Should we separate the art from the artist?
Sasha Shinde, Writer
I grew up with the Harry Potter books. I read the first book when I was ten. I remember being intrigued by the cover, and three pages in, I was hooked. It was my first baby step into a different world; one of adventure, dragons, and magic. Harry Potter opened my eyes towards reading beyond comic books and graphic novels; to diving into a book headfirst- into a world beyond our own. The books also taught me a lot; empathy, kindness, generosity, compassion, loyalty, and most of all, acceptance. I have been a fan of the books for all of the above reasons.
“People should be interested in books, not their authors.”
- Agatha Christie
When we like a book, we subconsciously start empathizing with the author. We look them up on the internet, admire their rags to riches stories, lament their rejection, marvel at how they came up with the stories, the characters, the world, and the final stage; we defend them. That was my first reaction when I first heard about Rowling’s transphobic tweets last year. Without even knowing the entirety of what she tweeted or the context of it, my mind rushed to her defence.
In the first tweet, she was critical of the inclusive language in an opinion piece titled “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate”. It was received with both support and criticism. Supporters said that believing you’re a man does not change biology and wanting to be a man doesn’t mean that you are one. Critics condemned her while adding that trans men who menstruate were not women, and some women don’t menstruate at all (apart from trans women who also don’t menstruate; think post-menopause).
Following this, she put out a string of statements defending the earlier tweets, talking about not erasing the concept of sex, empathy and kinship between trans people, and women, and that she would march with them ‘if’ they (trans people) were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. She also published an opinion piece on her website chronicling your journey as an abuse survivor, how transitioning is a ‘solution for some gender dysphoric people’, and how a man ‘who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones’ can become a woman in the eyes of the law.
Ignorance is Bliss
I would’ve written this off as an aberration, and continued to be aloof had it not been for a conversation I had with a friend following these tweets. She lamented the fact that Rowling was openly transphobic, adding that we (Harry Potter fans) were better off not knowing; comfortable in our ignorance. This statement stuck because somewhere, deep inside, I agreed with her. And I was guilty of ignorance myself.
I was ignorant of the fact that the writer of one of my favourite book series was making statements that were problematic. I thought they were innocently made, and also, foolishly, that perhaps she had a point. Subsequent research proved this to be false and shook the absolute trust I had in Rowling, and later on in other childhood and teenage favourites.
Famous Five, Enid Blyton, and Bigotry
Enid Blyton had enthralled me with the Famous Five and Secret Seven series all through my childhood, and even into adulthood. There was a time when I would devour the complete Famous Five series in a month, only to pick it up again to reread it. I would love to go on seemingly impossible adventures with the Five; camping on an island, travelling in a caravan, staying in a lighthouse, and a lot more.
As I matured both in age and mind, I started seeing red in the books. The miscreants in most books were often people of a different race, ranging from Romanis (or gypsies as Blyton put it) to travellers. Further probing revealed that one of her manuscripts was even declined to be published because it was found to have a “touch of old-fashioned xenophobia” in the writing.
It would not be fair to read her books without knowing the sort of person she was. “If you unknowingly read a piece of literature without looking at the author, I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” said Nikhat Hoque, MA Comparative Literature, SOAS University of London. “But in order to critique these writers, you need to read them as well.”
Blyton’s books are still largely popular, but their racist, xenophobic, and prejudiced tones become clear when one reads them as an adult with some understanding of how the world works. As children, we don’t pick up books thinking about the author's opinions. “At that time, parents just want to get their children to read,” adds Hoque. Maybe children ought to read a bit indiscriminately to force them to think on their own, apart from cultivating a habit of reading.
The Old Man and Racism
Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has been a personal favourite of mine, especially while travelling. While not obvious in the Nobel-Prize winning book, reading A Farewell to Arms cemented Hemingway’s racism for me.
I wouldn’t go as far to say that I previously held a perfect image of Hemingway in my mind, but I did for some reason (without investigating, of course), think that he would be better than his contemporaries. He wrote in extremely turbulent times, through the World Wars.
“I haven’t read him in depth, but Hemingway wasn’t outwardly racist. There are racist undertones in his writing and things that he has said, but at that time, many people held these views.” Hoque says while adding that certain books or shows that may be casually racist and it is more important to see how deep-seated it actually is rather than rushing to ‘cancel’ them altogether.
Product of their times
The reason I chose these two authors (Blyton and Hemingway) is because both were considered a product of the times they lived in. While I don’t necessarily agree with this argument, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, we don’t know what they would’ve written if they were present today.
Dialling back to JK Rowling; her books have representation, albeit little. Parvati and Padma Patil and Cho Chang are the only Asian characters coming to my mind, along with the snake, Nagini. The Patils have never taken centre stage in the series while Cho Chang has, as a love interest. Though she is supposed to be part-Chinese, her name combines two Korean surnames. Rowling’s representation is performing lip-service to many communities, cultures, and people. The argument that her writing was the way it was because of when it was written should not hold true considering that the first book was published in 1997, and the last one in 2007, which were not exactly the Dark Ages.
Rowling has been called out for her transphobic statements several times, but she chooses to stay uninformed and look at the world through blinkered vision. I do not mean to diminish her experience of abuse in any way, but her trying to justify the statements just does not sit right with me.
Toni Morrison on her part was willing to overlook the racist tones in her favourite books because as she said in an interview, she “loved those books” and so “when they said these things that were profoundly racist, I forgave them.” Many fans of the Harry Potter series have had trouble being forgiving, myself included.
If the books got you through a rough patch, it might be difficult to read them knowing about Rowling, but giving them up might seem like breaking off a long friendship. “It all depends on whether the individual wants to give a chance to the person, and that in itself is a journey” Hoque said. “The whole world might say that you can still read Rowling’s books, but you need to be able to accept that it’s okay to actually enjoy them.”
While I believe ‘cancel’ culture is extremely toxic, a valid concern is people feeling guilty buying books and contributing to the success of problematic people. “You could look into buying second-hand books or participating in book swaps” Hoque replies. “Apart from this, libraries are always an option.”
Reading and consuming books, movies, and shows that are problematic is not completely avoidable. “But you choose what you do with what you consume” Hoque concludes, adding that completely rejecting a piece of art or writing that undermines your lived experience is fine, as is critiquing it to highlight the sticky bits.
Though I haven’t reread Harry Potter post the Rowling incident, I don’t think I have missed out on much. Nostalgia creates false images of perfection in our minds, which is what blew up Rowling’s row to such proportions. Consuming art by people of colour, from different parts of the country and the world can help broaden horizons and show different perspectives. Reading and writing in English can also cause us to miss out on many brilliant regional writings. Perhaps it is time to read books by someone other than white authors writing in English.