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. 


Susan Sipal said...

This is such an interesting post to me, Priya, for so many reasons. It's interesting to see how you approached Harry Potter and fanfic both as a fan and with ethnicity. It's also interesting to me because I think of my two kids, who are both Turkish and American, and yet they identify so much more strongly with the American part because of where we live. Yet I think the Turkish heritage is so valuable. I'm so glad you're exploring all your life has to offer in your writing. And major congrats on the story placement!!!

Priya Sridhar said...

Thank you, Susan, for the congrats :). I didn't know your kids were Turkish and American. Heritage is a hard thing to keep, especially when our American culture encourages us to ignore it.