JK Rowling periodically releases short pieces of writing on her Pottermore site that build upon the Harry Potter world. She has recently published information on wizarding schools around the world, such as Uagadou in Uganda or Mahoutokoro in Japan. Its a clever way to engage fans from all over the world, bringing a little bit of the magic to those who might not readily see themselves reflected in Ron, Hermione and Harry.
But with her ‘History of Magic in North America‘ JK Rowling appears to have become unstuck. Her attempt to integrate the Native American community into her world building has drawn criticism… not least because she lumps the myriad tribes and Nations together under one ‘Native American community’ catch-all.
Rowling has not been overtly racist—it’s not as if she calls the Native Americans ‘redskins’ or depicts them as savages. Indeed, she has even been mindful to avoid colonial language when discussing the history of the American continent.
Unfortunately, her attempts to integrate her stories with Native Americans are trite, cliched and even dangerous, according to critics.
Dr Adrienne Keene at the Native Appropriations website provides a detailed critique. She notes that even though this is fiction, the Harry Potter author’s depiction of the native cultures of America nevertheless feeds on common, real-world misconceptions. Those of Native American heritage find themselves in a constant battle against such misinformation, and Rowling’s lazy world-building seems to be working against that. For a book and film world that is as popular as the Harry Potter series, this matters. It might be the first time many children hear about the existence of Native American culture. It would be a shame if yet another generation grows up assuming that the sterotypes are all that those cultures amount to.
In the comments to the article, a few people point out that Rowling would have received greater vilification had she omitted the Native Americans altogether! This is probably true, but the representational choice offered to marginalised groups cannot simply be between ‘nothing’ and ‘wrong’. The author could have done more research, consulting with the people who know about this and to whom this matters profoundly. It does not appear to be JK Rowling’s style to open up the Harry Potter world to other authors, but a series of collaborations would have been another approach.
Dr Keene’s post raises an additional issue: to what extent should people explain their culture to outsiders? She writes:
So, this is where I’m going to perform what Audra Simpson calls an “ethnographic refusal,” “a calculus ethnography of what you need to know and what I refuse to write in.” In her work with her own community, she asks herself the questions: “what am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?”
I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal.
The comments on this aspect are very interesting too. The idea of the sacred is invoked, and also the notion that refusal to share the myths and stories with outsiders is the only way to preserve the culture.
This idea brings problems of its own. To begin, perhaps the idea of cultural integrity is itself a myth? “Purity is incestuous” said Hanif Kureishi. Preserving certain myths and stories for a small circle of people could actually guarantee their irrelevance.
Conversely, sharing the myths and their meanings with everyone else does not necessarily mean they will become diluted by the dominant culture. Perhaps instead the reverse will happen, and the majority will be changed—for the better—by the minority.
I accept that this is a view that comes straight out of a majority culture. But that does not necessarily mean it is invalid.
Another question is who should define who is in a group, and therefore permitted access to its stories; and who is out of the group and barred from deeper knowledge? Keene and the commenters complain at the constant demands from outsiders that they explain and justify themselves:
No one has the inherent right to demand to know the private worlds of any individual, or group, just because they decide that they want to know.
I think that anyone has the right to ask, even if their request is rebuffed. The myths of the Navajo or the Cherokee are parts of human history and therefore part of my culture as a human being. Why limit the knowledge and the value to just people within the group? Do we grant the right to know only to the Navajo and exclude the Cherokees? Or do we allow access to all indigenous people, to the exclusion of those of European immigrant heritage? Or maybe all North Americans allowed, but not those hailing from other continents?
On this side of the Atlantic, the impending referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is an excellent reminder of the various circles of identity we all have: it’s possible for someone to be a Londoner, English, British, Indian, European and Human, and to be proud of (aspects of) all those histories.
Why can’t I engage with other human stories too? If a white man from the UK hears the full, ancient story of the Navajo ‘skin-walkers’ (which, at least according to the Wikipedia page, is fascinating in its moral ambiguity) why can’t he take it on as part of his culture, his moral compass, his human identity?
Great art, and in particular great literature, can make this happen: Finding universal lessons and human truths in the highly particular stories of people who exist in a given place and time.
By this measure, JK Rowling’s short ‘History of Magic in North America’ fails. But I do not think that this failure means other writers should not explore the stories of the Navajo and other North American cultures, in the hope that readers around the world will appreciate and celebrate them.