Some of you may be familiar with Xandra Robinson-Burns of Heroine Training, who frequently partners with the Granger Leadership Academy and the Harry Potter Alliance. Her current essay, “Life in the UK,” collects her thoughts while studying for her exam to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. I was honored to be mentioned in the essay as having contributed to the parallels she draws between her own experiences and the fictional Hermione’s. All of Xandra’s essays are worth reading, but this one, in particular, strikes me as a tour de force, combining truth-telling with her characteristic graciousness and calm.
Delivered on October 16, 2020 at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA.
On September 25, 2018, Korean actress Claudia Kim was announced in the role of Nagini for Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald. Here is my five-item tweet from the moment I found out:
That was a fun morning. I couldn’t get enough of the coverage: Claudia Kim at a press event, saying happily, “I’m Nagini. I’m blushing!” Or her Instagram story, where she posted a screenshot of innocent little Neville from Chamber of Secrets with the caption, “Neville! Ahhhh!” and a scared-face emoji and a snake emoji. At last, a Korean woman in Potterverse. I had never counted Cho Chang, even though her name might be Korean, because the writing of that character struck me as generic when I read her on the page: she could have been any race. But Nagini, the Maledictus in her human form, would first be brought to life not on the page, but onscreen, with a Korean woman’s experiences informing the actress’s reading of the character, her embodiment and her inflections and her micro-expressions.
And then I saw some of the backlash against the casting and storyline. Claims that it was racist, a “disaster,” to cast a Korean woman as a character who, as some people put it, ended up as maybe the pet, the slave, or even the lover of an evil white man. That the first time a Korean body is represented in the wizarding world, it should not be in a degraded status as a doomed young woman. That this played into stereotypes of Asian women as subservient, or sexualized, or submissive. That this character was not exactly a “strong, independent female character.” I understand many of the criticisms. For example, that the filmmakers should have found another Indonesian actress to play Nagini, who was written as Indonesian, when their first choice withdrew due to pregnancy. Or that Rowling could not be trusted to have a solid understanding of naga mythology. However, whenever I read through this controversy, I find the comments against Claudia Kim’s casting so hurtful, I have to stop. Many of the objections strike me as unintentionally racist, even if they purportedly call out racism.
And this was all before anyone had seen the movie.
When I finally did see the movie, I liked Nagini in it. When I saw her two deleted scenes from the DVD, I loved her.
Let’s go through her scenes.
1. We meet her at the traveling circus, where she’s the featured snake woman, one of the “freaks and underbeings” on exhibit, and Credence cleans the animal cages. The circusmaster, Skender, exploits Nagini and mistreats Credence. They’ve plotted to escape together, although Skender tries to keep them apart. Skender sets up Nagini’s act, telling the audience that she’s “beautiful” and “desirable” but turns into a snake when she sleeps and eventually will be trapped in snake form, and commands her to change shape. Nagini defies him, making him a laughingstock, and makes eye contact with Credence instead. Credence releases caged animals into the crowd, Nagini transforms into a snake and bites Skender, and the two of them escape.
2. Credence has received a tip about his biological mother, so he and Nagini go to look. Nagini recognizes that Credence is too emotional to speak, so she speaks for him. But the whole setup is a trap set by Grindelwald, who has sent an assassin to kill the person about to give Credence clues to his own story, as a deliberate ploy to trigger an Obscurus attack in Credence and observe it. [clip] Nagini senses the camouflaged assassin and tries to fight him, witnesses the Obscurus explosion, then, instead of being afraid, approaches Credence to comfort him afterwards.
3. She alerts Credence that Grindelwald has come to tell Credence to learn his identity at Père Lachaise cemetery. The way she glares at Grindelwald, it’s clear that she recognizes him as an exploiter and manipulator.
4. She goes to Père Lachaise with him and shields him when Yusuf Kama tries to kill him.
5. She accompanies Credence into Grindelwald’s rally. She warns Credence, fearfully, “They’re purebloods. They kill the likes of us for sport.”
6. She tries to pull Credence back from joining Grindelwald, saying, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.”
7. After Credence and others go over to Grindelwald, she joins Kama, Jacob, Tina, the Scamanders, and the Aurors as they report to Dumbledore at Hogwarts.
Looking at her actual character in the movie, I don’t find her to be without agency at all. She embodies the theme of the Fantastic Beasts series: that the human attempt to divide living creatures into binary categories as either “beasts” or “beings” does a sort of violence that enables othering, exploitation, and dehumanization. That this splitting, whether of the natural world, ethnic groups, individual souls, or the atom, is part of what gave rise to World War II. Yet even in captivity, she defies her captor and becomes one of the few characters in Potterverse to manage their own prison break, which she does by forming a bond of affection with another. They risk trusting each other and pool resources to resist together; neither of them could have escaped alone. She relies on her strengths: yes, she’s caged, but that protects her from the audience touching her. Yes, she’s a Maledictus, but this means she can transform into a snake who can attack her captor. And she’s whole enough to form a bond with someone who’s an Obscurial and can unleash destructive power in order to free them.
The screenplay says of Nagini that she “trusts nobody,” but this is not quite true: she trusts and protects Credence, and we later see hints that she trusts Kama. She doesn’t have that hardened suspicion that comes of blanket mistrust. Instead, as the screenplay also says, “Nagini’s senses are hyperalert. She can smell danger.” Without any need to go into Maledictus lore, we can recognize this hypervigilance as her natural response to being trafficked and exploited. The way Claudia Kim plays this alertness feels culturally familiar to me: she’s always quietly scanning the surroundings, always the first to intuit unspoken dynamics, a skill that Koreans call “nunchi.” I see it in her microexpressions, her stillness, the sweep of her eyes, her readiness to speak a cautionary word or extend a protective hand. This isn’t written into the script; it’s just something the actress brings to the role that makes Nagini read Korean to me.
There are times that Rowling gives characters lines to say that lets us, the readers and viewers, know that this is where the real message is: for example, Dumbledore saying, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” When Credence is leaving Nagini, he says of Grindelwald, “He knows who I am.” And Nagini’s last cry to Credence is, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.” It’s Nagini who delivers the essential message of this series: listen to the truth in each being, no matter how powerless or how much of a freak or under-being they are.
Nagini’s actual role in the movie doesn’t accord with the backlash I encountered before the movie release. She isn’t shown as anyone’s sexualized, submissive follower: that description fits the wealthy white woman, Bellatrix Lestrange, not Nagini. With the darkly funny reference to “milking” Nagini in Goblet of Fire, Rowling cast her as the twisted parody of a mother figure to Voldemort rather than a lover. At the time of Crimes of Grindelwald, Tom Riddle is less than a year old and has lost his mother. We don’t yet know how the two cross paths, but with Nagini’s protectiveness toward the vulnerable, it wouldn’t surprise me if she heard a baby’s cries in Parseltongue and responded.
Nagini has agency. She has a tragic storyline, yes: that makes her like half the characters in this universe, like Sirius losing 12 years to wrongful imprisonment or Regulus sacrificing himself as a teen with no guarantee it would work — and that was in the children’s version of this story. Must the Asian woman character be relentlessly inspirational, even if it’s discordant with the rest of movie? This series is an international story about the prejudices that led to World War II. Is the Asian woman somehow not allowed to have a role?
When critics object that simply casting a Korean actress as Nagini is racist, this 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.
All right, let’s hear it: What narrative for a Korean woman in 1927 would these critics suggest? How, exactly, do they want us to be for their approval before we can enter the story? 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.
There’s a different Korean narrative brought to mind by the nationality of this casting choice, 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.
I can understand not trusting Rowling and Warner Brothers to portray Korean women during the time before World War II. However. It is a destructive trap to hold that it’s somehow wrong or improper to tell in public the stories of women of color who endured slavery and trafficking. Don’t people who died while enslaved by others deserve to have their stories told? 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.
When the Crimes of Grindelwald DVD was released, the two beautiful deleted scenes featuring Nagini deepened her story. I wish the filmmakers had kept them in the film: putting them in the DVD extras means the fullness of this woman of color’s character was relegated to the margins. Credence and Nagini are clearly lovers in these scenes. In one, she encourages him to release his Obscurus peacefully and proves that it can pass through her without harm. In the other, she is ashamed and sorrowful that the skin on her hand is turning scaly, but Credence sees it and kisses it.
Nagini gives Credence the most affection and acceptance he’s ever experienced. He sleeps with his arms around her, but we see she has stayed awake the whole time, forgoing rest because she wants to be with him in human form. She coaches him to control his Obscurus and not be afraid of it, recognizing that it’s a part of him and has its own beauty. The scene is called “Murmuration,” in keeping with the series theme of birds and flight. When she has the Obscurus pass through her, she demonstrates that this integral part of Credence is not destructive in itself, that she accepts it, and that she has the strength to know how Credence feels. Credence reciprocates in the later scene, countering some of her shame and despair about her irreversible loss of humanity, showing his acceptance of her whole self.
Rowling has been working toward the concept of the Maledictus for some time, the blood curse through the female line that strengthens over time. Draco Malfoy’s wife, Astoria, dies of a blood curse in Cursed Child. I hope very much that we get to see more of the middle of Nagini’s story. We know how it ends, and so, to an extent, does she. But from what we’ve seen, it’s in her nature to meet her destiny as Harry Potter did, knowing “the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high.”
Delivered October 16, 2020 at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA.
The way we read Harry Potter in the U.S. changed with the 2016 election. For almost 20 years, many of us were able to fall in love with this series as comfort reading. Monstrous tyrants who rounded up ethnic groups and tortured their own followers could be read as allegorical figures. In 2016, when the protective magic in our system of checks and balances was attacked on so many fronts that we couldn’t keep track, Americans turned to dystopian fiction to help combat the lag created by our inconvenient disbelief: this can’t be happening here. People could use Harry Potter as a common cultural text to warn each other: we’re at that point in the story where we need to form Dumbledore’s Army. In 2016, some people said, dismissively, that you couldn’t compare Trump to Voldemort — at least, “not yet” — revealing that they had an internal meter for which people Trump could threaten, and how many of them, before they would object. Others of us, like Hermione, had reason to recognize what we were seeing, and wondered nervously if our half-privileged and full-privileged friends would stand by us or leave us in the forest.
Checking the news was like Ron Weasley’s question about the Daily Prophet: “Anyone we know?” When Trump proposed a database to register U.S. Muslims, the Muggle-born Registration Commission didn’t seem far-fetched anymore. After his talk of raids by ICE, our own version of Snatchers, hate crimes rose against people of color. Suddenly, it hit differently to remember that Parvati and Padma were among the first students whose parents pulled them out of Hogwarts. It was more frightening to remember that 12-year-old Draco once said, “Bet you five Galleons the next one dies. Pity it wasn’t Granger —“ when we knew that actual children were being taunted with their parents’ deportation by their classmates and teachers.
After Trump’s team spurned transition help in 2017, the New York Times reported, “Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.”
I pictured the Head’s office sealing itself against Umbridge. When we had to learn about Trump’s meetings with Russian officials from Russian news outlets, we knew: “The Ministry has fallen.”
Trump’s eerie absence of empathy recalls Voldemort. The article about Trump calling soldiers killed in action “suckers” and “losers” reported, “Several observers told me that Trump is deeply anxious about dying or being disfigured, and this worry manifests itself as disgust for those who have suffered.” We see the same disgust in Voldemort when he says, “There is nothing worse than death.”
Trump’s fear of appearing weak recalls what Voldemort taught Quirrell: “There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” When Trump was asked to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he answered, “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” He sounded like Voldemort jamming the Sorting Hat onto Neville’s head: “There will be no more Houses… Slytherin […] will suffice for everyone.”
Even the mainstream knows that Betsy DeVos is Umbridge.
For the role of Wormtail, though, everyone gets a turn. Bill Barr looks like Peter Pettigrew, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Trump treated Jeff Sessions like Wormtail, belittling him in public. He brought Sean Spicer to the Vatican, then deliberately shut him out of meeting the Pope, which was “all he wanted.”
Spicer lied daily for Trump; Trump still despised him. No matter how well you serve Trump, he might make you cut off your limbs or choke yourself to death.
The clearest Death Eater character in Trump world, though, is his consultant, Roger Stone. He doesn’t even need a turban.
Before 2016, I thought of dementors only as the personification of depression. But when Jeffrey Epstein died in prison, I remembered Fudge bringing a dementor with him to question Barty Crouch, Jr. and the dementor losing control. Fudge didn’t see the problem — “By all accounts, he was no loss!” Dumbledore said, “But he cannot now give testimony.” That was on my mind when Epstein’s partner Ghislaine Maxwell and Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen were put in prison. I’ve thought of it again when police, or unidentified militia, have turned peaceful protests dangerous. Dumbledore warned Fudge that dementors would not remain loyal to the Ministry: “Voldemort can offer them much more scope for their powers and their pleasures than you can!” In light of some of the phone camera footage we’ve seen this summer, I’m more conscious of Dumbledore’s stance that dementors have no business at a school.
The moment that Harry Potter stopped being allegory, and U.S. reality achieved parity with its fictional horrors, was in 2018, when this administration began separating migrant children and infants from their parents at the border. Family separation is what the entire Potter series is about.
Voldemort both caused it and felt it: “He did not like it crying, he had never been able to stomach the small ones whining in the orphanage — ‘Avada Kedavra!’ And then he broke.” I will not play the recording from June 2018 of migrant children at a detention center, crying for their parents. Rowling started her foundation Lumos in 2004 after she had to force herself to look at a news photo of a child in a cage. Voldemort profited from the dark energy generated by the splitting of souls. This administration profits from the splitting of families.
There came moments when our real-life horrors surpassed anything in Harry Potter and it was no longer adequate as an allegory for our times. One came with the 3000 fatalities from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, when in an act of racist genocide, this administration withheld routine emergency aid to our own citizens. Another has come with Trump lying about the Covid-19 pandemic, like Fudge denying the return of Voldemort. Fudge’s deputy, Umbridge, forbids students to learn defensive spells, claiming, “There is nothing waiting out there, Mr. Potter.”
In April, the Department of Health and Human Services drafted a plan to send five reusable masks to every address in the country, but the White House opposed it because “households receiving masks might create concern or panic.” The difference is that Fudge changed his mind when he saw the evidence. Trump already had the evidence about Covid-19. He lied that the virus would just “disappear like magic” in full knowledge. Trump’s disregard for hundreds of thousands of his own people’s lives is far beyond the scope of Voldemort’s evil. With the subsequent ruin of the U.S. economy, our downtowns have become Diagon Alley in Deathly Hallows, with shops boarded up and destitute people pleading, “Where are my children? What has he done with them?”
In May, after the murder of George Floyd, protesters risked injury and even death to fight racist police brutality, like Neville and Seamus resisting the Carrows. In the midst of this global reckoning on race, in June, Rowling drew focus with a lengthy manifesto against “the new trans rights movement,” compounding damage from December 2019, when she tweeted support of an anti-trans activist. Longtime fan groups such as Mugglenet, the Leaky Cauldron, and the Harry Potter Alliance broke ties with Rowling.
Rowling’s groundless statements against trans identity have changed how U.S. fandom relates to Harry Potter. Many fans have attempted, over the years, to proclaim a Barthesian “death of the author,” an intellectual stance that requires constant upkeep when the disobligingly undead author keeps trending on Twitter. Is it realistic, or fair, to keep asserting that the author’s statements have no bearing on the meaning of the text? As one trans friend said to me, pretty much everyone in the trans community is aware of Rowling’s bigotry and now must warily assess every Potter fan they meet to see if that person is okay with it. Can we re-read, without discomfort, the passage where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him? Did the reader deserve to be told that transmisogyny is an appropriate response to abusive teaching? “Death of the author” would attribute this inspiration entirely to Lupin, the character. But the author’s statements intrude on my reading and change it.
Many queer and trans Potter fans reported feeling stricken to learn that Rowling supported a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, when her series, with the emphasis on every person finding magic in themselves despite being different, had been central to their coming-out journeys. To find now that Rowling conflates legal recognition of trans people’s genders with “throw[ing] open the doors of bathrooms” to cis men who will assault women reminds me of the “odd, sick, empty feeling” in Harry’s stomach when Percy Weasley told Ron to “sever ties” with Harry: “He had known Percy for four years, had stayed in his house during the summers… yet now, Percy thought him unbalanced and possibly violent.”
The bewildered hurt reported by many fans reminded me of the dead unicorn in the forest. Rowling wrote that it is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” in this case, very young readers who thought they were included in her stories of love and acceptance. What have trans kids done to deserve Rowling grouping them with violent criminals?
McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone! […] On what grounds are you attacking him? He has done nothing, nothing to warrant such —“
Lily says to James of teen Snape, “Leave him ALONE! […] What’s he done to you?”
And James tells her, “It’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean…”
And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.’” It’s Rowling who equates hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder. By attacking the realities of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable. Her fiction taught us that when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden. You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may. But your forgiveness is your own business and does not absolve them. They have damaged or even split their souls, and the only remedy is remorse, their own full recognition of the harm they have caused.
The soul of Rowling’s story is love, acceptance, protection. For me, the author’s anti-trans words have the effect of damaging this story’s soul. Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.” Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with signs of anti-trans prejudice in her books, as well as marginalization of queerness, fatphobia, and issues of race. The bitterness of fans who saw this coming reminds me of Dumbledore saying, “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was? I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”
Some fans have walked away from Harry Potter. As Lily told Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore. You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.” But what about the many fans whose histories are too entwined with Harry Potter to leave the stories behind, even if they disavow the creator? Fan artist Fox Estacado worked with me to create this graphic, free for the personal use of any Potter fan.
A month after Fox released that graphic, I read Troubled Blood, my first new Rowling material since her manifesto. It felt a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic. I remembered why I loved her so deeply, but also how badly she has broken my trust. I found myself scanning for clues: how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction? Where is the author I loved?
In Troubled Blood, after acrimonious divorce proceedings, Robin has one last thing to say to her ex:
“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you. Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”
It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through, this self-protective response to Rowling’s bigotry. That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, when they needed her.
And then, last month, her stories spoke to me again, when Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, published his book, Disloyal. There are parts of Harry Potter lore that the collective fandom is still working through, topics of vigorous engagement that have not been put to rest, and of course, as the author of a book on Snape, I think comprehending Snape’s arc is a major one. Disloyal showed me that I’m not finished thinking about Harry Potter yet.
Some of us thought the Prince’s Tale chapter of Deathly Hallows, in which Harry views Snape’s memories, could have been its own book. Some of us wished Snape could have told Voldemort he’d been fooled. Disloyal is the real-life version. What if, when Voldemort decided to kill his own right-hand man, Snape had survived?
Cohen used to harm people on Trump’s behalf, unbothered by his conscience until Trump betrayed him, the same way that Snape supported Voldemort until someone he loved was the target. Once Cohen finally recognized his wrongdoing, he considered suicide, then chose a second chance to take responsibility for the damage he’s done, naming his new podcast Mea Culpa, dedicating his insider knowledge to blocking Trump’s ambition to be dictator for life. His testimony to Congress sounded like Snape’s story. Rowling said of Snape: “He craved membership of something big and powerful, something impressive.” Cohen testified, “Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating. When you were in his presence, you felt like you were involved in something greater than yourself — that you were somehow changing the world.”
Like Snape, who chose to serve a murderer who dismembered and buried parts of his own soul, Cohen is permanently marked by his association with Trump but therefore also credible: “I know where the skeletons are buried because I was the one who buried them.”
Cohen writes with awe of the late Representative Elijah Cummings, who “understood that the least of us deserve the opportunity to seek penance, redemption and a second chance in life,” “the lone politician I encountered in all my travails who took an interest in me as a human being. […] He even took steps to ensure my security in prison.” Like Dumbledore with Snape, Cummings thought Cohen’s life worth protecting.
Cohen’s first guest on his podcast was Rosie O’Donnell, whom he had once helped Trump harass, who wrote to him and visited him in prison, an act that he said made his soul hurt, the way Hermione says remorse after splitting one’s soul into Horcruxes is supposed to be excruciating. Cohen said, “Her kindness broke me into a million pieces, shattering what was left of my ego and pride. And when I put the pieces back together, I rediscovered the man that I used to be…the man who could look at his wife and children in the eye and not be ashamed.”
That quote resonates with Snape’s final words, “Look…at…me.” I disagree with those who read this as an uncomfortable wish about unrequited love for Lily. I think Snape spent the second half of his life trying to atone enough to be able to look Lily’s son, and Lily, in the eye and not be ashamed.
Cohen wrote, “As you read my story, you will no doubt ask yourself if you like me, or if you would act as I did, and the answer will frequently be no to both of those questions. But permit me to make a point: If you only read stories written by people you like, you will never be able to understand Donald Trump or the current state of the American soul.”
There are some Harry Potter fans who argue that Snape’s original choices were so abhorrent, they disqualify Snape’s atonement from consideration. It is true that Snape only turned against Voldemort because his own loved one was targeted, and would not have cared about baby Harry if he’d been born to anyone else. It is also true that Cohen only turned against Trump because once Cohen’s office was raided by the FBI, Trump stopped returning Cohen’s calls, stopped paying for his lawyers, and expected Cohen to keep lying for Trump and go to prison. But it is also true that this is what makes their knowledge crucial to fights between evil and wholeness. Only someone who has cast Dark Magic and then felt remorse, like Snape or like Dumbledore, knows how to reverse it. Even those of us who have split our souls have the right to try to do good, though the pain of it might kill us.
The words in the Harry Potter books don’t change, but we do. The Potter stories are the shared text of a pre-Trump, pre-Brexit generation. The stories hit differently now. However we engage with Rowling in the future, the Harry Potter books have encoded within them our collective past. It’s been difficult, the past few years, to keep track of the upheaval. But when we reread these books, we remember how we reacted to them in the past, compared to how we react now, and that is how fiction helps us keep the measure of how we’ve changed.
Reading Troubled Blood by J.K. Rowling feels a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic. You remember why you loved this person so deeply for so long, but you’re more certain than ever that you were right to block them on social media.
The advance reports were correct: there is a storyline that includes damaging anti-trans stereotypes. This shows up frequently in the first part of the book and recurs a few times throughout. The transphobia is bad, but I don’t see any evidence to support the theory that Rowling launched her anti-trans comments starting in Dec 2019 specifically in order to promote this book. She has done more damage and reached more people with her anti-trans tweets and blog post than she will with this book.
If you are boycotting Rowling’s work, you’re not missing much new by skipping this one. The mystery is ultimately forgettable, though fun to read in the moment; the novel might have been improved by cutting out a few characters and maybe 150 of its 900+ pages. If you do decide to read it, there are long stretches of enjoyable content, especially when she writes complex group scenes or milestone interactions between Strike and Robin.
Those stretches are interrupted by the same issues we’ve always seen from this author. People of color are still tokenized, described only by their race while white characters, the default, are described in detail: “the black male nurse called ahead to a frail-looking old lady wearing a sheepskin hat” (p702). The anti-fat hatred is the same as ever, with gratuitous remarks on characters’ sizes. There does seem to be improvement on number of queer characters included, although that is difficult to appreciate considering the frequent mention of men dressed as women in order to commit crimes.
I found myself reading for clues, but not in the usual way of murder mysteries, trying to solve the crime. Instead, I found myself on edge, scanning for anti-trans sentiment, for stereotypes and scapegoating. I was reading for clues about Rowling’s mindset: how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction? Where is the author I loved and long trusted, and what has happened to her mind? Because parts of the lengthy explanation she posted to her website in June 2020 sounded to me like they issued from a mind in crisis.
If you’re looking for Harry Potter in this book, you can find it. There’s a serial killer who dismembers and hides evidence of his crimes, like Voldemort. The father of one victim studies every meaningful connection the killer had in order to uncover possible sites, like Dumbledore researching Tom Riddle’s past for Horcrux locations. In the middle of the book, Cormoran Strike experiences despair and a grueling trek, like the infamous “camping” section in the middle of Deathly Hallows: “And so began days that had the same strange, outside-time quality of their journey” (p517). There’s even a connection to the Fantastic Beasts series, when Strike uses the word “underbeings” (p851), the word that the circusmaster in Crimes of Grindelwald uses for his “freaks.”
In Troubled Blood and her other Cormoran Strike thrillers, Rowling spells out horrors that she only insinuates in her children’s books. The kind of personal trauma that she described in her June 2020 explanation, in tones of extreme distress, is a major part of Robin Ellacott’s story in this novel. She vividly conveys Robin’s memories of sexual assault and the way these mental scars make “casual physical contact with men almost unbearable” at times (p372). In one rather satisfying scene, an unpleasant character triggers Robin’s post-traumatic hypervigilance and gets what he deserves. In one of the most compelling passages of the book, Strike, in slow-motion train wreck mode, obliviously drags Robin into a flashback. Perhaps this is part of what Rowling was trying to communicate in her first-person justifications on her website; I was better able to receive the message here, through her fiction.
There were several moments when I was almost able to forget the major harm Rowling has done in the past year, and I felt something like the glow that her writing used to kindle in me, before my trust in her broke. Few writers capture as poignantly, to me, the insoluble struggle between calling and motherhood: “The problem wasn’t that Robin didn’t think she’d love her child. On the contrary, she thought it likely that she would love that child to the extent that this job, for which she had voluntarily sacrificed a marriage, her safety, her sleep and her financial security, would have to be sacrificed in return” (p253). I have missed being startled by the loveliness of some of her descriptions: “the fields gliding past, bestridden with power pylons, the flat white cloud given a glaucous glow by the dust on the glass” (pp656-7). I enjoyed the author’s conflicted attitude toward astrology in this novel; as always, she is skeptical and disdainful toward anything like fortune-telling, but that doesn’t stop her from expertly assigning birthdays and deeply researched zodiac traits to her fictional characters. I smiled fondly at this familiar trait in a dear old friend before remembering that we’re not friends the same way anymore.
It took until book 5 of this series, but thank goodness, in Troubled Blood, Robin finally separates from her conventional, stifling, small-minded husband, Matthew. I suppose what follows is a bit of a spoiler, so if you’ve read this far and still intend on reading the book, you may want to stop here.
Divorce is another topic that Rowling only insinuates in Harry Potter, but includes in her adult fiction. Through most of this volume, Matthew puts Robin through acrimonious, punishing divorce proceedings. It’s hateful. When they finally reach an agreement, Robin has parting words for him. I had no idea what she was going to say to him.
“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you. Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”
For a fraction of a second, his face worked slightly, like a small boy’s. Then he walked back to her, bent down, and before she knew what was happening, he’d hugged her quickly, then let go as though she was red hot.
“G’luck, Robs,” he said thickly, and walked away for good. (pp680-1)
It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through in the past year, this self-protective response to J.K. Rowling’s harsh, sustained, ossifying bigotry toward trans people. That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, for years, when they needed her. Remembering it might be the source of strength that some of the fandom needs in order to say goodbye and walk away.
It took me almost six months, but I finally completed the few last steps on the Button Box quilt I started in March as a fanwork for Linda Sue Park’s Prairie Lotus (read my review here).
By March 12, I had finished piecing the top. All I needed to do was put on a border, sandwich the quilt with a backing, quilt it, and put on a binding. I had planned it as a lap quilt. I said I would post a picture of the quilt here when it was finished.
On March 13, coronavirus lockdown started. Abruptly, all works in progress halted. When I got my wits together enough to start sewing again, it was to make masks. For a while, in April, I was using my quilt fabric stash to make 30 masks or more per day. By June, I had made about 2000 of them.
It’s the first week of virtual school and a modified version of life seems to have resumed. We’ve set up a dedicated study space for the teen, the tween, and a couple of their friends. The teen said the walls looked bare and liked the idea of warming them up with a quilt or two. So the Button Box quilt has become a wall quilt, not a lap quilt. Now the kids have somewhere to rest their eyes when they’re tired of squinting at their onscreen classes. Maybe, almost six months after lockdown started, I’ve started to adjust.
Is it possible to continue to enjoy the Potterverse while the author continues making ever more strained statements about her anti-trans bigotry? On the one hand, I’m finding difficulty in my current attempts to reread the series, as my trust in the author is eroded. On the other hand, there are so many people whose memories and even identities are so entwined with Harry Potter that it is simply not possible to make a clean break and walk away. The stance of retaining claim to one’s own memories and development, as a reader and a person, while rejecting the bigotry, is a stance worth protecting.
My high schooler and her friend, who run our Octopod business, have listed House-themed octopods as a fundraiser. They will donate 100% of the proceeds ($10 per octopod) to the Trevor Project, one of the organizations that worked with Harry Potter fan groups such as MuggleNet and the Leaky Cauldron to develop a response to JKR’s bigoted statements. People can choose if they’d like a bit of rainbow or trans pride ribbon to go with their octopod, or else a sticker with the graphic design by Fox Estacado. The annual Back to Hogwarts media campaign is heating up, and these octopods want to do their part to declare that everyone is welcome to study magic.
Update: We raised $150 for the Trevor Project.
After J.K. Rowling’s declarations of anti-trans bigotry, many people left Harry Potter fandom in revulsion. Others rejected the author’s bigotry but asserted their right to retain their connections to the source material and, perhaps more importantly, to their own history and relationships within the fandom.
As a gift to the HP fandom, artist Fox Estacado has created this public domain graphic. If you are a Harry Potter fan who supports trans rights, you are welcome to use it.
This is a reblog of an eloquent entry by Emma Curzon. I have thought of many of the same quotes over the past several weeks.
The last few months haven’t been a great time to be a Harry Potter fan- particularly not if you’re also LGBTQ+, and even more particularly not if you belong to the “T” part of that equation. J.K. Rowling’s recent Twitter activity and long-winded spiel of transphobic dog-whistles and conspiracy theories (no, giving trans kids puberty blockers is not “a new kind of conversion therapy”) have- to put it mildly- made things difficult, especially for those of us who grew up with and were influenced by her work.
(For a complete analysis of why Rowling’s “essay” is transphobic, I’d strongly advise checking out the below video, made by Jamie Raines and Shaaba Lotun, for a literal full breakdown.)
As I discussed in my recent post, ‘The Harry Potter Fan’s Guide to Dealing with J.K. Rowling’s Transphobia’, your relationship with Rowling’s fictional work is- especially if you’re trans-…
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Ph.D. student Parinita Shetty is the creator of the Marginally Fannish podcast, in which she uses an international lens to examine fan podcasts as sites of public pedagogy. For a delicious break from quarantine life, she invited me onto her show for an hour of talk about how much I love the character of Nagini in Crimes of Grindelwald, and why. The Marginally Fannish website includes not only the episode, but a transcript as well! Check it out.
This pattern is approximate, as I usually improvise octopods. They are just blobs with eyes!
You can also check out a video of this process.
Use a J-size hook and wool or merino that can felt (not superwash), in worsted or aran weight. I’ve gotten the best machine-felting results with Malabrigo Merino Worsted or Manos del Uruguay Maxima. Cascade 220 works decently, although it sometimes needs more time in the washer for complete felting. I do not recommend Noro Kureyon.
For body of octopus:
R1: Ch2, slip stitch, forming a round.
R2: SC 6 (stitching 3 times into each stitch from the first round), slip stitch.
R3: SC 12 (stitching 2 times into each stitch from the second round), slip stitch.
R4: SC 18 (alternating between stitching once and stitching twice into each stitch), slip stitch.
R5: SC 24-ish, slip stitch.
Decrease (every other stitch) until 15 stitches remain.
For each tentacle:
Hooking two stitches at once, chain 11, then slip stitch into beginning of chain to form loop.
SC sides of loop together with 5 stitches to end of tentacle, turn and SC 4 stitches again to body of octopus.
After forming 8 tentacles:
Stuff octopus body loosely with chain stitch.
Decrease in rounds to center of the bottom of the octopod. Tie off.
To full the octopod:
Machine wash on heavy duty, using hot water and a small amount of laundry detergent, along with a pair of jeans for friction. Remove from machine and massage into shape, aggressively if need be. Let dry overnight.
Stitch on beads for eyes. If making octopods for children under 3 years old, embroider eyes with thread.
If you like, check out Your Daily Octopod on Twitter.