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« In Which We Read Them In The Hallway »

Away From The World


When we were eleven we measured our adulthood through vice. Rumors would spread that a girl once smoked a cigarette, or that a boy got to first base with a girl from another school. When I was eleven, I was kept away from that world. This was partly because of my Pakistani parents, and partly because I was always reading. I was not wholly dissatisfied with middle school society; I had simply realized from a very young age that adventures were limitless on paper.

My school librarian introduced me to many books. She made sure I read Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and S.E. Hinton. When she told me she had met an author named Rowling in Naperville, she insisted I read her work, Harry Potter. “I just ordered them for the school,” I remember her saying with a barely held excitement. My interest in being the first girl in school to read a new book was quickly squashed when I discovered they were fantasy novels. Witches, broomsticks, and dragons rarely interested me – I preferred a story I could relate to. My librarian was adamant, saying that I would find myself in Harry’s story. She said that everybody could.

As soon as I first starting reading Harry Potter, I couldn’t stop. I read on the school bus, and I read walking to class during passing period. In the middle of the night, I read when everyone else was fast asleep; my grandmother’s snores were audible on the other side of my bedroom. When I started reading at the dinner table, my father put his foot down. He disliked fiction, and he disliked fantasy stories most of all. “There is nothing of value in stories like that,” he used to say in his lectures. When he said those things, I would imagine myself in Harry’s world. I would imagine being away from my parents, my siblings, and my classmates in a boarding school. It was full of people like me, full of people who read books. Not just books – but fiction.

I wanted to be like Hermione more than I have ever wanted to be like anyone. She was the smartest in her class; she was so powerful in her knowledge. She was an outsider to Hogwarts at first, and yet she knew everything about it. In many ways, she was a young immigrant, like me. She left her parents behind, and immersed herself in a new way of life. In Chamber of Secrets, she goes with her family to Diagon Alley. They were foreigners; she had to answer all their questions. I thought of the times that I had to do the same. Like Hermione, I was somewhere between two worlds.

My grandmother left to visit Pakistan in the winter of seventh grade, and I used to lie on her bed to read Prisoner of Azkaban over and over again. I read about Harry discovering his godfather, Harry fighting the dementors. I cried when Harry had to discover that he would return to the Dursleys. I cried when I closed the book and realized I had to return to my world. It was the first time I had cried over a book. The tears that splashed on the paper left tiny wrinkles. Outside my window, I saw a chilly fog over the backyard. (Were there dementors there? I remember thinking.) A few months prior, my grandmother had woken up to hear me sniffling while reading in the middle of the night. “Don’t cry,” she had said in Punjabi, “It will be okay.”

I began to wonder if I was a witch. I wrote in my diary at age 13, “Maybe in American Hogwarts, the letters don’t get sent until someone turns 14. I might still get mine.” I dreamed of having my own chance to prove myself, of having my own moment of greatness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there were many other children with the same thought. Harry’s life was not only full of adventure, it was just so certain. We wanted just an ounce of Harry’s purpose, just a fleeting feeling that we were doing the right thing. His life was sure, and our lives felt like they would never measure up.

On our beige Packard Bell I found websites dedicated to the Wizarding World. I found interviews with J.K. Rowling, character profiles, and theories on plot. Back then, social media was still in its earliest stages: comments on news articles were rare, and message boards and chat rooms were the norm. I joined the ones labeled “Harry Potter”, and found a digital space full of people like me. We wrote our feelings about the books, explained our admiration for Jo Rowling, lamented the loss of favorite characters, and threw out our predictions. As the series was slowly being released over years, fans would predict its ending in the most imaginative ways. “Dumbledore is really Ron from the future,” one post said. “Harry and Voldemort are really one person,” said another. I wrote my own theories down in my journal: “Harry has a long-lost sibling,” and “Snape and Lily were best friends.”

I had given up on the notion of being a witch in high school. I decided to focus on school and being a good student. Everyone knew about Harry now, but I was convinced the other students did not know these books like I knew them. Still, when I answered questions in class with my hand raised in the air, waving madly, other students would snigger, “Hermione Granger!” To them, it was not a compliment.

I was still sharing a room with my grandmother when Order of the Phoenix was released. After I got my copy of the book, I sat in the hall with a flashlight to read it at night so as not to disturb her. When she woke up for dawn prayers, she stumbled upon me on her way to the bathroom. “Still reading that book?” she asked in Punjabi.

Deathly Hallows was released when I was about to be a college junior. I read it for the first time in my apartment in Chicago, miles away from home and from my grandmother’s bed. When Hermione erased her parent’s memories, I had to shut the book to let the thought of her action sink in. I thought of my own parents, of how many things I had kept from them over the years – all of those vices I had committed in order to grow up. I kept those things from them to protect them. I had to keep them away from America’s turbulent understanding of what it means to be brown, to be foreign, to be an immigrant.

Lately I have chosen to re-read authors like Zadie Smith and James Baldwin instead of Rowling. Though whenever I go back to the Harry Potter books, I find a warm comfort. I enjoy picking them up and starting from a random chapter or page. I do it with extra care now, for even though they are hardcovers, their binding is separating. My copy of Sorcerer’s Stone is held together with painter’s tape, the bright blue of it clashing with the typography on the cream paper.

I needed Harry’s world more than I can even remember. Sometimes, I still need it. But I cannot escape so easily now. I find that my responsibilities are too heavy, and that reality has settled permanently into my fibers.

Hafsa Arain is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living outside of Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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