The pen is mightier than the sword, especially when it’s Jane Austen’s

243 years after Jane Austen’s birth, her words still loom large over the literary world –  and in the dialogue about women’s rights.

By Serena Ypelaar

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday.

This time every year, I’m left reflecting on the legacy of that talented and incredibly smart woman, one whose voice speaks so loudly in both her contemporary era and our own. Despite living in a male-dominated society, Austen’s wit and wisdom has pervaded the literary world and she remains one of Britain’s most prominent authors.

Jane Austen.
Photo: Goodreads

So on her birthday, I’d like to recall the significance of her work as a canon that redefined feminism even at such an early point in time.

The author of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among other titles, left an indelible mark on English literature as a writer who speaks from a distinctly feminine perspective in a patriarchal society.

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Anne Elliot discussing gender inequality in “Persuasion” (1817)

To paint a brief picture, in Austen’s society only landowning men could vote; genteel women of the middle and upper classes could only retain or augment social standing through a successful marriage. Even then, influence was confined to that of one’s husband, a notion at odds with today’s circumstances. Failure to marry well would usually result in spinsterhood, living with one’s parents for the remainder of one’s life (which was extremely embarrassing back then) and a complete lack of independence.

Despite all this, Austen rejected the marriage proposal she received from one Harris Bigg-Wither and instead committed to reconciling the two seemingly disparate lifestyles I’ve just mentioned: autonomy as a single woman.

How did she do it, you ask? She did it through her words, as a woman writer. She wrote about women’s experiences of Regency society, highlighting issues of income, class, personality, gender, and manners. She successfully sold her novels to earn money, making her quite entrepreneurial for a woman of her time. Her discerning assessments of the dynamic between men and women – despite being set 200 years before now – still resonate with us today, and her comments on the human condition have charmed readers of all genders and classes.

I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.

Marianne Dashwood describing the severe expectations of women in her society in “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Regardless of how I feel about today’s designation of “chick lit” as an excuse to dismiss female authorship, Austen owns her femininity unabashedly, delivering exacting jabs and insightful criticisms from the seat of an observer – each time a considerate and emotionally complex female character. What makes her so relevant today is that amidst the ongoing push for equal rights, people connect to her ability to find flaws in her society and propose solutions to them.

I hate to hear you talk about women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives. 

Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” (1817)

Since her books achieved mass popularity, Austen has served as an inspiration to many, though she’s not without her critics (jealous haters). Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, and other writers claimed to find no brilliance in her work, but as The Mindful Rambler is by no means a neutral publication, I feel no hesitation in discrediting their criticisms. Austen is brilliant because she represents the everyday. What might seem to some the banalities of the well-to-do in the countryside in fact set Austen apart, through the minutiae of her social criticisms and her practiced understanding of others. We’ve all met a Mrs. Bennet, whether she is our own mother, a voracious aunt, or otherwise; we all want to meet a Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey in my case, but I’m sure we’ll get to that in a future post).

A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen employing her signature biting irony in “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I write this from the perspective of a woman who loves writing too, and whose work has been shaped by two prominent female writers, J.K. Rowling and Austen herself. But while the former shies away from gender politics in favour of the ideological, the latter champions her gender through representation and highlights disparities between men’s and women’s quality of life. Austen does this using a combination of cultural nuances and hyperbolic characters, stressing important themes while more subtly suggesting at other details. The result is a complex but convincing illustration of feminism in the early 19th century, one that we can use to inform our discussions of feminist literature today. And we have a well-educated, unmarried woman in Regency England who forged her own path – despite the restrictions of her society – to thank for that.

Learn more about Jane Austen and her portrayal of women here.

It’s Raining Men in the Harry Potter Franchise

With the release of the newest Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, we take another look at representation in author J.K. Rowling’s works in this installment of the Critiquing Harry Potter series.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Strong women” is a phrase we hear a lot, especially regarding film and literature. The desire to see strong women in entertainment (and the misunderstanding of what a “strong” woman actually is) sets up unrealistic standards for female characters and their real-life counterparts. Irrespective of these confining notions, empathy and vulnerability are traits that make women strong, not weak. A profound emotional complexity encapsulates what it means to be human, to live, and to persevere through adversity.

J.K. Rowling has promoted female complexity to an extent through Harry Potter characters such as Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Luna Lovegood, Cho Chang, Fleur Delacour, Angelina Johnson, Minerva McGonagall, Lily Evans, Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even Lavender Brown, all of whom have diverse personal attributes that make them uniquely human. Some are leaders, some are learners, some warriors, and some nurturers, but all of them feel. So do men, of course – yet male emotion is sadly suppressed as weakness in our society.

nlt
Brothers Theseus (Callum Turner) and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) interact while Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) looks on. In J.K. Rowling’s latest spinoff, men still dominate the story, women are supporting characters, and non-binary characters aren’t included at all. Photo: Entertainment Tonight

Critically examining all aspects of Fantastic Beasts would take days, so keep in mind that I’ve tried to confine the scope of my analysis to gender here. Given that J.K. Rowling is a woman writing in the 21st century (though her latest story is set in the 20th), I’d expected her to feature a female lead this time around. Despite the many complex female characters in the Harry Potter books, Rowling never struck me as going all the way to give women full representation. The majority of the major characters are men, after all, and the few women who are given significant roles are almost all white. In today’s political climate, the time is ripe to focus on feminism and gender equality. Some might argue that it’s Rowling’s responsibility as an influential woman to present more female role models, and I won’t even get started on non-binary characters because that evidently seems too much for Rowling to consider. Ezra Miller, who is a queer actor, does play Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts, but Credence is referred to as male in the films – we don’t have any evidence that Rowling understands or wants to include the lived experience of genderqueer individuals. Instead, Rowling safely elected to feature Newt Scamander, widely acclaimed Magizoologist – and a dude.

fb
An early promotional poster for Fantastic Beasts. The core three characters of this film – Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt (Eddie Redmayne), and Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) are male. Photo: Flickr

If the secondary characters were all female it might be less of an affront that Rowling went with a story about another man, but I can’t really defend her there. Just like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Newt is surrounded by other male leads. In The Crimes of Grindelwald specifically, we have No-Maj (Muggle) Jacob, Newt’s brother Theseus, Credence, and then the big ol’ showdown between future Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and European powerhouse tyrant Gellert Grindelwald, the darkest wizard on the world stage before Lord Voldemort’s time. As you can see, lots of testosterone floating around.

Of course, the Goldstein sisters Tina and Queenie figure into the storyline, this time alongside Leta Lestrange and *SPOILER ALERT* Nagini (to whom I’ll probably devote a whole other post in the future). It’s not that the women are there, however, that checks the proverbial box of so-called gender parity; as I argued in my article on ethnicity, it’s what they do that matters. In the first Fantastic Beasts film, Newt and Jacob were the top-billed characters in the plotline, with Tina and Queenie playing supporting roles. Likewise, we know that the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship takes centre stage now. J.K. Rowling could just as easily have chosen a witch to work with Dumbledore for this spinoff series, but she didn’t, and men are still at the centre of the action. It strikes me as a bit disingenuous for a self-declared progressive female author, but I suppose our society influences our implicit expectations. All I can say without spoiling the film is that our girls Tina, Queenie, and Leta’s storylines heavily feature men and aren’t explored as in-depth as I would like.

There’s one possible upside apart from Newt’s own emotional vulnerability: Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s confrontation and the unravelling of their past. Such an interplay could do much to highlight LGBTQ2+ representation and men’s emotional depth if it’s properly explored. It is a shame that the only gay relationship we may see is an abusive and manipulative one, but nevertheless, this franchise will be very telling as to whether J.K. Rowling truly believes in diverse representation or is just trying to ride the wave.

So far she’s demonstrated a shocking hesitancy to give female, non-binary, or trans individuals representation, and I doubt we can expect anything that doesn’t feature a male lead from her soon.* For now, even as far as women – complex, wonderful, and important as they are – are concerned, I’m not convinced Rowling’s in it for the long haul. If she is, I’d like to see more action and agency from her non-male characters front and centre.

After all, actions speak louder than words, and Rowling’s approach to gender isn’t quite loud enough for me.

This article is part of the Critiquing Harry Potter series. Read about ethnic representation in the series here.

____________________________________

FOOTNOTES
*Just take a look at her Cormoran Strike novels under the penname Robert Galbraith, which also feature a male character.

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

One hundred years after the World War I armistice, we continue to remember – and feel – the sacrifice of those who have served in armed conflict. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Trying in dismay to ignore the declining number of poppies I’ve seen on people’s lapels this year (all of theirs probably just fell off, right?), I of course wanted to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, surviving veterans, and all those affected by war ahead of Remembrance Day.

And what better way to do so on a literary/historical blog than to revisit the famed rondeau poem In Flanders Fields (1915) by Canada’s very own John McCrae?

1280px-No-man's-land-flanders-field
Trenches and No-Man’s Land at Flander’s Fields. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From an interpretive perspective, the strength of the poem lies in its profound ability to foster empathy. Most of us probably haven’t been in the trenches or known what it’s like to fight in a thankless conflict while watching countless friends die. Those of us who haven’t are extremely lucky – yet In Flanders Fields paints such a visceral picture of sacrifice that we get an almost firsthand glimpse of the devastation.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It is hard to believe that McCrae, a physician and Lieutenant-Colonel during World War I, was dissatisfied with his work and discarded it. He had to be convinced to submit the poem for publication. Yet he uses swift imagery to conjure a painstakingly forlorn scene of war and death, having written it after performing the funeral service for a fellow soldier and close friend, Alexis Helmer. No matter where we read this, we’re hit as though standing there in Belgium: poppies blowing in the wind on the burial site; guns booming in the distance; the keen sting of love and life, all extinguished by the horrors of war.

crae
Physician and poet Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I will freely admit that it’s almost impossible for me to read the poem without tearing up. What’s more, it has also been set to music, and the sombre melody combined with McCrae’s stark verse is even more emotional. I always cry when they sing it during the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, and I probably always will, because McCrae delivers empathy right to our doorstep. That is, of course the best storytelling – that which makes us feel things.

McCrae’s use of caesura in the second stanza, a halt with punctuation in the middle of a line, drives the point home: We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived … The dead speak to us in the poem, and we are accountable to them to live with honour and integrity as they no longer can. Those feelings of sadness are so well-preserved in the poem that they don’t dull down with time. Every reread reopens the wound – but justly so.

Processed by: Helicon Filter;
A poppy field in Flanders. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, it’s painful to grieve, but it is necessary. Remembrance Day is an ongoing process of empathy and an enduring resolution to defend honour. That is, after all, why we wear the poppy every year. It’s a symbol of our commitment, gratitude, and respect. Perhaps in remembering the contributions of our fellow citizens, whether by sacrificing their lives or through tireless and laborious efforts, we’ll also be wary of the sorrow that accompanies war and conflict. Lest we forget.

Frankenstein; or the Modern Myth

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured in popular culture for two centuries. As a story about stories, how does it capture audiences even now, and what does it tell us about literary tradition?

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been haunting our cultural imagination for 200 years now. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you know the story. You’ve encountered it in some way, shape, or form. Even as early as 5 years after its initial publication in 1818, the novel was adapted into a stage play. And ever since, it’s been twisted and translated, parodied and paid homage to in countless books, films, TV shows, plays, video games, memes, t-shirts, and has even entered into our lexicon (who hasn’t used “Franken” as a prefix, stitching it onto other words like some linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster?). Frankenstein’s monster remains an enduring cultural touchstone. So why do we keep adapting this strange tale, dreamed up in the mind of a teenage girl? Why is Frankenstein such an enduring story? How does it still resonate?

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in promotional material for Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When we think of Frankenstein, we think of shambling insensate monsters, of the mad scientist in his darkened lab, hunched over a slab of corpse fragments. We think lightning and stitched skin and a mob of pitchforks and torches. But all these images were borne out of the afterlives of Shelley’s novel. Why, then, does the novel lend itself to this kind of modern myth-making?

Well, if we go back to the novel itself, which is often lost among these countless iterations and adaptations, it becomes clear that this is a story about stories. Shelley built her novel on a sturdy foundation of Milton and Shakespeare, science and philosophy and art. It’s a story that speaks through stories about the way stories shape us. It’s no surprise, then, that Frankenstein’s monster, after being abandoned by his creator, learns about the world through books:

I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books. They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings . . . I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathized with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none.

The creature finds solace in reading, but also comes to better understand himself and the world around him.

Stories allow us to experience and understand things that are unfamiliar to us. Shelley’s novel does exactly that. Instead of painting the creature as a one-dimensional monster, the novel invites us to sympathize with him, despite his bitter cruelty and horrific violence. The monster only becomes monstrous, after all, because of the terrible things done to him.

Why do we keep coming back to Frankenstein? In a world that wants to fit people into black-and-white categories, to distinguish between good and evil, Frankenstein resists easy interpretation. It wallows in seams and ambiguity and gray areas. The book is disturbing, as any good horror fiction should be. But it’s also suffused with loss, desire, grief, and love. No matter how far its offspring stray, Frankenstein continues to resonate because it speaks to our human impulse to create and find some kind of connection through the stories we tell each other.

In Defense of Fanfiction: Authors as Fanfic Writers

By Sadie MacDonald

Ah, fanfiction. Constantly derided, gleefully parodied, snidely dismissed. Even some creators are opposed to it (most famously Anne Rice, but also George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon), preferring that fans refrain from writing fanfiction of their works.

2d8
Tina Belcher, a teenage girl, shows us how it’s done in Bob’s Burgers. Photo: Know Your Meme.

I could argue about how sneering over fanfic tends to have a misogynist bent, as fanfic is generally seen as the realm of teenage girls. I could also point out that this dismissive attitude has tinges of homophobia, as most fanfiction is characterized as “slash fiction” (sexual relationships between same-sex characters generally not explored in the original canon), which is accordingly chided as ridiculous. However, in this post, I will stick to examining examples of fanfic produced by well-known creators, who seem to escape the stigma by virtue of being established authors. These authors nonetheless create fanfiction for the same reasons that ordinary teenagers do: to explore the unexplored, and to express love for the source material.

Fanfiction has existed for a long time. Virgil’s Aeneid is arguably fanfic of the Iliad, and is an example of a work that explores the unexplored, showing the other side of the Trojan War from the perspective of Trojan warrior Aeneas.

800px-aeneas27_flight_from_troy_by_federico_barocci
Like The Iliad, The Aeneid itself has spawned its own iconic imagery, such as this 1598 painting by Frederico Barocci showing the flight of Aeneas and his family from Troy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Pastiches often examine hidden perspectives and bring them to the forefront, frequently casting the original works in a new light. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood puts a twist on the Odyssey by exploring the perspectives of Penelope and her twelve maids. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story behind Mr. Rochester’s doomed first marriage and giving Bertha much-needed sympathy and humanity. Wicked by Gregory Maguire retells The Wizard of Oz from the viewpoint of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West, explaining the reasoning behind her decisions. Geraldine Brooks’ Little Women fanfiction March places much emphasis on slavery, an institution that defined the social and physical landscape of mid-19th century America but is left unspoken in Little Women. These examples show that beloved stories are still capable of revealing new discoveries.

30897
A Study in Emerald was later adapted into a comic book. Photo: Dark Horse Comics.

Not all fanfictions make changes to their source material, and there are many that seem to have been created for the sheer pleasure of engaging with a beloved work. Sherlock Holmes pastiches have existed since Arthur Conan Doyle’s days (and he cared little about what these creators did with his intellectual property). Even established novelists have participated in the Holmesian fun. Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” is actually a fanfiction of TWO works, H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and Sherlock Holmes, and serves as a love letter to both.

The persistence of Holmesian fandom, still active nearly a century after Doyle’s last Holmes story was published, shows how much audiences love Sherlock Holmes. We want to continue to have adventures with him, even if that means making our own adventures.

If professional authors can write fanfiction to great acclaim, why do we deride teenagers, just learning how to stretch their literary muscles, for doing the same? Seasoned authors have played in other creators’ sandboxes. Let emerging writers do the same.

Well-Read: On Breaking Up with the Great Books

As literary scholars, book lovers, and participants in popular culture, we are conditioned to become “well-read”. But what weight does the established canon really hold? What is the reward for pursuing literature that is widely lauded as a “great book”?

By Jenny Lee

If you are a sad, nerdy, self-serious reading person, you know about the Lists. The BBC has one, every liberal arts school has one, Harold Bloom had one that would require several lifetimes to finish. The Lists are there to tell you about the Great Books.

IMG_20180806_194003259
The author’s copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which is naught but a particularly large List of Great Books. Photo: Jennifer Lee.

The arguments against the Western literary canon are well-rehearsed. The Canon is dominated by the Dead White Male, with a smattering of token female authors, authors of colour, authors with disabilities. It’s a gatekeeper: people who aren’t familiar with the Canon are excluded from our cultural conversations, because they don’t really know about books. It trains us to extend endless sympathy to angry white men and none at all to … anyone else.

The Canon is the guy at the party who won’t stop talking about Dude Books, but has never read Pride and Prejudice (and yet has an argument about why it’s not a great literary work). The Canon makes you read everything he thought was good when he was fourteen, but leaves every book you lend him on his bedside table, untouched. Every time you struggle through one of his Dude Books, two more appear, like the heads of the Hydra. Admittedly, sometimes they’re good, but they’re not Zadie Smith good.

silvia_refuses_valentine27s_letter
Oh! It’s another book! That you want me to read! Thanks, I’m actually allergic to Salinger, it’s the weirdest thing, I get hives. Huge bummer but what can you do? Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Canon is inside my head, like the Phantom of the Opera, if the Phantom of the Opera did not offer singing advice but instead just exhorted you to read Dostoyevsky.

The Canon is a bad boyfriend, so why is it so hard to break up with it?

phantom-of-the-opera-james-barbour-dec-2015
“CHRISTINE! Did you finish Atlas Shrugged yet? I know it’s 1200 pages long, but it only took me four days once I got into it. I just feel like Rand was really prescient.” Photo: Matthew Murphy.

I know, intellectually, that these Lists are restrictive, limiting the stories we read and talk about and write, that they arise from power structures I don’t want to uphold. But letting go of the Great Books is more frightening than liberating. If I admit that I think Restoration drama is uniformly terrible* and will never like Wordsworth, then who will present me with a great big trophy and universal approbation for finally being a Well-Read Individual?

There are the stories in the Canon, and then there’s the story of the Canon: the lie that running on the hamster wheel of European thought makes you some kind of literary Ubermensch, that there is only one way to cultural competence and only one culture worth being competent in.

wellread_solo_9212_1024x1024
It turns out you can just BUY THESE on the internet and no one even makes you take a quiz. Photo: Paper Pastries.

I know this, and yet a set of leatherbound classics still makes my pupils dilate in a Pavlovian reaction. There is no prize for being ‘well-read’, but so much of my early formation, as a reader, a critic, a person, was staked on the premise that there might be.

Is it enough to see the Canon for the arbitrary racket it is, to choose instead the company of authors I love, who speak to me? To catch myself before I ask someone else, with reflexive incredulity, “You haven’t read any Auden?” Or do I need to delete the Canon’s number from my phone and start again, building my own Great Books from scratch? Can I finally ghost on The Faerie Queene? 

*COME AT ME

Critiquing Harry Potter: Ethnicity & Representation

Some Harry Potter readers today assert that J.K. Rowling’s universe is not accurately diverse enough. Population research yields an interesting dialogue about the demographics in the series, but representation is an even more complex issue.  

By Serena Ypelaar

I’m about to do something which may surprise you: I’m going to criticize Harry Potter.

During my life I’ve spoken with many friends about my favourite book series, and in the last few years especially, the issue of diversity often looms large.

In Harry Potter the possibilities for discussing diversity are endless, from ethnicity, to LGBTQ+ inclusion, to gender, to species.

Today, I’d like to talk specifically about ethnic diversity. Why are there only, like, five* non-white kids at Hogwarts? (*Seven, but who’s counting?) The fact that there are so few minority characters isn’t ideal for the most popular book franchise of the twenty-first century so far. Even in the 1990s when the Harry Potter books are set, shouldn’t there be more diverse characters to represent the society the novels portray?

I definitely thought so … and then I embarked upon some research for this article and found this thread on Reddit, in which a fellow fan argues that the Harry Potter universe accurately reflects the ethnic demographic of the United Kingdom at the time. In the census for 1991, the year Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins, 94.1% of Britons identified themselves as white, 5.9% as non-white.* (I don’t think the census asked about mixed ethnicity, since it was the first UK census to collect information about ethnic background.)

da_3
Dumbledore’s Army in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Photo: Harry Potter Wikia

With the 40 students in Harry’s year (5 of whom are non-white), that places the white population at 90% and the non-white population at 10%, which is actually almost double the proportion of non-white people in Britain at the time. What?!

Indisputably, Harry Potter is a product of its time. Though author J.K. Rowling’s illustrated demographic fits the temporal setting of the story, it doesn’t accurately represent its readers, who span the world over. Readers aren’t going to see the current population (of either Britain or the world) represented in the novels; they’re going to see the population of Britain 20 years ago. And with such a diverse present-day audience, we’re now left with a disparity in terms of ethnic representation.

I would therefore argue that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the number of non-white characters featured in the story, but rather the significance J.K. Rowling gives (or doesn’t give) them in the narrative. Let’s count the confirmed non-white students mentioned at Hogwarts in the books:

  1. Dean Thomas
  2. Blaise Zabini
  3. Angelina Johnson
  4. Lee Jordan
  5. Cho Chang
  6. Parvati Patil
  7. Padma Patil

How many of these students have a major part in the story? None, really.

cho
Cho Chang, as played by Katie Leung in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Photo: Warner Bros.

Cho Chang, Harry’s one-time love interest, features prominently in Order of the Phoenix but isn’t central to the other books. Rowling has received major criticism for her portrayal of Cho, with accusations of cultural ignorance in choosing her name, negatively depicting the only East Asian character in the books, and more.

Dean Thomas, who is Black, is consistently present as one of Harry’s friends; he shares a dormitory with Harry and Ron, and dates Ron’s sister Ginny for most of Half-Blood Prince. Dean has a rich backstory which was originally included in the books but didn’t survive the editor’s cuts. His story, in which he eventually learns his wizard father was killed fleeing the Death Eaters (Lord Voldemort’s followers), was omitted in favour of Neville Longbottom (a white character, interestingly) avenging his parents after Death Eaters tortured them into insanity.

kingsley
Kingsley Shacklebolt, played by actor George Harris in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Photo: Pottermore

The whiteness of Harry Potter goes beyond Hogwarts, too. Kingsley Shacklebolt, a Black wizard who is a powerful Auror and future Minister for Magic, is praised throughout the last three books, but he’s still a fairly minor character. There are also no identified South Asian characters in the Harry Potter universe apart from the Patil twins, and Latin American characters are non-existent.

All the main characters in Harry Potter are white. We’ve gone over historical demographics, but we should be asking a critical question here: why didn’t Rowling write any of the main characters, or even the major supporting characters, non-white?

After Hermione was portrayed as Black in the broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (a play that was approved, but not written, by Rowling), the author stated on Twitter that she “loves black Hermione”. I personally feel that Rowling latched onto the casting to retroactively interpret her novels as more inclusive than they were when she wrote them. Yes, she seems to support diversity now, but my reading of Rowling’s character descriptions has me convinced that she never wrote Hermione as non-white.*

It’s easy to approve a casting choice and take credit for diversity, but it’s a pretty passive act. In terms of the heavy lifting, Rowling hadn’t originally made strides to portray ethnic diversity in her books. Given all we’ve considered, that seems fair since she wrote the books in the 1990s – even in 2001 when the first film was released, Britain was still 90.9% white. Nevertheless, the later films, made 15 to 20 years after the books take place, haven’t increased ethnic diversity in the casting despite the chance to broaden the demographic for a contemporary audience. And it doesn’t change the fact that none of the non-white characters were given major roles in the books.

Principal_cast_of_the_Harry_Potter_series
The main cast of the Harry Potter films (from left): Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Are questions of ethnicity more prevalent here in Canada (and the United States)? Possibly, since both nations were built on mass immigration. Does that mean North American readers scrutinize diversity more than those in Europe or worldwide? Maybe.

What do you think? Should the Harry Potter films have tried to reflect today’s population to bridge the gap between the whiteness of Britain in the 1990s and its current demographic? Should we throw the idea of accuracy out the window? Going forward, what should the cast of spinoffs like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them look like? Are J.K. Rowling’s efforts at diverse representation tokenistic, or am I not giving her enough credit?

Who knows, maybe in 20 years we’ll get a remake that fulfills all its potential for representation, and the concept of a “diversity quota” will be so outdated that it’s laughable. Only time will tell.

This article is part of the Critiquing Harry Potter series. Read about gender representation in the Harry Potter franchise here.

____________________________________

FOOTNOTES
*As of the last census in 2011, 81.9% of the British population identified as White British.
*My reasoning regarding Hermione’s race, and my argument that J.K. Rowling is opportunistically interpreting her past work, is as follows:
  • “Hermione’s white face was sticking out from behind a tree.” This quote from Prisoner of Azkaban describes Hermione in a state of fear, and while it may be a turn of phrase for a stricken expression, it seems odd to describe a Black person having a white face no matter how bloodless or pale they’ve gone. There are countless other ways to describe fear or panic.
  • “… Ron looking incredibly freckly, Hermione very brown, both waving frantically…” Ron and Hermione have both just returned from holidays in sunny places; Ron from Egypt, Hermione from France. I’m certain Rowling is describing Hermione’s tan here, which implies that her “very brown” face is darker than her original skin tone.
  • Hermione appears as white in book covers. J.K. Rowling has the power to veto such a portrayal if it is inaccurate, and as Hermione’s race would be such a major difference, I’m sure she would have noticed and corrected it.
  • Rowling approved white actress Emma Watson’s casting as Hermione for the films despite overriding other more minor character details (she told writers to remove a line where Dumbledore mentions a girl he once dated, since Dumbledore is gay!). She would have instructed casting directors of Hermione’s appearance.
  • This sketch by Rowling, like all others by her, depicts Hermione with fair skin.

What do you mean, you’ve never judged a book by its cover?

The act of reading books in public is a performative art – we like to convey a certain image with what we’re reading. How we interpret people’s character by what we see them reading is another concern entirely.

By Serena Ypelaar

Let’s not lie to ourselves: we’ve all judged books by their covers.

Something about the imagery that first greets us is so immediately evocative that we’re instantly gripped by emotion.

20180520_171854
So many covers to judge. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Lurid, bright colours and strong graphics? I feel a bit cornered.

Clean minimalism? My mind feels vulnerable, laid bare but curious.

Elegant script on a damask background? I’m intrigued.

We all have our biases when taking in cover art, because stylistically, we know what we do and don’t like. In fact, when I first received Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the age of six, I initially consigned it to the shelf because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged by the cover. We all know how that ended: I was wrong. It turned out to be my favourite book in the world.

20180218_160756
Rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

There’s another dimension to the idea of judging a book by its cover that goes beyond the self, though. Perhaps it’s because reading is such an intimate pastime, but combine it with our inherent fear of judgement and you have an interesting social phenomenon on your hands.

I’m talking, of course, about reading on public transit.

As a commuter who routinely takes the subway downtown, I cover a lot of ground in reading. I’ve always got a book on me, and I’ve stubbornly rebelled against the e-book ever since its introduction. The result is that other people always see what I’m reading.

As one of my two majors, English lit will always own my mind and heart, so I’m naturally obsessed with 1) what others on the subway are reading and 2) what I must look like reading my books.

Maybe it’s self-absorbed and no one else ever does this, but I often wonder what image I convey based on what I’m reading. Every time I reread Harry Potter, I wonder, “what if someone thinks I’m reading this for the first time ever?” When I read YA (young adult) romances, I don’t tend to flaunt them. And when I read Keats, Austen, Shakespeare, or any classic lit, I hold my book proudly, feeling learned but also slightly disgusted with my self-consciousness.

Reading on the subway is a performative art; whether we register it or not, we’re displaying our interests for bored strangers to observe in an almost Sherlockian fashion. If a grungy hipster were to enter the train reading Nicholas Sparks, for instance, I’d admittedly be taken aback. It makes us somewhat uncomfortable to face up to our inward assumptions about people, which are often based solely on how they look and dress; but their choices in literature are arguably more revealing. We can deduce what kind of stories move them, what fascinates them, or how they react to books in question.

Sure, I bet there are people who can’t be bothered with random people’s opinions of them – but there’s got to be a reason I’ve seen so many middle-aged women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on a Kindle, right? My point is, e-readers can sometimes be a strategic choice, providing anonymity in the case of a controversial read.

napoleon
“What are you going to read today, Napoleon?” “Whatever I feel like I wanna read. Gosh!”

As much as we can dwell in others’ scrutiny, though, I believe we can use reading on the subway as an act of empowerment: read whatever we feel like reading, spectators be damned. After all, just because someone’s reading a book, doesn’t mean they approve of it. Regardless of what we’re reading, why we’re reading it, and what we think of it, no one will ever know anything about our experience beyond the book cover and our outward expressions. Those are all superficial assessments – so we might as well just enjoy our commute.

It’s Lit(erary)

By Serena Ypelaar

Hello again, dear readers, and thanks for visiting The Mindful Rambler! Last week, we talked about history and who writes our past. Collectively (though not without knowledge hierarchies), we shape our memory of historical events through storytelling. Now, let’s look at the second of our four themes: Literature.

When I speak broadly about literature, I mean fictional prose, poetry, literary essays, or the like. Literature may not necessarily reflect on actual events, but it does capture elements of the human experience for us to examine and reflect upon. Thus, literature is an instrument of storytelling.

shelf
An extremely crammed bookshelf promises enough interpretation to last years. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Why is it important to look at literature in the field of interpretation? Because literature itself is an interpretation of the world around us. The creators of literature are absorbing what they see around them and reproducing (or subverting) it through the act of storytelling. Drawing upon shared experiences and portraying them, whether through realism or abstraction, allows us to understand each other, ourselves, and our environment.

daunt
Daunt Books, Hampstead, London, UK. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Literature uses the written word to tell us the truths the world doesn’t share openly – but it’s more than just that. Books, poems, pamphlets, essays, and other literature aren’t limited to just words. They give us imagery; they provoke our senses and prompt us to think critically in response to stimuli. We aren’t force-fed these images, nor is the meaning of a literary work meant to slap us in the face. There are nuances that we ourselves have to read into, which often means that we as individuals bring different perspectives to the literature we consume.

In the act of reading, we’re interpreting. We process the messages that writers (who have interpreted before us) present to us, and our takeaway varies from one person to the next based on past experiences. Our own personalities and backstories define what stands out to us and what we think is worth considering.

So how do we find a definitive interpretation of literary texts?

We can’t.

We can choose to venerate the analyses of certain individuals – for instance, since I like Samuel Johnson, to whom this blog’s title pays homage, I’m more likely to embrace his opinions on Shakespeare. Conversely, if I love Jane Austen (and I do, most ardently), I will reject Mark Twain’s scathing criticisms of Pride and Prejudice. But you, or someone else, may like and respect Twain’s opinion and therefore lend it some credence. Our biases influence our perceptions, so interpreting literature is a constant decision-making process.

westminsterpoetscorner
Graves from the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, UK. Readers connect with different works/authors/themes as a result of their individual background – this diversity affects our interpretive processes. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Hence, once literature is published, its meaning lies in the hands of the recipient. Authors’ intentions are powerful and significant, and this column, “On Literature“, will explore those ethical concerns. However, we aren’t necessarily bound by them. No one can really police our response to literature because it’s a very personal interaction. As a former English major, I definitely learned how to pick up on people’s partiality and respond to that, but ultimately, we form our own relationships with the materials that are presented to us.

So literature as media is oddly empowering: we can choose what we read, how we read it, and how we respond to it. We can be mindful of the contexts in which a work was produced, or we can simply read it at face value – and is either interpretation wrong?