An Open Letter to J.K. Rowling

Addressing Your Misperceptions of America


Dearest Teacher,

My name is Kailey Ann. I’m 27 as of writing this, and I’m a Ravenclaw through-and-through. If you’d asked me even back in 2015, I’d have told you proudly I was a Gryffindor, but wisdom has a way of revealing itself through the Spirit in time. My aura bleeds blue and brawn, as it were. 

I’m writing to you because quite frankly, I’ve been thinking about doing it for nearly my whole life, and I’m pretty sick of chickening out at this point. I figure, there’ve got to be lots of people like me who, in light of your recent points-of-view, finally said to themselves, “Ah th’heck with it! She ought to know what I have to say.”

So I guess I’ll start by saying this: I’m an American. That means in my own fantasy-reality, I really never could have been a Ravenclaw. Unless, maybe, I happened to be one lucky winner of an international student exchange program to Hogwarts, somehow open to American students of magic who did not attend Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—which of course, any American knows would be the case for the vast majority of young witches and wizards in the United States, given the nontraditional nature of our decentralized, state-run systems of education. So, even though the old Pottermore sorting test said I’d be a Horned Serpent, the frown I wear now thinking about it is the real thorn in my side I’d like to tell you about. 

Hear me Teacher, because I keep deepest respect for you, even in spite of the pitiless disagreements you and I now share. I’ve been attending midnight premieres and book releases since I was eight, so it’s coming up on twenty years of things I’ve thought about saying to you one day. I’m not just a fan (though that, I am). I’m a writer. I write because I hafta. It’s always been that way. When I was young and began reading your books, I didn’t know yet that words had that same kind of hold on you, too. I have faith that you, the very greatest writer of our time in my eyes, will do your best to use your words for the good of others until the very end.

But I’d like to take you back to when I was ten, even then pretending to be a magical kid at schools in America we thought we might attend. My best friends since birth were as big of fans of the series as my big brother and I were, and we spent long hours in our childhoods dreaming up people and places who fit into our idea of the Wizarding World from right where we were in the center of the Midwest of the United States.

Up till the end of the summer in 2003 when I turned ten, I had been living in Northwest Indiana at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. There, nestled along shores of singing sand in most northern reaches of my home state, are the Indiana Dunes: a place so full of magic that I can only wish that statement is enough to inspire you to come and see it one day. Living dunes, mountains of sand standing 60-meters high in some instances, some moving over a meter every year. Over 350 species of birds migrate through the interconnected web of ecosystems on the southern tip of Lake Michigan. The weather quite literally can change any minute. I was living there again in 2019 when the Polar Vortex hit, and for two days the winds blowing off the Great Lake made it a breathtaking -48°C outside. But in the springs, when over 1,100 flowers and plants bloom, and the summers, when monarch butterflies voyaging across North America settle there for the milkweed, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place. Most winters are unimaginably gorgeous too; have you ever seen shelf ice in real life?

All that to say, that’s the wondrous land I explored everyday, just steps beyond my backyard, when I first discovered Harry Potter. On June 20, 2003, my big brother’s twelfth birthday (exactly a month before my tenth), he and I stood in line with our dad at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore for the midnight release of Order. My brother had been waiting eagerly for the next book for a lot longer than I had because he was older; he’d already read most of Goblet by the time I was literate enough to pick up Sorcerer’s Stone in second grade. But he’d made me promise to finish the fourth book before the fifth came out, and by that time—I was almost a fourth-grader—I’d become something of a reader. My brother and I had talked for nearly a year about what dangers Harry would encounter next. That night I wore a black OOTP ballcap, a special souvenir for us kids whose parents were cool enough to preorder the book. Our parents were the coolest; they’d preordered copies for us both. 

I remember diving right into it that night, but unlike my brother (who finished reading it in under a week), I didn’t fall into it right away. I attribute this to the anticipation I was feeling of our family’s upcoming relocation. Our parents, recently divorced, had sat my brother, little sister, and me down to tell us that at the end of the summer, we’d be moving “back” to Central Indiana. That was where both my parents were from, and where I was born, but I didn’t remember it like that. The Dunes was my home, and that town 280-kilometers south just passed Indianapolis was only a place I went to see family on Memorial Days, Thanksgivings, and Christmases. As I’m sure you’ve heard in bulk over the years, the tone of book five didn’t give me that spark I’d gotten used to in books one, two, three, and four. 

But when I got to my roots in Central-IN at the age of ten, I had never felt more like Harry Potter in my life. Like I said, both of my parents were from there, and I was instantly overwhelmed with the number of strangers who knew my name and seemingly everything about me. It was the start of a new school year, and I was the new kid, and I’d always been a middle-kid and natural introvert, so I didn’t like being shoved under the spotlight so much. That’s when I put my time back into Order to help myself acclimate to the new environment. 

Everyday in my new fourth grade class, we were given twenty-minutes for silent reading. Most kids hated this part of the day, but naturally I found the minutes always flew by too quickly. I’m a good reader, but I’ve never been fast; by then I was reading about 200-words-per-minute, which meant I could almost never get through an entire chapter in the twenty minutes I was given. One Wednesday, that really screwed me over.

I’ll never forget closing my copy of Order on page 805. My heart was hammering in my chest. My throat constricted, twisted, ached—I choked on the word No as my eyes came to the end of the sentence, “The second jet of light hit him squarely on the chest.”

I blinked a few times to clear my vision, so blurry with tears that I couldn’t quite read, “The laughter had not quite died from his face, but his eyes widened in shock.” Before I was through blinking, my ears burned at the sound of students around me giggling—I looked up and met sets of eyes staring right at me, smirking, gazes jumping between our teacher and me, sitting at my desk with rigid shoulders and both sides of my open book clenched in my fists.

Silent reading was over. Evidently, our teacher had said so two or three times, but I was the only one who hadn’t looked up yet. I was a good kid, but when she told me for the third or fourth time I guess to close my book, I’d replied, “Can’t I please just finish the chapter?” The answer was no, and after a great round of laughter, I spent the rest of the day in a dark cloud. Every few minutes I’d get a painful bolt of hope that I’d somehow misread the colors—I remembered red and green, but did I get the order right? I knew the answer already, but I held on for the rest of the day, trying hard to convince myself that Sirius Black wouldn’t be dead when I flipped to page 806.

I called up this memory because I think it gets the closest to this standing-at-the-edge-of-the-veil feeling that’s been swelling in my gut since I went to the midnight premiere for the first Fantastic Beasts film in 2016. A bit of writing wisdom every teacher I’ve ever had shares is simply, “Write what you know.” It’s taken some time for me to find the words to describe how I’m feeling, but today I think I’ve finally got enough gumption to just say plainly: What gives you the right to write about life in America?

No offense Ms. Rowling, Ma’am, but you have no idea what you’re talking about.

In 2018, I took a job back up in Northwest Indiana, returning for a brief two years to live in my magical Dunes. During my time there, I had the privilege of working daily with the National Park Service, which is how I was introduced to some important local partners: members of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi, who are actively finding ways to “revive the knowledge of [their] clans” in their native lands in and around the Dunes region. That’s how I learned that the Ojibwe cultural histories contained not one, but two miraculous beings which were familiar to me because of your Wizarding World: the Thunderbird and the Horned Serpent.

Like many of my fellow Americans, I’m now faced with a moral reckoning in the fact that my History education was quite lacking in inclusive perspectives. So, I’m not going to spend more than the next sentence whining about how the white Americans depicted in Fantastic Beasts are boring, two-dimensional caricatures that I know for a fact you could have written better. I had been so excited to discover a magical United States as I faced the first wave of fear in November 2016 wondering, “What happens next?”—only to leave the midnight premiere at the movie theater thinking, “All that could have happened anywhere, what does it have to do with me?”

More importantly, what does the Wizarding World have to do with the Indigenous peoples of North America? I wonder if you spoke with any of my neighbors before turning the main figures of their Creation stories into magical creatures kept in a suitcase by a British man named Newt Scamander. I doubt it because I’ve only just now been able to swallow my own pride and admit that I marvelled over that stupid CGI bird for more than a year before I realized I’d been daydreaming in sheer ignorance. 

And here I stand, not about to chicken out on writing this, or writing lots of things I’ll probably think of that I ought to say to you down the road. I have a lot to learn as a person, and being a writer is the set robes that helps me be the best me. Isn’t it the same for you? Don’t you put on your thoughts on paper so you can see yourself plainer? I’m standing under the archway of Cancel Culture hoping that you haven’t yet fallen beyond the curtain. I’m rooting for you to just suck it up and admit that you’re no alchemist and that you don’t know the secrets of life and death just because Harry died and rose again in your fairytale. Go on, take a big swig of your bad brew and swallow it down. I believe you can transform your vision of what makes the United States such a magical place. 

While assembling my closing thoughts on all of this, I returned to page 806 of my well-read copy of Order of the Phoenix. There I read the screams of fifteen-year-old Harry Potter as the deepest, most desperate desire of his heart cries out, “Get him, save him, he’s only just gone through!” 

Words are, in fact, our most renewable source of energy. You, Author, have wielded the written word to an astonishing Historical place of power. Until recently, I never thought Sirius Black’s special brand of arrogance was really your style. To tell you the truth, when all the time-turners went berserk in Cursed Child, I thought it was your way of finally saying, “Go forth, all ye fanfic dreamers: Your will be done.” Like it was a step towards opening up the Wizarding World not just to new places, but new people and writers, or something like that. But staring straight up at Fantastic Beasts on the big-screen in my mind, I’m hung up on the depth of your lack of research and the chasm of cruel objectifications of others’ cultural heritage and lived experiences. 

Because you’re the person who wrote the story that’s given so much of my life meaning, I am not through with you. The thing about Dolores Umbridge that really twists the thorn in my side is her privlege—she had too much influence to be bothered when students called her on her predjudices. Don’t be a Toad, for gosh sakes Ms. Rowling! Be a good Badger and go find the right answers so you can go on being your best. I still dream of showing the kind of selflessness as that wizard kid named Harry Potter, who once looked on the great Mirror of Erised and was found worthy to receive the Philosopher’s Stone.

And if you must continue staging my country as a main setting in your story, would you consider what I’ve said here and then…

… if you’ll humor this admiring writer just a teensy-bit longer 😉

Maybe give this wacky exercise I just whipped up a quick whirl:

A gang of chattering girls separated Snape from James and Sirius, and by planting himself in the midst of the group, Harry managed to keep Snape in sight while straining his ears to catch the voices of James and his friends…

“Did you like question ten, Moony?” asked Sirius as they emerged into the entrance hall.

“Loved it,” said Lupin briskly. “‘Give five signs that identify the [woman].’ Excellent question.”

“D’you think you managed to get all the signs?” said James in tones of mock concern.

“Think I did,” said Lupin seriously, as they joined the crowd thronging around the front doors eager to get out into the sunlit grounds. “One: [She’s] sitting on my chair. Two: [She’s] wearing my clothes. Three: [Her] name’s Remus Lupin…’”

Wormtail was the only one who didn’t laugh.

“Chapter Twenty-Eight: Snape’s Worst Memory,” Order of the Phoenix, pg. 643

I am, yours most sincerely,

@bykaileyann

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