By Pim Wangtechawat
There have always been discussions about the lack of representation in the original Harry Potter books. But ever since J.K. Rowling has started Pottermore and the Fantastic Beasts franchise, she’s come under more scrutiny for the way she’s decided to incorporate characters of color into her universe. One such decision is the recent reveal that Nagini, Voldemort’s snake and one of his Horcruxes, is actually an Asian woman.
Many are angry at Rowling for saddling one of the only Asian characters in the Potterverse with such a tragic fate. She is cursed from birth, forced to turn into a serpent against her will, and ends up serving one of the most evil wizards of all time before getting decapitated by a teenager! Others argue that Nagini is just another incarnation of the dragon lady stereotype. Some (Asians included) think the outrage is misdirected and that we should wait for the entire franchise to play out before making a judgment.
As a Potter obsessive but someone whose local mythology is full of magical half-human characters, I must admit I have mixed feelings. How offensive is it really that Nagini looks more like me than Emma Watson does? How much agency does she actually have? What does her presence mean for characters of color in the Wizarding World going forward? The answers to these questions aren’t as clear cut as many of us think.
Links to Southeast Asian Mythology
Rowling has stated that the name Nagini derives from the Naga — creatures she’s described as “snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology. They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake.” (This is, after all, the woman who named a werewolf Remus Lupin and an animagus who transforms into a black dog Sirius Black.) Growing up in Thailand, I have heard of such a creature before. In Southeast Asia there are various versions of the same Buddhist or Hindu myth. In my country, the Naga or Phaya Naga is an ancient snake that lives in the Mekong River, which borders Thailand and Laos, who is worshipped by locals as a deity. A festival called Bang Fai Phaya Nak, where mysterious fireballs can be seen rising up from the river, is hosted in his honor every year.
In one version of this mythology, the Naga is female and is called Nagi. Able to transform into a woman, she falls in love with a human prince and lives with him on land for several years in her human form. When her true nature is discovered, they are wrenched apart. The Nagi, tortured by the pain of her forbidden love and the ills done to her, ends up going mad and commits a series of vicious murders out of vengeance.
Women who can transform into animals or are half-human, half-beast is a familiar trope in Asian mythology. Other than the Nagi, I have grown up hearing the tales of the Kinnari – a woman by day and a half-bird creature by night — who is abducted and forced into marriage with a wealthy prince. When she is subjected to a burning, she has to play a trick to regain her wings and then fly away from the flames to save her own life. There’s even a folktale of a woman who is killed in a fit of rage by her husband before she is reincarnated as a fish; her daughter visits her at the river every day until her husband’s other wife becomes jealous and murders them both. She is then reincarnated again as a tree while her daughter comes back as a bird.
All of these Southeast Asian folklores have one thing in common: how much the women in them suffer. (Even in Western fairy tales, the little mermaid —another half-woman, half-animal — dissolves into foam when her prince doesn’t return her love.) So it is very possible that Nagini’s story in the Wizarding World will be marked by the very same themes: violence, heartbreak, isolation, murder, and rage.
So What Does This Mean For Representation in the Potterverse?
In the grand scheme of things, an Asian Nagini might not be as egregious as, say, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell or any other Hollywood films set in an Asia that’s devoid of any Asian faces. If nothing else, the role will help boost the profile of Claudia Kim, who was the only few positives in Marco Polo and was heavily underused in Avengers: Age of Ultron. (An Indonesian actress was originally cast, but had to pull out when she became pregnant.)
It is also important that people of color are not always portrayed as wholly good or all-powerful or well put-together. We, too, are messy and flawed and capable of evil. Sometimes we suffer or we inflict suffering on others. Sometimes we are victims who are plagued by tragedies and atrocities. To strip us of our weaknesses, our pain, and our darkness is to strip us off our humanity.
However, the problem here is that, in a universe where there are so few Asian characters, the character of Nagini can never be viewed in such isolation. Whether Rowling likes it or not, Nagini is burdened, not just with her blood curse, but also with what she now represents to an entire race of people.
Granted, we do not yet have Nagini’s full story. There are still many gaping holes in her relationship with Voldemort and in the events leading up to it. And perhaps it might be better to form a full judgment only after her whole story is known. But can you really blame POC fans for throwing in the towel early? It can be terribly exhausting when, in a universe you love, the only people who look like you are either background characters (Hi, Cho Chang! Hi Padma and Parvati!) or long-suffering cursed beings.
This is not to say that other Potter characters haven’t had to bear their fair share of darkness. Almost everyone from Harry’s parents’ generation died in tragic circumstances and Dumbledore himself is far from a ray of sunshine. However, through the lives of Harry himself and his friends, we are given lighter and brighter moments to counterbalance against the tragedy. But Nagini seems cursed, literally, to embark on a path of darkness with barely a glimpse of hope or happiness in sight.
Personally, I find Rowling’s attempt at creating representation in her universe a little cringeworthy. (Bless her heart. She really does write about other cultures like a white person who went to India for her gap year and now says “Namaste.”) But does it make my blood boil to the point that I’d screech “YOU RACIST!” at the top of my lungs and burn all my Harry Potter books? Well, no.
I have resigned myself to the fact that no matter how well-intentioned some of these white authors are, we can never expect, nor should we expect, our beings to ever be fully authentic in their hands. It is inevitable that our identities, if they exist at all, will fade into the background or be clumsily dragged onto center stage in a slightly disheveled state. This is the curse of loving stories that aren’t written in our voices.