Ebony Elizabeth Thomas – The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but when a book comes along that is about a field I’m passionate about (the SFF community) and deals with very timely issues, even I can’t resist. I had guessed some of what I’d get to read here from the title alone – anyone who remembers the internet when The Hunger Games casting for Rue was announced will, too – but there was also a lot in this book that was new to me. It was eye-opening.

THE DARK FANTASTIC: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games
by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Published: New York University Press, 2019
eBook: 240 pages
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “There is no magic.”This statement, perhaps most famously attributed to Harry Potter’s uncle Vernon Dursley, is also something that my mother has said to me since I was a child.

Stories provide portals into other worlds, both real and imagined. The promise of escape draws people from all backgrounds to speculative fiction, but when people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, the doors are often barred. This problem lies not only with children’s publishing, but also with the television and film executives tasked with adapting these stories into a visual world. When characters of color do appear, they are often marginalized or subjected to violence, reinforcing for audiences that not all lives matter.
The Dark Fantastic is an engaging and provocative exploration of race in popular youth and young adult speculative fiction. Grounded in her experiences as YA novelist, fanfiction writer, and scholar of education, Thomas considers four black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against black and brown people in our own world.
In response, Thomas uncovers and builds upon a tradition of fantasy and radical imagination in Black feminism and Afrofuturism to reveal new possibilities. Through fanfiction and other modes of counter-storytelling, young people of color have reinvisioned fantastic worlds that reflect their own experiences, their own lives. As Thomas powerfully asserts, “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”

As I mentioned, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction because there is simply too much exciting fiction around for me to take the time. What little I have read, however, was always intersting and well written. So the introductory chapters of The Dark Fantastic were a bit of a tough nut. This is clearly an acedemic paper so it is filled to the brim with citations, sources, references to other works and so on. That doesn’t mean the introduction isn’t necessary, quite the opposite, but I didn’t get any particular pleasure from reading it.

Once Ebony Elizabeth Thomas gets into the meat of her book, however, things get more than interesting. She looks at four fandoms and their Black characters to see that they all go through the same cycle. These fandoms are The Hunger Games, the TV shows Merlin and The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter; although some of those are examined with more depth than others.

Starting out with the Hunger Games, I already had my first eye-opening (and very telling) moment of truth. I did not object to a young Black actress being cast as Rue but I also had completely forgotten that Rue in the book was described as dark-skinned. It’s been a while since I read The Hunger Games but I had assumed, Rue’s physical appearance just wasn’t mentioned in much detail and the filmmakers had simply decided to cast a talented young girl who did well at the audition. I’m only mentioning this because I – a white cis woman – am proving one of the points Thomas makes in this book. That white people are so used to seeing ourselves in fiction that we not only default to white characters when their skin color isn’t mentioned, but we even overlook when a character is explicitly described as Black and imagine them as white… I am not proud of this but I am grateful that this book even showed me what my brain is doing here.
The Hunger Games chapter also deals with the hateful, disgusting internet comments that followed the announcement of Amandla Stenberg’s casting choice for Rue. You can imagine it’s not pretty but Thomas doesn’t just print these comments so we can all agree that people on the internet are dicks. She actually looks at the arguments people make as to why a Black actress shouldn’t play a role in one of the biggest franchises out there.

Next came a fandom that I had no experience of. I had never seen the TV show Merlin, I only know a bit about Arthurian legend. But before we get into the meat of each fandom, the author always gives a quick summary of what it’s all about, which Black character she is going to look at, and sometimes even dialogue from scenes from the show. So it was through this book that I learned of a TV show about King Arthur and Merlin which had cast a mixed-race girl as Gwen (Guinevere). Again, there was an outcry on the internet, but this time people liked to use the well-known “it’s not authentic” argument. Because you can have dragons, but you can’t have a dark-skinned girl living in Camelot…
Although (or maybe because?) I knew nothing about this show prior to reading this book, I found this the most interesting chapter. It may also be because Gwen seemed like the Black character who had the biggest chance at a proper story that doesn’t end in tragedy.

Another TV show that I had watched a little, but stopped watching somewhere in season 2 or 3, is The Vampire Diaries. And again, to my utter shame (but also a little bit the showrunners’ fault), I had almost forgotten that there even was a Black character in that series. Bonnie Bennet, Elena’s best friend, is a witch of great powers but she clearly never got to be the focus of the show. Sure, the love triangle and the teen angst are what it’s all about, but this chapter examines that Bonnie gets the short end of the stick, no matter what. The show, after all, gives other side characters interesting story lines, their own love interests and teen drama, but Bonnie always remains on the sidelines and isn’t ever presented as a desirable young woman the way her white peers are. I don’t intend to ever continue watching this series but reading about how Bonnie’s characters was treated – especially when compared to her book counterpart who was a red-haired Irish girl – I want to watch it even less.

If you’re like me, you’ll be most interested in what this book has to say about the (lack of) Black characters in Harry Potter. Sadly, this was the weakest chapter for me. It mentiones Angelina Johnson a little bit, but it is mostly concerned with the fandom surrounding Harry Potter in general, not specifically dealing with Black characters. Thomas describes her early days as a fanfiction writer and the reaction to her using another author’s words in her own fiction. She also talks a little about her private life and her niece – all of which was interesting and nice to read about but it didn’t really have anything to do with Harry Potter.
The amazing depth that is used to look at the three other fandoms is just gone at this point. Of course, one reason is that Angelina Johnson just isn’t a very prominent character in the books but neither is Rue when you look at the entirety of the Hunger Games trilogy, and Thomas had penty to say about her. So the part of this book I had been most looking forward to was the most disappointing in the end. Then again, if you want to truly examine race in Harry Potter, I guess you’d need a whole book and wouldn’t fit everything in a single chapter anyway.

If you plan on picking up this book – which I highly recommend – be warned that every single book and TV show is spoiled! So either read/watch these things before you pick this up or do it like me. Check to see if you’re interested in these four fandoms and if you’re not, then go ahead and enjoy the spoilers. 🙂

Although the Harry Potter part of this turned out to be weaker than I had hoped, this was still an amazing book. It taught me to look at Black characters from a different perspective, to examine their story lines more closely and see how they are treated on TV. Because as nice as it is to have representation, to see Black characters in interesting roles, if those characters exist simply to sacrifice themselves for the white hero, or to further a white character’s plot line, then there is a lot of room for improvement!
I also appreciated the many, many recommendations for good examples of Black characters. Thomas mostly recommends authors rather then specific works but she recommends so many of them that there sure is to be something for every taste.
This is an important work that pushed me to look at myself more closely, to look at Black characters on TV, in movies, and in books from a new perspective, and that made me want to dive into the topic more deeply. I certainly hope to find more books like this and I’d love to see one about LGBTQIA+ characters in SFF fandom.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good
(Rating this feels very weird because it’s non-fiction. So I’m going mostly by whether my hopes and expectations were met and how readable the book was.)

Nnedi Okorafor – Broken Places & Outer Spaces

I have read many of Nnedi Okorafor’s books and loved most of them, so there was no question that I’d read her non-fiction book about how she came to be who she is today. Prior to this, I had no idea she had suffered paralysis at a young age and that it was at least partially responsible for her becoming a science fiction writer.

Finding Creativity in the Unexpected

by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Simon and Schuster/TED, 2019
Ebook: 112 pages
My rating: 8/10

First line: The beach was just the way I loved it: empty, its waters comfortable and clear, a few sand crabs dashing around.

A powerful journey from star athlete to sudden paralysis to creative awakening, award-winning science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor shows that what we think are our limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths.
Nnedi Okorafor was never supposed to be paralyzed. A college track star and budding entomologist, Nnedi’s lifelong battle with scoliosis was just a bump in her plan—something a simple operation would easily correct. But when Nnedi wakes from the surgery to find she can’t move her legs, her entire sense of self begins to waver. Confined to a hospital bed for months, unusual things begin to happen. Psychedelic bugs crawl her hospital walls; strange dreams visit her nightly. Nnedi begins to put these experiences into writing, conjuring up strange, fantastical stories. What Nnedi discovers during her confinement would prove to be the key to her life as a successful science fiction author: In science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks.
In Broken Places & Outer Spaces, Nnedi takes the reader on a journey from her hospital bed deep into her memories, from her painful first experiences with racism as a child in Chicago to her powerful visits to her parents’ hometown in Nigeria. From Frida Kahlo to Mary Shelly, she examines great artists and writers who have pushed through their limitations, using hardship to fuel their work. Through these compelling stories and her own, Nnedi reveals a universal truth: What we perceive as limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths—far greater than when we were unbroken.
A guidebook for anyone eager to understand how their limitations might actually be used as a creative springboard, Broken Places & Outer Spaces is an inspiring look at how to open up new windows in your mind.

When I started reading this book, I felt almost embarrassed at how little I knew about an author whose work I love so much. All I’d  known about Nnedi Okorafor was that she’s from Nigeria and writes fantastic books. This memoir gives a great insight into how she became the writer of such briliant books as Who Fears Death, the Binti  Trilogy or Akata Witch.

Nnedi tells of her childhood as a star athlete with a multitude of sporty career options. She also had a curved spine which – doctors told her – could be fixed easily in an operation with only 1% chance of paralysis. So teenaged Nnedi undergoes that operation because it will spare her many years of physical problems in the future. As you may have guessed, Nnedi’s operation is that one percent and she wakes up from anesthesia and can’t move her legs. What follows is one of the most impressive tales I have ever read. Naturally, while reading, I put myself in Nnedi’s position and although I don’t know how I would react in her situation, all I could think of was utter despair. And I’m not even an athlete the way she was. I don’t think any able-bodied person can imagine what it’s like to have your world, your goals, your future plans shattered like that. But instead of falling into despair, Nnedi did something amazing. She started writing!

But this book is about much more than Nnedi’s paralysis. It tells of a childhood and adolescence in a loving family but in racist surroundings. It also shows Nnedi’s unbreakable spirit in the little stories of other people whose “brokenness” has helped them grow beyond what they could have imagined. Whether it’s Mary Shelley’s possible miscarriage and her creation of the first ever science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or Beatrix Kiddo’s tragic story in Kill Bill – these were interesting bits of information that teach you that life doesn’t have to end when bad things happen. These things can even be opportuinities.

There are also many tidbits in here that readers of Okorafor’s fiction will recognize. Whether it’s medication-induced hallucinations of giant bugs, the concept of “treeing”, or the masquerades – all of these things made it into the science fiction books I’ve read and loved. It felt like an Easter Egg hunt that let me say “Oh, so that’s when she thought of that.” every few pages. It also gives her novels some context and makes them even more meaningful than they already were. For example, it made me see Sunny’s albinism and her inability to play football  during the day (because of the sun) in a different light. Not being able to pursue your hobby because your body won’t let you is something that Nnedi experienced first-hand. So although she doesn’t outright say so in this book, I believe this may have played a part in her creation of Sunny and Sunny’s own disability that actually turns out to be a strength in Akata Witch.

Nnedi does eventually regain the use of her legs, but not like before. I learned about proprioception, which is the ability of our brains to know where our legs are, even when we can’t see them. If that sense is out of whack, walking becomes something you have to concentrate on, rather than just doing it instinctively, without looking. I hadn’t even thought about the implications of that – think about driving a car when you can’t feel the brake pedal under your foot! Or walking in darkness. So this book opened my eyes in more than one way. It taught me about conditions I had never heard of before and although I don’t know anyone who is or used to be paralysed, I hope this new information helps me understand them better.

The thing about this book that stuck with me the most was definitely the hopeful tone. Again, I believe every single person deals with these things differently, and I can only go by how I think I’d react. And although I’d like to think of myself as brave, I don’t think I would have Nnedi’s strength. It made me appreciate her as more than an author. I may not know her personally, but if I ever get the chance to meet her, I would love to shake her hand and tell her how damn impressive I think she is. Not just because she didn’t let her paralysis take her down but because she took this incident and turned it around, she made something amazing of it, she used it to fuel her creativity and wrote stories that touch people all over the world.

If there is anything about this book that wasn’t perfect, it’s probably its lack of length. It gives you the basic story of how Nnedi turns “brokenness” into something powerful, but I’m sure a lot of details were left out. The book is no less powerful for that  but I honestly would have liked to read more of it. More stories of Nnedi standing up to teenage bullies, more about her siblings and parents, more information about how she started writing and what inspired her. But that’s just my subjective wishes. This book, the way it is, is amazing and I recommend it to everyone, whether you already know and love Nnedi’s fiction or whether she’s an author you’ve never read.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords –  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  –  Excellent