Rough notes on Discussing HP in 2019

At MISTI-Con 2019, Irvin Khaytman (author of The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore) and I conducted a conversation on “Discussing HP in 2019,” during a time when fandom is grappling with a number of contentious issues.  Our actual discussion went differently, and I don’t have notes for Irvin’s half of it, but here are some of the rough notes I prepared ahead of the panel.


I have feelings about J.K. Rowling, about Cursed Child and the Pottermore Presents extras and Fantastic Beasts.  They’re probably different from your feelings.  I don’t know how, and won’t know unless I ask and I listen with as much fairness as I can, but they are.  I also know that if I listen to other people explain their feelings, I’ll probably want to talk about mine, and they might not be as evolved as I think they are.  Feelings about stories can be potent and based on deeply personal reactions.  In that sense, there’s something sacred to be honored within everyone’s feelings, and that makes this kind of conversation tricky.  I’m going to talk about a few strategies I’ve used to try to reduce discomfort and increase understanding.

One fan’s trash is another fan’s treasure

This is something I learned from the BBC Sherlock fandom.  I learned not to call something “garbage” when I hated it, because I found out too many times that I had hurt people who loved that thing or that character – sometimes for reasons I could never have imagined.  I learned to ask why people love what they love.

Know who is hearing you

Last month, I saw people discussing anti-trans things J.K. Rowling has said, worried that this means they should avoid downloading Wizards Unite or boycott the Wizarding World theme parks or stop writing fanfic in her universes, even though they wanted to.

If boycotting feels right to you, go for it.  But sometimes we don’t want to give up something, even when there are serious issues, because something about it gives us energy and joy and community.  In those cases, I think it’s absolutely worth it to hang on.  A few dollars more or less from me might make a difference to Warner Brothers.  But those few dollars will make a difference if I use them to support books by trans authors, or queer creators, or people of color.  If you buy a book, that author will feel the $1.65 royalty they get from you.  If you can afford it, give someone a dollar a month on Patreon so they can be supported in getting the content out there that you know we deserve.  Borrow books from the library and then recommend them on social media, or circulate recommendations whenever the topic comes up.  This is something you can do, it’s empowering, and it reaches people who can actually hear you.

Definitely vote with your wallet and get your objections out there.  But I believe in a dual track of action that also focuses on ways to direct our energy that can build community and nourish us.  It combats burnout.

Recognize that the story hasn’t changed; it’s the reader

I was appalled when I reread the Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson in Prisoner of Azkaban and recognized that Lupin coaching a class of third-years to mock Snape by imagining him in an old lady dress is a move that has anti-trans bullying in it.  It was uncomfortable because I remember laughing.  I remember loving a lot of passages that make me uncomfortable now.  I have to recognize that my perspective changes with age or greater awareness.  But I also try to recall that I actively made peace with some disturbing aspects of Harry Potter when I was younger – it was just so long ago that I don’t always remember it.  The anti-fat hatred, especially bad in the beginning of Chamber of Secrets:  many readers at the time went through a whole process of confronting it in this author and making decisions about whether to continue in the fandom or not.  Sometimes, when we’re confronted by the newness of Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts, we remember the seven-book series as a monolith of goodness.  That’s not how we experienced them at the time.  There were serious shortcomings in them that we hashed out as a community through years of hiatus and re-readings.

This author specializes in the joy of re-reading

The first time I read the script for Cursed Child, I wasn’t sure what to think.  Every subsequent time I’ve read it, I’ve seen something new, and the more seriously I took it as literature, the more I got out of it.  It took me years to figure out a lot of things about the original series.  So Voldemort was present at Hogwarts for all of Harry’s first year?  What was Dumbledore’s plan for Snape and the Elder Wand?  Why, exactly, was Slughorn on the run from the Death Eaters?  What did Snape think Lupin was trying to do to Harry during book three?

Nobody has to reread Cursed Child, but if you’re at all curious, I encourage it.  There are things you can only get from re-readings.  I have never fully understood a story from this author on the first reading.  That’s what makes her a good writer in the first place and why her stories stay with people.  Cursed Child may have been written by Jack Thorne, but the layers in the story and the hints indicated by the wordplay reward re-reading in a way that feels familiar.

The soul of the story

Studies have shown that reading Harry Potter increases people’s empathy toward other groups, even groups that aren’t mentioned within Potterverse, such as gay people or refugees.

Many readers feel distress when Rowling fails to live up to the standards she taught in her own books:  for example, in her treatment of Native American cultures and religions in the Ilvermorny backstory.  I’ve seen what feels almost like self-blame on the part of fans who recoil from that kind of prejudice, but still feel a profound love for books that will always be a part of them.

Two years ago, I was part of a panel at Readercon called “The soul of the story,” moderated by Cecilia Tan.

The soul of the Harry Potter universe is love in its many manifestations, such as infant thriving, physical growth, grief, and empathy.  The flawed human author can convey the soul of the story without being any more able to live up to it than the rest of us. This explains why examinations of race and sexual identity thrive in HP fandom despite the author’s clumsy handling of such issues:  fans are responding to the soul of the story, not the text, and acknowledging the difference.

Rowling’s writing has always reflected her demographic:  white British Christian cishet educated woman, married with children.  I get the sense, sometimes, that some people worry that in order to be principled people, when they recognize an author’s biases, they must give up something they once loved and still do.  To this, I say:  if your interest naturally moves on, that is one thing.  But if you actively feel love, honor that and treasure it, and never be ashamed that you responded to the soul of the story and recognized that this is a different thing from the particulars of the story and the author’s limitations.

It can feel personal when Rowling fails to reach her own standards.  Especially if you read Harry Potter in your formative years and it influenced your sense of empathy and justice, you associate with these books a feeling of learning, of virtue, of how to be a loving person.  It can feel like Rowling personally lets us down when she falls short.  Dumbledore talks about something like that, when he says that being rather more clever than most people, the effects of his mistakes are “correspondingly huger.”  It helps me sometimes to keep in mind that it’s an artist’s gift to be able to convey a soulful truth that may be beyond their personal ability to achieve.

Death of the author doesn’t apply when the author is alive and still writing

I have heard the argument that once released, a story belongs only to the readers and not at all to the person who wrote it and continues to write it.  I’ve heard people argue that everyone in the world has the right to make more stories in the Harry Potter universe except the person who created it, who should be stopped.  I don’t understand those arguments or how people imagine they can be enforced.  Short of censorship and totalitarian control, we cannot stop a writer from continuing her work.  It’s on us to handle the weight of the authority of her words in ways we can actually control.  Irvin has his approach; I have mine, of viewing this influential author’s output as an ongoing work in progress and part of a larger cultural phenomenon that includes fan works.

What would you do if you were her beta?

Sometimes my friends or I are frustrated or angered by something a powerful author has written.  In those instances, one of my ways of restoring a feeling of my own power is to ask myself and others:  How would you mark up her writing and talk to her if she were your beloved friend and you were her beta?  Someone whose friendship you very much intend to keep?  It’s one thing to rant and rail, but if you know there will never be an answer, yet you still have feelings, at some point, I feel like you have to turn the rant into something more self-nourishing.

The point of thinking what constructive advice you would give as her beta is not, of course, that you will send her your thoughts and she will thank you and make all the changes you suggest.  The point is to turn the frustration into productive critical thinking that will absolutely benefit you in your own work, whether it’s your writing or your confidence in giving feedback to others.

Why I find HP worthwhile

A question during the hiatus before Deathly Hallows was whether HP would go on to be a classic, or whether it would be a soon-forgotten fad.  I find it exciting to track how these stories are transitioning right now into second-generation readership.  I find Potterverse incredibly useful for teaching how to read clues and layers, something I think is continuing with Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts series.

It still astonishes me that a woman became a billionaire by writing books for children.  That kind of wealth usually happens through exploitation and oppression, not from telling stories.  For something to become a bestseller, it has to speak to something emotional within people.  For something to become an international bestseller, across cultures, it’s an important phenomenon that tells us something important about being human at this moment.

Sons of an Illustrious Father, Boot and Saddle in Philadelphia, July 21, 2019

Weeks after an international tour playing for audiences of thousands, Sons of an Illustrious Father swung through Philadelphia for a sweet hello of a concert.  They’re not even from here, but it had the feel of a quick visit home.  I think I always want to see this band with a crowd that will yell “FUCK YEAH” upon hearing the opening chords of “Extraordinary Rendition.”

Josh Aubin was in full guitar-god form with “EG,” which seems to have gotten, impossibly, even faster in tempo.  I got to tell him how much I’ve appreciated his musicianship and his dancing, and how vital this band’s music has been to me when coping with current events.

Have a few seconds of Lilah Larson’s gorgeous voice from the concert.  If I were to write a poem about things that are true, her voice would have to be in it, I think.

I had sworn off buying more t-shirts, but then I saw this graphic of the band closing ranks, giving the finger to anyone who would hurt them, and it was labeled “F U” among the shirts at the merch table, and that made me laugh.

The last thing I saw after the show was Ezra Miller, sitting down on a stoop in exhaustion but smiling gently, making sure to greet the people who had waited to tell him that his work was important to them.

Thank you to the band for coming out to sing for us in this heat, and welcome home to the East Coast.  I always breathe easier after seeing this band play.  The music makes me incredibly happy and that is a sacred thing.

soaif octopods front view with book

Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

I was honored to be part of the keynote panel at MISTI-Con 2019 alongside Bayana Davis, Constance Gibbs, and Lawrence Neals, “Evanesco Representation, Accio Inclusion:  Diversity in Harry Potter.”  Moderator Robyn Jordan of Black Girls Create sent out questions in advance.  Here are the answers I prepared to a couple of those questions.

I’m going to focus on my love for Claudia Kim’s portrayal of Nagini in Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.

On September 25 of last year, they announced her character’s name.  Here is my five-item tweet as soon as I found out:


A Korean woman in Potterverse! *instant identification*

  1. Neville killed me, oh noes
  2. “milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS
  3. Impersonating Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse? That was a lot to ask of a snake!
  4. Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage


That was a fun morning.

I followed Claudia Kim’s Instagram with the video of her at a press event, saying, “I’m Nagini!  I’m blushing.”  She posted about running to watch Chamber of Secrets when it was on TV and captioned a screenshot of innocent little Neville with “Neville!  Ahhhh!” and a scared-face emoji and a snake emoji.  On her posts about the character, she wrote, “I love you, Nagini!”

Then I saw some of the backlash against the casting and storyline.

I tried looking through the arguments again for this panel, and they were so hurtful, I had to stop.  Many of the objections struck me as unintentionally racist, even though they were from people who seemed to think of themselves as allies.

After all that, when the movie was released, I liked Nagini in it.  I loved her two deleted scenes from the DVD and wish that both of hers had been kept in.  I know Nagini is not written as Korean, but she feels very Korean to me.

1.     What has been your experience as a non-white Harry Potter fan?

Some people objected to showing an Asian woman with such a tragic backstory or so unempowered, subservient to a white man.  One viral tweet said something sarcastic about Nagini not being a “strong independent female character.”  This confused me because this is Voldemort we’re talking about, right?  Who possessed people and killed babies?  Within a universe where magical people commonly have magical familiars, including Wormtail pretending to be a rat.  This fandom has handled tragic stories like Sirius losing 12 years to wrongful imprisonment and Regulus sacrificing himself as a teen with no guarantee it would work — and that was in the children’s version of this story.  The adult version, Fantastic Beasts, is about the treatment of humans and beasts — about “freaks” and “underbeings.”

Nagini’s story seems to fit right in, to me.  Is the Asian woman somehow not allowed to have a role in this story about the prejudices that led to World War II?

Here is what I really hear:

This role should have gone to a white woman for the comfort of viewers who are uneasy with the images in their own heads of Asian women.

What I hear is:  People were happier when there was no Korean woman in Potterverse.  They don’t want us if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

What “strong, independent” narrative for a Korean woman in 1927 would these critics suggest?  How do they want us to be for their approval?  Because we have an example like that, with its own issues, in Seraphina Picquery, who seems to be the only black woman holding high office in magical New York, and yet somehow she’s president.  The white characters in Fantastic Beasts have some degree of real-life historical context, but this black female character doesn’t seem to.

Some people objected to making an Asian woman into a “slave.”

Don’t people who died while enslaved by others deserve to have their stories told?

Some people objected that a character identified as Indonesian should not be played by a Korean actress.  I can see that.  But here’s how I saw that play out in real time:

A Korean actress joined the Potterverse, turned in a performance about resisting dehumanization and escaping trafficking, and then faced criticism, even mockery, on the press tour.  It made my stomach hurt to watch her go through that.  I’ve had the visceral experience of entering the room as the only Asian woman and feeling waves of disapproval, murmurs that my presence has turned something into a disaster for reasons that have nothing to do with my worth or my performance, with nothing I can do to fix it, only that they didn’t want a Korean woman there.

I hope more people take a minute to see more of the character Claudia Kim created.  I liked Nagini in the movie, but I loved her in her two beautiful deleted scenes with Ezra Miller.  They’re on the DVD extras — meaning the fullness of her character felt relegated to the margins.  They’re clearly lovers in those scenes.  In one, she encourages him to release his Obscurus peacefully and proves that it can pass through her without harm.  In the other, he sees the skin on her hand turning scaly and he kisses it.  They’re about the core of this Fantastic Beasts story.

2.    What are some examples of how the quest for representation negatively impacts true inclusion and equity?

I believe there were Korean fans recoiling from the thought that the first time a Korean body is represented in the wizarding world, it’s in a degraded status as a doomed young woman.  I can see that it might be better to be safely invisible to this Western film franchise, as usual, than to be portrayed on an international stage according to stereotype and fetish.  There’s plenty of Korean media doing a better job of projecting the image that Koreans want represented to the world.

There’s a different Korean narrative going on there, though, one that I can’t imagine was intended by Rowling and Yates, who created Nagini as Indonesian.

What was going on in Korea in 1927?  For one thing, there was no Korea.  Korea was brutally colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and that included slavery and trafficking of Korean girls on a massive scale.  Japanese schoolteachers were recruited to select victims from Korea’s most established families in a deliberate move to demoralize and destroy the culture, similar to the Lestrange storyline with the Kama family.  This issue was silenced for decades and it remains unresolved and a source of diplomatic conflict between Japan and Korea.  A few of the survivors are still alive.  A lot of them never told their own husbands and children.

For its many flaws, Fantastic Beasts is an international story about the oppressions that led to World War II.  The two films we’ve seen so far have been about the stories that those places don’t want to acknowledge:  witch hunts and politicized capital punishment in the U.S., racism and colonialism in France.  I can understand not trusting Rowling and Warner Brothers to tell the story of Korean women during that time.  However.

It is a destructive trap to hold that it’s somehow wrong or improper to tell in public the stories of Korean women who endured slavery and trafficking in the first half of the 20th century.  We’re not the only ones that happened to – not even in this movie series – and the survivors and their younger generations continue to pay the cost, like a blood curse.  Shame and silence only lead to more damage, with the greatest burden on the people who have suffered most already.  This is part of the global story that Fantastic Beasts is telling about then and about now.