and inherited their prejudice and paternalism towards non-magical people like his parents?!
  • Gender roles on femininity – Harry thinks one of the best things about Ginny is that she never cries and always takes things in her stride. (The comparison to Cho isn’t explicit but very much implied). I don’t think Hermione is really shown to be the sort of girl who cries either. Cho and Lavender were the emotional ones and treated quite disparagingly by the narrative. Are emotions and tears something that make you a bad woman? What about boys being emotional and/or crying?
  • Gender roles on masculinity – George and Fred gift Ron a book called Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches and he in turn gifts a copy to Harry. On one hand, it’s kind of sweet the way they’re looking after each other when it comes to matters they know very little about. They are not only willing to learn and fill in the missing gaps in their knowledge but also share their knowledge. On the other hand, why can’t they just TALK about these things rather than having to read some random writer taking them through these issues? Why can’t they get some proper advice from each other? Is that a thing only reserved for girls?
  • On privilege – Harry is able to stand up to the Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour in a very forthright way but I wonder how much of this stems from the people he knows and who protect him + his reputation + his perceived role as the only hope against Voldemort. Social and cultural capital make it easier to stand up to injustice than someone from an oppressed group standing up or even someone without the same kind of privilege standing up to a government figure which would probably get them arrested or worse. (You see this in India where people who questioned the government are being thrown into prison on trumped up charges)
  • The Ministry which is supposed to be protecting the magical community from Voldemort and the Death Eaters is instead being even more anti-werewolf than it usually is! No wonder Lupin is miserable. What sort of life does he imagine a half-werewolf child would have in this terrible world? Even the good guys are terrible and the end of the series doesn’t even explore ending that oppression – despite centaurs, house-elves, a werewolf, and a giant fighting on their side
  • It’s the first time I’m noticing that the Weasleys have made so many accommodations for Hagrid to incorporate his size into their house (for dinner and for the wedding). Usually we see Hagrid in the Hogwarts context so didn’t think about how hard his life otherwise would be. Interesting both through the lens of fat activism and disability activism
  • The wedding rituals in the magical world seem suspiciously Christian with some magic thrown in. Does the magical community not have its own traditions?
  • Krum takes great offense at the Deathly Hallows symbol Xenopholius Lovegood wears because it was one Grindelwald adopted. This  is more widely known in his home country of Bulgaria since Grindelwald never got huge in Britain as a result of which most wedding guests don’t recognise it. Thinking of how different symbols have different meanings in different contexts. The swastika is the most direct parallel since Grindelwald is supposed to represent Hitler. In India, the swastika has very different connotations (Hindu good luck) than in the West (Nazis and the Holocaust)
  • Apparently in the earlier days, Squibs were a shameful secret that families shipped off to Muggle schools so they didn’t have to feel like second-class citizens in the magical world. The thing is it doesn’t seem like it’s gotten any better even now. Squibs still seem to be treated like second-class citizens. Just putting them out of sight isn’t a particularly effective or kind method. Why are they a problem and why can’t they just choose whether they’d like to live in the community they grew up in?
  • Kreacher’s take is really heartbreaking – less that he was brainwashed by the family he belonged to into being prejudiced (though that is also sad) but that he was used by Voldemort and the potion most likely affected his physical and mental health for the rest of his life. Hermione thinks Voldemort like other Purebloods didn’t bother to learn about house-elf magic because they don’t consider house-elves as equals which is how Kreacher was able to leave the cave. However isn’t this true of all the students and adults in the magical community even now? How much do they know about house-elves? They certainly don’t seem to learn about them, their culture, their beliefs, their powers in school
  • Hermione definitely has the best intentions when it comes to the house-elves (though not always the best methods). She understands Kreacher and how he thinks and the kindness and affection he craves and how this has been to both Voldemort’s and Sirius’s detriment
  • Regulus seems to be one of the other few good Slytherins who bought into his family’s and even Voldemort’s narrative but then realised he was wrong. The trigger seemed to have been Kreacher being left for dead which is also great considering how house-elves are usually looked at. He works to bring Voldemort down in a way which looks for no glory or recognition, just the successful eventual downfall of a movement he had joined and realised was awful. I wish we knew more about him too. I couldn’t help but draw connections to real-world alt-right people who’ve gotten out and are now speaking against their previous beliefs
  • Voldemort’s government creates a Muggle-born Register to keep a track of and round up Muggle-born witches and wizards and to investigate how they “stole” their magical abilities. Such documentation of oppressed or marginalised groups has been used for violence in the past – in India in Gujarat, Delhi and other parts of the country. In the US more recently registered Democrats in some states have received messages from people connected with the Proud Boys militia (though they deny this) that they better vote Republican or else – and showed they had their address and family info. In India, anti-CAA protesters drew connections with the Muggle-born registry more directly and outlined how Muslim citizens would and could be identified and targeted
  • Food privilege – Harry is used to starving with the Dursleys so the lack of food while they’re hiding outdoors doesn’t bother him as much. Hermione is more bothered by it but gets through it. Ron is used to good food all the time and it sends him over the edge. Access to food is a privilege and healthy nutritious food doubly so. How does this lack of access impact both children and adults both physically and mentally (especially in the context of how in the UK the Tory MPs voted against free food for vulnerable children over the Christmas holidays which seems extra Scroogeish even for them)
  • Pandemic parallels – being cooped up together in small spaces without access to food you like even when it’s with people you’re fond of, how it can fracture you and your relationships – Ron, Hermione and Harry together in a highly stressful situation
  • The role of a free, alternative media in a fascist regime – The Quibbler has stopped printing its usual news of the odd and is focusing on the resistance and supporting Harry Potter since all other media sources are toeing the government line. Parallels to India. The government does everything it can to shut down this media which questions its messaging – in this case kidnapping and imprisoning the editor’s daughter to silence him and force him to toe the government line
  • The role of students in the resistance – even though the Death Eaters have taken over Hogwarts, there’s still a group of students fermenting an underground rebellion in school. Parallels to India and the US.
  • Potterwatch is another alternate source of media – radio and podcast parallels – which challenges the government narrative at great risk and inconvenience to their own lives and families. It shares news and information that the government and government-controlled media are suppressing and even make sure to include news of attacks on and deaths of Muggles
  • Relatedly, they talk about instances of witches and wizards protecting Muggle friends and neighbours by casting protective charms on their houses. For all his talk of loving Muggles, Arthur doesn’t seem to have made any effort to get to know his Muggle neighbours or befriend any Muggles in the nearby village. Other witches and wizards certainly seem to have, so why not him? Are they just exotic things meant to be gawked at from afar?
  • I hope that people like Luna and Dean remember that Dobby, a house-elf, gave his life to save theirs and start thinking more actively and more empathetically about house-elves, their rights and their lives and consider them equally worthy of respect as witches and wizards. Ron is certainly affected as seen in the Battle of Hogwarts. I like to think that they all play a role in house-elf-related activism in the future – especially considering how important freedom was to Dobby. God I can barely finish writing this paragraph without wanting to cry
  • Dumbledore and faith – I think Witch, Please first pointed this out about how in the seventh book, Harry almost goes through a crisis of faith in the religious sense with the revelations about Dumbledore and his lack of clear communication and how he unpacks this to come to his own realisation in a way which brings him a more nuanced and complex understanding of his faith in Dumbledore. Doubting he’s dead – believing he sees Dumbledore in Sirius’s mirror shard, being angry at Dumbledore but also afraid of having misunderstood his intentions and meaning and now not following the path that Dumbledore meant him to, feeling lost and wanting some hope and comfort that he was doing the right thing, grappling with uncertainty and doubt and choosing to trust
  • Griphook and goblin resentment that witches and wizards guard the knowledge of wand magic and refuse to share it with Other Magical People for fear that it expand their powers. To which Ron retorts that goblins guard their of magic too, specifically how they make goblin armour. Surely one begets the other? This source of distrust and hoarding of knowledge perpetuates because neither side wants to come together to figure out their issues and share their cultural heritage with each other. I really want some magical world reforms
  • This supposedly tiny Shell Cottage which has no room for guests HAS THREE BEDROOMS. Bill and Fleur want to shift everyone to their aunt Muriel’s which has much more room for everyone to be comfortable. So it’s not like the Weasleys have no access to wealth or any wealthy connections. Lots of capital and opportunities
  • Goblin version of history differs from the wizarding version of history. Whose history is true? Likely nobody’s and both. Depends on who’s doing the telling of history. Lots of shared trauma and inherited prejudice. Even Bill who works with goblins and has goblin friends still considers it prudent to warn Harry about goblin culture and how their ideas of ownership, payment and repayment is very different from wizards. Look who’s talking! A British man whose job consisted of breaking into tombs in other countries to identify and break curses and jinxes so he could bring back foreign treasure to British shores. NO historical parallel whatsoever!
  • Ariana’s story – now that I read it through the lens of the Witch, Please theory, it does sound like she was sexually assaulted by the three Muggle boys who had seen her do magic when she was six years old. The resulting tragedy is a consequence of violence against women, against a child, for being both powerless and unable to control her power. They also included Helena Ravenclaw’s fate at the hands of the Bloody Baron as another example of violence against women being so embedded even in the magical world
  • Harry and faith – the way Harry sees Dumbledore is the way a lot of people see Harry. Dobby certainly has blind faith in Harry. The Hogwarts students in the resistance, the Order members and others, hell even Dumbledore whose last words to Kingsley and Remus were to trust Harry, they all share stories of Harry’s exploits as something to bolster their faith and hope. A symbol of the resistance and to keep going. As Neville says, they’ve been loyal to both Dumbledore and Harry when neither were in the school to guide them
  • Under Voldemort’s reign, Muggle Studies does become compulsory but only to tell the witches and wizards how stupid and cruel Muggles are and how the natural order is now being restored. So not quite what I had in mind
  • Neville on resistance – “The thing is, it helps when people stand up to them, it gives everyone hope. I used to notice that when you did it Harry.” Oh Neville! 💜😭
  • How fan conversations have influenced my own thinking by what I choose to pay closer attention to – Slytherins not being represented in the resistance is absurd in hindsight. Snape and Regulus seem to be the exceptions to the rule. None of the Slytherins stay back and fight. There is honestly such anti Slytherin prejudice in Hogwarts and in the books
  • Firenze stood and fought and was injured for the school and for Harry to protect the people under his care even though the other centaurs don’t meddle in human matters (until much later in the book, at least). God I love Firenze. I honestly want to read so much fanfic about all these side characters and what they were doing while we were following the trio. I don’t think I’m emotionally ready to write these stories myself though maybe I will be some day
  • I’m also more wary of being influenced by fandom opinions/critiques. I realised this with Nagini thanks to Lorrie’s perspective, and now also thanks to my feelings about Snape. I’ve always thought Snape is a great character – complex and nuanced and excellent. After first reading The Deathly Hallows, much like Harry I was totally on his side – enough to name a child after him even. Then fans pointed out some valid critiques – his love for Lily was less love and more obsession, he was cruel to the children he taught, he was vicious to Harry and Lupin and Sirius because of his old grudge. And my opinion of Snape slowly shifted to the other end. But now that I’m rereading the books critically with more time to sit with my feelings and untangle them a bit – I’ve moved somewhere in the middle. I still think he’s an excellent character and I think he’s done terrible things as well. However, I love that he’s imperfect and I think his relatively short life – he was only 38 when he was murdered! – was so tragic. And he didn’t even have a sense of community to count on. He was a part of the resistance but wasn’t trusted; he was welcomed in the Death Eater fold but didn’t belong. Did he have any other friendships? Anybody to talk to? Anybody to share his feelings with? Only Dumbledore and Snape had to kill him on his orders and was thought to be a murderer and thoroughly despised by those he was fighting for. He spent his life being despised and I don’t know that the truth coming out after he died makes up for it. I really wish the ghost of Snape had been there in the Forest with the Marauders and Lily too. And I think he did love Lily, deeply and imperfectly, in the best way he knew how to. He’s not really been shown much love in his life so how would he know how to love well? He did his best. Witch, Please also points out that Snape was a war veteran – trauma shapes his life which doesn’t excuse his behaviour but does explain it. What he really needed was lots and lots of therapy – as did all the people who survived the first war with Voldemort and had to live through the years before the second. I’ve become less attached to the mainstream fandom opinion now. He’s also grown – stops Phineas from calling Hermione Mudblood. He overcomes his prejudice against Muggles and Muggleborns – and wasn’t that thanks to love? No wonder Dumbledore keeps talking about the power of love so much!
  • I really think Harry would have made an excellent teacher – I wish he’d returned to Hogwarts, his one true home, to influence and guide generations of children like Dumbledore did.
  • What I realised while reading this book was that I’m never going to be able to let go of these fictional people and the world they live in – reading the familiar words soothed my soul and has provided me with new meanings every time I’ve read the books. As Harry Potter and the Sacred Text points out, engaging with a text over and over again makes different things stand out, makes different things meaningful – and this has definitely been the case with me

Harry Potter tattoos, closet cosplays, and podcasts as sacred texts

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.

Picture of wrist with 9 3/4 tattoo on it

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.”

– Dr. Cornel West

Podcasting about Harry Potter in 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to The Gayly Prophet episode 61 “The Toll of TERFs and Trolls” which featured the co-hosts’ struggles with running a queer, intersectional Harry Potter podcast in light of Rowling’s transphobic statements over the last year. Lark, one of the co-hosts, is a trans man; whereas Jessie, the other co-host is a queer black person – both located in the US. When I was first listened to their conversation, I felt the same sense of emotional and psychological distress they spoke about – though I’m keenly aware I have a fair amount of privilege in this instance as a cisgender heterosexual woman. Quite understandably, they are much angrier and much more hurt than I am at J. K. Rowling. Despite our differences, we do share some of the same conflicting and complex feelings so I thought I’d write some of them down.

Harry Potter has always been an escape and comfort for when the world is on fire. This has been my experience right since childhood and should have definitely been my experience in 2020 of all years. However, as Jessie points out, this is now ruined by Rowling’s transphobia to the extent that even recommending the books to potential new fans feels fraught since it’s no longer a source of untainted joy. Lark and Jessie have somewhat dealt with their complicated feelings by launching a campaign against Rowling’s transphobia and pushing to create a safe space for trans and other queer fans on their podcast. In my own case, on the podcast, there are some episodes where we don’t really mention Rowling’s transphobia much or at all even while talking about other aspects of Harry Potter and I always feel guilty about, “What if that’s the only episode someone listens to and either thinks I’m supporting her uncritically or isn’t even aware of her problematic statements at all?” We do have episodes where we explicitly engage with Rowling’s transphobia and the discomfort of loving Harry Potter, but the feelings don’t quite disappear.

Lark created A Guide To Cancelling JKR which lists resources and ideas for what queer fans and allies can do, specifically those who still love the world but not it’s creator’s bigotry. Both Lark and Jessie had to split the work of moderating their comments section – specifically when their Facebook post went viral and attracted trolls and targeted attacks. The monitoring and moderating took an emotional toll on both hosts and utterly exhausted them – especially as it came in the midst of a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising in the US, and an upcoming election. Though not nearly to this degree, but this is something I’ve felt acutely as well – compounded by the ever-speedy descent of India into fascism – that how can Rowling think this is the time to share her opinion about an already vulnerable group of people? Especially in June, when Rowling’s statements were ongoing – after a period of deliberate silence on the issue – I know how exhausting it was keeping up with everything. Lark and Jessie had it so much worse because they were doing this in addition to their work on the podcast and the work they do to pay rent and bills. I’ve been lucky that the podcast is my full-time job at the moment (though that is not without its problems vis-à-vis its impact on my mental health).

For Lark, The Gayly Prophet and the associated memes is a form of activism because he can’t participate in many other parts of activism. He speaks about how he’s currently on autopilot because it’s all too much for him but feels a sense of obligation to keep working for the community they work + the result of capitalism because of the feeling that they will lose the community and momentum they’ve built up. Add to this the fact that the world is broken and a break might not really help. The work makes him feel better. This is absolutely something I relate to where the podcast has become such a huge part of my coping mechanism of dealing with the world and not being emotionally ready to let go of it. This is also entwined with the fact that Harry Potter is so important to so many people’s development and sense of self, as Lark points out. It feels impossible to let go of it – I’m certainly unable to. Lark further describes how simply not talking about Harry Potter won’t make it go away – won’t prevent other people from reading it; people who may be unaware of the transphobic context now and may engage with it uncritically. Fans and allies can use Harry Potter to critique not just problematic elements in the text but also in the real-world – though, again, this isn’t without its problems. Maybe it will be better to stop talking about it altogether. As Rita pointed out in our episode, talking about Harry Potter – even critically – provides Rowling with so much cultural and social capital which can be translated to financial capital. However, both hosts find joy in the podcast process – having a fun conversation with each other – and sometimes other people – about a specific thing. Podcasting acts as a form of friendship and relationship-building; something I’ve definitely found to be true podcasting over the last year. Talking to friends, acquaintances and strangers about different aspects of Harry Potter and other media texts has been such a source of joy and inspiration – and has honestly kept me from completely falling apart in so many instances.

As they further point out, since Harry Potter has such a huge cultural impact on so many people of our generation (and others), it has become a shared language which we can use as a framework to talk about real-world oppressions and injustices. It’s something quite a few fan podcasts – including my own – do. For example, using The Prisoner of Azkaban to talk about the failures of the healthcare system in the US or the broken criminal justice system in the country. Parallels from Harry Potter make these real-world issues more accessible and become a way to talk about issues they may not have previously considered. It’s why I wanted to include fan podcasts in my research and it’s definitely been true in my own podcast. They’ve also been able to draw on their own experiences with mental health issues like depression to identify it in Harry Potter characters. Listening to these parallels has honestly helped me so much in being able to identify and address my own depression over the last year.

To deal with all the complicated feelings associated with Harry Potter, they launched a new quarantine podcast this year called EsGaype from Reality which is a re-read podcast of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell which is explicitly queer and which actively engages with diverse cultures and issues of marginalisation and justice. Based on this episode’s recommendation, I finally listened to the audiobook, and could see where they derived their sense of joy in this book from. It also allows them to not talk about J. K. Rowling and just enjoy the book without any baggage (though with the knowledge that Rainbow Rowell has also been critiqued for previous books). In the course of my podcast episodes, I’ve also been so happy to be able to sometimes focus on media I love and gain uncritical joy from like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Anne With An E – though, again, with the same knowledge that no media text or creator is perfect. Though, as Lark points out, very few other texts share the kind of outsized popularity and common knowledge which Harry Potter does so it’s difficult to use another text with the assumption that the other person knows its themes and characters.

They talk about the frustrations of only being listened to because they’re queer and not because they’re good podcasters or whenever they get a surge of listeners whenever Rowling said more problematic things rather than because they’re successful because they have fun, interesting conversations. At the same time, they’re really aware, proud and grateful about the fact that their podcast has created a safe space for many trans and queer fans – including in at least one instance where a fan wrote to them saying they started transitioning in large part due to the supportive community they found in and through The Gayly Prophet. Podcasting is an accessible medium – definitely more than academia and even physical spaces and communities – to create a space of queer joy, comfort, and support.

Creating art at any time is difficult – but when it’s in 2020, it’s so much more draining – emotionally, physically, mentally. It’s something Lark and Jessie have felt, and it’s something I’ve felt. But art can be an important form of protest and activism – to shift ideas and change conversations and expand imaginations. To create a space for anger and joy. Because both anger and joy are necessary to imagine and build a world more equal and more just than the one we currently inhabit.

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

As October (and my data-generation period) draws to an end, I’ve been rushing to read the last two books of the Harry Potter series so I have time to include notes in my blog. I finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night and began reading the last book with breakfast this morning.

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the sixth book:

  • So only the Muggle Prime Minister has any sort of interaction with the Minister for Magic? No other Muggle-magical person interaction seems to be allowed. Power dynamics are evident even within these leadership roles where the Muggle leader is given only the most cursory consideration but not actually treated with any sort of equal respect. He’s treated quite patronisingly
  • Snape lives in an impoverished Muggle neighbourhood. Why does he still live there? Doesn’t he make enough money teaching at Hogwarts to move out? Is it due to childhood ties to Lily? Bellatrix is aghast that he lives there and she is forced to be there because of her sister displaying an intersection of pureblood and class privilege. I wonder how many Death Eaters come from wealthy families. How was Snape treated for not coming from money? Bellatrix still doesn’t seem to respect him but is that because of the class issue or because she doesn’t trust him or both?
  • The way they talk about faith in Voldemort is very religious reflecting an authoritarian god. His word is law, the followers can’t question his authority, they have to understand his displeasure at being disappointed, they must make sacrifices (like Bellatrix’s time in Azkaban). Even the title the Dark Lord has religious connotations. After his perceived downfall, some of his followers (another religious connotation) thought they might rally around Harry as a new dark lord. It’s weird that these presumably wealthy pureblood families need someone to lead them. It’s not just power for its own sake which they already have.
  • The Ministry’s tips for protecting families (page 34-35) makes Death Eaters sound like violent white supremacists or just the way men are a threat to women at any point in their lives.
  • Travelling via Apparition seems so dreadfully uncomfortable too (p. 49). Incorporating some Muggle transport technology wouldn’t go amiss in the magical world!
  • Slughorn is the only sympathetic Slytherin we meet and he seems to be the exception that proves the rule – very moderate exception at that but heaps ahead of the other Slytherins. He exhibits some benign bigotry he’s “much too surprised that a Muggle-born should make a good witch” (speaking of Lily Evans). Reminds me of a white English PhD student I met who was much too surprised that I knew Western cultural, social and political references as an Indian woman.
  • Harry describes Mrs. Weasley as “could cook better than anyone he knew” 🙄 That’s all she’s good for, is it?
  • The way Ginny, Hermione and Molly treat Fleur is honestly terrible. It’s positioned as a joke and something not to be taken seriously but as someone who’s currently living in my partner’s mum’s house with his mother and sister, if they behaved like this, I would leave. Does Bill know his family is being atrocious? Why would he leave her alone with them?! So much internalised misogyny from the girls and outright misogyny by Ron and a pile of uselessness with vaguely good intent from Harry. I’m glad Fleur is made of stern stuff and isn’t cowed down by their behaviour – but she shouldn’t have to put up with this nonsense. Especially such behaviour from the three female role models the series presents is absurd.
  • An empty pub – The Leaky Cauldron – and a despondent owner, Tom + shoppers with harried and anxious looks who don’t want to tarry due to Voldemort’s reign of terror made me think of more pandemic parallels! I wonder if rereading the books every year with a more critical lens will make different meanings emerge based on the current social, political and environmental climate of the world.
  • Draco is being outwardly bigoted while shopping and calls Hermione a slur. At least Madam Malkin stops it though she should just have kicked then out and refused to serve them. They do eventually walk out anyway so at least she would have taken a firmer stand, but I suppose not everyone can afford to – either financially or psychologically.
  • Fred and George’s joke shop is booming and their products are so clever and creative. Hogwarts failed them in not having room to explore their skills and interests but forcing them into narrow educational binaries where they didn’t excel. For them, it worked out in the end because of who they are, but what about other children who don’t have the same personality and attitude? Failed pedagogy at Hogwarts as all the fan podcasts point out.
  • I also like that the shop has a line of Muggle magic tricks as curiosities. The twins don’t seem to share the usual attitude of considering anything to do with Muggles is useless.
  • In terms of class, the Gaunt family living in their shack in the shadow of the Riddle manor is a stark contrast between both families. It is a much more familiar notion of poverty than the Weasley family. But I suppose that there are nuances within poverty as well – different experiences and attitudes.
  • And also what about looking after someone like Merope who had no access to family, no access to money or any other resources when she’s pregnant and desperately impoverished and refuses to/is unable to use magic to save herself? In the magical community, who looks after those who have fallen through the cracks? Whose lives don’t go according to plan or have the same opportunities which everyone else seems to take for granted – education, job, knowledge?
  • If we consider witches and wizards and Other Magical People as belonging to different classes, we can see how classism, class anxiety, ruling class and other classes play out in terms of who has access to knowledge, whose knowledge matters, whose culture is celebrated and whose is denigrated, who has social and cultural capital, who has access to the systems of power.
  • At one point somebody says that there aren’t enough pureblood families around to have all-pureblood Death Eaters. Most of them are half-bloods and hate Muggleborns and Muggles. How do they justify this hatred with their Muggle parent? It reflects so many real world parallels where you’re racist or casteist to everyone except the people of a different race or caste you personally know/are married to.
  • Tom Riddle in the orphanage is very quick to believe he has magic, that he always knew he was special. I wonder if this was the direct result of growing up at such close proximity to Muggles and having powers they didn’t, and whether it’d have been the same had he grown up in a wizarding community. Are there no magical orphanages where they accept children from both magical and Muggleborn backgrounds? Isn’t there some sort of book and quill system which decides who’s magical right when they’re born? Why are magical orphans not looked after better? It’s not like they’re doing this to promote any sort of intercultural exchange.
  • A lot of this book can be read through the lens of Ron as a potential incel – or at least as someone who’s heading down that path. He thinks of women as his possessions and is jealous when either Ginny or Hermione have other men in their lives, takes out his insecurities on the women in his life, uses Lavender to address these insecurities without really liking her. I can see him easily turning to hating women. It’s a good thing he grows out of this because he has good friends who don’t put up with it, but it’s scarily easy to see how other boys wouldn’t grow out of it and turn into awful adults.
  • Are garden gnomes like animals then? Are they a different species like centaurs, merpeople etc.? For Christmas, Fred has stupefied one and dressed it up as an angel to decorate the Christmas tree! Would this be like attacking an animal or another person?
  • I never realised the icikiness of Hermione having to escape Cormac McLaggen at the Christmas party until Witch, Please pointed it out. It’s something which neither Harry nor the narrative seems to take seriously. It’s actual sexual assault! She hides from him all party because it’s implied he expects sexual favours from her because she invited him.to the party??? Nobody questions the assault either. Rape culture is alive and well even in the magical world. What’s more, Harry thinks Hermione deserves it for inviting someone as awful as Cormac in the first place. Which ???
  • Mr. Weasley admits that most of the people arrested as Death Eaters are probably innocent but the Ministry thinks it sounds good to promote the image that they know what they’re doing and don’t want to release them and admit they were mistaken. Great insight into the criminal justice system and the lengths governments go to to protect their own image. Not familiar under current circumstances at all!
  • Lupin has such low standards for his own self worth and and basic dignity. He’s grateful to Snape for making the Wolfsbane potion for him while he was teaching at Hogwarts which alleviated his suffering. This makes up for Snape’s hatred, prejudice and outing him as a werewolf out of spite, does it?! And does this mean he no longer has access to the potion now that he’s not teaching at Hogwarts? Why doesn’t St Mungo’s supply him with it? Is there a magical version of the NHS?
  • It’s a bit unsettling that the entire werewolf community seems to have made a life for themselves on the margins of the magical society and living away from witches and wizards. Presumably they don’t lose their magical abilities since Lupin hasn’t. Do they choose to not practise as a form of protest? The magical society and government has failed them and they’re vulnerable to Voldemort’s promises of a better life. Greyback is the most extreme version of this who attacks children to create an army of werewolves to overtake the magical human population. Why does nobody talk about including werewolves into the community at large? Lupin is obviously safe and has to manage his condition with medication. But even he’s brought into the anti-werewolf narrative when it comes to his own sense of self-worth.
  • Fleur doesn’t even get a Christmas sweater even though everyone else in the house has one. I would honestly have left and go lived in a hotel or something!
  • Hagrid has some very dubious politics – insults Filch by hurling the word Squib at him like a slur. He’s previously done it with Muggles. I know we see Hagrid through Harry’s eyes but hmm. And the Dursleys too. Sure, he does this with terrible people but it’s still using the term like an insult. Why is being a Muggle or a Squib inherently bad?
  • I really do see in this book Harry being obsessed with Draco (role reversal from previous books). Especially interesting considering how I never read it as romantic before fan interpretations took over my brain. Also, I was reading Carry On while reading this – which is a parallel to this book and the series. In Carry On, the queerness is much more explicit and is quite clearly inspired from this book so it’s really fun.
  • Ginny seriously is such a better, more independent, more fun character in the book, even as she’s largely in the background. I’d love to read fic about her adventures in Hogwarts and beyond. Terrible that the movies have reduced her to such an inconsequential character merely around to first be rescued by Harry and then become his insipid love interest.
  • Ministry is predisposed to suspecting house elves of crimes it seems. Ugh! Why didn’t Harry save the world by starting a revolution!?
  • Malfoy uses Crabbe and Goyle to keep guard. They’re disguised as first year girls thanks to the Polyjuice Potion. When the trio find out, they’re horrified and think it’s hilarious that both had to dress up as girls. Very conservative gender politics and also vaguely transphobic.
  • At one point, Ron feels better after he’s bullied Moaning Myrtle a bit. This is after he himself was bullied by Snape. The cycles of psychological violence in this school! Also just taking out your frustrations on someone who’s less powerful than you. Reading Myrtle through the lens of mental illness just makes it worse. When will the kids (and ghosts) get some therapy!
  • Page 439: “It must have been a girl or a woman to be in the ladies toilet to Imperius Katie … Or someone who looks like a girl or a woman … don’t forget there’s Polyjuice Potion in the dungeon” This might be the most innocuous of statements but with Rowling’s recent transphobic revelations, it’s difficult to not over-analyse this especially with the context of transphobic discourse and bathroom bans.
  • Not only is compulsory heterosexuality alive and well but also men’s sense of ownership over women. Harry is constantly worried and obsessing over what Ron will think of his crush on Ginny with not a single thought given to what she will think. Even when they kiss for the first time, he looks at Ron for approval rather than at her. Like she’s just an object being passed from the protection/ownership of one man to another.
  • I can look at Draco through the lens of mental distress but it’s hard to sympathise when he’s actively attempting murder. Parallels with far right nationalists/bigots in India and the US where people – who are largely men – need to be held accountable to their actions too.
  • Snape’s mother Eileen Prince is first and foremost described as not pretty. What is the need?!?
  • Death rituals: this is the first time we see a funeral and it’s not for any ordinary magical person. Not only a range of witches and wizards but merpeople and centaurs who live on the Hogwarts grounds also come to pay tribute in their own unique ways which was interesting. How do other magical beings celebrate life and mourn death? Even with magical humans, do the practices differ across regions/countries?
  • Grawp comes to the funeral too and puts all the giant prejudice to shame. The way everyone behaved when Hagrid first brought his half-brother back to Britain and the way Grawp himself behaved versus the progress that’s been made due to a combination of kindness, determination and attempts at communication. It’s incredible what just Hagrid was able to accomplish. Imagine if the whole world changed to accommodate all the different beings and treat them with equal dignity and respect. Where’s that revolution when we need it?

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I finished reading Order of the Phoenix on the heels of the Goblet of Fire + recorded two podcast episodes in the meanwhile so a lot of my thoughts were at the forefront of my mind both while reading as well as while chatting with my co-participants.

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the fifth book:

  • Reading the first few chapters through the lens of Harry’s depression/PTSD makes me so sympathetic to Harry’s POV; so much more than I was when I first read the book when I was closer to Harry’s age and chalked his anger and frustration to teenage angst. WHY is nobody telling him what’s going on?! How is that a good way to treat anybody especially someone who’s just been through two traumatic events? Hermione figures that Harry will be furious without any news and both she and Ron try to convince Dumbledore to let him know something but nope.
  • Mrs Figg also mentions how she kept her identity and knowledge a secret because he was too young to know and it was on Dumbledore’s orders. Again, so infuriating! Why not give Harry some measure of joy or a safe space in his abusive childhood? The adults seem to have really failed him.
  • When Harry encounters the Dementors, he’s unable to conjure a happy memory because he’s just so miserable, and the only thing that works is the thought of Ron and Hermione. Would depressed people never be able to conjure Patronuses at all or would it just impact what kind of Patronuses/memories they need?
  • As soon as Vernon Dursley discovers that Voldemort is back and what that means for his family, he’s quick to want to chuck Harry out. There has been absolutely no room in this house for any sort of relationship with his nephew. Petunia takes no opportunity to treat Harry even halfway decently, despite him being her sister’s son. It presumably takes Dudley a brush with the Dementors to see himself as he really is and he’s the only one who seems to be able to develop a measure of decency.
  • This is the book you meet Tonks who’s described as cheerful, clumsy, short colourful (ever-changing) hair, prefers untidiness to too much cleanliness, is a fighter not a house tidier (hasn’t got a hold of householdy spells), prefers being called Tonks. This reminds me of what Elizabeth and Flourish discussed in Fansplaining – there’s so much potential to explore gender norms and gender roles through Tonks but it’s all left at the barest, most superficial level in this book
  • Reading this book made me wonder – do I feel more sympathetic towards Harry now that I have my own concrete experience with depression and rage?
  • In this book, The Daily Prophet makes Harry a target, painting him out to be delusional and attention-seeking with his claims of Voldemort’s return. The government and the media are targeting Harry, Dumbledore and anyone else sympathetic to them. And they’re not even the fascists! But they’re totally making the fascists’ job easier. It reminds me of the media/government in the US/UK today and in India since quite a while where the media especially is a tool of the state to push a certain narrative and anybody who challenges this narrative is supposed to be deranged. Percy falls for this narrative too and is so easily manipulated by the media and the government or anybody in positions and systems of power. Just like all the people in India who think questioning the government is now anti-national.
  • Reading Sirius through the lens of depression makes his situation so much more tragic too. He’s trapped in a house he thought he escaped. He has to constantly relive multiple traumas – his experience of the last twelve years in Azkaban which is compounded by his new imprisonment in a place with nothing but terrible childhood memories.
  • None of the Order members takes Molly’s concerns about giving information to Harry seriously. Even if they don’t agree with her, it is a conversation that could have happened where they actually tried to understand her perspective without everyone ganging up on her. Does anyone care what she has to say? Is her voice equally important? Would they do this to any of the other members?
  • Arthur’s enthusiasm about Muggles seems so patronising now. Like “Oh look who would have thought these dim Muggles would have achieved so much? All without magic no less!” Very paternalistic, super imperialistic.
  • Okay so the government is not only using the media but also the criminal justice system against a 14-year-old boy because they don’t want to believe that his scary story about Voldemort is true??? They convened a full criminal trial for a magical misdemeanour! Which wasn’t even his fault! AND they tried to sabotage him by changing the time/place and not informing Dumbledore of the change who is his best bet of getting off and not being expelled from Hogwarts. Seriously, this rampant corruption definitely helped Voldemort and the Death Eaters.
  • The statue – the Fountain of Magical Bretheren at the Ministry of Magic – Harry observes it enough to realise the wizard looks foolish, the witch looks vapid, and centaurs and goblins would never stare so adoringly at the former two – only the house elf’s gaze makes sense. However, it doesn’t go beyond that though even by the end of the series. Harry has identified the hypocrisies in the system but then just accepted them and found a place for himself within the system without thinking of how he’d change it.
  • Hermione talks to Lupin about house elf rights comparing it to werewolf segregation and how wizards think they’re superior to everyone. She does recognise the underlying wizard supremacy which is the backbone of the magical world, yet doesn’t seem to recognise she’s been conditioned to leave her Muggle culture behind.
  • I can absolutely recognise and understand Sirius’s depression now – especially after the impact the lockdown + global events has had on my mental health.
  • Is The Quibbler the only alternative to The Daily Prophet? I don’t remember what happens with it later but it currently reads like The Onion minus the satire – hardly propping up the role of media in a democracy. Well, later they do publish a no-holds-barred interview with Harry which changes many people’s minds about the mass-breakout in Azkaban and the possibility that Harry has been telling the truth all along – so I suppose there’s something to be said about the role of an editor/media owner who isn’t controlled by market/government forces or public opinion.
  • I also immediately want to be friends with Luna – she has the exact amount of weirdness I value. I’d totally wear a butterbeer cork necklace! And radish earrings! Don’t hate, Parvati and Lavender!
  • Tonks’ physical changes have been largely hair and sometimes face related. Not doing much with the potential. What are the extent of her powers? Can she change gender?
  • The Sorting Hat song this year is a lament that it has to sort students into houses at all which, it worries, ends up dividing them rather than uniting them – something these dark times desperately call for. Why can’t this tradition change though?! Maybe short term it’s impossible to mend fences especially since Harry and Ron refuse to even consider being friends with Slytherins. However, Dumbledore or someone else at the school can surely try to create a new system even in the short term for those who have already been Sorted? There was such an effort taken to make sure people mingle across schools in Goblet of Fire but not so much across Houses except in classes or competitive events. In my school, each classroom was divided into Houses but we still did everything together as a class. In this school, the House system seems designed to segregate which might have suited them originally but systems can change to accommodate new needs, no?
  • Umbridge’s speech at the beginning of the school year seems to have a similar effect to Professor Binns’s history lessons – a comparison which Harry makes too. It’s so couched in dull language and tones that it almost seems designed to encourage people not to pay attention and consequently not think about what’s being said or, more importantly, not analyse or question it. Hermione and the teachers are the only ones who bother to read between Umbridge’s dull words. In her classroom too, she’s designed the curriculum deliberately to make sure the students are as disempowered as possible. They learn what is told – learn what to think not how to think. No practice necessary or allowed. Along with the media and the criminal justice system, the government is also meddling with education in a way to create citizens who follow blindly. No wonder the magical world is ripe for a fascist authoritarian takeover! As India was and other parts of the world continue to be.
  • The role of the media cannot be underestimated. It turns even those Harry considered friends against him – Seamus, Lavender. The fact that Harry refuses to communicate due to his anger and PTSD doesn’t help but that would have been fine had the entire government system not made him a target.
  • In terms of internalised misogyny with Harry Potter, something they brought up in an episode of Woke Doctor Who, I’m seeing it in the way Umbridge is depicted. I can almost see how and why the narrative positions her as more of a villain than Voldemort – something which countless fans, including myself, have picked up on and ended up hating Umbridge more than Voldemort. The way in which she is described is so intimate and hateful – everything she owns, does, dresses up in is abhorrent according to the characters. All her aggressively feminine things are awful – the kittens, the bows, the fluffy pink cardigans. And this was even before they discover how awful she is. She is called toad-like and ugly and that’s how we know she’s bad – ugly people are evil apparently. Voldemort’s villainy isn’t outlined in such intimate detail, the way he’s described and his crimes are described is in an almost awestruck “Look how talented he is at being bad” whereas with Umbridge it’s like “She’s mediocre but horrible.”
  • And she is a truly awful person. She’s a horrible adult to the children in her care, she takes sadistic pleasure in depriving them of things they want, and she is abusive in her punishment with the blood quill. She’s so seemingly concerned with doing things in a Ministry-approved way but that’s obviously only applicable for those beneath her – she’s allowed to use torture as punishment and set Dementors on Harry to solve an inconvenient problem. I wish Harry had gone to one of the other professors with details of her punishment. It might have saved other students from undergoing it. None of the other students seem to have said anything either. I suppose it’s how abuse works – you think you’re alone and you’re gaslit into believing you deserve it or that it’s not so serious.
  • Umbridge hates half-humans and calls Lupin a dangerous half-breed; she has signed legislation against merpeople, werewolves, half-giants. She’s deeply prejudiced and her laws have made it difficult for Lupin to get a job.
  • It’s ridiculous that Umbridge is High Inquistor who has near-complete control of Hogwarts thanks to the obvious corruption and government control of the school. BUT Hogwarts would definitely benefit from some sort of quality and safety checks + assessing teachers and whether or not they’re good at their jobs. Snape should have been fired AGES ago. And as lovely as Hagrid is, he is a terrible teacher.
  • Hermione leaving out knitting for house elves to trick them into freeing themselves. No consent or communication with them. On the other hand, with Dumbledore’s Army, it’s a more well-thought out plan (though there’s the issue with consent there too – she didn’t tell anybody about the jinxed list of names). She seems to treat schoolmates with more respect than house elves.
  • I love that young people are organising to rebel against the tyrannical rule within their school. It begins small with less serious consequences but this is the same group that continues the rebellion in book seven when Voldemort and the Death Eaters control the school.
  • Different forms of depression and mental health crises in the book – Harry’s rage, Sirius’s recklessness, Winky’s alcoholism, Cho Chang bursting into tears everywhere. When Harry thinks he’s being possessed by Voldemort and avoids everyone, he doesn’t remember that Ginny has undergone that trauma. We don’t really see how Ginny coped with it and its aftermath and whether and what kind of lifelong impact it has had on her. Neville showcases another way of dealing with the depression brought on by his parents condition and navigating a world which doesn’t make any accommodations for his needs.
  • In the DA, Harry is a much better teacher than many Hogwarts have had. He’s taken bits and pieces of different pedagogical methods + what would work for him and his friends and created an activity-based classroom directly against Umbridge’s theoretical methods
  • Hermione is brilliant and innovative. She comes up with fake Galleons which will grow hot and change the numbers to signify new date and meeting times for the DA in a way that nobody else can figure out  what’s going on. But the only reason she had to come up with this was because “it would look suspicious if people from different houses were seen crossing the Great Hall to talk to each other too often.” ??? What is this nonsense segregation!
  • Gendered insults? Women and girls are ugly – Petunia’s horsy teeth, Pansy’s pug face; men and boys are fat and dumb – Dudley, Crabbe, Goyle. So is the most grievous insult to women against their looks but only men can worry about their intelligence? Some more internalised misogyny here.
  • Arthur and one of the Healers at St Mungo’s experiment with Muggle remedies – stitches – an idea which infuriates Molly and leaves the Weasleys aghast. At least Hermione stands up for it in the case of Muggle injuries. Surely would have use in other magical injuries too? Another of the casual slights against Muggle knowledge. The magical world could also do with therapy!! Even if it wouldn’t work for Frank and Alice Longbottom, what about Neville?!
  • This whole book can be read through the lens of disability actually. We see St Mungo’s for the first time and the different kinds of magical illnesses – both physical and mental. We see Lockhart and Alice Longbottom in greater detail. Surely the magical community could learn from Muggle psychological treatments?
  • You really can’t blame Sirius for being grumpy and sullen when he faces being left alone without anything to do again – especially as someone whose mental health fell off a cliff in the pandemic lockdown and I didn’t have half the trauma he does
  • The Knight Bus is terribly uncomfortable even in the day time – chairs fall over every time it starts or stops! Lots of noise and chaos. And if you pay a tip – like Tonks does – you can get to your stop earlier!!! What sort of transportation service is this!?
  • Harry’s teaching method works so well for Neville who really improves beyond expectations – especially once the Death Eaters who tortured his parents into insanity escape prison. Another facet of depression/mental trauma – working to your limit as a way to control your feelings?
  • You’d think Harry would understand Cho – even if not the romantic bits but at least the traumatised ones where she doesn’t feel like she can speak to anyone besides Harry; nobody else would understand?
  • Harry’s interview in The Quibbler about the real version of what happened when Cedric died brings mixed messages from readers – some continue to think he’s mad; a few are convinced by his version of events because they explain the holes in the Ministry’s version. I wonder whether people in the real world are as reasonable or even willing to engage with another POV – especially if it comes from a source they don’t usually turn to for news. I’m asking this question of myself too.
  • The unity and joy it brings in Hogwarts among students and teachers who are thrilled that Harry has done something unexpected like this and brought the truth forward reminds me of the feeling on the left-wing parts of the internet when something happens which goes our way. It’s fleeting and often followed by worse things but you take joy where you can find it.
  • Trelawney’s depression at being questioned about her teaching and then fired manifests in her being completely distracted and drunk with cooking sherry. More mental health disasters in the school! Why can’t they hire a counselor?!
  • Umbridge gets so much obvious enjoyment at making other people miserable; again the intimacy with which we see her vileness being described is so different from how Voldemort is described.
  • There are accessibility accommodations for Firenze who can’t climb into the tower where Divination classrooms are usually held. Why aren’t other kind of physical and mental accommodations made in this school?!
  • On centaur-human relations – Firenze’s herd banishes him and attacks him when he agrees to teach in Hogwarts. It’s such an insult to take on such a role according to the other centaurs – which just seems like such a bunch of conservative nonsense. Firenze as the radical progressive centaur who is open to working with humans and doesn’t guard his knowledge jealously. I do kind of understand the centaurs’ thinkin because humans have treated centaurs terribly so it’s a complex situation.
  • I’d forgotten what Firenze’s class was like – imitates a forest where he teaches them his cultural knowledge and experiences and practices and traditions. The students find this really unusual because they’ve never experienced anything of the kind and are used to gazing at magic and the magical world through a human-centric lens which Firenze challenges and expands. How amazing would it be to have more of this?!
  • Umbridge as headmistress of Hogwarts is basically a fascist takeover of the school. She tries to drug Harry with truth potion without consent, has the Floo Network monitored, has given a special selection of students indeterminate powers over their peers, all letters are read, increasingly authoritarian rules passed, no questioning or dissent allowed.
  • This obviously leads to rebellion – the Headmasters’ office refuses to let her in – the very architecture of the school turning against her; Fred and George embark on a journey of chaos and mayhem joined by the teachers, other students and Peeves once the twins depart.
  • James and Sirius were the epitome of wealthy arrogant boys bullying anyone without their privilege of wealth, Quidditch skills, good looks, and magical talents. Snape is poor and unsociable and unpopular and into the Dark Arts and makes for such an easy target. No wonder Harry was so upset by the memory.
  • Fan perspectives can have such an everlasting perspective which changes the way you engage with the text – I can’t unsee Sirius/Lupin as a couple now. It makes so much sense!
  • Filch is ecstatic at the thought of whipping students and hanging then by their ankles. What a truly awful person. WHY is he employed by the school? Honestly, some sort of assessment of Hogwarts would probably do everyone some good
  • Relatedly, there’s such a limited, quite unflattering depiction of Squibs in the series. There’s Filch and there’s Mrs Figg, I want to imagine a thriving population of Squibs living their best lives.
  • Witch, Please pointed out that centaurs are coded as indigenous people. Reading it that way, they’re angry that Firenze has betrayed their race which prefers being separate to the wizards and keep their secrets and knowledge to themselves. Firenze is revealing these to outsiders in Hogwarts. They are angry enough to kill him and anybody who supports him in a super fundamentalist way. But was this born out of decades and centuries of oppression? So now it’s a violent cycle which impacts everybody? You certainly see that in Kreacher’s case who was ignored and dismissed and treated beneath everybody’s notice and this caused him to look for more understanding and affection elsewhere which ultimately led to Sirius’s death. Dumbledore does point out that wizards are reaping the results of their actions against Other Magical People throughout history. Now even the Dementors have gone to join Voldemort.
  • The news article announcing Voldemort’s return with Fudge’s statement and the wizarding government’s steps and measures being taken to inform and protect the community – so many parallels with the pandemic and the UK and Indian and US government’s inept handling of it despite evidence. Voldemort as a metaphor for the plague or as someone on Twitter joked, Voldemort as a metaphor for the climate crisis.

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

My re-reading journey is back on track. I finished Goblet of Fire a couple of weeks ago and now I’m a few chapters into Order of the Phoenix. I have a month and a half and three of the longest Harry Potter books to fit into them in (along with all the other things I read for work and fun) but I’m DETERMINED to finish.

Book cover image of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the fourth book:

  • I never noticed the class allusions before with the Riddles. They’re described as rich, snobby, live in a fancy house, have servants. I didn’t think much of this when I read the books in India but I have more context now that I live in the UK and know what kind of family would be able to afford all this. Voldemort, like his father Tom Riddle, seems to have this inherited sense of superiority – based on his mother’s Pureblood family and Slytherin ancestry. But then you can see how his attitude reflects spoiled rich white boys in the UK even now (or spoiled rich brown boys in India).
  • Until they discovered Harry’s godfather is a dangerous murderer, the Dursleys didn’t allow Harry to have his school things with him out of a combination of fear of his powers and the wish to keep him as miserable as possible?! Whose perspective is this – Harry’s assumption or the Dursleys actual intent? If the latter, I’d like to say they’re cartoon villains but tragically, they’re all too recognisable.
  • Aha! Vernon Dursley reads The Daily Mail. Of course he does. When I worked at a children’s newspaper in Mumbai during my late teens/early 20s, we frequently turned to The Daily Mail’s features for our science and weird news round-ups – something I would never dream of doing now that I know the role of the paper in stoking xenophobia and racism amongst other things. The context, of course, was completely lost to me in India – didn’t realise that the newspaper was virulently right-wing.
  • Aunt Petunia’s sharp eyes seem to notice “fingerprints on her gleaming walls” and “the comings and goings of neighbours” it seems. Very specific idea of being a woman, no? It’s almost like Tonks in the next book is exceptionalised because she doesn’t like doing domestic things.
  • Dudley is on a diet but diets don’t work! Especially if you’re starving your son by giving him a quarter of a grapefruit for breakfast, as Witch, Please angrily declaims. vernon and Dudley are constantly fat-shamed and Petunia is described in ugly ways – horsy teeth, for example. Using someone’s looks against them, no matter how much you hate them, is a problematic way of critiquing them. Granted that Harry is fourteen and we’re reading the books from his POV but ultimately it’s the author/narrator who’s asking us to think this way.
  • Even Harry calls the Dursleys “the Muggles” in his letter to Ron. Is Ron rubbing off on him? What is this language? Why can’t he say the Dursleys or my aunt/uncle or my relatives or whatever. “The Muggles” sounds so dismissive and dehumanising.
  • In terms of magical transportation, is Floo travel accessible to everybody? What if you live in a tiny flat with no chimney? How much does Floo powder cost? And the Weasleys might be “poor” but they have immense cultural and social capital. First of all, they have a house with a chimney. And even though Muggle fireplaces aren’t meant to be connected to the Floo network, Arthur uses his networks at work to make it possible. Apparition is supposed to be very difficult – does lack of ability and skill limit how people can travel in the magical world? The Knight Bus doesn’t seem too popular – more like an emergency service that you’d only use as a last resort than anything else. Or only a certain group of people use it because they can’t afford anything else. With Portkeys, are they a government controlled mode of transport? Can people set up their own Portkeys? What controls access – money, bureaucracy or magical skill?
  • Dudley is the butt of all jokes and attacks by magical folks. There’s Hagrid in the first book who gives him a tail and now the Weasley twins in this book who deliberately seek to prank him with their sweets by taking advantage of his diet. And there’s no consent involved! No ethics committee would have allowed this. At this point, surely it’s not a prank but just a wizard bullying a Muggle? And this is encouraged by Bill and Charlie too who are adults – young adults, but still! Mr Weasley does try to explain why this is outrageous and harmful to Muggle-wizard relations but the twins insist they didn’t give them the Ton-Tongue toffee because he’s a Muggle but because he’s a bully. However, there’s still imbalanced power dynamics at play here where them using magic will always have more power than Dudley who can use none.
  • I’m surprisingly sympathetic towards Percy’s reports on cauldron thickness which is presented so dismissively by Ron. He’s pushing to tandardise cauldron thickness so that there aren’t leakages – it might sound boring as much of bureaucracy does but it is still for people’s benefit! Leaky cauldrons can be dangerous depending on what sort of potion you’re making. Reminds me of pre- and post-Brexit complaints about the EU’s bureaucracy getting in the way of business but again, it’s largely to look after people, no? Food standards, vehicle safety, workplace benefits, etc.?
  • Right so Bill’s job at Gringotts seems to involve travelling across Egypt – perhaps other parts of the world – to break into ancient tombs in order to bring treasure back to the British bank? Ummmm not historically and currently problematic at all! They don’t even have the decency to stuff the stolen goods into a museum and then charge Egyptians to go see it. (Yes, Tower of London with the Kohinoor Diamond, I’m talking about you)
  • Why isn’t Molly Weasley going to the World Cup!? Even if she just thinks Quidditch is boring and would rather not, she doesn’t even get a day off just to relax and do things for herself. Instead, she’s going to run errands and buy everyone’s school things. Housewives are taken for granted so much!
  • Being caught up with being critically analytical (and keeping in mind J. K. R’s transphobia), I realise I don’t make enough space for the joy and delight these books still fill me with – the imaginative wonder they evoke when a tent consists of three rooms or a vast field is full of magical tents to watch the World Cup. These scenes take me back to when I read these books for the first time, filled with the same excited enchantment that Harry is.
  • What are the ethics about memory charms used against Muggles? Mr Roberts seems very suspicious about everything with the campground he’s managing – and why shouldn’t he be? He brings up some very good points! But the wizards are happy to Oblivate him ten times a day to keep him off the scent. It’s not just a question of ethics but also of potential harm. What sort of impact does it have on his brain? It’s the magical folks who are going into Muggle territory but still they feel this sense of ownership which sees their needs as more important – very cultural imperialistic.
  • Another instance of men in dresses being the butt of jokes – Archie, an old wizard is wearing a flowery nightdress to dress up as a Muggle and refuses to wear the trousers a Ministry official is handing him. Why can’t men wear dresses? Especially since robes don’t seem to require you to wear clothes or trousers underneath? Another man wearing a dress is funny moment comes when Ron complains about his dress robes with lace at the edges. They look like a dress and he tries to make them look more “manly” by getting rid of the lace. *big sigh*
  • So Seamus is Irish but he attends Hogwarts which is British. Is there an Irish magical school? What sort of politics come into play there – especially during and after the Troubles and with Britain’s history of colonising Ireland?
  • Winky is fully indoctrinated into the House Elf cult/community. She thinks it’s shocking that Dobby is getting ideas above his station and expects payment for his work. She believes house elves shouldn’t have fun and that their only job in life is to do as they’re told.
  • Fudge makes a casual anti-Bulgarian comment: “These Bulgarian blighters have been trying to cadge all the best places …” and doesn’t even learn the Bulgarian Minister’s name or how to pronounce it – British arrogance is alive and well in the wizarding community too. He doesn’t bother because the Minister of Magic can’t speak English apparently 🙄 He is then outraged to discover the Minister can speak English just fine but was just entertaining himself with Fudge’s failed sign language. God forbid you actually learn the language or have a translator at hand. Speaking of which, are there no translation spells in the magical world!? That would make life so much easier!
  • Veela are beautiful women who turn ugly when they’re angry? Why can’t they be angry and powerful and hurl fireballs while still looking gorgeous? Anger doesn’t turn women ugly – all women should be (and probably are) enraged by the world surely.
  • Veela impact those who would be attracted by their gender presumably – Hermione isn’t affected but the boys are. It would have been so interesting to have lesbian witches make a fool of themselves too. But not in this cishet magical world.
  • Mrs Roberts lies at the intersection of Muggle and woman – while the whole family is being levitated like puppets by the Death Eaters, she’s the one they humiliate by spinning around and exposing her underwear, an example of gender-based violence that Witch, Please spoke about. Additionally, Draco implies that Hermione is most in danger of the gang even though she’s a witch.
  • This is the book where you see Hermione’s consciousness being raised against the injustice meted out to house elves (page 106 in my copy). It took her actually meeting Winky and seeing how badly she’s been treated to understand the injustice. Of course, Ron who’s been conditioned by magical world everyday bigotry thinks house elves are happy and the system needn’t be questioned. The way wizards treat house elves is truly shocking. They talk to them like they’re worthless (quite literally less valuable than the witches and wizards they serve).  Mr Crouch frees Winky despite everything she’s done for him – how is she supposed to take care of herself?
  • I do understand Ron’s frustration at not being able to buy anything nice and new and owning everything secondhand and rubbish – I’ve felt that pain growing up! In fact in terms of poverty, I think I’m similar to the Weasleys because we had some attendant privileges (owned the home we lived in so didn’t have to worry about being evicted) but not others (the social and cultural capital, a large house, a stable job with steady money)
  • Hermione’s political awakening about house elf oppression includes setting up S.P.E.W. and all the research and steps she undertakes: pages 154-55, 188,89, 200-01, 319-24. This is met by pushback against everybody she tries to politicise. Nobody takes her activism or house elf rights seriously: pages 201, 223, 310.
  • Mad-Eye Moody, the only explicitly physically disabled character in the series (from what I remember) is introduced in such a strange terrifying way.
  • Dumbledore says that Beauxbatons, Durmstrang, and Hogwarts are three of the largest magical schools in Europe which seems to imply there are other smaller, not as prestigious schools on the continent. Does that mean every country DOES have a magical school? Or even that one country has several? Maybe Seamus is in Hogwarts because that was the most famous school in the area. Apparently Lucius Malfoy wanted to send Draco to Durmstrang because of their attitude towards the Dark Arts but Narcissa didn’t want him so far away. This seems to imply that much like with universities, you may be able to attend foreign magical schools. Then why don’t we see any in Hogwarts? Do they have their own version of a xenophobic Home Office which makes immigration as difficult as possible?
  • How is Moody allowed to discuss the Unforgivable Curses in such a cavalier way in a classroom with two people – Harry and Neville – who have been directly and traumatically impacted by it? If there was ever a need for a trigger warning, this is surely it! Yes, this is fake Moody but he has Dumbledore’s permission – or so he claims.
  • I like the irony of Ron being appalled by foreign food – shellfish stew or French bouillabaisse – while helping himself to black pudding – something I’ve been utterly traumatised by in this country!
  • The narrative introduces Fleur as beautiful and haughty … and not much else? Hermione doesn’t seem to think much of her and we’re seeing Fleur through the lens of her snide comments. (Harry’s unobservant gaze is quite unhelpful)
  • Based on all the podcasts I’ve been listening to, I’ve unconsciously been observing Parvati more than I ever did previously. I liked that she’s trying to establish her own sense of style and individuality even within the otherwise conformative structure of Hogwarts by wearing a butterfly clip on her plait … that McGonagall makes her take off as soon as she spots it.
  • Hagrid is the only example of a man cooking in the series and he seems to be terrible at it. Hermione finds a TALON in her beef casserole???
  • Rita Skeeter, a woman we’re supposed to abhor, is described in very high femme ways – something which the books seem to have a problem with. Fleur, Rita, Lavender, Parvati, Umbridge – all easy to dismiss or demonise for different reasons and all the most feminine characters in the books. Hermione seems to be one of the acceptable ways of being a woman – doesn’t care too much about traditionally feminine pursuits and values other things over them. Why not both?
  • Only girls seem to be obsessed with the Yule Ball. Harry rejects a girl for being taller than him. 🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄 Oh the lovely gender lessons this series offers to more critical eyes.
  • There are a lot of references to goblin rebellions and riots littered through this book. Binns making history so dull becomes a way for them to not question what they’re learning and what their society takes for granted. I’m not sure whether it’s the case in the Hogwarts structure, but in the real world, I’m starting to think that history is deliberately made boring so as to push a certain narrative unquestioned.
  • The Yule ball and compulsory heteronormativity – everyone’s with someone from another gender. And is anyone partnerless? Are you banned from the ball if you go by yourself?
  • McGonagall wears tartan dress robes and thistles around her hat – just Scottishing her way all over the place! Her nationality is definitely something I didn’t pick up on before living here and understanding the context and references.
  • When they discover Hagrid is half-giant, Ron’s prejudice/conditioning shines through – he says they’re vicious, like killing for the sake of it, can’t live among witches and wizards. Harry doesn’t care while Hermione suspected as much and thinks it’s the same sort of bigotry werewolves are subjected to “They can’t all be bad.” Rita’s article outing Hagrid and attitudes towards giants and half giants is on page 370-71 – which also makes The Daily Prophet seem much more like The Daily Mail. Is there just one source of news and views in the entire British magical community?
  • Unicorns prefer a woman’s touch it seems. What would it do with trans women and trans men and non-binary folks? The Gayly Prophet interpret Hagrid as a trans woman and use the fact that unicorns seem to like him as one of their reasoning. I’ve also come across a Tumblr post about genderqueer students and unicorns and how they’re amenable on some days and not on others – depending on the person’s gender on that given day.
  • Even the fact that the Ministry of Magic has a department for the regulation and control of magical creatures is so human-centric. Why are the witches and wizards in-charge of regulating and controlling Other Magical People (hat-tip for the term to The Gayly Prophet)? Do centaurs have their own version of Department for the Regulation and Control of Witches and Wizards?
  • Hagrid’s dad wasn’t sure he would get into Hogwarts since he’s half-giant. I would love fanfic about Hogwarts being populated by not only human students but Other Magical People too – all coming together to exchange ideas and experiences and magic systems across cultures.
  • The way Moaning Myrtle is represented is so sad too. It’s through Harry’s really narrow perspective. She’s helpful and just wants some friendship and compassion and kindness, but he’s always looking to escape her. She’s obviously lonely and just looking for someone to hang out with but she isn’t equipped with the best social skills and that’s what feeds into the cycle. A lot of the ghosts in Hogwarts would benefit from some therapy, I think. Nearly Headless Nick, Rowena Ravenclaw, the Bloody Baron – all with different kinds of mental health issues they’ve carried with them through death.
  • Why doesn’t Harry know more about Merpeople? They live on the Hogwarts grounds and yet there’s no awareness about their culture and customs. Harry doesn’t know if they eat humans or whether they’re murderous or not. This isn’t born out of everyday bigotry as a lot of Ron’s comments are, but just sheer ignorance. I want more people in the magical world to know more about the different cultures – not just focusing on the witch and wizarding accomplishments and histories and beliefs. Same with language as well. Dumbledore speaks Mermish and Barty Crouch Sr speaks to goblins but where did they learn all these different languages? They sure as hell aren’t teaching it in Hogwarts.
  • Out of the four hostages, Ron is the only boy. Fleur’s most precious is her sister and the other two boys have their romantic interests there. I love that Harry’s most precious is his male best friend.
  • Are there no female Death Eaters except Bellatrix? Narcissa doesn’t seem to be a Death Eater because only Lucius is there. Of course a fascist wizard supremacist authoritarian cult would also be misogynist – as most fascist supremacist authoritarian movements are – but this is a really stark distinction.

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I finished reading the third book in June but July and August have flashed by – largely taken over by a move to Scotland. My plan to read a book a month is definitely looking grim but I’m still determined to squeeze in the next four books into two months.

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowing

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the third book:

  • There is so much casual fat-shaming of Dudley in this book – something I hadn’t even thought about before Witch, Please and The Gayly Prophet pointed it out.
  • Harry calls Hedwig his only friend in his house – his only family – which is heartbreaking in itself but it also makes her death in the last book so much more gutting. Relatedly, Harry is constantly described as small and skinny for his age which I glossed over in earlier reads but this time was taken aback by the thought that his size is probably a result of the Durlsey’s abuse where he is starved and made to live in a cupboard. What impact has this had on Harry physically? Mentally? Emotionally?
  • When I read the book as a kid and young person in India, the Weasley’s poverty felt more theoretical than real to me – surrounded as I was by such abject levels of poverty and having grown up without much wealth. I just figured this was the British version of poverty – like many people back home, the pictures of the UK and the US and the West in general we received was full of so much prosperity that I couldn’t really come to terms with their poverty. However, after moving to the UK and after the episode with Ali, I’ve realised that even in British terms, the Weasleys are definitely not extremely poor. They might be poor by the standards of the magical world but their lifestyle is not extreme poverty, my friend.
  • In Ron’s letter to Harry, he writes, “I hope the Muggles didn’t give you a hard time.” That language is a tad dehumanising even though it is the Dursleys he’s speaking about. The letter also includes the phrase “Don’t let the Muggles get you down.” I’d forgotten that this sentence appears in the books – because I have a T-shirt with the same thing on it. Usually, I associate the sentence with specifically Dursleyish Muggles – close-minded and prejudiced and bigoted – and to an extent I still do. However, Jack once pointed out that my shirt promoted anti-Muggle prejudice. Even though he was joking, I now realise how much anti-Muggleness is baked into the structure of the British magical world. I’ve read defenses which point to the Muggles persecuting the magical folk a few hundred years ago – but that leads to a new form of violence. Everyday bigotry – both malicious and benign – do work to dehumanise a group of people and allow fascists like Voldemort and Grindelwald to become prominent in the witching world – and Modi and Trump in the real world. I realise that I now hesitate before saying the phrase wizarding world ever since The Gayly Prophet hosts implied how patriarchal it was and they refer to it as the witching world instead. Even Hagrid calls the Dursleys the Muggles but not Hermione – who, coming from the same cultural background herself, presumably cannot bring herself to use such dehumanising language.
  • This language would have been much easier to defend had it only referred to the Dursleys since they’re so completely terrible. I find the description of the Dursleys so much more recognisable now that I’m in the UK – Petunia is nosy, Vernon is pro-capital punishment – bet they both hate immigrants, think people on benefits are running a scam, and voted for Brexit. Aunt Marge seems even worse than the Dursleys. She approves of teachers beating up children and asks Petunia to write to Harry’s school to use more force – something which even Vernon seems a bit alarmed will set Harry off. She disparages Harry’s parents right in front of him – thinks unemployed people are scroungers (a sentiment the Dursleys share, I’m sure).
  • Again, I was only able to pick up on Stan’s regional working class accent and its implications after moving to the UK and after the episode with Ali. The politics of accent in the UK is also interesting. As someone in India, most British media I watched earlier seemed to portray a singular version of the British accent with others only present to be mocked. Now however, I think shows are trying to be more inclusive of the accents they feature since this has such class, regional and national implications which influence real-life interactions as well. As Jack always complained in Leeds, hardly any of the English people understood his Scottish accent.
  • Stan disparages Muggles and their intelligence too but that just seems to be the norm that he’s buying into without any real malice. Although he does sign up with the Death Eaters so who knows, he might have been a raging bigot all along. Though there might be a link there between benign prejudice being turned into murderous hatred.
  • Is the Knight Bus as a working class magical mode of transport? Is it just the only one? Are there people who cannot afford Floo powder or houses with chimneys?
  • Problems with the justice system is an underlying issue throughout the book. Azkaban is inhumane and a terrible way to reform criminals. Moreover, even innocent people are sent to Azkaban on scant or no evidence at all. Both Hagrid and Sirius have spent two months and twelve years in there respectively. There’s parallels with real-life oppressive prison systems in India and the US. Sirius is deeply traumatised by his twelve years in Azkaban and suffers from depression for the rest of his life. In Azkaban, he blames himself for his best friends’ murders and, thanks to the Dementors, is trapped alone with his darkest thoughts. The justice system is so flawed and broken even in Buckbeak’s case where Lucius Malfoy’s influence and word is the deciding factor. I wonder how much of a role corruption and nepotism plays in Azkaban too. Dumbledore is happy to break the rules by helping Sirius and Buckbeak escape because the rules are unjust in this case. As much as you’re suspicious of Dumbledore, he does seem to be trying to create a more compassionate world – in Hogwarts first and subsequently the wider world.
  • The Dementors are shown as truly evil creatures but it also sounds like the witches and wizards have weaponised them as a form of state control. What are Dementors like in the wild?
  • Fudge suggests that Harry just book a room in The Leaky Cauldron for three weeks – where’s the money coming from?! Of course the fact that Harry can afford it reflects his economic privilege. Unless the government is paying for it or it’s free thanks to Tom, the landlord’s, generosity?
  • There seem to be very limited gender roles for women in the magical world – Mrs Weasley and Hermione and Ginny giggling over a love potion Molly made when she was in Hogwarts; some country witches in The Leaky Cauldron talking about their shopping while wizards were talking about an academic journal called Transfiguration Today – the structure seems to be pretty patriarchal in a way which delineates what men and women can be interested in.
  • If Dementors are a metaphor for depression, it makes sense that Harry was the worst affected in the train and Ginny and Neville were also very pale while Ron and Hermione were shaken but didn’t seem traumatised. The former three have had terrible experiences with abuse and trauma (Harry’s childhood, Neville’s parents, Ginny’s possession) while the latter two have relatively safe childhoods.
  • Accessibility at Hogwarts is terrible! The Divination classroom is accessible only by a ladder into the ceiling. They do make accommodations when Firenze the centaur begins teaching the class in Order of the Phoenix and the school provides him with a ground floor classroom. Which is great for Firenze but what about students with disabilities?
  • Hermione is a much better teacher for Neville than Snape is. He terrorises while she patiently explains. Peer education is a great pedagogical practice but Snape penalises her for it by first asking her not to help and then taking away points from Gryffindor for Neville successfully learning from her (to save his toad no less! Snape was going to test out Neville’s potion – which he thought might have turned out poisonous – on Trevor!)
  • Lupin is also a good teacher. He has practical activities to begin with, teaches patiently, explains the process and what should happen before it happens. Thanks to this, Neville is wildly successful in his class because that’s just what he needs! A different teaching method and not a bully! Even Lupin’s exam is great – activity-based and practical – an obstacle course which includes dealing with the creatures they’ve been studying all year.
  • Filch is casually described as a failed wizard. 🙄 Some casual anti-Muggle, anti-Squib prejudice there with hints of ableism if you take magic as a metaphor for ability. As if people without magical powers can’t have full lives full of value and dignity. The fact that Filch doesn’t is a failure of imagination.
  • Boggart Snape in a dress scene makes me uncomfortable now given Rowling’s transphobia. Also it again reflects such limited and strictly-defined gender roles. Why is a man dressing in women’s clothes funny? Are there no gender-queer or gender nonconforming magical folk?
  • Draco is such a classist ass. He asks Rom whether he wouldn’t rather live in the Shrieking Shack because he heard everyone in the Weasley household sleeps in the same room. What’s wrong with a family sleeping in the same room?!
  • The magical world has such entrenched ideas about any creatures who aren’t wizards and witches. Lupin has been a much-loved teacher all year but as soon as Ron discovers he’s a werewolf, he instantly dehumanises him in a mixture of fear and disgust by exclaiming, “Get away from me, werewolf.” To Lupin! A kind compassionate man! I suppose Ron doesn’t know him very well yet but Hermione didn’t share this prejudice even though she had discovered his lycanthropy ages ago – presumably based on knowing Lupin through his classroom interactions. Even Snape refers to him as a werewolf but that isn’t as shocking since he hates the Marauders.
  • Being a werewolf sounds like having a chronic illness which is more manageable with recent medical discoveries. The wolfsbane potion makes it easier for Lupin to manage the symptoms – a potion which wasn’t around when he was younger. Even then, Dumbledore made accommodations for a young Remus, without having a potion to keep him safe. He provided Lupin with access to education and society – something which being a werewolf – and a disabled person – doesn’t seem to allow. Being a werewolf – like being disabled – impacts all your chances at a good life if you can’t get education or paid employment.

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

After reading the first Harry Potter book way back in March, I only got around to The Chamber of Secrets at the beginning of May. I’m trying to read one book every month but the pandemic-related anxiety and burnout has meddled with those plans a bit.

Book cover image of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the second book:

  • Dobby’s self-harm every time he says something against the Malfoys or breaks their rules was so much more noticeable during this reading. As a kid, Chamber of Secrets used to be my least favourite book of the series and I found Dobby mildly annoying – that is, before discovering his character arc in The Deathly Hallows and all the subsequent fan discussions about him. I felt terrible for Dobby this time around, especially for his lack of self-worth which was born out of abuse and enslavement. He’s brave enough to break the shackles of his slavery to come warn Harry even though he’s going to have to punish himself. He can’t believe Harry treats him as an equal i.e. gives him some basic respect and decency. I couldn’t help but imagine his life at the Malfoys – full of trauma and abuse – and its impact on Dobby’s mental health and sense of self. Much like Harry, he seems to have come out of his abuse with empathy and kindness for others (however misguided that sometimes may be). Harry, although annoyed by Dobby, realised that while he was having a horrid time at the Dursleys, Dobby has it much worse – even without knowing the full details of Dobby’s enslavement and what that entails. Most importantly, while Harry is able to leave the Dursleys when he goes to Hogwarts and will eventually be able to leave them altogether, Dobby has to remain with the family until he dies.
  • Dobby reminds me of all those children of refugees, migrants and poor people in general who can’t even imagine a different life – who are so grateful for the tiniest bit of kindness and attention. This may be reflected in adult attitudes too, though I wonder if you grow more cynical about other people the older you are
  • Later in the book, Dobby says that house elves had it much worse during Voldemort’s reign. But it’s not like him being defeated actually improves their lives much – albeit Dobby acknowledges other house elves largely lead better lives than he does. The magical world is very witch/wizard supremacist.
  • What a silly rule that using magic in the presence of Muggles is a serious offense. What if it’s to save them or yourself? There may be many reasons why you need to use magic. According to the history, witches and wizards decided to hide themselves to escape persecution. But after centuries of this, I think it might be time to engage in some cross-cultural relationships.
  • According to the Weasley twins, a lot of wizards think Muggle tricks like using a hairpin to unlock a door is useless. I wonder if locked doors which are charmed against magical spells can be undone with Muggle tricks. Another example of magical folks overlooking Muggle culture to their own detriment.
  • Muggle-baiting involves things like shrinking keys sold to Muggles so they eventually don’t find them. Arthur’s department tries to stamp this out which the wizard supremacists hate, as evidenced by Lucius Malfoy’s constant sneers about the department. At what stage did fear of Muggle persecution turn towards hatred and derision of them, which in turn, led to the wizard supremacist structure of the magical world? This idea not just impacts Muggles and Muggle-borns but also all magical creatures who aren’t witches and wizards.
  • When Draco calls Hermione a Mudblood, it causes an uproar among everyone except Harry and Hermione who have no idea what the word means. They do realise it’s something terrible based on the reactions. There are such different contexts of taboo and insults even in the real world. Slurs against African Americans, for example, or even in India words like ghaati – where different social and cultural contexts means that what’s insulting or terrible to some people may be something somebody else doesn’t understand at all.  In Trevor Noah’s biography, he talks about how one of his friends is called Hitler. Every country thinks their history is the most important – especially Western countries – but not everyone follows the same rules. In India, things like the swastika, Mein Kampf aren’t seen as taboo. What is taboo is both inconsequential in certain contexts but also belies the ignorance of cultural norms and customs with Muggles and magical folk.
  • Ron’s detention involves helping Filch clean the trophies in the trophy room without magic. Why??? Why is Filch doing this? Why is there no magical assistance for him?! Even Filch’s office is dingy and windowless – what sort of unending punishment does he have to endure as a part of his job?!
  • The Kwikspell correspondence course for Squibs that Filch has subscribed to – its recommendations make it sound like a learning disability than an inability to do magic. Is this just the result of poor pedagogy in Hogwarts which doesn’t make room for different learning needs? Why aren’t there schools or classes for Squibs, if so? Or is Kwikspell running a giant scam?
  • The attacks on Muggleborns in Hogwarts are reminiscent of white fascists attacking mosques, synagogues, gay nightclubs, cinemas in Western countries and Hindu nationalists targeting Muslim communities and businesses in India/Delhi.
  • After the latest attack on Hermione/Penelope, Lee Jordan suggests chucking all the Slytherins out because it’s the heir of Slytherin, it’s Slytherin’s monster, and none of the Slytherins have been murdered. His assertion is met with cheers. That reminds me of rampant Islamaphobia in the world + COVID-19 racism against east Asians and North East Indians. It’s so easy to demonise an entire group of people for the actions of an individual/handful. Even when you think you’re one of the good guys, you can fall prey to bigotry.
  • Is it so easy to suspect Hagrid not just because of his alleged past transgression but also because of his half-giant status? Some groups of people are treated with more suspicion and prejudice – ex-convicts (although Hagrid was a juvenile), werewolves (Lupin has to resign when Snape reveals he’s a werewolf and parents don’t trust him around their children), men from certain communities, Muslims, black men. Even gay men in certain historical and current geographical contexts.
  • Much like fascists and other insecure horrible ghouls, Voldemort has created his own nonsensical narrative about himself and others in his head. He hates his father for leaving his mother after finding out she was a witch. That’s not what happened. Merope love-potioned Tom Riddle into a marriage and he left when he was no longer enchanted. Even Voldemort’s glorious Slytherin family wasn’t so glorious after all; Merope and her family were reduced to abject poverty and Merope’s father and brother were horrible. It’s just like a fascist to hark back to imagined historical glories and slights.
  • Tom Riddle was probably the most brilliant student Hogwarts had ever seen according to Dumbledore. Maybe until Hermione came along. It’s almost like being from a Muggle background can mean you’re valuable and have skills too, Voldemort!

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

A couple of weeks ago, I re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Until a few years ago, I used to re-read the series quite regularly – but then postgraduate life got in the way. I’m going to re-read the entire series and re-watch the movies in order to document my thoughts about them/draw on examples during my podcast episodes. I’m quite interested in seeing whether/how I view the series differently in the context of all the critical conversations I’ve encountered about them. I’m supplementing this reading by listening to three Harry Potter re-read podcasts – The Gayly Prophet, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and #WizardTeam. While this process doens’t really form the core data of my project, the conversations and readings do inform my ideas and engagement with other texts/people.

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the first book:

  • The first chapter in this edition of the book doesn’t mention that Hagrid borrowed the flying motorbike from Sirius Black, which I thought was an extremely odd exclusion, especially since I have a very firm memory of reading Prisoner of Azkaban for the first time as a teenager and recognising the name instantly from the first book (and feeling quite smug about it too). There were a couple of other edits which were probably only noticeable to me and wouldn’t matter to new child readers encountering this book for the first time (knickerbocker glory is replaced by chocolate ice cream but only in the first mention and it reverts to knickerbocker glory in the second instance; there was an odd mention of money in Diagon Alley in the edition I remember which was fixed in this one). It did make for a distracting experience though because I felt like these edits detracted from the comfort I’d gained in the book as a ten-year-old and I longed for my childhood copy which is back home in Mumbai. Silly, of course! It’s still the same book (though I’m only writing that to pretend and be an adult about it – it still makes me irritable!)
  • The Dursleys hate anything that is different – clothes, ideas, imagination – nothing should disrupt the status quo. They hate the Potters because they are so different which makes the Dursleys ashamed. What is this hatred rooted in? Fear? While reading about their attitudes and prejudices, I could definitely draw more direct parallels with racism and xenophobia in the current British as well as global contexts. They definitely voted for Brexit!
  • “Don’t ask questions” is the Dursley rule. I wonder how much of an influence this had on Harry’s later life in Hogwarts where he is constantly questioning everything – not just all the new things he encounters, but also rules, adult authority, unfair practices and overall injustice.
  • As a result of Witch, Please often pointing this out out, I noticed that the fat-shaming of Dursleys was really evident and made me really uncomfortable. It’s seen both in the narration as well as the characters. For example, Hagrid mocks Dudley in the hut for being hungry. All he (as well as the others) has eaten is a banana and a packet of crisps! Of course he’s hungry! And then Hagrid takes out his anger at Vernon on Dudley BY GIVING HIM A PIG TAIL! How is that fair?!
  • I don’t know if it was because I know how Dudley turns out or because his parents’ over-indulgence harms him as well – just in a different way than it harms Harry, but I felt quite bad for him, despite how nasty he is. He’s only eleven years old and children can be quite horrible sometimes – especially to each other. He was definitely a bully, but doesn’t the blame lie on the adults responsible for his upbringing? He does grow out of this beginning in Order of the Phoenix (and probably needs a lot of therapy as an adult!)
  • Reading as an adult, the Dursleys’ abuse of Harry is so much more noticeable and unsettling. As one of the hosts on The Gayly Prophet says, it’s very Roald Dahlesque. However, as  they also pointed out, in Roald Dahl books, the abused children usually escape or outwit the adults pretty early on in the story whereas with Harry, he has to live with the Dursleys for another six years with increasing levels of abuse. I was also uncomfortable about how the Dursleys’ over-indulgent parenting had a negative impact on Dudley’s life.
  • Hagrid looks big and intimidating and likes scary creatures but sits and knits and makes birthday cake and is rather cuddly. I love the dichotomy in his character where it goes beyond what you would expect based on first appearances
  • I could definitely read Neville as someone with dyspraxia or vertigo. He needs a leg up through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room, he’s not very good at balance and coordination, he’s extremely forgetful and absent-minded
  • McGonagall is described as tall, stern, black haired. As another Witch, Please episode points out, we only see her as old because of the movies’s impact on our imagination. She would have been a pretty cool spinster character or even just a young, powerful woman.
  • The Remembrall is such a rubbish magical contraption, especially if you read it as a disability aid for Neville.  It tells you if you’ve forgotten something, great. BUT IT DOESN’T TELL YOU WHAT IT IS YOU’VE ACTUALLY FORGOTTEN??? Way to crush someone’s self-esteem without providing any solution, Remembrall!
  • Throughout the book, I was keenly aware of how much Draco seems to have a giant crush on Harry. I could blame fandom’s shipping influence but I can’t unsee it now. I would like to read fanfiction where Draco and Harry actually end up being friends and how this may have improved Draco’s Hogwarts life and made him less of a brat (he does eventually become less of a brat but it’s a long, arduous journey). Do I need to write this story?
  • Hermione becomes a bit more relaxed about rule breaking after the troll incident. Maybe the reason she stuck to rules so much is because she’s very conscious of them as an outsider to the magical world. This reflects experiences of people who are newcomers in different unfamiliar cultures -immigrants, class, race, religion etc. – where people may feel they need to assimilate into the new culture to be included, welcomed, and respected
  • Harry didn’t even have to try out for the keeper position. In fact, there were no tryouts! What if there was someone better than him that has now lost the chance forever because McGonagall spotted him catching a ball? At the very least, they could have had a reserve Seeker which would have come in handy for all the times Harry missed a match while lying in the hospital wing. McGonagall directly mentions how his father was a great Quidditch player too. This seems to have implications on Harry’s class, family, and race (i.e. blood status) privilege. His skills had a role to play but he had a much easier time gaining access thanks to his family’s network and the position they had in the magical society.
  • One of the fan podcasts I listened to (I don’t remember which one at all) mentioned that Molly knits jumpers for Harry and all her kids every year and every year Ron moans about his. On the one hand, why is his jumper always maroon if he hates that colour? Just like his sandwiches were corned beef which he also hates. Maybe there is something to the theory that Ron is the most neglected since all the attention goes to either his older brothers or to Ginny. On the other hand, Molly’s thankless labour is constantly rejected by her son (though Fred, George and Harry seem to appreciate theirs)
  • Okay so Charlie Weasley, a fully-grown adult (I’m assuming? Maybe just an older teenager? Early 20s? Okay, a baby adult) is happily smuggling dragons? Okay so he wants to help Hagrid and has noble intentions but surely he could have done that without getting the eleven-year-olds involved?
  • So Hermione, Harry, Draco, and Neville’s detention not only involves going into a very dangerous forest that is literally forbidden to all students because of how risky it is, but they also have to do this in the middle of the night all night?!?!? What sort of school is this?! Was there any sort of debriefing session after the traumatic experience in the forest? How about the traumatic experience rescuing the Philosopher’s Stone? Does Madam Pomfrey have to deal with both physical and mental ailments? Why can’t Dumbledore hire a school therapist? Does Hogwarts just not believe in mental health outreach?

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