A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Diversity

Episode 3 Just Let Me Hug a Tree in the Woods: Wicca, Paganism, and Religion in Fantasy Media

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Blog post – Harry Potter: “Making Evil Look Innocent”

The Guardian article – JK Rowling confirms that there were Jewish wizards at Hogwarts

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina episode – Chapter Seventeen: The Missionaries

Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who “Faith in the Whoniverse”

Fan podcast – Witch, Please “Special Bonus Episode: Secret Feminist Agenda 1.7”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Halloween Edition: On Witches and Brett Kavanaugh”

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper “Cultural Traditions of Magic – with Zen Cho”

Paper on Tolkien spirituality – “Honouring the Valar, Finding the Elf Within: The Curious History of Tolkien Spirituality and the Religious Affordance of Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy” 

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post and Other Journeys with Professor Stephanie Paulsell”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Faith: The House-Elf Liberation Front”

 

Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

Photograph of Anna Milon

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the third episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Anna Milon about the representations of Wicca, paganism, and religion in media. We discuss how Christianity forms the framework of most Western fantasy. As a practising pagan and scholar, Anna outlines how the word witch means different things to different people. We chat about faith as both a religious and a political identity. Anna shares her frustration about the inaccurate representations of Wicca in mainstream media and culture which further marginalises the religion. I learn more about Wicca’s attempts to make the religion more inclusive for diverse groups of people.

We also talk about the different kinds of faith in fantasy and faith inspired by fantasy. We discuss how popular culture stories are replacing religious stories and how this influences the ways in which people make sense of the world. We draw parallels between religion and fandom and discuss the importance of inclusivity and intersectionality in both. We’re excited about how canon – both religious and fannish – is increasingly being interpreted in ways which highlight previously marginalised voices. We love that people are making canon which was written dozens or even thousands of years ago (depending on which canon you’re talking about) more relevant to contemporary social, cultural, and political contexts. Finally, we discuss how fandom offers the space to question the dominant religious framework as well as read a text through multiple spiritual lenses.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Anna Milon is a Russian-born London-bred doctoral researcher who has a tentative hope never to leave academia.  She has edited two Tolkien collections – Tolkien the Pagan? Reading Middle-earth through a Spiritual Lens and Poetry and Song in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Her written works have appeared in Beyond Realities 2015Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, and most recently, A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction, all of which have been published by Luna Press. She juggles all this writing, editing, and researching with the not-at-all-unlikely hobby of Medieval Swordsmanship. She will be presenting a paper on were-foxes called “Sexy Fox: Female Sexualisation in Modern Retellings of the East Asian Were-fox Tale” at the upcoming GIFCon i.e. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations which will take place on the 28th and 29th of May this year at the University of Glasgow. I’ll be there too presenting my paper on intersectionality and fan podcasts, so if you’re nearby, come say hi!

Parinita: Hello! Today with me, I have Anna and we’re going to be talking about religion and faith in fandom and in media and in the real world. So Anna, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about your experiences with religion?

Anna: So I am a second year PhD at the University of Exeter, studying very broadly speaking paganism and pagan representation in fantasy. And I started my application letter with, “As a witch!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: So I am an eclectic solitary pagan and what that means is I do not have a coven or a group that I regularly work with. I mostly work alone. And rather than being a follower of a specific pagan movement like Wicca or Druidry, I pick and mix. And I’m inspired by a lot of different spiritual movements and a lot of different settings and ways of practicing. So yeah, that’s me.

Parinita: Wow, I didn’t know about this background and I find it really fascinating and I’m so excited to know more about it. Because I knew we were going to be talking about paganism and Wicca but like all religious people, you’d have different experiences as well within paganism, within eclectic paganism, within Wicca. There’s no monolithic experience, right, so I’m really excited to hear about yours. Well, as for me, I’m not really a religious person at all. I went to a Catholic school in India, in Mumbai, and I grew up in a Hindu household. So I’ve been at close quarters with a lot of religion but I don’t really know details about it except what I know through the people in my life and through media and through just conversations, I guess. I’m curious about religion but not because I think I want to find religion for myself, but because I find it really interesting how people engage with religion and how it helps them. And their view of the world through a religious lens. So yeah that’s –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s my experience or lack of experience with religion, I guess.

Anna: And I guess fantasy and fandom is an excellent space to do that. Because it allows for a lot of speculation and for a lot of expression of both the religion of the author or the content creator, but also of reading the work through a specific religious lens by the reader or the consumer.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I think growing up in India, there are so many different religions that personally I’ve been acquainted with. And I grew up reading a lot of British literature and some American literature. And I never thought of looking at it in a religious lens, really. Not until – like I know Narnia is now the sort of urtext of Christian parables and allegory. And I only discovered that a few years ago. So when I first read Narnia, I didn’t realise it was supposed to stand for anything. Even though I did grow up in a Catholic school, so I knew the tales and I knew the narratives. But that connection never made itself clear to me, I guess.

Anna: Me too, me too. I remember reading Narnia when I was about eight maybe and just completely missing all of the religious analogies. Even though I come from a non-religious household, but my mother was very invested in a classical education for me. So I did know a lot of the Bible stories, as kind of points of references rather than from a religious perspective. And even so I didn’t notice C. S. Lewis employing them. And the same really with all fandom texts that I’ve encountered. For instance, I wasn’t really aware of Tolkien’s Christianity until I became a teenager, an older teenager. I think I first heard of J. K. Rowling referring to herself as Christian in a documentary and I think it was the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter documentary, so it’s quite recent.

Parinita: So I discovered fandom as a teenager and the first fan space that I discovered was this website called Mugglenet which was this Harry Potter dedicated resource. And I was so excited that there were other people who loved Harry Potter as much as me. And this was before all the books had been out. So I was still a teenager and I think only the four books had been out by then. Four or five. And I remember that there was an interview with J. K. Rowling. And the interviewer wanted to know what religion she followed because I think there were a lot of controversies, as one of the texts that we read outlined, about her books promoting Satanism and Wicca. And so I suppose that’s why the interviewer was curious. And she said that I don’t want to reveal my religion because if I do, then the plot of the final book will be really evident to readers – to really astute readers. It’ll be really clear to them what’s going to happen. Which I thought was very curious because it led to so many theories. You know when you don’t have the canon there, there were so many theories. And everyone had all these sorts of interpretations from all sorts of lenses, including atheism. Now that I’m more familiar with Christian theology and stories and narratives, I know that Harry stood for, like Aslan, stood for Jesus. Yeah so her Christianity was only evident to me through her conversations and not through the text itself. Since I did mention the controversies with Wicca and paganism and Satanism that Harry Potter had, how would you, in your life or your scholarship or whatever, how would you define Wicca? And witches? And paganism?

Anna: The term witch is incredibly loaded. Which makes it very rewarding and also frustrating to study. Where you have people who in the late medieval and early modern period prosecuted as witches for being allied with the devil, for being evil. Then witches as a female, feminist identity that’s reclaiming an independent, self-sufficient and powerful and intelligent woman. You have witches who are Wiccans. Who are followers of one of the first neo-pagan religions promoted by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. And you’ve got witches who are spiritual individuals but who do not necessarily align themselves with Wicca strictly.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And I find that in Harry Potter, being a witch or a wizard very much doesn’t fit into any of those terms.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because you don’t get any sense of pagan leanings within the books at all. In fact, one of J. K. Rowling’s tweets about religious diversity in Hogwarts explicitly mentions how the only religion she didn’t envisage as being part of the Hogwarts student body was Wicca. Which puzzled me at the time. But equally you don’t get a sense that these people who go to Hogwarts are heirs of the persecuted community of historical witches.

Screenshot of J. K. Rowling's tweets about religious diversity in Hogwarts. Text says: To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts: the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Neither do you get the sense that they have particular leanings towards activism or towards social movements.

Parinita: Or even a sense of community really. Because even within the witches and wizards in Hogwarts, there are so many different social, cultural, all these sorts of hierarchies. Not only within the humans but also you know like house elves, giants and … so even in terms of having a community of like-minded followers or adherents to a particular belief, that doesn’t really seem to be there.

Anna: Yeah so I was very surprised to see that Rowling’s books sparked this controversy around promoting Wicca as a bad thing, promoting Satanism as a bad thing. Because there’s really nothing there, apart from the word witch or wizard and apart from the idea of magic which is condemned by some fundamentalist Christian groups. And in terms of the internal religion of Hogwarts, that’s very, very Christian. They celebrate Christmas, they’ve got very Christian ethics. So not just the external religion in the context of which Rowling writes is Christianity, but also the wizards themselves can be conceived to be Christian.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And again, this is something that as someone who’s not familiar with these conversations and these contexts, it comes as such a surprise to me because when I was a kid and even later as a teenager, I knew that in the US, there were these groups that wanted to burn Harry Potter and were banning Harry Potter just because it promoted Wicca. Because of the word witch in it. And all the articles in India were really bemused because it was so alien to us. Of course we have book bannings as well but they’re for not the same reasons. And we would never think of banning Harry Potter for promoting Wicca. And then on your recommendation, I did watch “The Missionaries” episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina just this afternoon actually. And how starkly Christianity was shown in opposition to Wicca there – again, that connection between the two was so evident to me only then. Because I’d heard about witch burning and stuff, of course, in the US and I think in the UK and Europe? I’m not sure. But I had heard about it through media, entirely through media. And for me, it had a much more gendered connotation than a religious one. Even though I knew that it was … well I suppose I vaguely knew that it was Christians burning witches as heretics. But because of the media that I consumed, to me it felt like it was because powerful women who live in this society that oppressed women. Which is why people were afraid of witches. Not because of their religious leanings but because of their gender and what they could do to someone who’d been oppressing them all their lives essentially. So yeah just in terms of Christianity versus Wicca, it was really interesting just because it’s something that I’d never thought of. Like in terms of where I’ve grown up.

Anna: Yeah I think there are sort of two things happening here. First of all there’s definitely this uneasy relationship between Christianity today and Wicca today based on the persecution of witches in the past who were not Wiccan because Wicca  didn’t exist. But –

Parinita: Yes.

Anna: Who are seen as ancestors of modern pagans. And then there is the reclamation of the term witch by second-wave feminists to mean this intelligent woman who’s being oppressed. And there is an interesting movement with the use of the acronym WITCH which expands to Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Created in the late 1960s and for them, their motto is, “You are a witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous and immoral. Immortal, sorry.” So it has very little to do with paganism and a lot to do with female agency.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I guess there’s this perception that both things – both paganism and female independence sit uneasily with traditional Christianity.

Parinita: So is Wicca a Western faith tradition then, would you say? Since I watched that episode, that’s really fresh in my mind. I was really interested in how it stands in contrast to other religions. Not just Christianity but other Western and Eastern religions. Because I don’t know, in India we have our own what would I guess be considered pagan. Again, I don’t know a lot of details about religion and I haven’t researched enough. But I suppose from a Western lens, it would be considered pagan or, like you were saying yesterday, indigenous. So you know things that probably, in Christianity, would be considered really not acceptable. So is Wicca then just Western based?

Anna: Yes. I absolutely would agree that Wicca is Western. Ronald Hutton says that Wicca is the only religion that England gave the world.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Which I think is pretty accurate. Yes, it has grown and developed beyond England but the crux sort of seems to be in the UK. And at the moment, there seems to be a sort of divide between eclectic pagans who very much create new traditions and reimagine the past, and who tend to be Western or Anglo-centric or Euro-centric. And sort of revivalists who are people who are getting back in touch with their native or indigenous faith. They tend to be from colonised countries and cultures that are rediscovering a native faith that has been repressed by either Christian missionaries or by a colonising force. So they are in conversation with one another but they are sort of two poles of a spectrum.

Parinita: So then for a group of Wiccans, or for a group of pagans, would it be then like a political identity as well as a religious one? One of the texts that we looked at this time was the Woke Doctor Who episode of “Faith in the Whoniverse”. And one of the hosts, who’s a black American woman, spoke about how she didn’t recognise herself in Christianity. But she still had faith and she converted, I guess, or found the Orisha tradition from Africa which she really identified with politically as well as religiously because they were nature-based deities who looked like her. And so it was a very actively activist decision on her part.

Anna: I feel that yes, a lot of choices that pagans make are political as well as religious. It seems to be getting more prominent especially in relation to environmental activism and intersectionality. People see paganism as a more viable spirituality for a modern society.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And as a more accepting spirituality. And indeed it is a lot more malleable than, for instance, Christianity which has just been around for a long period of time and has fossilized somewhat.

Parinita: Right. So we listened to two podcast episodes that dealt with Wicca, very personal interpretations of Wicca. Which was the Witch, Please episode as well as the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode. And that was my first introduction to proper Wicca, I suppose, just proper perspectives from people who were either familiar with it or who were non-practicing Wiccans. And I was unsure whether there was an intersectional analysis in Wicca. Because I know that in one of the episodes, in the Witch, Please one, they did say that the whole focus on menstruation – they didn’t want to make it transphobic, which is why they were trying not to have the focus so much on that. But then as somebody else said, it’s such a personal engagement with the faith that everyone has different engagements with it. So you know there’s no one catchall religion, I guess.

Anna: There is absolutely no one catchall religion. And in a way that’s a good thing because at the moment, since sort of the 90s, there are a lot of conversations around how a lot of the pagan traditions are very gender essentialist because of this view of nature and nature’s fertility as being very much binary with a union of the male and the female principle. And with the main worship deities being the god and the goddess. Which are not just socially masculine and feminine but are also very physically male and female. And as you mentioned, the focus on the female reproductive cycle or the stages of the female life – the triple goddess is represented as the maiden, the mother, and the crone. So where does that put women who are unable to have children or who have chosen not to? Luckily enough, certain Wiccan groups and communities and certain other pagan communities are finding ways to work around that by working with different deities or by viewing the male and female aspects as inherent in every individual.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And it is the balance of the two or the intersection of the two that creates a harmonious person. As opposed to you representing one or the other.

Parinita: Ah. So another thing that I was thinking of just in terms of intersectionality … I know one of the people on the podcast, I think it was on the Witch, Please podcast, said that in terms of their belief and their perspective of Wicca, there is no fundamentally bad way to be a woman. And I understand that in terms of like they were, I think, talking about frivolousness versus femininity and like all ways of being a woman are acceptable. But then if I analysed it a bit further, it almost seemed to suggest that just by virtue of being a woman, you are … I mean you can’t be a bad woman I suppose. And I was thinking there are hierarchies even within women, right? Like just in terms of class and disability and which part of the world that you come from, what race you are, what … I suppose trans and non-binary folk as well. But like you said the gender essentialism is being countered. But even within the environmentalism movement, just because a lot of the Wiccan and pagan like not a lot – but a group of them do seem to be really actively trying to protect the environment as well. And with the environment movement as well, Extinction Rebellion was something that I was really fascinated with when it first started coming up and I was reading up about them and I was researching them and joined the group and everything. And I started getting this uncomfortable feeling. And then there were more articles about it and critiques about it later that it was very exclusionary to – not actively, they weren’t meaning to be – but they weren’t very inclusive to people who were not middle class, not white, not privileged in some way.

Anna: That’s ooof – there’s a lot to unpack there. Thank you for asking the challenging question. I think with what you said about is there a right and a wrong way of being a woman. I think we can bring that back to fandom and whether there’s a right and a wrong way for being a fan.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a very good point.

Anna: Yeah. We see the core idea be it feminism or being a fan or environmentalism as the defining trait of the people within the community.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Often overlooking other areas of their beliefs, of their attitudes that might not be as positive or as palatable. And I also feel that we as a society really don’t take kindly to people’s complexity. That you can’t be all good. There will always be, unfortunately, a side of your life where you’re not as educated, not as aware and not as considerate as you perhaps could have been. But that need not condemn you entirely. And especially I feel with Extinction Rebellion, I also am very much interested in their work. But to give an example, their push for civil disobedience and their push for arrests, a lot of people can’t afford to be arrested, especially –

Parinita: Exactly.

Anna: Ethnic minorities, especially if they’re from less privileged backgrounds. However, this can be slightly flipped on its head by saying well only people who are considered privileged in this society are going to take that risk.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And those are the voices that we are putting up there and making them heard. The importance here I feel is to give a different platform and a different way of activism to people who are unable to get arrested or uncomfortable doing it.

Parinita: No, I absolutely agree. I think that the conversation is what’s more important than just – first of all the awareness that this is a problem. But I think that awareness is there now and it’s … with everything like with fandom as well. There was a huge conversation in fandom about the race blindness of fandom and the racism within some parts of fandom as well. Which again, people may not, like you were saying, they may not be educated enough or they don’t know enough. For me, it’s an ongoing process of learning and unlearning social conditioning in different aspects of my identity. And also unlearning the colonised brain that I have thanks to growing up in India and consuming largely Western media. But yeah for sure, I think the conversations are important. And do you think these conversations are happening on the Wiccan side as well? Or on the pagan side as well?

Anna: I think they are but there can always be more that’s done.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And I wish that these conversations had a slightly more far-reaching platform. Because a lot of the times from what I’ve encountered, they happen at conventions and at meetings. But so many pagans don’t have a community and so much interaction happens online.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I feel that it’s online in spaces that slip under the radar –

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: That you can have a lot of these problematic discourses still circulating.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I feel that it’s the same with fandom.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Anna: With things like Comic Con, everyone is lovely for the most part and people try to be considerate and people try to raise awareness. And then you go to a Reddit thread and –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Anna: It’s a lot of weird creatures.

Parinita: But also I suppose you do have – at least I have the tendency of creating my bubble, like safe space within everywhere that I go online. Because I know that even on places like The Guardian’s Facebook articles, if I go read the comments, I’ll just spiral into this “Why am I doing this to myself?!” Because you would think even with a space like that, it would be fairly okay, but nope! Nope! It’s not okay; you shouldn’t go there unless you want to, I don’t know, fight with random strangers. But fandom is the same. And I guess with religion and faith and Wicca, it would be the same. That you don’t actively seek out negativity, I guess. Or antagonism. And the conversations would be more fruitful if there was, like you were saying, a larger platform for the community.

Anna: It’s difficult to know when your safe space becomes an echo chamber.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And where that boundary lies. A couple of years back, I pitched a topic for the Tolkien Society Seminar in Leeds. And my topic was Tolkien the Pagan? Question mark. Reading Middle-earth through a spiritual lens. And I was trying to promote a conversation about non-Christian interpretations of Tolkien’s work. Because the Christian view is so prevalent that there seems to be no space for much else and I was trying to create that space. And the Call for Papers was accepted and I was warned whether I was prepared for the consequences

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I sort of laughed it off at the time.

Parinita: Oh dear.

Anna: And within the first couple of days, on Facebook, that post had over two hundred comments. Most of them very aggressively denouncing the choice of topic saying that Tolkien’s texts are Christian only. That if you are a non-Christian reader, you can’t possibly understand what he is getting at and what Middle-earth is all about.

Parinita: Wow.

Anna: Which, to me, was quite jarring. And I was quite taken aback at the vehemence with which these people defended or claimed the texts for a specific group of people. But, on the other hand, if I didn’t encounter that, I wouldn’t have known that such a large percentage of people who consider themselves fans have this sort of reaction.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s just I suppose this perceived assault against – not only in fandom, in religion as well – like when you are the dominant group but there’ll be one lone voice, like in your case your Call for Papers, that offers another interpretation of either the religion or just another religion or a fan theory or whatever. And how this creates this really uncomfortable feeling, I guess, among the dominant group. And it leads to so many different kinds of violence and oppression. In your case, it wasn’t physical violence and it wasn’t oppression I guess; but it was trying to silence any dissent or any interpretation that doesn’t match your own. And it was something that like with Harry Potter and the whole fundamentalist Christian furore against it, it’s the fact that in the US, Christianity forms the structure of a lot of their country and media and culture. And in India, it would be Hinduism. But just like in the US, in other parts of the world, and in India currently, the majority religion is feeling this threat by religions that are so much smaller in their countries. But the way that they’re responding to it is really – that’s what I find really scary. And it’s really dangerous. And in your case luckily there’s been no – I mean you know the two hundred comments I hope were –

Anna: No, I got off lightly.

Parinita: Yeah. Not to diminish the feelings that you must have had. But I’m reading this book about the alt-right culture online and I have a very nice, optimistic view of the internet because that’s been my experience so far. Again, my safe space is very much constructed and deliberate. So I have a really nice experience online. But I know that a lot of women online don’t. And in your case, I wonder if it was … I suppose with the CFP, they wouldn’t know who put out the CFP – the Call for Papers.

Anna: Yeah, luckily they didn’t.

Parinita: Yeah. Because –

Anna: They mostly pinned it on the Society which was that one step removed and that was helpful.

Parinita: Yeah but that’s another thing – it’s not just oppression of one, if you’re a woman, it’s so much worse for everything.

Anna: Yeah. And in fandom, especially, you can see how arbitrary these distinctions and these prejudices sometimes are. Because sometimes people will defend the canon until the cows come home. And sometimes people will defend their own idea of what the show is supposed to be like against the actual showrunners and the cast. And I’m thinking here about the announcement of Jodie Whitaker as the … Thirteenth Doctor? [asks hesitantly]

Parinita: Uh huh yeah. [laughs]

Anna: Got the numbers right.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And the backlash that she got. Whereas that’s canon. That is a showrunner decision. Therefore, surely all of us canon-loving people should make peace with that as a natural progression of the show. But unfortunately it seems that people are very, very fixed in what they want to be the truth.

Parinita: But also fixed in a very certain way that only privileges their group of people, I guess. So speaking of, just because something that you’d mentioned earlier, the religious diversity in Hogwarts where one of the things that we read was The Guardian article about J. K. Rowling’s tweets about the “very evident”, according to her, religious diversity in Hogwarts. But as she mentioned and as others have mentioned since, Anthony Goldstein, I think, is the only Jewish character. And it’s like his presence doesn’t really – it’s the exception that proves the rule, right? Christianity, as you said, is the framework of Hogwarts too. And Anthony Goldstein’s Jewishness has nothing – there’s no mention of it in the text. It’s like Dumbledore being gay, there’s no mention of that in the text itself. So I feel like there were so many – I suppose not missed opportunities … but there was a lot of room for exploration in terms of the religious diversity in Hogwarts. Which I think fandom could be doing but it’s not something that is evident in the series at all.

Anna: Yeah. Perhaps it’s a bit too late for the series because I feel that the majority of backlash against J. K. Rowling was because she refused to acknowledge that the texts were done and the texts were fallible. But when she wrote them, diversity – whether it be sexual, ethnic or religious diversity – wasn’t really on the forefront of everyone’s minds as it is now. And that’s all right in a way. She could not have written different books being who she was and who she is now.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: But adaptations of the Harry Potter series can be different, can be diverse. And that’s very much the conversation currently happening against the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Prime adaptation where the announced cast is very racially diverse. And the question is how the showrunners are going to deal with that and interpret that. And how will it differ from what we suppose Tolkien’s own vision of Middle-earth was. Which presumably, based on the time when he was writing, was white and straight. To come back to your question about the lack of exploration of religious diversity in fandom, I’m quite surprised by how little people engage with that as far as I’ve seen. I haven’t really seen a lot of fanfiction or fan art that provides meaningful interpretations of characters as religious. Maybe because of this stigma in some young social groups in some corners of fandom, of religions – any kind of religion – being very oppressive and very anti-fantasy.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Um so yeah.

Parinita: Which actually that reminds me. I had I think come across a Tumblr post about how Muslim students would celebrate Ramzan in Hogwarts. In terms of when they celebrate Eid, the fasting, and how they’d have to talk to the house elves and you know have arrangements for –

Anna: I’ve seen that. It’s a good post.

Screenshot of Tumblr post by bertiebottsbigbean. Text says: why don't we talk about muslim kids in hogwarts during ramadan? imagine waking up at 3 every morning and walking down for suhoor, to find the house elves have prepared a feast for them. imagine the kids having an extended curfew, so they can go and eat iftar at 10, where the house elves once again provide a ten course meal, topped with dates and traditional delicacies from around the world. imagine the kids being allowed to go into the kitchens in the middle of the night if they were still in the mood to eat. imagine the kids being allowed to leave class to do their prayers, and sending lunch times to read the quran. we need to talk more about muslim kids in hogwarts.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah. So you’re right, it’s very limited. But I think in fandom, there is an opportunity – and I haven’t gone looking for religiously diverse texts really. But I just think that the diversity, especially in a text like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Doctor Who which has such a global appeal, which has fans from so many different parts of the world and cultures and religions and everything, there is so much more room for exploring diverse aspects. And even in Doctor Who, in the Woke Doctor Who episode, they mentioned that ever since Jodie’s run, there have been more episodes that have focused on different faiths. And they wonder whether it is not only because there’s a diverse cast now, but there’s also more diverse creators in the writing room. And that’s what leads to more diversity. Like the other text that we looked at the interview with the Malaysian British writer Zen Cho, and how she was saying that – which is true and it’s something that I hadn’t really until someone pointed it out, I hadn’t realised it – that a lot of Western fantasy is very Christian and it’s the sort of fantasy that is global now. We all have our brains shaped by Western fantasy traditions. So like Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. And everything else is othered and everything else is exoticised or even denigrated depending on who’s doing the writing. And the fact that there are now more diverse voices – because diversity is so interesting, right? Not just for people from marginalised religions who see their practices there and feel this sense of recognition but also for people from dominant religions who have always been seeing the same kind of texts. And now they have an opportunity to read something different and to learn something different, I guess.

Anna: Yeah. I absolutely agree with you there. And I think that the othering of the non-Judeo-Christian framework is doing more harm than the texts themselves that are written within a dominant Christian context. Because that episode that you’re referring to, it’s Breaking the Glass Slipper non-Western magic episode. And the crux of the discussion there is that the texts even when written through a Christian lens, when written well enough, do offer other ways of interpreting them. Do offer other spiritual reference points that don’t necessarily require an explicit mention of, oh that character is Muslim or creation of an internal magic or spiritual system that actively references a non-Western religion. But we are not used to reading them that way.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And I think that fandom spaces are a good place to introduce the habit of reading texts through multiple spiritual lenses.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Currently in fandom, a lot of conversation about diversity seems to be focused on race. So currently for me, it’s me unlearning seeing white as normative and trying to see … make my brain more diverse, I guess. Trying to accept more diversity within the characters that I read. But you’re so right in terms of religion as well. Now if I go back to a lot of the media that I watch as well, Christianity is so much the framework. And it’s something that I just took for granted really. I didn’t stop to consider because, like you’re saying, I don’t know how to read it through a different spiritual tradition even though I come from a different religious – not personally religious but culturally, I come from such a different tradition. Another one of the episodes that we were listening to, the Imaginary Worlds episode about “Faith in Fantasy”, featured different religious leaders. So there was a Rabbi, there was a Minister and there was an Alwaez – a Muslim leader. And they talked about how they read similar science fiction and fantasy texts, the really popular ones, based on their own faith traditions. So they read it through a Muslim lens or a Jewish lens or a Christian lens and I found that fascinating. Because I’ve never read anything through a Hindu lens, not really. And is that something you find that you do? Your Call for Papers was about Tolkien and paganism so you did actively look or try to look for paganism in Tolkien. Is that something you find that you have to do or something that comes really easily to you?

Anna: I try to. I think I fail more than I’m comfortable admitting. Because a lot of very Christian concepts that I have internalised, I don’t necessarily recognise as Christian. For instance, I have a very strong sense of sin and virtue as these two opposing forces. And human characters in fantasy are necessarily sinful and the sort of benevolent elves, supernatural creatures, magician characters are necessarily virtuous. Which again, is a very, very Christian divide. But through hard work and self-abasement, you can achieve a modicum of virtue and atone for your sin. And that needs to be challenged as much as the more overt links to Christianity. When trying to read things explicitly through a pagan lens, I often get frustrated because I find a lot of the references that are thought to be pagan are to this witchcraft-light social movement that has very little to do with spirituality and has a fairly little understanding of what being Wiccan or being pagan actually entails. For instance, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are an endless fount of frustration for me.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Because they’re not witches! They’re Satanists!

Parinita: That’s what I –! I mean when I was watching this episode – I’ve had this show on my radar for quite awhile and this episode was quite an episode to begin with, to introduce yourself to, [laughs] because it was very much Christianity versus Satanism. Because they’re following Lucifer, I believe. I don’t know … they called him the Dark Lord. But yeah they’re following Lucifer, and they consider god – the Christian god – to be the false god? Like it’s a very binary opposition. So yeah.

Anna: First of all, I don’t see anything wrong with Satanism. It’s its own thing with interesting ideas.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: But I feel that by calling a religion that is so explicitly against Christianity witchcraft, as they do in the show, they’re promoting some quite entrenched and quite erroneous ideas about what witchcraft, Wicca, paganism actually is. I know people who identify as both pagan and Christian, specifically Roman Catholic. And there seems to be a way to enmesh those two religions. Plus [sighs] really I don’t think I’ve ever met a pagan who was actively dismissive of Christianity as a fake or false religion. Sure as a social structure, it has its own problems but so do all religious and spiritual movements. And also the attributes that the Church of Night in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina uses are often very misogynistic, often very aggressive. No, we do not actually eat children.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: No, there are no blood sacrifices. Just let me hug a tree in the woods somewhere.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I understand that it makes for a nice, visually compelling show. But unfortunately it is a very inaccurate representation of paganism as a group of faiths.

Parinita: Again, that’s something I would not have thought of until you just said it. Because it is like not taking Wicca or Wiccans or witches seriously as their own faith and as their own religion. Because like you’re saying, it makes for a good show and it makes for a good story-line. But you would not have Muslims, for example, or Hindus or you know any other non-Western religion or even a Western one. Like Jewish people. You wouldn’t have them the way that Wiccans are presented on the TV show. So it’s almost like you’re using another religion just as set dressing, as just this sort of fun cultural anomaly. For the people who are writing and for the mainstream who’s watching, it’s just fantasy. And it’s not a real religion that a lot of people follow.

Anna: Yes. And it’s interesting where that divide lies between scare quotes “real religions” and “made-up religions”.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because fantasy is quite rich in both. And paganism seems to be somewhere in the middle where in Harry Potter you use the language of witchcraft without any kind of spiritual underpinning. They perform spells, they make potions, but there’s no sense that it’s an act of worship or an act of spiritual transaction. And in shows like Supernatural, you have a Christian framework with angels and demons and god is somewhere out there. But I feel it’s a lot less willing to cross certain boundaries. Like you wouldn’t have … Dean and … Sam and Dean, there we go!

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Sam and Dean walk up to heaven and sort of have a chat with god over a beer.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Because it’s not that kind of show. There are some boundaries there that prevent them from doing that. Whereas I feel that with paganism, because it isn’t counted as a real religion in many cases, there are no boundaries like that. There’s nothing protecting the sacred aspects of paganism.

Parinita: Hmm. And when you said made-up religion, it made me think – I always have this vague … not daydream, I guess, but vague thought. If we have the apocalypse, we have a lot of reasons for that like the climate, religion, I don’t know so many different things. And far into the future, if there are descendants of humans or whoever or aliens or whatever, they find our – whatever texts that they do, and whatever media, paraphernalia whatever – and what will they think that our beliefs and our religions and our worldview was based on what they find? Because currently popular culture seems to have such a grip on a lot of people. In fact in the Imaginary Worlds episode that we listened to, the Rabbi, she did say that popular culture stories almost seem to have replaced religion for a lot of people in terms of the stories that we tell each other. And a lot of mainstream religions that we see today like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, they’re thousands of years old. And they were at some point made up. Like someone did make the texts that we see now. And two thousand years from now, we don’t know what religions are going to survive, what is going to replace the religions that are so mainstream now. Like that fascinating paper that you sent me about Tolkien spirituality which – I’d never heard of it. But when I was reading the paper, there are so many parallels with religion that already exists now in terms of … they have a canon, they have the book that they read, they have a lot of metaphors, they have a lot of faith that they place on some elements and some aspects of the books. And like you were saying, there are some people who believe that their reading of the books is the only correct reading. And everyone who doesn’t follow the religion is not understanding the books correctly. Right?

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And you’ve got things like people being inspired by Tolkien. Especially The Silmarillion and the creation of Middle-earth and the Valar to have their own religious groups. And things like Jedis and people seeing philosophies portrayed in Star Wars as religions. I think that even without these explicit examples of adapting fantasy into faith, we already believe in fantasy much more than we think we do. Firstly because fantasy leads us to faith. If you think about Doctor Who and how much faith his companions – his or her companions place in the Doctor. If you think about the trope of the Chosen One, who is infallible, and we as readers place our faith in that character. Because we know the formula. We know that in the end, they are going to overcome whatever difficulties are thrown their way. Is that enough to supplant more conventional religions? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting question.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. And so Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it has a lot of engagements with spiritual leaders. So some of the episodes that we listened to, there were Reverends and Rabbis and just even scholars of religious studies. And a lot of the things they were saying, I found so many similarities between religion and fandom. Because for me as a non-religious person, a lot of the things that religious people seem to find in religion, I found in fandom. And just people who like the same things that I do. So that finding that sense of community, and you know even having rituals based around your favourite things and going on pilgrimages as well. It’s something that I never thought of as – I know religious people go on pilgrimages but then if I go to something that’s Harry Potter related or if I go to something that’s related to the movies or something that I like, a TV show, that is a pilgrimage in a way. It is me going there because I love this thing so much. Canon as well. All these debates about what counts as canon. Like in Judaism, Rabbi Scott Perlo I believe, he was talking about how there is a debate between some people what they consider to be canon. So that made me think of fandom as well. The more conservative fans and adherents who think that the original text is the only canon that’s acceptable. And there can be no deviation to it. So like what you said with Lord of the Rings and the Christian interpretation. Or with Doctor Who even with just the white, male Doctor being the only acceptable Doctor. Whereas on the other side, you have the more progressive sort of believers, I guess, who are open to canon being disrupted and expanded and just who like there being more of the thing they love. And have more to look at.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And fandom not only functions very much as a spiritual movement, it also inherits a lot of the language of one. You mentioned pilgrimages. A lot of fans will have shrines of their favourite book or show paraphernalia. Canon can also be interpreted as a religious term.

Parinita: Metaphors as well. Like you know in terms of metaphors for real-world social and political issues. So fandom does that with texts, like Harry Potter or Doctor Who. But also with religion, like even though these texts were written two thousand years or more ago, you’re still trying to make it relevant to today’s contexts. Or at least I think at least successful religion, that’s what they should be doing. Like I was telling you about this article that I read about this radical church in the US. And they made social justice the framework of their church. I’m going to link to that in the transcript of this episode. But they just meet together and they read things like Marx and feminist theory and also religion, like extracts from the Bible. And they all connect it together. It’s almost like getting an education, right? For me, that’s what fandom is. Just learning to look at things through different lenses that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Community, just coming together, and meeting people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met and they might not be … like you were saying the echo chamber. It’s a way for me to get out of my echo chamber a bit because we’re coming around a community because we all love this thing. But we’re coming from so many different backgrounds and so many different perspectives. And perhaps even political leanings. And it makes it more interesting, I think.

 

Photograph of a church pamphlet. Cover text says: Jubilee Baptist Church. Love as if a different world is possible.

Picture from the Jubilee Baptist Church referenced above. Image courtesy BuzzFeed

Anna: Absolutely. And I think it’s very valuable to have a community that is so diverse both nationally, ethnically, religiously but also in terms of education and lifestyle and professional careers. Where those things also greatly impact outlooks on the world and ways we see current knowledge. And fandom is this unifying force that allows us to explore new ways of finding information while also always being able to bring it back to that community, bring it back to that thing that’s familiar and that’s safe and that we love. Which is why it’s so important that we protect the fandom space and maintain it as accessible and as welcoming to everyone.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And I think that that’s what to me currently is most exciting with fandom. So, like I said, I discovered fandom first as a thirteen-year-old with Mugglenet. And I used to read Harry Potter fanfiction and I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction. But now what really excites me is all the critical commentary and the fan works that are around it. In the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode with Reverend Broderick Greer, he said, “Who in our culture is imagined out of stories? And who needs to reimagine themselves back into them?” He was talking about religion but he was also talking about fandom. Because in religion as well, with Christianity, with all religions I think, Hinduism as well. They are written in a very patriarchal way and Hinduism is very upper caste. So a specific group of privileged people. With Christianity I don’t know if it was white men because it was in the Middle East but privileged people nonetheless. Or at least now they’ve gained a sense of status. And now it is mostly white men who are adherents to the religion [Editor’s note: I meant in control]. But it was written to privilege just a certain group of people but there were so many other voices that were not – like of women, of different races, classes, you know even religions. And now there is more of an effort within both religion and within fandom to highlight these marginalised voices and to actively look for these voices so that even if the canon itself has a lot of blind spots and it has a lot of missing gaps, fans and followers are now working to fix these gaps. And I love that.

Anna: Yeah. And this notion of reading certain groups of people back into stories speaks to the idea of re-enchantment of the world that’s been loosely going on since the 70s. And is this drive to see the world as more intersectional, as more holistic, acknowledging that no group of people has primacy over others. That humanity as a species does not have primacy over non-human animals, over the natural world in general. And a more magical view of the world that allows us to maintain our identity while also entertaining all of these other ways of being in the world.

Parinita: Yeah and just even with science fiction and fantasy, I completely agree with you. It allows us to imagine a different world; allows us to question, really, things, the way that they are and allows us then to imagine possibilities as well. Which I think in religion, in fandom, in fantasy, that’s a really good thing for me to take from them.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely.

Parinita: Thank you so much, Anna, for talking to me about your faith and about religion. I have learned so much from our conversation. My brain is so full of ideas and I just want to go back to Harry Potter and now read it through a religious lens and find out all the ways that – maybe I can write more fanfiction now. Maybe I can go back to my thirteen-year-old [laughs] skills and you know write fanfiction from a religious lens.

Anna: Thank you so much. It’s been an incredible pleasure. And good luck with your project!

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of religion in media. You can listen to the first two episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Anna for being a part of this project and for expanding my brain in so many different ways. Religion is not something I think about too often and you had such a refreshing and illuminating perspective to share. And thanks as always to Jack for helping me with the editing.

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Episode 2 Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom – Part 1

This is Part One of the episode. Click here to listen to/read Part Two.

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at a bunch of texts:

Reddit thread – “Does anyone feel as if POC are very underrepresented in certain fandoms?”

Twitter thread – Darren Chetty writes about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Hogwarts

Buzzfeed article – “What A ‘Racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”

Excerpt from Fierce Bad Rabbits Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children’s Picture Books by Clare Pollard

Kirkus Review article – “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon

 

Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

You’re listening to the first part of our episode on race and representation. As three Indian fangirls of mostly Western media (but also Bollywood!), we have a LOT of thoughts about this episode’s theme. We didn’t want to stop talking, which is why we divided this episode into two parts.

In this part, we describe our different interpretations of intersectionality and how we first first came across the term. We discuss how much we all owe to black women and black activists in the US for our ongoing conversations about diversity. We talk about our feelings about the term “non-white” and “person of colour” (spoiler alert: they both make us uncomfortable but one more than the other). We complain about token diversity in fantasy, science fiction, and Harry Potter. We talk about how much we love the idea of a black Hermione but also how her tackling of S.P.E.W was super problematic (you need to be a good ally, Hermione!). We chat about our colonised minds and the struggles of identifying with white fictional characters. We discuss the importance of Own Voices and also how media creators can use their privilege to be more inclusive and empathetic. We end Part One by talking about how scary the world would be if our Hogwarts Houses defined the rest of our lives. Find out why we think the Hogwarts Houses resemble the Hindu caste system (and why it makes us very uncomfortable!). We would prefer more integration and intermingling among the four Houses please!

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to be greater than another. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” That was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. Hi! My name is Parinita.

Sanjana: Hi, I’m Sanjana.

Aparna: And I’m Aparna. And today’s episode is about race. So let’s start by talking about intersectionality because the best way to talk about race, or anything for that matter, is to view it through the lens of intersectionality. Which is a word that I was introduced to very recently. I think I identified with the theory of it already but the word for it, I have gotten to know better only in the recent past. Apparently, it was coined as part of a research paper, I think, in 1989 by a Professor Crenshaw to describe how different marginalised identities intersect and overlap. And I feel like this is essential to understand a complex and realistic experience that is a person’s life rather than a simplistic this-or-that picture that we all grow up consuming or understanding. I’d like to know what both of your views on intersectionality are. Sana, what is your interpretation of it?

Sanjana: So, like you, I recently started reading up a little bit more about it to understand it better. And what I’ve understood about it is that it’s a sort of a concept. I’ve understood it as a concept that helps explain disparity in society – that helps explain it to the other side maybe to try and get them to see that it’s not just one thing that you face in general or it’s not just one thing that holds you – that –

Aparna: Defines.

Sanjana: Defines you. Or even places you in context with everybody else. But Parinita, you’ve been reading a lot about intersectionality.

Parinita: That’s right.

Sanjana: A more clearer voice on what more –

Parinita: No, I found it really interesting. So just before I talk about what I think about intersectionality, did you guys come across the word because of this podcast? Because you knew that that was my lens of this podcast?

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Or had you come across it otherwise?

Aparna: I think I’d come across it because I read a lot of pop culture –

Parinita: Right.

Aparna: Reviews and articles and discussions. But I never really looked up what it means.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Or like tried to understand where it’s come from and what it actually is supposed to define. Turns out different people define it differently also. So that I started doing only after the podcast.

Sanjana: I, to be honest, only read the word when you had sent us an overview of your paper just to read in general. Just for general feedback, not when we were talking about this podcast at all.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And that is when I came across the word. And I very vaguely looked it up so that I would understand what you were writing better. But it is because of the podcast that I found it necessary to understand it better for my own self.

Parinita: So, like Paru, I also discovered this word online. It’s really become a buzzword of sorts because it’s used in a lot of different contexts online. Especially with popular media representations and things. But also with discussions of feminism online. And from my research, what I found is that the term – it basically traces its roots to black feminism in the US. So what Paru said, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s article. And it analysed how not only gender but also race and class affect the lives of black women. So that’s where it started. But now like I said, with internet conversations and even within academia, the scope of gender, race, and class has widened. So now intersectionality’s scope – it basically looks at how different multiple and complex social inequalities interact with each other. So, for example, your life is significantly better or worse based on where you live and on things like –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Your gender, your class, your race, your sexual orientation –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Your ethnicity, which part of the country you’re from, which part of the world you’re from. Like we see that in India so much now with the recent protests, right? Like the national origin is such a huge question and your religion is such a huge question.

Parinita: Also, what you guys said was absolutely what I think of intersectionality as well. But reading more about it, it’s such a contextual thing. Because you can be marginalised in some cases and you can be privileged in others. Some of your identities can be –

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So in India like gender would play a bigger role for me just because as an Indian woman you know walking in the streets and just –

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Parinita: Whereas for me in India my national origin or my race didn’t play any role. It’s not something I thought of at all. Whereas now that I’m in England in the UK, with just this sort of national discourse that’s become so anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner, I’m much more aware of my race and I’m much more aware of my immigration status than I would be in India. And even though I’m –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Like in a university setting in the UK, so I’m like really privileged otherwise as well and in terms of class and stuff. So it’s a really complicated sort of thing. And within the context of fandom, so I started thinking about intersectionality because I thought it was a really interesting thing that I had not thought about. Like I’d not known the term. But I had encountered a lot of these diverse perspectives in fandom. So things like how disabled students would navigate Hogwarts or why there need to be more diverse Time Lords in the TARDIS. Like there’ve so far been only white men. Like until before Jodie. It was all white men.

Sanjana: And! And!

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Until Jodie and now! The newest Doctor!

Sanjana: Now!

Parinita: Which –

Sanjana: Like it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Parinita: Right?!

Sanjana: Like oh my god!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I mean we’ll talk about it later as well, but it opens up so many more possibilities and so many more exciting possibilities that I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: What I have found, in conversations about intersectionality and also about diversity in general, in like children’s book publishing or in popular media and stuff, there seems to be a really heavy focus on race. It’s usually through the lens of race that all these We Need Diverse Books and things –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: At least in Western media, that’s what it’s talked about. In India, it might be more caste-based or region-based or perhaps language-based.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Gender-based in India, I would say.

Parinita: Sorry?

Sanjana: Gender-based in India.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Whereas in the West, it’s very heavily focused on race, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Because even though the talks began with racial diversity, just like with intersectionality, it has expanded the scope. So that there’s sexual orientation, religion, class – all these other identities. However, I still do think that among intersectionality scholarship but also among talks of diversity, the heavy focus is still on race in Western media. And that’s why I’ve tried to expand the identities in my own podcast you know in terms of the intersectional themes that we’re looking at.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Just so that race is a good starting point, but other categories shouldn’t be overlooked based on that.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And black people in the US seem to be paving the way for so many movements and so many like conversations about diversity. Because they work so actively to highlight their perspectives. I was reading this research paper about a network of black podcasters. And essentially, they’re making fan podcasts and just discussion podcasts in ways that highlight their perspectives in media which erases their experiences largely. One of the texts that we listened to for this episode was the Black Girl Nerds episode, right? And –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Black Girl Nerds is an example of this. So, when Game of Thrones, the last season was out, I discovered their recaps. After every episode, they would just talk about the episode, what they thought. Like what the three of us do on WhatsApp, they did on a podcast.

Sanjana: Haan.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But because Game of Thrones is such a white world, like there’s mostly white people in charge, so they would be talking about it from the lens of the two black characters that were left in the show.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And I found that so interesting because it just opened up my mind so much because it’s not something I would have thought of doing myself.

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And this is something they do all the time in popular culture, highlighting their perspectives and also working with each other. So, it’s not just an isolated thing where they want to make money or whatever. But they are actively collaborating with others and promoting each other and I think this collaboration is such a crucial component of any form of activism even if it is something like what we’re doing.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So another of the texts that we looked at this time was a Reddit thread about fandom and about how there is a lack of POC in fandom and I’ll link to this in the transcript of the episode. But the term POC, it’s an acronym for person of colour. And, Sana, you said that you hadn’t heard of the term POC, right?

Sanjana: No. So when we were looking up stuff to read about this episode, I was looking up stuff to read, and I was Googling various terms and this came up. This thread sort of popped out and I had to Google what POC was. I, yeah, had never heard of the term.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I’m not at all surprised by because it stands for person of colour. And one of the people in the thread did point this out – did critique the term – because it’s such a US-centric term.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because everywhere else in the world, we’re not measured against white people. Like in India, we’re not –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Right? We’re all people of colour in India.

Sanjana: Within our people of colour also we have various shades.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: No what I mean is like India also has their own person of colour –

Parinita: Problems.

Sanjana: Gauge happening.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: Yeah problems.

Parinita: Yeah like light-skinnedness versus dark-skinnedness.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which has so many … which caste and which class and which part of the country.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So in the thread itself, some people were trying to talk about instead of using the term person of colour, you can use diverse ethnic backgrounds or non-white. But I find the term non-white a little problematic. Just because –

Sanjana: No, no, it’s quite problematic.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Right? What do you think of the term non-white?

Sanjana: Very – very – not little problematic. Quite problematic!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. Why do you think it’s problematic?

Sanjana: It’s a little worse than person of colour. Like we are the island of white and everybody else floating around is like far away and not – non-white.

Parinita: I absolutely agree with this. And it’s something that I had – well not an argument, more maybe a debate, with Jack, my white boyfriend.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: Who was saying that he prefers the term – not prefers, but when he’s talking about people who are not white, he prefers to use the term non-white and I was like that makes me uncomfortable for precisely the reason you said, Sana. Because it positions you against like white is normative and everything else is othered.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Right?

Sanjana: Exactly. It sounds like we are up there in a fort you know.

Parinita: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah. It’s talking down.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Sort of.

Parinita: And I mean I do understand why non-white is like a sort of convenient catchall term.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And person of colour is also not a great term. But I prefer person of colour to non-white.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And so in the thread itself, in response to this critique, a responder shared a video about the origins of the term woman of colour.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which featured this feminist called Loretta Ross. And she described that the term came to be coined as a form of solidarity among different groups of oppressed women. So it was supposed to be a political designation and not a biological one. So it’s not literally about the colour of your skin. Because white is also a colour. Right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So it’s a political identity. And in the video, it’s a really short video and I’ll link to it. But something that she said was so interesting was that the origin of the term has been forgotten because history isn’t documented and it’s not preserved and it’s not taught.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And that really made me think of the protests in India that are happening now the anti-CAA and the anti-NRC ones. Where there was this excellent video by Raghu Karnad. I don’t know if you guys have seen it. It’s called “Remembering Emergency and the Student Protests the BJP Doesn’t Talk About.” So it essentially talks of how people in India, we don’t learn about the history of protest.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Right? Like we’re not taught, even though the BJP like they did student protests, the current BJP members.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Right?

Aparna: Yeah! Protest is such an important part of any movement or the development of any group of people. But it’s in the best interest of the government to not encourage you to know about protests obviously. So, it’s sort of successfully been forgotten every time.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s such a huge part of democracy. Like the right –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: To question your government. And now they’ve positioned protest as something that’s anti-national.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But the fact that you care so much about your country and about protecting your country, how can that be anti-national? So I thought that it was a really interesting –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Interesting analogy.

Sanjana: So talking about race and general diversity in the texts and the universes that we meet, focusing on Harry Potter in particular, there was this very interesting Twitter thread that was by someone called Darren Chetty. Which was very similar to the thoughts that I’d had when I was just generally noting down thoughts without reading anything. That there is diversity – like the universe as such talks about diversity – but within the magical world. Like it does talk about inclusion and stuff but very allegorically. I wanted to read one of the tweets that he had written. “So a story that has so much to say about racism on an allegorical level at the same time depicts people of colour as marginal without actually exploring their marginalisation.” I thought that was very interesting because there is like the house elves and giants and the pure race of wizards and –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: The Mudbloods as the bad word is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And I just thought that was a very interesting take on it. For a text that does that is basing all this on race and the history of how people have been treated. But you’re still not addressing –

Aparna: Actual.

Sanjana: Actual anything. What did you take from that?

Parinita: What that made me think of, this metaphorical racism, and again – like it’s really easy to read the Harry Potter series I think as something that really talks about like you said inclusivity and just non-prejudiced attitudes and everything. But it’s not a radical text at all because it’s –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s so allegorical. And it’s similar to science fiction where you know aliens and robots usually take the place of other races and cultures. So there’s this whole colonising new planet narratives without –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Exploring what that actually means. Or the history of colonising. For example, in Doctor Who, there – there were two black companions. So there was Martha and Bill. Were there any others? Well now currently there’s Ryan.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the earlier ones, before Jodie, there was Martha and Bill who travelled to the past but the show doesn’t explore the impact of this. Like –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: The fact that they would be unsafe in these societies where people who were not white were not considered to be equal.

Parinita: Whereas in the Rosa Parks episode that we also watched for this podcast, Ryan and Yaz go back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and they were targeted for being black and for being brown. Like she’s called Mexican even though she’s desi. But –

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That explored it a little more. We’ll talk about the episode more in detail later but racism is something that would affect people based on the time period that you’re in. It’s not something that’s just – you can’t be colourblind to it. You can’t just say –

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Oh everyone lives happily.

Aparna: You can’t have moved past it just for the sake of telling your story that the allegory rings a little hollow.

Parinita: Exactly and like the colourblindness is very much present I think in the Harry Potter series which –

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: I didn’t think about while I was reading it at all. Oh there’s like the brown twins and then there’s Cho Chang –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Who may be Chinese, may be Korean, we don’t know. Because remember last time when we got so angry about Panju?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: The name Panju.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: The other sort of controversy about the name Cho Chang is that it could be Chinese, it could be Korean, and it doesn’t quite make sense in either country. But we know nothing about Cho Chang except that she’s in Ravenclaw, you know, we know nothing about her ethnic identity. We know nothing about Parvati and … do they celebrate Diwali? Do they not eat beef? We don’t know any of these things about them. So I really liked what Darren calls this. He calls this a “failure of imagination”. Which I think is something that you not only see in this book, you see in a lot of popular media everywhere.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. It’s very surface level – not three-dimensional characters. Just who’ve been named as a certain way just for the sake of diversity to be a part of the cast but it just doesn’t translate. Like you can tell that it’s not a well-written character – that particular one – when obviously J. K. Rowling, for example, has the ability to write fantastic characters. But the fact that these characters are so one-dimensional is a bit uncomfortable the more you think about it.

Sanjana: As a kid when I read the Harry Potter books and for the first time Parvati comes on the scene, I was super excited to read that name because I was like “Hey I know a Parvati!”

[Parinita and Aparna laugh]

Sanjana: Oh my god I was super excited. And just that much mention of them did so much for me as being included in this vast universe. To only imagine that what it does to so many like just this small mention did that much emotion for me. That this pale Indian character in the background who doesn’t have any more character than just her name did so much for me.

Aparna: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: So no you know like that’s another thing ‘cause like we do critique now, especially as adults, the lack of fleshing out characters of colour. Like in the other text that we looked at, The Gayly Prophet text “Clearly Hermione Is Black”, they counted seven characters of colour in the whole series.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita And one Jewish character. And I’m in the UK, I know that it’s much more diverse than that. So you know Darren Chetty, he says, why are there not more people of colour in Hogwarts or even among the teaching staff? Like why is it so white? Where are all the teachers of colour?

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: But then as much as we like to critique this, I think Sana like you said, superficial representations sometimes can also have a powerful impact –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: On people, I think. Because you know how J. K. Rowling sort of takes credit for diversity that wasn’t actually there in the books? Like –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: For example black Hermione and Dumbledore is gay. And as adults or as people who are a part of these conversations

Sanjana: Please – yeah.

Parinita: It’s easy to say that this doesn’t count whatever. But in a university workshop that I was at, I was talking to this person on my table. And she was saying that her child is non-binary and they – when they discovered that Dumbledore is gay, even though it’s not in the text, like you can read the entire series without knowing Dumbledore is gay. But when they heard about it just through conversations with their parents maybe, they were so excited! They were you know –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: That coloured their whole reading of the texts. So even though –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That came later, even though it was superficial … For us we want more but …

Sanjana: Haan no absolutely. It can be very powerful just to identify with, which is what I’m saying – just small identifications, can you imagine what a well-written character would do for like a kid growing up?

Parinita: Absolutely!

Sanjana: I was just trying to say it could have been done so much better.

Parinita: Of course.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Like she could have owned not putting it in the original but wanting to –

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Add this to the story like –

Parinita: Absolutely.

Sanjana: It could have made so much of a difference to the way everybody received it.

Aparna: Correct.

Aparna: But Hermione being black, the more I’m reading online or the podcasts that we’re listening to, or the comments on the articles, some people are completely convinced and have been from the beginning that Hermione is black. But for others it’s like obviously not. So I’m not sure what J. K. Rowling had in mind but some people have managed to completely own the character nonetheless.

Sanjana: No but listen, if Rowling thought that she was black from the very beginning, she had a say in the way –

Aparna: No, no, she –

Sanjana: She had been cast.

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: I don’t think that’s true. But I love the idea of a black Hermione because I’ve been reading a lot of articles and fan texts and things about how if she’s black, her activism really makes sense. Like her outrage against –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah! Exactly.

Parinita: House elf slavery and you know –

Aparna: Correct.

Fan art of black Hermione

Racebent Hermione fan art. Image courtesy Sophia Canning

Parinita: Dumbledore’s Army and everything. But then since the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and especially on this one podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, there have been conversations about how Hermione’s handling of S.P.E.W. was actually really problematic and was a bit white feministy or maybe like in an Indian context, savarna feministy, I guess. Because she didn’t talk to the – like she came saying that oh I know better than you and pitying the house elves but not –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: Having conversations with them.

Aparna: I will fix things for you.

Parinita: Exactly! And she was not a good ally. She was controlling it and she was putting her – what she thought was correct into you know circulation – the ideas into circulation without talking to them and talking to –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: How they would want to be a part of it. Or do they want to be a part of it?

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And you also need an education. Like there’s so much internalised prejudice against your own identities just because of the messages you get in society, that sometimes it needs to start from educating, you know, just raising awareness about your oppressed identity. You may not realise you’re oppressed. So it needs to start from there. And so –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I thought that was also a really interesting interpretation like it’s a great thing she did but maybe … you know because it was presented quite uncritically. In fact, her whole activism was very much a joke. Like in terms of you know how because we read the whole series from Harry’s perspective, he –

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Didn’t take it seriously so the readers also don’t really take it seriously. But there is so much room there for critique and exploration. But it might reflect her own biases and her own worldview at that time or even now. But like you were saying, Sana, it would be so much more impactful if she acknowledged her blind spots. Because obviously all of us have blind spots.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Like we can’t know everything about everything. It’s just questioning your biases and questioning your social conditioning and trying to unlearn that. Like if you don’t acknowledge it –

Sanjana: Talking about social conditioning is what The Gayly Prophet in their episode spoke about was that how when we are reading these texts, even though we uh uh are you know peo – persons of colour, we don’t uh – we

Parinita: [laughs] I like how uncomfortable you were with that term.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah I was –

Aparna: Now you don’t know what to call yourself!

Sanjana: I’m not sure what I am anymore. [laughs] You have shattered – either which way what I was saying was that how we assume that the character we’re reading is white.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: How often does that happen to you guys? It happens quite often to me.

Aparna: Yeah totally. It happens very often and constantly. And most of the time, my imagination was right, because we were reading only white people – white men mostly. I just assumed for the longest time until like shamefully recently that all the characters I was reading were white.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And all the characters that I identified with also in the books that I was reading and all just happened to be white only because they were the coolest – even if there were non-white characters in the book. Sorry I said non-white.

[Sanjana and Parinita laugh]

Aparna: But in that context it’s true okay because they were only white characters and a few – sprinkling of a non-white character here and there. But even if they were, they were either stereotypes like in Johnny Quest – Haji in Johnny Quest.

Sanjana: Oh my god Haji in Johnny Quest! [laughs]

Aparna: Or they were so surface level that beyond their name or one line here and there, they didn’t really have much of a role to play. So you ended up like identifying with the white characters and then that just became the normal. It took me a long time to say, oh the characters I identify with can actually be similar to me.

Parinita: You know the BuzzFeed article that we read by Alanna Bennett and about – basically about Hermione being black and a racebent Hermione, which again, I’ll link to in the transcript. But she said that she had to train herself out of seeing white as default for fictional characters, but for me it’s something that I really still struggle with. Like I almost –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Need the author to explicitly say that this person, their racial markers. And I don’t know why. It’s like it’s a blind spot in my brain. You know like it’s such a colonised brain that I have that it’s still difficult. Because it’s like what nearly thirty years of conditioning because we’ve grown up –

Sanjana: Correct.

Parinita: With Western media. We still largely read Western media. And now I make it a point to diversify my reading so that I have more black and brown voices in it. But in that it’s so much easier for me to then imagine black and brown bodies. But in just other books, it’s still something that – it’s very difficult for me to unlearn. And it’s still something I actively need to be … so you know these conversations about them being convinced that Hermione was black, I would never have been able to think of that. For me, Hermione was always white because all the characters that I read about were white. So –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Even though I identified with her – bookworm, bushy hair, big teeth, big front teeth –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I was like yeah that’s as far as the identification goes. Because I’m in Ravenclaw, you’re in Gryffindor, our paths diverge.

Aparna: [laughs] So it’s like you said, you’re trying to read more diverse authors now. And that’s sort of slowly deconditioning you. Which is why I think the Own Voices movement is so important.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: It’s because to start seeing yourself in books, you have to be correctly represented in books. And to be correctly represented in books, the books have to be written by somebody who’s lived similar experiences as you. Like there has to be space for all voices in the books that we’re reading or the media that we’re consuming. So that everyone can find a way to see themselves. Like this whole conversation should, in an ideal world, not exist because there’ll be so much space for everyone and every voice that every child will be able to identify with every other child or know about various experiences that are not their own through the books that they’re reading. Not just oh this is what British people eat on a picnic. Like everyone should know what everyone eats on a picnic, you know?

Parinita: Yeah and also ever since I came to the UK, I realised that the most popular British food happens to be chicken tikka masala [laughs].

[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]

Parinita: Which you know – that’s not something that you would know of in India. You think oh they eat crumpets and they eat you know baked goods and haggis. And like here everyone loves a good curry, as they call it. Which is something that disrupts our notion of British food.

Aparna: Yeah. So, I’m a picture book editor and I was reading this book about the history of picture books. It’s called Fierce Bad Rabbits. It’s by a lady called Clare Pollard. And she was talking about how there’s a picture book called The Snowy Day by Ezra Keats. And how it was one of the first books that became really popular that featured an African-American character. And it’s just about this little boy who is playing in the snow. And the book was really well-received and people were writing letters to the author saying, “For the first time, my students are picking up the brown crayon to represent themselves.”

Image of book cover. Text says: Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children's Picture Books by Clare PollardImage of book cover. Text says: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Parinita: Awww!

Aparna: Because we were all – even when we were young, when we would get a crayon box, we would have this flesh-coloured crayon and it would be this pink-colour crayon.

Parinita: Pink. Yeah in India as well!

Sanjana: The crayon’s name was flesh.

Parinita: Yeah. Or skin.

Sanjana: Yeah something like that.

Aparna: So it became really popular and many people assumed that the author was black. And when they found that he wasn’t, they were very disappointed. And then he received a lot of flak about why did he choose to show an African-American character and then started finding like these are very stereotypical representations etc. And he said no, that all children play in the snow, it’s such a universal experience etc. I think he chose it because it would stand out better against the snow or something like

Parinita: Oh.

Aparna: Something illustratory like that. I don’t know. I’m just going to read a bit from the book. “I’m glad if artists don’t always default to white children convinced by Keats when he says of Peter, ‘My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.’ But it’s worth noting that The Snowy Day raises an ongoing problem in picture books. Representation on the page is seen as enough for the black child or at least to tick the publisher’s diversity box. Yet there is still a staggering absence of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic [BAME] writers and illustrators. Who gets to tell the stories is important. They get to shape our children’s way of seeing the world.”

Parinita: No, I think it’s a very good point. But it throws me into such a quandary. Because I’d watched this video on The Guardian and it was about inclusive children’s literature, in the British context. And it featured a Guardian journalist, a black Guardian journalist, Grace Shutti. And she read this book called Amazing Grace, which I think was written in the 70s or 80s. I don’t know, it’s a pretty old book. And it stars like a black family and Grace who is this “little black girl and loves stories and wants to do everything”. So she really identified with it. And then for the video itself, she managed to interview the author. And the author happened to be a white woman.

Image of book cover. Text says: Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch

Aparna: Oh.

Parinita: And she knew that before she interviewed her.

Aparna: Okay. Haan.

Parinita: And she spoke a little bit about the tensions and things. But for her, it was one rare book in a landscape of white that she was reading.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So for her, that book holds a really important place.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s what I struggle so much with. Because I completely believe Own Voices is so important and you should have as many diversity of voices and experiences writing about – because there’s no monolithic experience, right? There’s no monolithic Indian experience –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: Or a monolithic whatever class anything. So you need as many as possible. But then I feel like sometimes that non-own voices can also make a really important contribution. Like unfortunately, systemically in media, children’s publishing, everything, we’re not there yet. We’re working really hard to try and fix the imbalance of dominant voices and marginalised voices. But it’s going so slowly. And the other article that we read, which was “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon on Kirkus Reviews.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she spoke about how non-own voices books and you know how the different kinds of representations within them.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she spoke both about the problematic elements where you just resort to stereotypes and lazy generalisations and not really you know going deep into your research. Oh have you guys come across the recent backlash against this book called American Dirt?

Sanjana and Aparna: No.

Parinita: So it’s this American book I believe because yeah American Dirt. I suppose that makes sense [laughs]. But it was written by I believe a middle-class woman with part Latina heritage. And she’s written about South American immigrants. You know how the whole border situation that’s happening –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: In the US. And so she wrote about South American immigrants and it created this huge backlash because they believed that she didn’t have the lived experience and she didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell this story. And that there aren’t enough people who are telling their own stories. So I found that really interesting because in that sense, there’s the power dynamic as well, right?

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s American, like she may have Latina heritage but her Latina experiences in the US are very different from someone who’s fleeing crime or you know whatever from their country.

Sanjana: Yeah. And it can do more harm than it can do good sometimes. Like if you don’t do a well-researched story. What happened to research though? Like it’s not that hard to – at least a little bit.

Parinita: So in that article, she mentioned two YA [Young Adult] books that do a good job. Like non-own voice writers who write about another culture and they do it in a way that a cultural insider would recognise it. Would be able to identify with the characters and stuff.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: So it is possible. But it’s not easy.

Sanjana: It is possible, yeah, yeah.

Parinita: It’s – you have to do a lot of research. You have to know the current and historical discussions, debates, controversies. You need to have a clear picture. Especially when you’re writing about a culture that’s not your own and where you are not impacted, where you are the dominant person and the other person – you know like there’s so many – you have to be careful about it. You have to be respectful.

Aparna: Exactly. Respectful of all of that. And the most important thing is probably an authentic representation.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: If you’re writing outside of your identity, you owe it to your readers to authentically represent them. Because the job of creating media is one of privilege. The creative fields are one of privilege.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: So it’s already somebody who does it will be from a certain privilege and has been for the longest time so to break away from that, like you said, will take – it’s taking time. There the most important thing is to have people who are like the commissioning editors or people who are showrunners to be diverse or to be at least invested in making sure their shows and books are more inclusive. But more than that, it’s just something that is going to take some time to break away from. But meanwhile whatever representations are being included should be done more mindfully.

Parinita: And there shouldn’t be like you’re scared of representing a culture that’s not your own so you’re not going to do it anyway. Like in that Reddit thread, which was –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Essentially about people of colour in fandom and in fanfiction, there were some responses like, oh if you have a problem with it, why don’t you write your own? Like it’s always the burden of you know the person.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Like it only matters to the person who inhabits a marginalised identity. And it’s not like diversity isn’t important for everybody. Or they would say that, oh they were super sensitive and over-cautious about offending marginalised people through their representations. Which again, it can be solved by research. Social media, the internet, makes it really easy – I mean doesn’t make it really easy, you have to do the work.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But you have access to resources and conversations that you –

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Wouldn’t have had earlier.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Or there are these colourblind statements like, oh we’re focusing on the character and we want to entertain. Like another of this Reddit comment was, I want to entertain and not educate, which is why I’m not adding –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Yeah! That’s such rubbish!

Parinita: Right?! As if just having diverse people in a book makes it educational. Like last time I said, just the presence of diversity isn’t political. It’s another thing that I find – I think it’s important to have serious issues, you know, issues based on your marginalised identity like stories that delve into that. But that shouldn’t be the only kind of diversity that we see. Like it should be just diversity in terms of just going on adventures or having fun or just you know light-hearted sort of things.

Sanjana: Yeah without –

Aparna: Yeah exactly.

Sanjana: Comment. That diversity without comment on diversity is what is needed.

Aparna: Exactly. Yeah. I actually have a follow-up question. So as more diverse books are being published, there are lists of diverse books, there is a focus on diversity as a topic. But what do you guys think of that? Because I’m always torn between whether that’s a good thing or is it already treating it as separate?

Sanjana: Different, yeah.

Aparna: From the mainstream.

Parinita: Well, I think that we should be moving towards where it’s not separate. Like we should be moving towards a sort of environment where we don’t need to isolate this. But you know I totally understand these lists because school librarians, school teachers, parents may be really well-meaning but they may not have access to the resources or the knowledge or whatever. So you know putting these things together, and to highlight these voices and to highlight these books and to hopefully encourage other people to pick them up and buy them and you know read them.

Aparna: Right.

Parinita: I think that’s an important step that needs to be taken. Because it is something that ideally it should be without comment, but it’s a political thing as well right? Like unfortunately, diversity currently is political. Or fortunately, I don’t know. It’s a good opportunity as well.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And just like the woman of colour thing that you know it was formed as a political designation, maybe just diversity now should be used as a political tool to promote inclusivity and empathy and respect for different experiences.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah. Which brings us to …

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Our next section!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve been waiting for this section! Our specially curated section on What If?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: So anyway what I wanted to ask you guys very importantly because when I was writing stuff down, this just sort of pounced at me like the Houses in Hogwarts and the Sorting. What if it was at a different level? How would the world have been if the segregation started at a school level, like at that moment when you are put into Gryffindor or Hufflepuff or wherever – that defined the rest of your life. Like in a sense, what jobs were okay for you to take, and what jobs were beneath you or –

Parinita: Are you talking about the Hindu caste system?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: YES!

Parinita: Because that’s what it sounds like [laughs] Like oh I’m a brave Gryffindor, maybe I can go fight battles.

Aparna: Yes! Yes!

Sanjana: Isn’t it? Isn’t it? Thank you. I was just – I was phrasing my sentences so you would get at that.

Parinita: [laughs] But like –

Sanjana: All the Ravenclaws would be the ones writing all the texts that –

Aparna: Oh god!

Parinita: Yeah like they would be the Brahmins.

Aparna: This conversation – this what if is …

Sanjana: Haan? Yeah? Isn’t it?

Parinita: Brahmins. Because they have access to knowledge that they don’t – they refuse to share with other people –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And hold onto.

Sanjana: They’ll be the ones writing the history.

Aparna: Ugh.

Parinita: Oh yeah, yeah.

Sanjana: We didn’t compare the Slytherins and Hufflepuffs. I don’t want to go there also.

Parinita: But Slytherins is – maybe they’re the Brahmins because like the white supremacy house.

Sanjana: I think they’re like the supremacy – yeah exactly.

Aparna: That’s true.

Parinita: Yeah I don’t know. Hufflepuff I feel would be the best house. Because Gryffindor only wants the brave people. Like if you’re chicken, please, get out. Ravenclaw only wants the smart people. Slytherin only wants the pure-blood people. And Hufflepuff just accepts everybody. Like Hufflepuff is great, you don’t – you need to be kind, okay. That’s all – that’s all you need. That’s great. That’s a great House.

Sanjana: Yeah. But what a strange horrible world that would be.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: I have a follow up to the What If.

Parinita: Okay.

Sanjana: What if it was all integrated? Like you got Sorted out, but then you didn’t sit on separate tables.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: You went on Quidditch matches against other schools, not your own school, like one team. You also had one team.

Aparna: Oh!

Sanjana: That would be fun!

Aparna: I suppose, I suppose.

Parinita: So there’s that fan text Tumblr post that I’d sent you guys earlier this week which I’ll link to in the transcript. Which was – it had very tragic beginnings. Because it was –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: After the war. After the Hogwarts battle where lots of people were dead so there were gaps in the House tables. And soon just as a form of healing and getting over your trauma, the professors encouraged intermingling of the Houses. So there weren’t four separate tables for the four houses. And again like how messed up is that?

The Tumblr fan text

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: That in the series like they do literally everything only with their Houses.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which, again, has so many race, class, caste implications, right? Like imagine if you’re only hanging out with your own caste or your own class or your own race.

Aparna: Like it would be rebellious to befriend people from other Houses at the rate at which we are keeping people away from each other.

Sanjana: Because the Common Room is – the Common Room of like girls and boys. They should be like a larger Common Room for everybody.

Parinita: Right?!

Sanjana: Like a common Common Room.

Parinita: And like you can’t make friends with people who aren’t brave? Like that’s such a sort of superficial characteristic. Like brave and loyal. So what Slytherins can’t be brave and loyal?

Aparna: Also it’s not practical. The brave people need – people who are not so brave need brave people to hang around with. [laughs]

Parinita: Absolutely! And brave people, I’m sorry, but are not always the most clear-headed and you know –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They’re not always thinking about their actions. So like maybe you need a little bit of Ravenclaw to be like excuse me please, can we – can we analyse little bit and see what is going to happen? Instead of just charging into the situation. So again Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, I keep calling on them even though we’ve not listened to them yet. But they had another interesting thing was so they were thinking of it in terms of American university semesters. And they said that all the students in Hogwarts, because there don’t seem to be that many of them, it’s a very small class size. So every semester, they should all be in a different House. And embody the qualities of that House and learn about the House’s history and their attitudes and talk to each other and you know talk to people whose families have a history of that House and just as a form of cultural intermingling in a very respectful way and in like a very curious way where you’re not judging but you’re just happy to learn and happy to be a part of it. That’s what I would want. That’s what my What If would be.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to Part One of our two-part episode on race and representation. Tune in again for Part Two where we have a lot more thoughts about whitewashing, racebending, diverse canons, diverse fandoms, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who! As always, thank you so much Sana and Paru for putting in so much work for my weird little PhD project. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else! And thanks again to my editor, Jack, for taking care of the technical bits.

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on Spotify, Apple, Google, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Recruiting Participants As Podcast Guests

Due to a series of unanticipated events, I only officially started recruiting participants on the 23rd of December by sharing posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – something I had planned on beginning a month and a half earlier. This was terrible timing both for the UK (holiday season) and India (mass protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens – something which was also keeping me heavily distracted). Consequently, I was fully prepared that I wouldn’t get enough volunteers the first time around, and I planned to do another round of recruitment mid-January.

Apart from the three social media platforms I used, I also emailed four people I thought may be interested in participating based on previous conversations; of these, three agreed. Everyone else got in touch with me after encountering my posts. My Facebook post largely reached my personal network (which, to be fair, is relatively diverse), of which a few people volunteered. I’m unsure what impact my Instagram post had and I wish I had shared it to my Stories instead of as a post; at least with Stories, I can track how many people viewed it. Twitter was by far the most successful in reaching out beyond the people I knew. My post was shared by 100 people (including some highly targeted fan accounts and fan studies accounts), had 45,905 impressions and 1,216 engagements. Additionally, my boyfriend’s post was shared by someone with a high follower count on Twitter as well (though I can’t gauge the reach of that). For me, Twitter was the best way to increase the social and geographical diversity of my co-participants.

While I had initially planned to recruit ten participants as guests (apart from my two co-hosts), according to my spreadsheet, I currently have twenty-four confirmed participants. I’m currently overwhelmed both by the enthusiasm of my co-participants (in a very good way) but also by the sheer amount of work and data I’m going to accumulate (in a less good way). I’m still excited about the podcast but also aware that I have the tendency to over-commit to things and make things unnecessarily unwieldy. I am also utterly unable to say no to things. My project was already over-ambitious enough as it was when I was planning to record 20 episodes. It’s laughable now that it’ll be about 34! I’m defending this inability to say no to volunteers because 1) People may still drop out; and 2) I am blown away by the enthusiasm and would love to learn from the diversity of perspectives and multiplicity of experiences. I’m sure my future self will curse my past self’s naivety. I’m already laughing at the plans I had made a month and a half ago.

Some of my suggested intersectional themes turned out to be more popular than others, and most co-participants were interested in exploring more than one theme (though my email about potential themes, format, and schedule may have directed their attention that way). My favourite thing was that some people also suggested their own ideas – ideas I hadn’t thought of. While I was initially trying to crowbar all their suggestions into my original ten-theme framework (I’m still doing this to an extent), I quickly realised that I actually like the open-endedness and disruption to my initial plans. While I thought I had kept the format and themes as flexible as possible, my conversations with some participants made me aware that some of my boundaries were firmer than I had intended. I still think the ten intersectional themes are useful, especially for episodes with my co-hosts, but I’m now less beholden to the structure they provide.

Relatedly, my initial plan of dedicating a month to a specific theme quickly fell by the wayside, for three main reasons:

1) Planning episode schedules with different participants

2) The time I needed to listen to fan podcasts in order to shortlist relevant episodes

3) Participants largely outlined a diverse array of themes, some of which coincided with other people’s, which makes the idea of monthly themes a bit unfeasible

Subsequently, while I’ve only been properly at this for a month and a half, my plans have already changed. I’m now launching the podcast in February rather than January. I’m going to have a weekly(ish) podcast rather than a fortnightly one. And I may have to recruit some more participants mid-way through the year based on whether any participants drop out or which themes remain under-explored. Some of the participants who reached out to me explicitly outlined their diverse identities (in tune with the intersectional theme of the project). However, I wanted to make sure I offered everyone a chance to suggest the themes they were most interested in – which may differ from the identities they inhabit – because I realise it can be frustrating always having to only talk about the marginalised aspects of your identity rather than any other things you may be interested in. This may leave some themes unexamined, something I’ll have to re-evaluate come June.

Gif of Chandler Bing from FRIENDS. Text says: That's too much information!

I’m going to be drowning in data and I definitely haven’t made my life any easier. But then again, when do I ever?

How I Shortlisted My Intersectional Themes

While researching scholarship about intersectionality, I found that most papers explored the intersections of race, gender, and class (and sometimes included sexual orientation). However, at the back of my head, I kept having the feeling that there was something missing; that intersectionality had the potential to explore so many more aspects of identity that weren’t being addressed in the academic literature.

In the meanwhile, I was also reading books, anthologies, and memoirs I had borrowed from the public library which explored the diverse aspects of feminism, marginalisation, systemic oppression, and activism. The books included:

  1. Can We All Be Feminists? edited by June Eric-Udorie
  2. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  3. Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit
  4. The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches, And Journals by Audre Lorde
  5. Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
  6. Happy Fat: Taking Up Space in a World That Wants to Shrink You by Sofie Hagen
  7. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele
  8. Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford
  9. Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly
  10. The Mother of All Questions (Essays) by Rebecca Solnit
  11. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  12. The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani
  13. Queer, There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World by Sarah Prager
  14. Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker, Julia Scheele
  15. The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online edited by Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha Tynes

These books began expanding my thinking about the possibilities of the intersectional framework and how it could be applied not only in my own project but to all areas of life. In fact, the year of researching intersectionality in different ways was the year I was angriest about the world and the silences on the many injustices which were occurring around me. According to my boyfriend, who had to listen to my impassioned speeches and rage-filled take-downs of nearly everything I encountered, this was completely normal. He had watched a video featuring feminist Anita Sarkeesian where she spoke about how when she first began learning about feminist theory and history, she couldn’t help but rage about everything being sexist and everything being racist. It was only a few months later, when she began reading more perspectives and talking to more people, was she able to have a more nuanced and complex understanding of the issues plaguing the world. Much like her, I’m still angry about the world (how can you not be?!), but less likely to be angry at everything.

Apart from my anger-inducing reading list, it was an online course I did on Future Learn at the beginning of my PhD which inadvertently ended up influencing my thinking about intersectionality (a fact I only realised when I was preparing for my transfer interview in October 2019 i.e. an upgrade to official PhD researcher status, and found my notes from a year ago). The course is called Understanding Diversity and Inclusion and while I enjoyed everything I learned, my biggest takeaway from it was this Diversity Wheel.

An image of two circles nestled inside each other. The inner circle is divided into the following segments: Race/Ethnicity, Age, Gender Identity or Expression, Gender, National Origin, Sexual Orientation, and Mental/Physical Ability. The outer circle is divided into the following segments: Education, Political Belief, Family, Organizational Role, Language and Communication Skills, Income, Religion, Appearance, and Work Experience.

In the end, it was my non-academic reading and the Diversity Wheel which made me better attuned to the silences in academic discussions of intersectionality. The different voices and priorities I discovered helped me fine-tune my own voice and priorities in terms of the intersectional themes I wanted to explore. The current list is:

gender; race; class; sexual orientation; ethnicity; gender expression and gender identity; mental/physical (dis)ability; national/regional origin; religion; and age.

I’m trying my best to be as inclusive of the mulitiplicity of diverse experiences as possible, given the constraints of my project. However, I’m open to expanding or editing this list and I would love to hear your opinions of intersectionality and/or these themes in the comments.

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