A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Bonus Episode – How Do We Learn?: Engaging with Alternate Communities of Knowledge and Culture

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hi everyone! I’m back with a new episode after a very accidental hiatus that was definitely not supposed to last a year. I’ve just realised that the last episode I published on Marginally Fannish was a year ago. I recorded the episode you’re about to listen to way back in October 2020 and I’m only just publishing it in January 2022. You can blame the PhD/pandemic combination for all my plans being tossed out of the window.

Just a heads up, this bonus episode isn’t like the others on Marginally Fannish i.e. it doesn’t explore different aspects of intersectionality in media or fandom. Back in 2020, I chatted with Lata and Sayan for the Convivial Thinking website. The Convivial Thinking collective features a group of researchers who explore decolonisation in academia and scholarship in creative ways. You can find their ideas and work at convivialthinking.org.

This episode was originally only going to appear on their website. But there ended up being a bunch of connections between our conversation and the philosophy of this podcast. I began Marginally Fannish as a part of my PhD project because I passionately believe that fandom provides a really valuable space for collaboratively creating knowledge. I also think that it makes room for the kinds of diverse perspectives and experiences which you may not always encounter in formal educational contexts. Alternative forms of knowledge and the importance of dialogue with diverse groups of people is a recurring theme in this episode. So I decided to share the episode on this feed as well in case this topic interests any other fans out there.

If this isn’t your kind of thing, please feel free to skip this episode. I’ll be back with my regular programming soon – that is, if I’ve not forgotten how this whole podcasting thing works in the first place. You have 5 new episodes and conversations to look forward to, all of which were also recorded in 2020. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another year for me to figure out how to edit and publish the next episode. Now, on with the episode!

[Intro music]

The world we inhabit offers us several different learning opportunities. However, academic structures frequently end up valuing a limited kind of expertise. Whose cultures, languages, and experiences are considered the default? What kind of knowledge matters? How do you seek alternative communities of knowledge beyond the restrictions of the structure you work in?

Collaboratively engaging with knowledge and activism with a wide range of people both within and outside institutionalised academic spaces is crucial. Academics have the responsibility to make academic knowledge and theories more accessible and relevant to non-academic contexts. Going even further, academics can work with non-academics to create spaces which explore alternate expressions of knowledge and different approaches to knowledge-building. Conversations with diverse groups of people can challenge limited notions of one-way education and academic expertise by moving towards a more inclusive pedagogy. Encountering each other’s diverse – sometimes conflicting – experiences and perspectives in unconventional contexts can help us unlearn our colonised mindsets and discover what we don’t know. Both uncertainty and discomfort hold radically liberating possibilities when it comes to building knowledge, especially when combined with a sincere curiosity to learn from the world.

Find our conversations about all this and more in today’s episode!

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and in this episode, I speak with Dr Lata Narayanaswamy and Dr Sayan Dey about unconventional ways of learning and new communities of knowledge and culture. Both Lata and Sayan are part of the Convivial Thinking collective thanks to which we’re exploring critical, collaborative, and creative forms of decolonisation in our conversation today.

Since 2001, Dr. Narayanaswamy has worked as a research practitioner, consultant, and most recently lecturer in international development in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. Her research critically reflects on gendered/intersectional and post/decolonial dynamics of development knowledge and its perceived contribution to global development challenges. She is currently involved in applied, interdisciplinary research related to climate change, water security and decolonising development.

Sayan Dey grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal. He completed his studies from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and is currently working as Lecturer at the Yonphula Centenary College, Royal University of Bhutan. He is also the Senior Advisor of Quality Education Group, Center for Regional Research and Sustainability Studies, India.

I’m a third-year doctoral researcher in the School of Education at the University of Leeds. I’m really interested in exploring how fan podcasts – especially those featuring people from marginalised groups – use the framework of their favourite media texts to share their diverse perspectives and experiences. I’m also passionate about using digital media to make academic research accessible to non-academic audiences as well as to include a diverse range of non-academic voices in academic spaces.

Parinita: My name is Parinita Shetty and in this episode, I speak with Dr Lata Narayanaswamy and Dr Sayan Dey about unconventional ways of learning and new communities of knowledge and culture. Both Lata and Sayan are part of the Convivial Thinking collective thanks to which we’re exploring critical, collaborative, and creative forms of decolonisation in our conversation today.

Since 2001 Dr. Narayanaswamy has worked as a research practitioner, consultant and most recently lecturer in international development in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. Her research critically reflects on gendered/intersectional and post/decolonial dynamics of development knowledge and its perceived contribution to global development challenges. She is currently involved in applied, interdisciplinary research related to climate change, water security and decolonising development.

Sayan Dey grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal. He completed his studies from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and is currently working as Lecturer at the Yonphula Centenary College, Royal University of Bhutan. He is also the Senior Advisor of Quality Education Group, Center for Regional Research and Sustainability Studies, India.

I’m a third-year doctoral researcher in the School of Education at the University of Leeds. I’m really interested in exploring how fan podcasts – especially those featuring people from marginalised groups – use the framework of their favourite media texts to share their diverse perspectives and experiences. I’m also passionate about using digital media to make academic research accessible to non-academic audiences as well as to include a diverse range of non-academic voices in academic spaces.

Parinita: Hello! It’s really nice to talk to people who are not just me and my boyfriend and my cat. [laughs] It’s nice to see other faces. I’m just going to start off because we have a lot to talk about. In terms of unconventional engagements with knowledge as well as culture in spaces that are beyond educational spaces or institutional spaces – I do a bit of that in my project, but I was really interested in how you have dealt with that in your own work or otherwise.

Lata: First thank you for inviting me into your podcast world. It’s very nice to be here. It’s difficult because I think it’s the kind of thing that as academics we don’t do enough of, for a start. I think we do tend to think about academic spaces in very narrow ways. Where and how we learn is conceptualised in very narrow ways, right? So you’re in a classroom or you’re in a building; you have to go somewhere. I suppose the most immediately obvious counterpoint in my own life has been just having children and thinking about learning in a much more dynamic way. And trying to instil in them that there’s never an opportunity not to learn from something that’s happening around you or something that you might observe or something that you might see on the news or hear on the radio or an interaction you might have with a friend. You can talk about issues or interesting things or relevant things or share lessons about the world on the walk to school or a picnic in the park. In terms of even more formal kinds of spaces … this was not formal, but another opportunity was during an election, right? Say you go along for a political party and you’re door-knocking. I did that in the last election in the UK – and less said about that, the better, in terms of the outcome. But certainly, in thinking about what it might mean to actually knock on somebody’s door and have a conversation about the things that matter to them and then finding that common ground. And seeing that as integral to shared learning or co-production and enriching myself. I don’t mean that in a selfish way; but I think it’s about approaching learning and academia as a two-way street. And I think there’s a tendency in lots of educational contexts to see education as a one-way street. In academia we’re particularly bad. And in higher education too, there is a framing of expertise: “I’m the person that knows stuff and I’m going to impart to you all this wisdom that I have.” And I’m very keen that we turn that on its head. I do think that’s possible within the classroom and we can have more dynamic and inclusive pedagogical approaches. But I really think it’s about trying to think through how we can not only create but also seek out those opportunities to have conversations in more diverse contexts and with a greater diversity of people.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Lata: I think as academics, we have a responsibility to do that, if I’m honest. And I don’t know that we have the tools or the language to do it. But it would be something that I’d want for us to be exploring more collectively. Even you and I being on a picket line; I mean that’s an opportunity to have a conversation. Not just about your cat or your breakfast – although we can have that conversation too. But how do we expand our educational engagements? And who do we bring into that space with us? How do we learn from it? They’re different questions. I don’t think we ask those questions enough in academia.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Sayan: Just to continue with where Lata stopped. As Lata also mentioned categorically, to balance the academic and the non-academic spaces I think we often talk about activism within and outside the academia. It’s easy to talk; it’s interesting to talk; it’s nice to quote theorists and show off how much we have read. But when it goes into the question of application, we see a whole lot of challenges. Personally, I think that there’s this process of engaging within and beyond academia at the same time, it’s not an “I” thing, it’s a very “we” thing. I alone can’t do anything. Alone I can sit and talk a lot, but if I have to do something, alone I can’t do anything. With respect to the things that Parinita and I were talking about just a few moments back before the recording started, you were sharing how did you meet Lata and then how did you take up your conversation. And that was a collective space. That was a collective space where you met, where you started engaging. And I think that engagement was not just an engagement of “hello” and “hi”. But it was that moment where you were creating knowledge; you were altogether weaving new dimensions of intellectual ideas outside the restricted academic space. Coming back to our personal engagements with everyday decoloniality, I usually engage with lots of people – with respect to podcasts, with respect to interactions, with respect to writings and readings and engaging – and Lata is an integral part of that. As an individual in relation to others, I try to understand how can I engage with decolonial practices in everyday life. Now let me give you very, very basic examples. So for instance, I have a problem in using a spoon and fork while eating. And that is a physical problem; it’s not an ideological problem. So basically, I’m not very comfortable, to be very honest and blunt. Now if someone is having bread and a cup of tea in a roadside restaurant in India, that person is not really concerned whether he is eating with one hand or two hands. But if that same person goes to a 5-star restaurant, that person is extremely concerned; that person is extremely aware and he’s trying to use the tea and fork thing when he’s not going to do the same thing in a roadside restaurant. But for me, I find it quite problematic; this practice is quite problematic. It’s a cultural problem, it’s a social problem, it’s a racial problem. It has its roots in the colonial ethics and morals that we still follow consciously or unconsciously. So wherever I go, whether it’s a roadside open shop or it’s a 5-star restaurant, I’m going to use my hands. And I really don’t care if people are shrugging, they’re sniggering, because that’s not my problem. I’ve gone to savour the food and I like the food and I just come back. It’s as simple as that. And I pay money for that so I’m not stealing. So that’s perfectly fine. So from all respects, I am safe there. This is one such example. The second thing I can tell you is with respect to the concept of languages. I don’t know if it is there in the UK, but in Indian schools, if you go to the English-medium schools in general – and I’m pretty sure Parinita also has that experience – you will see when the teachers teach us English, they have this tendency of imposing the typical UK-styled English or the US-styled English on the students. Let me give you another very basic example. If suppose in a parents-teachers meeting, parents ask the teachers, “I want to see my kid improving spoken English. What should I do?” The teacher will always say – usually, not always – that “Okay ask them to watch a BBC; ask them to watch a CNBC; ask them to watch a Star Movies; ask them to watch an ESPN.” I mean there are English-speaking channels in India as well. You have English-speaking news channels – sensible news channels are there as well, along with several non-sensible news channels. But there are places where people can learn. So why by default, consciously or unconsciously, we have to make a consistent reference to Western dimensions, Western parameters? So I think this process of questioning through action, not questioning just as questioning. Questioning through action living as examples, within and outside the academic space. Because these examples cannot only be set within the academic space. Obviously, we need to discuss, we need to theorise, we need to problematise, we need to unsettle. But also, we need to continue it beyond the academic space through making it as a part of practice of our daily existence, individually as well as collectively. And this is how I try to do that, and these are some of the things I would like to share.

Parinita: I totally connect with what both of you are saying. For me, I’ve grown up in Bombay and I went to one of those English-medium schools; a Catholic school actually, because there was the imposition of English in India. At least when I was growing up, the perception was that the nuns teach you better English. So as a part of social mobility, that’s where you go to learn better English. And because I’ve grown up in India and because most of the stuff I grew up reading was British children’s literature or American children’s literature and then American media, for me, it was this colonised mindset –that I’m still trying to unlearn – that English is better than other languages. And because you grow up in the space, nobody is disrupting that thinking and nobody is really questioning that. Because that’s the world that you live in as well, right? If you don’t have any social or financial capital or any sort of help there, you are reliant on employers who might then look at your English and decide that if you don’t speak good English, you’re not as intelligent as someone who speaks English. And for me, the framework of learning to think and unlearn this social conditioning has largely been online honestly, and specifically through fandom. The school that I went to, they didn’t teach you to think critically at all. They just taught you what to think and that’s what you write in your exam papers. And you don’t understand the context or you don’t understand enough to question. There’s no questioning at all; questioning is not allowed. And even though I was in Mumbai which is a fairly big city, you still have a small social bubble so you still have mostly people who are like you. And it’s only through fandom, Harry Potter fandom specifically, which is where my unlearning started. Because it’s such a globally popular text, the fans came from a wide range of backgrounds, and that’s where I learned things about decolonisation and queerness. Recently because of J. K. Rowling’s transphobia, there’s been more talk about that. And that’s a whole education in itself. You’re both marginalised and privileged in this space. As someone who’s grown up in India, you think fandom and everything happens in the West and then you see that oh there are other people like you. For me fan podcasts more recently have been such a fantastic way to learn and unlearn things. Because more and more people, especially fans who are from marginalised backgrounds, are using the fictional framework, are using this language of Harry Potter or Doctor Who or Marvel or whatever, which everybody knows, and then pushing against that. They love these texts – we love these texts – but we are unpacking the more problematic elements of it. I think that’s fantastic because in academia, I still don’t really see myself. I don’t really feel quite comfortable in academia because none of my parents went to university and onto higher education or a PhD or anything. So I still feel like I’m conning academia in a way; that I’m doing fan studies and intersectionality and podcasts. And I’m like, “Wait, they’re allowing me to do this?” And I don’t really see me being in academia at all after that. Even though I think there would be – there should be room for it. Like what you were saying, Lata, about what kind of language is acceptable and who has expertise and what kind of knowledge matters – I think that should be expanded. But I think academia is still a little hesitant to do that; not people within it but structurally, it is quite reluctant to do these things. The podcast that I’m doing for my PhD research – my supervisors, everyone, was super happy for me to do it as a research method. And they also suggested I present my PhD thesis as a podcast which they thought makes sense in terms of my focus on co-creating knowledge outside the academy and in online spaces. But then the university itself is not comfortable with that. And podcasts aren’t even this new-fangled technology; they’ve been around for a really long time. With the episodes so far, I’ve reached a fair amount of people. It’s not a huge number, but it’s much more than a journal article in traditional academic language and structured traditionally or a PhD thesis would have reached. It’s not just me saying my expertise, it’s me trying to learn from other perspectives as well. My podcast is a fan podcast, and we’re aiming an intersectional lens at both fandom and some of our favourite media. Since I tried to recruit co-participants online, it reached a fair amount of people. So I have people from diverse countries and they all have their own – our own individual social contexts and political contexts. So we do bring that in and we learn from each other. Which I think is really valuable. But I don’t think it’s as valued in the university, unfortunately. How do you try and seek this community, this community of knowledge, elsewhere if it isn’t being given space in the structure that you’re working in? How do you think you can do that or people can do that?

Sayan: I think one of the basic ways from where we can start and actually from where we are all starting, is collaboration. Because collaboration is something that always gives us the option to stay within academia, just within that space if we feel like; but at the same time to disentangle ourselves from those narrow restricted spaces of this academic system and indulge with people who are working right in the field as activists, performers scholars, musicians – whatever or whoever it is. To stay within and beyond at the same time. Nowadays, for example, whenever we have these academic events, amongst many institutions I am seeing changes which is actually making me feel very happy and also very optimistic of the transformations. Earlier there was this notion that a keynote speaker has to be the so-called seasoned academician with a fat CV and a huge number of publications and a massive resume. The bio note will be read for the first fifteen minutes and then the lecture starts. These kind of usual categorisations are getting broken. We see activists coming up. We see people who may not be very well-known – so-called “very well-known” in terms of publications and all – but have significant contributions to the ground-level towards their respective communities and societies. And they are coming up in that academic stage to share. And that is how now the direction is changing. Earlier there was this notion that activism travels from academia to the society, and not the other way round. Now because of this unidirectional dimension, till now what happened is that the battle of control remained in the hands of the academic system. And they have been acting not less than the colonial empire. And they have been regulating it in their own manner and using it for their self-centred needs. But now when it is happening the other way round, it is also dropping a strong message that sure, we are ready to learn from you, thank you so much, we need to learn from you. And you also need to learn from us. So this process is not a unidirectional journey. It’s an exchange as well. For instance, last year I think it at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa who started their first decolonial summer school. Now during the decolonial summer school, obviously they had lecturers from academicians like Professor Nelson Maldonaldo-Torres, Ramon Grosfoguel and several others who came up and delivered lectures; but that was not the end of the story. They also invited activists, local activists. They invited local dancers, they invited local musicians. And they were brought to the central academic space to make the people understand that how at the very basic social level, the process of decolonisation takes place. Because obviously we read a lot of theorists but when we go to the very ground level, it is impossible for us to exactly interpret or reflect on the theories in those exact terms and languages. We have to do it in a completely different manner so that it is relatable and connected to people as well. So I think one of the major ways through which we can do it is to build collaborations which actually gives us the opportunity that if academic space is not allowing us, it doesn’t mean that my all the doors are shut. I have other branches open, other channels open, where I can take out the activism there and channelise it among the folks.

Parinita: Based on what you said, I think sometimes academia tends to value and privilege theory too much without exploring how it is done by people, perhaps without using those terms, but people are still doing it. Intersectionality, for example, is something that I encountered online for the first time. I know that there’s this huge history of scholarship and activism in it as well. But thanks to the internet there’s more everyday engagement with it. And it might not be perfect, but it’s not like scholars are perfect, right? There’s always debates happening within journal articles and papers slamming each other’s ideas and theories and stuff. So that’s what’s happening online. But online there is no one person to say this is correct or this is wrong. You’ll get into fights and things but you’re still trying to form your own ideas about it. And it’s valuable even for someone like me, who’s largely a lurker. Apart from my PhD podcast now, I don’t really write long articles or anything about this. But I’m learning a lot from what other people are saying. During my master’s, there was this lecture about critical literacy and it was a term I’d never encountered before. It basically means unpacking the meanings in texts and all the multiple layers and questioning everything; questioning what’s written, questioning social norms, political norms. And I was like, I haven’t learned this myself in school, but I have seen fans doing this online. But they wouldn’t call it critical literacy. Similarly with intersectionality. Because I listen to a range of fan podcasts made by trans fans, gay fans, black fans … not Indian fans so much, it’s largely in the West still. But they are bringing their perspectives into it and into the text that they are analysing. They’re maybe not calling it intersectionality, but that’s still what they’re doing. And I think that also needs to be valued. Or maybe not valued; the fans don’t care if academics value them or not. But I think academia is losing out on not seeing these other cultures of knowledge and communities of knowledge.

Lata: I’m thinking about what you’re both saying. It’s just fascinating because to go back to the point you made about how do you create these spaces and what do we do, I’m actually struck by how in a way what you’re describing, Parinita, is about our academic responsibility to be speaking to people about those connections. And Sayan, everything you said is very relevant about bringing more people into that space, valuing different people, different types of knowledge; let’s not valourise expertise at the expense of this. I totally a hundred per cent agree with all of that. If you want to be what you might call an activist academic, or somebody who wants to bridge that gap, then we have a responsibility to try to create that bridge in our engagements. So, for instance, what you’re describing, Parinita, about people who might be doing critical … um what did you call it?

Parinita: Literacy.

Lata: Critical literacy. But actually, the responsibility we have as academics is to make things like theory accessible. I actually think we have a responsibility to do that. Even in my teaching, I always describe theories as, “This is fancy social science way of describing X, Y and Z.” I don’t believe that theory exists separately to the world that we live in. The best theory is absolutely grounded in the world; that’s what it is about. It’s about finding a way of explaining multiple things at the same time. That’s all theory is. And if the theory doesn’t do what we need it to do, then I need to either make up or find another theory. That for me is very important. It’s almost like having a platform and the power. It’s like having a power and wanting to use it for good, right? If I am given the platform as an academic to speak, then I have a responsibility to not only say things that bring people in, but actually to make space for more people. I have a responsibility. And I suppose it’s not just about being an academic, it’s anybody that has power. In my view, that power best exercised is about actually trying to make sure that more people have power, right? It’s not about consolidating it and keeping it to myself. Now obviously I use power very loosely. It’s not like I have a huge amount of power as an academic. But in whatever way I’m able to, I think, is a key responsibility. So Sayan what you’re describing is absolutely right. If I’m going to put together a conference or if I’m going to put together a workshop, then if I’m the organiser, I take on the responsibility of bringing more people into the space and making the argument for why they need to be there. If I have the power to do that, I need to use it. And I see the same thing about how we engage. I’ve had quite a few opportunities recently, it’s been wonderful. Obviously, the pandemic’s a disaster, there’s no two ways; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But if there’s been one ever-so-slightly silver lining, it has been that because everybody seems to be moving online it has facilitated my engagement in spaces that I probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do. Whether that’s because of work, I don’t have time to travel, I’ve got other responsibilities, so I can only do so many things. Now I’m at home and I’ve got my computer so suddenly I can be involved in all sorts of things. I can be in one event in the afternoon and another event in a completely different time zone in the evening. That’s actually been a really positive thing. And the result of that has been then again to think about how can I use that platform to try to make some of these arguments but make them accessible, inclusive. How do I bring people into this space and to make it seem as if it should matter to other people? So even those arguments around decoloniality, the thing that I find deeply frustrating is that – and I also work around gender – so whether it’s decoloniality or gender, it’s like, “Oh well if you’re white, decoloniality has nothing to do with you.” Or “Oh if you’re a man, gender has nothing to do with you.” And it’s about actually pushing back and saying okay, let’s have these debates. And my responsibility is at least partly to say, okay why did these issues or these theories or these activist voices – why did they matter to you? How do we bring you into that space in a way that you feel that this becomes your responsibility as well? And if I have any power to affect that kind of change, I actually think it is also then about bringing people into that dialogue who think that they shouldn’t be there. So for me, whether it’s around decoloniality theory to practice, I think as academics, if you’re going to be critical decolonial transformative academics, that is part of your job. You’re like a translator. In a way it goes back to the earlier part of our conversation, because I don’t think academia has any tools for us to do this. I feel like you’re just making it up on the fly. You do it out of a sense of commitment, you do it out of a sense of love even. But also a commitment to want to see the world work differently. But I would also agree that there is no roadmap. I mean it’s interesting, Parinita, what you describe about engaging with fan podcasts as a sort of learning journey for you. And it suggests again, like your original question, education doesn’t just happen in classrooms. Not that I’m saying we should make a roadmap. That suddenly we should turn around and try to turn that into expert knowledge. But certainly, an acknowledgement that the ways in which we might engage with these different pluriversal arguments or decoloniality or expanding our views on education – the pathways for that are not linear at all. And I suppose if I thought of myself as an activist academic, what I want is to be supportive of pluriversal approaches to education where we can acknowledge that learning and engagement and change happens in lots of different ways and through lots of different pathways with lots of different people. And it might be in unpredictable ways as well. We’ve just got to keep making the argument, keep trying to do this. And what might come of that is not predictable – and actually that’s okay. We have to learn to live with a little bit of uncertainty. And Sayan’s point about it’s not “I”, it’s “we”; that eventually the more people you bring in, the power of that collective, you will eventually be the change you want to see.

Parinita: Absolutely. I think that’s a fantastic point, what both of you brought up. Lata, what you were saying in terms of how you are now able to engage with more spaces online because of the pandemic, it’s the same with me; I’ve been able to do that as well. At the same time, I’ve also been following these conversations on Twitter that disabled academics and academics with caregiving responsibilities have been wanting these spaces so much for so long. And it had been completely possible to do it as well because the technology was there. The technology has been there, but the will wasn’t. Nobody really wanted to do it until there was no other option. And then suddenly, “Oh right, it’s the easiest thing to do to!” To stream these things online and to have it on YouTube and not just make it accessible to fellow academics but to people who don’t have access to academia. Because that’s also a privilege, right? Getting into a university, for whatever reasons isn’t available to everybody – your money, country, regional origin or other stuff. You may still want to learn but you’re unable to learn because you don’t have the money, because you have other responsibilities; and that’s such a shame. Which is why I totally resonate with making academic knowledge more accessible to people – both academics but also, more importantly, non-academics – in a way that also privileges their voices and their experiences as well. So it’s not just academics talking about this sub-group of people but actually, we are that group of people and we’re bringing that experience together. Both of you have very different ways that you’ve done that either through podcasting or even the blog Convivial Thinking. Do you want to talk about your projects or your work a little bit? And how you’ve tried to make that more accessible?

Sayan: Talking about my project. Obviously, it’s not just one project; I have been engaging in different types of projects. But in relation to what we have been talking about right now, what Lata and Parinita mentioned, in context to balancing, trying to create a bridge between the academic space and the non-academic space – the challenges and the possibilities. One thing I have been trying to do since last year, I use this podcast as a tool to do that, as you have been doing. In alignment with what Parinita just mentioned with how she has been able to position her understandings with respect to research and many things beyond that – not only within the constricted academic space but also outside as well, trying to compare them, balance them – the same thing happened for me. One of the central reasons why I wanted to do a podcast series on everyday decoloniality – which actually started with an idea of three podcasts and then it expanded to twelve to thirteen podcasts – the basic idea was actually to bring these ideas of coloniality to the common people and those who may not have read anything about decoloniality; who may not be acquainted with the term decoloniality. There can be some people who will just hear the term and will like to know what is decoloniality all about? And that person may not be an academician. That person can be a roadside vendor – what is wrong in that? A person can be a vegetable seller, a hotel person, someone who goes to the office and works, and someone who is driving the car and just wanted to listen – what is this buzz everyday decoloniality all about? So my central idea behind that podcast was that. And I started having researchers, I had academicians, I had activists, I had musicians, I had film actors, who just came in and talked from multiple dimensions of decoloniality. Multiple dimensions with respect to race, with respect to classroom, with respect to pedagogies, with respect to performance, with respect to music – different dimensions came into the conversation. In fact, I had a very interesting conversation on music with Professor Lewis Connell, (?) who writes a lot about blues and jazz, and we had a fantastic conversation on that. We had a fantastic conversation with Rosina Mark (?) from the UK. Apart from these academicians, we had several other people who were not exactly seasoned so-called academicians like professors and all; they are some researchers and performers. And the interesting part is – which I actually share with people with extreme happiness and pride – one of the biggest fans of my podcast was my dad, actually. Obviously one side of happiness is it’s my dad, but my dad has been a 9-to-5 banker and he likes to read a lot of books, he likes to read a lot of story books and newspapers, watches news channels, he analyses things good. But he has no connection with decoloniality, even with this term, in any way in his life till date. But he became a fan. And the best part was that every time he would listen to the podcast, he would give his interpretations, he will try to understand, and he was able to understand the essence of the podcast without me giving any background of that. And I felt that was somewhere a little bit I succeeded. Because an individual – I’m forgetting about the part that he’s my dad, I’m just taking him as an individual who has no connection with this notion of decoloniality to any extent and he could understand the essence of that particular thing. And he would ask questions and those questions were literally very critical questions. It’s not just random questions – “I did not understand” or something like that. And then he would also give his analysis with respect to his life experiences which he will start recovering from his childhood – which he never did that previously. So this is one example. Apart from that, it just touched so many people who have never been associated with this. I have one of my aunts who started listening to it; who has no, no, no connection with any kind of decoloniality. Now I’m not saying I have done a massive job, or I have done a revolutionary thing. But we start with drops of water and drops of water makes an ocean. And it gives me a lot of courage to see that somewhere somewhat even the common people are not only able to understand the essence of this podcast, but they can also unsettle themselves and self-realise that what they have been engaging with on various dimensions was not actually on their own. It was actually enforced by an external power. It encourages me to, as you say, you also want to do a Season 2, that encourages me to do a season 2 as well. Podcasting acts as a tool through engaging with ideas which are critical but at the same time that are also relatable to any layman who has no connection with it. So somewhere somewhat I feel that process of unsettling, the vision of unsettling, which I started with, it has started somewhere.

Lata: I admire Sayan for how much he gets done.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: We can only all wish to be as productive. And I’m not exactly tech-savvy. In fact, setting up this Zoom meeting is a superb accomplishment for me.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: For all the Zoom meetings I’ve been doing over the last six months, I only realised two weeks ago that I never set one up myself.

Parinita: And it’s really easy, right? Once you just sit down and do it, you’re like, oh yeah this is easy.

Lata: Yeah. It must be reasonably intuitive because I’m not … I’m comfortable talking online, talking to you both, wonderful, fine. But the actual nitty-gritty of setting it up. So anyway, the point is, my instinct is not to do this. Not because I don’t want to but I don’t have the skills. To go back to your question, my engagement with Sayan came through Convivial Thinking. And I wouldn’t want to take any credit for either conceiving of this space or curating it because I have only been an admiring bystander and just trying to be supportive of the principles. But I can’t claim any sort of authorship of design or drive because my head doesn’t work that way. But I admire it greatly. Having said that, obviously I am in the Convivial Thinking collective and obviously that’s how I’ve gotten to know Sayan which has been just a huge privilege. And engaging with people who are motivated that way is also really inspiring for me. Not so inspiring that I feel like I can get my head around web design. Right, there are limits.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: But inspiring enough that it’s really easy. I like to think of myself as the marketing. When I was actually going places, I had my pile of Convivial Thinking postcards and I would sit and chuck them out at people and go, “Oh by the way, I support this website.” And it’s great because I find it really easy to promote things that I admire and people I admire. That’s a lot easier than talking about anything to do with myself. It’s really easy to go, “Oh I have all these fantastic colleagues doing this brilliant website. Here, have this postcard!” That’s been one element of just trying to get the message out in terms of thinking that there’s an alternative space. One of the things that we’ve talked about – Sayan and Aftab and Julia and I – over email, queries will come up about things to do with the website. So the really positive thing about the website is actually the way it was established and the purpose of establishing it. It was very much driven by, “Okay, how do we create a space for alternative – not just alternative knowledges but alternative expressions of knowledge and debates about alternative expressions of knowledge?” There’s all these different things that are similar, not the same but they’re interacting – what it is but how you get it. Even what is alternative knowledge? Who gets to decide what alternative knowledge is? Or who gets to decide what knowledge is and then what the alternative is? The difficulty of the language. As soon as you talk about alternative knowledge, well that mainstreams a certain kind of knowledge – that’s the expert academic knowledge and you’re othering the rest of it. Trying to have these debates has been really amazing. And again, I can’t take any credit for the innovation at all, but the fact that Convivial Thinking now has a YouTube channel. So, Parinita, the kind of thing you’re saying about the internet creating these opportunities, and Sayan, you’re absolutely right; both of you are saying things which are super important in the sense that there are concerns around digital literacy, there’s different types of exclusion that we have to be aware of and I think we are. But the fact is we can diversify our audiences and reach people we couldn’t reach, right? That is and continues to be a motivation. And, in fact, I actually originally was connected to Julia through an online conference that I did in 2017. But I outsourced the tech end of it because I wasn’t going to manage it! And I didn’t have the license with the software anyway. But it was motivated by similar sorts of concerns and I think that’s what connected us and why she reached out to me in the way that she’s so fantastic at doing, and then connected me to Sayan and Aftab which has been amazing. And why actually, Parinita, when we met on the picket line, you were very much a kindred spirit. Because it was almost like these constellations of all these wonderful people coming together who have all these again, different approaches to knowledge building – which I don’t have but admire and want to promote. So for me, maybe actually what it is is I’m actually your fans.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: I’ve got my own little decolonial fandom. I know who I wanted to promote so that’s very much where I situate myself. With some exceptions; I’ve written the odd blog here and there and I’ve tried to support where I can. But I’m very much the fan or the admirer as opposed to curator of content. And I think that’s great. And in a way actually it’s a wonderful position to be in. Because even in my positionality as an academic, I quite like taking the time to reflect and to use that position, which I think is incredibly privileged; to actually reflect on what I don’t know and the messages that I can promote that aren’t mine. That’s actually a really nice thing. I don’t actually like talking about myself – what’s the fun in that? Whereas I can talk about all these other people that I know who are people doing fantastic work. Let’s talk about that! That’s going to be great. We did this online conference and similar sort of issues would come up and we did it as text-based thing, so you post stuff. But one of the things even in 2017, before we had a pandemic and this became a necessity, was again to try and reach people that might not be able to travel, might not be able to get a visa. So these debates are happening and you’re always trying to either curate or involve yourself try to build more dynamic spaces to include more people. But there are limitations. And I think that’s the thing with Convivial Thinking. We’re always trying to overcome and trying to be more nuanced in that. So obviously there’s the actual thing about inclusion/exclusion and around digital literacies; have I even got an internet connection? So we’re not going to get to everybody. And I think upfront we get that. Then there’s those layers that you’re trying to unpack that start to make the project in a way more important and also more interesting and more of a challenge, as some things you simply cannot overcome. The most immediate one that we talk about most often is obviously the absolute hegemony of the English language, right? So we had a colleague in Leeds, for instance, who wanted to write in a kind of mixture of Spanish and English. And we were like, yeah! Totally. Go for that, please do, that would be wonderful. Because that’s how she wants to express herself. And we’re like, yeah that sounds wonderful. So she did and that was amazing. Lauda (?) she did that and it was wonderful but it’s a limitation, right? It’s still text. So this podcast again offers a counterpoint to that, that’s wonderful. But again is there bandwidth to run audio files? There are other sorts of things that might come out of that. But things like performance, poetry, photography, video images … I mean there are still barriers. We have to be mindful of the fact that we are still creating different types of inclusions and exclusions. But I would say overall that it shouldn’t still stop us from exploring both alternative knowledges or different knowledges or pluriversal knowledges but also pluriversal approaches to knowledge-building. So it shouldn’t be a limitation. To go back to your original question, Parinita, actually being involved with Convivial Thinking in itself has been hugely enriching. Because the engagement – whether it was the online conference early on where you’re having to actively confront it but now with Convivial Thinking, in very much a support role – is still a fantastic education for me. The challenge has been how do I take that learning around inclusion/exclusion – the new dynamics that emerge – and then try to apply that in my own academic spaces; in the conversations that we’ve been having about how do we include more people or more views? And rehearsing that in a way has been hugely valuable because I think I am now thinking about things that, if I hadn’t been involved with Convivial Thinking, wouldn’t have even occurred to me. So again, selfishly maybe, it’s been hugely valuable – that engagement. And this kind of conversation even today, what a great learning opportunity, again, selfishly for me.

Parinita: But that’s brilliant. And that’s something that you said, Sayan, as well about it being collaborative. For me, that’s one thing that I sort of had a hint about when I launched my project properly in January but now I’m even more determined about this, that knowledge is so much more enriched when it’s co-created through dialogue because you don’t know what you don’t know. And you only learn these things when you’re talking to people. Like the blind-spots that you have, you don’t even know they’re blind-spots. And obviously it’s a lifelong process of unlearning and relearning and even identifying first of all that social conditioning and then undoing that. So Sayan, you used the term common people, which I thought was really interesting because I very much see myself as common people. I don’t see myself as an academic. I don’t know if that’s raging imposter syndrome – I’m sure it is. Because before I did my master’s, I’m a children’s book writer so I work with children’s books and young people in different ways. I’ve worked in a school, I’ve done activities, I’ve worked in bookshops. So for me, that was my engagement with knowledge as an adult, a newish adult, in the beginning – getting kids excited about books because they were so important to me. But with kids who are more reluctant, who didn’t already think books were awesome, I had to trick them into making it more fun; so I used to design these activities and have conversations with them. I did this reading programme in a school which was largely first-generation English-speakers. So how to make them connect to this picture book that I’m reading that’s set in France maybe or the US or the UK or different parts of India? I used to start off with asking them a question that was sort of related to the book, but then ask them to contextualise it in their own lives. Like what was your favourite breakfast, for example, or something like that. They had to buy into the book first and drawing connections from their own lives helped. I’ve done other activities as well in schools and outside, in bookshops and literature festivals. So when I came into academia – as you were saying, Lata, theory is important – but for me, theory is important in the lived experience of people rather than in just reading about it.

Lata: Yeah absolutely. I agree.

Parinita: So I’m reading about this in academia, but I’m always drawing connections to my experiences and through second-hand experiences as well. Which is why in the podcast, maybe that’s why I wanted to not privilege just my own voice; I’m not comfortable privileging my own voice because I don’t think I know too much. I know children’s books, but I don’t know so much. So like you said, selfishly, it’s me trying to learn through other people’s perspectives. I obviously have these ideas and theories, I have some level of knowledge; but it is very incomplete knowledge which other people help fill in. Especially people who come from different backgrounds. I think intersectionality includes decolonisation as well. It has its roots in Black feminism in the US so originally it looked at class and race and gender and sexuality – how they intersect and affect black women’s lives in the US. But now, in academia and, for me, online discussions have expanded it to look at other identities as well. So we’re talking about it in terms of how we’re both privileged and marginalised. You’re both. Even when you’re marginalised in spaces, you still have other levels of privilege. And they’re also very contextual. Like my identity in India is very different from my identity as a brown immigrant in the UK, for example. So we’ve been talking about all these things. I’m cisgender, I’m heterosexual – so for me, those are blind-spots as well. And I don’t have any identified disabilities. So for me, talking to people about their experiences is so much more valuable than … reading is important as well, obviously. I read theory in academia and things but they’re living in it. Their practice is informing their theory almost, which for me is hugely valuable. And what you were saying, Lata, about the exclusions and inclusions in digital literacy as well. I find that really fascinating because I’ve learned so much just by making a podcast. I’d never made a podcast before I jumped off the deep end of the pool like, “Oh yeah I’ll do this for my PhD!” And I’ve just learned so much. I’ve been a very online person since I was sixteen, I think. I’ve just grown up online. So I’m comfortable with online things; I like learning new things. But I think everybody has more skills than they give themselves credit for. Like for you, Lata, once you actually sat down to do Zoom, it was easy enough for you. So I’m sure you have more skills than you think you do.

Lata: I’m not sure about that. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] When you were talking about digital exclusion and inclusion, I think there’s more nuance to that as well. In a previous podcast episode for my podcast, we were talking about this newspaper called Khabar Lahariya, which is a rural newspaper in India. I don’t know how much you know about it but it was started by this woman to look at local news and rural news.

Lata: Yeah.

Parinita: And she had women as journalists and as distributors. And after a few years, they have transitioned online. So their news is now on Facebook, through WhatsApp, through Telegram. And they’ve done it so much better than a lot of bigger newspapers have managed to do. They are so with it. I think that disrupts these notions as well; maybe not of people who know about it, but even in India, in Indian cities, for example, we have these ideas about rural women. Like, “Oh these rural women are doing all this?! We didn’t know. Phones! What?! Digital literacies?!” So I think that’s really interesting. In terms of your own experiences, in terms of literacy, have you engaged with multiple kinds of literacies or multiple kinds of knowledges as well while doing these things we’ve been talking about?

Sayan: Well multiple forms of literacies … now this perspective makes me think about what other various ways we gain knowledge. And this process of gaining knowledge, to my best I try to be conscious to understand it away from that capitalistic concern of knowledge production. So when I say gain knowledge, I don’t mean that “knowledge production” thing. So I’m keeping that aside. If I again go back to my individualistic as well as collective practices of what I engage with everyday decolonial thinking and doing, I feel that what I read in the text and what I do in the context – somewhere somewhat I always try to relate that. So to give a very simple and a straightforward example, when I’m eating a particular food item, I’m getting my certain tastes in my tongue, for sure, and whether I’m liking or disliking the food. But it’s much beyond that. I am gaining a form of cultural knowledge even in my process of disliking that. Even if I’m disliking that, still I am gaining a kind of cultural knowledge and gaining a kind of social knowledge, a racial knowledge, a geographical knowledge and varieties and various dimensions of knowledge. So for me, that context is the text for me at that time. Like if I’m wearing a particular dress, on a particular occasion. Now for instance there are various ways of drinking alcohol in Bhutan which is actually absolutely very interesting. You don’t drink the same kind of alcohol in all the occasions. So, for example, the interesting part is that they drink alcohol on every occasion. So if you compare it with the Western concept, to be very specific about the colonial West, alcohol is an element of celebration. Some will interpret alcohol as an element of violence. But here, alcohol underlies every aspect. So if there is a birth, for example, when a child is born, the ritual is that the mother will take a clean cloth, will rub a bit of alcohol on the cloth and will rub it on the lip of the child. That’s a ritual. And that alcohol will have a very, very, very low alcoholic content actually so that it doesn’t harm the health of the child. It’s a ritual. Then the alcohol that is taken in the time of, for example, a big Buddhist festival is not going to be the same alcohol that is going to be consumed at the time of a marriage or at the time of someone’s death. So the point is, just with drinking different types of alcohol, before coming here, the typical vision that I had before coming here, or those set of notions about consumption of local alcohols or foreign liquors or whatever, completely transformed here. So, it is also a form of literacy for me. This alcohol is a form of language for me, this alcohol is a form of pedagogy for me – the drinking process, sitting in that collective, cultural space is a pedagogy for me. So through these examples, through these experiences of the daily life, I try to position this notion of literacy, or if I put it as collective literacy, through these daily life experiences.

Lata: Yeah that’s actually, that’s really, without wanting to make it sound like a pun, Sayan that’s given me food for thought. And I do mean that genuinely because I think that in answer to your question about engaging with different knowledges, the immediate response to that is no, because I am who I am and live where I live and so my starting point is that I don’t know stuff. And so I have to work really hard to keep finding out both the things I don’t know and the ways in which I don’t know them. But in a way that’s actually quite liberating. Because if we go back to the original thing about academic framings, there’s lots of pressure to be an expert and know everything. I actually find it quite nice to be able to start by acknowledging well actually, I only know this much about this much. I know this tiny little slice; and even then, I’m not going to claim that I know everything about this tiny little slice of stuff that’s happening here in this little part of the world where these sets of ideas interact and I know some aspect of that. Because when my starting point is I don’t know things, or I know things the way I know them but I would never ever want to assert that it’s the only way, actually that’s a really productive place to start without wanting to sound too commodifying. It’s a very productive place to start because what that allows me to do is say okay, how do I challenge myself? So I know it this way – this could be food cultures, it could be language, it could be ritual, it could be pedagogy in the classroom, it could be how I interact with my children, it could be watching the news, Twitter, whatever right? But if my starting point is okay, this is what I think I know and then something comes along, then it’s actually really nice because my first question is obviously okay well what do I learn from this? And is there a way for me to think about whether there’s another way to approach this issue or question? If I tried to get outside of my own head or if I put aside what I think I know about this, what might that teach me about how somebody else might be experiencing that? So, Parinita, your point about being heterosexual in a heteronormative world and not having a disability, this particular positionality that you hold interacting with people and actually that revealing lifeworlds that you don’t have access to, doesn’t mean that you can’t have solidarity, that you can’t learn, and that we can’t build collective wisdom or action, right? It’s actually really liberating because if my starting point is I don’t know, well then every interaction is a learning opportunity. And that’s brilliant. I don’t mean that in a kind of I figured it out. Sayan, the language of unsettling, it’s perfect. You’re constantly unsettling yourself. In a way the most successful academics are the ones that just think, I am fantastic and I know all of these things – they’re the most successful ones. I’m not interested in that. I mean I can imagine that might be fulfilling in its own way, right? You get promotion, you gain a platform notoriety, money, whatever and there may be something to that. But I think collectively what it feels like we’ve expressed is we’re all aiming for something bigger, right? There is actually something else that has to come out of all of this. Which isn’t even in itself an end or an outcome. But trying to embed different types of processes, validating different pluriversal experiences and knowledges that might actually reshape the world. Because ultimately, I think all of us are expressing a discomfort about the determinism of the world that we live in. That doesn’t even mean that we share the same vision. But actually, that discomfort I think is good. That’s important. Because who would want to live in exactly the same world? That’s a bit bleh. That’s a bit boring, right? The question is how do we all work towards that collectively, but still embrace the fact that we might all want different things out of that? What does that process look like? Embracing that uncertainty, allowing yourself to be unsettled, is the first step. But actually, having done it, I feel hugely liberated. Because then, I don’t have to have all the answers. And that’s great! [laughs] And then my job becomes something else. I say this to my students all the time that I’ve got the best job in the world. I get paid to think. I get paid to learn. Don’t tell my employers but I might do it for free, right? When I approach it like that, it is fantastic. But it is often unsettling, right? Because sometimes we do want answers or answers are being demanded of us. Parinita, you’re talking about imposter syndrome and there is an element of that, right? We are put in that position because we’re supposed to know stuff. So then when I don’t have an answer, your instinct is to go, “Oh my god. I don’t really belong here.” But it’s actually about living with that sense of discomfort and being unsettled. Sayan, I think you’re absolutely right. Which is then you want to be able to radiate that outwards. How do we unsettle? But not in ways that are meant to be about attacking or distrust. It’s about actually trying to understand what the purpose of that unsettling is. Why would I want to unsettle? It’s not because I want to upset you or because I’m trying to make you feel bad or because I think everything is horrible or anything like that. The unsettling is about, well, hang on a second, if I just step back and take a different perspective on this or I look at this ritual or that food or this custom or this language or this geographical place – what if I shifted the lens a little bit like this? Or I described it in this way? Is it possible that we can learn something? Is it possible that we would be better off from it somehow? That we might actually create a different world? And the possibilities of that are so exciting that the discomfort and the unsettling is worth it for me. But for me it’s very much about a learning process. And living with that is a challenge but it’s hugely rewarding. So the answer to your question – the short answer is no, I don’t. But I want more. So I’ll just keep looking for it. [laughs]

Parinita: I love that. This conversation was so brain set abuzz and brain set alight.  Because sometimes it feels very isolating because not everyone within academia seems to want to question these things or seems to want to know about these things or is interested or whatever. So it’s nice to talk to people who do think about these things and who are doing things.

Sayan: Somewhere somewhat I feel that because the title of this umbrella podcast is fandom and I think also through these interactions, we create a mutual fandom that dissects from the usual dimension of hero worship. We don’t create pedestals; we are breaking pedestals. And we are basically acknowledging each other, critiquing each other, trying to understand each other’s differences. I once read an article by obviously a very famous Portuguese thinker Boaventura de Sousa Santos and he talks about this concept of depolarised pluralities. That is, not only do we require a form of plurality, but it should be depolarised as well. So I think this very podcast interaction made me feel in the same manner. That it’s not necessary we are all agreeing with each other, we critiqued each other, we acknowledged each other, we appreciated each other but also this consistent process brought so many new thoughts and dimensions to engage with in the future. Which I think is the most important thing. It’s not about shutting down and getting the record and sharing on Facebook and WhatsApp. Yeah we need to do that, we need to spread that. But what after that? And that opens up the gateways for more interactions, more weavings in the future. And for that personally I really thank Parinita for inviting me and inviting us and creating this us thing altogether today.

Parinita: Oh, it was totally Lata. Lata is the one who’s helped poke me when I fell into my PhD research pandemic hole. I’m so glad as well, Lata, that you brought us together. This was such a good conversation. More than ever now after talking to everybody here as well, I wish academia did more to talk to people who are not academics. Even in spaces like this, in Convivial Thinking or a podcast or just within academia in a classroom or whatever. Maybe talk to the students in a way that’s not talking to them but talking with them. And having them contribute their knowledge and intelligence which will again disrupt your own thinking because you don’t know. And that’s good pedagogy, right? That’s what we do in primary schools. I mean not in my school, we had 67 children in a classroom [laughs] but in other schools which have more room and resources to do this. You come together and you share knowledge and you have the skills that you exchange and learn from each other. Why don’t we do that in higher education? Why is it that the older that you get, there’s only one or two people who know. And even in terms of research, not just researching a group of people but having them be a part of the design as well. Not just you’re going in there as a researcher and then going away, like you were saying, Sayan, just going away and doing this research and then sharing the research in the academic version of Facebook and WhatsApp which is journal articles that are very expensive to access. But just creating this knowledge with the people and then also sharing it in a way that makes sense to them and that’s relevant to them. So yeah, that was apparently a very long final thought that I had. But thank you so much – this was fantastic. This was a great conversation.

Lata: No thank you for bringing us together which has been fantastic.

Sayan: Absolutely.

Lata: And I’m glad that we got to talk to each other.

Sayan: Absolutely.

Lata: It’s been so nice to talk to both of you today.

Sayan: It was fantastic interacting. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned and so many things to talk about again.

Parinita: I know.

Sayan: That makes me so happy actually.

Lata: Yeah.

Parinita: We need to have a second part of this episode. [laughs]

Sayan: Sure why not.

Parinita: Maybe in a post-pandemic world.

Sayan: [laughs]

[Outro music]

Thanks so much for listening! As both Lata and Sayan brought up throughout the episode, creating knowledge is such a collaborative effort and I absolutely have to agree. I learned so much from our conversation which I’m so excited to incorporate into my own work and thinking. Thank you both for taking the time to do this and for being so patient throughout this episode’s long journey out into the world. And thank you, Jack, for finding the time to edit this episode.

Episode 4 A Lot of Gold in Gringotts: Representations of Class and Considerations of Gender

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Academic paper – Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice

Alison’s academic presentation – Daemons and Pets as signifiers of social class in Harry Potter and His Dark Materials

Fanfiction – A Wand With Sixteen Strings

Fan podcast – Witch, Please “The Chamber of Whiteness”

Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Witch Please Meets The Gayly Prophet: An Interview with Hannah McGregor”

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Fanfiction (Don’t Judge)”

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Fan fiction (special edition)”

Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds “Geek Misogyny, No Totally”

Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Three Owls In A Trench Coat: POA Chapter 3”

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling “Revela Draconem: Draco Malfoy Revealed”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Failure: Dumbledore’s Army (Book 5, Chapter 18)”

Episode Transcript: 

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

Photo of Alison Baker

[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 fourth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Alison Baker about social class and cultural capital in the Harry Potter series. We introduce our individual class backgrounds in different British and Indian contexts. We chat about how literature and media perpetuate singular narratives about wealth in both India and the West. We discuss the class connotations of boarding schools, sports, accents, and jobs in both the magical world and the real world. We wonder what the cost of education at Hogwarts is. We explore how bad educational spaces (hello Hogwarts!) disadvantages certain students. We talk about the class implications of freely accessible public scholarship in alternative sites of education.

We also discuss the gender dynamics in both online and offline fan spaces. We love the way fanfiction encourages us to question the way things are. We talk about the different reactions to male interests and female interests in fandom. We chat about the gender politics of fanfiction, and the differences between male and female expressions of fannishness. We end the episode with book recommendations for children and young adults for those who are uncomfortable reading the Harry Potter series due to Rowling’s recent problematic declarations.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so thrilled to welcome Alison Baker on the podcast today. I first met Alison at a children’s literature conference in Dublin. And then again at a science fiction and fantasy fan convention in London, where she was one of the excellent people in charge of organising the whole thing. So we both have academia and fandom in common.

Alison: Yay!

Parinita: And we’re also both Harry Potter scholars.

Alison: That’s right.

Parinita: And that’s largely what we’re going to be focusing on today. So just to give you a little bit of information about her, Alison is a senior lecturer in education at the University of East London. And she’s also writing her PhD thesis about white working-class children in children’s fantasy fiction. And I can’t wait to read that thesis when it’s done.

Alison: [laughs]

Parinita: It sounds amazing. She has ten years’ experience of teaching on undergraduate and postgraduate teacher education programmes. And she’s also taught in Early Years, Primary, and Special Needs settings in both London and Yorkshire. And she’s likely to explain that the Weasley family have considerable cultural capital in Harry Potter’s world with the slightest provocation, whether at a fan convention or not. [laughs] I am very excited to hear all your thoughts about class and capital in Harry Potter and in fandom. And the ways in which this intersects with gender. But before we go there, do you want to briefly introduce your own experiences with social class?

Alison: Yeah sure. I would count myself as a lower middle-class person. My mother’s parents were factory workers. My dad’s dad was a sort of very minor civil servant. He worked for the Inland Revenue. And I grew up in an area of Hertfordshire – south west parts – which is just outside Watford. And I went to comprehensive school. And I am the first woman in my family to go to university and complete a degree. My mum did a teacher training qualification but she never did her degree. And so a lot of what I experienced at university was extremely alien to my –

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: My lived experience. And certainly when I first started going into fandom, it was very much university-based fandom.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: The people I met all seemed to already know each other. I’d gone to a college with higher education, not a university. It is a university now. And everybody there in fandom seemed to be so much better educated than me, so much cleverer than me, and they all seemed to know each other. And it was a very male-dominated space. In particular, very male STEM dominated.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: So everybody there that I met, they were early internet adopters in the 90s. I didn’t have a computer. I’d never grown up with a computer. I felt very, very alienated. And I also experienced sexual harassment in fandom spaces. And one of the things that’s so wonderful to me since coming back into fandom, because I went away for ten years – it was just too awful.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: When I came back, one of the most wonderful things is firstly how much more diverse fandom is. Those people I was first encountering are much more now the older fans. Younger fans don’t put up with that kind of stuff as much. And while certainly some spaces in fandom, as I’m sure we will discuss –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Can be really toxic and very alienating for women, by and large the fandom circles that I move in are much more intersectional, much more aware of white privilege.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And male privilege and the privilege of the able-bodied versus people with physical and mental disabilities. And while I do think class privilege is very much still there, it is getting better. That is something that I love. It’s really important to me.

Parinita: For me, I’ve seen that as well because my experiences with fandom have largely been online.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve learned so much in fandom just through access to these diverse perspectives that otherwise I wouldn’t ever have encountered.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: In terms of class, it was only when I moved to the UK, that I really realised the different contexts of class in this country as compared to my experiences in India.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So in India I grew up lower middle-class which in India is very different – it has a very different connotation here in the UK. In British terms I think it would be working-class, perhaps upper working-class.

Alison: Right.

Parinita: In a single-parent household. So my mother owned the house that we lived in so we didn’t have to worry about housing. But we definitely lived quite precariously in terms of her salary. So there were some weeks where we couldn’t afford proper food and she had to scrape together the tuition for my undergraduate education. She doesn’t have a degree as well. She really wanted to but she had to drop out because she had to work and earn some money. And she had to borrow money a lot while I grew up.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: But it’s so contextual because in India I know that there are so many people who are so much worse off than I ever was.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Because I grew up in a big city, I grew up in Mumbai, so you know that comes with its own associated privileges.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But I also knew people in Mumbai who were a little or even significantly better off than me and never had to worry about money. So I’ve grown up without a lot of money and that has really influenced how I see the world now.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And how I engage with money. And in India, I think a lot of people, including me, have this monolithic perception of the West. Where in the US and the UK in particular because both countries have such a hold on our imagination.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: And we have this idea that Western countries are extremely prosperous. And people don’t have the problems that we have with money and poverty. And it was only when I moved here to the UK and spoke to people and read and educated myself, that I began to realise the different kinds of systemic economic problems that exist. And it’s really helped me see both the UK as well as India in different ways.

Alison: Yeah and conversely, we have in Britain in particular, something I have a lot of problems with in our primary education in particular.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alisonl: Is we do see – obviously when we see India on the news, it tends to be when there are problems.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: So for example, you know with the rioting going on at the moment, and we did see a lot about the Delhi rape case – gang rape case.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And things like that. But we also do tend to see India and other developing countries through charitable ways –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Of looking at things. So we think of everybody as being very poor. And, of course, while there is huge poverty in India, there’s also you know there’s people who live very comfortable lives. And also people who are extremely wealthy. We tend to forget there’s a middle class in India.

Parinita: Yeah. And I suppose the culture and media, it perpetuates this idea so much. Like in India, it perpetuates this idea of the West, and in the West, it perpetuates this idea of India-

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: And other developing countries. Like you know what the dominant narrative is.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And especially with things like literature and media, where this privileged group like this middle-class, upper middle-class groups usually tend to create media. So we have a very singular narrative almost. My understanding of the West was largely shaped by the literature that I read.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: So poverty isn’t really addressed. Except like maybe Jacqueline Wilson books. Those are the only books I remember reading in the West that dealt with poverty in any real sort of way.

Alison: We’re talking here about the dangers of a single story, aren’t we?

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: That I know that you’ve discussed a couple of podcasts ago?

Parinita: That’s right.

Alison: But this is also a feeling that I have. This is my part of the hypothesis of my thesis is that actually we don’t see working-class characters in British children’s literature very much.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And when we do, it is through social realism like Jacqueline Wilson. Who I think is amazing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: The research that I’ve done with student teachers is that a lot of my students who define themselves as white working-class women, Jacqueline Wilson was so important to them growing up. Reading books about girls like themselves.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: How important that is. Theoretically this is Rudine Sims Bishop’s the window, the mirror and the sliding glass door.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Alison: With children seeing themselves.

An image with the covers of all Jacqueline Wilson books

Image courtesy @FansofJWilson

Parinita: So this made me think of Harry Potter, what you’re saying, that in realistic fiction it’s present, but not so much in fantasy fiction.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And in Harry Potter I know that you can read Muggles and Muggle-borns as well as house elves – you can read it through a racialised lens.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But I think you can also read it through a class lens as well. Coming from a lower-class background, they lack access to the resources and knowledge that children from wizarding families really seem to take for granted. And –

Alison: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I think this is really evident – you can see it very much in the Deathly Hallows book. Where Ron’s insider knowledge is important but also the fact that Hermione has had to research.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Because she has the intelligence but she doesn’t have the cultural capital that comes with being from a wizarding background. And, of course, Harry to an extent also lacks that. I mean he is the sort of the eyes of the reader.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: We see everything through his perspective. Because it’s a limited third-person narrative, we need to have that perspective of someone who’s explaining to us all this stuff that we can’t see.

Parinita: Right and with Harry, it’s something that you mentioned in your paper, which I’ll link to in the transcript, as well as in Witch, Please they mentioned that even though he’s been disadvantaged, so he comes from an impoverished background with the Dursleys, but he’s actually pretty privileged in the magical world.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Because he has inherited so much wealth and valuable objects.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: The Marauder’s Map, his Invisibility Cloak, Hedwig as well. He’s still pretty privileged in terms of class as well.

Alison: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Because he doesn’t have to worry about money.

Alison: Yeah. He’s a lost prince. And he’s a jock you know.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. [laughs]

Alison: Yeah. In the Muggle world, obviously, which is sort of not really a mimetic world because in the real world we don’t, unfortunately, we don’t have magic.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: The world that J. K. Rowling privileges which is in the magical world, he is an enormously powerful character. He’s naturally good at Quidditch. Which is something that gives him a lot of cache in the school. He is wealthy. He has all of these people around him telling him how awesome he is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: How important he is. So in that world, he is incredibly important. And actually the character that is the poor and maltreated character is Neville.

Parinita: Yeah! That’s true.

Alison: So you know in the wizarding world, while he comes from this old wizarding family and therefore has a lot of cultural privilege, he isn’t wealthy and he is sort of weedy and a bit nerdy and pretty rubbish at a lot of things. And so he’s kind of the foil to Harry’s success.

Parinita: I was also really interested – So in Witch, Please, I’ve been listening to a few of their podcast episodes.

Alison: Oh they’re really good.

Parinita: And they talk about how Filch and Stan Shunpike and even Snape to a degree in his non-Hogwarts avatar, are sort of examples of working-class or lower-class sort of –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: In the wizarding world, their status is pretty… and the way the narrative positions it, it positions some kinds of working classes, for example, the Weasleys, they are always shown to be as poor. Everyone talks about their poverty.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: But they have a lot of like you said cultural capital.

Alison: Yeah they’re landed gentry. They’re not poor. And I think this is where people reading Harry Potter from countries where there is a lot of land, and land is not necessarily expensive.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Like outside cities in the US, land is not expensive.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: It’s hard for people who don’t understand that we don’t have a lot of land. We’re a very small country. And so land is actually extremely expensive. So any family that has a house with six or seven bedrooms – I can’t remember how many bedrooms –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: The house has. That has a paddock and an orchard are not poor –

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: In Britain. I mean that’s land that’s going to be worth maybe around a million pounds.

Parinita: You’re so right! And that’s something I never even thought of when I was reading it. So as an Indian reader, I miss a lot of class signifiers that you know –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: That a British audience would probably recognise. But even as an Indian reader because of I guess my own experiences with not having a lot of money, the Weasleys seem to be doing pretty all right to me. Like the father, Mr. Weasley has this stable job, doesn’t have to worry about getting paid on time. They all seem to have enough food and clothes and you know I was like what are they complaining about? Is this the idea of poverty in the West? [laughs]

Alison: Yeah! And also you know having your brothers’ hand-me-downs at school is a very, very big advantage.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Yeah you know Ron is teased for it and some of his stuff is … you know his wand is a bit rubbish and so on. But it does save a lot of money for the Weasleys to have older brothers who can pass things on. And the knowledge that is passed on to him.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Alison: It’s really helpful to him. There’s other forms of privilege as well. I mean I was very struck when re-reading The Philosopher’s Stone that the animals that children are allowed to take to school. In the first book, they’re allowed an owl, a cat or a frog.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: No rats!

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: But somehow Ron gets to take a rat to school? So there’s got to be some kind of privilege going on there as well. That he can bend the rules a bit.

Parinita: That’s true. He knows what rules are allowed to be –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Pushed and what not. And it’s true, it’s like people from a working-class background or in India like a middle-class, lower middle-class background, we don’t know this. We don’t have this possibility that we can imagine because these possibilities don’t exist for us, right?

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So we don’t know what’s possible and what’s not.

Alison: Yes, so you don’t know which rules are the really, really important rules and which rules are the less important rules.

Parinita: Exactly!

Alison: Or you don’t know the workarounds for it. And that’s the kind of cultural capital and the cultural privilege that Ron’s family have.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And also even just with boarding schools, the class connotations of boarding schools.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Which I only realised again after moving to the UK. Because in India, when I was growing up, for me and my friends with similar sort of financial backgrounds, boarding school was this thing that our parents threatened us with. [laughs]

Alison: [laughs]

Parinita: When they’re like oh if you’re bad, we’re going to send you to boarding school. Like it was this form of punishment for us. And at the same time, we didn’t think of the cost and all these other factors. Because even in India, boarding schools are pretty elite usually. They’re for the wealthier sort of person.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: But I grew up reading Enid Blyton school stories. Like the Chalet School as well. And Malory Towers. So for me I had this romantic notion of boarding schools. But they’re actually so expensive!

Image of book cover. Text says: First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton Image of book cover. Text says: The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Alison: Yes. I longed to go to boarding school as a child. It just felt like you know reading the books, it seemed like so much fun.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And I grew up reading comics as a very small girl. I learned to read through reading comics really. And my favourite comic was called Bunty. There was a long-running serial in Bunty. I’m really showing my age here.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: Which was called The Four Marys. It was about four girls, all called Mary, who went to boarding school. And every week they had an adventure. You know there was something amazing like catching a smuggler or –

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: A spy. Or working out that what seemed to be a ghost in the bell tower was actually you know the boyfriend of a maid or something –

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: Like that. And they would just sound brilliant to me. I thought that would be a wonderful thing to do. Go to boarding school and catch smugglers.

Parinita: Absolutely! Me too!

Alison: Yeah. But funnily enough, the research – the fieldwork that I’m doing in school at the moment, the children that I’ve been reading Harry Potter with – they’re ten and eleven. They don’t want to go to Hogwarts. They think it sounds awful.

Parinita: Oh really?!

Alison: Yeah. But I think it’s partly because they haven’t grown up reading boarding school stories for one thing. And for another thing, I think it’s also a social class issue for them.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: One of the boys said to me, he didn’t want to go to Hogwarts because they play Quidditch. And he plays football. So I think that’s a way of him explaining how he feels he wouldn’t fit in at Hogwarts.

Parinita: That’s so interesting! Because another thing was something that I took for granted is cricket.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Which in India, cricket is very much a common person’s sport.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Like we play it in the street and just because of colonisation I guess, we’ve just inherited our love for the game And whereas when I came here, so my boyfriend, he’s Scottish. And for him football is the common person’s game and cricket is this elite sort of thing where you need all these – it’s a posh sport essentially.

Alison: Yes. Quidditch I think has a lot in common with cricket. But also it’s like polo. Because you know you’ve got to have a broom, you’ve got to have the space.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I mean I grew up playing cricket on the street as well. We would have stumps chalked on a garage door and –

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Alison: I would bowl and bat against those. Also I think it’s the weather. [laughs] You know we don’t –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Alison: We don’t have the – the long summer days without rain are quite unusual [laughs].

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I have noticed.

Alison: Yes. And so football is ninety minutes. You can run around in the rain for ninety minutes. It’s not necessarily pleasurable but it’s doable. But yeah all you need in order to play football is a ball and two things that you have decided are goal posts.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Which were, where I was growing up, it was usually someone’s gate. That was the goal.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: We used to play on the road you know with houses on one side of the road and the houses on the other side of the road and that you’d kick the ball and try and hit someone’s gate.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: You’d usually get shouted at.

Parinita: [laughs] Well … as one does.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: That really makes me wonder whether … so in The Gayly Prophet episode they mentioned that Stan Shunpike, his accent, had class connotations –

Alison: Yes, it does.

Parinita: Just because of the way that it was written. And this is not something I would have ever picked up on. His and Hagrid’s as well.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Hagrid’s is more regional?

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And they propose that Stan Shunpike hadn’t gone to Hogwarts because nobody in Hogwarts speaks like that. Which made me wonder, is there a cost of education to Hogwarts? Would they charge tuition? Boarding? Food? Like is it all free? Who pays for this?

Alison: I know. It’s very odd. Because … do you remember the character of Colin Creevey?

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Alison: Because he bounces up in a very unsubtle J. K. Rowling way. Says, “Cor blimey eh I’m Colin Creevey!” [adopts accent]

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: “My dad’s a milkman!”

Parinita: Oh yeah that’s right.

Alison: And again that’s a British thing. I don’t know whether an American or an Indian person reading those books would know what a milkman was. But it’s a traditional working-class job.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: As is Stan Shunpike’s working on public transport –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Is a typical working-class job. And so maybe there are working-class people at Hogwarts. We don’t know whether there’s tuition fees paid because Harry never gets a bill, does he?

Parinita: That’s true.

Alison: On the other hand, he has so much money that – well actually, no, we – I mean we know a lot about his financial position. So maybe if there is a tuition fee, we would know about it?

Parinita: But even if there isn’t any tuition fee, you still have to buy so many things.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Like books and cauldrons and all these things. So even if you don’t have to pay money to be educated, you still need all these things that –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: A person who has a lot of gold in Gringotts won’t have to worry about.

Alison: Absolutely. You have to buy everything, don’t you? You have to buy your robes, you have to buy … I mean in Britain you know people have to buy school uniforms. There are very limited situations in which there would be a grant to help extremely impoverished –

Parinita: No, India is the same. We have school uniforms as well.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: My mum had enough money for uniforms like that’s not something that I had to think about.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But I know there were people in my school who – so I went to a Catholic school, which in India, it’s called a convent school.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s essentially for people from lower middle-class and middle-class backgrounds who want their children to be educated in good English.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Because English was also such a status thing and it’s still a status thing in India.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Because they think the nuns teach us good English. [laughs] Which, again, lots of colonisation things to unpack there. Another thing is Draco Malfoy and Dudley Dursley.

Alison: Yeah!

Parinita: Just in terms of – so they come from privilege and status.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So that’s very evident. They bully Harry and they bully people all around them. But they also have these over-indulgent parents.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And they undergo abuse and trauma of a different form than the one that Harry goes through and come through at the end of the series more empathetic and more … I suppose respectful of different exp – maybe not respectful. But at least understanding of different experiences.

Alison: Yes. I mean the Malfoys live in Malfoy Manor.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Which again, they have inherited land. We know that Lucius Malfoy is extremely connected to the government.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And definitely has a lot of social capital. The Dursleys, on the other hand, are nouveau riche.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: So they’re kind of newly arrived into sort of the upper middle class but are not accepted yet. So again this is something that British people would pick up on, particularly British people my age.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Because I’m nearly the same age as J. K. Rowling; I think she’s a little bit older than me.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: But the very socially conscious or class-conscious sitcoms of the 70s and 80s in particular in The Chamber of Secrets where Dobby turns up and ruins the dinner party that Petunia is trying to give to her husband’s boss and his wife.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: They are very, very class conscious.

Parinita: Ah.

Alison: That shows that they’re social climbers and wanting to sort of elevate themselves. The way the décor is described is very much kind of a nouveau riche décor. And compared to sort of the old money aristocracy of the Weasleys.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And that shabby but comfortable house.

Parinita: Yeah because –

Alison: Of the way –

Parinita: I think in the Witch, Please episode – or was it The Gayly Prophet one? But they noticed the comparison between The Burrow versus the Dursleys’ house and how in the movie – it was Witch¸ Please – in the movie, they showed it as stark and boring and it looked like the same house that everyone else had in the suburban streets. Whereas The Burrow was welcoming and warm and –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: You would want to live there.

Alison: And idiosyncratic.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: It’s not the same as everyone else’s house. And so –

Parinita: Ah.

Alison: Yeah it’s not been bought off the peg. It’s something that has been inherited and added on to. Have you ever read any Georgette Heyer?

Parinita: Yeah!

Alison: Yes. So the way that the houses of the aristocrats in the old houses, in particular, A Civil Contract. The house in that that had started off as a kind of a Tudor house but then a Stuart bit was built on to it. And then a Queen Anne bit was built on

Parinita: Right.

Alison: And then another bit was added. So it’s a big hodge-podge of building styles.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And you know it’s got long, drafty passages. It’s very inconvenient. But you know the family love it and they will do anything to preserve it.

Parinita: Yeah and just even having a house that you don’t have to worry about like being kicked out of –

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Or not affording rent, surely that elevates you above poverty. Like –

Alison: Oh! So much! Yeah.

Image of The Burrow from the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Image courtesy Reddit

Image of the Burrow from the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Image courtesy the Harry Potter Wiki

Parinita: In the books, class is mentioned only as a way of good versus bad, like positioning good wealth versus bad wealth.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Harry’s own wealth is passed without commentary really. And in the Witch, Please thing as they mentioned, the Malfoys are a representation of bad wealth. Whereas Harry is this – he’s come and he’s you know liberating house elves whereas the Malfoys, they have house elves. But Harry liberates Dobby and you know he’s nice to Kreacher and stuff eventually, but he doesn’t really try to upend the system of house elf slavery at all.

Alison: No.

Parinita: Like he’s not – there’s no radical measures in his idea of class.

Alison: Yeah!

Parinita: I guess.

Alison: Yes. He doesn’t challenge it in the way that Hermione challenges it. Although I think Hermione goes about it in a very white feminist way.

Parinita: Yeah!

Alison: She tries to trick the house elves into becoming free by leaving little knitted hats and scarves around the place. And that’s really wrong. Also she’s not their master. So she can’t free them anyway. Because she –

Parinita: And also this is something that we spoke about before and it’s something that I’ve been listening to in the podcasts, that she doesn’t have any conversations with them. Like it’s never about what they want. And when they do express what they want which is like they don’t want to be free, she just assumes this attitude of oh no you don’t know your own lives and it’s something –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: I know better so I’m going to come and I’m going to liberate you. There’s no attempt at trying to raise awareness in a way that act – like including them in the decision.

Alison: No!

Parinita: It’s just I’m going to come here and I’m going to decide for you and your life will be great, thank you very much.

Alison: Yes! [laughs] And without any kind of idea of like well you know if they lose their place at Hogwarts, where are they going to go? What’s going to happen to them? And even when she sees what has happened to Winky, it doesn’t stop her. It’s a very uncomfortable thing for me to read.

Parinita: And it’s also presented, again like Harry’s perspective, it’s presented quite uncritically.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: There’s no – it’s not like she is an example of a bad feminist. In fact, her activism isn’t really taken very seriously by anybody including the narrator. Like there’s no –

Alison: No.

Parinita: Yeah. So yeah, it is uncomfortable. But speaking about the cost of education at Hogwarts I just wanted to slightly shift to discussing the class implications of public scholarship.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Specifically how alternative sites can act as sites of education and politicisation. So in Hogwarts, Dumbledore’s Army provided that space where they were you know resisting Umbridge and so –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Teaching themselves Defense Against The Dark Arts. And Fudge was really afraid that Dumbledore was radicalising the youth.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And in the real world, the internet in general and fandom and fan podcasts in particular, can act as spaces of education. At least I’ve found that in my experience. I’ve learned a lot in these informal digital spaces. And this seems pertinent given that we’re in the middle of these university strikes in the UK.

Alison: One of the things sort of as a side note is how bad the education is at Hogwarts.

Parinita: [laughs] Yes!

Alison: So it’s interesting that the school is sort of the only school that we know about in Britain. And yet it is so bad. And the only good examples of teaching that we see are by Lupin who is promptly sacked because he’s a werewolf.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: He is a good teacher. He is very encouraging, the lessons that are described have logical progress, there’s a clear outcome. He assesses them, the students, and he gives positive and encouraging feedback to them. And the other one is Harry.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Harry as a teacher we see him growing in his pedagogical understanding, we see him planning his lessons, and it is peer-to-peer. And he has a lot of peer-to-peer learning in the lessons that he gives the students. And thinks about who will work well with who. Who will encourage who. And the students really learn from him. And there are other examples of alternative peer-to-peer education. Because Hermione is in the role of a teacher a lot.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Hermione is a good teacher. She does teach Ron and Harry. And we know that because she’s often told off for helping Neville, that –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: She is involved in peer education with Neville. But yeah all the very powerful examples of learning within the books are from you know the outsider teacher. And from peer-to-peer education.

Parinita: I think this bad teaching in Hogwarts, as you said, it’s the only school in the UK. And especially for students from Muggle-born families –

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: They’re at such a distinct disadvantage. Students from wizarding families, they have the skills or are they assumed to have some skills and knowledge? Or even if you have bad teaching in Hogwarts, it doesn’t matter, because your parents can you know make up the difference.

Alison: Yeah. You’ll get a job at the Ministry of Magic anyway.

Parinita: Yeah – or you know you can just have our wealth and you’ll have a house and that’s fine. You’ll have all this inherited wealth and objects. And it’s so similar to real life educational institutions as well. Like where children from families that have these class markers and status and the knowledge to … you know like reading, for example. Just reading to children. It gives so many benefits.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But not everybody can do this. Because not everyone knows to do this or not everyone has the time to do this. Because if you’re working all the time and you really don’t have time to do this extra thing because you’re cooking or whatever.

Alison: Yeah and the confidence as well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: The confidence to know what to do in order to help your child. And particularly parents who had a poor educational experience themselves. Then they don’t necessarily know how to help their children with homework. Parents who aren’t confident in maths for example, wouldn’t have a clue how to support their children with maths homework.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. And also critical thinking. In India, mainstream education doesn’t really teach you how to think. It teaches you what to think and it teaches you to learn the answers byheart –

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And parrot them out in the exam. So you have no contextual knowledge. You can’t apply the knowledge that you learned to any situation.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: And even in terms of history. And it’s just – I think a lot of the problems that we’re facing now are due to a lack of education and not questioning what you’re told.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But for me, I’ve found so much liberation online in the internet and podcasts and fandom. Hannah McGregor from Witch, Please says that it’s this form of accessible scholarship. She positions her podcast as making feminist scholarship accessible in a way by using Harry Potter and making it relevant to people’s lives. And not just in this ivory tower talking amongst themselves. And I find that so empowering because that’s been my experience with knowledge. Just because from my background, I wouldn’t have had this knowledge otherwise. And that’s why for me, I love doing this [podcast] as a part of my PhD research project, because I had this perception of academia as well. That they only talk amongst themselves and don’t engage with people and what people like. And for me, fandom and the internet has been such a fantastic educational resource that’s free, largely. You still have barriers because you still need access to technology.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Or the language and time to be able to play around with these things. But if you have that, it makes it so much easier to be able to get this information and knowledge even if you don’t have a very good formal education. Or even if you don’t have formal education.

Alison: Yeah, I agree with you. One of the things that I found very exciting working with children in school because I discuss the books with the children I work with.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: But they also create something. So there is an outcome. So either they make something or they draw something. Or we do some drama. Using these books and using in particular Harry Potter and the other books I’ve been reading with the children to interrogate their understanding of social class and class markers within the books –

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Has been really exciting and really interesting. It’s the way that the children have really taken to doing these things has made me think a lot about my pedagogy and the way that I teach my students at university. And the way that we can use creativity to draw out critical thinking in learners at all stages of their learning.

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely. Just because I think critical thinking and just exposure to knowledge and questioning authority and different ways of thinking is so important. So with the university strikes in the UK, it was my first experience of striking and just talking to people on the picket line about the condition in the UK higher education –

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: System. And it was so shocking to me because again you know this colonised mind. Like in India we think the West has it all figured out and has it all sorted out. So someone on the picket line was telling me about how in this neoliberal university where essentially students consider themselves to be consumers

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Rather than learners. Again in the Witch, Please episode, one of them said how in the real world, governments and universities are using tuition and debt to deradicalise students.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: So that young people don’t get together to overthrow the status quo and to overthrow the system.

Alison: That’s so true. And the way that – I haven’t had this experience so much but I’ve heard from other colleagues who are lecturing in other disciplines – the way that students, some students almost seem to want to be taught for the test. They are asking, “Do I have to – is this going to be in the exam?” Or “Am I going to have to write an essay on this text?”

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And therefore don’t want to explore widely outside of what they are going to be graded on. And that entirely comes from this neoliberal ideal of education as market and students as consumers. And wanting to not challenge themselves or challenge anything because what they want at the end is their good grade. That they can then go on and be part of a neoliberal market. And use their scholarship in employment. And –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: It is profoundly sad. And so the lack of willingness to challenge received ideas and ask what is education for? What is my education for? Is the way that we’re going about this the best way? And of course, the way that students are asking that if their tuition fees are not going towards paying their lecturers, where are they going?

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: What are they being used for? And certainly in some universities, students seeing their lecturers striking while looking at a big new fancy building being built probably have the right to ask those questions.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Because literally the lecturers and the admin staff, they’re responsible for delivering this education to you. If they’re not well-paid, if they’re worrying about having to work another job just to pay the bills. Is that what you want? Is that what you really want from your education?

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is why I think fandom, there’s so much potential there to be able to learn to question things that you regularly would take for granted. For example, for me it has been fan podcasts. But also fanfiction because as a teenager I used to read and write Harry Potter fanfiction.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And I learned so much there in terms of questioning things as – questioning canon, first of all. And then just that took me to – oh if canon is not this set thing, it’s dynamic, and fans have a say in it – maybe other things as well. So just the dialogue and the conversations that fans have. I don’t read a lot of fanfiction anymore. But I know that it’s played such a huge role in shaping what I think about the world. Just because it highlights marginalised perspectives; perspectives which are marginalised not only in canon but just in mainstream media and culture in general.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So when did you first encounter fanfiction? What has your experience been?

Alison: I wrote fanfiction myself from a very young age before I really knew what fanfiction was.

Parinita: Ah.

Alison: And my fanfiction was school stories. I wrote Chalet School fanfiction and I also wrote Antonia Forest’s fanfiction about her family – the Marlows.

Parinita: Ah.

Image of book cover. Text says: Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

Alison: And that’s what I grew up doing. Making my own stories really. And also the way I played as a small child. My dad is a huge fantasy and science fiction fan as well. And so he read me all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books and the whole of the Narnia series before I went to secondary school.

Parinita: Amazing.

Alison: And so I played out battle scenes from Lord of the Rings with my Barbies.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: And my other toys. My Barbies were hobbits.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: I always laugh a little bit when and this is again common – this is a gender thing in the way that boys’ interests versus girls’ interests are privileged. And that the assumption that girls who are playing with dolls are reenacting traditional femininity. Firstly, well what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with being feminine? Just because girls like you know – and this is again a Hermione thing – just because Hermione wants to look pretty –

Parinita: Yeah. Or just because Fleur is feminine and badass at the same time. Ginny is feminine and badass at the same time.

Alison: You can be both!

Parinita: Yeah. You can be both.

Alison: So yeah that’s sort of my fanfic really. When I read the fanfiction A Wand With Sixteen Strings

Parinita: Um hmm.

Alison: How I loved that because it was the Antonia Forest characters in Hogwarts. And it was so brilliant. It’s so perfect.

Parinita: Yeah. And just school stories in general like they place – so I know a lot of these school stories, Malory Towers, Chalet School, they have some problematic gender dynamics. But when I was reading it when I was younger, for me, I glossed over that completely. And I loved that girls were going on adventures –

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: But were also having these domestic things and midnight feasts and sports and plays and like at the centre of their stories. Which I loved because I think –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s why it makes me so mad when fanfiction is denigrated by people because it is largely female dominated. And it is largely, like a lot of teenage girls writing fanfiction. And you know this whole thing of the Mary Sue as well. It just drives me crazy.

Alison: Oh my goodness yes! As if when you read you know a lot of thrillers written by men for men, we can see the Mary – well the Marty Stu all over those.

Parinita: Yeah!

Alison: We can see the kind of rugged and handsome and incredibly clever and incredibly strong and always-gets-the-girl hero.

Parinita: No but even in that Imaginary Worlds episode that I listened to, what’s his name Luke Skywalker! Bruce Wayne! Batman! How are they not – like they call it Gary Stu but yeah Marty Stu is good as well. How are they not this embodiment of – it’s wish fulfillment. And men are so used to that being the norm that in fanfiction when women are trying to resist that and you know centre their own perspectives and experiences, that’s something to be mocked and that’s something to be ridiculed and not taken seriously.

Alison: And a thing that is of interest to girls is automatically considered to be of low quality and a bit silly.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: If a teenage boy has his walls plastered with Led Zeppelin posters and again here I am showing my age.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: That’s somehow okay because he’s idolising the guitar playing and the lyricism and the musicality. But when a girl – a teenage girl – like when I was a teenage girl, I had Duran Duran and Adam Ant posters all over my bedroom wall. But you know it would be assumed that I was doing that because I fancied them.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Which yes, I did.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: But that wasn’t the only reason. It was also that sense of camaraderie of being around other girls who shared my interests.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. This is why I’m so happy that the Archive Of Our Own they won the Hugo award. It’s such a fantastic space because it was started by largely women –female fans.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And they coded; they had lawyers; they had writers; they designed the structure that they wanted in a way so they had trigger warnings, they had spoiler warnings.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: They normalized all this in the structure of their platform because they wanted to own their own platform. And especially in a space like science fiction and fantasy. I know we’re running out of time but I do want to talk to you about your experiences with that quickly just in terms of gender in offline fandom. Because I know that you’re more familiar with that than I am. My experiences have largely been online fandom.

Alison: Yeah. One of the things that I think has been evident for quite a long time in terms of gender and offline fandom is quite exactly what we’ve just been talking about. It’s the way that anything that is of interest to girls and women is assumed to not be of good quality. Anything that is of interest to men is assumed to be of amazing quality and for everybody. It’s a very, very interesting perspective. And I’m delighted that that has been overturned because of the amount of women’s writing that is being recognised in … and particularly – I know you’ve discussed the term women of colour – the way that black women and East Asian women, their writing has been recognised – and disabled women, actually.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Within the Hugos in particular. And that’s been wonderful. And that has to be because more people are engaging with the writing – writing by women. And it’s not just seen as – writing by women is not just writing for women. It’s writing for everybody in the way that writing by men has traditionally been seen as writing for everybody. And, of course, within that we’ve got nonbinary and LGBTQ people’s writing being valued far more than it ever has been. And while you know there are reactionary groups springing up and claiming that this writing is only being recognised because it is by women and nonbinary people. Well, you know, too bad. Those kind of ideas are now becoming in the minority, I hope.

Parinita: Yeah. And I’m so happy about it. So in the Black Girl Nerds episode, one of them proposed that the difference between male fandom and female fandom is that male fandom is about collecting merchandise and trivia and knowing the canon completely.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Versus female fandom which is transforming the canon because –

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Often women are dissatisfied by the lack of nuanced and complex representations of their identities!

Alison: I love that! Because that was another – you know when I first joined fandom, I was in my 20s and had a really, really bad experience of it. There was so much gatekeeping around you know these kind of almost like these sphinx’s riddles that you had to answer before you were allowed in through the door.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: Of the pub or wherever the meeting was. And it was sort of testing – this idea of testing. It’s not enough that you say I like Batman. You have to know the number of the comics, that which number of the comics did The Joker first appear in. Or where was King Tut from. And it is so frustrating. It’s a bit like some of those trading card things. It’s got to be one-upmanship.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I think around my women and nonbinary friends, conversations are not all about one-upmanship and about knowing the sort of niche bits of knowledge.

Parinita: Yeah just loving the thing is enough. Just being passionate about it. And you know –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Just being excited about talking to somebody about a thing that you love, that’s enough. You don’t have to prove that you’re a real fan or you’re a proper fan.

Alison: You’re sharing your connection to it. And that’s so important. Which is where the transformative fandom comes from. Because I think women and queer and nonbinary people and trans people have always had to find the back door into the thing they loved. If you’re watching Star Trek for example which is where, of course, transformative fandom many would say started.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Alison: It’s a very male-dominated space. So you have to find your way into it. And I did love original Star Trek but my Star Trek enjoyment from fandom came through much more Deep Space Nine where it was a much more wider variety of people. And the person I saw in Doctor Who fandom was always the companion.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And my Doctor was Tom Baker. And my companion was Sarah Jane Smith. Who was a brilliant character. You know she’s feminist, she’s not there just to scream and fall over. She was the person that often suggested different ideas to the Doctor. And different ways of looking at things to the Doctor. And I loved Sarah Jane. And it was really through her that I became a Doctor Who fan. I mean I was watching Doctor Who when I was six-seven-eight. You know I was a very small child. And –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Sarah Jane has always been the person who stayed with me.

Parinita: That’s why I’m so excited that Jodie is now the Doctor.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Because my Doctor Who journey started with New Who. So I only started with Christopher Eccleston. And I loved it. But I loved it in a way that I didn’t really see myself in it.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Even when there were the companions and things. I was just like oh yeah this is fun, this is an adventure. But ever since Jodie’s run, I’ve noticed that there’s this sort of very deliberate increase in the diversity. Just even casual diversity as well as the companions. And I love Jodie’s interactions as well. I feel like they’re not trying to just make her a man in a woman’s body, you know?

Alison: Yeah!

Parinita: She’s emotional and enthusiastic and has relationships and it’s – I identify so much with her and with the companions and just with the stories now that she is my Doctor even though I love all the Doctors that I’ve met. But she is definitely my Doctor.

Alison: Yeah. I loved Rose when New Who started. But actually Donna was –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I see myself in Donna.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Alison: She’s older, she’s you know she is a working-class girl, and you know I love the way she was very down to earth. And not always overly impressed with the Doctor

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: As Rose often was. And then you know –

Parinita: And it wasn’t about a romantic relationship.

Alison: No.

Parinita: Which usually you always need to have someone fall in love with someone for it to –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: For their presence as a woman to count.

Alison: Yeah. There was much more of a buddy relationship – a collegial relationship. And I really appreciated that.

Parinita: Do you have any final thoughts that you sort of wanted to say?

Alison: I do want to acknowledge the problematic and frankly transphobic nature of a lot of what J. K. Rowling has said at the moment. And the transformative works aspect of Potter fandom is something that continues to give me joy. And I do think that now Harry Potter’s ours. He belongs to the fans. I’m not so sure about the Fantastic Beasts aspect. Although my stepson loves Fantastic Beasts. He loves Newt Scamander. I see a lot of my stepson in Newt as a neurodiverse child.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: So I do love that. I sort of did want to acknowledge that there are other amazing books for children and young adults around at the moment. That if people feel uncomfortable still reading Harry Potter then I suggest they look at Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here which is a brilliant book. Also I’m reading at the moment Scarlett Thomas’s Dragon’s Green and other books in that series. Also I love, although I acknowledge that some people have been very critical of Rebecca Roanhorse, but I love her book Trail of Lightning. So there are other things out there that people can look for and enjoy.

Parinita: Thank you for the excellent recommendations! I’m just going to add a book that I just finished reading yesterday. It’s called Nevermoor – The Trials of Morrigan Crow.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: By Jessica Townsend. And I love it because it’s sort of like Harry Potter but also Jupiter North very much gives me a Doctor energy.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So it’s like a combination of two of my favourite things and it’s much more explicitly diverse. I don’t have to racebend or I don’t have to contend with just seeing white as you know the protagonists.

Book cover image of Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas Book cover image of Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend Book cover image of The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness Book cover image of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that. And I absolutely agree with you. I think J. K. Rowling … I’ve lost the feeling of affection that I used to have for her.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s been happening for quite a few years but this completely you know I’ve completely disconnected from her. But the series itself, it was something that really saved me during a very difficult childhood.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And it’s something that’s given me so much that I still love the books. And like you said, I think they belong to us. We don’t have to like her, we don’t have to agree with anything that she says. They belong to us because she’s put it out there and it’s changed so many people’s lives. But also I’m glad you recommended other books as well. Because there are more inclusive, more progressive books out there. And to quote someone on a podcast that we listened to, who quoted Sam Winchester from Supernatural, “At the end of the day, it’s our story. So we get to write it.”

Alison: We do.

Parinita: Which I think is a very good fandom encapsulation. And just yeah it’s a good way to think of Potterverse. Thank you so much for being on the podcast!

Alison: Thank you!

Parinita: And for the company! This was amazing. I’m so glad I got to chat with you.

Alison: I’m so glad you asked me. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed it.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on social class in Harry Potter and gender in fandom. You can listen to the first three episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Alison for being a part of this project and allowing me to think about the world through the lenses of both class and gender. And thank you Jack for doing a stellar job with the editing even though the audio quality was sometimes terrible.

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