Wednesday 22 May 2019

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

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger GamesThe Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Dark Fantastic is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in how race affects the character development of people of colour in fantasy, as well as their reception by readers/viewers regardless of race.

Thomas analyses Black characters in four fantasy narratives (books & shows) [Rue in The Hunger Games; Gwen in BBC's Merlin; Bonnie Bennett in The Vampire Diaries; Hermione & Angelina Johnson in Harry Potter] and unpacks the impact of these depictions in society. I have to admit I don't watch much TV, so I have no background/context to the discussions around Gwen and Bonnie, both of which were apparently race-bent for the shows (my knowledge of Arthurian legend is mainly from Disney's The Sword in the Stone, neither have I read the books Vampire Diaries is based on). I have read both The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, so there at least I have some basis of comparison/actual knowledge of what's being discussed.

"Your imagination is more controlled by the dominant social formation than you're probably willing to admit."

One of the problems with publishing English books centering non-white narratives, or even featuring non-white characters, is the usual complaint that "readers can't connect with them". These readers are not just white readers, but sometimes also people of colour themselves. Representation (now and then) is often problematic, even when it exists. The Dark Other has historically been the thing to be feared, the evil that lurks, and the villain that must be defeated--or is just there to serve the storyline and the White Saviour--and even when we try to step out of that mode, to break the cycle of spectacle/hesitation/violence/haunting, we often fall into it again and rarely ever reach true emancipation. It's too easy to fall into trope, it's too easy to fall into the familiar and Thomas puts it thus:
"subverting the traditional positioning of the Dark Other in the fantastic requires radical rethinking of everything we know. It is why, I suspect, when characters of colour appear in atypical roles, they are often challenged, disliked, and rejected.

Thomas also discusses how fans of colour are starting to take back the narrative through alternative means, whether through racebending, shipping, creating alternate universes, etc via fanart, fanfiction, fan videos, or essays and how these collective efforts help fill the gaps where traditional publishing and mainstream media are still struggling.

I will also have to note that coming from a multicultural background, with various media featuring people of colour as the heroes in their own stories, I don't have such a strong disconnect as those from USA or UK, where such media is either hard to get or inaccessible due to language. Still, I've got a lot to think about in terms of how ideas about race in fantasy works and how it will play out ultimately in my own work.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from New York University Press via Edelweiss. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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