Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Valentine's Post: Harry Potter's Crushes

Happy belated Valentine's Day, everyone. Hope that your day was filled with positive feelings, or at least the time to kick back and watch a good movie. Two of my short stories got accepted into different anthologies last week; "Three Prom Dresses" finally has a home with the Rejected Anthology from ACA books, and "The Opera Singer" will have a place in She Walks in Shadows.

Earlier I had written a post about Mary Sues, and why as an adult I stayed away from them. For this post I am going to refer to Mary Sues and self-inserts when talking about romance in one of the most memorable fantasy works of all time: Harry Potter.

I am not going to refer to this kind of shipping. Obviously.

One cardinal rule: not all Mary Sues are self-inserts, and not all self-inserts are Mary Sues. A self-insert is a a real life person getting inserted into an established fictional world, usually from the present day,  and they are quite popular in fanfiction. JKR in Harry Potter did a self-insert, parodying her teenage self through Hermione Granger, a brunette "swot" who becomes one of Harry's staunchest companions.

How do self-inserts relate to Harry Potter apart from Hermione? Quite a few fanfics for Harry Potter featured OCs that went for him, for his friends or for his rivals. Eliza Diawna Snape was notorious for shipping a self-insert with Draco Malfoy in her Eliza trilogy, for example, and TVTropes has her under the entry "Old Shame".

I wrote self-insert fics, I confess. Often I made my fictional counterparts relatively perfect, or at least likable. But one thing about these characters?

Most of them were not Indian or based on me. They were very, very white, and based on my white friends. When I put myself in Hogwarts, I made myself very alone, solitary, and too young to interact with the Harry Potter gang because Harry, Ron and Hermione do not interact with first-years. This made for a depressing reflection of how middle school was like for me already, so that fanfiction was never finished.

Harry Potter did not do well with dating while a teenage boy. We see this in Goblet of Fire most prominently, when Professor McGonagall orders him to acquire a date for the Yule Ball and he wants to ask his crush Cho Chang. He ended up taking one of his classmates instead, Parvati Patil. Parvati was one of two Indian characters featured in Harry Potter, who showed interest in Divination, stood up for Neville in their first year, and took a dislike to Professor Moody's all-seeing magical eye for good reason. In other words, she was a full-fledged character with dark skin, someone I should have related to during the series.

JKR did not take that opportunity. Harry alienates Parvati during the Yule Ball by staring angrily at Cho with her date Cedric Diggory, and in future books she is seen as reasonably "cool" towards him. I didn't ship her and Harry-- she was better as a distant classmate-- but any girl in her shoes, no matter what color of her skin, would have felt insulted and ignored. She and her twin Padma become extras in future books, albeit loyal allies to Harry, while other people of color like Dean Thomas receive decent backstories. I ended up relating more to Luna Lovegood and started shipping her with Harry. Luna was white and Irish according to the films, but she was sweet, and she made Harry feel better when they talked. Naturally, I felt a bit chagrined but accepting when Ginny Weasley got together with Harry, since it had been established several books beforehand.

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It was quite a mess, to realize that Harry had dated a total of three girls before dating Ginny, and more of a mess when realizing that two of those characters were racial minorities. Add the number of fanfiction writers that created white OCs to ship with the Harry Potter, and the combination created a subconscious reinforcement: dark-skinned aren't good enough for Harry Potter. I didn't have a crush on Harry, though I had a crush on his actor Daniel Radcliffe, but I wanted to see him have a happy romantic ending after defeating Voldemort. Thus, when I wrote my Harry Potter fanfiction that mercifully vanished into cyber heaven, I based his love interest on one of my best friends who happened to be white, redheaded and pretty.

I didn't realize that Cho was Asian until I saw the films -- the book merely said that she was pretty and had black hair-- but I knew very well that Parvati was Indian. JKR reinforced that Harry wasn't happy with the only prominent female Indian at Hogwarts, and she was characterized as one of the flakiest Gryffindors. Her sister Padma was given even less screen time, having a few pages with Ron. Thus when there were audition calls all over the United States and England to play the identical twins, I didn't even make an effort to try out. For one, there were too many girls vying for a bit role in a film that would later disappoint me in the theater, and for another I didn't want the role as the girl that Harry Potter ignored during a school dance.

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JKR did not mean to make this implication; heaven forbid that she would intend that the hero of a universally read fantasy series cannot end up with a dark-skinned girl, or vice-versa. She's also not the only author to make such implications: with very few exceptions, the more mainstream fantasy novels from the early 2000s tend to have white leads ending up with white love interests. The fact that there were no prominent Indians, except one adult in the Magickers whose decisions disappointed me, only drove the nail deeper into the wood. As a result, my stories mainly featured white protagonists, black protagonists, once even a Native American protagonist-- I did a lot of research for the latter, who stars in a YA novel-- but not that many Indian protagonists. I felt a primal shame, more so of a fraud since while living in America I only knew the nuances of traditional South Indian culture but not the details.

These days, I tend to find a trend in the opposite direction: anthologies and short story magazines want more diverse main characters, with various people of color and backgrounds from different countries. Eggplant Literary Publications asked for fairy tales revised with people of color, and after two false starts -- first setting a story in Norway and then with a an American-Japanese family-- I managed to write a tale that paid homage to "The Princess and the Pea" as well as traditional Brahman culture. Having that story accepted felt odd, since it felt like I had contributed a little piece of myself to a fairy tale anthology. People wanted the diverse part of me, that they valued a portion that I had denied for so long.

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Harry Potter taught me many things, namely the power that comes from building intricate worlds, the power of friendship, surviving trauma as well as victim-blaming, and telling the truth despite the consequences. JKR reminded me how much power words have, how they build characters and destroy tyranny.

With that said, I'm unlearning about what it means to be Indian in a work of fantasy, especially an Indian-American that appreciates South Florida culture more than South Indian traditions. Now I'm writing more short stories with people of color, and exploring the various cultures, current and ancient, that can make for great conflict. Reclaiming the potential of Indian power still feels strange, but it's a long time in coming. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sick Weekend Two: The Danger of Silence

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Hey All,

I'm sick again. Fortunately it's not as painful as the sickness that I had in December, but battling a sore throat and mild fever while doing schoolwork and writing this blog. But I feel the need to write it, to keep up with my earlier resolution to blog once a week. My problem was that I hit the dreaded sensation that  every writer must get in their lifetime: a Block.

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When I was a teenager, I read books about writer's block. I read comics about writer's block, including Neil Gaiman's "Calliope" which is a story that has since become a cliche in popular culture regarding writers interacting with muses. When I read these stories, I laughed; the idea of not being able to write a word seemed to be an inherent character deficit that could be corrected.

Now that I'm in a slump myself, I feel some sympathy for some of the fictional writers that suffer blocks. Not the one in "Calliope" though; he gave all writers a bad name in terms of what he does to the titular muse. I feel sympathy for Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones, however, because he stops writing due to external stresses, namely his wife dying in the novel's opening pages. Like him, the pressure to do well and stay healthy has affected how I view the words. Sometimes it feels like I'm stepping from one slipper stone to another across a rapidly moving river whose current has destroyed others.

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Traditionally "writer's block" refers to a writer not having any ideas, at least according to popular culture, or having stale ideas that quickly fall apart on the written page. In most cases the blocks happened after the writer had hit success with one novel, and had shut down shortly afterward. The solution to such a situation, which Joanne Harris did implement in real life, was have another book ready for publication. In her case she nearly suffered a block after Chocolat became a success but had already written Blackberry Wine, her next novel that delved into writer's block, the fantastique nature of the French countryside as well as tourist threats. I was planning to do the same thing with Carousel, since I have two novel rough drafts on queue, but stress and business school interfered with my plans. My next long work probably won't happen for a while, not until I finish some short stories.

For those wondering, I don't agree with how Jay the protagonist was portrayed during his block in Blackberry Wine; he got a block because he based his first successful novel on real life, and the success drove him to write "trashy" science fiction for ten years. Call me a fan of the former pulp writers like Ray Bradbury, but there is nothing shameful about writing about aliens as opposed to "literary" fiction. Also, I'm suspicious about basing entire novels on real life, since that can lead to hurt feelings and lawsuits. Jay could have easily started traveling with the money and freedom that he earned, to find more adventures to put into his books. For those wondering about his girlfriend Kerry, it's never a good idea to volunteer to be a blocked writer's muse and hope to encourage good works out of him or her. You will just end up frustrated and disillusioned. Better to brainstorm and encourage, rather than to cut their "trashy" works.

Currently I'm working to get out of my slump and back into the field, while searching for jobs, managing home duties and keeping up in schoolwork. I'm optimistic because this week I actually finished a decent tale for a friend's birthday, the first breath of life into this school year. And with luck, 2015 will mean that I make my goals with aplomb again. Wish me luck!

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