Auto-Ethnography

Shadows of a Literary Body

At thirteen years old, my grandmother gave me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; I remember looking at the cover and thinking how childish it seemed and how dissimilar it was to the books I enjoyed at that time. Yet, I read it; I finished it and read it again. After the third time through my mother yelled at me for being antisocial; I was mesmerized by Rowling’s world for the first time I felt the need to read more into a fictional world, to be immersed completely.

Before my love affair with Harry began, I was fascinated with Holocaust survivor stories and memoirs; perhaps this phase began with Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars or Ian Seraillier’s Escape from Warsaw, but it soon evolved to include (among others) The Diary of Anne Frank, Alicia: My Story by Alicia Appleman-Jurman, and The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender. My appetite for this gruesome time in history seemed insatiable—I would do projects and book reports, and scour the library for more books on the topic. I recall reading Alicia: My Story and taking notes on the protagonist’s use of Yiddish and Russian. It was not only the human capacity to survive torture, systematic genocide of a people, and convinced of one’s own inhumanity that persuaded my young gaze to this body of work, but also the capacity of the physical body to endure, to learn, to hope. The ability to communicate in multiple languages was an idea that took root in my mind and has to this day blossomed into a love of linguistics, the history of the language, and how language engages people across cultures.

Intermingled with the death and hope of the Holocaust and the plight of the Jews, I was also engaged with the works of Louisa May Alcott. Perhaps tied with a romanticized view of etiquette, corsets and the propriety of the body, I first read Little Woman, skipped the sequels (I think Jo’s decision not to marry Laurie irritated the romantic in me too much) and jumped into Eight Cousins, An Old-Fashioned Girl and Rose in Bloom. Being at the precipice of puberty and attempting to understand my own identity and sexuality, these books created a certain je ne sais quoi that resounded with my tween self. Alcott’s books are rife with a latent sexuality, mixed in with the refinement of etiquette that captured my imagination that was already keen on differing cultures and eras.

My reading phases as a child were, and even now as an adult, are eclectic and multifaceted. Even as I was reading Little Women and Number the Stars, I was also reading the Bible. Perhaps the Jewish identity of the Holocaust stories resonated with my desire to be part of the body of something greater, or perhaps the mysticism of the church reminded me of my interpretation of Judaism. Before the age of ten, I lived with my non-religious, non-sectarian mother (post-parental divorce). For fifth grade, however, I moved in with my father and stepmother, where I was introduced to the world of Roman Catholicism. I was in infatuated with the Church, with belonging to it, with its literature, and its hope. For a year, without suggestion, I read the Bible every day. The Catholic treatment of the body—of its presence as a vessel for the soul, but also a manifestation of God’s creation—with its contradictions, yet firm belief in transubstantiation both puzzles and fascinates me.

So where did this mystification of the divine body and the Bible and the manners’ stories and the Holocaust stories lead me? Right into the arms of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I remember trying to read this book when I was about 8 years old and could not get past the first chapter with the Mrs. W’s and their lack of physical bodies. It was at this point where I attempted to write my first science fiction story; I did actually finish it as a twelve year old. (It is however, terrible—although my grandmother loved it.) It began my thinking about the body as something changeable, as something that can have an essence beyond the soul as interpreted for me by the Bible. Stars could be souls according to L’Engle. This idea of the soul of stars inspired many an angsty poem as well as created a reading path to Harry and beyond.  In many ways I think that L’Engle’s series prepared me for my love of Harry.

What can I say about Harry that other people don’t already acknowledge? I was smitten. I attended every release after the third book. I planned the parties at my bookstore where I worked in 2005 and 2007. I bought all the books on audio tape, listened to them instead of music in my car and had to replace them with CDs because I wore the tapes out. I cried when the first movie came out and matched my vision of Hogwarts; I sobbed when Dumbledore died in the sixth book (to the point where my boyfriend thought a physical person had died and not a book character). The entire body of Rowling’s work from the novels to the novellas to the book of fairy tales brought me closer to utter happiness. Now, why? The lone boy orphan who was neglected suddenly becomes the focus of an entire world’s gaze—both admiration and hatred. He is a public figure, his actions and his body no longer belong merely to himself; this fact remains true both for Harry as a character, but also Harry as a brand, and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry. They all embody the essence of each other. Magic, like Orthodox Judaism, is genetic and predetermined at birth. The Death Eaters are reminiscent of the Nazis, and the Weasley twins seem to embody the same good-natured essence as the Murry twins from Many Waters the fourth installment of L’Engle’s Time Quartet. I can see why Harry waltzed so easily into my life AND TOOK OVER. It has become part of my identity—I have the Deathly Hallows tattooed on my wrist, I want to explore Voldemort’s disembodiment from his soul and his use of objects as bodies in both my seminar paper and my thesis. Harry has influenced my reading choices since I was thirteen years old. Only when I moved to Boston in 2009 to attend Simmons did I discontinue my practice of listening to the audio books constantly instead of music.

From Harry I moved into more Fantasy and Science Fiction, while still maintaining an interest in religion and culture. When working at the library the summer before 9th grade, I organized the science fiction section and was pulled into the worlds of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Stardust—both books which were deemed “inappropriate” by my stepmother, but which I read anyway. The idea of rat bodies and the transformation of those bodies is gruesome and dark, yet appealed to me in the way the fallen star in Stardust harkened back to my pre-Harry reading days. After those, I delved into the ridiculous world of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To this day I cannot think of dolphins without thinking of their outlandish intelligence and the real meaning of life. This was the first step toward my current obsession with dystopian literature, where the idea of the post-human body is constantly on my mind.

After high school, I started keeping a reading log; consequently I have a record of every book I have read and when I read them since 2003. My adult reading, interestingly, reflects back to my childhood readings. It seems that no matter how skewed my reading patterns get, I always return to science fiction and its essential questions about the body. Even while reading the Left Behind series and several other religious titles (including Screwtape Letters and Velvet Elvis), I was mesmerized by Nabokov’s Lolita and Humbert Humbert’s need to possess her body and how delightful horrible he was. I moved from religious to classic to scifi/fantasy (including most of Scott Westerfeld’s novels) with ease.

The year before attending Simmons, I reread Harry (for about the millionth time) and added the Australian Ranger’s Apprentice series into my rotation; I even imported titles from Australia and England in order to circumvent American publishing dates. The treatment of the orphan Will, echoes Harry’s own development from ignorance of his own world and the capabilities of his magical body, though with less magic and more fighting on Will’s part. Since coming to Simmons, I have refined my literary interests to include dystopian young adult novels and Steampunk.

The cultural tie-over from Ranger’s Apprentice led me to love the picturebooks of Shaun Tan. His works are dystopic in nature, play with the embodiment of human emotion, postcolonial themes and individuality. The Lost Thing especially toys with the idea of empathetic souls in a posthumanist body. Tan’s aesthetic actually led me towards the Steampunk movement, though I think that my leanings towards this genre stem back to my readings of Louisa May Alcott. The Victorian manners, control of the body, suppression of the “natural” body have evolved in my literary mind to a more feminist, forward-thinking interpretation. The use of sexuality in dystopian and Steampunk worlds intrigue me in their attempts to be progressive regard sex and the body, yet often fall back to engrained constructs of the body and gender. Recently books like Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Matched by Ally Condie, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and nothing by Janne Teller have allowed me to explore the implications of the societal gaze on the teenage and child body.

The treatment of the body is evident throughout my reading history; while not always evident, its essence across genres remains present. Victorian suppression of sexuality, to Humbert Humbert’s exploitation of it, to Harry’s development from a child to adult, to Voldemort’s lack of sexuality to the treatment of Christ’s body and into the dystopias I now read as means of exploring posthumanism, I have been exploring the implications of the body throughout my entire literary life.

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