A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Religion

Episode 15 A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles

2) Essay – What Does God Need With a Space Station?

3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning 

4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question

6) TV show episode – Star Trek The Next Generation: Who Watches The Watchers?

7) TV show episode – Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Accession

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

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited

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

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

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

13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy

14) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Book of Dune

15) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Professor Stephanie Paulsell

16) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fear of the Borg

 

Episode Transcript

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

Photo of Ziv Wities

[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 fifteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Ziv Wities about the representation of religion in speculative fiction. We also discuss Jewish faith traditions: how they are similar to fandom culture and how they diverge. In the beginning of the episode, we talk about Orson Scott Card’s ideas about humanism in religion but don’t explicitly mention or criticise his homophobic views – so I’m taking this opportunity to clarify that we abhor his bigotry.

It’s rare to find religious representation in mainstream fiction. If religious people do exist in science fiction and fantasy, their portrayals are quite extreme and they’re often featured as antagonists. Religion is largely used as an excuse for people to do terrible things without any other context or explanation. While religious zealots do exist, by always linking religion to violence and irrationality, mainstream media perpetuates a limited idea of religion.

For many people, religion is the lens through which they make sense of the world and engage with ideas of morality. Science fiction and fantasy explores several themes that religion is also interested in. An increasing number of people use popular culture to engage with moral issues and navigate the world they inhabit. Religious fans read themselves into non-religious media to address their underrepresentation and misrepresentation in fictional worlds. These interpretations offer a way to learn about religion as well. There are some instances where faith is represented in nuanced and complex ways which explore multiple perspectives of religious canon. But we need more stories which grapple with how ideas of religion, pluralism and humanism fit together and how people of different faiths can co-exist.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Ziv Wities on the podcast. Ziv is Orthodox Jewish and lives in Israel. At various times, he’s lived on kibbutz, in Jerusalem, on Mount Gilboa, and mostly in the country’s centre, orbiting Tel Aviv. Besides programming and fending off his three loving children, Ziv is Assistant Editor at Diabolical Plots, and Associate Editor at PodCastle. You can find him on Twitter @QuiteVague or on his website. In this episode, we’re exploring representations of faith in speculative fiction. As I’ve mentioned many times on this podcast, I’m not really a religious person which is why when I’m reading or watching fantasy and science fiction, I don’t usually actively think about religion and whether or not it is present in the world or the way in which it is present. Which is why I’m so glad to be able to chat with someone who is religious and who does think about these issues. Even going through the really thoughtful texts that Ziv recommended has expanded my mind in so many ways. So before we begin, Ziv, do you want to talk about your own engagement with this topic?

Ziv: [laughs] It’s an interesting question because I feel like there’s not been a lot of it. I always feel that I’m looking for it and it’s so rare to actually find religious representation in mainstream fiction. There are a few notable exceptions; a few places that lit up and I said, “Oh my goodness that’s what I’ve been looking for.” More recently there’s been things like Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series which addresses it in really interesting ways. It kind of talks around it, not going into any specific faith but rather about the need and the role of faith in community. One story that stuck out for me in one of the Hyperion books. It’s a book that’s built of multiple shorter stories and one of them is about a scholar who is writing about the sacrifice of Isaac when Abraham is ordered to sacrifice Isaac to god. And the whole story is framed as him debating the morality and trying to understand what we’re even supposed to learn from that story. And I loved that because it connected to me so deeply to how we think about it. One of the things [laughs] and probably the author I’ve seen talk about this most and most explicitly is Orson Scott Card – who has addressed it in great detail and also is a huge can of worms.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] So I feel like he has very unusual insight as a very popular – at the time when I was reading him in the nineties – a very popular and influential author who definitely had this in his fiction in different ways [laughs] and everything that comes with that.

Parinita: Before we read the Introduction to Cruel Miracles, I didn’t actually know enough about Orson Scott Card and his beliefs or even his writing until I came across some memes recently.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia.

Ziv: J. K. Rowling – yes! [laughs]

Parinita: From fans of him and Lovecraft welcoming Rowling’s fans into their fold.

Parinita: I really enjoyed his essay because of the way that he approached it and his arguments made sense. He says that the lack of characters who are religious in not only science fiction and fantasy but also literary fiction is a bit weird considering how important a framework religion is to many people. Not just in the US and India and Israel but all over the world, right? A lot of people use religion to make sense of the world and it plays a really important part in their lives. And if everyone was so hostile to religion as these texts that we love seem to lead us to believe, then obviously religion wouldn’t survive.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: If everyone was above religion as most of science fiction seems to think, there really wouldn’t be a role for it. And what I really liked in the blog post, What Does God Need With A Space Station? was that she spoke about how religion is about people. Sure it’s about god as well, but it’s mostly about interactions with each other and with your idea of religion and your idea of god and how that impacts your own life. I thought that was a really nice idea of religion, since I’m not a religious person but come from a deeply religious country. In India, religion plays a huge role – different religions, not just Hinduism.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: More so now than ever before, I am keenly aware of how much religion can be weaponised and is weaponised and used to exclude groups of people, right? I’m sure you’re well aware of that as well.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: I am also really interested in the humanistic idea of religion which Orson Scott Card’s Introduction delved into a little bit. He was talking about religious themes and ideas rather than this one true religion – even though he’s Mormon. Or was Mormon. I don’t know.

Ziv: Yeah. He is, yes. Very much so. I think that the comparison to Rowling and to Lovecraft are apt in a certain way. But I feel like for the people who were strong Card fans, it was so much a shock or a gradual awakening. I understand there are people who saw him as problematic much, much earlier. But to a lot of readers, Card was the great humanist. If you look at works like Ender’s Game and the sequels, which have such a theme of learning to recognise wider and wider bands of beings as being people.

Parinita: Hmm.

Ziv: And I think that his saying of hey, religious people are in that category too; they are also in a category of people that should be recognised and empathised with and seen as yet another  way to look at the world and another place that people come from. Certainly as a reader of his fiction, it spoke to me very strongly. [laughs] And if we look beyond that, you can certainly see his later activity and opinions as feeling very contrary to that.

Parinita: I mean that’s similar to J. K. Rowling, right?

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I’ve grown up with her books like a lot of fans now and they’re like, “But your books taught me to be inclusive and open-minded and kind and compassionate to everybody and now … you’re not?”

Ziv: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: Okay we thought your books were talking about one thing. But apparently it only existed for a certain group of people. Well, we’re rejecting that. We’re still going to keep the message and maybe divorce you from your text.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: And also the question of author’s intent versus fan interpretations, right? Fans might have not taken what the author meant for them to take.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So now people are going back to the text and they’re like, “No, there’s lots of problems.” Not only now,  this has been happening earlier too but because I’ve been listening to podcasts recently …

Ziv: Gradually because it’s been so popular.

Parinita: Yeah. I started reading Harry Potter when I was ten and it was hugely important to me for many reasons.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: When you grow up with something, you don’t have the ability or the vocabulary or even the thought processes to identify these things. And now I’m re-reading it as an adult and I’m like, “Oh! Okay. All right.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I still love it but …

Ziv: Always dangerous.

Parinita: Yeah. But I’m able to criticise it because I love it.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And all the problematic elements including transphobic jokes where men in dresses are often the butt of jokes in the series.

Ziv: Yeah. Ugh.

Parinita: Which, without knowing her views now, I would never have thought too much about it. But now I’m like, “Oh! Okay.”

Ziv: [laughs] Yup.

Parinita: And then, of course, going to the other end where if religious people do exist in speculative fiction, many times the portrayals are quite extreme. You mentioned this trope that religious people are seen as adversaries to the protagonist. Were you specifically thinking of Station Eleven?

Ziv: It’s one of the more recent books that I’ve read where this was a strong element. It’s a trope that you see over and over where there’s some science fictional concept in the world, there are aliens, but there’s a religious sect that think that the aliens are evil. There are robots, but people think that robots are soulless and a travesty. There is cloning but there is a religious sect that thinks that this thing is a bad thing. And when you define religion in that way, it comes out as incredibly shallow. Because what you’ve basically said is there are religious nuts who will believe anything. And I’m going to create one whose set of beliefs is very specifically what I need for the story. It’s kind of a statement that rational people would not object to this thing. The reader who is rational will be on my side – he will recognise nuance, the reader will understand that this is an important thing or an interesting thing or something that has a lot of potential. But those religious zealots, they are going to just reject it out of hand with no thought. And they’ll do it because somebody has told them that it is a religious principle and that’s all there is to it. Like religious people or some religious people are a kind of blank slate that you can just give a random order to and they’ll go, “Yup, I’m going to believe that.” With no context! [laughs] With no nothing else.

Parinita: Yeah! And I find it really interesting as well because, until you mentioned that you wanted to talk about Station Eleven a bit, I didn’t even think of it. I’d read this book a few years ago, so I didn’t really remember it very well. I have a terrible memory so every time I re-read a book that’s not Harry Potter, it’s like, “I have no idea what happens!”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: So I went back to the book and I read it, and I encountered the Prophet character, who is the one that is this religious zealot and like a cult leader almost. The first time I read it, and even when I was re-reading it, keeping your comments in mind –  the brief comments you made in our emails.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I was like, “Oh yeah, but people like this do exist.” In India, you see this with godmen and godwomen who are like this, especially now when we have this Hindu fascist government, a Hindu supremacist government in power, you do see more of that more explicitly. But then when I was thinking about that more, I thought but if that’s your only representation of religion not just in the books –

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: But in mainstream media at large, I mean of course, these people exist. But then how is that different from tropes about different races or disabilities or religions as well. If you say all people belonging to a certain religion or just religion at large are these extremist fundamentalist zealots, then that’s also doing a great disservice to religious people and religious fans who aren’t like that.

Ziv: Yeah, absolutely. And the reason I brought Station Eleven as an example is it’s a good book, it’s a compelling book, it’s a book with a lot of appeal. But if you look at how the Prophet is constructed, it’s a character who is presented as being intensely unlikable. This is not a charismatic person. And yet, somehow, he has converted town upon town, community on community, to do exactly what he says even when he’s not around, by no mechanism. All the mechanisms of religion are mechanisms of community; of having a community that acts in certain ways and in certain interests. But you get the impression of the Prophet as somebody who is kind of this spoiled kid. But he comes to a place, he says, “I’m a Prophet and you should behave in these horrible ways and punish everybody who disagrees.” And apparently everybody just goes along with that for no apparent reason.

Parinita: Well, one of the reasons in that is violence, right? They have a lot of access to guns, I believe. That’s how they’ve seem to have cowed down a lot of towns.

Ziv: So that’s definitely brought in but first of all, that’s not a religion. That’s just violence. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: In order to get those and in order to get the people who are with him, if he was the leader of a gang of thugs who found the first weapons cache and just built on that, that would make sense. But putting it into the trappings of religion, it just doesn’t follow any of the natural progression that a faith or a community does. It’s just using the clothing of religion in order to say we don’t actually need to justify why these people are being so horrible. Rather, religion is something that gives people permission to be horrible, and that’s the only explanation you need.

Parinita: I mean I definitely saw the Prophet and his followers the people who are too scared to not follow him as more of a cult than a religion. And of course a lot of cults are based in both traditional as well as non-traditional religions in India, in the US, in different parts of the world.

Ziv: Um hmm yeah.

Parinita: So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, one of the episodes they looked at house-elves as a cult and a religion. Basically they were like the house-elf community could be a cult but Dobby, by leaving it, showed that it’s not. Because he was able to leave it. That’s how they differentiated between a religion and a cult. In a religion you wouldn’t be killed or you wouldn’t be ostracised – I mean you might be, depending on which part of the world you’re in – but you’re able to leave a religion and either not be religious anymore or find a different religion. Whereas a cult if you leave, like in Station Eleven –

Ziv: The cult will retaliate.

Parinita: They’ll put graves down for you.

Ziv: Yeah. And I think that’s exactly it. The blurring of the line, the equation between a religion and a cult is exactly what a lot of these stories do. Because it’s definitely common to see a religion in this sense where some of the adherents are not actually faithful. But they’re just too afraid. But the way that a cult works – cults have specific dynamics of how they target people who are vulnerable, about how they isolate them and keep them away from being able to possibly leave. Cults almost by definition are pretty small because in order to scale up [laughs] to the degree that they can isolate each and every one of their members and keep people from being able to leave, that’s just not possible at large-scale.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: That’s exactly what I feel is so harmful is saying that religions and cults are basically the same thing. Each one of them has their problems but they’re very different ones.

Parinita: In these instances where religion is portrayed negatively, there seems to be a perceived conflict between humanism and religion. Like you’re saying, religion is very much framed in a cult-like manner where there’s not really any engagement with religious themes and ideas that a lot people would consider as religious themes and ideas.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I know a group of people could be more fundamentalist in their beliefs but, again, that’s the problem, right? If your mainstream media and culture only shows that aspect of religion and the violence that’s done with it, then that’s a problem as well. Because then you’re painting everyone with the same brush and you have this toxic idea of religion.

Ziv: Yeah. I think it’s vanishingly rare for any of these religious portrayals or portrayals of cults or spirituality as being something that you can have any sympathy with being attracted to. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: They’re never portrayed in a way that you can say, “Well, I can see why some people go with this.”

Parinita: Yeah. It’s like a very irrational sort of thing. There’s already this idea that religion is irrational.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: And when I was younger and I was growing up in this religious household – my mum is super religious, but the kind of religious who believes in different kinds of religions. So it’s not so much a thing that oh this religion is the correct religion but because she’s had different influences – she went to a Catholic school, grew up in a Hindu household, and culturally, India is very Hindu. She also goes to mosques and things – basically [laughs] any sort of religious thing that would have her, she’ll go. And she’ll find solace in that. But for me, as a teenager, I really chafed at that because it didn’t make sense to me. She wasn’t learned and neither am I in theology or religion from a scholarly point of view. So all these questions that I had like why must we do this? A lot of Hinduism and or at least a lot of people who culturally follow Hinduism, there are a lot of patriarchal ideas there. So things like, for women, for example – this is the thing that I remember I first started fighting about – when women are on their period, you can’t go into a temple because you’re considered unclean.

Ziv: Uh huh.

Parinita: And this was something that didn’t make sense to me. And I was all like, “No, if you have a correct answer, I’ll give you the benefit of doubt. “

Ziv: Um hmm. [laughs]

Parinita: But she obviously didn’t have an answer because she didn’t know enough about it even to be able to give an answer. Her answer was, “No, this is the way that it is.” And I was like, “Nope, that’s not happening with me.” [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs] Not enough, not enough.

Parinita: Which is why I started questioning religion. And I think earlier I was much more anti-religion than I am now. And I think it was because of that; because I grew up feeling like religion was imposed on me. So I chafed at that.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think that the danger is that atheism can also become a kind of fundamentalism. A lot of atheists do have that toxic side where it’s, “Either the way that we think is correct or you’re wrong. You’re stupid. You’re irrational. You’re not someone worth talking to.” I don’t think I was quite that far gone, but I was heading in that direction until I found more of these ideas that, “Wait, no, not all religious people are like this.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Not all religious people are “irrational”. It’s just like you said, a way of making sense of the world. You’re using religion as a way to engage with the world, to engage with people, to engage with these ideas of morals and just what it means to be a good person.

Ziv: Um hmm. A lot of that is definitely there. I feel like the kind of die-hard atheism – the angry atheism is not too much part of the landscape in fiction just because those are pretty uninteresting stories of religious people are stupid. You definitely see it or it slips in sometimes. I keep going back to the lyrics to Imagine where he wishes for no religion too. I’m like, “Well I don’t appreciate that!” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I’m with you on all the peace and harmony and stuff but why can’t religion be a part of that?

Ziv: I think it’s a fascinating tension. But that’s one of the lines that just stands out to me as just like wait a second, if your definition of peace and harmony specifically excludes me, then I’m not sure about it, am I?

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And in similar ways I think to some extent, it’s just not on people’s radar. People who are not devout, who are not faithful, who don’t have a particular spiritual practice, don’t have a sense of how that affects a person’s life or how that’s a sympathetic point of view. And so they don’t put it in because they’re not aware of it. Which is similar to a lot of other blind-spots that people have.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And another part of it is particularly in fiction, I think religion is a particularly challenging thing to put in because it kind of requests or requires that people buy into a whole additional worldview but also keep it at arm’s length and be able to differentiate between the physical reality that is being described and the spiritual side that is being attested to. And if you’re going to do all that and it’s not going to be a huge issue in the story, then a lot of stories leave it out. I think in a similar way to the way a lot of marginalised communities and identities get left out because people are like, “Well, I could make the character gay but if it’s not important to the story, that will be putting a lot of effort and it won’t pay off in any way.” And in a similar way putting in religion is as difficult or more difficult because it’s literally a different perception of reality. Or a different way of living.

Parinita: Plus I think the tension is that because religion forms the social and cultural framework of so many countries, I feel like it’s not seen as marginalised in the same way that being gay or being disabled in fiction can be.

Ziv: Absolutely. Oh, it’s so different.

Parinita: Yeah. This is something I hadn’t really thought of until I was preparing for this episode and went through a few of the texts that you had suggested as well as a few of the other texts that we looked at. I realised then that’s also so problematic where religion is so invisible or so irrelevant in your world. That does end up marginalising religious people all over the world.

Ziv: I want to be very careful here because there are ways in which the comparison or even the use of the same terminology is very wrong. Like in Israel, you cannot say that Judaism is marginalised or that Orthodox Judaism is marginalised. It’s absolutely the opposite. Religious people have tremendous power, ultra-Orthodox people have tremendous power, the Rabbinate has tremendous power including who can get married or who can get divorced. It’s not a marginalisation in most terms that we’re used to speaking about.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But in terms of visibility and portrayal or how much it’s assumed to be within consensus or within the default in mainstream media, it’s very, very different. [laughs] It’s just a strange place to be.

Parinita: India is the same. That’s why I really liked the book Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer – I’m saying the book, I’ve read four chapters – just extracts of it. You can read the extracts for free on Tor.com. But you suggested reading a bit of the book and I just couldn’t stop reading.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I was so utterly and immediately bewitched by it not just because of the worldbuilding and the characters and everything but because of the way in which religion seems to play such an important role … but also not really.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: This novel proposes that religion should be deeply personal and individual and nobody else should know about your religious beliefs. That’s the premise of this futuristic world.

Ziv: I found that fascinating. It immediately captivated me because it speaks so directly to the tension that we were talking about. To the tension between faith and the way that faith is. If you say, well I believe in this thing, it’s very difficult to say no, no you don’t. But at the same time, what right does that give you to exert power over other people? So this attempt to say, well okay, you can have faith but it needs to be entirely personal, is fantastic, in the best way of exploring an interesting idea.

Parinita: And the Sensayer as well.

Ziv: Yeah. The Sensayer is this concept of a personal spiritual adviser who never expresses his own opinion but guides an individual through his own spiritual thoughts and points them to various religious beliefs that have been adopted or discussed in the world and throughout history. So he helps everybody craft their very own personal, individual religion which they can’t tell anybody else about. [laughs] And I found it absolutely delightful. Some of it is so attractive – the idea of having faith without impinging against anybody else. And in some other ways, it just makes no sense [laughs] because if that particular approach doesn’t actually work with your beliefs, then can you limit yourself to it? If you read the entire book, it addresses similar themes on a lot of different topics. But it reminds me a lot how during the enlightenment period I think it was, there was a common saying in Judaism that you should be a Jew in your home and a man outside your home; to keep your religious persona entirely distinct from who you are in the outside world. And there are things that I think resonate very strongly with that and things that are also kind of horrifying about that. About the idea that you can believe something very strongly and that it be such an influential thing on your life but also you can’t make that known in any way. Or people will think badly of you.

Parinita: No, I’m with you there totally. The idea is super interesting. I’ve ordered the book because I want to read it and find out what happens because the book is amazing [based on the extract I read]. It just caught me off-guard. But, at the same time, this idea that nobody else should know about your religious beliefs is quite problematic as well because it prevents you from finding community.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, for me, is the most appealing thing. I’m non-religious but for me, this idea of finding community and meeting together to talk to people who may not be from the same social, cultural, even political backgrounds but you’re all still coming together to … I don’t know have a meal or just do something in a church or in a temple or whatever. In Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, that’s something that they explore a lot where they have people from different religious and faith backgrounds come and talk to them through the Harry Potter framework. But they emphasise the community aspect so much as well. Where it is a way for them to provide this community – the podcast itself for people from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. Whereas in Too Like The Lightning it has this vaguely uncomfortable idea of how marginalised people are meant to assimilate to the dominant culture. And leave behind their beliefs and practices in an effort to fit in.

Ziv: Yes.

Parinita: In most countries, of course, there’s a dominant religion. In India, Hinduism is the dominant religion. So a bit of what you’re saying about Jewish people during the Enlightenment period would be now applicable for Muslims or Christians in India.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s much more difficult because of the names. In Mumbai, where I am from, there’s this huge, horrible thing that people with Muslim names find it much harder to rent flats because housing societies don’t want Muslim people in their community. Imagine that level of social and structural persecution.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: So yeah. This idea of “Oh yeah you don’t need to talk about your religion at all” is a bit problematic.

Ziv: And honestly, I think that’s often where religious stories shine most – when you’re a persecuted religion. When you’re a minority. And I think that’s often when religion shines most as well. It’s kind of a way to unite a group that is persecuted. It’s very, very different than when you’re a dominant religion and being religious means you get to dictate religious rules.

Parinita: Yeah. With Judaism, it’s something that I’m very new to – not Judaism itself but Jewishness.

Ziv: [laughs] Um hmm.

Parinita: In India, we’re not really taught so much. Our understanding of Jewishness is very tied to World War II and what happened there. But this book that I was reading called Anti-Judaism explores the history of Jewish persecution which went much beyond that. It went right to two thousand years ago. A history which I was completely unaware of.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I currently live in the UK where anti-Semitism is a part of the mainstream conversation. But for me, I don’t recognise a lot of what would be anti-Semitic. Because I don’t know what the tropes and stereotypes are, which someone in the West may take for granted. And, of course, in Israel, like you said, being Jewish is the dominant religion.  But not in other parts of the world. It’s the same with like Hinduism, right. In India, even though I’m not religious, because of my name and my background, I’m a part of the dominant culture. But in the UK, I’m suddenly othered.

Ziv: Yup.

Parinita: That’s why I really like this idea that there’s this huge potential of exploring religious themes and questions in science fiction and fantasy even without perhaps explicitly calling it religious themes. It’s something that Orson Scott Card said in his Introduction and it’s something that the Faith in Fantasy episode of Imaginary Worlds explored as well where it was a panel of different faith leaders who were discussing the role of religion in science fiction and fantasy. And Eric, the host, said that science fiction and fantasy asks a lot of the same questions that religion asks. I loved that idea. And it’s something that I hadn’t considered before listening to this podcast a few weeks ago.

Ziv: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s fascinating in that way and I honestly think that fiction nowadays gives a similar outlet or place of discussion – a different forum to talk about the same questions. A lot of the things that they raise are, “Is there a purpose to being? Is there a plan? Are our actions pre-ordained in any way? What is free will?” are all questions to a large degree of faith. And you don’t necessarily have to believe to find them meaningful. You don’t have to believe in order to ask yourself, “Are things going to work out because that’s the way the universe works? Or are we all a cosmic accident that might be eaten by a black hole tomorrow and nobody would know.” And how do I want to act because even if I do believe that we could all be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow. I don’t necessarily want to behave as though that is true even if I technically believe it is. Because I don’t think that that’s right. I don’t think that many people do behave as though none of our actions matter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Or as though you can be immoral in private as long as nobody finds out.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Ziv: I don’t think that’s true of anybody. I mean I’m sure it’s true of some people, but I don’t think that that’s how morality works regardless of faith. I don’t think that’s how people grasp it or behave.

Parinita: Absolutely. I completely agree. Because, for me, morality has never been tied to religion, for example.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I don’t remember being religious. I went to Catholic school and grew up in a Hindu household so I have those rituals and traditions that I have a connection to or I have experience with but never that idea that … like in Hinduism, there is the idea of karma.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Where if you do good things now, you’ll be rewarded in your next birth – in your reincarnation. The evils that you’re suffering now is a result of your past life. And again, like I said, rebellious teenager, this never made sense to me. So I was like, “But why would I just do good things for the future self? Why wouldn’t I do good things because I like people?” I think kindness is more important than yeah, I don’t want to be born as a cockroach or whatever. Sorry, I don’t really know so much about Hinduism in a scholarly way so sorry Hindu people listening to this podcast.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love stories – both fictional and real. That’s the framework that I use to make sense of the world. I know there’s a lot of literature about how fiction does lead to empathy among readers. I don’t know how true that is empirically but I have found that true for me. I’ve been reading since I was five or something and haven’t stopped. I love this idea of fans treating non-religious popular culture texts as sacred in much the same way as religious people treat religious texts as sacred.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re doing a little bit of that in this podcast but Harry Potter and the Sacred Text does it so much more explicitly.

Ziv: [laughs] Yes, very much so. I think it’s a really interesting observation. Because first of all, I agree entirely. I think just literally the question of what is good, what is behaving well, what is virtue – is easy to say is a religious question. It isn’t a religious question. But it’s a question that religion talks a lot about. [laughs]

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And if you don’t get into spirituality or metaphysics, if you stick with strictly what is observable or what is utilitarian, it’s just harder to discuss. You can feel personally that you’re a better person for behaving well, even if it has no consequence without needing to justify that. It’s not a matter of faith necessarily but it is a matter of belief, in a way. I’m connecting with what you’re saying about how the way that people analyse stories now – fiction – in order to figure out to a better extent if a character is good, in what way are they good? If somebody was good and then a bad thing happened, is that how things work? The way that people use fiction now in order to talk about morality is really interesting. And I think it’s very, very similar to what is done in religion where stories and the interpretations of those stories are a lot of the basis for understanding what is good behaviour.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: You gave some interesting examples where people really compared for example the construction of Midrash which in Judaism are these fairly far-out interpretations of biblical texts that seem very disconnected from the original text or what it simply means. And they add in all kinds of fantastical things and elements that seem very far-removed from the original text. But they often come in response to something, to some question. In Hebrew you call it a [speaks Hebrew] – a difficulty with the original text that they feel they have to explain. For example, if you look at the biblical text there’s very little about Esau actually being in any way offensive or hurtful towards Jacob – towards Yaʿqob. But most people remember them as bitter enemies and Esau as somehow being a very vile person and unworthy successor. And most of that is not the plain text. It’s Midrash. It’s interpretation. And it’s fairly well-accepted that the reason for all those Midrashi interpretations are because people felt so uncomfortable with well, why is Esau being treated in this way and being neglected in this way and being punished in all these ways if he didn’t do anything bad? He must have done something to deserve it. And the comparison that these podcasts were making were that fanfiction often works in very similar ways. There are ways that people want to bring text more into sync with how they experience life. Or they’re missing something in the text and they want to add it in. And so they add something to it. And that’s a very interesting comparison. My [laughs] immediate reaction to some of this is that there is still a very fundamental difference between trying to interpret something that you are assuming baseline is true or is meaningful or is divine versus something that an author has written and you know is very likely flawed or has mistakes or just hasn’t been completely edited or all kinds of things like that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: There’s a fundamental difference. But I do agree that the approach of wanting to fix it has a lot of similarities.

Parinita: Just to add to that, in this Anti-Judaism book that I was talking to you about, so the author is a Jewish historian. He was looking at the history of anti-Jewishness in culture, religion and just in mainstream society right from, I think, the ancient Egyptian civilisation. That’s where he began. And he was talking about how even the religious texts – and this is true even in Hindu religious texts – that what is treated as canon is subjective because it was written a hundred or a hundred and fifty years after the historical events happened. It depends on who had control of canon; who decided which interpretations are more valid than others. And he was talking about how in Jewish scholarship, there are a lot of debates about that. And again for me, it’s all through second-hand experiences – it’s all through people like him and even on these podcasts that I learn these things. Like the Imaginary Worlds episode where the Rabbi spoke about canon in Judaism; and even in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. But I thought that was really interesting. Which groups of people are considered to be more privileged than others and how that changes 2,500 years after the events.

Ziv: I can’t speak to other religions but in Judaism you feel that very, very strongly. Because so many of our texts are a) edited or very clearly edited. Like the entire Talmud which is the basis of modern Halakhah – modern Jewish law, it’s literally a summary of various versions of: this Rabbi ruled this way, this Rabbi ruled the second way – well, was it the same case? There’s this one difference. Maybe there was a difference and that’s why they ruled differently. It’s these long and very highly, very clearly edited discussions of what the rulings were in a lot of different cases. And you can see how the framing of that, the person or the people who did the editing and who composed it, the person whose argument they bring last is generally considered to be correct. So it’s the editor who’s deciding what the actual ruling is or should be. I think that’s one of the interesting things. Judaism always seems to be a very argumentative religion. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Which is one of the things I really love about it. It’s very explicitly founded on, “Yes, we believe in a truth but there are many of us and we believe in many different truths.”  Or many different variations on the truths. And that’s built in very, very strongly from the sacrifice of Isaac where god says okay, you sacrifice him. But no, actually not really. To Abraham arguing over whether or not god should destroy the sinners in Sodom. And on through the Halakhic construction of the Talmud. It’s so baked in that religion happens through arguments. There’s a wonderful Midrash, I guess you’d call it a fable, about a rabbi who was arguing with another group of rabbis over what a certain ruling was. And the rabbi said, “Well, if I’m correct, then a voice would come out of the heavens and say I, this rabbi, he is correct.” And a voice came out from the heavens and said, “Yes, he is correct in this ruling.” And the other rabbis say, “Yeah, but we don’t determine Halakhah by voices coming out of the heavens. We determine them by arguing.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: “So we disagree, so Halakhah is what we say.” And that’s the kind of character that a religion or a community can have that makes it unique and different from other cultures. I’m sure that first of all, any other religion will have its own fundamental stories and own fundamental self-definitions of how they think and how the world works and how virtue is decided and how decisions are made. And even within a certain religion, you’ll have many, many different views and variations and interpretations. Even if they have a common base, they will still have their own interpretations of how the world works and how religion is decided and what the faith should be. That’s precisely the kind of nuance that I feel is so often absent and missing and neglected. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a few of the episodes that we listened to spoke about the idea of the sacred text and the difference between sacred and perfect. Where perfect doesn’t really leave any room for arguments and questions and debates – like this is the one truth, there isn’t room for different truths, like you were saying. And with Hinduism, we were speaking about this on a previous episode. I’m completely ignorant about all religions but I have friends who, even though they’re non-religious, they know more about it than me. And one of my friends was talking about how even within Hinduism, depending on which part of the country in India as well as different South Asian countries you go, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, those are our two texts – mythological stories which form the basis for a lot of Hindu religion. And based on where you go, the lens through which you view is different; which characters are important are different. In some places, they even look at it from what is traditionally the villain’s point of view. You have Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana and Ravana is supposed to be the demon king and he’s supposed to be the villain, as simplistic as that sounds. But there are some parts of the country and even parts of south Asia that look at him as the hero and at the others as coming and almost like taking over the culture and taking over the country basically. So a bit like colonisation before it was colonisation. [laughs] I don’t know enough about it. But that’s what I find really interesting – which voices come to the fore is so culturally, socially and even historically determined. Now, there are so many more scholars, not just in Judaism but in Christianity, in Hinduism and different parts of different religions that are looking for these stories that were invisible and belonging to these marginalised groups and trying to bring those to the fore as well. Which I love. And that’s what I also love about fandom which is essentially doing the same thing. Like Harry Potter for example, very white, there’s a handful of people of colour just for diversity points, but there are people and fans who feel so strongly about this world that they read themselves into the story. For example, Hermione Granger is black, that’s a huge part of fandom. And Harry Potter is half-South Asian.

Ziv: Yeah.

Fan art of Indian Harry Potter, black Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley

Parinita: Similarly, going back to religion, religious fans are reading themselves into seemingly non-religious science fiction and fantasy texts as a way to address their under-representation or misrepresentation. Otherwise the way that religious characters are represented is so one-dimensional that when you’re not talking about religion, you almost see yourself in it more. We’ve spoken about something similar with disabled characters and with characters of different races as well. In a few of the comments of the posts that we read, they were looking at Tolkien as well – Lord of the Rings and how Judaism fits into that and someone read Asterix and Obelix as a Jewish story. [laughs]

Ziv: Interesting.

Parinita: Yeah. It was in the comments of Fantasy and the Jewish Question. They said that, “The story may be about French against Romans but beneath the surface it’s a classic the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile story with the small village the protagonists live in as the classic Jewish town.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Which again, I don’t know enough about Judaism, but I thought it was really interesting that a Jewish fan would read it as such and Superman as a Jewish tale as well. And in the Faiths in Fantasy episode, they saw Doctor Who regenerations as the Jewish concept of beginning again and the Jedi as Sufi mystics. You’re just reading yourself into the story. Even Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being read as either Jesus or Mohammed or Moses – I find that really exciting. Because I’m also learning about religion through those interpretations.

Ziv: Yeah. That was definitely a foundational text for me because it made me realise how much a story’s structure has so many assumptions just baked into it. And how it’s often said of Jews that our most primordial story is, “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: It’s the constant repeating Jewish story. The kind of recognition of how so many common adventure narratives or fantasy or science fiction narratives are so completely alien to that. They’re so often like, “Oh no there is a disruption to the natural order.” Whereas [laughs] if you look at Jews through the ages, the natural order just isn’t so good.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: When you start recognising those patterns, it makes you notice them a lot more. And it makes you realise that every culture and every community probably has their own patterns that you shouldn’t just take for granted are the same as yours. And it makes you look for them a lot more and recognise a lot more when one of them keeps repeating.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: I think themes of persecution are very easy for Jews to identify with ’cause a lot of our stories are really there. I keep joking that as far as I’m concerned – a lot of this was in the context of an article called The Jewish Narnia

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: Where a reviewer – I forget the name – was asking why are there no Jewish authors writing something as popular, as enduring as Narnia. And some of the answers being that the basic fundamental Jewish stories are very different from the adventurous stories that we’re used to seeing. And I said that A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is about a couple of kids –

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Three kids whose parents were killed and are running for their lives and they keep getting into horrible situations and needing to navigate a morally grey field of what is actually the right thing to do – that’s a story that I identify with my texts and my culture.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] I love that. I’ve gotten a lot through fandom myself. But even now I’m constantly learning especially with fan podcasts because there’s so much to learn. People from backgrounds that aren’t represented largely in mainstream media and culture are inserting their own perspectives and their own experiences and I love it. Because it’s just like this giant school for free – I mean you do need internet and stuff

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But otherwise it’s free. Despite the overall absence of religion in SFF, there are a few instances where faith is represented. Sometimes fictional faiths, but they do draw parallels to real-world religions.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So I found the two Star Trek episodes that we watched for this really interesting – one was Who Watches The Watchers? in The Next Generation. I’m not really very familiar with Star Trek even though my boyfriend is trying to get me into it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He’s a huge Next Generation and Picard fan. I found that one so interesting just because of the question that it had about what counts as religion and what just counts as advanced science. And how you can mess up stuff. But I think it showed religion in a much more agnostic way than the other episode – Accession – did. In Deep Space Nice – Deep Space Nice? [laughs] – Deep Space Nine – it had faith as a much more normalised – even though normal is a word that I’m very suspicious of – but as a much more normalised part of the world. And I don’t know the context of the world because I watched those episodes in isolation. Whereas in the first episode, religion seemed to be something that they were trying to distance themselves from.

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: It was much more like a regular everyday part of their lives.

Ziv: Right. The episode of Next Generation, if I recall correctly, it’s got them accidentally contacting a more primitive culture and the primitive culture thinking of them in religious terms or as gods. And it was so important for them to not create those superstitions or those false beliefs. That’s certainly an interesting conflict. I don’t think there’s any basis of morality where you want to be confused accidentally for a god. And it brings an interesting discussion of what is faith, what is worth believing in, what is a religion? But it does definitely have the underlying current of, “We don’t want to encourage this.” In Deep Space Nine, basically a character comes out of nowhere and is immediately kind of crowned a spiritual leader and he tries to bring a very spiritual culture back to a previous state that they’d had with a caste system and with older beliefs. And a lot of what the episode is about is how readily this spiritual culture agrees to that and plays along with it even though it’s devastating to them.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But what that episode does which I feel is very, very unusual is it has sympathy and understanding for the people who want this to work. It doesn’t have us wanting it to work. It doesn’t have us wanting the Bajorans to go back to a caste system. But it does show us why people might be willing to do absurd things because they believe it. [laughs] Honestly, I don’t think there’s an argument more than that. They do it because they believe it. But they do it because of trust. And I think that’s a lot of what the episode is about because a lot of the conclusion is when this character goes away and Sisko realises that this whole thing has been kind of to nudge him into doing better at his religious position which he doesn’t want. But one of the key points is that he asks Kira – who is a sympathetic but spiritual character –he asks her, “If I told people to do that, they you know they would do all this for me?” And Kira says, “Yes because you’re the Emissary because you have this religious role.” And I think that speaks to the responsibility and ability that religion has to shape people’s lives and communities. Because in good hands, I think that’s what religion in its best form is capable of being – a way for a community to come together and shape itself to be better and to help itself.

Parinita: Yeah. And I found that episode really interesting because first of all the caste system which is fictional in this but Hinduism has a huge problem with the caste system in exactly the way that the conservative leader was trying to get the people back to. Where you’d only do the jobs that you were born to do. I could find so many parallels because in one of the scenes, someone was murdered because they belonged to a lower caste. They took care of the dead bodies; they prepared them for burial. So this person was immediately from that family – even though they didn’t do that job anymore. But everyone had switched so instantly to this idea of the caste system that because the character didn’t show the due respect to a person of a higher caste, this person pushed them down the railing and the character died. And that’s very similar to what happens in huge parts of India even today where some castes are seen as lower and some castes are seen as dirty and you can’t have interactions among castes. And you are only allowed to do certain jobs and you’re only allowed to inhabit certain parts of the village or the city or whatever. But what I found interesting in this episode was that but also that it was almost a thing between the conservative understanding of this religion versus a more progressive understanding of this religion. I guess spiritual, not progressive – a more spiritual understanding of this religion. But even the conservative leader – I think his name was Akorem – they didn’t show him to be a bad guy. They didn’t show him to be this power-hungry person. He really believed in what he was doing. Which, of course, that’s dangerous in itself.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because a lot of religions believe in what they’re doing and that leads to a lot of violence and conflict and war historically and even now. But in this case, he just wanted to do good by his people. And when they go to the prophets, who appear in the bodies of the crew members, and speak through them, he realises that he had it wrong. And he was quite okay with it. He didn’t start a civil war or anything. [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He was like, “Oh okay that’s cool, I guess, it’s fine.” So I thought that was really interesting that it was the tensions between a faith but not in a way that had a good guy and a bad guy. It was just everyone believes that they’re doing the right thing and some may be mistaken and some may not and even that is so contextual.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Amongst certain fans, they might have thought Akorem should have been the one who won. It depends on your own personal politics and beliefs.

Ziv: I like that episode because even though it definitely leans very hard into the – if I said earlier that a lot of portrayals of religion portray religious people as cultish and blindly obedient, I mean this episode has a lot of that. But it also pays a lot of attention to where that’s coming from. To the emotions that make people be willing to go along with something. To how it’s a position of trust a lot more than irrationality.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: To be absolutely clear, that trust can be misplaced,

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: The consequences can be horrendous. [laughs] The fact that people trust a leader and the fact that the leader is well-intentioned does not mean that things will work out.

Parinita: They’re not all wrong. [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] I feel like the appreciation of this is something that a person can connect to. It’s what shifts it from being an exaggerated portrayal to being something that’s more realistic.

Parinita: Yeah and there’s more room to explore, like you said, the nuances which are so missing in most religious portrayals. And even in real life really. In real life media, religion tends to be in the news only at the extremes. And that’s how I’ve spent a large part of my life – understanding religion through that framework.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just because I’ve not studied religion. I’m now more interested in reading about religion through books and podcasts; not because I want to find a religion for myself but I want to understand how religious people make sense of the world. And I think there’s a lot of similarities with the way that I make sense of the world. So it’s really interesting to me. Which is why I think a lot of non-religious people are really sceptical of religion. Because that’s the only exposure that they’ve had.

Ziv: Right. Yeah, the exposure that they have is always antagonistic.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Almost always. Or neutral. Like you can have a religious person working with you and they’ll never offend. They’ll always be right there but that’s not a positive. You’re not privy to their own spiritual world or to what connects them to their own spirituality. Unless you’re very nosy or they’re very open. And yet somehow not annoying.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] And I remember when I moved to the UK, so I stayed in Glasgow for a year and a half when I was doing my master’s. And Scotland in general but Glasgow in particular has a lot of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. And when I was in catholic school in India, it was a convent school. So basically in India when I was growing up, a convent school was for many people less about religion but we believed the nuns taught English the best. [laughs] In terms of public education, they were seen to be better than government schools which is why a lot of parents send students to convent schools. Now, of course, you have a lot of international schools and there’s class hierarchies there.

Ziv: Honestly, I think, that you see that in a lot of places in a lot of ways. I know in Israel there’s certainly a lot of places where the religious schools are seen to be better.  And I think a lot of that is because a lot of religious people go to be teachers. Or because the religious groups, the religious government parties are able to get more funding. There are a lot of reasons [laughs] for an imbalance. But definitely winds up as kind of, “Okay the religious schools are better and therefore we might send our kids to religious schools even though we’re not religious.”

Parinita: I mean in India it was very much a thing of colonisation. It was still very much a colonised mindset because, “Oh nuns yeah Christians, they must know English better. So why don’t we send them there.”

Ziv: Right. [laughs]

Parinita: But my interaction in school was we had Protestants and we had Catholics but they were all lumped together in the same group. They used to go for religious services in one area and all the non-Catholic and non-Protestant people, we had other classes during that religious studies class. And so for me, when I moved to the UK, I was like, “Oh wait, you’re fighting amongst yourselves? I thought you believed in the same thing.” And then again Anti-Judaism, I keep harking back to that book but it’s because I learned so much from it. It’s quite a dense book so I would recommend it to listeners only if you have a lot of commitment to reading it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But it was very enlightening. And he briefly touched on the Reformation and the violence that was there between Catholics and Protestants and I didn’t know a lot of this European history. And I was like, “Oh no wonder you guys seem to hate each other so much! I see what’s happening.” And now I understand why there’s so much more of a conflict in the UK even though to me it seems like you just want to find someone to hate and fight along lines of differences when you believe in the same god.” But Hinduism is the same and other religions are the same.

Ziv: It’s one of the ways that I feel it brings home that religion is not merely the question of what god you believe in or what text you believe in. So much of it is culture and geography. If I come from a city whose dominant belief is X and somebody else is from a city whose dominant belief is Y, then I might feel uncomfortable. And some of those I will attribute to religious reasons – and some of those will be strongly connected to those religious reasons because those two cities might really different ways of behaving and different values and different approaches. But it’s also connected to … just religion and culture. They are hard to tease apart.

Parinita: Yeah like India and Pakistan, right? Because again colonisation – I blame the Empire for everything. [laughs] But we’re on the brink of war with each other and we have been at war with each other a lot after the Partition which led to tremendous violence as well. But if I meet a Pakistani person here in the UK, we both have no enmity; we don’t hate each other And we’re so culturally similar with this desi South Asian culture. We’re both othered in similar ways in this country because of the colour of our skin but we also recognise similarities in each other. I’ve spoken in Hindi and called people Uncle and Aunty in the same way that I would in India even though they’re from Pakistan. Whereas when I’m in India, the news media has such terrible reports of Pakistan – which I don’t believe in anyway.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: But that’s full of this Hindu-Muslim conflict and Pakistan-India being enemies. I’m not religious so I guess it might be easier for me and I’m not patriotic either. I love India but my sense of self isn’t tied to my country.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: I would be friends with you if you’re from Pakistan or wherever anyway, but we also share so many similarities. We watch the same movies, we like similar kind of food, we have similar cultural things that we share so why wouldn’t we be friends? We have more in common now. And, of course, I’ve also grown up with a lot of Western media so I have that with white English people and white Scottish people as well. Finding commonalities and finding things to connect over rather than differences is something that I think can be used like that with religion in stories as well. Why is it always conflict and why is it not sometimes just compassion?

Ziv: Absolutely. It also works the other way around. If you have a society that seems homogeneous, that everybody believes the same things, then very often you’ll see a schism or you’ll see a separation which will play out along religious lines as well. It starts from small things like you say that you know for every two Jews, you have three synagogues. And you literally see this in actual synagogues. I live in a city with a lot of religious people. But always there are more and more people trying to open up new synagogues and small little synagogues because they don’t want to pray the way that this place does it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: And the city cannot fit these synagogues and still they will not have a single place that’s close enough for what they want. Part of it is because religion is such a big part of religious life so that’s one of the place where fault lines will appear. And part of it is because religion reflects the rest of life and so if you have people that you’re uncomfortable with, you won’t want to go to the same place of prayer that they do.

Parinita: Which is a pity. I mean I do understand why it happens but I I like this idea of people from different backgrounds coming together.  I read an article – a few articles I think – and also watched Queer Eye [laughs] where they’re talking about churches and because in the US, Christianity is the framework of that country, it was about churches with diverse pastors. I think there was a gay pastor in one of the newest episodes of Queer Eye and he grew up in a very homophobic faith tradition in his church that he went to as a young person. But now he’s trying to make it more inclusive to people who are like him – to kids from different sexualities and gender identities. And there’s a growing group of people who are trying to do this. Even in the UK, for that matter, I’ve seen a lot of secular, humanist churches where they invite people from all traditions, all faiths or no faith and come together to just share a meal and talk to each other. I wish that there were more of that. It’s fine to also have things that you believe in and a separate pocket of that. But then that can get dangerous, right? If you only have that and no interaction with people who believe differently from you, I think that’s also important.

Ziv: I’ve been on the edges of different things like that. And it’s a very interesting dynamic. Because when you have an inter-faith initiative of any kind, the first people you will actually come into contact with is other people who want an inter-faith initiative. Which is a very particular group. It’s not the same as actually coming into contact with the full variety. You’re actually coming into contact with people who are most like you but not necessarily in the same faith.

Parinita: That’s true.

Ziv: Which can be interesting. It can be fantastic and it can be very, very valuable but it’s a thing of its own.

Parinita: Yeah. No, I agree. It’s just – I think I’m a very optimistic, idealistic sometimes very naively so person so I like this idea of learning from other people in real life.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just having that physical community rather than just a virtual one. I love the podcasts, I love reading about things, but it’s also nice to have something like how you and I, we’re talking.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We come from such different backgrounds but just talking about things that we believe in, essentially. I wish that was a more normalised part of society. And you’re right, with inter-faith things, it’s a very self-selecting audience. [laughs] If you believe in it, you’ll come; if you don’t, you won’t. So it’s difficult to reach across that boundary but yeah … I don’t know, maybe someday. Maybe that’s the kind of stories that I need to write. Because I write children’s books but with no religious anything.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because like you said, it’s a blind-spot because I’m not religious, so like trying to understand that would be so difficult. I’d need to research things and then write about it. But yeah, it’s interesting.

Ziv: I guess I kind of just want to sum up to say that I think that religion is a very, very wide subject, a subject that touches on so many different aspects of life. And it’s one that is often very difficult to understand from the outside and [laughs] it’s hard for me to criticise those who don’t understand it very well, who don’t sympathise with it very much. And it’s also a topic that has so many issues and problems and difficulties because it does very often – and not in all versions of faith but in many versions of faith – have real clashes with humanism and pluralism and respect for other identities. And those can all be so challenging to grapple with. To me personally, that’s exactly why I want to see them grappled with. I feel like we need the voices who want to grapple with them, who want to figure out how we can have religion and pluralism at the same time; how we can acknowledge both the people of particular faiths and also the people outside them and respect them both. I feel like the onus of this should fall first and foremost on pluralistic religious people. Although [laughs] I feel very often like that is a small and isolated and beleaguered community.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it. That’s why I enjoyed our conversation so much. Even before we spoke, I knew I would enjoy our conversation just because of the kind of texts that you recommended.

Ziv: I’m glad.

Parinita: And the kinds of points that you brought up because like I said, I believe in a more pluralistic, humanistic version of religion which has room for all religions and no religions as well. And yeah that’s something I got a lot out of our conversation today. So thank you so much for being a part of this project and for just expanding my mind – I know I keep saying this but it’s true with everybody that I speak to, especially with people from different backgrounds – that I learn so much just through conversations and I really appreciate everybody and you coming onto this podcast. Thank you very much!

Ziv: I’m so glad. This has been really wonderful for me too. I mean this has been in the back of my mind for months since you first put out the call and I was like well what do I wanna talk about? What do I think about this? And this has helped me articulate certain points quite a bit. And also helped me figure out what else I want to articulate and can’t quite yet. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And this has been fantastic. Thank you so much.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religious representations in science fiction and fantasy. Thank you so much Ziv for challenging and expanding my beliefs about religion and for offering such thoughtful conversation. And thanks as always to Jack for discovering a dinosaur wonderland (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 13 You Want To See Yourself In That Story: The Impact Of Religion And Regional Origin

Episode Resources:

1) TV show episode – Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab 

2) Fan podcast – Verity: Angels and Demons of the Punjab

3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism 

4) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield [listen till 19 minutes 52 seconds]

5) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts [listen till 20ish minutes]

6) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer [listen till 18ish minutes]

7) Fan podcast – Fan podcast – #WizardTeam: Pottermore Edition Part 3 History of Magic in North America

8) Essay – Thor: Ragnarok is a Hilarious Blockbuster About the Evils of Imperialism

9) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s the matter with Star Wars?

Episode Transcript:

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

Doodle of an angry face. Text says: me, during podcast recording

Extremely appropriate cover image courtesy Aparna who doodled it while we were recording.

[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 thirteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Sanjana and Aparna about how religion as well as national and regional origin intersect in both the real and fictional worlds. We also discuss how governments and mainstream media weaponise these topics to oppress people. Since these issues are very relevant to current global events, please be warned that I go on several angry rants throughout this episode. Thanks to our impassioned discussion, in the beginning of the episode we begin talking about Demons of the Punjab without mentioning that it’s a Doctor Who episode about the Partition of India and not about actual demons – though I’m sure you can find people who’ve called the British Empire much worse.

Who writes history and whose version of history is portrayed by mainstream media has contemporary real-world impacts. Media can provide multiple stories and versions to counter false narratives. Alternatively, it can emphasise divisive accounts with damaging consequences for relationships among diverse groups. Fictional-world politics also have real-world parallels based on religious and national demographics. An increasing number of people are beginning to question the underlying assumptions of religious and national stories. Retellings can reclaim tradition to make it radically inclusive to historically marginalised groups of people.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Sanjana: Hello! I’m Sanjana.

Aparna: Hi! I’m Aparna.

Parinita: And hi! I’m Parinita. In today’s episode, we’re exploring the themes of religion and national or regional origin. In previous episodes, we’ve looked at how specific themes are represented in some of our favourite media but this time we’re taking a slightly different approach. All three of us are from India, though I currently live in the UK. And none of us are religious. So it didn’t really make sense to us to analyse religious representations. Instead, we’re looking at how religion and which country you come from or which part of the country you come from is weaponised by mainstream media as well as several governments including our own. So, you know, a super light-hearted topic to explore. Since this is a fan podcast, we’re going to be drawing on examples from our favourite stories and fandoms as we chat. And just to give you an idea of my mood, we were supposed to record this episode three days ago. But the research for it and the current news events depressed me so much that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s the 7th of June, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, migrants in India are dying because the government is failing them miserably on all fronts, protesters in the US are marching against police brutality and the police are responding by tear-gassing them or running them over in cars or shooting them with rubber bullets. In India, anti-government protesters are being jailed but people who shot or beat them up aren’t and J. K. Rowling is back to tweeting some transphobic bullshit again because apparently everybody was just too distracted by everything collapsing to pay attention to her. [sighs] I’m just so tired you guys.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god. That sounded very, very exhausting. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So considering where the world’s currently at, I thought the intersection of religion and national or regional origin is especially relevant.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So all three of us come from huge positions of privilege. I’m not religious but I come from a non-Dalit Hindu background. I don’t actually know my caste and this ignorance itself is an immense privilege, as is being able to ignore my religious background. So if I go to rent a flat in a Mumbai housing society, the agent won’t look at my surname and say that this society doesn’t rent homes to Muslims, as happens frequently.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And I’ve never been discriminated against because of my caste. We’re also pretty privileged in terms of what part of the country we’re from. So you both are from Bangalore and I’m from Mumbai, both big cities which tend to take more than their share of resources from rural areas. And the Indian government at the moment is actively oppressing people based on their religion. So you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re Hindu. And even if you’re Hindu, you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re upper-caste. And you also have to be from the correct country otherwise the government hates you.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And even if you’re from India, you have to be from the correct part of India and you have to be from the correct class. So if you’re middle-class or wealthier stuck abroad during the pandemic, the government will rescue you with planes. If you’re working-class or poorer stuck in cities thousands of kilometres from home, well, you’ll just have to walk back to your villages in the summer sun. Or pay for a train which has no food or ventilation or sell your life’s possessions to afford a ticket for a flight and a taxi to the airport just to find out that the flight has been cancelled. So yeah, I thought that talking about how fascist governments weaponise religion and national or regional origin was a super timely topic. What do you guys think?

Sanjana: Yeaaaaah. Pretty much. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: If it could get even more exhausting, you did make it.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: With the specifics of how exhausting the world is right now.

Aparna: In the whole world, the majority is suddenly inexplicably feeling attacked. Like they’re losing their identity and everything is just going nuts. So yeah. It is super timely is putting it mildly.

Sanjana: Pretty much. I feel like religion in history has always been like this tool to use to just make it easier for you to rule. And move things forward. Basically, most people that benefit from it are the ruling people in power so to speak.

Parinita: Yeah and we have all these stories in history of people using religion against each other.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Where are all these stories or historical narratives where people of different religions live together somewhat harmoniously?

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: They exist. I’m sure they do.

Sanjana: Yeah especially because they do. So just going back, the way you were describing the people trying to make their way back to their house, a lot of people on social media and other places did draw comparisons to the Partition. When people had to migrate in these huge numbers and there were eerily similar pictures of that time versus this time.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And really it shouldn’t be happening now. And in fact, it brings us to one of the Doctor Who episodes that we looked at for this episode – Demons of Punjab. What did you guys think of the episode?

Aparna: I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it as much as everyone seems to based on all the reviews that I read or all the people we heard talking about it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I didn’t think they exactly trivialised it, but the issue is so complex for us – I think maybe that’s why I felt like it fell a little flat in the way that it was dealt with. There is no one episode that could have probably done justice to it, but it felt like it was over with very quickly – the explanation of what’s happening. Whereas for us, it’s such a loaded time in our history.

Sanjana: Yeah. And one of the things that was very evident to me is whose story is being told? Because when we watched the Doctor Who Rosa episode for our podcast episode on race, we loved the episode right at the onset.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And when we heard the Woke Doctor Who episode where they spoke about the episode and all the problems with the episode, we were like, “What?! Yeah! You’re absolutely right.” With comparison to how they loved Demons of Punjab and we didn’t quite love it. We weren’t in love with it. We did have problems with it. And I think that’s basically how the way history is consumed becomes very limited and subjective to how it’s being told and to the people whose story it is – who were directly affected by it. When I was watching the episode, I thought of how there were so many stories. Our grandparents came from Pakistan to India when the Partition happened – my mum’s grandmum, my dad’s grandmum. I remember my dad telling us stories about how they dug the walls of these large houses that they had and put in all their possessions into the walls and cemented it back in hopes that they would get back there someday. And it was huge amounts of migration and it felt a little bit like let’s just tell this one tiny part of this countryside story of this one woman who – which is fine, which is whose story we were there to tell. But except for those uh for the um the what – what were the creatures who were mourning the dead?

Parinita: Oh I don’t even remember.

Sanjana: The alien witnesses [they’re called the Thijarians]. Except them saying that they were there because a lot of death was about to happen, there was no other mention of the enormity of what was going to happen – of that part of history.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah, I completely agree with you. I didn’t hate the episode. I didn’t think it was offensive.

Sanjana: Absolutely, yeah.

Parinita: It was just a bit meh episode.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ve grown up with these stories. For you it was through grandparents. For me it was just culturally and in history class and things. We know about all these different stories. So for us it’s much more of a lived experience than I think this 45-50-minute episode could even hope to achieve. But what I found really interesting in a good way was in the Verity fan podcast episode that we listened to which discussed this episode, the three women there – I think one was British, one was American, and one was Australian, I believe. Or Tasmanian?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they acknowledged their positions that they were three white ladies talking about something which didn’t impact them. They really loved the episode, but more than that for them, it was a way to educate themselves about this history that they had no idea of – except the Scottish host; she knew a little bit about it. But the other two hosts didn’t. And I loved that they took the time to look for all these different resources and try to fill the gaps that they had in their own knowledge. Because even us, though we know a lot of Western history because colonial impact and cultural imperialism.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh.

Sanjana: Of course.

Parinita: So we know a lot about American history just in general. But there are huge parts of world history that even we don’t know, right? Even though we were colonised, I don’t know a lot of African history, for example. All the different countries there. Or even East Asian history. So the fact that this story allowed them the opportunity to get to know these things, I really loved that.

Sanjana: Yeah, no absolutely. So what the episode did in terms of creating dialogue, I feel like yeah it certainly did. And the whole thing between the two brothers did show two sides of the same religion as well. It wasn’t an all bad episode; it was quite a decent episode. Yet lacking in some places which is just the comparison between how we reacted to the Rosa episode.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which absolutely goes to show how – whose story it is, their reaction to it is so vastly different.

Parinita: Yeah. Even as meh as I found the episode, I found it super depressing also. Just because of Manish who is this Hindutva terrorist predecessor.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: After all this time, it’s just the most important thing in the country still for some reason.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s become mainstream now. This hatred, this distrust of Muslims. This Pakistan-India sort of binary.

Sanjana: Yeah. This just reminds me of one of the things that mum told me about my grandfather and how he grew up. So he had this habit of reading the Ramayana every day in the night before he slept. It was a thing he did. And he did not know how to read Hindi. His Ramayana was in Urdu. Because when he grew up, his early years were in Pakistan, in Punjab, and he grew up reading only Urdu so his Ramayana was in Urdu. He he read it from back to front. And I thought it was just the most interesting thing. Nobody even knows about these little things. The way media portrays religion in general is so divisive that these little things just don’t – nobody even knows these things. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s so lovely. And just history in general, right? It’s something that they mentioned on the Verity podcast, where in the UK, the history of the Empire in general, but the Partition as well, it’s not really taught so much in school. It’s this elective thing that you can do. Which is why I think this lack of history or historical knowledge and their role in historical oppression has created this false narrative of past glories in the head of a lot of British people today.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: Which is similar, I think, to India where not knowing these nuances and the kinship and community that we have not just with Muslim people in India but also Pakistanis has created this terrible, terrible narrative where we see them as enemies.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Aparna: Yes, and it’s still happening. Because we’re still reading in the news that in UP and Rajasthan, they are changing textbooks to remove Nehru’s name or adding the Swacch Bharat campaign mentions into school textbooks. This is what people are reading. This is what people are consuming, this is what kids are consuming. So the narrative is changing even before it’s history. It’s already being written to favour the majority all the time.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah and you can’t really learn from your mistakes in the past without acknowledging them. Right?

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: You’ll be doomed to repeat the same thing. Can you believe that people are defending Nazis what 60-70 years after the war that was supposed to end all wars? People are defending fascists or people are being fascists in all these different ways. In Indian contexts, Muslims and Hindus were fighting together to kick the British out of India and this is what we’ve come down to now. We have this internal enemy. And the way that history is taught in schools is so rubbish.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: The importance is the dates and the events rather than the context of those dates and events. I think we’ve spoken about this briefly before but yeah, if you don’t acknowledge the mistakes that you’ve made and the nuances and the complexities that were there in the past, how are you going to learn from it and not repeat those same mistakes?

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: I read this interesting article on Tor about Thor: Ragnorak and it made a statement of how Hela was erased from history by Odin. And it’s also an erasure of everything. It’s trying to rewrite and simplify the past so that his authority is not questioned because his mistakes have been quickly brushed over. Which is fascinating because that’s exactly what happens in real life also.

Parinita: Yeah similar to that I think in an American context – well, also Australia and Canada. Just wherever the colonisers went where they were basically oppressing the indigenous people and suppressing their knowledge and their culture. So the Native Americans in the US and Canada and the tribals in Australia and New Zealand. This is not something that we know a lot of in India – at least I didn’t – about Native American culture and history. I’m not really very well-versed with it. But because J. K. Rowling –  I think it’s been a couple of years now – wrote Magic in North America, this Pottermore article to promote the Fantastic Beasts films.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that created this huge backlash because of the way that it portrayed Native Americans as these primitive people which was perpetuating these false ideas of the culture where Europeans were the saviours basically and they brought all this knowledge and culture and completely erasing the Native culture, languages and histories. And that’s something that’s been critiqued a lot in terms of J. K. Rowling’s representation. But when I was watching Anne With An E.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: What I really liked is – we’ve spoken about this before, the way that they’ve made this story that was written in the 1800s more inclusive and more contemporary and more relevant to the social and cultural contexts of today. And in Anne With An E, I really loved Ka’Kwet’s whole storyline. And how they showed how the Christian missionaries tried to brutally assimilate Native children into the Christian norm. This is a piece of history where they were stolen from their families and they were sent to these residential schools and these boarding schools. So it is very much a part of history where their language and her name, her hair, her clothes – all aspects of her culture were stripped away from her and her very identity was taken in this really violent way. It’s something I think now in Canada and in Australia and in New Zealand, they’re coming to terms with it more, this horrible part of their history. But it’s generations of erasure and generations of oppression. And this can’t go away instantly. This work has to be done actively to reverse this oppression.

Gif from Anne With An E. Text says - Anne: It's funny how people are so quick to point out differences when there are so many ways we're all alike. Ka'Kwet: Alike.

Aparna: And we can only start doing that work by telling these stories. Which is finally changing because for so long we’ve just been consuming media that has been created by a majority. So the white guys will be the good guys in everything that we’ve seen from when we were kids. And it’s only now that we’re starting to see diversity in the stories that are being told or the stories we’re consuming. And it’s because of the diversity of creators and things like that. But this is the first step. Acknowledging everyone’s stories is the first step to changing the narrative that’s been in everyone’s minds for so long.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. All these conversations that happen in the West, in terms of diversity and all these cultures on the fan podcasts that we’ve listened to but also just in general online, they always make me draw Indian parallels because that’s what I know more of. So this Native American erasure of their culture and knowledge made me think of parallels with Indian tribal and rural cultures.

Sanjana: It did, yeah.

Parinita: Where their ways of knowledge and medicine and culture and their connection with the environment, the land, everything is erased, is marginalised. And the Indian government is almost the colonising force. The oppressed became the oppressors.

Sanjana: Yeah. What you’re saying is reminding me of the book Year of the Weeds. Where Siddhartha Sharma basically talks about the same thing as to how the hill being a religious entity for them is so hard for anybody to understand or even take seriously. It just doesn’t even fit into the context of even being looked at or considered as something in the large scheme of things. We need this done, who cares. Whereas if it had been a temple there and nobody in the government, then there is no bauxite.

Aparna: [laughs] The government would have never thought of doing that.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: If we want to build a road and if a temple was there before the road, the road goes around the temple in this country. And this was similar to when we were discussing what happens in Avatar: The Last Airbender with the monks and the Fire Nation and how they are completely obliterated. It’s the same parallel to that.

Parinita: Yeah. I listened to an Imaginary Worlds episode called Growing Up Avatar-American. It had an Asian-American guest who was talking about how he didn’t find any Asian representation in media while he was growing up especially Asian-American representation. Because Asian-American is different from Asian. So a Bollywood movie is different from a Hollywood movie made with Asians.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for us, we’re the dominant group. We don’t have erasure of our own identities. I mean obviously there are caste and class and religion – maybe those intersections. But in terms of seeing brown faces on screen, we don’t have that problem.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas for him, he’s East Asian. And he was talking about how he and a lot of Asian-Americans in the US saw Aang’s story as this refugee/immigrant story where like you said, Sana, he’s the only surviving Airbender whose people are murdered in a genocide led by the Firebenders. And one of the guests on the episode considered his escape by flying away on Appa similar to Vietnamese history where one of the guest’s parents fled on boats. And so they were drawing analogies to this trauma of the loss and ethnic cleansing of home and culture and people. As well as to the Japanese cultural occupation, the Chinese cultural revolution, the Cambodian genocide, surviving Hiroshima. Because there’s such a lack of these stories told in media. Also in science fiction and fantasy, it’s very Western, Euro-centric, so all these other histories are erased. So seeing fans interpreting it based on their own histories is pretty cool.

Aparna: And the reason that everyone wants to see themselves represented, it’s not a coincidence that the people who are not seeing themselves represented are also the people who are disproportionately affected by any crisis that happens in the world.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: It’s not a coincidence that now everyone is recommending picture books or children’s books that are created by black people and feature children – just stories of diverse experiences. Right now, they’re everywhere. On Instagram, I’ve seen three a day for the last few weeks. Because it has to start there. Once those experiences are completely similar, once we start seeing everyone as part of our growing up, is when we’ll realise that there shouldn’t be any difference in how people are treated as well. Because whether it’s the COVID crisis or whether it’s the climate crisis, everyone who’ll be first affected will be the people who are poor or the people who are a minority in any sense of the word.

Sanjana: Yeah. In fact it was today only that I was listening to a conversation with someone – I don’t remember the name now – but there was this student of psychology and she was talking about the need for dialogue that mentions intersectional and marginalised communities in classrooms and otherwise for society’s mental health. It is so important for mental health because the moment you don’t see yourself represented or the moment you don’t see anyone else even remotely understanding what you’re saying, you immediately shut off. And you don’t want to have that conversation anymore because you’re not seeing it being mirrored back. And to start dialogue at a classroom level with all of this very subjectively told would make so much of a difference in the long run leading to just a much better society.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I agree. And I think that intersectionality in these conversations is so important. Paru, you mentioned the environmental crisis which would affect – is already affecting people. I’m in the UK so all this Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis, climate strikes and everything, it’s ongoing. Well, not now because the pandemic has stopped that for a little while.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s ongoing in terms of that we don’t want this to happen to us. But it has already happened to a lot of countries. Like the Syrian refugees, a lot of their conflict was sectarian – was religious conflict. But I’ve read articles about going back to the root causes of it. It was because there were consecutive droughts in consecutive years and how that impacts the politics of a country. So we already have climate refugees from different parts of the developing world. And the developing tag is because of colonisation, right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re still facing these impacts where the developed world and not only the developed world but also in India, the cities, we have the luxury to think we don’t want this happening in the future. Even though in India, we’re breathing in polluted air and we have water shortages and whatever but still we have a certain level of comfort in that we’re not completely abandoned yet. But there are so many parts of India, there are so many parts of the world where people have to leave their houses. And all these migrants, why are they in cities in India? They had to leave their farms. They don’t want to live in these cramped fifteen people to a tiny room accommodation in the cities.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: But they’re leaving it because the climate crisis has already affected them. And they are further being harmed because of the pandemic and it’s just yeah it’s – sorry, I went on another rant. [laughs]

Aparna: No, but it’s true. Even within the city, if there’s a water crisis, it takes much longer for a water shortage to hit an apartment complex versus somebody who’s living in a more temporary settlement. Or it’ll take even longer for them to hit corporate tech parks. Because the more money you have, the easier it is to just get water during a crisis.

Parinita: Yeah. And even now, in the pandemic where the compassion and the dignity that is accorded to you is based on how much money you have.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And what class you’re from. Or what part of the country you’re from. You didn’t see Indians returning from foreign countries coming to the airport being sprayed down by pesticides [it was disinfectant]. You didn’t see them having to walk for thousands of kilometres but migrants had to go through this. The poorer migrants had to go through this. Everyone who’s living in another part of the country is a migrant but I mean the poorer migrants who had to go through this.

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: They didn’t even have this dignity and compassion and humanity accorded to them. On the other hand, what I really do like, just because I know we’re going to be talking about this a little bit later – the connection between religion and community and fandom and community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But what I liked because I am an optimistic person even though I’ve ranted a lot today [laughs] and I’ve been really angry this last week and this last year. And these last six years.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know I’ve just been increasingly angry. But at heart I’m an optimistic person. So I like focusing on the positives, and I like that in India, this community has recently shown itself through all these people – well, not all, a lot of people with privilege – who came together in different ways to look after the most vulnerable people in the country. So be it people doing fundraisers to fly migrants back to their villages or making food packets to pass it to them on the roads or water or using whatever resources that they have. And they’re still doing this in India. To make sure that people who don’t have this privilege do get a little bit more help.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the government systems are completely failing them. Going back to what I first started off with which was basically fascism and resistance, I really loved the episode Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism.

Sanjana: Yeah even we.

Parinita: But also it stressed me out.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely!

Parinita: [laughs] So one of the co-hosts Marcel, she used the Harry Potter series to draw real-life parallels with fascism and resistance and I loved that she used the Potterverse like this. Like I said, I was very distressed about how many of these are evident in India as well as other parts of the world especially along the lines of religion and national and regional origin. So her talk covered four points – what fascism looks like, how it uses existing systems of power – media and democracy and education – how to be an ally, and how to fight back. All of her examples were from the Harry Potter books and the movies but she was talking about it mostly in terms of the rise of white nationalism, hate crimes in the US, Canada and the UK. But again, I drew parallels to India. In India, it was so obvious this parallel with the rise of Hindutva versus Islam versus just Dalits which is why I was really depressed.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah. Because they at some point said this pureblood supremacist cult. What I found interesting was their dialogue around the Ministry of Magic and how its role changed over the different books as the story progressed from just being this entity which showed these government employees. Because our only link to it was through Mr Weasley. And then when it is taken over by this supremacist cult, it becomes this evil entity that is trying to cause all kinds of mayhem by being this ruling class. From how it becomes this bumbling government office [laughs] to this really complex leader and supremacist entity. It was rather interesting.

Aparna: Yeah. What I found most scary was when she suggested that Trump is possibly not Voldemort [laughs] but Fudge.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Because these are the systems that already have to be in place for a Voldemort to appear. For a Voldemort to be able to step in and claim this world as his own. There are some systems that have to have been in place for so long and things that are so fundamentally just broken. There is so much undoing to be able to fix it.  At the end of the story when it returns to normal, their version of normal is not safe. It’s still leaving room for this to happen again.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah because I think when Kingsley Shacklebolt becomes Minister of Magic, he gets rid of the Dementors but what about the house-elves? What about the centaurs? What about the giants? What about the goblins? It’s not addressed. Going back to normal even during the pandemic everyone is saying that oh we want to go back to normal.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But the normal is only working for a very specific group of people.

Aparna: Exactly! And normal is what created the sort of environment where Voldemort has risen.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aparna: So normal was not great.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: This is all going to happen again.

Parinita: When she was talking about that, where basically Fudge allowed Voldemort to come to power, Fudge’s Ministry where the existing systems of power were designed to privilege a certain group of people already.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I was thinking about it in terms of the Congress in India. Now because we have the BJP in power, compared to them, everything else seems better.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But the Congress definitely did lay ground for the BJP to come to power. It wasn’t like they were doing all these great things to radically restructure society in a way that made it inclusive for everybody.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely yeah.

Parinita: So that’s why the BJP is in power now. And who knows where we’re going to go next?

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: If we take Modi out of the picture, if we take Trump out of the picture, it’s not going to go away. I think they said Voldemort, he does use violence and intimidation, but he’s also really easily able to create this army of people who seem to hate Muggles and who seem to hate Muggle-borns and are really happy.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: It was all very scary. And also when they were talking about how the media is co-opted like The Daily Prophet presents Ministry-approved messages without any critical thinking or any criticism.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Again what we see happening in most mainstream media in India as well as WhatsApp media now that that’s a new genre of news.

Sanjana: Totally.

Aparna: Oh god! [laughs]

Sanjana: Because you said WhatsApp media, it just brought about this constant struggle at home where every time our parents give us this piece of great information, I turn back and say what is your source?

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Where did you get this information?

Parinita: I do this with my mother as well. I’ll call her to chat because she living by herself in Mumbai and Mumbai is really hit by the pandemic. So she’s really freaked out. So we try and have more regular conversations than we used to. But now rather than comfort, it’s more like trying to decode news sources. I’m giving her a course on media analysis.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: “Let’s go back. Why do you think this? Why that?” I’m using all my PhD research.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: And just like your parents, she’s not an Islamaphobe. She’s not a bigot.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s this everyday benign sort of bigotry which has come to the fore.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: But I also like that lest this thing get too depressing – which it is, because the world is very depressing. But I also liked that in the episode they also spoke about how to resist this. So she spoke about how different people in the witching world use different skills to resist. So like knitting and Hermione – although her S.P.E.W. has some problematic tendencies but she was well-intentioned.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Although sometimes intent, good intent has damaging impacts. But whatever. Knitting and making protest signs and cooking and resistance. They were drawing parallels to the real world where all these different skills can come together. Even online putting all these resources together to donate, or putting all the resources to educate yourself. Because not everyone begins from this same spot, right? We didn’t grow up thinking like this.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It was a process – a huge process of learning and unlearning things.

Sanjana: I was going to use our parents as a segue into us talking about this. [laughs] Because I think all three of us have had a very similar relationship with religion wherein all of our religion comes from what our parents told us and what our parents said we should do. I think the just one generation before this, there was not much questioning. I feel like we’re questioning a lot more. And so our relationship with all of the religious stuff in our house is a lot different from when our mum and dad grew up. And I think a lot of our religion was mostly based on what was taught to our parents and which they then tried teaching to us and we did it for quite awhile.

Aparna: Yeah and I don’t think they were particularly religious either.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I feel like they were just, yes I will do because my mother did it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Because my mum, she’s the kind of religious who believes in all religions and I understand where her need to believe in all these things comes from because she, like me, she went to a Catholic school – the same Catholic school actually – but grew up in a Hindu household.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And she’s had a really difficult life in terms of family. A lot of trauma and a lot of abuse from different kinds. So I get her need to hang on to religion as a form of solidarity.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: So that’s the way that she gets comfort and things. But for me I never really found that in religion. I don’t know when you guys started questioning this, but I don’t think it ever made sense to me.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I remember in primary school, I used to be like, “But why?” My question used to always be, “But why? This is not logical. This is not rational.” And because like your parents, she didn’t have this sort of scholarly knowledge.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And by scholarly I mean just the access to texts and the stories and things. So she didn’t have a response to me and this stubborn only-child brain of mine was like, “Then oh, no, I must be right!” [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: “No you can’t explain.” And also in school, there was one teacher in particular, our maths teacher who used to teach us to question things. And I used to hate maths but I used to love her and she made me tolerate maths for the time that she taught us. And she used to teach us to question things. For example, in Hinduism where you are on your period, when you’re menstruating, you can’t go to temples. And we had a class, I remember, it was a free period I think, where we were just talking. And she was talking about her own experiences and she said that she and her daughters when they’re menstruating, they go to temples; they just don’t tell anybody about it. It was just something for them to know. Maybe she was religious? I think I stopped going to temples years ago. Unless it’s just to look at the nice architecture or whatever.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah. I think after a point for us it became that we didn’t want to offend our parents so we didn’t say much and after a point, we were like, “You’ll go, we’ve seen. It looks beautiful from outside.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: “We are waiting here, no problem. We don’t want to climb the five hundred steps, go ahead, we’ll sit here.”

Parinita: You were much nicer than I was. I used to be like, “No! Religion is oppression!”

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: “It’s the opiate of the masses!”

Aparna: We are like that now.

Sanjana: We are like that now.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: I feel like it took a little longer to question it as much. We listened to a bunch of the podcast episodes just to understand. I didn’t want to write off religion completely when we were reading up about this. And a couple of things that jumped out from some of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episodes was that religion has this sense of giving a sense of community and belonging. And the other day we were watching an episode of House where there was this priest that was one of the patients. And at some point House said, “Religion is the placebo of the world.” [laughs] Both of us looked at each other and I made a mental note of it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Because it was such a simple way of explaining religion to someone who doesn’t get the need to get up every morning and pray to this god and or to a whole slew of gods.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: It’s a good enough reason if it’s giving you some sense of belonging and some sense of peace somewhere. It definitely doesn’t give us a sense of peace and maybe for me, my questioning started when I started working on writing and retelling these stories. I work for Amar Chitra Katha and they essentially tell stories of gods and goddesses. We’ve been doing that for a long time. And it’s because the mythology is so rich with stories. Except that after a point, after reading a couple of things, I just can’t see these entities as gods. Or whatever the definition of god is. [laughs] I just can’t get behind the whole – I can’t get behind a text that’s derogatory to women. I can’t see – I just can’t – I’ve said the word can’t so many times that it’s lost all meaning.

Aparna and Parinita laugh

Parinita: Is it even a real word anymore?

Sanjana: Yeah it’s just that’s the only way I can describe it.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: For a lack of better word, I just can’t you guys.

All three laugh

Parinita: As the kids these days say, I can’t even.

Sanjana: I can’t.

Parinita: [laughs] No I’m completely with you. I’m very angry on this episode because I’m just angry today and, like I said, I’ve been angry this week a lot. But I’m not one of those fundamentalist atheists because I think atheism can also become fundamentalism just in the way religion can become fundamentalism where you are so caught up with the ideology that you believe in, that you are forcing that ideology upon other people and you see other people as lesser than or not as equal to you because they believe in something different. I know that there’s this huge problem within atheism online and there’s this intersection of atheism and patriarchy. And there are these hero atheists who just make everyone feel stupid. Or try to make everyone feel stupid.

Aparna: There’s an intersection of everything with patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Essentially.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: We would be hard-pressed to find something that does not intersect with the ever-present patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. But I wouldn’t want to write off religion either. Because I like the idea of some of the things that people who are religious find from religion.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: For example, like community. I love the idea of finding this sense of community. I love the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. The hosts are I think graduates or they teach or work with the Harvard Divinity School in the US. And one of the hosts Vanessa, she’s from a Jewish background, but she’s not religious. And Casper, the other host, is from a Christian background but he’s also not religious. I don’t know if they consider themselves atheists, but they’re not religious. But they are humanist ministers, I think, where they live. So it’s this sort of secular practice. And in the podcast itself, they draw on a lot of religious practices from Judaism, from Christianity to analyse Harry Potter like that. So they use Harry Potter in the way religious people would use the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible or the Torah or the Quran. They use the characters, the themes, the events to make sense of the world. And I love that because they started this off with an in-person group and their podcast is so popular that it’s created these Harry Potter and the Sacred Text chapters all over the world. Where Harry Potter people – Harry Potter people like not the people come to life.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Harry Potter fans meet and they do these different practices. But it’s just a way to come together with people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met like they would have done in temples or these sort of bhajan sessions and things that my mom goes to and meets people. Or in churches. Where people find that sense of community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that idea of finding this community as a way to combat this disconnection that we have.

Sanjana: One of the episodes spoke about tradition in particular.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Tradition and religion. And I really loved what they said about tradition. That all of us have the permission to reach in and take something that means something to us.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And I felt that was really interesting because it is what I think the way our relationship with religion progressed, at least for us. It’s not that we obliterated it completely. There are bits and pieces of it and mostly only because of the traditions not of the religious aspect but more like we do these little things on Diwali.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And that’s something probably that I want to continue following as general because especially with now having a kid, it’s just some bit of what we did or what we celebrate or something about just a little piece of our identity that I would like for my kid to have as well. And it’s not at all steeped in religion but it’s just this sense of sitting down together and making little stars and putting up lights or whatever.

Aparna: It is despite religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. It is despite religion that we celebrate [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, it’s more cultural right?

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: Like in Harry Potter, the way that they celebrate. There are debates on this that Harry Potter itself is a Christian text because J. K. Rowling is Christian.

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: And Harry and the comparisons with Jesus and Aslan in Narnia.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: He comes back to life and sacrifices himself. But also Christmas and Easter in Hogwarts. Yeah they celebrate these Christian celebrations but it doesn’t seem to be in a way that’s really religious.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: It seems to be the way that you’re saying, Sana, it’s cultural. And I’m the same.

Aparna: Or like we celebrate Christmas as well is exactly like they do in Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah. Because now I am in this foreign land where I am the minority and nobody – I mean I’m sure there are people who speak the same language and stuff but I don’t know them here except one person. But it makes me want to celebrate these things. Just for me, celebration has to involve food. So it’s just putting that together. So like Diwali or Ganesh Chathurthi because in Mumbai that’s a huge thing that I’ve grown up with. In my housing society, we used to have these celebrations. So it’s more about that – about past memories and cultural identities than religion. So I love celebrating that here especially because there isn’t really a community here that I can celebrate it with. So it’s like something that I’m – I’m –

Sanjana: Like a bit of yourself, yeah.

Parinita: Exactly.

Sanjana: Absolutely. Because all said and done, it is somewhere a part of our identity and the way we see the world or from where we see the world to some extent.

Aparna: Which is why the parallel between religion is so interesting. I find it very fascinating because whatever media I consume – the books that I read, the shows that I watch – is the way I relate to the world. So that is more part of my identity than anything else. So being a part of fandom, gives me that feeling of being part of a community. The sort of feelings that people get from religion – the positive feelings – without any of the negativity [laughs] for me.

Parinita: Although negativity does exist in fandom.

Aparna: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It certainly does.

Parinita: Like the toxic bits

Aparna: Yeah. So I was listening to this podcast called Our Opinions Are Correct and in that they were talking about that possibly this is because religion doesn’t occupy the same kind of space in public that it used to, especially with younger people. And that’s why people engage more in fandom and how there are people who accept or respect only what’s in the canon versus people reinterpreting it to make it your own. Which is exactly the sort of relationships that people have with religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this brings up an interesting thing that we did recently. So we recently did a book called Rama’s Ring. And it basically has these various stories taken from the retellings of the Ramayana. So the original Ramayana exists and then there are all these communities and all these tribes who have made Ramayana their own.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: They have created this completely different world with the main characters within it. So the first story is about how Rama’s ring gets lost. And every time a Rama’s ring gets lost, it’s the end of that Rama’s era. And then it goes on to say so hence there are so many Ramas in the world. This was in an essay written by A. K. Ramanujan, if I’m not mistaken. The whole point that I’m trying to make is what you’re saying –  what connection people have with the original versus any retelling, and the conflict in wanting to accept anything else from that deviates from the original is really astounding. Because the amount of feedback that we got from people because a lot of our readers are people who are Hindus.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Because we’re telling that mythology. And a lot of them wrote back to us saying, “How can you tell these fake Ramayanas? And how can you tell the story of these things?” Except that to everybody in that community, that is as real as it will get. Because it has little bits of their tradition and a little bit of their thing within that Ramayan. Like there’s one I’m not remembering the exact tribe – I think it’s Gond tribe – where Lakshmana is the main character. And he is the hero of the whole Ramayan. And he’s this person who lives in the jungle, one with nature – which is basically how they are. And so they’ve taken this great epic and made it their own because they’ve put little bits of their tradition into it. And that’s basically what a lot of the fandoms do for you. You take little bits of it and put little bits of yourself in it because at the end of the day, you want to see yourself in that story.

Parinita: Yeah. And I’ve also heard of a cultural tradition which sees Ravana as the protagonist.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s told from Ravana’s perspective And that also has implications, right? Social, cultural and political implications in terms of historically with the Aryans and the Dravidians and how that plays a role. Skin colour and national and regional origin … sorry to bring it back to that. [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But it just struck me now. I shouldn’t be apologising, that’s what we’re talking about! But basically how the mainstream cultural story may be oppressive to your identity and your culture. Or erasing you completely; erasing your perspectives and your traditions and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: And this is not just in the Ramayana but world religions all over.

Sanjana: Yeah. And it’s not just about even national origin and stuff. There was one version of the stories which is from Tamil Nadu which was a version of the Mahabharata. We did versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In it, it’s not Krishna’s divine power that comes and saves Draupadi from the Vastraharan but it’s women who stand up in the court.

Parinita: Oh I love that!

Sanjana: Yeah! And we loved the story and the version so much that we had to put it into the book. And we put it into the book but the problem people have with that is that we’ve removed the divine out of it.

Parinita: [sighs] [laughs]

Sanjana: In a sense you’ve taken the one divine element that is Krishna who comes and saves everything.

Aparna: No, but they’re all just stories. Why can’t people just mind their own business? You like a story better just read that version of the story and leave everyone else alone!

Sanjana: No and it was interesting. Even that Imaginary Worlds episode that we heard where they discussed faith in fantasy

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And there was one part where they were talking about Narnia and it was very interesting how people from the two different faiths saw bits of their own faiths being reflected. Like the Shia culture and Jesus.

Parinita: Yeah and the Shia, Sunni thing as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly. And how rebirth there and then there’s rebirth here and how it’s like the replacement of an imam. It was very interesting to see how the one exact same episode meant two different things to people from two different religions.

Parinita: Yeah and I’m sure it would be the same … I’m not – like I’ve made it very clear that I’m not Hindu

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: I don’t know our cultural stories as much as both of you do even because both of you have worked with Amar Chitra Katha so you’ve done the research and you know things. But I’m sure if I knew a lot more, I would have been able to read Harry Potter and draw on Hindu connections. We did briefly with the whole caste structure and the Hogwarts houses. But yeah that’s why I really like this idea of reclaiming tradition.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: In that episode with Matt Potts, the Sacred Text one, they spoke about how tradition can be oppressive. Usually you have these negative connotations of tradition. Well some people have negative connotations, some people want to go back to the traditional way of life.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But traditionally tradition has been used to exclude groups of people. And now there are more people who’ve been on the margins otherwise are now trying to make a more inclusive kind of tradition. Whether it be religious or fandom as well, it sees tradition as dynamic rather than static. So it’s not going to become worse. It’s actually going to become stronger, because it’s open to more change. And just like the parallels with fandom and religion, there are some people who are more conservative and who want to adhere to canon. And what they consider as canon and that correct version of canon and no deviations should occur. Whereas there are others – with fans as well as with religious scholars and religious leaders and religious practitioners – who are now trying to find those marginalised voices in canon and highlight those and make it more inclusive. Like what you were saying about the Mahabharata with Draupadi – rather than this man coming to save her with his divine power, it’s a community of women who are standing up to the injustice that she’s facing. And that solidarity is what helps her. That puts so much more agency on women rather than having everything where they are just props and set dressing.

Sanjana: Exactly. Yeah. That is why that particular retelling was so important because sure, it was written some centuries later but the point is that it exists and someone wrote it and there are some people who read that as their truth.

Parinita: Yeah. And this is what fanfiction does as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly!

Parinita: And even fan podcasts like this one and the ones that we’ve been listening to. We’re trying to go to these voices that are hidden or are invisible or are only known to a certain group of people. We have blind spots with queerness, we have blind spots with disabilities. But now that we are actively thinking about these things, because queer people or people with disabilities have told us their perspectives using fandom as a framework, now we think about these things more as well.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: I don’t know if you guys got a chance to listen to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with Broderick Greer. So he’s this Christian reverend and he’s black and gay which historically hasn’t been a position of power in the Catholic church. But he is using his position in the church to make it more inclusive. He practices this thing called marginalia which was inspired by his grandmother who would make notes in the margins of her bible so she was basically talking back to the bible using her own perspectives and using her own history. And his grandmother had a lot of these oppressed identities because she was this black woman in the US who was growing up in a time when black people – even now, black people in the US aren’t accorded with the same rights –  but then even more so. So this talking back to canon while respecting it because obviously she was this religious person so respecting but also talking back to it. And that’s something that fandom does as well in terms of fans talking back to their creators. This is a tweet that I saw today that J. K. Rowling has taught us to stand up to bigots like her.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Screenshot of tweet by @katiejoyofosho Text says: what's insane is that jk rowling essentially raised us to stand up to her bigotry

Parinita: Which I loved. Which is so true because her books ostensibly preach diversity and kindness and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: But she doesn’t do that herself. So now there are all these fans standing up to her transphobia and her bigotry and whatever. Which I really love. My self-care routine as again, the kids these days say, yesterday was turning off and disconnecting from news and everything and watching Queer Eye on Netflix because the new season is out.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And the first episode was about this gay minister, a Lutheran minister in church who was coming to terms with his identity. He came out much later in life. And they had such an amazing thing about with queerness and the church. There was this trans minister and this other gay minister as well who came to talk to him about how they can come together to make the church a more inclusive space. Because it’s been so hard for them. They grew up in a tradition where religion actively excluded them. And they now want to be open. They’re still religious but they’re also queer. So they want to make church this radically inclusive space so that other queer people now don’t face the same discrimination that they did. Which I loved so much and I cried a lot – lots of cathartic crying happened yesterday.

Aparna and Sanjana laugh

Parinita: But I loved the idea of that even with religion just in general and fandom as well, just listening to those voices which didn’t have a voice and bringing them to the fore rather than having just the same privileged group of people talking to themselves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: That is basically the solution. Just for the people who’ve been talking for so long to just shut up for awhile.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: And listen. And let everyone else tell their stories.

Parinita: Just for a little bit.

Aparna: Just sit. That’s all that’s required for a while.

Parinita: Yeah because there are so many possibilities now to counter these narrow canonical narratives. What is canon anyway? Who decides? Just a group of people who had decided it thousands of years ago and now we’re like, “Oh yeah they’re completely correct! There’s no questioning them.” So I love that through media, through fanfiction or even through religious retellings, like Amar Chitra Katha comic books, you are highlighting these voices which are marginalised or erased and highlighting these diverse perspectives and interpretations to make it radically inclusive. Because even if society currently isn’t radically inclusive, why can’t we imagine our fiction to do better? Or our retellings to do better? We can imagine blue police boxes travelling across time and space or this complex magical world in Britain.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: But we can’t imagine Muslims and black people and Dalit people and transgender people and poor people are worthy of equal respect and dignity and compassion? I thought I’d gotten the ranting out of my system. [laughs] But apparently not.

Sanjana: Clearly not.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But on that very correct note, [laughs] the three of us bid you bye-bye and we hope to see you soon.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Ranting some more.

Parinita: [laughs] Probably. With the way the world is going, there’s going to be a lot more ranting.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But yes. Goodbye!

Aparna: Bye!

Sanjana: Buh-bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religion and geographical origin and the ways in which both intersect with class, caste and dominant political norms. Thanks again to Aparna and Sanjana for helping me get all that ranting out of my system and making me feel better about the state of the world. The world is still terrible but being angry with friends is cathartic. And thank you Jack for also listening to my various rants both about the real world and various fictional worlds (and also for the editing).

[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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