Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Nagini!

Welcome to Day 14 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is Nagini from Harry Potter, and some of the problems surrounding Rowling's use of Eastern mythology.

So, hanging out over on Tumblr, I saw this fascinating piece of writing about Nagini (Voldemort's serpentine soul vessel from the Harry Potter series) and the reasons why she's problematic.  Go check it out--I definitely learned some stuff.   Thanks to the author (Tumblr: Irresistible Revolution) for a great analysis. (It was reblogged by one of my favorite people on Tumblr, Sumayyah Daud, who you should probably definitely be following.  Thanks for sharing, Sumayyah!)

I've put my thoughts on Tumblr already, but it's late and I'm tired and Nagini fortuitously starts with today's letter--plus, I'm really interested to see what people think about this.   So here's my scattered two cents, reposted from my Tumblr.

This article is hugely fascinating to me (particularly the bird vs. snake stuff).  I was completely ignorant of like 95% of it, and I love it when the internet teaches me new things. 

It also makes me really think about what we can or should hold authors accountable for.  Like, I feel like there’s a good chance Rowling googled “words for snake” or something and didn’t really think about what it would imply.  I’m certain she’s not as well-versed in eastern mythology as the author of this article.  That doesn’t make her work less problematic—I’m not trying to say this critical reading is wrong—but I guess I’m asking, what exactly do we mean when we talk about things being problematic?  Where, specifically, are we locating the problem?   And what are the expectations for how much research an author needs to do?  Clearly, a little more than was actually done in this case—so how does an author know when there’s something in their story that’s not quite right?

And I wonder what would have happened if someone sat Rowling down shortly after Nagini was introduced and explained what she had brought into her story by choosing that name for a snake.  I have so, so much respect for authors who acknowledge their mistakes and try to fix them. My favorite example of this is Kristin Cashore altering elements of a character between Graceling and Bitterblue when it was explained to her that she had fallen into a problematic trope involving disability and magic.  And she didn’t just do it quietly, she talks about it in events and I believe mentions it in the acknowledgements for Bitterblue.  To my mind, this lessens the problematic elements of Graceling, so I guess I’m placing these problems in a weird liminal space (thanks, Professor Bell!) between the author and the text.  Like, if Nagini had been problematic in her first appearance but then someone set Rowling on a better course, could we give full marks, or nearly so?

No really, I’m actually asking.  When works by living authors, especially ongoing works, contain problematic elements, can a late-stage, good-faith correction effectively solve the problems?  Or is it too little, too late?

(Edited to add more questions because I want to learn about all the things.  My questions aren’t rhetorical here.  They’re totally real and not even abstract, since I’m also a writer and I worry about this kind of stuff a LOT.)

(Edited a second time: Maybe part of what I am wondering about is how much do we hold the person—Rowling, as a human—accountable for the attitudes conveyed by problems in their work?  Particularly if we don’t have the chance to ask them about it and see how they respond?  Like, for example (and I’m sorry to beat this dead horse) the first season of the show Girls was problematic because of its lack of POC; when asked about it, Lena Dunham gave a problematic response—essentially, “Yeah?  So?  That’s what my life is like.”  I have a problem with her art and also with her.  I don’t hate her or anything, and I think in general she takes too much crap for other stuff, but in that case I can at least legitimately say, ok, that thing you yourself actually said, that’s a problem.  Kristin Cashore, on the other hand, created problematic work but when asked about it, responded in a way that acknowledged the problem and her own responsibility to fix it.  So I don’t find her as a person problematic.  Thoughts?)

1 comment:

  1. I think you raise a really good question, Jess. I wish I knew the answer to this. I think sometimes authors hit a nerve without meaning to and they don't always have the opportunity to fix it (the series is complete or whatever) or the moment has passed in such a way in the series that it's not really possible to revisit it and correct it.

    I remember Veronica Roth talking a year ago about DIVERGENT and how she wished she had handled Tris' response to an attack differently. (The Mistakes Writers Make) The mistake she made wasn't intentional, but she owned up to it and expressed remorse that she hadn't approached it in a more sensitive fashion.

    It terrifies the heck out of me that I'm going to unwittingly write something that offends someone or several someones. Sometimes writing passes through a number of filters and this stuff still isn't caught. I guess, bottom line, the most important thing is to acknowledge when you've screwed up even if it's too late to fix it.


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