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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.

On Graduate School and Loss

by Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown

Graduate school. Those two words were a tough road for me. I am a young black woman, first-generation PhD, seven months post-graduation. I wrote and defended my dissertation, yet this piece feels infinitely more difficult to write. It’s been a year since we lost you and committing that to paper hurts. I only hope that by sharing my own experience, it reaches someone and encourages them.

I don’t know exactly how to begin, so I guess it’s best to go to the very start. One of my earliest and most vivid memories of you is your first birthday. You were sitting in your high chair, brown, big-cheeked, and smiling at the small crowd and the sugary cake sitting before you. I’d watched you grow all those months before, curious, bright, and the most beautiful baby! The cake was like a puzzle you needed to figure out. You plunged your hands inside and brought it to your cute little face. Perhaps it was the shock of so much sugar at once, but immediately you recoiled; then, like a child, you attempted to taste it again. Baby’s first cake. That’s how I think of you now. That’s how I will always remember you. Curious, precocious, beautiful, bright. That’s who you were. And as I sit to write this now, it’s who I wish you still were. But you’re gone now. To where? I can contemplate and imagine, but I won’t know for certain until I leave this plane myself someday. But wherever you are, I write this for you, little cousin (little sister). I’ll carry you always.

Being in graduate school is a struggle, one that is hard to navigate even in the best of circumstances I presume. As I sit and write this, one year removed from the initial trauma, I still struggle to find the words to describe all I went through. However, I recognize the importance of talking about my experience, not just for myself, but for others as well. So, being vulnerable and honest, here I go:

It was January of what turned out to be the final year of my graduate study. I was in the midst of waiting to hear back from positions I applied for and dreading rejections, as well as the possibility of offers, as those would come with interviews and job talks—both of which terrified me to no end. It was just a few days after my 31st birthday when my phone rang, a call from your dad. There was nothing unusual about that. Your dad was (is) like a second father to me, so I answered hoping maybe for a second birthday surprise. But it wasn’t. Instead, he asked if I was sitting down, told me to sit down, and immediately I felt my heart stop. Rarely does anything good come after someone asks if you’re sitting down, so I’ve learned in my experiences. Unfortunately, I was right. Your dad called to tell me you were gone, that you had hung yourself, that you had died. An instant after the words left his mouth I went numb. I was devastated, disbelieving, heartbroken. You were thirteen years old. Exactly what it was that caused you to leave us as you did remains unclear to me, but whatever it was removed a light from my heart, a light from this earth.

That you could’ve taken your own life is still unfathomable to me, but perhaps it is not my place to understand. Nevertheless, I realize that there is no easy way to lose someone, a child no less, of that I am sure. But losing someone to suicide must be among the most painful. You weren’t my child to lose, you were my cousin, my little sister, but still my love, and I lost you. I lost you at one of the most difficult points in my adult life, and even today, a little after a year later, I am not sure how I am standing.

Writing a dissertation is not an easy feat, at least it wasn’t for me; yet, somehow in the wake of losing you, I somehow had to manage to put words to paper while dealing with the meaning of losing you. Advisors expected chapters and job applications expected responses. Yet I could barely breathe. All I could think about was the you in that beautiful dress, looking as if you were asleep within the coffin. Looking like yourself, but not at the same time.

How could I think about my next steps, knowing that you had taken the last of yours? How could I write, apply, or try, knowing that you’d never have the chance?

So I didn’t. For days I did nothing but cry. Remembering your face, your smile, your laugh. Days went by and the darkness around me grew. I was lost. Deeply and utterly lost. It took someone else to pull me out of the hole I had fallen into, one shrouded in pain, hurt, darkness. But her hand held mine, pulled me back to myself, back to happier memories of you. The you who supported me, the you that looked up to me, made me see things in myself that I may have otherwise missed. So slowly, but surely, I picked up a pen again. Put pen to paper and wrote. I dedicated my dissertation to you, the light in my darkness. My little Elira.

There is no easy way to write a dissertation through grief. The only advice that I can give, the only words that I can say, is that it doesn’t happen alone. Rely on your village, your person (or people) to help guide you through. Remember yourself and what you came to do. Pick up a pen, open a laptop, and let the words flow (even if they don’t make sense). I did. Eventually I found my way in words, using my writing as a way to remember you, as a way to move forward. It wasn’t a smooth process. It was rocky, marred with sleepless days and nights, tears, rewrites, curses, a trip to the hospital for insomnia driven psychosis, and feelings of hopelessness. But I wrote. I went to dissertation boot camp and I wrote. I went to write in sessions with my best friend and I wrote. I punched pillows, and cried for hours, but I wrote.

It was painful. Moving forward. Breathing. It hurt. It still hurts.

But with the help of my village I finished my dissertation, defended it and graduated in July 2018.


30412161_10105763080272873_6484055218454528000_nLetisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University. Her research focuses on social relationships and food practices, as well as media representations of black female athletes. Her work can be found in the South African Review of Sociology and the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, as well as the online publication The Shadow League.

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!