Welcome to 2016, where people still insist on proclaiming their offense as loudly as they can.
This latest edition in “Stuff Happened Today, Therefore I’m Offended” (working title) comes from a collection of stories written by the beloved J.K. Rowling released this week, who up until this point has been praised for her attention to diversity in her stories (or was that just me?).
Criticism revolves around the way Rowling apparently represents Native American traditions as strictly magical.
Sorry for being blunt here, but … is this story collection not set in a fantasy world in which magic is the focal point of every single conflict, “historical” fact and plot point addressed?
Is the problem that Native American culture is being misrepresented? Or is there somehow confusion as to the setting of Rowling’s new stories? She is not, and as far as I know, has never been, a historical fiction writer. This is not about history. IT IS FANTASY. MADE UP. NOT REAL.
Rowling is renowned, globally, for being a writer of fantasy because of her Harry Potter series. This story, therefore, is not at all an accurate history or archetype of Native American culture. It was never intended to be. It is, put as simply as possible, a story that tells a made-up history of magic in other parts of the world besides the setting of the HP novels.
So while anyone has the right to defend their own culture if they feel attacked or misrepresented in any way (that right should NEVER be challenged, whether you agree with someone’s claims or not), I worry about the deeper implications of this controversy.
The article linked above does address that the problem stems from certain cultures consistently being portrayed as “not real” in children’s literature. By portraying Native Americans as “magical,” a story has the potential to come off as depicting Native Americans as a culture that does not exist.
But I’m not convinced Rowling’s history of magic is going to change the way people view Native American culture. I’m guessing here, but she probably didn’t write this series without doing some serious research (as any writer basing her work on history should do). Research that probably involved speaking with those who know the culture best: actual, modern, credible Native Americans.
Is this not an amazing thing for Native American culture? To have someone known to act as an advocate for many populations and cultures all over the world “in the know” about the true history and culture of Native Americans, even if she put a fantastical spin on it? Does this not serve as an opportunity for more people to learn about real Native American traditions, if Rowling’s story makes them curious?
I cannot speak for Native Americans and I cannot say I have experienced what it must feel like to have your culture misrepresented over and over again in popular culture. But the responsibility cannot all be put on the writer here. Rowling is simply doing what she does best: writing some seriously awesome fantasy about a world she created. It is a writer’s job to write first, explain later.
It should be up to all of us, writers and non-writers, to spread positive messages about all populations and cultures. A writer can’t just change her story, or not write it, because it’s going to offend someone. It’s 2016, remember? It’s always going to offend someone. There, therefore, needs to be someone who stands with that writer and says, “Yo … this is fantasy, but here’s what these traditions are really all about …”
Sarcasm aside, no one is in the wrong here. I do think we all need to take a step back, though, and remember that stories often lead to someone going out and seeking more information about things that story discusses – hopefully the right information – on their own. Stories are supposed to make us curious. Look at the positives of this situation and similar ones as you are expressing your concerns about a work of fantasy.
What do you think? Are writers at least partially responsible for representing a variety of cultures accurately as much as they are free to put a fictional spin on any aspect of history and reality they want to? How can writers show their support and acceptance of all cultures while still telling the stories they want, the way they want?
Image courtesy of The Telegraph.