I remember many years ago seeing a 60 Minutes interview with J. K. Rowling where she showed “Box 1” full of her notes for the Harry Potter books. Now I wonder how many boxes there are and if some of them are full of notes for the international wizarding schools that have recently been announced on the Pottermore site. (Rowling’s introduction to the schools is here.)
Being American, I’ve particularly been attending to those who are expressing dismay, disappointment, and great disturbance when it comes to the North American school, Ilvermorny and the earlier publication, “History of Magic in North America.” N. K. Jemisin’s post “It Could’ve Been Great” is particularly insightful as she considers the issue as both a fantasy writer and a Harry Potter fan. I also recommend Paula Young Lee‘s Salon article from yesterday, “Pottermore’s Problems: Scholars and Writers Call Foul on J.K. Rowling’s North American Magic” if you need to get a quick overview of the situation.
Because of my particular interest in how Africa is represented to children in America, I’ve looked into the response to another of the schools, Uagadou, in Africa. Digging around I came across this overview of the response, Timothy Burke’s “On Uagadou, the African Wizarding School” which he wrote partly in response to this Washington Post article, “J.K. Rowling got in trouble for how she talks about Africa. Here’s why she may have been right.” I recommend reading Burke’s post in its entirety as he does an excellent job unpacking many of the issues raised around this particular imaginary school, pointing out that:
You can tell a story that imagines fantastic African societies with their own institutions arising out of their own histories, somehow protected or counterfactually resistant to the rise of the West. But you have to do that through African histories, not with an audit of African absence and some off-the-shelf environmental determinism.
You can tell a story that imagines that imaginary wizarding schools arise only out of histories with intense territorial rivalries within long-standing state systems, but then you have to explain why there aren’t imaginary wizarding schools in the places in the world that fit that criteria rather than frantically moving the comparative goalposts around so that you are matching units like “all of Sub-Saharan Africa” against “Great Britain”. And you have to explain why the simultaneous and related forms of state-building in West Africa and Western Europe created schools in one and not the other: because Asante, Kongo, Dahomey, and Oyo are in some sense part of a state system that includes England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th and early 18th Centuries.
The response to the Japanese school, at least that in English, seems more muted (at least in terms of social media). No doubt far more was discussed in Japan (in Japanese), but I did find a couple of fans raising concerns about the name, writing in English. Here’s one. And here’s another:
Of all the names she could have chosen, why did JK Rowling come up with “Mahoutokoro”? Are all the foreign magic schools this carelessly named?
魔法所 literally just means “MagicPlace”. It seems like a very careless move on her part. I think she should have spent some time researching Japanese etymology, or at least consulted someone who might have one or two things to say about cool-sounding Japanese school names.
The last of the four new schools is the Brazilian one Castelobruxo. As with the Japanese school I’m limited in not knowing Portuguese in sensing the response. I did find this one here indicating that Rowling stumbled with this school as well.
All in all, I think that well-intended as she no doubt is, Rowling simply doesn’t seem to have the deep knowledge or understanding of the potential for serious offense necessary to develop worlds based on cultures different from her own, especially those that are too often seen through a white European lens such as she is providing. I do hope the critical response she has received thus far has her reconsidering all of this. Or at the very least, reworking them so they are less problematic. I agree with Lee who concludes:
Stories have the potential to create new possibilities, shaping dreams for a more balanced and harmonious future. What we’ve seen so far of the geographically-expanded Pottermore world suggests that Rowling has done the opposite: Whether consciously or not, she’s legitimized whiteness as a cultural institution and a power structure, replicating the patterns of historical colonialism by establishing wizarding schools in far-away places — North America, Brazil, Japan, somewhere in “Africa,” — as posts on the outskirts of the Empire. And so the latest stories, instead of being exciting and new, seem nostalgic for a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, even as Great Britain now threatens to break apart.