The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Backlash to J. K. Rowling’s new Pottermore Story

J. K. Rowling has brought her Potter magic to the U.S. with the publication on Pottermore of History of Magic in North America.

The backlash, as reported in a variety of sources, including CNN’s New J.K. Rowling story earns ire of Native Americans, is aptly summed up in this excerpt: “The story, which chronicles wizarding from the 14th to the 17th centuries, was criticized for lumping all Native Americans into one group, appropriating their stories and ‘completely re-writing these traditions,’ in the words of Cherokee scholar-blogger Adrienne Keene.”

pottermoreSometimes writers of majority groups who write sensitive stories about minority groups are told, “this isn’t your story to tell.” Kathryn Stockett and her book/film The Help received comments like this.  I take exception to that kind of criticism and maintain all stories are open to all people.

I’m not going to comment directly on what Rowling wrote and/or “should have written.” There are multiple issues here if the criticisms are correct.

All writers, I think, should look at the greater context in which the myths, legends, beliefs and traditions of minority groups exist now, and as they have evolved over time. If (basically) a white writer includes this material in a story, whether the focus is totally on the minority group or not, then the context is important.

Last fall on Facebook, members of various Indian nations supported the  idea that for Hallowe’en, their culture wasn’t a costume for others while trick-or-treating. Those wearing feathers and carrying tomahawks probably never thought about it, even though they would never dress up like the Pope or the Virgin Mary.  For Catholics, the Pope isn’t a fictional character or a let’s-pretend leader. For all Christians, neither is the Virgin Mary. For Indian Nations, neither are their elders, medicine men, and the individuals out of spiritual legends and stories.

When care is not used in a novel/short story that includes stories and practices from an Indian nation, this is what you end up with: a prop, something that’s been borrowed/stolen (and possibly re-told incorrectly) for the author’s own purposes.

If Rowling has, in fact, done this, then in my view that’s a huge mistake that could show lack of research and care. It’s hard to say what she intended and why it failed (if it did) because as far as I can tell, she hasn’t responded to the criticisms that she has re-worked minority group legends and beliefs for her own use and presented them as though they are fictional.

Presenting religious beliefs as though they are fictional minimizes those beliefs and those who hold them. If you’re a member of a race or a religious group the odds are you can say what those outside the group would be condemned for saying. It’s one thing to poke fun at–or satirize–one’s own foibles or extremes; it’s another thing to say religion XYZ is fake, implying that those who believe it are inept, uneducated, or uncivilized. This is the dangerous ground an author gets into if s/he writes about another group’s beliefs as though they are fictional.

Within the story being told, the author–in my view–must assume that the religious beliefs and practices are just as real and meaningful as his/her own, and show them in their true context. Research and an empathetic consideration of a culture that isn’t one’s own will make this easier to do, though it’s not without pitfalls. Take care when you tell stories about another person’s house.

–Malcolm

 

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