A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Fantasy

Episode 18 We’ve Been Featured! Finally!: Questioning Cultural Norms in Mainstream Fantasy Books

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Special Edition Owl Post and Marya Bangee (listen from 19 minutes 40 seconds till the end of the episode)

2) Tumblr post – Imagine A Muslim Witch

3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Cultural Traditions of Magic

4) Article – Through Sci-fi And Fantasy, Muslim Women Authors Are Building New Worlds

 

Episode Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

Illustration of a brown girl with blue glasses dressed in Ravenclaw house robes. She's holding an open book and looking up at a black cat on her shoulder

[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 eighteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Aisha about diverse cultures in some of our favourite fantasy media. As fangirls from the UAE and India, we also explore a non-Western perspective of the Potterverse.

A lot of popular fantasy has emerged from the UK and taken over our imaginations. However, the dominance of English in these globally popular books can act as a barrier for non-native speakers of the language. This language barrier also exists in fandom where limited English-language abilities restrict your access to online fan spaces. The politics of language and traditions in mainstream SFF and fandom – specifically what’s the norm and what’s othered – has broad cultural implications. Readers from non-Eurocentric cultures often have to work extra hard to understand unfamiliar contexts and references. Moreover, a diet of primarily Western books with meagre diversity leaves many fans unable to imagine ourselves in our favourite worlds.

Increasingly, however, fans from different countries and cultures are beginning to question ideas of which languages and cultures are automatically deemed superior. Fans navigate linguistic and technological limitations to carve out local-language fan spaces which bring together their multiple identities. Discussions about cultural imperialism and cultural assimilation in fictional worlds like Harry Potter encourage fans to draw parallels between the tokenistic ways in which Western media depicts diverse groups. Conversations about which cultural norms are respected and what we’d like to see more of allow fans to challenge textual limitations and decolonise our minds. A growing number of writers are creating narratives which move beyond the Eurocentric norm in mainstream SFF. Normalising cultural diversity can disrupt previously taken-for-granted assumptions and enable fans to imagine ourselves in fantastical worlds.

Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so thrilled to welcome fellow bookworm and Harry Potter fangirl Aisha to the podcast. Aisha is a fan from Dubai who has always identified herself as a reader. She loves reading everything from classics to fantasy to manga and comic books. She’s a fan of a lot of media but she mostly identifies with the Harry Potter fandom. She also loves Japanese anime and manga. As someone who’s grown up in India, I’m so excited to be able to talk to someone who comes from such a different background from me but we still have so many things in common. I’m also a huge reader, I used to write fanfiction, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and I’m into fandom. So in this episode, we’re going to be focusing on different cultural identities in fantasy worlds. But before we get to that, Aisha, could you tell us about some of your encounters as a fan in Dubai?

Aisha: Yes, absolutely. I’m very happy to be in this interview as well and to find someone who has the same passion for fandoms and who has the same passion for reading that is not exactly from let’s say the Western world or from the United States or from the UK and so on.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Aisha: So I’m very happy to meet you. Let me talk to you a little bit about my encounter with Harry Potter in specific. So my brother used to go to a private school where the medium of instruction was English. His English teacher actually recommended the kids to read Harry Potter when it just came out. I think it was back in 1998. He got the book but he didn’t get into it really. I was older than him and at the time I was probably in seventh grade. I tried to read the book but I couldn’t. It was a bit difficult for me as a non-native speaker of English, so I stopped reading. I remember the first chapter having to do with owls and so on. But I really couldn’t get what was the whole point. And with English sometimes if something is too difficult to read or too difficult to understand, it really demotivates you from reading.

Parinita: Yeah and the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is particularly difficult

Aisha: Yes.

Parinita: I did this reading programme in a school in Mumbai and a lot of the kids there were first-generation English speakers so a lot of them weren’t very comfortable with the language. And they knew I was a huge Harry Potter fangirl because I have a 9 ¾ tattoo on my wrist as well.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: So they’d want to know what that meant. And I had introduced them to Harry Potter. And I’d tell them to stick with the book past the first chapter because the first chapter, especially if you know nothing about the world, if you know nothing about the UK or British culture, it’s really difficult to get through.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Or British references and things, it’s really difficult.

Aisha: No absolutely. I agree. I wish I had someone who would tell me that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: I would have been reading it earlier. It was that and it was also me not really knowing that it’s okay not to understand every word and every vocabulary. I remember trying to look up words in the dictionary while I was reading.

Parinita: Oh!

Aisha: For me it was just that difficult. It wasn’t within my English language abilities.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: And at the time, I really didn’t know or I didn’t really realise that sometimes it’s okay not to understand each and every word. You have to understand the context not necessarily each vocabulary or each term that you see.

Parinita: Just based on that, sorry I’ll let you get back to your Harry Potter origin story, but do you find that – this is something that I find a lot because I’m the same as you even though English is my first language. I’ve been reading since I was five or six years old, and I read a lot of British children’s books as well. So I grew up reading Enid Blyton who’s this really popular English author and she’s also really popular in India. So by the time I’d encountered Harry Potter when I was about ten, I had an idea of the culture even though it was all foreign to me. The words and the food – everything. They call sweaters jumpers.

Aisha: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: Which took me many years to realise what that means. But I would just read it and when I encountered those words in many different books, I could sort of build a contextual understanding of it. So I’d have a vague idea of what it means but I wouldn’t know how to pronounce unfamiliar words. Even if I knew what the word meant through the books that I read but because I encountered those words through books and not through someone telling me, there’s still so many English words that I mispronounce.

Aisha: No I get you. I think with Harry Potter particularly there are also some made-up words.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: Or words that are influenced by Latin or by other languages which is particularly difficult if there’s no equivalence to it in the dictionary.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: So pronouncing it, reading it – yeah I get why I didn’t get into reading it at the very beginning when it first stared. It wasn’t within my ability honestly to read it. I feel even if I had continued beyond the first chapter, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it or understood it.

Parinita: Yeah. So how then did you return to Harry Potter and fall in love with it?

Aisha: So how did I return … Basically, we ignored the book. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: It was sitting on our shelf [laughs] for a couple of more years until the first movie came out back in 2001.

Parinita:  Aaah! Yeah.

Aisha: And my dad who remembered that he got us the book that we didn’t read –

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: He was like okay let me take you to the movie. So we watched the first movie and I absolutely loved it. And I was like, “You know what? Now I understand the context, let me go and check out the book. I might actually enjoy it.” And I found it much easier to understand. I mean to be honest, I was also older. Probably my English had also improved by that time.

Parinita: Right.

Aisha: So I gave it a shot. It was really easy reading; it was a breeze to be honest. Especially after seeing the movie and knowing all those terms – what did they mean and so on.  And then within that one year, I read up to where the books were published, which I believe were the fourth book?

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: I read until the fourth book in 2001. And I’ve been a fan ever since.

Parinita: That’s amazing! So I’m wondering whether you had the experience then of waiting really excitedly for the fifth book.

Aisha: Yes!

Parinita: Is that something you experienced as well?

Aisha: See I was a little bit lucky because I think when I read the fourth book, it was 2001. And I think the fifth book came out in 2002. Am I right? I remember not waiting too long for the fifth book.

Parinita: Yeah. I don’t remember the exact year but I yeah I’d also caught up with it because I started reading when I was ten, and then I think for a few more years like the second and third and fourth book. And the fifth book wasn’t yet out. And I have this very firm memory of growing up with Harry.

Aisha: Hmm.

Parinita: He was the same age as I was when I started reading the books so he turned eleven and when I was eleven and then twelve and thirteen. So I think it might have been like mid-2000s or early 2000s for sure because I was so excited to know what was going to happen in The Order of the Phoenix.

Aisha: Yeah. Because I remember not waiting that long. I only waited a year probably.

Parinita: So was it really popular in Dubai, the books?

Aisha: By that time it was popular. It was very easy to find the books in English and so on. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was read by Arabs in Dubai.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aisha: Most of the people who read it were also Native speakers of English.

Parinita: You mean the international immigrants in Dubai were reading it?

Aisha: Yeah. The international residents mostly. But it was probably also different because I was in a public school where English was taught as a foreign language rather than as a medium

Parinita: Aaah!

Aisha: of ???

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: From my experience I didn’t have anyone at school who used to read the book. Except for one friend who I pushed her to read it. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Aisha: Other than that I don’t remember any other classmates

Parinita: Oh I have this same experience of pushing people in my school to read the books because I wanted someone to talk to about these books and just nobody seemed to love the books as much as I did. I was obsessed with these books and I wanted to play with people like games that were inspired from the books or talk about theories and things. Because now there’s so much that we take for granted in Harry Potter and especially kids who are starting to read it now, they have all seven books.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s no mystery that they have to wait for to find out what happens. I remember all the theories that I had and I wanted someone to share them with. But everyone seemed to just read the books and then get on with their life.

Aisha: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: Whereas for me, I wanted to read the books and make that a part of my life.

Aisha: Exactly! No, exactly, I get you. Yes.

Parinita: Which is why online fandom was such a revelation to me. So we had these things called cyber cafes in Mumbai.

Aisha: Yeah, I remember.

Parinita: I didn’t have a computer at home when I was thirteen. I got my first computer when I was sixteen. Me and my friend, we used to go to this cyber café for half an hour, an hour. And I just randomly stumbled onto this chat room which was dedicated to Harry Potter. And I was like oh my god there are other people who love Harry Potter as much as me! But they were all foreigners. They were all Western – at least from my understanding. Because they also all seemed American, not even British.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah so that was my first encounter with online fandom.

Aisha: I found myself stumbling across online fandoms as well. But I also had people within my own network who also read the books but mostly family. I have a cousin actually who started reading it before me. And I had a family friend, a daughter of a family friend who also used to read the book. And she read it before the movie was out. And they actually got me into reading it as well. So I wouldn’t say I necessarily didn’t have any face to face networking fandoms.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: I did have that but if we’re talking about school in specific or friends my age and so on, no I really didn’t have. Except for that friend whom I urged to read.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Aisha: So I did stumble upon Harry Potter forums. One of them is still going on by the way.

Parinita: Oh really?

Aisha: Yeah I still receive emails from them.

Parinita: Oh amazing.

Aisha: Like you said, it was mostly an international forum and I felt like the people who were there, the way in which they discussed things were not necessarily things that I understood. Maybe because again I wasn’t very confident with the level of English that I had.

Parinita: And it’s not just the English, right? It’s the cultural references and all these things that make up a language. It’s not just the vocabulary. You might be great at the vocabulary but not able to hold a conversation that includes all the cultural aspects as well.

Aisha: Yeah, no I get it. For example sometimes people would do jokes or puns and I wouldn’t necessarily understand where those are coming from. I mean it took me forever to understand what Potterhead means. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah I’m completely with you. So I know we’re going to be talking about fandom more a little bit later. But just before we get to that, I wanted to talk about how while popular Western fantasy has taken over the world and our imaginations – not just you and me, but a lot of global imaginations.

Aisha: Um hmm.

Parinita: In our day-to-day lives, we tend to encounter our own cultural traditions of fantasy and storytelling as well and mix that with magic from our favourite fictional worlds. So I was really curious, what are some of the stories and ideas of magic that you grew up with in Dubai?

Aisha: Mostly magic had to do with stories of One Thousand and One Nights. Like Arabian Nights where there’s magic and you have the magic lamp or the magic carpet and you have stories of genies and so on. But I would say those are not also not necessarily contextual, those are more like broad Arab stories. I mean they’re not necessarily local inspired. If I’m talking about my Emirati or Dubai local inspired stories, we have a lot of stories that have to do with ghosts and spirits, some stories about witches or wizards and so on. But usually it’s a bit dark. It has to do with dark magic and black magic. Usually those fables or those folklore stories were told to children so that they would either listen to their moms and dads or they would not trust strangers and so on.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: They’re as dark as the Grim Reaper kind of stuff.

Parinita: So similar again to India. Because I grew up with the Arabian Nights as well so magic carpets and all didn’t seem exotic [laughs] like this foreign thing. I was just re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire recently. There’s this person called Ali Bashir who wants to import flying carpets to the UK because he thinks there’s a market for a family vehicle. But in the UK, it’s illegal because obviously British magicians prefer uncomfortable Portkeys and Floo Networks and things. A magic carpet would be so comfortable! It would be like taking an aeroplane from one place to another. But yeah we had the same where ghosts and witches and things were not these friendly Harry Potter ghosts and witches.

Aisha: Yeah!

A scene featuring a Portkey from the Fantastic Beasts films

A scene of Harry using Floo powder to travel in the Chamber of Secrets movie

Parinita: They were used to scare children. Not only adults scared children but we scared each other as well.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: These witches with feet backwards who would –

Aisha: Yeah! We had similar things. One of the most famous stories is … I don’t know if it’s a ghost story or even a spirit that is half-woman and half-donkey.

Parinita: Oh! Interesting.

Aisha: Who kidnaps kids during afternoon – I don’t know in India, do you have siesta or napping? Afternoon napping?

Parinita: In some parts of the country, yeah.

Aisha: Because it’s part of our culture as well. And so to make sure that children don’t run out of the house during those times –

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: They would tell children those stories. So usually you’d think an evil spirit would come at night, right?

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: But no, this one comes at around 12 noon.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god.

Aisha: So those were the stories, yeah.

Parinita: I think Asian parents, whichever country you’re from, are the same. [laughs] Because India has this as well … I guess Western parents might be or maybe it’s also a generational thing where now they don’t want to damage the child’s psychological wellbeing.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: Whereas with us, it was like, “No, no. A ghost will kidnap you or eat you. Or this vampire in a tree will take you away and feast on your body.”

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It was all a part of childhood. And even now, my boyfriend is Scottish and he’s a very rational sort of person. Doesn’t believe in ghosts and things. And I’m like look, rationally I can say that ghosts don’t exist but I am scared of ghosts.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: Because what if they don’t know they’re supposed to not exist you know? And what if they come up to me … it’s very difficult to unlearn these things that you grow up with.

Aisha: Yeah! No, I get you. If we’re talking about fantasy, those are the sort of stories that we grew up with. Mostly folktales.

Parinita: Yeah. We had folktales as well with a lot of talking animals and things.

Aisha: Hmm!

Parinita: That was a huge part of our folktales and these oral storytelling traditions that have been around, at least in India, since two thousand years or so. And they’re being passed down and now they’ve become stories for children which I don’t think they originally were. But now folktales in India as well as fairy tales in the West, they’re very much seen to be a children’s storytelling thing.

Aisha: Yeah. I mean when you look at Brothers what do you call it – is it Brothers Grimm?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: If you look at the original stories, you won’t necessarily think that the audience are kids, right? Or children. It’s so dark.

Parinita: Yeah. And I think they had a similar purpose as well like what you were saying about kids, but in the fairy tales with the Brothers Grimm and stuff I think it was for everybody. Warnings to be careful of the world around you basically but using stories to impart that message. I don’t know if it was similar in Dubai, but in India, these stories I wouldn’t really think of as fantasy. I mean it’s not like a history of fantasy traditions as much as just a part of our cultural tradition.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s no distinction between one or the other. It’s just something that we grow up with. At some points I don’t even know where I got these ideas from, these stories from. It’s just something that in day-to-day life adults or friends, whoever, would tell me these things.

Aisha: Yeah, I get you absolutely. And that’s why sometimes, like you said, are they really fantasy or are they just fairy tales or folktales? I don’t really know, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah, it’s difficult to bifurcate it like that. Just getting back a little to what we spoke about earlier about language and how language is political. So obviously which language dominates and which traditions are considered “normal” in mainstream science fiction and fantasy as well as in fandom, they obviously have a lot of cultural implications, right? Because currently English and Western culture have a huge influence globally. But Muslim history and Indian history has also contributed to global social and political events and scientific and technological advancements and art and culture as well. Though this is largely overlooked on the world stage. When we talk about these things, we don’t really talk so much about Indian or Muslim contributions. So in terms of the dominance of language specifically what have you observed in fandom and media?

Aisha: Oh again like you said, in order to access those platforms, the language that is spoken is English. If you have good English, then you have access to those outlets. And if your English is limited, then there’s a limitation for you to get into those fandoms, to get access into those things, to fandoms basically. I feel you have to be a speaker of English specifically.

Parinita: And also you have this then sense of – and this is something I’m still unlearning – this sense of English being equated with being a superior language just because of the kind of influence that it has. So when I was growing up, we would get a lot of American TV shows as well as some anime shows from Japan. The American shows used to be English so Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. And the Japanese anime used to be dubbed in English as well when I was younger. But then when I grew up a little, when I was an older kid, it used to start being dubbed into Hindi – which is one of the national languages, but because India is such a huge country with so many different languages, there’s politics in that as well where Hindi plays the role in India that English plays all over the world. So Hindi is marginalising these other languages. But anyway, these cartoons used to be dubbed into Hindi and I used to hate it. I used to prefer it in English. At that time obviously I couldn’t articulate why but I think as a kid I must have imbibed these ideas of English just being a better language and Hindi not being as cool or as fashionable I guess. I don’t know. And even afterwards, even today, English is the language of social mobility as well. If you go to an English-medium school, that’s seen to be more respectable in India than if you go to a local-language school. And you won’t have as many opportunities if you don’t know English.

Aisha: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is what English is. And that’s why a lot of people all over the world are so keen on learning the language because of those different opportunities that comes with English. I was on Twitter the other day and I came across a tweet by someone saying that even though, for example, they are from a different country but because they use English so much and now they think in English. And it’s this whole idea of with yourself, do you think in English or do you think in your own native language? And there was this whole big debate with a lot of people saying yeah because we use it so much in reading and in writing, we now think in English. And there was also some debate about whether people dream in English [laughs] or in their first language. So yeah English has taken up such a big space, if we’re talking about media.

Parinita: So the Harry Potter movies in Dubai, would they be translated into Arabic or did they have the English versions playing in theatres?

Aisha: No our theatres are subtitled. We have subtitles, not dubbed.

Parinita: Okay. So they’d have Arabic subtitles in them?

Aisha: Yes.

Parinita: Okay. We had both. We used to have English playing as well as Hindi. And I remember me and my friends, we used to laugh so much. I think the movies made Harry Potter more accessible to more kids than the books did. Like you were saying, you got into it again through the movies.

Aisha: Yes.

Parinita: Even in India, the movies were so popular that a lot of kids who didn’t read the books even afterwards, they were still a fan of the Harry Potter movies.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: And me and my friends, we used to make fun of the Hindi translations of the Houses and the titles and things. And now I feel so bad about it. It’s just something that you don’t really know where you’ve learned these things from. Where you’ve learned to make fun of languages that are not English. I still find the translations a bit hilarious. But that’s just because it’s not a language that I’m used to. So it sounds really dramatic. Like Gryffindor is Garuddwar and things like that which would be really difficult to translate into a non-Hindi language.

The Hindi cover of the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Harry Potter Aur Maut Ke Taufe

Aisha: Yeah. No, ours are subtitled. They’re not dubbed over. They played in the original language in theatres.

Parinita: Yeah. I wonder if in India there were other translations as well. Because in Mumbai, which is where I’m from, Marathi is the predominant language and Hindi is more like a Northern language but I grew up speaking Hindi, Marathi and English as well. But in the south, Hindi it’s a political thing again where they reject Hindi because they think it’s this language imperialism of sorts. So they cling on to their local language identity. So I wonder if Harry Potter would have been dubbed into these other languages as well. [They were]

Aisha: Aah.

Parinita: I should look this up, it would be interesting. You have some experience using local languages to expand the reach of your favourite stories and fandoms, right?

Aisha: Yeah. I don’t know when exactly I came across an Arabic forum of Harry Potter and that was also very early on; I believe it was 2002 or 2003 when I was still in school, I stumbled upon a forum. I believe one of my friends told me about it. And it was a specific forum dedicated to Harry Potter but it was in Arabic. And altogether I think we were like five-six members only. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: So in that big forum … but it was so nice you know. It was finally meeting up people from within the region who were also fans of the book. I don’t remember specifically if we used to communicate in Arabic or in English on that website. It was probably a mix of two. I think it was mostly English.

Parinita: I don’t know if you have this in Dubai, but we have a version of English called Hinglish which is a mix of Hindi and English.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So it’s a dual thing; we use Hindi words and we use English words.

Aisha: Exactly. This is what I wanted to tell you as well. So we didn’t have a sort of Hinglish like for example an Aralish or something like that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: It was more like us writing in Arabic but using English letters. Does that make sense?

Parinita: Oh right. Yes.

Aisha: And for specific letters that were not translated to English, because we have a lot of sounds in Arabic like [makes an Arabic sound]. They don’t have the equivalency of those in English.

Parinita: Right.

Aisha: We would actually use numbers. But this was agreed upon like everyone throughout the Arab world would use the same sort of numbers to convey sounds.

Parinita: Oh!

Aisha: Yeah so we would use that a lot during those times. Especially since back at that time I think not a lot of keyboards had Arabic. Not a lot of mobile phones actually. It was back when we had Nokia and so on. Not a lot of mobile phones had Arabic characters so I think this is where it originated from but I could be mistaken. But this is the language that we used to write in for chatting, for texting. So it was basically Arabic but using English letters.

Parinita: Oh that’s amazing.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So the fanfiction that you wrote, was that in a similar language?

Aisha: Oh no the fanfiction that I wrote that was in standard Arabic.

Parinita: Aaah.

Aisha: We have different variations of Arabic. The standard, that’s the language that is used in writing, reading, in newspapers and books. It’s not really spoken much. You wouldn’t see people speaking standard Arabic in their daily lives, their lived experiences. But it’s the language that you see on interviews, for example. In teaching, teachers would use it with students. But it’s not a very widely spoken language and community. It’s the language of writing. This is what we use when we write. And there was another forum; unfortunately that forum had to be closed down. Because the guy who was managing it, who was the moderator and was also the one who was paying for it. And he’s like we don’t have enough members and we don’t have enough activities and I can’t really pay that much for it. So it had to be shut down.

Parinita: Oh that’s such a pity!

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s so amazing that you had that space and you found that space. I can just imagine as a teenager, if I’d found a space online – a Harry Potter fan website or forum or whatever that had Indian fans or even South Asian fans.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because we share a lot of the same cultural references and things like movies and songs and food and clothes and things. it would have been so amazing that I wouldn’t have to explain myself; everyone would just understand. We’d be on the same page.

Aisha: Yeah, no, I get you, absolutely. And it was amazing as well that not only were they people online, but I knew most of the people on that forum. Two of them were already my friends and I got to meet one other who later on I discovered she went to the same university that I did.

Parinita: Oh amazing.

Aisha: Yeah. So it was a very close-knit community. We were such a like-minded group. It was so easy to chat about things without, like you said, without having to explain things.

Parinita: Yeah because I found myself a part of two different worlds almost. In my regular everyday day-to-day life, my Harry Potter fandom was a weird thing that people didn’t really understand. They were like, oh okay Harry Potter is nice and all but okay. So there I’d have to speak a language differently than I would online. I mean not language in terms of it would be English in both spaces but just in terms of the references that I was making and things, I could just use Harry Potter spells and things.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: I couldn’t just make jokes out of that which I could online but in online spaces, I couldn’t use my Indian jokes and references and contexts and things. So that’s amazing that you found that space where you could do a mix of both.

Aisha: It was amazing but unfortunately it was closed down. And then I think during my first year of university, I found another forum in Arabic. I was so excited that I found another forum and I was very active. I got to be a moderator of something … I don’t know of a House maybe.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aisha: Yeah. I had an administrative role. [laughs]

Parinita: Amazing!

Aisha: I was that active. It was during that time when I was active on that forum that there was a short story writing competition. They just said that it had to be in Arabic, it had to be blah blah blah, this length and so on and so forth and try to submit it within these timings and so on. So I read the guidelines well and I thought okay this is my opportunity. So I wrote a fanfiction about Harry Potter. It had to do with his parents, Lupin, Sirius Black

Parinita: Ah Sirius!

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: My first email id just to put my embarrassing past in context, even though I’m still proud of it, was siriusfan138@mugglenet.com. I still have [laughs] a very clear memory of this. And I wanted to keep giving people my email id. But nobody emailed at that time, I was thirteen so like 2003 when none of my friends emailed. Ah Sirius! Yeah.

Aisha: So it was about them. It was when they discovered Lupin was a werewolf.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Aisha: ???

Parinita: So Marauders era fanfic.

Aisha: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: Oh amazing.

Aisha: What was it called? Animagus? Something like that?

Parinita: Yeah. Animagus. Ooh.

Aisha: So Lily was helping them to find a solution or a potion or whatever it was. I was so excited. I wrote it in Arabic and usually I don’t write things in Arabic. Mostly I write in English. And I remember I showed it to one of my other cousins who’s also a fan and she was blown away. She was like oh my goodness this is amazing, it feels like it comes from J. K. Rowling and blah blah blah.

Parinita: Oh! Amazing. Do you still have the story?

Aisha: I have the story, I think somewhere, yeah.

Parinita: Oh you’re so lucky. I remember I wrote a thing which was a much sillier thing than what you’ve written. It was sort of a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

Aisha: Aah!

Parinita: Where everybody was wildly out of character. [laughs] And there were lots of jokes in there, there was lots of silliness and goofiness. But I feel like that helped me practise my writing as well. Just getting to the core of storytelling because those are the kind of stories I write now. I write books for children in India. And they’re full of silliness and madness and just all around people behaving in really weird ways. So I feel like my Voldemort and the Death Eater fanfic really helped me. But I don’t have a copy of it. I wish I did.

Aisha: Yeah. I think I have it saved somewhere.

Parinita: Amazing!

Aisha: So then I submitted it to the website, to the forum. And I was so excited! I was like you know what, I’m sure I’m going to win this competition. I was so sure that I was going to win it. And then when I read the other entries, I noticed that they weren’t necessarily writing fanfiction. It wasn’t a fanfiction competition.

Parinita: Ohhh!

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: It was a general short story competition. And I misinterpreted that. I thought because this is a Harry Potter forum, the stories have to be related to Harry Potter. But it wasn’t. And I didn’t win. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh! [laughs] Oh no! I’m glad that even though you misinterpreted the prompt, you managed to write a story that you and your cousin both loved and had fun with. I think a lot of fanfiction, people just write for themselves as well. So even though you wrote it for a competition, I’m glad you had fun writing it.

Aisha: Yeah. Oh actually that’s very true. A lot of people do write for themselves. I’ve written a couple of other fanfiction for anime. And I’ve never really published it. I have one published but not the others.

Parinita: What anime world did you write it in?

Aisha: One was for Slam Dunk and a couple were for Fruit Basket. But one of them was already shared. Back in the days, I remember we didn’t have fanfiction.net. There were Yahoo groups – I don’t know if you remember.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: I subscribed to Yahoo groups. And I remember there was a group about those anime – there was one on Fruit Basket and I published my story there. And I think it was only one or two people who read it as well.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: So

Parinita: Amazing.

Aisha: ???

Parinita: It’s making me so nostalgic for … it makes me feel so old now – those days of yore.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: So now maybe we can move on to talking about Harry Potter specifically. We’ve briefly spoken about how Western fantasy is dominant and Western characters and cultures and contexts are dominant. But still we both get really excited when we find characters and elements which are familiar to us or which reflect us in our favourite worlds. And specifically talking about Harry Potter, you’d mentioned something similar as well, right?

Aisha: Yes. Exactly. The fact that there was one Arab character in the book and that was in the fourth book. There was an Egyptian referee by the name of Mostafa if I’m not mistaken.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: And it was so exciting that oh my goodness finally there is an Arab character in this whole wizarding world. It was so exciting for us that when me and my cousins got to this point, we all texted each other, “Hahaha! So funny look at them – look at the character.” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: We’ve been featured! Finally! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I know we were the same – well I don’t know if we – I was the same just internally I was excited when I saw Parvati and Padma Patil.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Parvati has been a part of it right from the beginning. So for me it was like oh my god this is a name that I recognise. She could be my neighbour. But then of course, there was nothing else about her, nothing about her culture or her Indianness or if she was British-Indian or whatever. So I had to just be happy with [laughs] the name. And then she had a twin, Padma, and I was like oh yay! Another of us there.

Aisha: I mean yeah if you compare it to what diversity means today, [laughs] it’s not really diverse.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: But we were so happy. I remember myself and my cousins, we were so happy that there was some sort of link that we could be part of this world.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: We could be part of this fantasy as well.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And for me because I started reading the first book when I was ten, when I was going to turn eleven, I was like, oh I really hope I get my Hogwarts letter today. So I was one of those kids.

Aisha: I’m still waiting for mine! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. So yeah, you’re so right. Just seeing someone that you recognise in that world allows you access to imagine yourself in that world as well. Which is what I think like a lot of more creative fans than me have done where they took Parvati and made her a central part of the story, like written stories about her. I wouldn’t even have thought of doing that at that time.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because my mind was so very much caught up in that oh no I can’t. Even though she is there, but still Western society largely means white people and British people. So I couldn’t even imagine writing a story that would feature her or that would even feature an Indian person. I remember when I used to write stories for fun when I was younger, not fanfic, just general stories, they all used to be set in the US or the UK.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because those are the kind of books that I was reading. So even though I lived in India, in Mumbai, and travelled in India and around Mumbai, all my characters were either blonde or had blue eyes or had names like John and Emily and things.

Aisha: No, no I get you. One hundred percent. I mean I used to write stories as well and it was all set in the United States.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aisha: I mean I wouldn’t even think someone like me or someone with a different name or with a different feature could be featured in those books. I guess maybe because I read so many English books. Or so many other stories where diverse characters were not at all included. I thought maybe subconsciously that nobody else belongs in a book except for

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: American or Western or whatever. Yeah.

Parinita: It’s so strange thinking about that now because now that I live in the UK, I’m currently living here for my PhD, and I see so many British people who are not white. People who were born in the UK who are not white, who are either black or brown or East Asian. And I just wonder how they must have felt when this idea of Britishness excluded them. They couldn’t even recognise themselves in the stories. Because at least for me I had Bollywood and things. There were Hindi movies that I used to watch a lot while growing up, which had people who looked like me and had the same places and things. Maybe not the stories that I read but I did have media that reflected me. So it must be so difficult to live in a Western country but not see yourself reflected in any media. That must be so much more difficult as well.

Aisha: Yeah, no I get you. Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: Which is why I’m happy there’s more of a push now for diverse literature and own voices. People writing about their own experiences and stuff. I think a lot of people must have gotten their practice in fandom.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because fandom is full of it, right? It’s full of own voices and diversity.

Aisha: Yes. And cross-writing as well. Like writing across different genres.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Including characters from here and there. So yeah absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah what is that genre called?

Aisha: ???

Parinita: Yeah basically

Aisha: Something like crossing or crossover?

Parinita: Yeah. And AU [Alternate Universe] and things where one character is in a different world just basically melding all your things together. Yeah. So speaking of Harry Potter and cultures in Harry Potter, we find plenty of diverse cultures there as well. So both real-world and what we mentioned, because there’s … well a handful, not that many.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: But there are more magical cultures there which seem to be more marginalised in the grand scheme of things. And which is something that I hadn’t picked up on while reading it when I was a kid. Or even earlier as an adult, I used to reread the series quite regularly. And I never used to think about how much the emphasis seems to be on witches and wizards and not on anybody else. Like I said, I was rereading The Goblet of Fire and I just realised – and this is something that they spoke about in the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode as well – where Muggles and Muggle-borns are seen to be such a – seem to be belonging to such an inferior kind of culture.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So Hermione when she comes into the wizarding world – and Hermione – she’s clever and she’s amazing, she’s brilliant. She’s all these things. But even she has to leave her Muggle culture behind and assimilate into the magical world. And all these witches and wizards have these strange stereotypes about Muggles. And she has to just grin and bear it like, “Haha yeah I guess. Muggles are funny.” Even though her parents are non-magical. And her whole extended family or whatever, her friends that she had as a kid. But she seems to have completely put that behind and she doesn’t make any references really. Or nothing that anybody else takes seriously.

Aisha: Yeah. I didn’t necessarily think of Hermione’s point of view. But I thought of Harry like why wasn’t he into his Muggle culture? Because he lived with his aunt and uncle, right? And I thought maybe because he just psychologically wants to distance himself from his relatives because of all the abuse. But now that you’re talking about Hermione, I’m like yes, she lived in a loving home, right?

Parinita: Exactly.

Aisha: Her parents were very … yeah so why did she put behind completely that world?

Parinita: And the thing is that all these witches and wizards, they live very closely in the Muggle world. They’re not a dominant culture in the Muggle world. Muggles outnumber magical people. But even then, I don’t think there’s any sort of effort to try and understand Muggles in a way that actually looks at their technology and their culture and their art and literature or whatever. It’s just all very wizard-centric. Imagine how great it would be … like I know they explain away things like technology doesn’t work in Hogwarts because there’s too much magic in the air, so technology just fails. But has anybody tried to make this better? Or have they just been like, oh who needs Muggle technology anyway? We can get along without … even though they seem to be living in the 17th century. [laughs]

Aisha: [laughs] Yeah.

Screenshot from Tumblr. contradictingmultitudes: I want to read a fic where some tech savvy muggleborn manages to patch wifi into Hogwarts cause lets be honest the anti-muggle-technology chams were done by some ministry wanker 50 yrs ago who knew jackshit about electronics beyond radios much less microprocessors so the Hufflepuffs are all binge watching Netflix before exams and it takes months for the profs to figure anything out.

Parinita: The wizards and witches.

Aisha: And all those quills, yeah exactly.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aisha: You brought up a really interesting thing. I haven’t really thought of it this way.

Parinita: Yeah, it’s not something I thought of myself. It’s just something I thought of because I’ve been hearing about it a lot in fan podcasts and things about how Muggles seem to be looked down upon. Even Arthur Weasley who really likes Muggles, even he is only looking at them almost like they’re museum exhibits.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Like oooh so fancy! You use these telephones? Oooh what are telephones? He’s not actually trying to get to know Hermione’s culture. It’s just like it looks all foreign and exotic so he’s trying to figure it out. Which is very British. Speaking as someone who was colonised by them.

Aisha: Which is also interesting because when you look at other cultures and mainly dominant Western media, this is also what [laughs] sometimes

Parinita: Yup!

Aisha: Unfortunately sometimes how international people or people from different cultures are featured. Very, very superficially.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aisha: Yeah. And probably if we really look at Harry Potter I mean I know that I’m a fan, a very loyal fan but again this is how they’ve included those cultures like with Padma and with Mustafa and all of those characters. They seem to have been very assimilated into the wizarding culture and very little of who they are, what is their background is really brought up in the story.

Parinita: Yeah and very British wizarding culture as well like we saw in one of those Tumblr posts, Imagine a Muslim Witch which has a headcanon of a Muslim Muggle-born witch in Hogwarts. And I love that not just because it was imagining a Muslim witch, but because of all the potential possibilities that opened up in my brain.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: The post mentioned that she would use Arabic spells and Parvati would use Punjabi spells, Anthony Goldstein would use Hebrew spells – all these different languages. And they just would have a separate club where all this religious diversity as well as cultural diversity would come into play and they would just borrow from each other’s different cultures and make something better out of it. Which is what you want, right?

Aisha: And that’s why I loved it. I thought it was brilliant. Not only because of the culture and the cultural insertion. A lot of fanfiction would do that. They would include characters from different cultures into the story. But this one seemed believable. It actually added to the story. It was relevant. It was very, very connected to the plot of fantasy and spells and all of these things.

Parinita: Absolutely. And something what you said about Latin words being used, that’s also in the spells and things as well as you know the place names and the people names in the British magical world. But I know now and we know now that Britain is much more diverse than that.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s not all white, Eurocentric and Western. We have lots of immigrants now here and things. So what sort of impact would that have on different things? Food and language and festivals and things. I know we’re going to be talking about that a little bit more but just that Imagine a Muslim Witch headcanon – it just blew my mind open to all the different possibilities.

Aisha: No, exactly.

Parinita: And another thing that I thought of in Goblet of Fire was that it’s not just like different real-world cultures, but within the magical world as well there are so many different cultures. So it’s not just witches and wizards. It’s House-elves and Goblins and Giants and Werewolves and Centaurs. These kind of things are kind of mentioned in Order of the Phoenix, there’s this centaur problem that happens.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: And goblins in the last book. But they all seem to be so living so separately from each other. And even in The Goblet of Fire, what struck me during the second task, when Harry goes to the bottom of the lake and he doesn’t know that Merpeople live there. And he discovers this even though the lake is on Hogwarts grounds so you would think that this sort of information would have been shared. But he doesn’t know whether they eat humans or whether they’re murderous. He knows nothing about them. Even though they share the same environment. And they seem to be lovely people. [laughs]

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: They come up with him and they’re really happy that he tried to save the other champions’ person. Why isn’t there more of a cross-cultural exchange? Obviously goblins are also very resentful of the witches and wizards as well.

Some Other Magical Beings from the Potterverse. Image courtesy Babbel

Aisha: Yeah. No, exactly, yeah. That maybe also shows that how again the idea of diversity was so superficial even in a fantasy you know.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: Oftentimes, for example, I would honestly be wary if I see an Arab character in a movie or in a book. ’Cause usually it comes from – instead of it coming from the point of view of the character, instead of it coming from within, it comes from how Westerns or how others see Arabs, for example

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aisha: Sometimes they exotify like ooh those exotic costumes and those exotic food and this exotic music. Or sometimes it’s just even the opposite, which is worse as well.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: So I guess that’s how maybe the different characters and different species in Harry Potter are also included. Or they are included only to help with the plot, not really to mingle with each other.

Parinita: Yeah! They’re just to show a little bit of the wizarding world politics but not in any way that actually changes those politics. Because Ron has grown up in the magical world, he has a lot of the biases and assumptions that Hermione and Harry, for example, don’t. Just because they are outsiders in this culture so they’ve not really learned these things, they’re not conditioned in them. So Ron has some very problematic ideas about werewolves and House-elves and things.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: But I’m sure a lot of wizarding students would have that as well either out of bigotry that you grow up with or just ignorance. Like Harry with the merpeople, he was just ignorant of their existence and their culture or whatever. So wouldn’t it be amazing if Hogwarts in some fanfiction or in some sequel or something, welcomed in non-human creatures within its walls too?

Aisha: Hmm yeah!

Parinita: So they have different magical things that they could contribute, their different magical things that the witches and wizards can learn from and then they can share. So centaurs and merpeople and giants and werewolves and goblins – maybe they can do things that don’t always require magic as well. Like Potions doesn’t really seem to require magic.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It just needs knowledge and the ingredients, almost.

Aisha: Oooh that would have been really nice.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: If they had all these characters going to school alongside the wizards and the witches.

Parinita: Right? Even Muggle Studies I feel like it should be a compulsory part of the curriculum. It shouldn’t be this optional third-year fourth-year thing. Because they live with Muggles and in a Muggle society. They need to understand Muggles. And they also need to have teachers who actually know about Muggles and not just in this academic way. But actually have lived and know these things so that there’s a more authentic picture of Muggles rather than just, “Oh telephones! Weird! Why do you use telephones and not owls?”

Aisha: Even that! I mean I don’t remember very well, I could be mistaken you can correct me if I am. But in the third book when Hermione takes up Muggle Studies, doesn’t Ron really question her purpose?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: And she said – I don’t know, I could be mistaken, but she said something along the lines of she wants to see how the wizards and the witches and the wizarding world looks at Muggles from their point of view.

Parinita: Oh that’s exactly right, yeah. Because she’s this enthu cutlet who [laughs] wants to do all the things. So obviously she would be the kind of person who does Muggle Studies even though she is from a Muggle background. But I think her point is very interesting that it would be interesting to know what wizards and witches think of Muggles.

Aisha: Yeah. But then again it also shows you that it’s sort of not like own voice sort of study.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: Like it’s coming from the wizards or the witches’ point of view. Of how they see Muggles.

Parinita: Yeah it would be like a white person in the UK who has who only knows India through its maybe literature and through the films or something but hasn’t actually lived there teaching other British people about India.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Or similar things with Dubai. Which has happened historically! All these weird stories in the West about the East where we have like four hands and [laughs] lots of eyes – more eyes than possible for humans and these exotic birds and animals and things. So obviously that was historically there but the magical society seems to be there still. Even though it’s 1990s – 2000s, yeah. And even the food, language and things, right? Food, language and fashion are all important aspects – the clothes you wear, the things you eat, the language that you speak, you share your ideas in, they’re all important aspects of different cultures. But in the magical world, these aspects are quite limited. They all only seem to speak English, there’s again that dominance of English. I think Dumbledore and Barty Crouch Sr. are the only people who are known to speak hundreds of different languages. In Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore goes and speaks to the Merpeople in Mermish.

Aisha: Oh! Okay.

Parinita: I usually have a very terrible memory but I just finished reading this book a few days ago which is why I remember. And even Barty Crouch Sr. he’s known to speak to goblins and he speaks different languages. Whereas everyone else in the wizarding world only seems to know English.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: In Hogwarts, there are no language studies classes that we come across.

Aisha: Yeah, that’s very interesting. And again this is where the fanfiction we talked about comes into play. What if they had different classes teaching spells in different languages?

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: Different spells of different cultures or …

Parinita: Yeah or have an exchange programme. For a semester, have an Arabic witch who comes in or an Arabic wizard who comes in and teaches their culture or an Indian witch or wizard who teaches. So not just magic but also the stories and all the cultural things that come with being a part of another country. The food and the clothes and things as well. How cool would Hogwarts be then? We thought Hogwarts was very cool when we were growing up because it was this magical world but now in 2020 we want Hogwarts to be much better.

Aisha: Yeah, no, exactly. I remember reading the first book … or was it the movie, I’m not sure. Remember when they’re in the train and Harry asks Ron what he’s eating or something like that. And he says corned beef.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: I remember wondering what is corned beef?

Parinita: [laughs] I know! Oh my god the different food in the British magical world. And it’s all very British. Like I said, because I grew up reading Enid Blyton – who has written hundreds of books and who’s very English – so I knew some of these foods. But they all also seemed very foreign and exotic to me. Like corned beef? Hmm doesn’t sound super appetising, but okay, you do you. I would rather have like beef curry or something. Because I’m Indian, we need spices in everything. [laughs] But yeah that reminds me of another thing. So again, sorry, Goblet of Fire [laughs] I’m giving you so much attention but when the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students come in and they have a feast and Ron makes fun of this weird looking French food which I don’t know how to pronounce, it’s some sort of fish soup. And he’s like ugh what’s this? And Hermione tells him that, oh no, I had this in France, it’s quite nice. And Ron is like, okay I I don’t want any. You can have this. And then that just got me thinking about the other food in Hogwarts as well. In Imagine a Muslim Witch, they mentioned that a little as well. If you’re a vegetarian in Hogwarts or you’re vegan, or you’re Muslim who can only eat some food or you’re Hindu who can only eat meat on some days and some kinds of food, depending on your cultural background, how do you survive in Hogwarts?

Aisha: Yeah that’s a very important question. Exactly!

Parinita: It’s not just the food but it’s also in Potions and Charms and Transfiguration classes as well. If you’re ethically against using animals or using some sort of animals based on your religious tradition, you wouldn’t want to use them in any part of your life, right?

Aisha: Right, exactly! Yeah that’s a very interesting discussion.

Parinita: I would love to read fanfiction about this. [laughs] I mean I know we read Imagine a Muslim Witch but I want to read a proper story about it.

Aisha: Yeah, exactly. I know. I mean like you said, back in the day, Harry Potter was very diverse. It was such a diverse book because you had so many different characters from different cultures or from different nationalities. But now when we talk about it and we really dissect it, it’s more like a melting pot you know. Oh you came from here, you need to melt with the rest of the people.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Or you need to ???

Parinita: And you need to leave all your everything behind.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Like Parvati and Padma Patil may as well have been white. Apart from their names, they don’t do anything. They don’t celebrate any festivals. We were talking about this on a previous episode with someone but they don’t eat any food that has spices in it. I live in the UK and my boyfriend is white. He doesn’t like a lot of spicy food and I need spicy food with everything. So we have to always try and come in the middle. So I can’t imagine Parvati and Padma Patil eating corned beef all the time.

Aisha: [laughs] Or even those people coming from different cities in the UK, right? Like the students. Wouldn’t they bring something from home

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely.

Aisha: ??? maybe or a chutney of some kind.

Parinita: Yeah because they do have different foods. Now that I know more about the UK food, they have different regional food. And, of course, Scotland has its own different food. Similar to England but different and we don’t really see that. Until I moved to the UK, I wouldn’t have known these Scottish reference. That Hogwarts is in Scotland first of all, I only discovered this [laughs] when I came here. And knowing all the Scottish politics and stuff within the UK or even the cultural influences, you don’t really get in the books at all. Apart from one bit, I made a note of this, where in the Yule Ball, because they’re all dressed up in these fancy outfits, Minerva McGonagall wears tartan. I don’t know if you know what tartan is.

Aisha: Oh yeah, the Scottish plaid, right?

Parinita: Yeah. So she wears tartan dress robes yeah and she has a thistle on her hat. So a thistle is the Scottish national flower which is like this really aggressive looking flower because it has a lot of nettles. So it’s basically a stabby flower. [laughs] Which is very Scottish. But they don’t mention that obviously in the books. They just mention the tartan and the thistles. And I’m like, “Oh! I see! Now I know that McGonagall is Scottish.” So yeah it’s just things that I guess if you’re not a part of that culture, you won’t pick up on these things.

Aisha: No.

Parinita: Until it is directly mentioned.

Image courtesy Wikipedia: fir0002flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com Canon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 – Own work, GFDL 1.2

Aisha: A couple of years back I went to the play [Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] which was in London. And there were different accents; people speaking different dialects or different British accents. For someone who is not from that culture, you wouldn’t really know this person is from which part of the UK.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Or this person is ??? Because we’re not part of that. But now that you mentioned how Minerva McGonagall was wearing the tartan, oh you know what, she was actually speaking in a Scottish accent in the play.

Parinita: Yeah! That’s such a good point. Because these accents, these regional accents, they also have class implications. So working class people versus posh people or middle class people have different kinds of ways of talking. It’s all English but it’s different kinds of English. And historically I think most of British media used to have a very specific kind of English. So people who didn’t live in the UK, like you and I, we didn’t grow up in the UK, we have this very specific idea of a British accent.

Aisha: Hmm.

Parinita: And I wasn’t really very familiar with the fact that there are so many different kinds of British accents and there’s like a political element in that as well because the northern English accents and things are sometimes looked down upon by different parts of the country. Because of historic, economic, social all these different contexts. And Scottish accents as well, they’ll be made fun of or Irish accents will be looked at differently. And all these things you don’t know until you know, I guess. Until you’re here.

Aisha: You can correct me as well because my memory is a little bit foggy. I haven’t re-read the book in a very long time. But I think Hagrid also had an accent in the book. So some letters were purposefully taken off, right?

Parinita: Yeah. Hagrid and also Stan Shunpike who was the Knight Bus driver. He had a different accent as well.

Aisha: See, as a non-native speaker of English, I had trouble reading Hagrid’s parts.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Even, yes exactly, the bus driver in the third book as well. I didn’t understand that they were doing that on purpose or they had some sort of maybe speech impairment or some sort of thing. Until later on I understood that ah okay different people in the UK just have different accents according to the regions they’re from.

Parinita: That’s also a way of othering, right?

Aisha: Exactly!

Parinita: If you only have Hagrid and Stan Shunpike, both of whom are on the margins of the magical society, and you’re only othering – because I’m sure that there are different students. Like Seamus he’s Irish so he would also have a different accent. But we don’t know that by reading the books except sometimes he says “me” instead of “my”. [laughs] That’s all the difference that you get.

Aisha: Yeah. Now I’m thinking about it and I’m like maybe that was purposefully done. Just to show supposedly that oh because Hagrid did not complete his education at Hogwarts or because of such and such you know.

Parinita: Oh yeah, you’re right! I didn’t think about the education aspect at all. But yeah, you’re so right.

Aisha: So I’m thinking okay did they mention the accent only when characters were seen like you said like it was an othering of the characters. Who are seen as outsiders because Hagrid literally also lives outside the school.

Parinita: Yeah! And he’s a half-giant so he’s outside the like “normal” wizarding society or magical society. And Stan Shunpike as well, he’s not … I don’t know his educational anything.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Did he go to school? Or what?

Aisha: Yeah, exactly.

Parinita: Just going to the fashion part or the clothing parts of the magical world and inspired by the magical world, you said that Muslim fans have a much easier time cosplaying as Harry Potter characters. It’s an idea which I loved so much.

Aisha: Yeah. I think because of the loose-fitted clothes that they wear. A lot of characters wear robes which is something very similar to what female Muslims or Arabs wear like loose-fitted cloaks or robes so it’s very easy to replicate that.

Parinita: And black as well, right? They’re all black.

Aisha: They’re all black so whenever I got to Comic Con here in Dubai, in every Comic Con, I would definitely see someone wearing a Harry Potter costume with the black robe, the neck tie and the colour of the House.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: And headscarf as well. And it doesn’t seem out of character to be honest. It seems like ah this is very similar to the culture, to what we really wear. So when we were young and reading Harry Potter – I’m talking about myself in particular – I could easily imagine myself in Hogwarts.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: Because my clothing wasn’t so different from what they used to wear in the school.

Parinita: Yeah! That’s true. So you identified yourself through the clothes as well.

Aisha: Exactly. And there was also the first movie or in the first book there was Professor Squirrel uh was it? Quirrell?

Parinita: Quirrell, yeah.

Aisha: Yeah. He would wear a turban.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: And that’s something also culturally relevant.

Parinita: Yeah to me as well. Because that’s something that we grew up with. Of course, he was evil – spoiler alert for The Philosopher’s Stone!

Aisha: Yeah exactly. [laughs]

Parinita: But he had Voldemort hiding in his turban. But yeah, I was like, oooh a turban. Like you were saying when we were talking about this during our meeting, oh maybe he was brown.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It wasn’t weird because he could pass for this Sikh person in Hogwarts. Which would have been really cool. Although I don’t know any Sikh people called Quentin Quirrell. [laughs] Which seems like a very English name. But that would be amazing.

Aisha: Even in the first movie, I don’t know if you remember because it’s merely seconds – milliseconds. But when there was like a snapshot of Ron’s summer vacation in Egypt. Do you remember that part?

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Aisha: So Ron and his family were wearing Arab clothes. Like they were –

Parinita: Yeah! They were wearing robes, right? I do remember.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because it was a photograph, right?

Aisha: Yeah it was a photograph.

Parinita: Yeah in The Daily Prophet.

Aisha: It was like merely a second but I remember being really excited in the movie theatre. Finally there’s a character who’s wearing something similar.

Parinita: Well I’m glad that you had a positive experience of finding your clothes in the movies. Because let me tell you the tragedy that was Parvati and Padma’s Yule Ball outfits in the Goblet of Fire movie. It disappointed millions of Indian fans all over the world because we were like we have such beautiful clothes. For us at weddings or festivals and things, wearing these clothes is very much a part of our lives. We don’t need a Yule Ball to dress up. We find any excuse to dress up in these fancy clothes, saris and lehengas and things.

Aisha: Hmm.

Parinita: So we always have these things in the house. We don’t need to buy new things for weddings and things. We wear these things. And even the cheapest whatever, like a budget-conscious outfit for a wedding or for a festival would be so much prettier than the nonsense that they wore in the Yule Ball. I’m still bitter.

Aisha: Yeah. By comparison it was just so plain!

Parinita: Yeah. There was no embroidery, there were no beads – there was nothing! It was pink and orange. It was atrocious.

Aisha: Here in Dubai, we have a district called ??? Dubai and it’s almost like a big district that has all Indian clothing stores.

Parinita: Yeah?

Aisha: And my goodness the fabrics are just dazzling.

Parinita: Yeah! Even just plain cotton fabrics with block print would have been so much prettier than whatever rubbish that they wore which someone has called bargain rack lehengas on Twitter because it’s not just me. A lot of us are still bitter, to this day. There are fans who have made these Tumblr gifsets of much better looking outfits than what Padma and Parvati wore.

Fan interpretations of Parvati and Padma’s Yule Ball outfits. Image courtesy @anumationart

Aisha: I mean I get you. It’s a very sort of Western sari. It was so plain, it was so … I remember it being one solid colour. One was pink, the other was red. Was that right? Something like that?

Parinita: Yeah. I’m going to be watching the movies again after I’m done reading the books, and I’m going to sit with anger in my heart [laughs] just waiting for it like Ah! This is all you could do. And everyone else was wearing such nice clothes. And it’s almost like what you were saying earlier about superficial diversity. Having them dress differently just to show that oh look at Hogwarts, how diverse we are. But without making any actual effort or research into it.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: If it had been a desi or a South Asian or a brown costume designer, I’m sure they wouldn’t have chosen that. They would have chosen a much better outfit because they would know the context, right? They would know the kind of clothes that we would wear. No Indian parent would allow their child to go to this fancy ball in such plain clothes.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: When I was a kid, I had to fight with my mum because I didn’t like wearing all the very heavy clothes just because it used to be such a pain. It used to irritate the skin and I couldn’t go running about with it. So I used to fight with my mom and she’d be like, no, no don’t wear such plain clothes. You need to wear something nicer and fancier.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So I don’t know how Parvati and Padma Patil’s mother let them go to the Yule Ball like that.

Aisha: Yeah same. We have similar things as well. I don’t know if it’s the same in India – but if there’s a wedding, even the children need to be to wear a little bit of gold.

Parinita: Yeah. Oh gold is a big part of it.

Aisha: Even though we don’t want to because either it hurts or it’s uncomfortable and there’s this constant fight. Where, “No! I don’t want to wear it!”

Parinita: Yeah. And I don’t even like gold! It’s too bright and shiny for me. So just aesthetically, it’s against my [laughs] aesthetic principles. But sometimes especially when you’re younger, you just have to listen to your parents. [laughs] To get on with your life. Whereas now as an adult you can fight back a little bit against these expectations. Just before we wrap up the episode I did want to give you a chance – plus I wanted to do this as well – to talk about some of your favourite fantasy worlds. Either books or just TV shows or movies or anything, which don’t have a primarily Western focus.  Have you come across that since Harry Potter or even while you were reading Harry Potter?

Aisha: Ah other than Harry Potter … no, to be honest. When I started reading, I started reading books called – a series called Zack Finns (?). I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but they were made into a Disney series as well.

Parinita: Oh right.

Aisha: It was sort of paranormal things that happens to a little boy who is in sixth or fifth grade. So I started reading that and it was set in the United States, I remember. And I read The Sleepover Club. Not The Baby-Sitters Club. The Sleepover

Parinita: Oh yeah! I had the Sleepover Club.

Aisha: Oh you did?!

Parinita: I was much more of a Babysitters Club fan myself but I did find random Sleepover Club book as well, yeah.

Aisha: Yes. And it was British, mainly. It was set in Britain and the characters were mostly Western. And then I think from there on I started to get into Harry Potter. Which, in comparison, it was far more diverse than those other books.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: And then I was also into a lot of mystery. I read a lot of Christopher Pike books which was predominantly set in the United States. So no, unfortunately most of the books that I read and the things that I was a fan of were mainly set in the Western world. That’s why I was so excited. When I was a kid in the 90s and the early 2000s, Harry Potter was the most diverse book that I had come across.

Parinita: That’s true, I didn’t think about that. That there was more diversity, especially in comparison to the other things. Like I was saying Enid Blyton and I used to read the Famous Five and things that she wrote – they’re this mystery series. And very white. Very Western. No diversity. And she’s in trouble for this now but in her books, all the foreigners are either criminals or smugglers or kidnappers [laughs] and they’re all suspicious and you shouldn’t really trust them.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So yeah not the greatest of examples. What about now? Have you come across any more or are you a fan of or have you enjoyed any more diversity as an adult?

Aisha: I have come across a lot of novels especially Young Adult novels. I read a lot of Young Adult novels. Nowadays yes, there is a lot of diversity. I have read a lot of books.

Parinita: Do you have any favourites that you’d like to recommend?

Aisha: No. To be very honest I usually finish reading not liking them either because in most cases like you said those cultures and characters are inserted just for the sake of diversity. Usually they have a very marginal role. Sometimes I feel it’s just to cross that box.

Parinita: Yeah because oh look now we have now this brown character or this religious character so let’s tick off this diversity box.

Aisha: Absolutely. We have a female character, we have like you said a brown character, we have an Arab character from this culture from that culture – sometimes I feel it’s just to check those boxes, not really to talk about the culture. Or sometimes when they are included, they’re too assimilated into the –  mostly it’s American – into the American culture.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: That you don’t really see glimpses of their culture. But recently, probably a year ago, I read this book … gosh I can’t remember the name. Basically it’s about this Pakistani female who lives in the UK and who works in the UK who’s actually writing a story about the marriage of Pakistani families in the UK and so on.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aisha: So this is one I really, really liked. It’s called Sofia something. Because her name is Sofia.

Parinita: Oh I’ll look it up. Or if you remember it, just send it to me and I’ll –

Aisha: Yes I’ll send it to you. I have that on my Goodreads.

Parinita: Oh. Yeah this is how I keep track of the books that I read as well because my memory is non-existent. So I have to have Goodreads to refer to what books I love and read. But I did make a note of a couple of books that I wanted to recommend to … well you, as well as people who are listening. And these are just fantasy books that I read recently that I really liked. So one of them is called Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. She’s a Malaysian British writer and she was featured in the Cultural Traditions of Magic episode as well of Breaking The Glass Slipper. It is very British. It’s a fantasy and it has a British magical system. But it so organically incorporates both British and Asian magical cultures and creatures. And I think a large part of that is because she is Malaysian. So for her she grew up with these things, so what she’s writing about is not exotic. She normalises both. It’s not just like a diversity thing. There were some references to India as well and Indonesia and things. So apart from exploring race, different races and national identities because it’s set in the 18th or 19th century or something so obviously the British are very suspicious about anybody who’s black or brown or doesn’t look like them. Like oh how can they have magic and things. But yeah it’s just a really fun book. It’s funny. She talks about these different things but it’s not an issue-based book, if that makes sense. It’s just incorporated very naturally into the story.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is really fun. And a book that I’m reading currently based on the article that we read about Muslim women writers of science fiction and fantasy or stories set in Muslim worlds and how that’s becoming a big thing.

Aisha: Yeah!

Parinita: And this one is so fun. It’s called The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. It started off in Cairo and then moves to another part of Africa – a made-up part of Africa. But it has references to India as well. They have different names in this according to the map. But so many familiar elements. Things like djinn and carpets and the swords like talvar and the daggers and they’re all things I’m used to. Because in India, we had Mughal rulers a few hundred years ago, so we’ve grown up with these references as well. And the food and even the setting the kind of atmosphere that you’re describing, the kind of people, clothes everything. And religion is very much a part of the novel but without it being a big deal. You’ll just have people going to the mosque to pray. Or the main character Nahri, she’s wearing an abaya. And that’s just not a big deal. That’s just her culture. So you’re not exoticising it at all. You’re normalising it, which I love.

Aisha: Actually now that you’re talking about it, I remember a book that I had read maybe last year or the year before. It’s called We Hunt The Flame and it’s by an Arab writer.  I don’t know if she’s Arab to be honest, but I know she’s Muslim writer. Her name is Hafsah Faizal. And her setting is supposedly in Arabia without really specifying the region. Again, it’s a fantasy. So a lot of elements are also taken from Arab folktales and so on. But it’s not religious. It’s not a Muslim story. It’s just an Arab story.

Parinita: Yeah. Same.

Aisha: So there’s that, yeah. What else have I read? I’ve read some Asian inspired fantasy.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aisha: Mostly Japanese I would say.

Parinita: Oh that’s really cool.

Aisha: Yeah. But again, I don’t know much about their culture as an outsider so I don’t know how well they have incorporated cultural aspects into the stories. But yeah I’ve read some of those fantasies.

Parinita: But isn’t it cool to read about these things that are not primarily Eurocentric?

Aisha: Oh absolutely!

Parinita: Things like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all of these things that we’ve grown up with like Narnia and things which assumes European, Western everything as the norm. And at least for me, I didn’t even know what ideas that I had learned and I’d grown accustomed to until I read these books and a few other books as well which just disrupt those notions. But they don’t disrupt them in a way that’s making a big deal out of it. They’re just normalising another part. The City of Brass that I was talking about, just everything – the environment that they’re talking about, I was like oh right of course there would be magic here and fantasy systems set here. It’s just something that I have not read which is why it’s different for me. But why did I take for granted that there’s only one kind of magic system? Obviously there are different kinds including India. I’ve not read a lot of Indian fantasy, I’ve read some. A lot of Indian fantasy also draws on mythology which is both religion and just cultural for us in India. But there are a lot of fantastic Indian fantasy authors as well. So just these conversations, they make me so much more excited to explore diverse authors. Ever since I’ve started this podcast, that’s what I’ve been doing – exploring diverse authors.

Aisha: I get where you’re coming from. I think that that cultural background is a bonus. I guess I stopped reading fantasy for a while. I went back to reading – I read about 18th century set books.

Parinita: Oooh so historical fiction?

Aisha: Yeah. I love the Jane Austen period of time. So I read a lot of those stories.

Parinita: Oh you’re going to love A Sorcerer to the Crown.

Aisha: Oh really?

Parinita: It’s like a mix of that and fantasy.

Aisha: Okay. Sounds good. So last year I made a deliberate choice to read a little bit more fantasy because I don’t remember reading a lot of fantasy after The Hunger Games. I was like you know what, I need to include some fantasy in my reading list.

Parinita: [laughs] I’m glad.

Aisha: So I made a deliberate choice to do that last year. And most of the ones that I have read were not like you said, they were not Eurocentric you know. One was as I said, inspired by Chinese history. I read two that were inspired by Japanese ones. Although the author was not Japanese in the second book. I read another fantasy that was also Arab-inspired. But it was more inspired from stories of One Thousand and One Nights with Scheherazade.

Parinita: Oh I love retellings. Oh those are great. So if you go through your Goodreads and you do discover these names, I will for sure put the recommendations here. I’ll just read them out at the end of the episode because I’m sure a lot of people would love to discover new kinds of books.

Aisha: No that’s true, I’ll do that. I’ll have to go through my Goodreads

Parinita: Yeah. I feel your problem as a fellow Goodreads addict. [laughs] And since you like comics,  one comic that I do want to recommend is Ms. Marvel. I don’t know if you’ve come across it, it’s a superhero comic and it’s great. I was not into comics until relatively recently because I didn’t know where to start. I used to watch the Marvel movies and things but was not really interested in picking up the comics until I read Ms. Marvel in a public library a couple of years ago and my mind was just so completely blown. She’s a Muslim superhero but she lives in the US. She’s Pakistani-American but because Pakistan and India have so many shared cultural elements and history, of course, that I felt like I could see myself there. She was also a fanfiction nerd so she would go and write Marvel fanfiction when she’s out of school and things. And even though I’m not Pakistani and I’m not Muslim, for me it was that sense of seeing myself in a so much more complete way than in Parvati or Padma Patil for example. Because she was somebody I could so recognise. So yeah Ms. Marvel, for sure, you should pick up.

Aisha: Yeah. I’ve come across it actually and I think I browsed through it as well in the bookstore but I haven’t really read it so definitely putting it on my list.

Parinita: Yes! [laughs]

Aisha: Again just wanted to close with how much of a big role books can really take in one’s childhood and one’s adolescence. At the time, as we said, you grow up with Harry – when he was eleven, you were eleven. It was similar to me as well. By the time I was reading the fifth book, I was also fifteen. I think I was Harry’s age in fifth year. So yeah I couldn’t relate to the characters culturally but I could relate to some of the things that they went through. Like school stuff, some of the stuff that they went through with their teachers, how sometimes you felt even though you were surrounded by your friends, you felt a little bit different, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Different hobbies and different abilities that you have. Sometimes you are marginalised and so on. So I think at the time like you said in comparison to other things that were available, back then it was a very rich book; it was a very diverse [laughs] not by today’s standards for sure but for back then.

Parinita: No, absolutely.

Aisha: Yeah. I think it was. And I think that’s why even today whenever I hear the word Harry Potter and so on, I get so excited. Because it’s very nostalgic. It reminds me of all those good memories I had reading the books

Parinita: And you’re connecting to people that you wouldn’t otherwise have connected with. Like you and I, we come from Mumbai and Dubai, different cities, different cultures, different everything. But sharing the love of Harry Potter and through that finding other things that we share in common, I love that.

Aisha: Yeah. Exactly. No absolutely. And like you said, imagine those people who read those books and don’t see themselves in the stories. I think it’s very important that you can relate and you feel like I have a place in this fandom, I have a place in this story or in this media. So it’s important to include those cultural backgrounds and stories and have a central role you know. It’s not just to tick boxes. Just because oh here is ???

Parinita: Not just a referee in Goblet of Fire. [laughs] Not just a referee in the World Cup.

Aisha: Yeah. Referee, exactly.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: Have real characters. There’s no shame in characters bringing in their cultural parts. I don’t see why they have to assimilate to the dominant culture or with the dominant characters. Like they can just ??? So yeah I think it’s just that. Seeing themselves in those stories – told in those stories and books, it’s very exciting.

Parinita: Yeah. I absolutely agree. Thank you so much Aisha for chatting with me on the podcast today and just expanding my imagination

Aisha: I had a blast

Parinita: Beyond Indian and Western cultures and ideas. It’s just been so fun!

Aisha: It was so much fun for me as well. It was like a trip down memory lane trying to remember all those memories.

Parinita: Absolutely. [laughs]

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode about cultural norms and cultural diversity in fantasy media. Thank you so much Aisha for your time and for such a fun conversation! I’m so glad our chat allowed us to reimagine a more radically inclusive Potterverse. For anybody interested in expanding your to-read list, here are the book recommendations Aisha couldn’t remember but promised to look up: Sophia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal, and Descendant of the Crane by Joan He.

[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

 

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

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript: 

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

Photograph of Anna Milon

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Anna: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yes.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah that’s a very good point.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Exactly.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Anna: It’s a lot of weird creatures.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Oh dear.

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

Parinita: Wow.

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

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

Anna: No, I got off lightly.

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

Anna: Yeah, luckily they didn’t.

Parinita: Yeah. Because –

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

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

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

Parinita: Uh huh yeah. [laughs]

Anna: Got the numbers right.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Um so yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna: Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

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

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

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

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