A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Lord of the Rings

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!

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

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript: 

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

Photograph of Anna Milon

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Anna: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yes.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah that’s a very good point.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Exactly.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Anna: It’s a lot of weird creatures.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Oh dear.

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

Parinita: Wow.

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

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

Anna: No, I got off lightly.

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

Anna: Yeah, luckily they didn’t.

Parinita: Yeah. Because –

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

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

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

Parinita: Uh huh yeah. [laughs]

Anna: Got the numbers right.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Um so yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna: Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

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

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

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

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