Fansplaining: The Dark Fantastic

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Title: Fansplaining: The Dark Fantastic
Created by: Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel
Date(s): October 21, 2015
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Fansplaining: The Dark Fantastic is a podcast by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel.

The interviewee is Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.

For others in the series, see Fansplaining.



It’s Fansplaining Episode 7, “The Dark Fantastic”! In this episode, we interview Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, faculty at the Penn Graduate School of Education (and longtime fangirl). Topics covered include Anne of Green Gables, suspension of disbelief, RaceFail, and the catharsis of Gossip Girl fanfiction. We also discuss Rainbow Rowell’s CARRY ON and Stephenie Meyer’s LIFE AND DEATH.

[Flourish Klink]: "...we go back to when I was but a wee beastie, back to 2001 when we were in the same corner of the Harry Potter fandom. And since then we’ve both done some other things—Ebony wrote some great fic back then, she’s I guess also been writing a bunch of fic in different fandoms since—but mostly she’s been studying literacy and teaching."

[Elizabeth Minkel]: "And I think a lot of her focus is about race and racial diversity and the way that is reflected or not reflected in YA in particular."

Topics Discussed

  • the book Fangirl and the book Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
  • can you write fanfiction for your own books?
  • Stephenie Meyer's new book, a rewriting of the first Twilight book with the genders of the protagonists reversed
  • Harry Potter
  • secondary worlds in fiction
  • Ebony Elizabeth Thomas' book The Dark Fantastic
  • Ebony Elizabeth Thomas' belief that things have gotten worse for diverse voices and diversity in fandom: technology has made visibility higher
  • mention of MsScribe
  • RaceFail


[Ebony Elizabeth Thomas]:
So currently I’m working on a book that I’m sure you’ll ask me about later, The Dark Fantastic, where I’m really trying to glom all this stuff together in a theory. And in the final body chapter, I’m really trying to think about and theorize what happens when people who obsess about narrative—a narrative or a secondary world, a storyworld—what happens when they enter the waking dream of the imagination? And I’m a little obsessed with it, because in literary theory a lot of this goes back to studies in the phenomenology of reading, which were done by psychologists in the 70s and 80s. After that work, we sort of moved into reader response theory and then sociocultural theories. And so I’m trying to argue that there’s something about the phenomenology of reading—that means how the reader perceives and is in the world, how the reading shapes consciousness—that we need to understand better in order to understand what happens in a fan’s psychology. Not saying we’re trying to analyze or dissect the fannish experience, but as a scholar and as an aca-fan, I wanted to understand my experience! Because there’s something about me that naturally now fangirls a text, where I not only want the linear narrative, I want the narrative in 3-D or 4-D.
So I think that that’s how I glom onto fandoms. Usually there’s something going on in my life so that I can work on that as a fangirl and because my creative writing is not professional, after trying to publish fantastic multicultural fantasy and that didn’t quite work, I was a little ahead of the current wave, I have really used fanfiction to fix not only what I think is incorrect about the author’s narrative but to sort of fix my life, as Iyanla Vanzant would say on the OWN network.
The book is really not going to be looking at what authors of color do with speculative fiction. I think that’s what people believe the book will be. It is not. I wanted to do some theory-building of fantasy, but when race is a factor. From what I understand, I’m the first to do that. Again, I’m not the first to actually build a taxonomy of Black comics, or multicultural fantasy, or to comment on a little bit, a little corner of that world. I wanted to build a meta-theory of the fantastic. So what I did was I tried to read all of fantasy theory, or the major fantasy theorists. So Farah Mendlesohn is huge, she wrote Rhetorics of Fantasy a couple of decades ago; Brian Atterbury and others. I wanted to know what would happen if you threw in a visibly raced character into the narrative, particularly a Black character. Something different happens when you throw in an Asian character, then you get into Said’s idea of Orientalism—certainly happening on Game of Thrones! But with a Black character, something happens. And so I said “I think it interrupts the cycles that Tolkien, Todorov, Atterbury, Mendlesohn, everyone has mentioned.” I just think that readers can’t suspend their disbelief. So there’s three body chapters in the book, as cases: Bonnie Bennett from the Vampire Diaries is a case, she was White in the novels, she was cast as Black in the television series and viewers have reacted accordingly. So in each chapter I look at the print narratives, so the traditional book; I look at the adaptation, so looking at what happens when the character’s transmediated; and then I look at fan and media reaction to that character. So there’s three parts to each of the stories. The other two characters are Rue from The Hunger Games—and I previewed that chapter a bit in a blog post that went viral titled “Why Is Rue A Little Black Girl?” because we all know and remember that Hunger Games fandom went crazy when they saw Amandla Stendberg in the initial trailers for the first Hunger Games movie, which is ridiculous because she’s Black in the books, but people missed the cues.
Well, we could get into discussions of white privilege, because it is a privilege, just like I have straight privilege, right? Like, I don’t have to think about my heterosexuality so I would, we think about colorblindness as sort of, in education studies we think of it as a harmful concept. Not saying that you’re doing anything wrong by thinking of yourself as color blind; like Toni Morrison talks about not noticing race as being sort of this liberal generous gesture when race really does always matter in an exchange. So I do think it was a more innocent time and space. I think people were bringing their good manners from offline, online. I feel as if today some of the controversies we had in Potter fandom from 2002 to 2006 and beyond, I think that they’re tame compared to controversies of today. Even looking back at RaceFail and at the time I was sort of on the sidelines, I was taking a break from being active out there so I didn’t actively participate but all my fan friends told me what was going on—I even think RaceFail was a time that was more genteel than what’s going on today in fandoms.
Yeah, about racism in fantasy and science fiction. And there are two views on what happened. So the first view is that it was the first time that fans of color across all these different fandoms, people were more scattered and you were talking more with just your fandom and not talking with fans of color across the fandom multiverse, right? Sort of before then. At least that’s how life was from the late 90s until the mid 00s, you were really talking, you know, I wouldn’t have any reason to talk to a Buffy Black fan, because I would’ve never run into them, there was no Tumblr where you’re seeing different people’s fandoms etc. But then there were white fans who believed that Elizabeth Bear, who was the author who was sort of piled on, or people feel she was piled on, was being attacked by the people of color who were protesting or fans of color and their white allies. And I feel as if it was a template for how discussions on race have happened in the six years since. I feel as if we just had a big controversy in the young adult literature world with Meg Rosoff who said, yeah, I won’t get into that…
And it’s actually become amplified with the social media turn, because I feel like Elizabeth Bear and Racefail was the very first fandom multiverse digital conversation about that, which is why it’s significant, but ever since then it’s almost like a weekly or daily cycle where we’re able to capture or amplify what people are saying, so we see this deconstruction of racism, sexism… Really racism and sexism, and to a lesser extent homophobia and the fandom multiverse. And I really think that massive social media platforms are really facilitating that, because bad behavior or a misstatement in one fandom you wouldn’t know about that in 2002 because we were siloed. With LiveJournal you followed who you followed, but now everybody’s on Twitter, everybody’s on Tumblr, and information is moving much more rapidly. Also, the Millennials don’t give a f—I mean, they’re just different than Generation X was.