Dark academia is an endlessly fascinating and complex genre, but it has often been dominated by the experiences of cis, straight, white individuals. In recent years, authors are challenging this and the very academic institutions underpinning the stories through an exploration of their inherent privilege and institutional racism. The increased diversity and representation is exemplified in the following four examples.
How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao is a brilliant addition to the genre, with a tantalising mystery, three-dimensional and developed characters and riveting twists and turns. Zhao features representation of POC, the LGBTQ+ community and discussion around mental health. Dark academia as a genre holds so much potential, but as Zhao exhibits, writers should be encouraged to challenge and question cornerstones of the genre. If only certain experiences are highlighted, that means other experiences are being marginalised and erased from the narrative.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé features such well-executed social and political commentary, which really drove home the horrific nature of this institutional racism. I can only describe this book as being absolutely brilliant. It features such amazing, jaw-dropping twists that genuinely catch you by surprise. The tone, pacing and plotting is all spot on. Combined, this makes for a compelling read that dares you to try and put it down. This is the type of book that keeps you glued to its pages well past the murky depths of night and into the sunrise. It is practically perfect in every way.
A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee is permeated by this dark, witchy and brooding atmosphere that seeped through the pages and captivated my mind. I loved the focus on literary influences and the unrelenting pursuit of success at any cost. This is the beating heart of the dark academia convention, with the rotting sense of corruption and evil at the centre of these institutions. It’s a testament to the unrelenting academic rivalry and competition fostered by these driven, claustrophobic settings. This is a rivalry that burns bright, but also has embers of mutual respect and something more. It is an intense, forceful and cutting deep-dive into one twisted, symbiotic relationship between two people forced to the boundaries of society.
Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines is a labyrinthine tale in every way, slowly unfolding horror after horror with a sense of creeping dread and inevitability invading every page. It really draws upon the dark academia and gothic traditions in all the best ways: it is the kind of book you’ll spend forever picking apart. I was impressed at just how brilliantly and unapologetically queer the book is. Considering how the genre has always broken expectations, it is amazing to see how far we’ve come. Danforth does not make it easy for you, with a complex web of characters and story-lines that slowly connect. Do not go in expecting any easy answers. Danforth wades deftly into the murky waters of ambiguity, leaving certain events and themes open for interpretation.
Dark academia is a genre that provides endlessly fascinating material, but it is also one that has traditionally rested on a legacy of colonialism, racism and privilege. The increasing diversity and representation in these examples act as much-needed wakeup calls within the genre: a genre that, with its emphasis on rupture and decay, is most suitable for doing so.
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