In 2016, JK Rowling, author and creator of the goldmine that is the Potterverse, unleashed a torrent of anger and accusations of cultural appropriation when she published the first of her essays in The History of Magic in North America. Meant to establish the growth and codification of magic in the continent, the essays were quickly revealed to be ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst. Not only did Rowling rewrite Native American folklore by explaining the legendary, malevolent ”skinwalkers” from the lore of Navajo tribe as just being misunderstood Animagi, but she also brushed aside hundreds of years of slavery in the US as being the work of “Scourers”, ruthless wizards who bought and sold their own for profit.
In one fell swoop Rowling managed to perpetuate the trope of the superstitious, ignorant native that the enlightened white (wo)man must save, and dismissed the institutionalisation of slavery, a horrific event with undying relevance in the history of the African-American community, as the work of a few bad apples, whose actions were not condoned by a governmental authority.
This history of “North American” magic also quickly devolved into a history of the United States alone, with no mention of Mexico or the Central American countries. Although considering what she wrote about the US, it’s probably a blessing that they were spared.
Far from learning from the criticisms of appropriation that she received however, Rowling is back at it again.
An unexpected Nagini
Late in 2017, a cast photo for the new Fantastic Beasts movie, scripted and produced by Rowling, revealed that Claudia Kim, a Korean actress, was playing a mysterious character, a maledictus, in the film. This was a new kind of magical being for the Potterverse, and using her preferred form of communication, twitter, Rowling revealed that maledictuses (not maledicti, as one might assume) are women who suffer from a blood curse that will eventually transform them into beasts. The curse is passed from mother to daughter, and the maledictus has no escape from her fate; eventually, her body will trap her in the form of an animal, though which one is usually open to question.
On Tuesday morning, the world was treated to the final trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, in which we found out that the maledictus had a rather familiar name: Nagini.
Nagini is best known as Voldemort’s loyal pet snake. At one point in the books, he is almost completely dependent on her for his survival, even going so far as to drink her “milk”. As a Horcrux, she contains a shard of his soul, making her fate integral to his own. She is the final hurdle in the vanquishing of Voldemort, responsible for wounding Arthur Weasley, and infamous for killing Severus Snape. When Dumbledore and Harry discuss her remarkable intelligence on one occasion, the headmaster says that Voldemort “loves her”, if he can be said to love anything.
Piecing together the bits of information available in the trailer, we know that Nagini was once a human woman, a maledictus who showed off her “talents” at the Circus Arcanum. Rowling claims that she has held on to this “secret” of Nagini’s human identity for twenty years. If so, she knew she was a woman trapped in beast form for the entire duration of the Potter books; worse, she knew she was a woman of colour (one of the very few in the books) – and still reduced her to an evil wizard’s wet nurse, assassin and soul receptacle.
The myth of a woman who turns into a snake is a common one around the world. The Greeks had their lamia, the Cherokee and Hopi have legends of the snake tribe, and of course, South and South East Asians have the nagin. The woman who turns into a snake could have come from anywhere, but her name, Nagini, denotes a clear South Asian origin. Which makes it more than a little surprising that she is played by a Korean actress.
When questioned about this discomfiting plotline and casting choice, Rowling immediately tweeted an explanation about “naga” being a part of Indonesian legend, ignoring the probable importation of said legend from Buddhist preachers who travelled from South Asia to Indonesia and the fact that the actress playing Nagini is not Indonesian in any case.
Several South Asian twitter users have been quite vociferous about what they see as appropriation, with authors like Amish Tripathi (of the Secret of the Nagas fame) publicly correcting Rowling’s explanation and pointing out her exclusion of Indian mythology.
The issue, really, is not that Rowling has used the nagin myth for her own purposes. Fantasy writers have been “stealing” from the treasure trove of world mythology for decades, and using figures from “other” cultures is not a crime in itself. The book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is littered with Rowling’s takes on mythical creatures from Chinese, West African, Eastern European, South American and other myths.
But here, Rowling has not only paid no attention to the fact that her character’s name is of Indic origin, but as a creator, an author, she has also, once again, appointed herself as a supreme authority, forgetting that many of her “creations” owe a huge debt to histories of subjugation that continue to play a role in the “real” world.
Rowling has made history, it is true. She created a world that has entranced children and adults across the world, encouraged many to read, and even been the inspiration behind real world action (fan groups like Lumos and the Harry Potter Alliance have taken up charitable causes and effected change in various communities). Yet she refuses to accept that her position as creator does not entitle her to rewrite cultural histories and rebrand different mythologies according to her own convenience, especially when this rebranding is so fraught with political implications.
Whose histories can you control?
Time and again, Rowling has used twitter to “correct” fans’ interpretations of her work, doling out little bits of knowledge that stamp her, once again, as the ultimate authority in this world. The Potterverse is large and sprawling, and now encompasses the whole world. It might be time that Rowling realised that she cannot be an expert in every single one of those cultures, and understood the consequences of misunderstanding and appropriating them in her writing. Her books, despite being set in twentieth-century Britain, are already disappointing for their lack of diversity; most of the main characters are white, despite the adventures being set in a country whose long history as a centre of trade and empire has made it a home for people from many different ethnicities.
Rowling has repeatedly indicated that she is the supreme overlord of this universe and that anything that happens within it, even its histories, are not subject to questioning by “outsiders”, even those who lives are intimately wound up in, and affected by, the very stereotypes and myths she seeks to utilise. Time and again, she intervenes through social media and other platforms, retroactively inserting “diversity” into the world – telling her fans that Dumbeldore is gay for instance, while safely leaving it out of the books, or that Anthony Goldstein, a barely-mentioned character, is Jewish.
The author here is god, consistently commenting on her own creation, reminding those of us who wish to see ourselves, and respectful portrayals of ourselves, that our opinions and interpretations don’t matter. Rowling knows best, and if in her infinite wisdom she thinks that it is a good idea for a Korean actress to play an Indonesian nagin who was imported from a South Asian myth, and then possessed and enslaved by a white male wizard, then that is exactly what will happen.
Dear Roland Barthes, the author is no longer dead. Twitter has made sure of that.