Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 3, Scene 2

Book Review: THE DARK FANTASTIC by Ebony Thomas

“Are the cartographies of dreams truly universal?”

Ebony Thomas, The Dark Fantastic, 2

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games drew me in from the very first time I saw its stunning cover. As a literature scholar, a Black studies enthusiast and Black fangirl supreme, I wanted– no, needed– this book. Someone had found a way to weave together several pieces of my own scholarly interests including race, literature, digitality and the fantastic. Despite being in the midst of reading for comprehensive exams, I couldn’t contain myself when I got an Advance Reader Copy of the book. One glance at the table of contents– which included chapters on my favorite witches, Hermione Granger and Bonnie Bennett– and I was hooked. I had found my scholarly Harry Potter.

The path through The Dark Fantastic is fairly straightforward, though Thomas takes the reader on an adventure to dystopian futures, far away realms and a magical present before leaving us at the gates of Hogwarts. In doing so, she encourages us to question our relationship to the fantastic, and more generally our relationship to reading and imagining. Is it as universal as we think? Why is there an imagination gap in literature for young people? Why is it that some young people of color “don’t like to read much?” (7)

In order to unravel some of these questions, Thomas first defines “the dark fantastic:” “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically stored imagination.” (7) Thomas explains that she prefers the Fantastic to speculative fiction, noting that fantastic has a multiplicity of meanings. This distinction was important for me, as I am a scholar whose work will no doubt involve questions of the fantastic (or speculative) and I will have to decide which term more accurately describes my work. One thing that I particularly like about fantastic is that it’s not limited by “literature”– Thomas works on transmedia narratives that include books, television and film, not to mention fan culture, thus incorporating the digital.

Returning to the text, in the “Dark Other,” Thomas highlights a cycle that appears in a myriad of texts: “(1) spectacle, (2) hesitation, (3) violence, (4) haunting, and (5) emancipation.” Thomas revisits this pattern throughout each chapter, noting how each of these Dark girls (Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from Merlin, Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries, and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter) does or does not fall victim to it. Equally important to these discussions of the girls are the fans, often Dark themselves, that have critiques of the treatment of these characters.

Much of Thomas’ chapter on Rue from The Hunger Games is rooted in the cognitive dissonance the Dark Other can cause for (white) readers. A preconceived notion of what innocence looks like left some viewers of the film perturbed, to say the least, by the casting of a Black girl for the role. Thomas shows how Katniss becomes the moral center of the book only after Rue’s death, yet it is difficult for some to imagine that this young Dark girl can become impetus for a revolution. Like Rue’s, the chapter on Gwen traces her place in the dark fantastic cycle (or how she breaks it) before investigating fans’ relationships to the character. The main difference between these two is that Rue is written in her original text as Dark, while Gwen (Guinevere of Arthurian legend) is a fair maiden. For me, this brings up the question of race bending: is it or is it not an appropriate form of reimagining? To this point, there was a discussion on Twitter regarding a Black Batman. Fans circulated their actor choices for the role to which acclaimed author Nnedi Okorafor encouraged fans and writers to simply create more original Black characters. Shortly afterwards, writer Jamelle Bouie posted a thread in which he completely reimagined Batman’s origin story so that a Black Batman would contextually make sense. What Bouie did was imaginative and quite frankly, convincing– convincing enough to make me believe that we can have both new original characters and critical reimaginings, which is precisely what I believe has happened with Gwen in Merlin. As Thomas aptly states: “Gwen matters because she represents the dreams of brown girls who never saw themselves represented in fairy tales growing up.” (104)

Despite being an avid Potterhead and devoted lover of Hermione Granger, the chapter on Bonnie Bennett immediately caught my attention. The quickest way to infuriate me is to bring up the treatment of Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries; in fact,there is a video of me somewhere on the internet passionately discussing (hand gestures and all) this exact subject with my Branch Out students. Thomas knows that Bonnie “is not an easy character for mainstream audiences…to love” (109) and it’s hard to make a case for her. She’s sidelined, chastened, and used as a deus ex machina for many of the main gang’s numerous problems. But her character arc, in my opinion, best illustrates Thomas’ dark fantastic cycle: the viewer is introduced to Bonnie’s magic in the breath-taking “Feather Scene” (spectacle); negotiating Damon and Bonnie’s potential relationship by making her hate him (hesitation); Bonnie is repeatedly pushed to her physical limits with her magic, all in the name of helping her friends (violence); when she finally dies from exertion, Bonnie still haunts the show, serving as the anchor for the “Other Side” (haunting); and once she has saved everyone…again… Bonnie departs Mystic Falls for Africa (emancipation…?). It is unclear whether Bonnie was truly emancipated, and I would actually argue that she wasn’t. The writers’ decision to have Bonnie depart for Africa, which, as Thomas points out, was never something she r expressed any interest in, signals the Dark witch’s life to be an afterthought by them. But Thomas reminds us that “[d]ark girls like Bonnie are the problem and the solution, always.” (139) It’s time for more.

And honestly, I hope I’m part of the generation that participates in creating these worlds for Dark girls to revel in.

Thomas concludes with an ode to Black Hermione. Though she never imagined Hermione as anything but white, fans across the globe have taken J. K. Rowling’s description of brown eyes and frizzy hair to heart. The “Hermione Is Black” Tumblr tag shows us just how much audiences were imagining this possibility– “creative digital media communities” (165) have been doing this work for years.


Ebony Thomas took on the Herculean task of breaking apart and dissecting how and why we imagine, giving us convincing theorization and contextualization using her four case studies. She took us on a tour of her own imagination, which greatly resembles mine, weaving in narratives about her own journey grappling with the Dark Fantastic. She provided imaginative scholarship on subject matter near and dear to my heart. Most importantly, to me, Thomas provided an example of how I can combine all my passions into a coherent project, and for that, I am forever grateful. It is possible to engage both Morrison and Jenkins, Todorov and Whitted.

Thomas proves without a doubt that scholarship can be fun, creative, and if you’re lucky, fantastic.

How to Make Comps Reading Schedules

One question I’ve gotten since I published my last post was how I structure and organize all of my Comps readings. With my total number of “To Read” items coming in at 282, I knew I was going to have to get organized. So, this week, I’m going to share with you how I’ve been creating weekly reading lists for myself.

BIG PICTURE

  1. Find your preferred site for your organizing. For me, it’s an Excel spreadsheet that I haven’t closed since September 2018. I have a workbook page for each of my four lists, anda final page for my reading schedule.
  2. Divide each of your lists into smaller subsections. My lists are sometimes divided chronologically, and sometimes by theme. For example, my African American Literature list, from Slavery to the Civil Rights Movement is divided like this: Slave Narratives, Reconstruction and Nadir, Harlem Renaissance, Interwar Period, and Criticism. Each block of texts is color coded. I do this because tackling smaller subsections are easier than tackling a list of 50+ texts; and it makes preparing for meetings with your faculty easier. When I finish all of my Slave Narrative texts, I can schedule a meeting just to talk about that subsection. It helps if you don’t jump all over the place, but rather work with texts that can speak to each other at one time.
  3. PROTIP: I mark texts that I have read in a grad level setting, and have good notes on as “Read, to Return to,” so that I can review those more closely during my designated review period before exams.

WEEKLY PLANNING

Here’s the thing: every week is going to be different. Some weeks you can body several 600-page tomes, and some weeks you’ll barely be able to get through an article. The key here is to pay attention to your body and mind so that you don’t overwork yourself.

  1. Decide how you want to present your weekly lists. As I’ve said, my excel sheet is my life line.
  2. Know roughly how many texts you need to read per week to get through everything. For me, it was 10-12 texts per week.
  3. Assign yourself readings based on what you’ve got going on each week/how you’re feeling. Weeks where I don’t have any meetings, I usually assign myself 12 texts and they are typically on the longer side. Weeks where I have out of town conferences, meetings, etc. I assign myself closer to ten readings, and some of them might be on the shorter side, like poems, articles, and book chapters.
  4. Plan your readings for three or four weeks at a time, then give yourself a week to catch up on anything you missed. I know that reading 12 books a week is ambitious, particularly when I err on the side of reading every page. (PROTIP: have a better reading practice than I do.) So I if I don’t meet my goal in a given week, it’s fine– I’ll have an opportunity to catch up.
  5. Plan how you’re going to tackle your readings. Are you going list by list? Are you reading all monographs? Or a mix of articles and chapters? I’ve found that having variety in my weekly schedule keeps me focused and interested. I don’t know that I could have read all of one list and moved onto the next, but if that’s what will work for you try that. As I am typically trying to read 12 texts per week, I assign myself three texts from each of my four lists to read during the week. To keep myself from burning out, I try to mix and match monographs with poems, articles and book chapters. Some days, I simply can’t get through a monograph, but I can read and annotate three poems. And I work through my lists methodically, aiming to finish a subsection before moving onto the next and meeting with my professors.
  6. Then Read! (Blog post on how to read forthcoming)
  7. Take good notes! (Blog post on taking good notes forthcoming)

TIPS

  1. Mark off your readings as you finish them. It’s super satisfying and encourages you to work towards the next mark off on a finished text.
  2. Take advantage of the fact that you’re not confined to a classroom. Read in new places. Don’t stay cooped up in your apartment (unless that’s what you want to do.)
  3. When you can, talk to people about what you’re reading. My parents are the bomb.com when it comes to this. I’m an hour from home so I’ve spent a lot of comps in my childhood bedroom reading. When I’m done with a book, I revert to my childhood practice of telling my mother what I’ve just read, if I liked it, main arguments, things that made me uneasy. My mom’s a great listener and if I catch her while she’s doing the dishes, I’m free to chat about the text in great detail. My dad’s the questioner. He’ll ask me questions I never thought about and make me rethink my entire relationship with the text. I’ll read him quotes, and he’ll take the book, read it for himself, and come to his own conclusion. My family and I are definitely in this PhD game together.

There you have it, a short reflection on how I’ve been planning, organizing and tackling my readings! If you’re also reading for comps, best of luck to you! We got this!

How I’m Staying Sane During Comps

Comps was the first thing I asked about when I came to my grad program’s admitted students day in 2016. I wanted to know how it worked, what the exams were like, how you made your lists, how you studied for them– and my now friend, James, said to me: “Worry about that when you’ve done your Masters.”

Well, James, it’s definitely time to worry about them.

In truth, I have moved past my initial fear and anxiety surrounding the exams. I’ll worry about taking the actual tests in April. Right now, I’m just focusing most of my energy on reading, organizing my schedule for readings, note taking and meeting with professors. So I thought I would take this time to break down how I’m structuring my time, making the most out of meetings with my professors and caring for myself during what would otherwise be a pretty stressful time.

Reading

The most productive piece of advice I can give you is to make yourself a reading schedule in whatever feels like the most effective way for you get the job done. I have an Excel spreadsheet open at all times with five tabs: four tabs for each of my four lists and a tab for my reading schedule.

For my sheets with the lists on them, I have columns for the title, author, date published, and whether or not I’ve read it. The books are broken down into smaller sections, which group the books according to time period or theme, about 4 or 5 sections per list. At the bottom of each list, I’ve got a running count of how many of the list I’ve read and how many I have left to read.

PROTIP: If you read something in a graduate level classroom, I have typically marked those books as “read” but highlighted them as something to come back to at the end to review if I have time.

My reading schedule is fairly rigid but also pretty flexible at the same time. I read on average 10-12 books per week, but I’m flexible about when during the week I read them. I could read three books two days out of the week, two books two more days, and take a day to rest. I could read one every day, and then a few days I read two. Whatever works so long as I get the books that I’ve listed for that week read with notes.

Meeting with Professors

Every professor is going to be different but so far, I’ve found the most effective use of everyone’s time is to just send your professor a quick email update with what you’ve read since the last meeting and single out a few texts that you really want to talk about or have questions about.

But the best advice I could give you about meeting with your professors is to establish some ground “rules” for how meetings should go: What do they expect from you? Do they want written reviews? Email updates? Can you email questions in between sessions? How often do they want to meet? How best can you utilize that time?

PROTIP: Take your notes and any texts you want to discuss so it’s easy to refer to. (Don’t bring your entire library cart. Your meetings won’t last particularly long, as they do have to work after all. 3-4 texts seems to be working for me.)

Self-Care

And most importantly, I’m caring for myself during this time. I have

  • picked up a relaxing new hobby
  • started going to the gym (semi) regularly
  • Been taking a weekly Mindfulness class
  • Started writing comic book scripts for a series I want to publish one day (writing 30 minutes a day)
  • Started cooking more meals at home and
  • Been spending time with my family.

Even though doing comps requires doing an insane amount of reading, in reality, it’s kind of nice if you let yourself believe it. Most days, I’m in bed or on my couch with a stack of books, some coffee and my dog, reading and taking notes.

In order to make the best use of my time, I’ve set my days up to look like this:

  • 7 AM-8 AM Wake up
  • 8 AM- 9 AM Morning routine (walk dog, breakfast, coffee, meditation, etc.)
  • 9 AM- 12 PM Work Block #1
    • Using the Pomodoro Method, I try to read at least one book in this three hour block (and if time permits, take notes)
  • 12 PM-2 PM Afternoon Break (lunch, gym, walk dog, catch up on TV, nap, etc.)
  • 2 PM- 5 PM Work Block #2
    • Using the Pomodoro Method, I try to either finish the first book or read a second. (if time permits, notes)
  • 5 PM-7 PM Evening Break (walk dog, dinner, self-care time)
  • 7 PM-8:30 PM Work Block #3
    • This is time that I reserve for note taking, making connections between texts, reflecting on them, etc.
  • 8:30 PM- 10 PM Evening Routine (walk dog, shower, journal, write for fun, catch up on TV, meditate)
  • 10 PM-11 PM Sleep

Granted, this is what my ideal comps day looks like. Not every day pans out like this, I’m okay with that. Generally speaking though, I do like to work between 7 and 8 hours a day, broken up into blocks of 2-3 hours. This method helps me focus, but do what feels right to you!

The last thing that I do for myself every week is I give myself at least a half a day, to a whole day, off every week. I always give myself Sunday mornings off for church. I can read for the whole rest of the day if I want, but from the time I wake up on Sunday to the time I get back from church, I am offline.

Structure and organization will most definitely help you get through comps, but don’t be rigid to the point of breaking with your scheduling. It’s there to guide you, but do know that life happens. Just do the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask of you.