Discussing Nagini with Parinita Shetty of the Marginally Fannish Podcast

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.

 

 

Review: When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

I didn’t intend to see Snape parallels when I picked up this book, but they’re plentiful.  The narration alternates between a middle-school Korean girl, Sun-hee, and her young adult brother as they live with their parents through Japan’s colonization of Korea during World War II.  The story is set a decade or two after the events of Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, but Japan was already occupying Korea by then, so it does provide some context for anyone who saw Claudia Kim’s Nagini and wondered what life might have been like for a young Korean woman at that time.

Literacy and reading are at the core of this resistance story.  Sun-hee’s uncle goes into hiding and runs an underground printing press.  The Japanese army sends people to search Korean homes for seditious writings, and of course all post is monitored.  Sun-hee’s brother tells her that when he writes her letters, she must learn to read between the lines.  The most thrilling passages of this suspenseful book come when we witness Sun-hee becoming an expert close reader.  It’s a beautiful example of fiction that demonstrates how close reading is one of the most essential skills for survival.

As for the Snapeyness of this book:  Sometimes, what looks like acquiescence or collaboration may not be.  Sometimes, personal friendships can survive bad politics.  Sometimes, people commit themselves to resistance while knowing that they will be thought, in life and even after death, to be collaborators or traitors.  You don’t always have to lose faith in your loved ones.  Sometimes it’s not safe for them to tell you everything they’re doing.

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
  5. OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE

 

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.

Nagini! Thoughts on Horcruxes, Possession, and Dark Magic

Warning:  This discussion gets dark.  (I mean, this whole series is dark.  And it certainly looks as if the Fantastic Beasts series, freed of any concerns about being intended “for children,” is going to go darker.  But yes, this discussion gets dark.)

On Tuesday, September 25, 2018, the final trailer for the upcoming film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:  The Crimes of Grindelwald revealed that Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, was a Maledictus:  a human woman born with a blood curse, inherited through the maternal line, that doomed her to turn eventually into an animal.

Rowling announced via tweet that she had been keeping quiet about this backstory for Nagini for “around twenty years.”  She described the ethnic context of the Nagini character in a different tweet:  “The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake. Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi.”

Some fans were repelled at the darkness of a storyline in which a human woman becomes a snake who is beheaded by Neville Longbottom; some expressed skepticism that Rowling could have come up with such a backstory for Nagini 20 years ago.  But this is not the first time we have seen such a dark ending for a being possessed by Voldemort or part of his soul.  In fact, this is a standard outcome for anyone Voldemort possesses, in whole or in part.

On pages 653-656 of Goblet of Fire (U.S. edition), Voldemort addresses the Death Eaters and discusses what powers he had while he was bodiless in the forest:

“Only one power remained to me.  I could possess the bodies of others.  […]  My possession of them shortened their lives; none of them lasted long…”

Of Quirrell, he said, “I took possession of his body…  The servant died when I left his body.”

He explained that once Wormtail offered his services, “Wormtail was able to follow the instructions I gave him, which would return me to a rudimentary, weak body of my own, a body I would be able to inhabit while awaiting the essential ingredients for true rebirth…”

We know that for most of Goblet of Fire, Voldemort resides in a rudimentary body the same size and shape as a baby.  He stays in that form, small and weak, until he can obtain ingredients for a magic potion that includes the maternal nurturing from Lily Potter’s blood protection of Harry, which enables him to grow to adult size.  All of the other ingredients are readily available to him; that’s the only one he lacks.  Until he has it, he remains in his rudimentary and stunted form, all year.

We know from the diary Horcrux’s possession of Ginny that Voldemort, even a fraction of him, could draw life out of the person he possesses and take them over.  Dumbledore, Snape, Lupin, Sirius, and Hermione were all afraid that Voldemort would start to use the scar connection with Harry to possess Harry, and the only time Harry ever heard Dumbledore sound frightened was at the Ministry battle in Order of the Phoenix, when Voldemort possessed Harry and tried to goad Dumbledore into attacking him and thereby killing Harry.

In the Forbidden Forest in Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry learns that Voldemort drinks unicorn blood to stay alive, Firenze tells him that “it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn…  You have slain something pure and defenseless.”

Rowling has never revealed exactly how Voldemort got himself into corporeal form at the beginning of Goblet of Fire.  She said in interview:  “There are two things that I think are too horrible, actually, to go into detail about. One of them is how Pettigrew brought Voldemort back into a rudimentary body. ‘Cause I told my editor what I thought happened there, and she looked as though she was gonna vomit.”

Combined with the original crime at the heart of the HP series, Voldemort’s attempt to kill a baby, it seems reasonable to guess that Voldemort stole a body by possessing a human infant, kidnapped for him by Wormtail.  The infant didn’t die during the year of GoF, since it seems that Voldemort leaves the bodies of beings he possesses if they die.  So the original human infant within that body either still lived and was overpowered by Voldemort’s stronger personality, or became subsumed into Voldemort’s self, perhaps gradually to disappear or become indistinguishable.  Perhaps once Voldemort rebirthed himself in the cauldron and arose as an adult, the infant body and soul died; that would be a more merciful fate than the possibility that some vestige of the original infant lives on within Voldemort.

Which leads us to the question of whether or not Neville Longbottom, in the Battle of Hogwarts, actually beheaded a human woman.  And I would think that the answer is no.  Based on the glimpses we get into Nagini’s thoughts, her urges to strike in Order of the Phoenix or her advanced acting as Bathilda Bagshot in Deathly Hallows, it seems that by the time she is a Horcrux, Nagini is very much a magical form of snake, no longer thinking like a human.

On page 506 of Half-Blood Prince (U.S. edition), Dumbledore tells Harry that he thinks Nagini is a Horcrux.   Harry asks, startled, “You can use animals as Horcruxes?”  Dumbledore replies that it’s inadvisable “because to confide a part of your soul to something that can think and move for itself is obviously a very risky business.”  We know that this is a set-up for the eventual revelation that Harry is an unintended Horcrux, but this also resonates with some themes from the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

There are similarities between Horcruxes and Obscuri.  An Obscurus is a semi-sentient entity that cannot survive independent of its human host; the burden of having an Obscurus kills most Obscurials in childhood.  Newt Scamander is the first person to successfully separate an Obscurus from its Obscurial, keeping it protected in a magical container, which is perhaps similar to the container for a Horcrux or the enchanted bubble around Nagini.

The ability to isolate an Obscurus is of great interest to Grindelwald, who would like an Obscurus to use as a weapon without the pesky inconvenience of fighting the will of the host Obscurial; Credence, for example, proves to be obstinate in resisting Grindelwald’s exploitation.  We know that Voldemort was the first wizard to make more than one Horcrux and that he invented Dark Magic more advanced than any wizard before him.  My guess is that Grindelwald may eventually conclude that it is impossible to harness an Obscurus for himself.  He may turn to Horcruxes as an alternate way of splitting off and containing power, but if he succeeds in making a Horcrux at all, we know it will not be more than one.  This would set the stage for Voldemort to go further than other Dark wizards by embracing the Horcrux strategy wholly, depending only on himself, as Voldemort does, considering himself powerful enough to sacrifice segments of his own soul without loss of power.

But the more Voldemort splits his soul, the more unstable he becomes, which results in his final two soul fragments being encased in living beings.  By the time he goes to create the sixth and final intended Horcrux, he fails to generate the requisite energy by splitting his soul through murder, and he accidentally creates a sort of Horcrux without even noticing.  How embarrassing.  By the time he creates the Nagini Horcrux, he is desperate and settles for this unstable container.

As seems to happen every time Rowling releases new information about Potterverse, many fans object to this expansion of Nagini’s story.  Some argue that it is disturbing to think that Nagini, the human Maledictus portrayed by Claudia Kim, may have joined Voldemort as a sort of slave or lover.  But based on what we see of the Voldemort-Nagini relationship, it seems clear that he has positioned her as a surrogate mother.  In the opening chapter of Goblet of Fire, Voldemort and Wormtail enact a ghastly parody of Hagrid carrying baby Harry to the Dursley home, and Voldemort instructs Wormtail to “milk” Nagini so he can drink snake venom from a baby bottle during the night.  In a book about adolescent metamorphosis, in which Voldemort suffers uncontrollable physical conditions and then rebirths himself at the tomb of the parent he murdered, it is easy to imagine that he might repudiate the memory of the “weak” mortal mother who abandoned him by dying and reinvent himself as the offspring of a magical beast.

Many fans have seemed to resist the human Maledictus backstory for Nagini, but perhaps this is primarily an initial reaction of horror at the darkness of the story.  Rowling has been working up to hereditary blood curses for a while; they played a significant part in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and they are characterized by inevitability and blamelessness.  They fit well into the general Potterverse concept of Dark Magic as harm that strengthens over time (as with the curse that withered Dumbledore’s hand).  Perhaps this kind of hereditary blood curse is too dark for a children’s series, but not too dark for a PG-13 film series for adults about the evil and hate that led to World War II.