Tibet is mentioned twice in the entire Harry Potter series.
A generation-defining obsession turned multi-billion franchise, the Harry Potter book series follows eponymous British wizard as he enters a previously unknown world of magic and learns his unique role within it. As a child, I paused only a little longer than the average reader on each passing mention of Tibet, precociously devouring each of the seven books, reading levels soaring past any public-school standardization.
As I read, I dreamt of receiving my invitation to wizard school at age eleven. The universe of the books felt so real to me and it seemed impossible that I would not be part of it. When the final book was released, I stayed up all night reading. Several years later, concerned more with the social dynamics of the people who accompanied me, I grudgingly saw the final film and moved on with my life.
Upon further revelations about the book and the author’s various failings regarding race, gender, and sexuality, I put the series and all they had once meant to me, out of my mind. I joined Swarthmore College’s rugby team rather than the Quidditch that was also offered since beer and concussion risks seemed more college-y.
Until, in early April 2020 lockdown boredom, I re-watched the entire series, including the two prequels created once I had already moved on from the franchise. I felt an unexpected tug of emotion as I watched a lonely, misunderstood eleven-year-old* learn that there is a world whose history has always been his, even if he did not know it. For the first time in his life, he belongs. While my obsession with the books and the world contained within them was shared globally, as a Tibetan adult looking back on a childhood in a near-entirely white place, I have gained new insight into its poignancy in my own life.
As Tibet took on an increasingly defining role in my adulthood, I mourned its many absences from my childhood. I began to dismiss much of what I had grown up loving, blaming people and cultural objects for my lack of access to a Tibetan identity. This list is long and many of
the items still sting, including punk rock, suburbs, and the American South, and most certainly the series that contained only one, ambiguously Asian character, Harry Potter.
It turns out that Tibet was present in my life all along, I just had no reference point for it. From my hometown itself, where my Tibetan father received the first round of scholarships for Tibetan students to study and where my parents met, to the name I explained to every new person I met throughout childhood. Others perceived my Tibetan self long before I did, from the international college students to the monks who visited to create mandalas and perform, to my own grandparents, who arrived from India when I was eight.
None of these was enough to replace an entire community, a sense of self and belonging, not to mention a connection to the land. The hindrances, the microaggressions, and the loneliness I experienced were all real too. But I have gotten creative now, able to trace these gossamer-thin threads of connection between my life and the vast, complex history of my ancestors and our land. I unearth childhood memories and revelations made meaningful by retrospection.
Tommy Pico, a queer Native American poet from the Kumeyaay Nation and master of contradictions, writes about being “kind of at war with sentimentality generally” but also asks, “What if I really do feel connected to the land?” Our destinies find us, no matter how lost we may feel on the way to finding them.
Harry is an outsider for his entire life, unable to fit into the only society he knows, full of small-minded bullies. When he enters the wizarding world, his understanding of himself and his place in the world shifts dramatically. He fumbles through all the newness he encounters with genuine joy and delight.
As the series continues, the complexity of the world he’s joined becomes ever greater and so does the magic. The failings of heroes, leaders, and mentors are exposed. But nothing compares to that initial joy and delight of being told you belong, that there has always been a place for you, a place where everything about you makes sense.
I marvel at my child-self. For her brilliance at perceiving her invisibility, and for brilliantly surviving it. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to my own family, my now-community, for their patience while I fumbled my way home, for their grace (and/or grudging tolerance) for my fumbles yet to come.
In life, as in stories, links to ancient lore and timelines stretch beyond our lifetime. In both, we face off with unhelpful and even corrupt and dangerous institutions when we try to change the world and challenge injustice. In my life, as in Harry Potter’s, you survive through stories, and through love. One is fiction, and one is real life. But, like magic, the lines between the two are often unexpectedly fused.
Am I going to get a Harry Potter tattoo? Am I going to smile knowingly as I pass Platform 9¾, rushing through King’s Cross in London, where I now find myself living? No. But I have a renewed gratitude for the power of story, for the power of learning that you belong.
May we all, regardless of age, no matter our displacements and ruptures, embrace our responsibility and our magic. May we imagine futures and write ourselves towards them. May we delight in the revelation of our belonging.
*An essay by Kristen Martin points out the way that orphanhood, in literature from Dickens through Harry Potter, has been a device to demonstrating a character’s exclusion from and disruption of the society in which they live, rather than actually including stories of grief, loss, and longing which the death of parents would entail. I do not know this experience at all, and it is important to emphasize that I mourned an absence of community, not of my parents or caregivers. It is this lack of belonging that gave me a connection to Harry Potter, and I do not want to diminish stories that I know nothing about.
About the author:
Lekey Leidecker is a Tibetan writer born and raised in Kentucky. Her work has been published in Rigorous, ANMLY and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. She also serves as an editor for Unfolded Secret, a Tibetan youth anthology. She is working on her first chapbook and lives in London. Connect with her at www.lekeyleidecker.com.