Rowling’s Wizarding World: Just As Small As Ours, Unfortunately

I like the Harry Potter books. I just can’t say I love them [my favourite YA series of novels is Percy Jackson & the Olympians], and after having finished all seven and catching the last few movies in theatres haven’t thought about them much. Certainly not enough to give the Pottermore website, created by Rowling to give HP fans what they continue to jones for, even a cursory visit.

On that same note I haven’t really been following Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel and spin-off to the film franchise, aside from perking up at the idea that protagonist Newt Scamander might be something other than White. I briefly mentioned it back in 2013 when covering the inherent problem with assuming that White is the norm, but ultimately stopped paying attention after it was officially announced last June that Eddie Redmayne had been cast in the role.

That said, fantasy worlds and the worldbuilding involved in their creation have always interested me, and I didn’t hesitate to click on a link a friend had shared on Facebook stating that Rowling had “[revealed] four wizarding schools, including one in the United States“, with the latter being one of the settings in the upcoming film. After all, if one of the aforementioned magical places of learning was to be in North America chances were that the other three were located elsewhere. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had always been my favourite of the series, with one of the many reasons being that it featured the two other wizarding schools and characters from them, expanding the universe beyond the borders of Great Britain.

To cite the article on Hypable, who are in turn sourcing all of their information from Pottermore, the schools are as follows [emphasis mine]:

· The name of the North American-based school is Ilvermorny and, based on the wizarding schools map that Pottermore unveiled today, it appears to be located in the northeast corner of the United States. “I am assured by Pottermore that more will be revealed on Ilvermorny soon,” said Lynch.

· The name of the Brazilian wizarding school is Castelobruxo (Cass-tell-o-broo-shoo). The school is guarded by Caipora, small and furry spirit-beings who emerge at night to watch over the students and the creatures who live in the forest.

· At the Japanese wizarding school, Mahoutokoro (Mah-hoot-o-koh-ro), students are given enchanted robes which grow in size as they age. Another characteristic of the robes is that they gradually change colour as the learning of their wearer increases, beginning a faint pink colour and becoming gold if the student receives top grades in every magical subject.

· The African school, Uagadou (Wag-a-doo), is carved out of the mountainside, and is shrouded in so much mist that it appears to float in mid-air. Many African witches and wizards cast spells simply by pointing their fingers or through hand gestures.

One of these is not like the others. Yes, granted, all four schools are given locations, but three of them are given a level of specificity that the fourth is not.  Here’s a hint: this given area is the 2nd largest and 2nd most populous continent on the entire planet.

uagadou

Uagadou: “the African school”

Not one to rely on Hypable alone, I hopped on over to Pottermore to see why schools like Mahoutokoro were revealed to be located in countries like Japan, but Uagadou was not. Underneath the “Written by J.K. Rowling” section I was able to find the page for the school, which began with the following paragraph:

“Although Africa has a number of smaller wizarding schools (for advice on locating these, see introductory paragraph), there is only one that has stood the test of time (at least a thousand years) and achieved an enviable international reputation: Uagadou. The largest of all wizarding schools, it welcomes students from all over the enormous continent. The only address ever given is ‘Mountains of the Moon’; visitors speak of a stunning edifice carved out of the mountainside and shrouded in mist, so that it sometimes appears simply to float in mid-air. Much (some would say all) magic originated in Africa, and Uagadou graduates are especially well versed in Astronomy, Alchemy and Self-Transfiguration.”

As my friend pointed out to me after I made the observation that the difference between where Uagadou was versus any of the other schools was several million square miles, the exact location is meant to be a secret. That being said, isn’t that true of every single one? The above excerpt calls us to refer back to an introductory paragraph, and on the “Wizarding Schools” page it does read, at the very beginning of the third paragraph, that:

“The precise location of each of the following schools is a closely guarded secret.”

So why even go so far as to state that Castelobruxo is in Brazil? After all, its page states that it “takes students from all over South America, [and] may be found hidden deep within the rainforest.” Based off of that information alone it could potentially be found in any of the South American countries that hold the Amazon rainforest within their borders [not including Brazil, that’s Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and France (French Guiana)].

castelobruxo

Brazil isn’t South America. It’s a country with its own culture distinct in many ways from its surrounding neighbours. Brazil is a country. Africa is not a country. It hurts me to have to spell it out like that because it’s so painstakingly obvious. It especially hurts me to have to spell it out because so many people, potentially Rowling herself [I’m not going to make any direct assumptions], essentially view it as such.

Over at Granta I found a deeply satirical piece by Binyavanga Wainaina called “How to Write about Africa”, and it crucifies a prevailing theme that creators of media, and consequently their audiences and the cultures they influence, have held so strongly to in the decades past and into the present:

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”

To give credit where it’s due, and as you can see farther above. Rowling does describe Uagadou as featuring “a stunning edifice carved out of the mountainside and shrouded in mist”. It doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace the trope that Wainina has spelled out. That said, it doesn’t fully deny the trope, either. Because, again, Africa is not a country.

Sadly, in many ways that is what it has been reduced to. Japan’s cultural exports are so numerous at this point that, although not all of them are particularly flattering, people in the West [and all over the East] can form a crude enough picture of the nation. Brazil is arguably the most well-known country in South America, with Colombia possibly being a close second. But as far as Africa is concerned?

What do people really know beyond Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the Kenyan Savannah, Somalian pirates, Nigerian princes, the lemurs of Madagascar, starving Ethiopians [seeping into pop culture due to a famine in the 80s], the Rwandan genocide, or, perhaps most significantly, Egypt? Such broad brushstrokes for countries and cultures that are so much more, and each acting as a single facet for an entire continent. The issue isn’t only that our perceptions are so limited, but that the art we interact with has done so little to contradict that.

uagadou-africa
Looking at the map of Africa provided it looks like Uagadou may be located somewhere in the DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What would be the harm in stating that nestled somewhere in the Rwenzori or Albertine Rift Mountains lies a wizarding school that services the rest of the continent? Would the average Harry Potter fanatic have any connotations whatsoever attached to the DRC? Even if they did, would it truly colour how they thought of Uagadou?

While Rowling never directly states anywhere that Africa is a country, she might as well have when viewing Uagadou in contrast with where the other wizarding schools are located. In doing so she reduces every single country on that continent to an indistinct locale populated by dark-skinned people, albeit with certain individuals with access to supernatural abilities. In the Harry Potter universe, in spite of being the birthplace of all magic, Africa is so much less than the sum of its many storied parts.


EDIT – January 31st, 9:17 PM: It had been brought to my attention that J.K. Rowling revealed the country that Uagadou is located in via Twitter yesterday:

While her tweet states that Pottermore will be updated to state that Uagadou can be found somewhere in Uganda, at the time this original post was written it had yet to be amended. At the time of this writing no changes have yet been made.

That being said, I am by no means criticizing the timeliness of any edits, and I’m also not overlooking Rowling’s admission that changes should be made. I applaud her for responding well to the disappointment leveled against her; few creators behave as graciously.

It is however worth noting that the original error is no less egregious as a result. Rowling made a mistake that at the very least hints at a form of cultural ignorance that affects many people, her audience among them. In addition to that the first line of Uagadou’s page continues to imply its status as “the African school”-

“Although Africa has a number of smaller wizarding schools (for advice on locating these, see introductory paragraph), there is only one that has stood the test of time (at least a thousand years) and achieved an enviable international reputation: Uagadou.”

-which remains just as troubling when considering that my home country of Canada may be given one as well:

Not to say that my home country shouldn’t be assigned a wizarding school, but consider the facts-

To reiterate, Africa is the second most populous continent on the planet. Europe, which comes in third, falls behind by roughly 3.6 million, yet at the time of this writing boasts a grand total of three wizarding schools [Beauxbatons Academy of Magic in France, Durmstrang Institute in northern Europe, and of course the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Great Britain]. It remains highly suspect how the cradle of all magical power has a single wizarding school of repute to its name.

That doesn’t even begin to skim the issue that there are “eleven long-established and prestigious wizarding schools worldwide”, with four left to be announced and only one yet named in the continent where over half the world resides [hint: it’s Asia]. And to address the inevitable rebuttals before they arrive, all fiction is predicated on creative choices. If Rowling wants the magical fraction of 1.1 billion Africans to be largely serviced by a single institution that’s her prerogative, but it remains as troubling a question as why there are no Black people on The Jetsons.

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4 responses to “Rowling’s Wizarding World: Just As Small As Ours, Unfortunately

  1. She also has declared that the American slang for Muggle is “No-Maj”, so I’m not exactly putting all that much faith in her cross-cultural abilities. Not as far as the folks across the Atlantic are concerned.

  2. In fairness to JK Rowling, the Brazilian wizarding school has previously been identified in the Harry Potter series:

    “Bill had a pen-friend at a school in Brazil once. He wanted Bill to go on a student exchange trip, but Mum and Dad couldn’t afford it. So the pen-friend got all offended and sent him a cursed hat, it made his ears shrivel up.” — Ron Weasley, Goblet of Fire, chapter seven, pg. 84-85.

    (And I realize I sound like such a dork for remembering this passing dialogue. Guilty of all charges, your honor. Identified the book, chapter, and speaker within two minutes.)

    Also, on its Twitter page, Pottermore called Ilvermorny “the North American school”, which seems to imply Canada as well as the United States. It’s also specifically announced as “the North American school” in this article on Pottermore as well (though the link says American): https://www.pottermore.com/news/ilvermorny-is-the-american-wizarding-school

    The only one I don’t understand is why she specifically identified Japan–but that may be because Japan is an island, so it has its own landmass, not bordering any other countries like the others.

    So I feel these are some good rebuttals to your argument, but your point is a good one–the general lack of knowledge about the African continent and the “Africa” stereotypes is very alarming. And this stupidity is prone to being reinforced in the arts we produce. So how we write and talk about Africa matters. Completely agree with you about that.

    • Hi Sarah, thanks so much for the comment! I’ve actually had to put together an addendum after finding out that Rowling had posted a tweet that addressed my most pressing question. Reading that may help answer a few of the points you brought up, but at the end of it all the primary truth is that any and all facts within the narrative are based on the author’s decisions.

      If Rowling wanted to state that there’s little to no magic or magical ability found in, say, Australia, that would be canon. It doesn’t even matter what reasoning she gave, a creator’s word is law. Maybe Japan is the supernatural hub of not just East Asia, but the entire continent, I don’t know-

      Why, at this point, Europe has a grand total of three [high profile] wizarding schools could be explained any number of ways. I acknowledge the advice of “write what you know”, but given the amount of energy in the fantasy genre put towards imagining the impossible maybe a fraction of that could be directed towards real-world research. That’s not meant specifically towards Rowling, but for creators in general.

  3. Pingback: My Problem With Harry Potter | Culture War Reporters

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