S is for Suleikha Snyder

{Content note: the following post contains very brief discussion of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.

Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

One of the biggest themes of this series is the idea of people being trapped by stories — we saw how Jade Yeo refused to yield to the colonial narratives that threatened her autonomy, and how the Navajo were destroyed by the lies and omissions of American authorities. Suleikha Snyder’s Bollywood-set novella Bollywood and the Beast is a further addition to this list. Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has already done a complete breakdown of the feminist elements of the novella’s plot, which covers just about every point I jotted down during my reading, so I’m free to go in a more metaphysical direction as I discuss the ways in which characters in this book struggle against the narratives that entangle them or mask their true selves. Because the film world of Bollywood is, like its Western counterpart, a tailor-made metaphor for exploring the points where image and reality differ, where appearance and substance are at odds. And I’m going to break with the analytic essay format and use bullet points! I like bullet points. This may partly be the Theraflu talking. My brain is going in tiny swirls and circles and I cannot seem to make it do anything in a cohesive line.

Cover image for Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast. A background of lush red brocade pillows. A tan-skinned, dark-haired woman with closed eyes has one arm wrapped around a brown-skinned man in a half-on, half-off white shirt. He is facing away from the viewer, and she is pressing her lips to his shoulder.

  • Taj Ali Khan

The main story tangling around Taj is Beauty and the Beast and he knows it. He positively relishes his role, sitting around in dramatic half-lighting and using a wheelchair as a prop more than a mobility aid. (Which our heroine rightly chastises him for.) He takes a visceral pleasure in monstrosity and heroine Rocky immediately calls him on it; it becomes a running conversation between the two of them as their relationship progresses. The scars from a long-ago car accident and fire destroyed Taj’s career as an action star and filmi hero; since then, he’s stayed locked away from the outside world, growing roses in the garden and watching his old films alone in the dark: “he’d built himself a perfect cage of stone and soil and celluloid” (Kindle location 75). Appearances are currency in this Bollywood world: since Taj cannot trade on his anymore, he chooses to have no appearance, to retreat from the world entirely and go unseen by anyone for ten long, dark years. To surround himself with flickering, intangible images, like a Bollywood Norma Desmond. Jackie Horne rightly pointed out that the novel’s end requires Taj not to fulfill the original fairy tale’s narrative arc, but to rebel against it — to go out in public is not only to refute the Beast’s domestication of Beauty, but also to reassert the existence of his own face. I honestly tried to find a more elegant way of putting that — damn you, Theraflu — but there really is a nearly mystical sense to Taj’s seclusion and then emergence: to the outside world, it really is as though he has recreated his own features from nothing. Taj is really very compellingly sharp and epic in scope: it’s hard for me to be convinced that a hero is large these days because all heroes are written to be large — but with Taj, it was very easy to believe that this one man could fill not just the room, but an entire crumbling mansion.

  • Rakhee/Rocky Varma

Rocky is the Beauty in our story, but this is by no means the only fairy tale she inhabits. There’s a scene at the beginning where she imagines a trio of catty Bollywood starlets as predatory birds — as RNFF put it there’s a whiff of misogyny here, but I liked the slight unreality of the imagery. I also liked where it wound up: “[Her mother said,] ‘This is no fairy tale.’ Maybe not the Disney kind. But the dark, gory, original kind with all sorts of ironic lessons …? Rocky stared at the blood-red heel of one fallen shoe and shuddered” (53). And I clapped gleefully, remembering the vicious birds and the lopped-off heels and the bloody shoes of the original Cinderella story. Cinderella’s arc, like Beauty’s, finds its closure in a castle with a Prince — but Cinderella’s arc is also about escaping the house, about class boundaries and artifice and whether or not you’re the same person when you’re dressed up as when you’re in your workday wear. An entirely appropriate fairy tale for an actress, whose job description is to put on masks and take them off as needed. It’s an open question whether this Cinderella promise is fulfilled in the novella; the ending is a trifle too ambiguous on the practicals. (I think Taj should become a director!)

And also, there’s our heroine’s nickname. “Rocky” is an American error: “The first time someone had mispronounced her real name, Rakhee, it had turned into a nickname she embraced wholeheartedly” (92). But by adapting to the American syllables she’s made herself in a way unfit for Mumbai. In Bollywood the nickname becomes another reminder of her American-ness, associating her with a Western film about a lower-class male fighter whose voice is distinctively low and slurred; this is the opposite of the high, refined treble tone and fluid tongue expected of heroines in Hindi-language films. Like her namesake, Rocky goes through intensive training and works constantly to live up to the industry’s expectations: diction coaching, Hindi language courses, script memorization. (And now, yes, I’m imagining all this happening in a montage set to “Eye of the Tiger,” or better yet this catchy Bhangra remix.) The reason why Rocky comes to stay in Taj’s house while filming is that her fellow actors and industry people are miffed because she dropped the polite, perfect heroine’s mask and spoke too candidly in an interview about Bollywood’s hypocrisy and bigoted underbelly: she pulled the mask off, just for a moment — but nobody likes a spoilsport. So she is sent to the haveli, where she pulls off more masks. Taj’s, of course — but also his younger brother’s.

  • Ashraf Khan

The gap between appearance and the substance beneath is most poignantly illustrated with Ashraf, or more familiarly Ashu. Like Rocky, he has two names: one formal and public, the other a private diminutive, familial and intimate. Ashraf Khan the actor is attempting to fill the void left by his brother’s departure from the industry. There’s a lot about this dynamic that I may be missing, since I haven’t (yet) read the earlier book in the series, but Ashraf’s bitterness and terror are palpable enough. He is acutely, achingly conscious of the many ways he fails to be as big a star or as powerful a presence as his elder brother; this consciousness becomes more and more a figure he uses against himself, to erase his own talents, desires, and even his existence:

He had never been one to hallucinate. Not until his brother’s phantom taunting had taken root in his brain and Nina’s oily threats had begun spreading like a slick down his spine. Now, those voices were almost deafening. With him always. And they all said the same thing: You are worthless, Ashu. You are terrible. You are filthy and dirty and godless. No one will ever love you. (1030)

Bollywood’s conservative cultural standards place great burdens on their stars: no nudity, no kissing, no alcohol — at least not where anyone can see you. It’s a world of polite fictions and open secrets, of making sure you always smile for the cameras no matter how much you are hurting inside. Ashu’s growing despair is typical for those who feel out of step with systems that privilege silence as a means of maintaining a pristine, false image of wholesomeness. His traumas are significant and impossible to speak about: he was sexually abused at a young age by an older woman in exchange for career advancement (an advancement that has tragically failed to materialize, which is also a source of trauma); he posed for nude photos for her, which she later uses to attempt to blackmail him and which could end his career completely; eventually it is revealed that Ashu is also gay, an orientation still highly marginalized and recently re-criminalized in India. The constant effort it takes to bridge the void between how Ashu feels and how he knows he should feel drain him both physically and emotionally — eventually he is interrupted in an attempt to throw himself from the roof of the haveli. His brother, his co-star, and his caretaker Kamal have to talk him down. It’s a moment as intensely, perfectly melodramatic as anything in a classic Bollywood tearjerker (personal gold standard for tearjerkers, and not just Bollywood ones: Kal Ho Naa Ho). At the same time, it’s also a desperate gesture toward nothingness: Ashu has been straining against the void for so long that eventually he concludes it would be easier just to throw himself in. He is only able to begin recovery with the (unexpected) love of Kamal.

  • Kamal

The most opaque character, especially to a Western-culture influenced reader: I find it very hard to separate Kamal from the stereotype of the Magical Asian, or from other South Asian/Indian caricatures (hello and goodbye forever, Punjab). The other characters appear to be at least as puzzled as I am — they refer to him at times as a ghost, a dead man, as cursed, a resident of the Hotel California, and so on. He is, as animated Kirk might say, the least scrutable man ever, a doctor who has somehow become a domestic nurse of sorts but who only follows his own orders, the bearer of an unrequited passion that finds only the tiniest gestures of expression until suddenly it bursts forth to give his beloved a new reason to live. Kamal has virtually no surface, no expression — his smiles are rarer than diamonds, his mask welded on and impenetrable. He is entirely substance: even when he becomes more human toward the end of the book, he is still something a little bit apart, too much himself to really fit into anyone else’s narrative — not the fairy tales, and not Ashraf’s burgeoning love for him. I freely admit that Kamal is a piece of this puzzle I have not yet figured out. Is there some key that I am missing? Or is he simply inexplicable? And why, if I do not know who he is or what he means, do I feel so much for him?

I have dabbled slightly in the films of Shahrukh Khan, so I am not entirely ignorant of Bollywood culture, but I wish I knew more about the politics and the industry to comment further, particularly on the dialect issues, which strike me as emblematic of a lot of fractures in current Indian politics and culture. I’ve included a few links to this effect in the extras — just because I don’t know what to say doesn’t mean there aren’t other smart people who are more expert and on top of this.

And finally this, because I could not resist, is “Dhoom Taana,” a song from 2007 film Om Shanti Om, in which Bollywood reimagines its own history. If you ever have a chance to see this in theaters, I highly recommend doing so. There’s an essay waiting to be written about Om Shanti Om and Singing in the Rain and a medium retconning its own past via musical spectacle for an audience in the know, but that Theraflu is really kicking in now and I feel a nap coming on.

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On Twitter recently, Suleikha Snyder tweeted a link to this piece about Bollywood’s mishandling of mental illness. The Guardian also recently discussed sex and censorship and Bollywood, and Priyanka Srivastava in the Daily Mail talked about Bollywood’s use of ethnic stereotypes for comedy.

Recent legislation in India has recriminalized gay sex but also given legal recognition to transgender people – which goes to prove that barometers of improvement in social justice vary from culture to culture. There is no Great Historical Narrative of Universal Progress: there is only the work that must be done in every culture to undo oppression and inequality.

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Snyder, Suleikha. Bollywood and the Beast. Samhain Publishing: February 11, 2014. Ebook.

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R is for Robin Hood

{For the full alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.}

Carrie Lofty’s What a Scoundrel Wants is a Robin Hood romance. Yes, technically the hero is Will Scarlet, Robin’s nephew (in this version of the mythology) rather than Robin himself — but we spend a lot of time in the woods, Scarlet’s a dab hand with a bow, he’s angsty because of his impossible youthful crush on Maid Marian (now Robin’s wife), the villain is the new Sheriff of Nottingham … You get the idea.

Cover image for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. Forest background. A shirtless man with tan skin and folded arms faces us, slightly to the left, visible only from his chin to his incongruous belt buckle.If people know one thing about Robin Hood, it’s this: He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Socialism, or at least a sense of wealth redistribution as a social good, is baked right in to the legend. But we don’t see a great deal of that in Lofty’s text. We’ve got a few peasants in Nottingham, some more in a smaller village, and a gaggle of refugees in the woods, but aside from a general sense of sucks to be poor there’s not a lot of social dynamics or even description of what the general public is supposedly suffering from.  In some ways this fits with Will Scarlet’s more ambiguous morality — but even when Robin himself shows up to help with the big battle scene at the end, the focus remains on a handful of larger-than-life heroes rather than the dismantling of an oppressive social system.

In fact, collective action in What a Scoundrel Wants is almost universally bad. The first scene  of the book involves Will being framed for the murder of a nobleman, purely because he was the only one of the guards not in on the conspiracy. Then a group of forest refugees try to hang him — it’s technically on the orders of their douchebag leader, our heroine Meg’s ex-lover, but it’s presented very much as the will of an angry mob. A second, much angrier mob later attempts to burn Meg as a witch — an epithet Meg is used to, since this amorphous mass of peasants has often persecuted her on account of her blindness and her mysterious alchemical talents. The reunion of Robin’s band at the end of the book seems to promise a positive scene of group unity, but then his men turn cowardly in the face of the Greek fire Meg has made for them to use in storming the villain’s castle, and only Robin’s personal bravery and charismatic leadership keep them from breaking ranks and running away.

Essentially, every group in this text is an amoeba. Heroes and villains stand out and can exert their will upon the group. The text’s world is divided between these two types of characters: leads, who have agency, and extras, who don’t.

It is in this context that we must evaluate our heroine Meg’s blindness.

(Side note: The Dear Author review from 2008 manages to get through 800 words without once mentioning the heroine’s disability. I suppose they did this to avoid spoilers, but it feels like an erasure, especially when slightly euphemistic language comes into play: “Meg has enough of her own troubles.” Translation: We shouldn’t talk about blindness: it’s not polite.)

First of all, Meg is a fantastic heroine of a very unusual type. She’s prickly, mendacious, and constantly horny. She gives fewer fucks than just about any other romance heroine I’ve seen, and I love her even more on this re-read than I did on my first time through. As a blind heroine, too, she avoids the most common pitfalls of disability in romance: she’s not a Magical Cripple or a litmus test for the moral purity of other characters. She’s accepted her disability to the extent that she has learned to cope with it in her daily life, but she is far from happy when it leaves her vulnerable or disadvantaged, and she’s not above using it as a verbal dagger to win points when she has to. The text allows her to be difficult and human, and that’s  worth celebrating.

However, Meg’s blindness exists in the text’s world of negative collective action. Her disability isolates her and forces her to depend on others for basic needs (food, shelter, translating ancient alchemy texts, not being stabbed with swords). She has worked hard to find ways around certain aspects of this dependence — keeping the inside of her cabin strictly organized so she can find her alchemy supplies, for example — and this is presented as heroic and admirable. But because she is a lead and not an extra, this dependence on others is presented as a problem in ways that seem ridiculous outside the plot context.

Such as when the hero drags her from her sickbed (literally, not figuratively) and ditches her in the woods. Because if she’s truly strong, she’ll make it back to the castle.

At this point in the narrative, Meg has been severely burned. On her hands, which are her primary tools for navigating a world. She has not regained feeling in her extremities since the injury, the skin is blistered and tender, and her hands are wrapped in thick linen bandages. This is not the first time Meg has been injured in the course of the book — the text beats up on every character at some point — but this is definitely a pivotal trauma. To make things worse, she’s being tended at Loxley Manor by Marian, who she knows Will had deep tortured pants-feelings for. So she turns quiet, and emotionally distant, and worries that her hands will be as useless to her now as her eyes have become.

Whereupon Will Scarlet hauls her into the woods with this justification: “If you’re strong enough to be my partner, come find me” (289).

She does, of course, because Meg is a heroine and a Lead With Agency. Tearing off her bandages, fueled by anger, using the moss on the north side of trees to orient herself (which: nope), she struggles back to Loxley Manor. Her hands are bleeding, her scabs open and painful. Naturally, she and Will fall instantly into bed, happy together at last: “He had hoped and gambled, and she rediscovered her strength in the forest, conquering the melancholy that hindered her recovery” (305).

Call me cynical, but it seems like groping through a forest with open wounds would hinder her recovery a lot more than a sulky attitude. It’s the year 1199 and not only do we not have antibiotics yet, but we’re not all that clear about bacteria or hand-washing, either.

But none of this is as important to the story as making sure that we demonstrate Meg’s heroism by showing that she can rise above the limitations of her disability. Because to do otherwise requires her to depend on the kindness of extras — of that amorphous, amoral mass of humanity that has no will of its own or sense of personhood.

If you’ve read much in the way of disability studies — and I am by no means an expert — you might have encountered two models of disability: the medical model (or individual model), and the social model. Lisa Egan at xoJane explains:

Someone with a medical/individual perspective would state that I am prevented from getting around my city because I’m a person with a disability and it’s tough luck that the Tube is so inaccessible. If I want to use the Tube then I’m just gonna have to find a new skeleton from somewhere.

The way I see it is that I’ve been disabled when it comes to travelling around my city by the architects that installed stairs and escalators instead of ramps and lifts at the majority of Underground stations. Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility.

The world of What a Scoundrel Wants very clearly adheres to the medical/individual model, not only because of its emphasis on Meg’s personal strength, but also because it removes any agency from the extras who make up this world. Notice in Egan’s description how the social model foregrounds the actions of non-disabled people in making the Tube inaccessible: the architects have chosen to use stairs and escalators instead of ramps, and that choice impacts Egan’s ability to travel through the city.

The emphasis on personal resilience somewhat undermines Meg’s strong portrayal, in my opinion: if only individual determination and heroism can make a disabled life manageable, if there is no room for a discussion of how society’s choices impact a disabled person’s ability, then there is no way forward. Indeed, at the end of the book, we’re left with no hint as to what Meg and Will are going to do next — where they will live, how they will earn their living, how they will afford to continue Meg’s alchemical experiments (all issues previously discussed in the text). The background lack of agency in Lofty’s world reaches up at the end to swallow even our hero and heroine.

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It’s a new blog to me, but the website Blind Spot run by UK researcher and lecturer Hannah Thompson has some excellent analysis of literature and media relating to blindness — for instance, the Lego Movie.

For other books featuring disabled characters, check out this Dear Author thread and the always incisive Love in the Margins.

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Lofty, Carrie. What a Scoundrel Wants. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008. Print.

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Q is for Queer Vampires

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism and romance.}

There’s really no point in my rehashing how vampires have been associated with sexuality (especially forms of sexuality coded as deviant) since long before Bram Stoker. Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, and Charlaine Harris did not invent the metaphor: they simply developed the nuances of the theme in different ways, and Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters is part of this tradition. (Side note: I love a book that does what it says on the tin.) No surprise then that this book also dabbles with many of the ancillary themes of the vampire-sex association: belonging, bodily autonomy and consent, sexual identity, and predation.

Cover image for Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red. Black background with a red swirl on the left-hand spine. One pale-skinned woman with long red hair sits on a bed far away with her nude back to us; she has her head turned slightly as if about to look over her shoulder. Closer to the viewer, a pale-skinned woman with short dark hair, who is also nude, stands facing away from us, looking at the redhead.It all starts when our heroine Ginger meets the girls of the ABO sorority (I see what you did there!). She connects with one of them at once, a black girl with “a beautiful, full afro” (Kindle location 148):

“Ginger?” Cleo asked, taking in my long red hair. “I thought my parents were cruel. Tsk, tsk, naming a ginger kid ‘Ginger?’”

“Yeah, it could be worse,” I said with a shrug. “At least it doesn’t rhyme with anything.”

“True. It could be worse. My last name is Jones.” I couldn’t say what sucked more, a name tag mocking your hair and your God-given beauty marks or being named after a blaxploitation character. (166)

Cleo becomes a lodestar and a mirror for Ginger over the course of the plot: both girls are humans living among vampires, they’re both gay but unsure about coming out to their families, they’re both certain they don’t want to be turned. Cleo is a locus of comfort and safety in Ginger’s new vampire-oriented lifestyle — a comfort she desperately needs, since even through her overwhelming attraction to vampire queen Camila, Ginger is starkly aware that she is at an enormous physical and sexual disadvantage. Camila is gorgeous, Camila is experienced and dominating in bed, and Camila is deadly: “Were amazingly good looks reason enough to trust your blood lusting captor?” (754). It’s a question many women and girls will find familiar. Rich, beautiful, great in bed, a little frightening — Camila is the standard alpha romance fantasy, complete with tragic backstory, emotional distance, and a few too many abusive red flags for my personal comfort.

Ginger’s phrase ‘blood lusting’ is spot-on – a vampire’s bite is orgasmic for both the vampire feeding and the human feeder. We haven’t only linked sex with violence: we’ve linked sex with violence and food. Camila explains:

“Well, you eat meat, right? Imagine if you had to chase the cows. You don’t have a gun, so you have to use your fists and you can only chase those cows at night … Wouldn’t it be easier if the cow showed up at your door and let you take all you needed? … We live off what humans give us. Humans were beginning to suspect our existence. When we are starving, our kind can drain a human in a matter of minutes. That sort of feeding leaves bodies, and they began to hunt us. A few vampires realized if they could just find humans to volunteer to feed them on a regular basis, no humans would have to die and there would be no trace of a monster to hunt. Our master finally settled on this sorority as a guise and many of us have become accustomed to finding our feeders this way. It’s about convenience, comfort, and routine.” (901)

The sister-queens’ “convenience, comfort, and routine” requires that the human sorority pledges essentially restructure their entire lives around keeping vampires’ existence secret and being fed upon; it’s posited as a volunteer relationship, but it’s also cloaked by the usual rituals of sorority pledging and maintained in strictest secrecy from the wider human world. I have to wonder: does this cloaking undermine the ability of pledges to give meaningful consent to this arrangement? Especially since the sister-queens use mind control to remove the girls’ fear during the first feeding: isn’t that a little bit, well, squicky, from a consent standpoint? The reason I was willing to trust that the narrative wouldn’t just brush this under the rug was because of Ginger, who clearly sees the creepiness here and isn’t afraid to call it out, even in her own head. I can stomach a great deal more consent iffiness when it’s labeled openly as such.*

Ginger is an exception even in the vampire sorority: she has a small amount of demon blood from her birth mother, which means her blood isn’t nourishing to vampires (though Camila still bites her frequently — she likes the taste, and the orgasms). Alone among the new ABO pledges, Ginger is not food. Nor is she a feeder, and this combined with her intense romance with the Queen leaves her a little apart from the other girls.

Now that they’re bonded to the sister-queens, the new pledges have their freedoms strictly curtailed: a curfew, required escort after dark, and although the girls can date whom they want they will be ejected from the sorority if they contract an STI: “As of last night, we know you’re all clean,” Cleo says (1343), which is a hell of a thing to announce so casually in a group setting. Medical privacy rights be damned! And the reason for this rule is not to protect the vampires, who are immune to human diseases — it’s because the group feeding almost always involves group sex, “and we play together too much to give each other the clap.” Sexual orientation and personal boundaries don’t matter in the face of the vampires’ sexualized hunger, and over the course of the book we see some characters couple up while other characters sleep around — but all of them except Ginger are participants in frequent multi-partner orgies where intense orgasms are a shorthand for consent with a partner someone may or may not desire outside of the feedings. Again: a little squicky. (Though it must be admitted, these scenes are hot as hell — Ms. Weatherspoon writes an excellent sex scene.) The emphasis on secrecy and all the lesbian loving parallel the narratives of the closet, of being on the down-low, of all the times where being LGBTQA has been scorned or outlawed or forbidden and must be hidden from mainstream ‘normal’ society. While it’s become much easier in the past decades for queer people to come out in American culture, for Ms. Weatherspoon’s vampires that moment will never come. Revelation, as it appears in the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the True Blood tv show, is not an option for these sorority girls: their closet is for life.

New ABO members are given teardrop rubies they are required to wear at all times, so they might be recognized in case of emergencies: “If you get hurt, hit by a car, fall down some stairs, drink yourself half to death at Chi Nu house, you’ll be taken to a hospital that is bound to our sister-queens … If you know your turn to feed is coming up, do not drink or take any illegal substances. Our sister-queens can taste it in our system and I’ve been told it makes our blood taste like piss” (1363). Again, the girls’ physical independence and choice is restricted for the vampires’ convenience. While gathering this quote from my notes I had to do a double-take, because it’s a rather spooky little piece of text that — spoilers coming up! — foreshadows the fate of first Cleo, then Ginger.

Cleo is in a terrible car crash and suffers horrible burns. (Car accidents: Olivia’s Least Favorite Plot Point Ever.) She’s in a lot of pain and isn’t expected to last the night. Camila makes it plain that she intends to turn Cleo to save her life. Ginger objects, on the very relevant grounds that Cleo “doesn’t want this” (4751). Cleo has explicitly said as much, because becoming a vampire would mean severing ties with her human family. But Cleo’s decision not to become an immortal demon (vampires and demons are roughly equivalent, or at least related, in this mythology) does not, in the Queen’s eyes, take precedence over Camila’s own wishes: “‘She’s mine. I can’t let her suffer in pain any longer. She’ll be upset for a while, but in the end she will have wanted me to help her.’” Ginger is forced to wait in the corner while Camila and the other sister-queens perform the unwanted ritual on the unconscious, dying black girl in the hospital bed. There is a terribly unsettling echo in this of the way black people’s consent has been routinely discounted in the course of American medical history: TuskeegeeOak RidgeHenrietta Lacks.

At first Cleo seems fine but things soon turn sour, especially with her maybe-girlfriend-maybe-not Benny. Benny has been raised in vampire culture and wanted Cleo to turn so Benny could feed her; her happiness that she can now do what she wants royally pisses Cleo off: “‘She’s fucking happy I died just so she could have me the way she wanted me’” (4980). Cleo begins arguing with Camila, acting out in ways that are completely psychologically understandable but which the vampire queen describes as troublesome. She’s also feeding too much from one human, which is dangerous. The other girls have to meet Cleo’s grieving family and not let on that Cleo’s still alive at the ABO house; it does not help at all that Cleo’s family is a mirror-version of Ginger’s mom, dad, and brother: “I made it to the hall of Camila’s quarters before I leaned against the wall and sobbed. Cleo’s poor family. And I thought of my parents, what Dad and Mom would do if they lost me too soon and what Todd would have to say to the girls if he was in Maxwell’s shoes” (5181).

Ginger becomes immensely frustrated with the situation and with Camila — but she gets distracted by the approaching exams and then — oh, look, more spoilers — her lab partner and OBA frat pledge Greg sexually assaults her and pushes her down a flight of stairs. (Remember that prophetic quote? Yeah.) Our heroine suffers a massive head injury and Camila is there instantly to dispatch Greg – and to turn our heroine, again with the justification of saving her life, again without proper consent: “Her blood was flowing into my mouth before I even thought to stop her” (5365). We learn from master vampire-demon Dalhem shortly after that unlike Cleo, who really was dying, Ginger could have been saved without being turned: “‘Your sister-queens could have healed you and left you human, but our Camila let her emotions for you get in the way. She let her emotions overrule what she truly knew to be just” (5574).

This is a major, major failing. Even Dalhem thinks so, for he strips Camlia of her royal rank and gives the queenship to Ginger. I must admit I was a little frustrated at this point: new black vampire Cleo is unwillingly turned, loses her girlfriend, and turns a little bit feral — but new white vampire Ginger is given control of the sorority, gets to keep Camila despite the gross breach of trust, and is praised for having more restraint than her years suggest. Not that Ginger feels all that liberated by the change: “There was nowhere for me to go. I couldn’t hide in my dorm room. I couldn’t go home. The ABO house was my home now. Even if I escaped to another sister-queen’s room, Camila was a part of me now … Making things right with Camila was something I had to do, though at the moment I wanted something different” (5790). Camila as Queen was a power fantasy; Ginger as Queen now feels limited, constrained — imprisoned. Lost to the world she’s grown up in and the family who adopted her and loved her and supported her when she finally got up the courage to come out to them. It highlights the fact that the vampires, like their human feeders, are not entirely free of important constraints: they must avoid daylight, they must live in secrecy, they are surrounded by a web of blood-bonds and hierarchy and rules laid down by God hisownself. The more I think about it, the less certain I am that anyone in this text is ever allowed to make a truly free and unconstrained choice. This feels both frustrating and realistic, an unresolvable tension.

Fortunately for my poor aching heart, Ginger gets to keep contact with her family, who are welcomed into the vampire culture as feeders in the area around their home. (PFLAG for vampires?) We learn that Cleo would have lost her family anyways if she’d told them she was gay: her mom would have cast her out due to church pressure. Tolerance for lesbianism is equated with tolerance for vampirism, and I just don’t have an extra thousand words to use to unpack that right now. Ginger and Camila enact a vampire marriage that makes them truly — finally — equals, which is pretty good as far as happy endings go. I was still troubled by Cleo’s plotline, by what had happened to her and between her and Benny and how they both had been betrayed by Camila’s thoughtlessness — until I learned she was the heroine of the second book in the series. That’s a pretty great hook, actually. Well played, Ms. Weatherspoon.

Looking over this post, it sounds grumpy and unsatisfied and as though I did not enjoy the book. I did, very much — especially once some of my worries about Cleo’s storyline were soothed, or at least postponed. There’s a lot of ambiguity about identity and consent in here — taking apart the dynamics of animalistic vampires and humans who are compared to food animals could keep me busy for another week at least. At lot of these ambiguities strike me as important, and they’re ones we’ve yet to really decode — I’m not sure this book is perfectly suited to my tastes, but it’s a hell of a set of questions.

*This is one the reasons I actually love the terms dubcon and noncon — they mark a recognition that consent is questionable or absent, and I can read on or avoid it as I choose. Sometimes I read it, though usually in erotica rather than romance. My biggest problem with the use of dubious consent or even rape in romance is that it’s so often excused as ‘close enough’ to meaningful, unconstrained consent. I see this elision as a symptom of rape culture.)

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I am quite picky about my vampire fiction, but here are some gems I’ve discovered over the years. Dracula’s Guest is an anthology of pre-Stoker vampire stories and legends, edited by Michael Sims. It is highly recommended for alternative visions of vampire mythology, some of which are still unexplored in fiction (a goldmine for authors!). For a different exploration of vampires-thinking-of-people-as-cattle and issues of autonomy and consent, Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum is a perennial personal favorite, and quite funny to boot. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series also features homosocial/homosexual vampires, many of whom are adorably dandyish and playful and fun, and some of whom are masterminds of espionage and politicking.

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book thoroughly worth the reading: deeply researched, empathetic, and significant. It is still, however, a black woman’s story filtered through a white woman’s voice. This piece at the Grio by Ronda Racha Price gives a solid overview of events since the book’s publication and asks important questions about the financial agendas at stake with Henrietta Lacks’ legacy and the use and abuse of black bodies in medical science.

Favorite website The Toast’s series of Femslash Fridays features great snippets of imagined lesbian couples from pop culture: this one on Bend It Like Beckham is chock-full of insight into representation in media, self-awareness, and the full spectrum of queerness beyond the binary and the stereotypes.

I became aware of this book because of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Tumblr, which is delightful and sexy and smart. 

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Weatherspoon, Rebekah. Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters Book 1. Bold Strokes Books: November 15, 2011. Ebook.

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P is for Cathy Pegau

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Cathy Pegau’s sci-fi heist romance Rulebreaker has one of the most on-point titles I’ve seen in some time. From the con-artist heroine to her executive lesbian love interest to the giant mining company determined to cover up a sinister corporate secret, it feels as though rules and the law are created only to be broken, bent, flouted, or twisted. What’s more, the way the book unfolds treats the usual turns and tropes of romance the same way, playing with reader expectations in a way not unlike a good con.

Cover image for Cathy Pegau's Rulebreaker. Vaguely futuristic metallic background. One woman with pale skin and short dark hair stands facing the reader. One hand is on her hip and the other rests casually on her head, holding a sci-fi looking pistol. She wears a dark blue strapless garment and her expression is cool and challenging. Behind her is a second dark-haired woman with pale skin, looking down demurely as though hiding something.Bisexual con artist and occasional thief  Liv has a whole set of rules for appropriate criminal behavior: “Felon’s Rule Number One: Don’t get emotionally involved” (87). Of course she’s going to break this rule: she’s going to get involved, and hard. It’s one of the strongest types of what TV Tropes calls Tempting Fate — similar examples include the cop who mentions he’s two days away from retirement (and you instantly know he’s going to be killed), or the computer geek who declares himself invincible (only to be immediately drenched in liquid nitrogen). They’re practically prophecies in fiction and film. So when Liv’s hot ex-husband Tonio reappears to ask for her help with an absurdly lucrative new heist, the reader is primed to expect a classic reunion story about a couple of exes rediscovering how to be together.

And it looks for a while as though that’s what we’re getting. Liv and Tonio have chemistry that is off the charts. Liv is intensely, frankly sexual and Tonio pushes all her buttons — but they both keep pulling back, trying to keep things simple and uncomplicated because they knew that as a couple they were something of a disaster. And this would all seem very cliché and expected except that the astute reader (read: me) has read the blurb and noticed that we are to have a lady love interest at some point.

I’ll confess: I was intrigued. Zia — short for Jadzia – first shows up at the halfway point in the text. Remarkably late for a main character. In authorly circles I have seen people dinged in critiques or pitches for not introducing both protagonists in the first ten or so pages. But bending this particular rule really serves the story, because in the first half of the book we get plenty of time to learn about the sci-fi world of Nevarro, and thanks to Tonio we get to see how Liv behaves both when she trusts someone and when she does not. Tonio might be her ex and they might have some unresolved issues about their past, but he’s miles safer for Liz than Willem Grey or his son Christian, the two arch-criminals who have set up our blackmail heist.

[Author's note: I only just realized that one of the cold-blooded killer characters in Rulebreaker is actually named Christian Grey. There's a little one-off about his sexual preferences at the end of the novel that is suddenly a whole lot more hilarious.]

Liv’s job is to cozy up to hard-nosed executive Zia Talbot, who has hidden files about a piece of safety tech that would earn the company heavy fines if the Central Mining Authority learns about it. Seduction is implied, if not explicitly required, and Liv is slightly anxious about this: she has had crushes on women before, but she’s never slept with or dated one. I was worried we were in for a coming-out arc — which is fine, just not that exciting to me — but instead it turns out Liv is worried that she won’t be as successful in seducing a woman as she would be with a man. She’s anxious because of her inexperience, not because she’s questioning her same-sex attraction. And when she does meet Zia, the intensity of the blaze between them is not presented as qualitatively different from her attraction to Tonio. When they do eventually sleep together, she notices the different textures and responses of a woman’s body, but it’s not presented as somehow validating or confirming anything we didn’t already know about Liv. It’s emotionally transformative — but that’s because Liv and Zia have a much more sustainable romantic connection than Liv and Tonio ever did. It’s to the narrative’s credit that this isn’t presented as a competition, as though Zia is Liv’s Tru Lurrv while Tonio was a mistake — Liv and Tonio cared about each other but also hurt each other, while Liv and Zia bring out the best in each other. It’s sweet and realistic and doesn’t make anyone into the villain — this being one of my pet peeves about love triangles and why I generally avoid them. (I haven’t read much YA recently, as you can imagine.) A bisexual heroine is a rare enough thing in romance: a bisexual heroine who gets to actually display her attraction to both sexes on-page for reasons other than titillation is like some sort of romance unicorn.

Ah, Zia … She is intelligent, demanding, controlled, and lovely — a Harlequin Presents-type fantasy CEO who just happens to be female. No wonder Liv so quickly breaks that first felon’s rule by falling in love with the mark. This part of the text plays out another traditional romance narrative: Pining Secretary In Love With Sexy Boss. Zia responds to Liv’s flirtations the way any alpha would: knowing smiles, innuendo, seductive compliments, expensive gifts. She notices Liv’s hesitation and chalks it up to inexperience (Liv has told her this would be her first time with another woman), so she offers to go slow and do things right — again, all very classic protective alpha.

Only the reader knows that Liv is anxious not just because of romantic timidity or the newness of lesbian action, but because she’s dreading the moment when Zia learns Liv’s been conning her the whole time to break into her computer system. Moral twinges are read as virginal shyness — it’s a clever twist on an old trope and it makes for some nicely angsty reading. It also preserves the fantasy of the boss-secretary dynamic without undermining Liv’s agency as a character: one of my biggest problems with the alpha CEO hero is how often the heroine is made passive as a counterbalance or contrast (Christian Grey and Ana Steele being a fairly obvious example). Liv is an excellent assistant, due in no small part to the skills she’s honed on the shady side of the law, and it really is a pleasure to watch her blossom in the cutthroat corporate world. There are hints that she could easily transition into a permanent position in the company — a feint toward the well-trod redemption arc, where the thief goes straight because of love. A cop from the CMA appears to try and get Liv to turn on her fellow criminals: she has an opportunity here to get in good with the law, for possibly the first time in her life.

But Willem and Christian are growing impatient: the pressure is on for Liv to find the right files so the blackmail can begin. When she does, the discovery of what’s in them twists the usual tropes again: Zia is not innocent. She’s covered up deaths and allowed more deaths to happen just to preserve her career; the fact that the actual death rate is higher than she realized is not treated as a mitigating factor to absolve her of blame, but as a demonstration that she should have been asking better questions and made more ethical choices. It’s a bold move by the text — especially since the secret really is a plausibly dirty one, involving the forced labor of conscripted prisoners and faulty safety equipment — but it mens that Zia’s high-status position as a wealthy and successful woman is compromised. The fantasy is tempered by the truth. In many ways this revelation also makes Zia a better match for Liv — they both know how to hide their tracks from the inquisitive eyes of the law. Liv’s own past is far from pristine, so now they can move forward together on a more equal footing — or they could, if Liv still weren’t on the con. And if she didn’t know that turning evidence for the CMA would get Zia not only fired but imprisoned in the same prison mines Liv’s spent her whole life avoiding, and from which Zia picked people to die in the mines.

At this point, I had no idea where the text would go. My sense of the narrative direction had been twisted too many times — I was being conned, and I was delighted. Everything depended on the characters’ choices at this point: there was no one story shape (reunion story, Presents romance, redemption arc) that was controlling the narrative’s direction: “None of these choices ended with a happily ever after. In my world, what did I expect, roses and rainbows?” (2699). Things go merrily to hell in the manner of all the best heist stories (Sneakers being my perennial favorite). Liv confesses her hidden agenda to Zia. The Greys take Liv’s mom hostage. In the resulting shootout Tonio is killed and Zia is critically injured. It’s the rock-bottom black moment for our heroine:

Zia and Tonio were both gone because of things I’d done. Did I think I could get away with breaking all those rules? Who the hell was I that they didn’t apply? And now look what had happened. (3683)

I knew as a reader that Zia wasn’t going to die, but I couldn’t help worrying about it anyways. Tonio had died, after all, and up until that moment I’d thought we might also be in for a last-minute menage romance (I do like a good menage). It didn’t help that I was reading this book in the lead-up to the Purple Wedding on Game of Thrones and was having a week where every character felt vulnerable. Ms. Pegau’s text had shown itself so willing to play with genre tropes that my usual rock-hard certainty about the protagonist’s survival was ever so slightly shaken. I was impressed.

Liv ends up in a CMA holding facility, a place where nothing exists except rules. A mostly recovered Zia comes to find her, and the book ends with a new rule: “Find someone you love who loves you back, the job be damned” (3988). It’s a sweet yet plausible ending, not unmixed with difficulty — really very satisfying.

You may be wondering, in all this, where the feminist angle comes in. Partly it’s that this is a story about women with agency that isn’t based on violence or magical powers, but on intelligence, persuasion, perception, and guts. Much as I love a good fantasy premise, it’s refreshing to have people — especially women in fiction — who are strong because of purely human traits.

But also, I believe that stories can be either a way to keep the walls up or to tear them down, both in our individual lives and in our collective culture. We saw with Zen Cho‘s book how the (re)interpretation of the colonizers’ literary traditions helped people with colonized identities manage the oppressions and obstacles they faced. If the nature of oppression is restriction — through the law, through custom, through reductive stereotypes — then a plot about breaking rules and confounding expectations must be somewhat liberating. Liv and Zia go through a process of discovering which rules are solid and which rules deserve to be broken: they are more sensitive at the end of the book to each other and to the consequences of their own actions. The text’s meta-narrative at the same time shows us how flexible stories really are — it suggests that we can decide to some extent which story we’re living in, which set of rules we want to follow. Like Jade Temptress, this ending feels almost like a beginning, with two people who have a wider understanding of their own powers and a greater resistance to forces that would try to keep them from reaching their full potential of happiness and self-assertion.

Sounds pretty feminist to me.

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Sexism in SFF and geek culture is really having a moment lately — this post by Foz Meadows lays out some of the ways that women’s participation in the history and culture of geekdom has been consistently overlooked, tested, or erased entirely.

This older post from Tor.com is a recap of a WorldCon panel from 2010, and opens up some interesting questions about bisexuality in sff more specifically (especially: why is there not more of it?).

Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on the interaction between heist plots and romance.

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Pegau, Cathy. Rulebreaker. Carina Press: August 8, 2011. Ebook.

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