A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Episode 8 Whose Stories Are Being Told: Centering Racial Diversity in Mainstream Hollywood Movies

Episode Resources:

1) Movie – Green Book 

2) Movie – Crazy Rich Asians 

3) Movie – Last Christmas 

4)  Essay – Racism through the BAME protagonists in Ichiro and The Hate U Give by Hibiki Hashizume

5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who Crazy Rich Asians 

6) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds  Geek Misogyny, No Totally, and Con Coverage (listen from 1 hour 06ish minutes to 1 hour 34ish minutes)

7) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds Asians in Media 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Ghost In The Shell

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Growing Up Avatar American 

10) Essay – In Immigrating from Japan, I Lost Language, Home, and Pokémon 

Episode Transcript:

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

Photo of Hibiki

[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 eighth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Hibiki Hashizume about the different representations of race in three mainstream Hollywood movies. As students from India and Japan in the United Kingdom, we discuss the cultural similarities and differences that we’ve noticed. We also talk about suddenly becoming a minority in a new country and how that impacts our ideas about racial diversity.

Mainstream media can perpetuate internalised racism. Three recent movies – Green Book, Crazy Rich Asians, and Last Christmas – showcase the slow but steady strides Hollywood is taking by featuring different kinds of diversity and inclusion. Diverse representations in mainstream films is especially important since they attract and influence such huge audiences. A lack of diverse stories promotes the perception of monolithic experiences of marginalised groups which in turn creates stereotypes about these cultures. Just because you look the same doesn’t mean you share the same experiences.

Stories written by cultural insiders can challenge these narrow perceptions. They overturn stereotypes, offer more authentic representations, explore nuances and complexities within the culture, and refuse to exoticise their own culture by normalising different contexts, foods, and languages. Diverse creators rewrite the script of whose stories are centered. Normalising the food, languages, and lives of non-dominant cultures can go a long way in fixing the imbalance and addressing the feelings of inferiority.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Hibiki Hashizume on the podcast. Hibiki is a third-year undergraduate student studying English and English literature in Kyushu University in Japan. He did a study abroad year at the University of Leeds which is where I’m also a PhD researcher. He was there last year where he started to develop an interest in the interpretation of media. And his favourite British drama series so far is Black Mirror, a show that I also love even though it gives me a lot of nightmares about the future of technology. I met Hibiki at a children’s literature module that one of my PhD supervisors was running at the University of Leeds last year where I was also helping out. And throughout the semester, I loved talking to Hibiki about children’s books and also his opinions on race and representation in children’s literature. So I thought he’d be the perfect guest for the podcast and I’m so glad he agreed to participate. So for this episode, we’re going to be talking about representation in media, specifically looking at three movies – that’s Green Book, Crazy Rich Asians, and Last Christmas. Hibiki also wrote an essay for the course which explored racism in the young adult novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and the graphic novel Ichiro by Ryan Inzana. I got to read the essay and I really enjoyed it; so I suggested including it in our conversation today because it covers a lot of the themes that we’re both really interested in. So to begin with Hibiki, do you want to tell us how you got interested in the topic of race and representation?

Hibiki: Yes. Thank you Pari. So the reason why I got interested in race and ethnicity issues was because I actually faced racism in the UK. So the experience in the UK as an exchange student, it definitely made me interested in that subject.

Parinita: I know you’ve told me this before but even hearing you say this again just makes me feel so both angry and sad at the same time.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: I’ve been in the UK a little longer than you have because I came here to do my master’s as well. And I’ve been lucky that I’ve not really faced any racism in the way that you have. And I think that it’s gotten a little worse now in the UK, especially for East Asian people, because of the whole Coronavirus pandemic. It’s something that we’ve spoken about on previous podcast episodes. They’re the target of a lot of racism within certain corners of the UK. And of course brown people, South Asian people, have a whole other history of racism in the UK. But I’ve been lucky. And like you, I also come from a country where I’ve been the dominant race. In India and Japan, we’re both very much a part of the dominant culture. I had this fixed idea of racism when I lived in India. And it was something that happened in other countries like in the US and the UK. I didn’t think of racism within an Indian context really because everybody is the same race.

Hibiki: Yes.

Parinita: But obviously in India, too, we have issues where light-skinned Indians are preferred over dark-skinned Indians. I don’t know if that’s an issue in Japan at all, but India definitely has that. And our media also pushes this image because light and fair skin is considered to be more beautiful.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So you know there are these fairness creams and things that have a huge market in India as well as in some countries in Africa. And we have different ethnic groups in India because it’s such a diverse country. And depending on which part of the country you’re in, there are definitely differences in terms of race and the colour of your skin, and the religion, and the language that you speak, the looks. So in your essay – when you were looking at Ichiro especially, which has a Japanese kid going from the US back to Japan and how he has trouble fitting in – I could really relate to that scene. It’s very similar to what happens in India. During the module, we spoke a little bit about the We Need Diverse Books campaign which started in the US; I think it started online. It spoke about how children’s books, especially in the West, have very white characters; most of the characters in the books are white and straight and a very specific idea of a person. And that made me start thinking about it in India as well. Even in India, there’s only a very certain group of people who are always there in the media. When I moved to the master’s, my class was really diverse. It was much more diverse than I think the children’s literature module that we were in – although even that was pretty diverse. But I think everybody was from the UK?

Hibiki: Yeah, I think so.

Parinita: Whereas my master’s class was very diverse. It had people from the UK as well as different parts of the world. But my friends there in Scotland – and Scotland is not as diverse as Leeds; Glasgow isn’t as diverse as Leeds.

Hibiki: Um hmm.

Parinita: And England is much more diverse anyway. But I was very much the minority in most places. That was the first time I’d had that experience that I was the only brown person in the room. My friends were very welcoming and inclusive, but I didn’t have the same cultural context that I could share with them. I can’t speak in Hindi or Marathi – any of the Indian languages that I know. I can’t talk to them about Bollywood movies – the movies that I watch back home in India. Or the food and things. So that was different. That’s when I think I really realised that I’m a person who is of a different race.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So before we start discussing the movies that we watched, Hibiki, you wanted to talk about another module that you took at the University of Leeds which looked at film studies and which influenced some of your ideas of media interpretation.

Hibiki: So I took film studies in semester two in Leeds. We watched some movies – French, Italian, Japanese – very different movies from different countries. Specifically, one week we watched Terminator, Terminator 2.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: Then from the reading, I learned that the idea that white men cannot be regarded as victim –

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: It caused some filmmakers to make films which focused on white male protagonists. So the point is, I didn’t know there was this kind of idea behind the movie. ’Cause you know Terminator is very famous and popular all over the world.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I thought this was quite interesting to know that fact.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Hibiki: But also I thought it was quite dangerous because a huge amount of people would see this movie and would have seen this movie. But as a fact this movie has this kind of implicit meaning behind it.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And for me that’s why I think media representations are so important. And it’s something that I keep talking about on this podcast.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So if people are listening to it regularly, they’ll be tired of hearing me say that. But it does, like you said right, the way that media represents something can be dangerous. It can also be powerful in a positive way, but it can also be dangerous.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: Like the way that you talk about a certain group of people.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: So currently in the US, for example, the government and the President are talking about the Coronavirus and a lot of them are still calling it the China virus.

Hibiki: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: You know. And that’s –

Hibiki: I was quite surprised when President Trump said that the Chinese virus on Twitter or something.

Parinita: Exactly! And I think some of the people in his cabinet advised him not to.

Hibiki: [laughs]

Parinita: But he still insisted on calling it that. And it has a very real impact on not only the Chinese people living in the US but also anybody who’s East Asian.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Like you said about the racist attack – the verbal racist attack that you’d had in Leeds. And that was because someone mistook you for a Chinese person, right?

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: The thing that they said – the really terribly racist thing that they said – was towards a Chinese person. What you say in media, not just news media but even entertainment media, is so important. Because it’s influencing so many people’s perceptions about people they wouldn’t meet in real life. Or maybe even people that they do meet in real life. And India has this huge problem as well. Because currently it’s very anti-Muslim. The whole thing about the virus and the pandemic – Muslims are being targeted in India, which is also really dangerous. But coming back to the movies that we watched, these movies were your suggestions. I hadn’t watched any of them because I’m not really super caught up with movie news anyway. I read books and I watch TV shows. And movies I watch sometimes. But I had heard about Crazy Rich Asians a lot because it was such a mainstream hit, I think. Everyone was talking about it. And I watched all three movies yesterday on the same day. Which for someone like me, who really struggles with binge-watching anything, was a lot. [laughs] But I loved the movies so much. They were so fun to watch. And I really loved them for different reasons as well. I loved that there were such different kinds of diversity and inclusion in the three movies. With the Green Book, uh Green Book, it was tackling prejudice much more directly.

Hibiki: Yes.

Movie poster of Green Book

Image courtesy IMDB

Parinita: Because racism was the crux of the movie and it was drawing attention to that. Whereas in Crazy Rich Asians, it was an all-diverse cast. I don’t think there were white people at all in the movie. It was all Asian. Different Asian backgrounds, but all Asian. And then in Last Christmas, which was a different kind of diversity, where there was a lot of different diverse groups that were represented.

Hibiki: Yes.

Movie poster of Crazy Rich Asians

Image courtesy IMDB

Parinita: But it was done in a way that didn’t call attention to that diversity. It was just a regular part of the movie. It was normalising it to such an extent that you don’t need to draw attention to it. So what did you think of the movies? I’m assuming you’re a fan of them. But you said that you chose them for specific reasons as well.

Movie poster of Last Christmas

Image courtesy IMDB

Hibiki: Yeah. So the three movies were all made very recently. I think 2018 and 19.

Parinita: Right.

Hibiki: So I think these movies represent and reflect today’s society very realistically I thought.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So that’s one reason. And also these were made by … I think Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers. So this a very big company, I think.

Parinita: Yeah, really mainstream.

Hibiki: Yeah. So that means, I think, a very large amount of people would watch them.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Hibiki: So yeah, I think they have a very strong impact on people’s perspectives.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s such a good point. I hadn’t really considered that. That they are such mainstream productions. I thought about it with Crazy Rich Asians but I thought it became mainstream. Because one of the critiques is that at least in Hollywood, people don’t cast Asian actors because they think that the movies then wouldn’t sell as well.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: They wouldn’t be as marketable. But obviously Crazy Rich Asians – I think that’s why it was such a powerful movie – because it totally proved them wrong. And similar to Black Panther as well. In the Woke Doctor Who episode where they were talking about Crazy Rich Asians, there’s a Chinese-American host and there’s a black American host. And they were both talking about how the perception is that movies that don’t have a white cast member will not sell. So I think Crazy Rich Asians is a great exception to that rule. And I hope there’s more like that. But then in Last Christmas, it had some huge movie stars in it. And the Green Book as well – I keep calling it the Green Book, it’s just Green Book!

Hibiki: [laughs]

Parinita: But that one as well had a huge star cast. So I think, yeah you’re right, that that’s really important in drawing audiences to the cinema as well.

Hibiki: Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: So on the Black Girl Nerds podcast, Shaun Lau pointed out that the Asian perspective isn’t this monolith which means that all Asian experiences aren’t the same. Even in Japan, I’m sure, and certainly in India. All Indians and all Japanese people don’t have the same experience, right?

Hibiki: No, no.

Parinita: Depending on which part of the country – or even within your same house, for example. Depending on the age and things, you have different interests, you have different perspectives, different personalities. Whereas so far, I think these stereotypes that you have about Asians and Indians in the West are because the movies and TV shows and books have pushed these stereotypes.

Hibiki: Yes. So while I was in the UK, I noticed that especially East Asians – all East Asians including Chinese, Korean, Japanese – all of them were … not all times but mostly regarded as Chinese.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: You know I kind of understand that because I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between British people or American or –

Parinita: Absolutely. Or German, yeah.

Hibiki: Yeah. So I understand that but um …

Parinita: No, it’s similar with me as well. South Asians, so say India or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, we all look really similar.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: In fact, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka uh not Sri Lanka – Bangladesh were all a part of the same country a few decades ago during colonisation. It was only post-Independence – which was about seventy years ago – that we were split into first two countries and then three countries. So I completely understand. But at the same time, it’s also really dangerous. And more than dangerous, it’s a bit insulting  that you don’t –

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: You shouldn’t make assumptions if you’re not sure, just don’t make assumptions, right? Try to get to know the person first before assuming they are from wherever or just saying that, “Oh all East Asians are the same or all Indians or South Asians are the same”. We wouldn’t say all white people are the same, for example, right? That’s not something we would think about.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: So somebody else in another podcast, the Imaginary Worlds episode, said that many white people in the West don’t see the difference between Asian films and Asian-American films.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So basically Asian films would be a film in Japan set in Japan with Japanese people. Or set in India with Indian people. I think that difference and that nuance is important because in India or in Japan, we’re not the minorities, right?

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: In India, it’s full of Indians. In Japan, it’s full of Japanese. Whereas in the US, or even in the UK – Indians and Japanese people would be the minority. So the experiences here are very different to the experiences in a country where you are the majority. So the kind of film would be different. Which is why I really liked Crazy Rich Asians because it showed a little bit of both. It showed Rachel –

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Constance Wu’s character who is this Chinese-American who goes to Singapore. So she has this very American context. But she’s going to this country and this community which is very comfortable within its Chinese identity.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: But they always make fun of American culture. Her future mother-in-law or prospective mother-in-law, she always makes fun of the American-Chinese – just the American attitude in general. It was a really funny movie but I thought that was really interesting.

Hibiki: Hmm. So in Crazy Rich Asians, I think the main characters were Asian and Chinese-American. Rachel was Chinese-American and … I forgot his name.

Parinita: Nick, I think. Nick Young.

Hibiki: Yeah. He was … so is he also half-American, half-Chinese?

Parinita: I think he’s Chinese – he’s from Singapore. He’s grown up in Singapore but he moved to the US for university or something.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: I think that was a source of tension within the movie because they kept wanting him to move back home because he grew up in his grandmother’s house.

Hibiki: Aah.

Parinita: And I think at one point, his mother makes fun of him, “Don’t tell me you’ve gotten an American accent”. [laughs] Because that’s not something that can happen.

Hibiki: Yeah. So I think the point you made was very interesting. So I thought the fact that Crazy Rich Asians succeeded was quite um … I was feeling kind of sympathy

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: Because you know in the American film-making industry, the movie in which Asian people take a huge part of the movie itself is quite rare, I think.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I was very kind of feeling sympathy. Is it – is that the word?

Parinita: Yeah. Absolutely.

Hibiki: But I haven’t thought about the difference between Asian-Americans and just Asian people.

Parinita: Yeah it’s not something that I thought of either. It was something that on the Imaginary Worlds podcast, the Asian-American guest, he said. Because he was like, “White people in the West, they think all our experiences are the same. That if you look Asian, that means you have the same experience.” Which is obviously, we know, not true. In the Woke Doctor Who episode, Eugenia, one of the hosts, she said that in Crazy Rich Asians, the creators of the movie fought to cast Constance Wu – the actress who plays Rachel – as an Asian – as a Chinese-American person, because the producers wanted to cast her as a white woman.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Because they said that “oh how can it be that this Asian woman is going to Singapore and doesn’t fit in?” Obviously she would fit in because they thought, I’m sure, that oh if she looks the same then she’ll obviously have the same experiences. But that’s not true. And so they thought that the white person going to Singapore and not fitting in would be more realistic. And that totally overlooks the fact that – like even you and I. I don’t know about you but for me, after about like a year spent in Scotland, in the UK, when I went back to India, I saw the country differently. I saw myself differently. I had changed because of my experience living abroad. So somebody who’s grown up in the UK, even if their parents are from India, and they go back to India, it would be a huge culture shock. It would be so different going there, right?

Hibiki: Yeah. I also felt reverse culture shock.

Parinita: Yeah. And that’s even after both of us have been born and brought up in Japan and India respectively. But even spending a few months or a year abroad can have such a like impact on us, right?

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Yeah. But I guess I hope that there’s more room for such stories. Just because it makes it so interesting. In Crazy Rich Asians I thought Chinese culture and Indian culture have so many similarities. Because when I was watching that movie, I was like oh my god this is something that Indian mothers would do or Indian aunties would do. And the movie itself was so like a Bollywood movie without the singing and dancing. But there was music in the background. It was a fun movie to watch. And I loved Green Book as well. What did you think about it?

Hibiki: So when I finished watching the movie, I was very moved. I think I remember I was moved. But eventually I started to think that the ending – when the policeman stops them – the car which the two protagonists were in, that was the moving point.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So the police officer says, “Happy Christmas” or something like that to them if I remember.

Parinita: Yeah, because they’d had an experience with a police officer earlier that didn’t go as well. With two white police officers. The racist police officers.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: And they were scared. And this is very true because it’s something we read in The Hate U Give as well, right? How people of colour in the US, black people or in this case … yeah Dr Stanley was black as well. That they’re so scared of the police because a lot of the police are racist and do shoot young unarmed black men. So that is very much a reality.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: But the second police officer wasn’t like that, just to place that in context.

Hibiki: Yeah. So even though that was the reality, I don’t know, but it seemed like the movie made that the last police officer as a very good person and … even though I think that is – that should be normal. You know what I mean?

Parinita: Hmm. Oh I do see what you mean. You think it was more for dramatic effect – like trying to tie up the ends neatly – rather than representing actual reality.

Hibiki: I just personally think, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean I understand. So I keep having this conversation with my boyfriend. He is very much against police officers generally because of all the history of brutality that they’ve had especially for people of not-white races and working-class people and things. Whereas I’m like, no I’m sure there are some police officers who are all right. And I think I’m more … obviously I’ve not had terrible experiences with police officers which is why I come from that place of privilege, I think, that I can give them the benefit of doubt. It’s something that I thought of as well but I thought, “Oh it’s nice that they showed this good police officer”. But yeah, you’re right. Especially in a movie that talks about racism in a very direct way, maybe we didn’t need to … but I guess because it was Christmas, they tried to put in a hopeful message.

Hibiki: Yeah. Green Book is of course a very brilliant movie. Even the black person protagonist was a host and the white guy was the driver and servant. And this structure, I haven’t seen in any movies – which has the same structure as this.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I appreciate this one. But still the movie was explicitly talking about and showing the racism against black persons.

Parinita: It was set in the 1960s in the southern United States which was – even now a lot of it is pretty racist. But at that time, it was really dangerous if you were black and moving around there like we saw in the movie. When you were saying that right now, it struck me that even though they say this in the beginning of the movie, that it’s based on a true story, I had completely forgotten that bit. Until the end of the movie when they show you the updates of the real-life Tony – the white driver and Dr Don Stanley, the black musician, the pianist. So what you said about this white driver and about this rich black person, it’s something that I made a note of – how even if you’re white, but if you’re poor, you can be marginalised in certain contexts. You’re not as privileged in certain contexts. Whereas even if you’re black and you’re rich, you can also be marginalised. In the South when they were travelling, Tony the driver was considered to be more respected and more worthy and more equal just because he was white. Whereas Don, because he was black, his money didn’t matter, his music skills didn’t matter. He was a black man and that’s why he was not considered to be equal to the white people.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: That’s why I liked all three movies that we watched for such different reasons. And they were such different kinds of movies. I don’t think that we can compare them for their story, but in terms of their representations of diversity. So I’m really glad you suggested these movies. When it comes to discussions of diversity or just media in general, I really like looking at whose stories are centered in terms of race and ethnicity or national origin or whatever –  whose stories are being told and whose stories are being marginalised or ignored. And these three movies, like you said, they’re new – out in 2018-2019. So I hope they’re showing a trend that we’re moving towards. Because in the Black Girl Nerds episode, the Asians in Media one, where they were talking about how otherwise movies with Asian characters are full of stereotypes. And they’ll usually center the story of the white person and not the Asian person.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: The Asian person is just a background character or just comic relief or just the best friend of the main white person. And is never in a role that is centered around them.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: And there also used to be a very limited kind of stories. Which is why again, especially Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas, I really liked because it wasn’t like oh these Asians are martial artists or it wasn’t about the immigrant experience that oh they’ve moved to the US and now they’re facing this difficult time. It was just a regular film. It wasn’t about their Asian experience.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah.

Parinita: And I think all three of them overturned stereotypes in very different ways. In Green Book I liked that the main character Dr Don Stanley – he is wealthy – and the white guy, Tony, he has all these stereotypes about him – about black people – that he keeps trying to place on him. Like the music and the food and everything.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Gif from Green Book. Tony throws an empty drinks container onto the highway. Dr Don looks back at it and makes the car go back to pick it up

Parinita: And Dr Don is like “uhhh what no I don’t like this. I’m sorry, what?” He’s this really sophisticated character. And later we find out that he’s gay as well. And he talks about the struggles of not being able to fit in to either black society or white society. It was a really interesting overturning of stereotypes. With Crazy Rich Asians as well, where Rachel is going to China and usually you make fun of Chinese culture or Asian culture or whatever. That’s the butt of jokes. Whereas here, they were making fun of American culture and were like, “Oh American-Chinese are not real Chinese” and things like that.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Had you noticed the different kinds of diversity and representations in these movies? Or Western media in general? What struck out the most to you while watching these movies in terms of the race representations?

Hibiki: Ah so you – what do you mean by different um –

Parinita: So the way races like the Asians, for example, in the three movies, the different kinds – oh well not in the three movies, in Green Book, there were no Asians. But the different races, how they were represented in the three movies. So blackness and whiteness in Green Book, different Chinese and Asian experiences in Crazy Rich Asians. I know they were not all – I don’t know in the movie, if they were all Chinese. I know the actors come from all over – there are Malaysian actors and Australian actors as well.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah, so as you said, I think traditionally in Hollywood or the film industry, white actors and actresses have been dominant in those movies. In Last Christmas, there was an inter-racial couple.

Parinita: Yeah. There were a couple actually. There were two or three, I think.

Hibiki: Yeah. So I think I could see the intention of the filmmakers to use different types – different race of people.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: Together in the same community.

Parinita: Yeah because London is a super diverse city, right? It draws people from all different backgrounds.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s something I really liked in Last Christmas as well. Especially that these inter-racial couples were so common. It wasn’t even a matter of discussion. Maybe in another movie, that would be cause of the discomfort or the drama or whatever.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Whereas here, that didn’t matter; it’s fine, just having inter-racial couples. And also there was that one older inter-racial couple – the Chinese lady Santa who owns the Christmas shop.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think he was German? I’m not sure. The older man. But they were making jokes of each other’s cultures but not in a way that was offensive. It was more like you’re making fun of yourself, kind of. I think there was also a queer relationship – Kate’s sister Marta and her girlfriend – she was black – and she [Marta] was also like a kid of an immigrant. So yeah, I thought that was a really good inclusion of representation.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: I didn’t know this but Eugenia from Woke Doctor Who mentioned this, that apparently there had been some critiques of Crazy Rich Asians that even though the movie is set in Singapore – and Singapore again, like London, is a super diverse country – because it draws people from different countries in Asia as well as Western countries. But in the movie itself, it was very much centered only on Chinese people. There were some Malay and Indian servants, I think. Like maids and drivers and things. And that was one of the critiques. And she [Eugenia] responded to it by saying that well, first of all they were super rich Chinese people. So it was another culture by itself because this is the life of the super wealthy.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: And so all the diversity was in the form of maids and guards and stuff which reflects the lives of these elite people. But also it made me think of how in movies like this, because they are so rare as you said, the expectations are that they have to be perfect. They have to tick all the boxes – like diversity and this and this and this. And it’s such an unfair burden on them. It would be better to make room for different kinds of diversity and stories so that there’ll be different stories; so one movie can tell its story and another can tell its story, rather than saying Crazy Rich Asians has to tick all these boxes. So again, like I said, I hope that this is a trend – so it’s not just that one movie has to fix all the ills and all the problems that exist in Hollywood or whatever. They can just go on and tell their story and just be fun and … yeah. It’s really unfair.

Hibiki: Hmm. And also I do not exactly know how many racial minority people work in the film industry or writing books or whatever media.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: People who create those books, movies, dramas, advertisements, or whatever should be from different identities.

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely. I think that’s a really good point. Because I think that shows in the kind of stories then that are told, right? If you have a person from that different identity, they are going to be able to tell their story in a more realistic way than a stereotypical way.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: They won’t then be making fun of their own – or if they do make fun of their own culture, it will be in a way that is for other people of that culture. Like how Indians, we make fun of ourselves, but the audience for the joke is other Indians. It’s not white people. We’re making fun of each other within our community. And I think Crazy Rich Asians had a few examples of that where they were making fun of the culture but it was in an affectionate way. Because, like you said, I think the cast but even the creators – the writers and everybody – they were Asian. So they knew the culture that they were talking about. They were not presenting it in this exotic way. Like, “Ooh look this Far East exotic culture.” They were like no, this is just our lives. And it was also this really interesting blend of Western influence as well as Asian influences. Like the bachelorette party and the bachelor party and stuff. That’s a thing that happens in India as well now over the last ten-fifteen years, it’s become really common in big Indian cities at least. And that’s something that’s not Indian at all. It’s something that we’ve picked up from media – American media and British media. And that’s something that Crazy Rich Asians had as well which I thought was really familiar.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah. So Japan, as I said, is a very monocultural and racially homogenous country.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I consider the fact that all of the TV programmes, dramas, movies – the Japanese ones – are made by them. And almost all of the spectators are Japanese.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So I think some stereotypical and biased images of other cultures might have been created by that media in Japan as well.

Parinita: Do you mean of different cultures within Japan or outside Japan?

Hibiki: That could be both. For example, Japan is also an island and a homogenous country.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: And people are a little bit ignorant of other cultures. ’Cause we don’t know what other cultures are. So not many people know and could know about them.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: As a fact, in Japan, it has been realised that we should become more globalised. And Japan has noticed that diversity is important and knowing about other cultures is important. But the images, the media, and books are created only by one particular race of people.

Parinita: Yeah. And like you were saying in your essay about the anti-Korean racism, a little bit of which exists in Japan, right?

Hibiki: Yeah. So we have very complicated issues with … hmm basically, so this isn’t true for everyone … but there is a kind of ideology that Westerners and white people are superior.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: But at the same time, a number of Japanese people think Japan is the greatest country.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: The right-wing people and some people regard Chinese or Korean people as inferior to themselves.

Parinita: It’s so interesting that as different as cultures are, it’s like we have the same problems everywhere. Because India is the same. And obviously like we both saw in the UK, the UK is the same where they consider white English people superior. India has the same problems that you’re saying about Japan. Even to that extent of where it considers white superior. White people in certain minds would be considered superior. Of course, we have the history of colonisation. So we were under the British Empire for a hundred and fifty years or something. And even now, a lot of the movies and things that we watch – obviously we have a lot of Indian film industries, so the media is within Hindi and different languages like Marathi, we have huge movie industries. But a lot of the English movies that we watch – the foreign movies – come from the US and the UK. So their representations influence us a lot. Even me, for example, it was only after I moved to the UK that I realised in terms of the political system, in terms of poverty and everything, I was like, “Oh the UK doesn’t have everything figured out.” When I was living in India, I was like, “Oh yeah the US and the UK are obviously …” uh but then of course they went and elected Trump. [laughs] So I was like, “Okay maybe the US doesn’t have it all figured out either.” So yeah. It’s very similar.

Hibiki: So I was thinking the UK and Japan are very similar in terms of you know both countries are islands and um …

Parinita: Hmm, yeah.

Hibiki: And I think the national character is also kind of the same.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So it’s a bit hard to explain but we have –

Parinita: Is it based on history?

Hibiki: Hmm … I’m not really sure why that happened.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: But I noticed there are a lot of common things between Japanese and the British people living in the UK. But in terms of diversity, it’s completely the opposite. The UK is much more diverse and Japan is more homogenous.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: Did you say you realised that you became a minority when you went to Scotland for the first time?

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So that happened to me as well. When I went to the UK last July, that was my first time being a minority.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: And I noticed I was feeling like some people around me might be looking down on me.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: As I said, I actually got discriminated against by a white British guy.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: But then I noticed why am I thinking like that way? So why am I feeling that I’m looked down on by other white people? And I thought media and what I watched and listened to in Japan for over eighteen or nineteen years might have created some kind of image and stereotype inside myself.

Parinita: Ah. That’s a really good point. You’re right. And also it has that same effect on the people from the dominant group as well, right? In the UK, you’re the minority here just like me. But for white people in the UK, they’re watching the same media as well. And maybe then that media is creating this sense of superiority amongst them. So it feeds into both the people who are the minority as well as the majority in really harmful ways.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Ugh media it’s like … you know there are a lot of people who don’t think media is that important to talk about. But media is how a lot of people get their education about different cultures and different races and classes and genders and everything.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So we can’t dismiss the point of media. Because another thing that really stood out to me during the movies – and also just in general – was the politics and the representations of food, especially Asian food and Indian food within Western media. Have you ever come across that?

Hibiki: Hmm … so there’s a clear description of Asian food in Crazy Rich Asians but I haven’t thought that deeply about representation of food in detail.

Parinita: Yeah. And that’s a totally fair point because in a homogenous culture I suppose that is not a thing that occurs to you because everyone eats the same – not same but similar kind of food?

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So one is not considered superior and another is not considered inferior. In the Woke Doctor Who episode, Eugenia who’s the Chinese-American host, was talking about watching Crazy Rich Asians; just seeing her food represented on the screen was such an emotional experience for her. You remember that dumpling making scene?

Hibiki: Yes.

Scene from Crazy Rich Asians in the street food market in Singapore

Parinita: Where the family come together to make the dumplings. And even that market in Singapore where they go and they eat this food, she was so happy to see that and so emotional to see that because she was starved for that representation. She hadn’t seen that in Hollywood movies. Because it was all burgers and whatever white American food would be. And she was saying that how when she was in school, when she would take her food that her Chinese mother would make. And it was made fun of. For being a different smell and a different texture and different kinds of things. Her classmates used to take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So for them, anything that was foreign was something that is made fun of and is sometimes treated with disgust. And it’s a bit similar in India because – it’s a religious, cultural thing where some people are vegetarians and some people are not. Some people eat meat in India depending on which religion you follow and which part of the country you come from. And in some schools, non-vegetarian food is not allowed at all. You’re not allowed to bring anything with meat in it to school. Whereas in other schools, including mine, when I was a kid, I had friends from different religious backgrounds. And I would have friends that if I took meat to school, they would make a face or make a fuss or be like, “No I don’t want to sit near you and eat because I don’t eat meat.” And that reminded me so much of her [Eugenia’s] conversation because as a kid, it’s something that you internalise. Then I stopped taking meat to school because I told my mom, “No, my friends turn away from it in disgust, so I don’t want to take meat to school. I don’t want to have that problem at all.”

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: It is like one food habit is better than the other. Then that’s the atmosphere that you’re creating.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah. I remember one thing that when I cooked in the kitchen in my flat, some of my flatmates were wondering what that food was.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: They were very curious but also um … like strange.

Parinita: Yeah. And I think curiousity about an unfamiliar thing is obviously very normal.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: If you have not met something before in whatever form – food, culture, anything – you are curious about it. But I think the way you approach it matters so much. If you just approach it in a way like, “Ew, I’m not going to … this is not worthy of my attention or respect.” Versus oh you’re just trying to find out something about another culture. You’re just curious about that culture and you’re learning from them. I had friends in Glasgow who were from the US. In their part of the US, Indian food wasn’t popular, it wasn’t available easily. So they’d never eaten Indian food before; the first time they ate Indian food was in Scotland. And they loved it. They really loved the food. And then they’d come over to my house and I’d cook Indian food for them. And they were always so respectful. They were white Americans so they were used to being in the dominant group in their country. But they were still always so respectful and so curious about it. They never made fun – or not even fun – never made a face or refused to try any Indian food. They were always really curious and that made me feel welcome. Like even if I’m in this strange country with nobody like me around … different cultures can still come together in a more positive way.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: It depends on what kind of people you meet. And, of course, with the representation and politics of food, there’s also the representation and politics of language, right? Where some languages are considered to be the correct or the superior language depending on which part of the country or world you’re in. What has been your own experiences with this?

Hibiki: Yeah so we talked about this, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: So English is considered and actually used worldwide. So in Japan for example there’s this ideology that English is cool.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So America, the UK, Australia, Canada – developed white countries which speak English. Using one language – meaning English – is very useful for everyone. For me, if I could speak English, I could talk to a lot of people from different countries.

Parinita: Yeah, like us.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: Our podcast wouldn’t have been possible if both of us didn’t speak the same language.

Hibiki: Yeah. But at the same time, this inequality of language might cause native speakers to be arrogant.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: Or create some stereotypes against non-English speaking people.

Parinita: Yeah. And like that essay that we read about Nina Coomes who moved from Japan to the US. She was this huge Pokémon fan and she wrote about that and the role Pokémon and language played in her life. She talked about how, when she moved to the US – a rural part of the country – when she was seven, it meant that she suddenly couldn’t communicate anymore. When she was back in Japan, she had all these ideas, she had all this language, all this vocabulary and she was considered smart.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: And suddenly she moves to a country where intelligence is measured by the language that you speak. And because she couldn’t speak English, she was not considered to be intelligent or cool or somebody that you want to be friends with. And she was so excited when Pokémon came to the US because she was like, “Okay maybe Pokémon is something that I could connect to people with. Use that as my common language.” And then to her horror, she realised that the words had been translated. So the Pokémon words in Japan were Japanese whereas when they came to the US, they were translated to English and she was like, “Okay even that one thing I can’t connect with.” Which I think is a very familiar experience to a lot of people who move from a country where English isn’t the dominant language to a country where English is the dominant language.

Hibiki: Um hmm.

Parinita: And yeah, India is the same; English is considered cool. English is also considered to be a language of the wealthy. In rural parts or in certain parts even in Mumbai – which is a big city – there will be communities where English isn’t spoken. But they have that sense of inferiority that they can’t speak English. So if somebody goes and speaks English, they will consider them smart and wealthy and cool even if they are smarter than this person who can speak English.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Language plays such a big role in your own self-identity. Which is sad.

Hibiki: Maybe I could talk about one episode about language in Japan.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: So compared to other countries, Japanese people seem to be not as good at speaking English or listening to or using English. Because I don’t know probably because of the difference of language. Japanese and English are very different. So it is a little bit harder for Japanese people to speak and listen to English.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: So not all wealthy and affluent people can speak or can communicate in English. So we call this is half uh like American-Asian for example … people … uh a child or children of …

Parinita: So like a mixed-race couple?

Hibiki: Mixed-race people, yeah. They’re called half. And then some of them could speak English better than other normal ordinary Japanese.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: Or people who had lived in English-speaking countries and came back to Japan later are considered as very good English speakers. So those kind of people sometimes are looked up or are like, “Oh you’re great, you speak English very well.” Or “You sound like a native speaker of English.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So the situation is slightly different from the situation in India in Japan but yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. But again even though they are such different countries and contexts, you have so many similarities. The details might be different, but so many similarities. In Last Christmas, so Santa, she keeps changing her Chinese name depending on whichever job she goes to. So in the Christmas shop, she’s Santa. But when she used to work at a bakery, she was Muffin. She keeps changing it just because her Chinese name is too difficult for British people to pronounce.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Gif from Last Christmas with Santa's character. Text says: When I worked at the pet shop, I called myself Kitty

Parinita: And that reminded me of the experiences of Chinese students in the UK. I don’t know how common this is with Japanese students, but I know Chinese students – and this is something I found strange right in Scotland and even now that a lot of them, it’s like this cultural thing that they adopt an English name when they’re here.

Hibiki: Yes, yes.

Parinita: And I was really uncomfortable about it. Because I was like but it’s your name. We should be the ones who are learning how to pronounce it rather than you changing your whole name.

Hibiki: Yeah. All the Chinese students I met in Leeds also had their own English name. But that wasn’t the case with Japanese students, I think.

Parinita: Yeah. Like I was telling you my class in Scotland, in Glasgow, was really diverse. So it had people from Indonesia, Malaysia and different parts of Asia. And nobody else had this English name. It was just the Chinese students. Which made me feel even more uncomfortable. And that’s the dominance of English again. That people who speak English aren’t made to … face discomfort.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Their – our discomfort I guess, not even their because I speak English – is not acceptable. So we don’t have to struggle to learn a name that’s unfamiliar to us. The person whose name is unfamiliar has to change their names to fit into the society, to the country and the university. Of course, I don’t know what Chinese people feel about this. I would love to find out.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: But as an outsider, it makes me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to do that. I call myself Pari because everybody calls me Pari, not because my name is too difficult to pronounce. Even in India, my mum, my family, everybody calls me Pari. It’s just a nickname. I wouldn’t come to the UK and be expected to change my name to make it easy.

Hibiki: So I was wondering if I should have my English name or not whilst I was there.

Parinita: Oh really?

Hibiki: Yeah but my name is H-I-B-I-K-I.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So it’s not really hard to pronounce for a native speaker.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: But every time whenever I was asked my name and I said Hibiki, I usually had to say it several times.

Parinita: Hmm yeah. That’s really interesting because I think it tells a lot about a person how they deal with unfamiliarity either with a name, or food or language or anything. How they respond to it, I think, for me it really matters in how I consider that person and how I think that person is going to treat either me or anybody who is different. Like I said, I’m pretty lucky. I’ve not faced any discrimination, at least that I’m aware of. I might have behind the scenes but everyone has been really nice and strangers have not really – but like you, when I walk on the streets, I am very aware of the colour of my skin. And I am very aware that, “Oh people might be looking at me differently”. Because you can’t tell who’s racist and who’s not right? When you’re walking on the road, you’re like, “Oh this person looks ‘normal’ in air quotes. But they might be super racist so I don’t want to take the risk.” In Last Christmas, that scene where in the bus there’s this white, I think Eastern European, couple and they’re speaking in another language.

Hibiki: Yes.

Parinita: And this white man goes up to them and tells them, “Why don’t you speak English or just get out of my country?!”

Hibiki: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: I haven’t faced that. I have an Indian friend in Leeds. She’s also a PhD student and we sometimes mix languages – we call it Hinglish in India. Which is a mix of Hindi and English. So we use phrases from Hindi while we’re speaking in English – mix the two languages together. And at least so far nobody has told us to go back to our own country. But yeah, it’s something that I’m very aware can happen at any time in this country just because of language. Just before we wrap up, are there any final thoughts that you had?

Hibiki: I think changing how white people think about people of different races is important, but also how minority people receive and react to the things happened to you is also very important.

Parinita: That’s such a good point. Because we talk about the effect that it has on preventing racism from the majority people or any sort of discrimination from the majority group. But like you pointed out, there is so much internalised racism and internalised discrimination that you feel inferior because of the media messages that you’ve received. And that’s so important to confront as well. When I watch movies, well for me it’s about gender but also race; race more recently while I’ve been in the UK. When I watch movies that have women creators and women in the central role, that makes such a difference for me. I feel like I’ve been represented either on the page or on screen or whatever. And especially if it’s a brown woman, which is so rare to see in Western media, I feel even more seen. If there’s Indian traditions and Indian customs or whatever on the screen or in the page, it’s so exciting to me. So yeah, you’re so right that I think that’s such an important way of dealing with both majority and minority cultures.

Hibiki: Yeah. So there was a heavyweight boxing match a couple of months ago.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: And that match was between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. Do you know them?

Parinita: No.

Hibiki: Tyson Fury is British and white. And Wilder is American and black.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: And I found people commenting on YouTube or somewhere, I forgot. But attacking some people saying, “You support Fury because he’s white or not white” or something like that.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: And some person was saying that I support Fury just because he’s from Britain and I’m from Britain. Not because Wilder is black or something like that. So I think the minority people you know races or gender or disability or whatever, tend to feel more … tend to get easily angry. Or damaged.

Parinita: Yeah because if you’re so starved for representation … Shaun Lau, an Asian-American guy on Black Girl Nerds, he said that, “The lack of representation in media is so important because it not just affects how people see you but it also affects how you see yourself.” Which is exactly what you said. And it’s exactly the point that you made about other marginalised people, other minority people. I think that now this conversation of diversity is more present everywhere – on the internet, like you were saying in classrooms and wherever, in film studies courses and children’s literature courses in the university, just in the world at large and Hollywood – that I hope there is going to be more room for diverse creators. Not just Asians but also people with disabilities or people with different gender identities and just different religions. Everything. So just we can see all the diversity of life onscreen. Which I think would be a really good way to go moving forward.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: Thank you so much Hibiki for coming on.

Hibiki: Thank you.

Parinita: And this was such an excellent conversation. I learned a lot just about Japanese culture in general and how different and also similar it is to Indian culture and what I’m used to. So thank you so much for being a part of this project. You were fantastic.

Hibiki: Thank you. That was quite interesting to know about India and about your ideas and thoughts. Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of race and racism in Hollywood. Have you come across any examples of mainstream movies which challenge traditional representations of diversity? I’d love to add them to my list! Get in touch to let me know. Thanks for introducing me to these movies, and for the company, Hibiki. And thanks as always to Jack for taking care of the editing in the middle of everything else.

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 7 There’s Never Chicken Tikka Masala At Hogwarts: Different Cultures in Fantasy Media

Episode Resources:

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

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

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Islands in Speculative Fiction: Live from WorldCon

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Do You Speak Conlang?

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds In Defense of the Star Wars Holiday Special

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Harry Potter Voices Across Borders

Article – How Knowledge About Different Cultures Is Shaking the Foundations of Psychology

Episode Transcript:

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

Photo of Aditi Krishnakumar

[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 seventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Aditi Krishnakumar about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds. As readers who grew up in India, there were many cultural stereotypes in Western texts which we just didn’t pick up on. Now, we’ve learned a lot through the collective intelligence of online fandom.

The ways in which mainstream media portrays different cultures influences audience attitudes about people from these cultures. The dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction marginalises other ways of being in the world. In a lot of fantasy worlds, diverse cultures are used either as set-dressing or just for comic relief. The ways in which different languages and foods are depicted can also sideline certain groups of people.

What is considered the norm and what is exotic in popular fantasy? Whose cultures and intellectual histories are privileged? Such conversations about diversity among fans can play a huge role in decolonising traditional ideas of fantasy. Retellings of old stories – both in traditional media and within fandom – are increasingly used to subvert problematic ideas and reflect progressive values.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today, I’m so glad that I get to chat with Aditi Krishnakumar. Aditi grew up in India and she now works in the finance industry in Singapore. And she enjoys reading and is a published writer. So we share a children’s book publisher – Duckbill Books in India. And when Aditi’s book was due to be released, my editors asked me if I’d like to interview her for their blog because they know I’m a middle-grade fantasy nerd. I fell so completely in love with The Magicians of Madh. And Aditi creates such a fascinating world populated with the most absurd characters – absurd in the best way possible. I love absurd characters. And so she has a bunch of absurd characters and cultures and I just didn’t want to stop reading her world. And if you’re into comic fantasy and middle-grade books, you should definitely check her book out as well. This week, Aditi and I are going to talk about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds – both of us love reading fantasy. And we’re also going to chat about our experiences in online fandom a bit. So Aditi, do you want to introduce your own experiences encountering different cultures – either in fiction, fandom or the real world?

Aditi: This is probably true for lots of us growing up in India – the first things that you read, the first fantasy, everything – it’s all Enid Blyton.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And all the magical creatures that you hear about are the brownies and the pixies and –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Aditi: [laughs] And you know the things they eat, the puddings and cakes and jellies. So that was pretty much it. And then The Hobbit I guess was next. And these are all … they’re just so very, very British. Both of them. Like really British books. Which is fine because they were by British writers. But I think … it has changed now – but growing up, there was definitely not many fantasy books that were really relatable for me.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: In that world.

Parinita: I’m the same as well. I grew up reading Enid Blyton and other British and American books.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So there was The Baby-Sitters Club and things and –

Aditi: Charlotte’s Web.

Parinita: Yeah. So even things that weren’t fantasy, or even if they were fantasy, the fantastical world was a whole other thing. And that real world in the UK or in the US was also this sort of foreign, alien world almost.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I also grew up watching a lot of Bollywood movies. I love Bollywood movies. I grew up in Mumbai.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: So it is pretty diverse but it’s still a very limited diversity. Even though we have a lot of people from all over the country in the city, especially when you’re younger, you only really interact with a limited group of people.

Aditi: Right, right. ’Cause in school you’ve just got a small bunch of friends.

Parinita: Exactly. Or in your housing society you’ll have neighbours and things. And so Bollywood introduced me to all these different cultures. I’ve never tried to look at Bollywood critically until a few years ago. And there are so many stereotypes in terms of different cultures that they portray in Bollywood movies as well. When it comes to tribal folk in Bollywood movies – and in Hollywood as well, I guess – and their customs, it’s just –

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So full of stereotypes. Or even different religions or people from different regions – Gujarati stereotypes or South Indian stereotypes or Bengali stereotypes. There are so many. And in Enid Blyton, I know that she’s now being criticized a lot because golliwogs were supposed to represent black people in her books?

Aditi: Right, yeah. I think it’s one of those things that you can still – because I still think some things are really good about her books, especially her school stories, I think. You know they show girls being independent.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Aditi: You don’t see that in The Famous Five and stuff but where her stories are exclusively about girls … I mean she does have problems and you can acknowledge them. But I think there’s still some great stuff.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I still love Enid Blyton’s books because it made me fall in love with reading.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Those are the books that I read when I was six – The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five and things. And obviously at that age, I didn’t pick up on these anti-foreigner sentiments. And golliwogs and racism toh I wouldn’t even have thought of. Because I had no conception –

Aditi: I didn’t even know what a golliwog was.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly! I mean there were pictures of the golliwog in the books, in some of the toys ones …

Aditi: In Noddy they had some golliwog pictures.

Parinita: Yeah. But I would never have – just because growing up in India, I don’t have that idea that oh this is supposed to represent black people. I just thought oh this is a doll.

Book cover of The Three Golliwogs by Enid Blyton

Aditi: You know I used to have those trolls when I was a kid right, those troll dolls.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Aditi: Which I just thought it was something like that.

Parinita: It’s like with Harry Potter as well right? You can love the world and the story but you can also critique it. It doesn’t need to pass by unproblematically but you can still love it. I think it’s that balance. And it’s difficult because I think especially the books and things that were written a longer time ago when these conversations weren’t happening, if we read them through 2020 [the year the episode was recorded in] lenses, it might not be as diverse and inclusive as we want them to be. And I think it’s important to have that conversation that this is where it is missing.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: I would still want to read Enid Blyton books because the stories themselves are something that I have such positive associations with. So just to begin with our episode, a few of the podcast episodes that you and I listened to, touched on the theme of the dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And how this either marginalizes or exoticises other cultures and beliefs. And we talked about Enid Blyton a bit. When you were listening to this, did you think of any examples yourself?

Aditi: I mean one was Blyton herself ’cause there’s this some – I forget which one it is, it’s one of these Five Find-Outers books.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: Where … oh I remember – I think it’s The Missing Prince or The Vanished Prince or something like that. So there’s an Indian price called Bongawi.

Parinita: Oh.

Aditi: Or Bongawa or something.

Parinita: Yeah that very Indian name. [laughs]

Aditi: Yes. So I mean that’s the kind of thing I thought – at the time I honestly I’m not sure I even realised they meant Indian like people from India. I don’t know what I thought. But it’s not something –

Parinita: Yeah because they also call Native Americans Indians, right? A lot of these early books, American Indians was this other thing.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So in Breaking The Glass Slipper, The Cultural Traditions of Magic Episode with Zen Cho

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: She was talking about how the fantasy fiction that we read is, it currently depends on which culture is dominant. And mostly the stuff that is dominant right now is Western fantasy. It’s British and it’s American. And even on television. So I didn’t even realise these ideas of fantasy that had been shaped by Western culture. Because you grow up in India, at least if you grow up in certain parts of India, in cities and things, you have access to both Western and Indian culture.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: You have influences of both. So I thought it was interesting that she pointed this out, because even she is from Malaysia – she’s Malaysian-British. And she pointed out how a lot of Western fantasy is very Judeo-Christian. And it exoticises anything that doesn’t fit within that framework. And I was like oh yeah I actually hadn’t thought about that.

Aditi: It does, right? The other thing that you’d shared, I think the article [she meant podcast episode] about the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I like Star Wars but I think that’s part of the reason everyone tends to make fun of that. And you can kind of see why people make fun of it ‘cause it’s just so obviously –

Parinita: Have you watched it? The Star Wars Holiday Special?

Aditi: I hadn’t watched it for years but when I read that article, I saw a bit of it on YouTube.

Parinita: Yeah. Oh my god. So just as an aside, because I have to say I just love that movie so much [laughs].

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: One of my friends introduced it to me a couple of years ago.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: We were just doing this bad movie night thing where we’d have these regular bad movie nights at their flat. And we watched this and I just couldn’t believe that this cultural touchstone that Star Wars is and The Star Wars Holiday Special, what it is. I don’t even ironically love it, I very sincerely and –

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Unironically love that ridiculous little movie that even George Lucas has completely divorced himself from.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Like nope, I’m not going to do this. But yeah, sorry I interrupted you.

Aditi: I think it started from George Lucas because you always read about how he was influenced by Joseph Campbell and I read this book at some point of how Harry Potter also reflects the hero’s journey from Campbell. But the thing is Joseph Campbell’s books themselves have always felt like they are so … even his books about oriental mythology are still so much from a Western lens.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And that’s the proto-text that people very often consider now for fantasy writing or for epic writing. But that itself is such a Western lens that you know that’s –

Parinita: Yeah and even on a couple of the Imaginary Worlds episodes that we listened to. How they were talking about basically science fiction – I don’t know if it was the ones that we listened to but I listen to a lot of his episodes. And just the analogy with science fiction. Things like Star Trek where the whole concept is discovery and whatever, but it is a very Western colonial perspective as well.

Aditi: It is.

Parinita: Which you don’t think about right? At least I don’t. I’ve grown up not thinking critically about media at all.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I just – I’m entertained by media. And it’s only now that I found that I have those tools and the vocabulary to articulate these things. But also I enjoy doing it. I enjoy looking at these things critically. I was watching Star Wars the original trilogy the other day and the Ewoks are also so very stereotypically tribal I was like okay yeah this is interesting. I didn’t realise how much …

Aditi: When you see it as a kid, you just think that they’re kind of cute.

Parinita: Yeah! And even The Star Wars Holiday Special. So the first twenty minutes is – and this is what I love telling my friends about this movie, about how ridiculous this movie is – it is twenty minutes of unsubtitled Wookie dialogue.

Aditi: [laughs] I read that.

Parinita: So they’re just –

Aditi: That’s just –

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] They’re just literally grunting. You have to just imagine what they’re saying to each other and you don’t have this context. But like I said, I unironically love this movie. But because I love critically analyzing it, I was also thinking, to me it was a bit like how someone who doesn’t speak the dominant language in a culture or doesn’t belong to the dominant religion or the race or whatever, depending on where they are, and how for them, their culture is marginalised as well.

Aditi: Yes.

Parinita: Like in this Wookie land, obviously nobody understands them. We, the audience don’t understand them. And it’s so easy to make fun of it – to laugh it off.

Aditi: But you know on a somewhat related note, this is one thing I found when watching not the really big-budget Hollywood movies but some TV shows and things like that. When they’re speaking, especially when they’re speaking in Tamil occasionally and very often they’re allegedly speaking in Tamil which I speak. But I don’t know that it’s Tamil.

Parinita: Aaah.

Aditi: Because it sounds nothing like it. And I have to read the subtitles. So it’s sort of –

Parinita: [laughs] Ohhh right!

Aditi: You’ve not actually even got someone like a decent voice coach. Which they would do if someone was speaking French or Spanish or something.

Parinita: I know we’re going to talk about it a little more later but just because like you said that it’s just the politics of language as well. I was watching um what’s uh I’ve completely blanked out on the name – Hasan Minhaj’s show? The one on Netflix? [Patriot Act]

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I love that show. And he was doing an episode on India – the Indian political system. I think it was about Modi. I’m not sure. So he started speaking in Hindi at one point and the subtitles said, “speaks in a foreign language”.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And I was like ummm first of all, you’re a global platform. You’re on Netflix. I mean it’s produced in the US but it is on a global platform. So foreign for whom? And also you’re literally talking about the Indian elections. It wouldn’t have been so difficult to figure out that it is Hindi or to just look it up or something. Yeah, I sent a very outraged message to one of my friends.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Saying, “Foreign to whom?!” So the problem isn’t obviously including diverse cultures in your world. You want diverse cultures. It’s only I think when you use these unfamiliar cultures as if they’re – I think Zen Cho mentioned this – as if they’re set-dressing in your fantasy world.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Especially if that culture is marginalised in the real world.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: One of the things that we read [I meant an episode we listened to] was the whole Native American fiasco that J. K. Rowling had found herself in.

Aditi: Oh my god yeah. With those Skinwalker things. That was just …

Parinita: Yeah! And honestly I have to admit, I don’t know that much about Native American culture and about what they consider really sacred and what they consider really a part of their culture. I think another thing that’s really popular on the internet now – or it was a few years ago – was the term “my spirit animal”.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Like something is my spirit animal. Which now a lot of Native people on Twitter and things say that, “No this is offensive to us, we don’t like you using this. So instead why don’t you use Patronus because that’s basically what you mean and that’s not offending anybody.” She’s [Rowling] so rich. Why doesn’t she just hire a research assistant to do this stuff?

Aditi: I know! [laughs]

Parinita: It’s just ridiculous to me.

Aditi: No, I think that’s what’s happened with her is that as long as she was writing about British things in a British setting, she probably knew what was too sacred to be touched simply because she grew up with it. But once anyone, not just J. K. Rowling, once anyone starts writing about something that unfamiliar …

Parinita: But you would think that especially now because this she did not write in the 90s – about Magic in North America on her Pottermore essays

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It was now. When these conversations are very present. This is happening on the internet. And even if she doesn’t spend time on the internet, the fact that you have this power and your voice is reaching so many people and you know that your franchise is super popular, you would think that you would make more of an effort.

Aditi: You should do a bit more.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: It’s not just that. It’s like her list of wizarding schools.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god.

Aditi: You’ve got three of them in Europe and all of Asia has one wizarding school in Japan.

Parinita: Yeah! In Japan! I was listening to this other podcast Woke Doctor Who where they were doing a Harry Potter thing. And one of them, she’s Chinese-American. And she was like um Japan attacked China a few decades ago.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t think Chinese wizards would be really happy to go to Japan just like yeah hello, everything’s all right. And Africa I think has one? The whole of Africa has one wizarding school as well.

Aditi: Yeah. This is basic maths. She just needs to work out the population and figure out where the schools should be, that’s it.

Parinita: Yeah. And the UK I mean it’s such a tiny place and they get this whole British wizarding school. Which of course has its own issues. So I didn’t realise this earlier. All these British politics I’ve only learned the nuances of once I’ve moved to the UK.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: But Jack, who is Scottish, he had encountered this thing about Seamus Finnigan. He doesn’t read Harry Potter but he knows some things.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And Seamus Finnigan, this Irish character who loves blowing things up and setting things on fire.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was like oh my god what! [laughs] I didn’t even make that connection that your one Irish character loves blowing things up.

Gif from the Harry Potter movies of Seamus Finnigan accidentally blowing up a potion

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I guess there is an element of parody. I suppose you’re just doing it …

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Or maybe she thought that she was doing it as parody, I suppose?

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But I don’t know where that line is between – this North America thing, definitely she’s crossed the line because there have been Native American fans of Harry Potter who’ve called her out on it and she hasn’t yet to my belief, she hasn’t responded to the critique at all.

Aditi: Right. And the other thing is the Nagini thing which has been another disaster I think for her. And in so many ways it’s just so wrong to begin with. She’s not really focused on the mythology. Which is a secondary thing. But also this whole concept. I don’t know if she thought about it at the time when she said that killing Nagini was necessary. I don’t think Harry Potter spoilers count now, do they?

Parinita: No, no. I mean I’ll put a spoiler warning anyway. But yeah.

Aditi: But when you realise then that she was in fact a woman who was forced to be in that form and then killing her is necessary. And it’s just such a really, really terrible thing.

Parinita: And especially in a world where the characters of colour you can count on like maybe if not one hand, on two hands. Even though I think Nagini is from Crimes of Grindelwald?

Aditi: She is, yeah.

Parinita: I haven’t watched that movie yet. It’s on my list. As a proper Harry Potter scholar I suppose I should.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But I’ve heard such bad things about it that it’s completely put me off watching it. But yeah even in the Harry Potter world but also in that prequel world, there aren’t that many characters of colour. So the way to include diversity isn’t necessarily to make this dramatic death scene.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know it just seems basic. And some of these ideas you know they become so ingrained in you unconsciously because of what we’re exposed to, because of what we’re reading. We internalize these ideas of fantasy that we don’t even understand that oh this is our idea of fantasy. Which is why I love Terry Pratchett, his Discworld books.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Because they push against it so often. They just take these tropes and stereotypes and they turn it upside down in a way that the reader’s like oh yeah you’re subverting it! And in a way that’s not obviously subverting it. Like he’s not saying oh look at me, look at how clever I am.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But I mean he is pretty clever. So I love Terry Pratchett.

Aditi: Yeah, that’s true. And all of his characters who make a difference like Vimes and Lady Sybil and Granny Weatherwax, they’re not stereotypical, heroic characters.

Parinita: Yeah. And they’re taking witches, for example, or aristocracy or just guards. And it’s taking them and it’s not completely doing away with their identity. It’s not subverting it in a way that their history doesn’t matter if that makes sense.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s using their history and their identity to subvert, which I really like.

Aditi: No, I think that’s cool. The solution is not to say I’m introducing this character who’s diverse but they’re exactly like all the other characters and it’s just that from their name or the actor playing them or something, that’s how you know that they’re diverse.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I’m always torn you know as a writer but also as a reader. Because currently diversity is so … we’re still not there yet where we’ve achieved equal representation.

Aditi: Right

Parinita: So what’s the better way where you don’t mention anyone’s race or ability or gender, gender identity or whatever. And you just allow people to read themselves into it? Or you explicitly mention all the diverse identities so that it is more explicit?

Aditi: Yeah actually I think both ways work. I mean to an extent. ’Cause if you’re in a fantasy world with made-up names then it’s fine, you don’t have to. People can just imagine anything. Sometimes in the real world, just the sort of names and locations give you a bit of an idea of at least culturally what you mean. Honestly and I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege here because I can afford not to care but it’s just … something I’ve never really thought about one way or another in books. Because all this thing about shipping and who do you want to be dating whom and all that, I’ve never been involved in and never really have I cared about it. It’s always sort of like you know …

Parinita: Yeah like what other people say. I honestly didn’t think about these things either. Until I was listening to this episode um I forget the name of the Harry Potter podcast – oh yeah #WizardTeam. And it’s these two black American fans who are reading each chapter.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And they just have a commentary. And they read Hermione but also Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall as black because they’d said that there is nothing that said otherwise in the text. In Harry Potter, all the characters who are not white – their race is mentioned.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas everybody else is normal I guess. Or you just don’t need to know their race because they’re obviously white.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So I realised that when I’m reading Harry Potter or I’m reading any text that is Western-authored, for me everyone is white. I’ve not yet been able to decolonise my mind that much that I read my race or another race into it. I need to be told that this person is black or this person is Asian just for me to be able to even imagine differently. I suppose because –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve only been reading certain kind of books and watching a certain kind of –

Aditi: You know that happens with me too. When it’s a Western writer … yeah you’re right, unless they specifically say this character is whatever they are, you just assume that they are white.

Parinita: Yeah. Which is why I’m trying to … so over the last, I think, year or a bit, I was trying to read more fantasy exclusively authored by women. It just started off randomly but then I realised that I actually really enjoy the different kinds of stories that are here now when it’s women who are authoring these worlds. And in a way that I didn’t even realise I was missing. Because I was reading most of the books that are written by men or TV shows and movies that are created by men.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And then I started reading more books from women of colour as they say in the US which now it’s a term I’ve adopted whereas both of us – we are women of colour. We are both from India. Like even in Singapore –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: There everyone is from … I think it’s very multicultural right? A lot of different countries’ inhabitants?

Aditi: It is, yeah. Especially in the business district and all you could be in any country because there are Chinese and Japanese and Indians and Europeans so there’s like everybody.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I think is so … like there’s so much potential because now at least in a lot of bigger cities, it is so multicultural.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: In Mumbai, it may not be in terms of – there are of course non-Indians who come and live there as well. Who some people will call expats because immigrants is only for brown people.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But there’s also so many people from other parts of the country, right? India is essentially like twenty-seven different countries in one.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And there is so much potential. But it seems like the way it’s divided is between dominant and marginalised – that’s the sort of relationship different people share. It’s such a pity because we’re missing out on so much. We as in we from the dominant culture within India or Singapore I guess.

Aditi: Yeah, no we do. But honestly, I’m not quite sure what the way around this is because when you think about it, it just doesn’t end well if you try to force people to interact. So it’s just one of those things that has to happen organically.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And I hate that word but that is the only word for it.

Parinita: No, that’s true. Which is why for me, media is such an important way to do this. Because if your media shows these cultures – and whatever media not just books and fantasy but also movies and TV shows and things. If you are showing them only in stereotypes, then that’s how people who don’t know these others – who don’t interact with people who are not like them in the real world will then have this idea of those people, right? I didn’t sound very coherent but –

Aditi: [laughs] No but I know what you mean. You’re right. Because if your only exposure to somebody is through Hollywood which will happen if you’re Indian and you’re maybe living in a smaller town or something. Your only exposure to people from like China may be through movies.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And then you’re just going to have this idea that could be really, really wrong.

Parinita: Yeah. And now of course there’s like ugh just mentioning China now is so fraught because just the amount of – I don’t know how it is in Singapore because obviously it’s a very different part of the world. But in the UK there have been so many attacks against not just Chinese people but also East Asian people in general. Because of this whole Coronavirus thing. And it’s just like it – it’s just – it makes me very depressed to talk about, honestly I shouldn’t have brought this up. But I think there is a link between how you consider people from another country just because of the media. Not just entertainment media but news media as well. If they’re so othered that it’s almost like they’re aliens and you know their – even the language that’s used, like in the US, for example, oh aliens.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Mexicans are aliens.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Of course it would have an effect. The language that you use is important. It is political. In India as well, people from Pakistan or from other parts of the country – if you use a word like cockroaches for them; if you’re a minister of a party who’s using this language, how do you make it better? That organic growth, it’ll be impossible for that to be achieved you know.

Aditi: Right. Yeah, no that’s true. There has to be … I don’t know it’s really depressing to think about it.

Parinita: It is. Let’s move on to some of our fantasy before we get really, really sad about this. Because while it is important, I don’t know how much we can do – what we can do about it.

Aditi: But can you imagine if Trump, when he was talking about Mexicans, if instead of calling them illegal aliens, he called them expats or something?

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I obviously consider myself an immigrant in the UK currently because I’m living here. But I can’t call myself an expat because first of all that word is … I’m very doubtful of that word.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I side-eye it. But also I’m brown so I’m not allowed to call myself an expat. And I’m not rich so I’m definitely not allowed to call myself an expat.  So moving on to less depressing topics. Or maybe not. Maybe Harry Potter might also depress us. But I do love Harry Potter. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Despite all the problems that it has.

Aditi: No, that’s okay. We’ll still have fun.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] So perhaps we could think about what is considered the norm and what is considered exotic in some of our favourite worlds. One of the examples that I think you’d shared with me a few weeks ago was from Pratchett.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Do you mind just briefly talking about that?

Aditi: Right. So Pratchett whom I mean I love him to bits. I don’t remember which book it was. I think it was Snuff.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aditi: But there’s this bit where there’s one of the characters whose mother or grandmother or something came from a country that is sort of a stand-in for China.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And there’s a running joke throughout the book that she makes a dish called Man Dog Suck Po and then there’s another dish with another similar name. It’s basically played for jokes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I thought that was tragic because Pratchett is so brilliant. He doesn’t need to do this.

Photo of a page from a Discworld book. Text says: Vimes hesitated. It didn't do to upset an old mum. It was time to let the duke out. Vimes never normally bowed to anybody, but he bowed to Mistress Upshot, who almost dropped her tray in ecstatic confusion. 'I am mortified, my dear Mistress Upshot, to have to ask you to keep your Man Dog Suck Po warm for us for a little while, because your son here, a credit to his uniform and to his parents, has asked me to assist him in an errand of considerable importance, which can only be entrusted to a young man with integrity, as your lad here.' As the woman very nearly melted in pride and happiness Vimes pulled the young man away. 'Sir, the dish was Bang Suck Duck. We only have Man Dog Suck Po on Sundays. With mashed carrots.' Vimes turned back and shook Mrs Upshot warmly by the hand, and said, 'I look forward to tasting it later, my dear Mistress Upshot, but if you'll excuse me, your son is a stickler for his police work, as I'm sure you know.'

Parinita: Yeah I know. And I think even with people who consider themselves progressive, people who consider themselves I suppose above such cultural goof-ups – or just horrible cultural missteps – it’s so important to be on the guard against these things. Because like we were talking about earlier, it’s so internalised.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: That you don’t even realise what you’re doing is ridiculous or is terrible.

Aditi: Right. And I mean there’s not even a moment which would possibly have redeemed it when people try this thing and say, oh it’s actually good and I liked it or something. It’s just a joke.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s just like diversity for the sake of humour and comic relief. And the Amy Sturgis episode on Reading, Writing, Rowling that we were listening to about indigenous futurism? They were making fun of the horrible way in which Rowling has written about indigenous people. They mentioned, “the radical idea that Native Americans have their own intellectual history.” It’s this thing that to others – to people who are not well-versed with this culture or who are just looking at it from this colonial perspective – don’t realise that Native Americans, even though their knowledge and practices differ from ours, or in India it might be different regions or even or tribal or rural sort of practices, it is still a valid way of understanding the world and interacting with the world. It just doesn’t match your own. And it was reminding me then of other cultures within Harry Potter whose cultures and intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked. So for example, Ron and just I think the magical world in general is so suspicious of goblins. And the way that they engage with magic and objects and whatever.

Aditi: Right. And it’s so silly because when you think about it, the goblins are running the economy. You should be really grateful to them because I don’t think anyone in the wizarding world can do maths.

Parinita: [laughs] No. I mean their system is so complicated like how many Knuts and Sickles and –

Aditi: Can you imagine if you’re trying to make change and you’re going what is twenty-nine into seventeen or something.

Parinita: [laughs] I know. And yeah, so I was also thinking that the Muggle culture within that and the Muggle-born culture as well is also so diminished.

Aditi: It is. And you know there’s one thing that didn’t occur to me at first but later when I re-read and thought about it, I thought it was really awful. Which is right upfront when Hagrid says, we don’t reveal ourselves to Muggles. And the reason is that they’d want magical solutions to their problems. And okay you don’t want to just be fixing people’s glasses and all, I get it. But when you realise that wizarding medicine in Rowling’s world is so advanced.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: And they’re just keeping it to themselves because they can’t be stuffed. That’s really awful.

Parinita: Yeah! And we were talking about this in an earlier episode – me and my friends. And we were like, could they fix the climate crisis? Why wouldn’t you? You live with the Muggles as well right? Do you not want the planet to be all right?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And also the thing is that they have such a paternalistic attitude towards Muggles and Muggle-born culture. So I re-read Philosopher’s Stone recently.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And this Hermione’s obsession with reading everything to know about the magical world and being this rule-follower until … she isn’t. But still largely following rules.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was thinking that that’s so similar to the experiences of an immigrant right?

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Either in another country or even in another –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Like from rural to urban or whatever. And you want to be the best version of yourself because if you go wrong, you will be held as the representative for your entire race or religion or … yeah whatever. And nobody seems to really be that curious about Hermione’s Muggle background – except Arthur Weasley. But even he isn’t – it’s in a way that’s –

Aditi: It’s like he’s looking at something in a zoo.

Parinita: Yeah! Or in a museum. Okay magic is super advanced in some cases. But in other cases, like Muggles, we use ballpoint pens. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs] They’re using quills and ink.

Parinita: Yeah! We don’t use chamber pots and I don’t know … some of them I think still use chamber pots or was it just Dumbledore – I don’t know. I have this –

Aditi: It’s Dumbledore who found chamber pots in the Room of Requirement.

Parinita: Oh yeah! Yeah! Which like … um plumbing?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: So no, it’s just like there’s so much that can be achieved through cross-cultural collaboration.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: If the wizards and witches actually respected or were curious about Muggle culture, imagine how much better Hogwarts would be. Health and safety would definitely be better. Because they don’t seem to have heard about it. Maybe therapy? Some of the professors could also do with therapy, I think.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And just the internet! Imagine how much miscommunication has happened in even just the Order of the Phoenix.

Aditi: I mean just imagine if Harry had a cellphone then Sirius would not be dead.

Parinita: I know! [laughs] I know!

Aditi: But you know another thing that I – and that’s another thing that I realised only after you put that thing about food in the Google doc [we use while planning the episode], the other thing that struck me is that in all of Harry Potter, all the food is just exactly like in Enid Blyton.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Aditi: And I think the most foreign thing they have is like bouillabaisse.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: Even that is making fun of it but –

Parinita: Yeah because, oh what is this foreign thing that only Fleur seems to want?

Aditi: Yeah. But actual British culture I mean they do have a lot of other food I would think.

Parinita: Oh, you know what the national dish of the UK is? Chicken tikka masala. [laughs]

Aditi: Yeah exactly. But there’s never chicken tikka masala at Hogwarts.

Parinita: Exactly! I’m not even joking. This is something that Scotland claims to have invented which I’m taking with a grain of salt.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: It was some Bangladeshi immigrants in Scotland that apparently invented chicken tikka masala. Which fine whatever. When I used to read about Enid Blyton food as a kid, it used to seem so exotic and so exciting to me.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And when I re-read it as an adult, I was like oh you’re eating boiled eggs with a twist of salt? Okay.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: That’s cool. I understand because I’ve read this that she’d written about it in the post-Second-World-War atmosphere where there was lots of rationing happening in the UK. So she was trying to make simple food and things sound exciting. Which worked because yeah it was super exciting even to this kid in India who had really yummy food around her. So the diversity in Hogwarts, what are the Patil twins eating? Are they happy with this bland British food?

Aditi: They’re having toast and marmalade for breakfast.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: Every day.

Parinita: Yeah! Do they not want some masala in their –

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I know what a struggle it is because I have a white Scottish boyfriend who is used to some spice but is not used to Indian level of spice.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So  it’s always a compromise in terms of spice. And he knows I like chili in everything. I like chili flakes in most things.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: So I need some spice. How can you be an Indian or a child of an Indian immigrant in Hogwarts and not want … I don’t know some curry powder in everything.

Aditi: All of them. Or even Cho Chang, she never gets noodles. I think they’re always having –

Parinita: That’s true! There are no noodles in Hogwarts! What a travesty! There’s no fish and chips either. Which is I suppose would be considered more … I don’t know if there’s a class connotation …

Aditi: Maybe they can go to the Hog’s Head and get fish and chips.

Parinita: Ah perhaps. So it’s all healthy food in Hogwarts. Which is quite boring. Even dal would have also – [laughs]

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or lentil soup as they call it here. [laughs] That would have been at least more exciting. I never thought about the food in Hogwarts actually, about how narrow it is. What a fixed definition of food there is. And yeah I wonder if there’s fanfiction out there about just having a desi Christmas or a Diwali maybe.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Maybe the Patils could celebrate Diwali or I don’t know whatever other – I’m very bad with my Hindu festivals. And in … I don’t know in Star Wars and things, food is not really mentioned …  except in the Star Wars Holiday Special where there was another twenty-minute segment which consisted of a person on the TV cooking something.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: With an increasing number of arms that came out. I’m telling you, everybody needs to go watch this movie because it is amazing. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs] Food is not … I mean you see a bit of it here and there but it’s not really a focus.

Parinita: Which I don’t understand because for me food is the most important part of any adventure. [laughs] Like why – I suppose they’re busy fighting a genocidal maniac I guess so it’s okay.

Aditi: Maybe Jedi knights don’t care about food.

Parinita: Oh what a sad future! Is this the future that we’re heading towards? Oh no!

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I know there have been a lot of critiques in A Song of Ice and Fire for his [George R. R. Martin’s] obsession with describing food. And Lord of the Rings as well. No, his [J. R. R. Tolkien] was trees.

Aditi: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Even in terms of food of course but there’s also language.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: We briefly spoke about that before and yeah I was thinking – just like in terms of the Wookie language, but also like in any of the fantasy worlds, of course, English is – because they’re written I suppose in the UK and the US. But the foreign languages that I can think of for example in the Lord of the Rings I think Elvish is one.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Right? And the Orcs have their own language.

Aditi: Yeah, yeah.

Parinita: From what I remember. And obviously one is good whereas the other is evil.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: The people who come from the East are not to be trusted. [laughs] They’re villains. Whereas the Elves, they have this gentle tongue.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: No problems there.

Aditi: But yeah, no I think the way they handle languages is – and I think that’s a problem with Tolkien definitely ‘cause he’s … I mean I don’t want to speculate because it was so long ago so I don’t want to speculate about whether or not it was intentional. But everything that happens is focused on the West. And the East … I mean there are a lot of these mysterious events that happen there like the elves walk on the shore of the sea and they came to the west and the two blue wizards went there and they were never heard of again. So you have no idea what’s happening there. It’s just the sort of – for all you know there are snake charmers. It’s this sort of mysterious exotic place and we’ve got no clue what’s going on. And a part of it is also I think is that it was Tolkien’s area of study.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: The Anglo-Saxon and Nordic. And so it’s natural possibly that all the languages he invented should sort of be based on that. But yeah I don’t know I think culturally it’s also that his intention was to create a mythology for England.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: So he wasn’t trying to be diverse which –

Parinita: Yeah

Aditi: I mean that’s not an excuse – it isn’t diverse.

Parinita: No. I mean I do understand what you’re saying. I suppose especially when – he was writing what during the 60s? The 1960s? 50s? Or something like that.

Aditi: Yeah. I mean he started writing a bit earlier than that. Started creating a bit earlier than that. But yeah then the books were coming out then.

Parinita: Yeah so I mean I do understand why diversity wasn’t such a big thing. But then the sort of ideas that we have … because I think Zen Cho said that currently Western culture is global culture. Just because of how cultural imperialism has moved in terms of media. And English itself is considered this language of intelligence.

Aditi: Hmm.

Parinita: In India.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m talking specifically of India. One of my neighbours back home in Bombay, she had an interview in a school for her kid. Her kid was three or four so they wanted to get into a this fancy international school.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And she was so worried. She wanted me to come to her the night before and teach her English because she was like, I don’t know to speak English. She speaks in Marathi. And she’s like, if I speak in Marathi and if I’m not able to speak in English, they’re going to think I won’t be able to look after my child’s education or they’re going to think I’m not intelligent.

Aditi: Oh god.

Parinita: Yeah! Right?! And this is in Mumbai where it’s full of Maharashtrians. It’s full of people who speak Marathi.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I did tell her don’t worry about the language so much. But also, on the other hand, there are people – people who speak in English – who do equate English with intelligence. And if you don’t speak in English, you’re obviously not as intelligent or your ideas are not as worthy as someone who does speak in English.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Yeah it’s so sad. I think just talking about these things, it helps. But if you’re just talking amongst people who think like you, it’s … we’re just coming up with problems on this episode. [laughs] Like here’s a problem!

Aditi: No but actually now that you mention it, so there is this the thing in Lord of the Rings, the book, it doesn’t come in the movies. So Frodo, when he leaves Bag End, he meets these elves who are all going West because everyone goes to the West, it’s amazing.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aditi: So there are two forms of Elvish that are primarily spoken in Middle-earth – Sindarin and Quenya. And Quenya is the one that is better and higher and everything. So he knows the Quenya greeting because Bilbo taught him.

Parinita: Ah.

Aditi: And he uses that and the elves are immediately like I think they name him Elf-friend on the spot.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aditi: So that’s pretty much the same thing that’s happened to your neighbour I guess.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: Or that she thought would happen to her.

Parinita: And also just as a side-note, I find it really interesting that people like Tolkien fans are so excited to learn like Elvish or Star Trek fans are so excited to learn Klingon but not an actual foreign language that might make their neighbour more comfortable or somebody you know more comfortable.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: You know language is like food as well. I think in one of the episodes that I was listening to after we spoke when we were planning the episode, it was another Imaginary Worlds podcast episode about food in fantasy. And one of the guests was talking about how food is used to express xenophobia. Not just in the real world. Obviously in the real world where if you meet this unfamiliar food –

Aditi: Um hmm

Parinita: You’re like eww what is this, and it meets with disgust. But also in science fiction and fantasy, where if you’re going to this new either planet or country or land or whatever, there’s so much that can be done to push against what happens in the real world rather than just replicating what happens in the real world.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m happy that even though something is so internalised, it’s difficult to unlearn these things, but still there’s still conversation happening. Like you and I we’re having one but also just on the internet in general. There’s more conversation about diversity so people are becoming aware of these things and it’s helping decolonise traditional ideas of fantasy.

Aditi: Yeah, I’ve learned to re-examine a lot of the things I thought and the way I read fantasy just through like Tumblr and Facebook. Well not Facebook so much, Tumblr. And stuff online.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Me too. Because you’re not learning these things in school, right? Nobody is telling you these things. Where else are you learning these things?

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s just the internet and for me fandom. That’s one of the major reasons that I started this podcast for the PhD project because for me, fandom has been such a tremendous learning experience and critically analysing things and unlearning problematic things that I have internalised.

Aditi: I think part of the problem in schools at least might just be that they don’t know how to have these conversations. ’Cause one of the literature texts that I did in school was The Tempest.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: And I mean I love Shakespeare too but that is also problematic in so many ways. But that’s just something they don’t talk about in schools. And maybe they don’t know how – they can’t you know …

Parinita: Oh yeah! You’re so right. I think more contemporary texts need to be used in schools anyway.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But even if you want to place them in conversation with what you consider classic texts, there is such an opportunity to talk about anti-Semitism or to talk about problematic ideas in something like Shakespeare for example.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: I used to do this reading programme in a school in Mumbai.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And one of the people really wanted to get rid of the fairy tale books in the library. Because she said that, which is true, a lot of the fairy tales, they have really problematic ideas of gender.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But I told her that I think getting rid of these books would really be a lost opportunity because they’re going to be getting these messages outside anyway. Like we were talking about Disney.

Aditi: Yeah

Parinita: It is this huge corporate behemoth which is going to pervade everything.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And I think a better use of that would be to read these stories but then teach the kids to problematise them; see what can be challenged in these ideas within the story that you don’t have to accept.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And similarly in Shakespeare as well, I’m sure.

Aditi: Right. Because it’s the same thing we were talking about earlier. You can appreciate something and still realise that it’s got problems.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. So one of my favourite things is retellings of fairy tales or of mythology.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or just of old stories that were written when everything was really problematic if we look at it from now. But then they subvert the stories in ways that make them really relevant and contemporary and make it more exciting for us.

Aditi: Yeah. But actually you know I was reading this thing on – I think on Tumblr or somewhere a while ago. And I thought it was really cool. So it was about fairy tales and the original fairy tales, not retellings. About the good things even in those. So basically the one I remember is Cinderella ’cause she was saying that obviously it’s full of problems. But then the thing is also that Cinderella manages to stay hopeful despite all the horrible things that are happening to her.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: And she stays kind and she is still a good person despite everything. And that’s something worth remembering even if there are problems with the rest of it.

Parinita: That’s true! That’s such a good point. Because that’s true even in the texts that we’ve talked about today right? For example Harry Potter.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or you know Lord of the Rings, Pratchett whatever. Some which we love more than others.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: For me it’s definitely Harry Potter. I’m an avowed Harry Potter fangirl. But also Pratchett. But yeah, you don’t need to toss out the whole thing because you have one problematic element. Or maybe more than one problematic element. You can still search for the good in that. Harry Potter has positively impacted so many people in the world.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: You see these examples in activism as well where they draw on Harry Potter in the way people might have drawn on religion first. They’re drawing on Harry Potter as a sort of cultural myth almost. And they’re using it to understand the world. That’s why I love fandom so much because there is room for all these different interpretations and you’re learning from each other. So in an academic text that I read, Henry Jenkins, who’s awesome – he’s one of my favourite academics. He’s a fan scholar, so he’s both a fan and a scholar. And he talks about the collective intelligence of fandom.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Where one person doesn’t know everything. It’s impossible for one person to know everything.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But everybody has different skills and knowledge and you’re coming together in this space around a thing that you love. And you’re drawing on your own experiences and knowledge and backgrounds and whatever. And making sense of it together.

Aditi: Yeah I think actually that’s why I like Tumblr so much ‘cause it’s really a space where that happens. People just join conversations.

Parinita: Like you were saying, you learned a lot of queer perspectives and ideas about queerness and queer ideology and things from Tumblr and fandom right?

Aditi: Yeah. Right. Because that’s just not something that – I mean I knew that queerness existed but it just wasn’t something that was really on my radar when I was reading. Just like I wouldn’t have thought that a character was non-white in a Western book, I would not have thought that a character was queer unless the writer just said it outright.

Parinita: Yeah because if you’re not a part of that marginalised group, I guess you’re not really thinking about these identities. There was another discussion about disability and neurodiversity.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I was listening to this other podcast where they read Hermione and Luna as well as Neville I think in Harry Potter as neurodiverse. As autistic.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: They said something which really struck a chord. That when writers are trying to write or are writing disabled characters into stories, they’re usually really rife with stereotypes. Especially if it’s someone who doesn’t have experience with disability.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And they’ve done research but they’re using … they’ve obviously not talked to a person with a disability So it’s a stereotype. So people with these disabilities, they would rather recognise their own identities and practices and behaviours and whatever in characters that are not explicitly said to be disabled.

Aditi: Right. No actually you know that makes sense. ’Cause also I think the problem would be that a writer would be afraid of being accused of bias if they had too many flaws in a disabled character or something of that sort. So they just end up being these perfect people.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah! Or just that one thing gives them this super skill or something.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: That their disability becomes their magical power. For me, just these fandom conversations are so great. Like I was telling you, fan podcasts have become my new fandom expression.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Because Tumblr would have sucked – although fan podcasts suck a lot of my time also. But I don’t have time for two things right now. So luckily I get to do this as a part of my research. So I’ve chosen a good project.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah I learn so much. But even within fandom, I feel like even within these conversations … we were talking about cultures earlier; I feel like there are cultures within fandom as well.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Not just say Harry Potter would be different and Lord of the Rings would be different. But even within Harry Potter fandom for example. So initially in fanfiction and things, there’s been a lot of conversations about gender and queerness.

Aditi: Yeah

Parinita: A lot of engagement with that. But not so much with race. A few years ago I think it was called out. This became a topic of conversation then in fandom that  you know there’s this race-blindness that’s happening and people are not really talking about race. Then trans folks were also complaining about this.

Aditi: Yes.

Parinita: But now I feel like in terms of diversity, there’s a lot of conversation happening about race. But not so much about other marginalised identities. Not so much for example about disability or class or I don’t know religion I guess. I do see a few things – there were these really cool texts about Muslim students in Hogwarts and how they would celebrate Eid and how they would do the month of Ramzan.

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 spending lunch times to read the quran. we need to talk more about muslim kids in hogwarts

Aditi: Yeah I think you were mentioning that. And that also brings up the question of the same thing, Patil twins and Cho Chang. I mean is everyone a Christian who goes to Hogwarts? Because they seem to celebrate Christmas and Easter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I don’t even know. Because I don’t get the impression that anyone is really overtly a believer.

Parinita: Yeah because they don’t talk about Jesus or anything. Or the birth of Christ or anything.

Aditi: Yeah so Christmas just seems to be for crackers.

Parinita: Yeah. A cultural rather than religious celebration.

Aditi: Right. So in that case there’s no reason why they can’t like you said have Diwali or something. I’m sure they’d have fun doing that too.

Parinita: How fun would Diwali sweets at Hogwarts be though?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Like jalebi and I don’t know I just miss Indian food a lot. I wish it was a bigger part of Hogwarts as well.

Aditi: And just think what they could do with the fireworks. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly.

Aditi: They don’t know what they’re missing.

Parinita: I mean maybe the animals like Fang wouldn’t have a great time during Diwali at Hogwarts but some sacrifices have to be made, I guess.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But yeah even like Eid or something.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Just having you understand each other through your customs and rituals and celebrations without exoticising them.

Aditi: Right. Or Chinese New Year because I’m sure Cho Chang can’t be the only Chinese student there.

Parinita: Yeah! I mean I hope not. Because there seems to be one token diversity everywhere. But yeah, just different cultural, regional, national celebrations would be really good. Scottish as well. They’re in Scotland. We don’t really know anything about Celtic culture.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So I think we’re just about running out of time. But thank you so much Aditi for being on this podcast and for being a part of this project. It was so fun talking to somebody who has the same cultural contexts but also different fandoms and just bringing both our fandoms together and just geeking out about what we love and what we love to hate.

Aditi: [laughs] Thanks for having me. It’s been fun – great fun.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of diverse cultures in fantasy media. While editing this episode, Jack showed me a great example of encountering unfamiliar food from a different culture in one of his favourite shows Star Trek. Commander Riker participates in an officer cultural exchange programme and begins to understand the Klingon culture through its food. If, like me, you’re curious about checking it out – the episode is called A Matter of Honour. If you know of any other fictional examples of different cultures interacting with each other without the Western colonial perspective, I’d love to hear them! Thanks for such a fun conversation, Aditi. And thanks for all the editing and recommendations, Jack!

[Outro music]

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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