Happy Birthday, Harry Potter. You Have Problems, and I Still Love You

I’ve spent the last several years working hard to learn about social justice and how to use that knowledge to think critically about media. On some levels, it really sucks, because it means I can’t just simply enjoy something. Even if I don’t see the feminist, racial, queerphobic, or other issues with something on my own, it gets pointed out to me eventually, and it sucks to have to battle with something you enjoy being problematic. But I also think it’s an important part of learning to be a better person and a better writer, because seeing what other writers and creators get wrong helps me figure out how to get it right.

One of the hardest parts of this, though, has been turning that critical framework on the things I love most (like Firefly’s incredible lack of Chinese people).

But the worst to confront is Harry Potter.

I started reading Harry Potter when I was nine. I fell in love instantly. Like many kids in my generation, I went to midnight book releases. I went to midnight movie showings. I dressed up. I read more fanfiction than I can quantify. I lived and breathed Harry Potter all the way through the release of the last movie.

Except – the past tense isn’t honest. It’s still true. I have four sets of the series. When my friends travel overseas and ask what they should bring me, I ask for the first Harry Potter book from that country. I will debate for hours about the attributes of Hogwarts Houses, why Gryffindors are far bigger bullies than Slytherins, and why Hufflepuffs are obviously the best.

When I’m sad, I open Sorcerer’s Stone, read that first line (“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”) and feel instantly safe. When I think of J.K. Rowling saying “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home”, I cry.

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I’m not crying YOU’RE crying

The only difference is that I’m almost 24 and now people are starting to look at me like I maybe shouldn’t parade this love around, and when I start debates about Harry Potter headcanons, inevitably the conversation turns towards the series’ more problematic aspects. And as much as I’d like to just close my eyes and pretend that these books I love so much are perfect, they aren’t – and I’m not just talking about Albus Severus Potter.

I think there are arguments to be made about why Dumbledore’s sexuality never would have shown up in the books, but he doesn’t count as representation just because JKR said so after the fact and because there’s a lot of subtext in the stories about him and Grindelwald.

There are people of color throughout the cast, but not in the leading characters, and although I love and fully accept the headcanons that Hermione and Harry are black, that doesn’t count as representation, either.

There are also gaps in the worldbuilding about the non-white, non-European world that the fandom questions and fills in.

I joked about Albus Severus, but that’s actually a pretty big problem, too, because while Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape were remarkable men, I wouldn’t call them the bravest people that Harry ever knew.

Dumbledore left a child in an abusive household and then manipulated that child for years. (I think Dumbledore is a complex character and I generally come down on the side of liking him, but those are still indisputably BAD THINGS.)

Snape may have been a war hero, but he was also a really creepy dude that was obsessed with Lily (obsessed with, not loved) and bullied children to the point that he was literally Neville’s greatest fear. He bullied Harry for daring to be born looking more like his dad than his mom. He was a selfish, creepy douchebag, and although JKR has said he’s not a hero, ultimately the narrative rewards him by having Harry name his kid after him.

Seriously, couldn’t he have named the kid Hagrid or Neville or Remus? Dobby would have been a better name.

There is a way more thorough and generally awesome post about being a fan of problematic things that you should 100000% read if this is something that concerns you at all. But here’s my condensed two cents.

You have to like problematic stuff, because that’s all there is. Every person has problems and weakness and privileges, and no one can create something that is perfectly representative of everything without ever using problematic words or ideas.

Our job as viewers and readers and listeners is to recognize and talk about these problems. We examine it against our own values and priorities, and make the choice about if we can continue to like it. If we decide it’s worth its flaws, we enjoy it anyway.

Our job as writers is to recognize our own flaws and privileges, to know that there’s a big chance we’ll mess up, to know that we won’t be perfect, and try anyway.

I love Harry Potter. It’s still a huge part of me. It’s made me a pacifist, it’s made me kind, and although it struggles with representation, it made me and other kids more open and accepting. Harry taught me the power of love. Ron showed me that it’s okay to make mistakes. Hermione let me know that I didn’t have to sacrifice any part of myself or my values for a guy.

So happy birthday, Harry. You have issues, and I still love you more than I can say.

Tuesday Reads: Her and Me and You by Lauren Strasnick

“Seriously? Your sister hates me.”

“She doesn’t, I swear. She’s actually really great.” He touched my arm, then quickly retracted his hand. “Come.”

If Evie could love someone else, so could I.

her-and-me-and-you-366x550Her and Me and You by Lauren Strasnick is the story of Alex, a girl who’s moved off with her mom to a new town and a new school after her father cheats. She leaves behind her best friend, Evie. At her new school, she falls in with twins Fred and Adina.

Alex likes Fred a lot, and he likes her back, but Adina keeps getting in the way. She lies to keep them apart, she starts fights with both Alex and Fred, she spreads rumors. Alex can’t tell if Adina’s just a sister who’s too possessive of her brother, or if maybe the twins are closer than it seems. She struggles with trying to figure out if her feelings for Fred are worth fighting Adina for.

At the same time, she’s losing Evie. Her best friend is moving on without her, dating a new boy, reaching new milestones. Her dad is moving in with his mistress. Her mom is struggling with alcohol. Basically: Alex’s life is a mess.

Right up to the end, I was wholly invested in the characters and the story, but it’s with the ending that Her and Me and You lost me. It ends abruptly and leaves far too much unresolved. Don’t get me wrong – I love it when some things are left purposely unresolved in a book. I love it when everything isn’t wrapped up in a perfect little bow and presented to the reader. Give me ambiguity about whether or not they truly get their happy ever after. But I need something to feel wrapped up, or else I just feel unsatisfied, like I did here.

I also wanted the relationships to be pushed farther. There were strong hints of a more-than-siblings relationship between Adina and Fred. Occasionally there were moments where it looked like some sort of strange triad could form between them and Alex. These are relationships that can be uncomfortable and weird, but my opinion is that if you’re going to go for it, you should go for it, and I was ultimately disappointed.

My other issue isn’t something that is necessarily a problem with this book, but is something I see in a lot of contemporary YA that frustrates me. When female protagonists in contemporary YA have female friends, they usually lose those friends (either simply from growing apart or, more likely, from fighting). This happens in Her and Me and You with Alex and Evie, and I’m just tired of it. This also ties in to my feelings about unfulfilled relationships, because there were definitely times when it seemed that Alex might have some romantic feelings for Evie (whether or not she would admit them to herself)

I’m saying all of this and it sounds like I didn’t enjoy this book at all, but I actually really liked it. I had my moments where I wanted to punch Adina but I also have a special place in my heart for characters – especially female characters – that most would deem unlikeable. I found myself completely consumed by Alex’s story, especially her interactions with Adina and Fred.

I may have found a few aspects of the book frustrating, but I cared about these characters, and that goes a long way.

Stars: 4/5

What I Learned Interning at the Midwest Writers Workshop

This year for the second time, I interned at the Midwest Writers Workshop as an assistant to literary agent Bridget Smith. It was an amazing weekend. I met really cool people, I got to see some great friends that I’d made last year, I met the guy at Midwest that looked like John Green (seriously), and, of course, I bonded with my fellow agent assistants and we all joined Starfleet.

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we regretted this when we realized we were all wearing red shirts

As the workshop drew to a close, there was one question I started getting over and over: “Do you feel like you learned anything?”

I never knew quite how to answer. I certainly felt like I’d learned something, but I didn’t know how to quantify that into a list of facts. I spent two days sitting in as Bridget took pitches and critiqued query letters, and somehow I felt like this should have given me a unique insight into the publishing world and I should have been able to come up with clever answers and guidelines for other writers preparing to pitch. I wanted to be able to show the more experienced, published writers asking me these questions that yes, I had learned quite a bit, and now I was closer to being One of Them.

Except that I didn’t have clever answers or guidelines or proof of my legitimacy. Anytime I was asked, “What did you learn?” I floundered.

But I’ve been thinking about it, because I knew I’d learned something and that I’d keep getting asked and I wanted to be able to have that conversation and blog about it.

So here’s my answer.

I learned the importance of preparation.

One of the questions that Bridget kept asking in the pitches – if they weren’t answered in the pitch itself – was, “Do you have any comp titles?” This question tripped a lot of people up. Some didn’t know what comp titles were (they’re books that your book can be compared to) and many others just said they weren’t very good at comp titles. I’d be the latter. I think it can be hard for writers to come up with comp titles in part because you don’t want to think that your novel can be easily compared to something else. You want to be unique.

Doing something new is great, but having comp titles ready in your pitch or query letter does more than just telling an agent what your book is like. It tells them that you’re reading the other books in your genre. You know what’s out there, you know why yours is different and new. You can say, “Here’s where my book belongs.”

Of course, sometimes you don’t know what to be prepared for, and you totally mess up, and that’s just going to teach you what to be prepared for next time.

This is also the section where I value someone else’s preparation. Last year at Midwest, I discovered that the majority of the chairs in the alumni center are not exactly fat-person-friendly. They’re narrow and painful to sit in. This year, it was my #1 anxiety, especially since I had a brand-new tattoo on my thigh that wouldn’t appreciate the bruising pressure of sitting in too-small chairs for two and a half days.

When I arrived for my first day, fellow intern Jackson Eflin greeted me with, “Oh, and I found a folding chair for you. It’s by the piano.”

tumblr_m29qy29eYO1qj1lh8This simple, thoughtful act of preparation completely changed my conference experience and made me a happier intern.

I learned that it’s worth it to get over my fear. 

Before I started researching the writers that would be at Midwest, I hadn’t heard of Daniel José Older. I found him on Twitter, and followed him, and looked into what kind of stuff he writes. I realized pretty quickly that he was really cool and someone I needed to be listening to and reading (and you should, too). I was thrilled when I got the chance to interview him for the Midwest Writers e-pistle.

I’d actually kind of built that to fangirl proportions by the time Midwest rolled around, and I knew that this was my chance to meet him and talk to him but I was terrified. So terrified, in fact, that I was going to be thrilled if I could just introduce myself to him without sounding like a dumbass. I wasn’t going to get to see any of his sessions because I was too busy being an agent assistant (though I did get to see one and it was amazing) so I figured, okay, an introduction is as much as I’ll get.

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dreams do come true

By the time the workshop and after parties were over, I’d gotten a selfie with him, MFA advice, and pointed him to my much-beloved Alpha workshop.

Meeting Bridget for the first time was also pretty freaking scary. I wasn’t pitching her. I don’t have a completed manuscript. But she’s still a literary agent and she’s still an amazing connection that I could make. What if she didn’t like me? What if she thought I was annoying or had bad taste? What if she found me more annoying than helpful?

Striking up conversations with her was hard, but I did it, and I learned a lot through that. She talked about the frustrations of not being able to place a brilliant book just because it was part of a trend that editors were sick of, about books she really loved, about what she wished she saw more of in books. We had a lot in common and a similar sense of humor, and I, at least, had a great time spending the weekend with her.

I learned not to doubt my contributions in the literary world, however small they may be.

I’m an undergrad college student with one story published in my college’s lit mag. I do this blog, but I don’t really update it enough. I’m working on being someone in the literary world, but right now I barely make a blip.

But those blips still mean something.

When my friends want YA recommendations, they come to me. They trust me to point them towards something good. The agent I assisted at Midwest last year, Victoria Marini, trusted my taste enough that she hired me as a remote reader for the manuscripts she receives. I don’t read loads, but I read what she sends me, and I give her my opinions, and sometimes those opinions make a difference.

This weekend at Midwest, I had writers telling me how much I helped them when I didn’t even realize I was helping. They told me that I provided a positive and supportive atmosphere going into their pitches. Pitching an agent can be seriously scary, and I helped some of those writers feel a little more at ease.

Maybe in the big scheme of things, that’s not a lot. I didn’t get anyone signed. I didn’t get signed myself. I don’t have a book out. But I’m still immensely proud of the small things I’ve done and I need to stop underestimating myself.

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This was my second year at Midwest Writers. Last year, it convinced me that the literary community is where I belong. This year, it convinced me that not only is this where I belong, but I can make a difference here, if I can work past the anxiety and self-doubt and the fear.

Here’s hoping they let me do it again next year.