O is for Overwhelmed

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

The first time someone told me I was worthless because I was a girl, I was five years old. The person telling me was my next-door neighbor. He was six in chronological age, but years older than that in pure unmitigated jerkdom. Apparently, because I was a girl, it was wrong for me to play with the He-Man toy whose chest armor would flip to look dented when you hit him. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but three words sum up my reaction: This is bullshit. Over the next few years, I boyed it up as hard as I could — scraped knees, sports, climbing trees, GI Joe, psychically controlled dinosaurs with laser armor — just to prove to that kid that I could be just as good as he was. It was never going to work, and that kid never ever changed his mind, but I was borne forward on a mixture of self-defense and a stubborn, grumpy anger that smoldered in my heart like a charcoal briquette.

One of the hardest things for me to unlearn is the idea that I have to personally refute every stereotype about women in order to prove that feminism is valid. As though the theory’s credibility is called into question every time I wear pink, or feel hurt or anxious about something, or decide I don’t want a high-powered corporate job where I have to wear suits and use words like “synergy” and “conference call.” There is a strong temptation to be All Things Good to prove that all women are capable and strong — as though other women’s humanity is dependent upon me, as though my individual abilities are admissible as evidence in the constant debate called Women: Do We Really Have To Treat Them Like Humans Or What? And part of the reason this is hard to unlearn is that there are people who believe this is, as the cartoon says, How It Works. I’m not wrong to conclude that people expect this of me: I am only wrong to conclude that I have to play by their shitty, shitty rules.

Yep.

This zealous impulse dovetails a little too nicely at times with my innate perfectionism and tendency to take on more than I should. I’ve had to learn over the years how to back out of things, how to decline work requests, how to allow myself to make mistakes or take extra time if I need it. I’ve had to teach myself how to stop before I get to the point where I feel overwhelmed and panicked and end up wailing incoherently at three in the morning because there are more things to do than time to do them. I published my first book three years ago, and in the time since I’ve not only published four more strange little novellas but I’ve also become a board member of my local RWA chapter, worked on two conference planning committees, and given workshops at the Emerald City Writers’ Conference for the past two years. It looks pretty intense written out like that, doesn’t it? But I always feel like I’m lazy, like I’m falling behind, like I could do more or achieve more if I just gave up time-luxuries like video games or Scrubs reruns or making jewelry out of tiny beads. Who do I think I am, using my time for enjoyment and personal relaxation?

This blog project has already been hugely rewarding, but I’m a slow reader when I’m reading critically and I’m starting to feel the time pressure. So I’m giving myself a day to catch up and/or play video games and/or work on my Fancy RT Necklace — whichever I feel like doing — because it’s important to remember that in a world stacked against us, prioritizing our own needs can be a radical and subversive act. Self-care is feminism turned inward. Not to the point where we lose sight of collective action and meaningful protest, but just to the point where we remember we’re humans and humans need a break every now and again.

I did get some marvelous recommendations for the letter O. Calque suggested Octavia Butler’s Wild Seedand on Twitter Sunita suggested Line and Orbit. Author Sunny Moraine has a brave post about reactions to the latter, and learning from mistakes, and fighting against one’s own privilege when creating fictional worlds.

And let me take this opportunity to suggest you check out my books page to see if anything catches your eye, because it’s also hard for me to remember that brief, frank moments of non-invasive self-promotion do not make me a sellout or a nag or shill. Let me also say that if someone wants to turn the tables and give one of my romances the same critical treatment I’ve been giving other authors’ works this month … Well, I’ll be over the moon, is what. Turnabout is fair play and highly encouraged.

Thank you so much to everyone who’s retweeted and commented and listened so far, and see you again tomorrow for our regularly scheduled post, brought to you by the letter P.

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N is for Zora Neale Hurston

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

With great difficulty, let us put aside (IF WE CAN) the verifiable fact that Their Eyes Were Watching God is a masterpiece. A perfect book, where perfect does not mean without flaw, but does mean stands out against the background of the mundane world and is so boldly itself that discussion of its flaws does nothing to diminish its power. It’s lush and poetic and funny and heartbreaking, all at once. I know the vernacular dialogue can be hell on the eyes (and was criticized by Richard Wright at time of publication), but I do believe that if you don’t find marvels in this book, you may in fact have a rock where your heart should be. I tremble every time I read it: from bliss, from fear, from awe.

Cover image for Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Sepia-tone background. A dark-skinned woman with rosy cheeks and dark, full lips tilts her head toward the reader, eyes closed and brow slightly furrowed. Gold leaf flowers sprawl across the bottom third of the cover, lending a mystical, magical air.Like many people, I first encountered Janie Crawford/Killicks/Starks/Woods as part of a high school English class. We also read Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre, because all three books are considered fundamental parts of the Western literary canon. At least, they are now — none of them were overly popular in their time. All three had to be resurrected and dusted off by succeeding generations before they could be set up on the pedestals they currently occupy. Two of these Janes are widely considered foundational heroines of the romance genre. I don’t have to tell you which book is the odd one out, do I? (Hint: it’s the black woman.)

Romance authors and readers are only just beginning to discuss what a canon of the genre would look like (example: this Smart Bitches podcast). What are the most important texts of so rich and populated a tradition? The most influential? The most copied and rewritten? The most astonishing or moving or surprising or genre-changing? Lists inevitably grow long. Certain names come up often: Kathleen Woodiwiss, Julie Garwood, Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland, Jennifer Crusie, Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. And, of course, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, whose texts provide classic story patterns even though romance as a genre hadn’t really been established yet. Other books have also had influence, but are frequently disqualified as romances on account of their less-than-blissful arcs: Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and as I recently, memorably discussedGone With the Wind. 

You may notice that all these authors are white. As are all but two of the authors on AAR’s Top 100 Romances Poll from 2013. (The exceptions are Sherry Thomas, who writes excellent 19th-century romances starring white people, and Nalini Singh — we should talk some time about race and paranormal/UF romance, because more of that conversation needs to happen.) There is a black romance tradition — a lengthy one, going back to the 19th century — but somehow those books and those authors never make best-of lists when readers line up to cite their favorites. Beverly Jenkins is often named as the Queen of African-American Historical Romance, but she’s never won a RITA. In fact, as far as I can tell from hours of focused and increasingly angry internet searching, no black author has ever won a RITA in the twenty-year history of the award. Only a handful have even been nominated.

It’s a serious gap that becomes more noticeable and less explainable the more you look at it, and learning more about the publication history of Hurston’s text. Their Eyes Were Watching God was first released in 1937, one year after Margaret Mitchell’s insanely popular Gone With the Wind – did you remember that won the fucking Pulitzer? because I did not — a novel which is often heavily criticized for its depictions of black characters (for instance Mammy, who’s getting an upcoming prequel authored by a white man, so help me God I want to smash something now). Mitchell’s book went on to inspire a major movie of Hollywood’s Golden Era and vast numbers of plantation-set romances, while Hurston’s work languished in obscurity until being rediscovered decades later by Alice Walker.

Part of this obscurity is no doubt due to the divide between commercial fiction (though apparently not too commercial for the Pulitzer Committee) and literary fiction; the former tends to have a much greater tendency to trickle over into romance. Hurston’s literary heirs are now numerous: they include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Edwidge Danticat (who write the foreward for my digital edition of Hurston’s text). But at the time of TEwWG‘s debut, she was heavily criticized by black male writers, including Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Ralph Ellison, who felt her works either pandered to the white gaze or had no relevant social urgency. The idea that black Americans could lead happy and fulfilled lives was difficult to untangle from the racist narrative that black Americans had led happy and fulfilled lives under slavery: much of the work of black writing was/is to undo white supremacist narratives that were/are designed to nullify and silence black voices — in this framework, Hurston’s lyrical, deeply personal prose lacked a direction and an agenda that many black authors at the time felt (and still feel! and rightly!) was necessary to their very survival as a race.

Black/white, literary/commercial, male/female – Their Eyes Were Watching God always seems to end up on the wrong side of history’s divides, though nowadays it’s closer to popular literature than it once was. This unlikely resurrection is both heartening and tantalizing: I dream of an alternate history where the novel was hugely influential on the romance genre. There are plenty of connection points ready and waiting: the focus on Janie’s personal journey toward happiness and the enduring value of love, the secondary characters drawn in economically brief but vivid and memorable ways, the small-town feel of both Eatonville and the ‘Glades, the melodrama of the trial scene. Romance is an omnivorous genre and the past few years have seen erotic retellings of Much Ado About Nothing and Regency reboots of The Brady Bunch, as well as creation of entirely new subgenres like New Adult and a groundswell of interest in sci-fi romance and the 1920s as a setting for historicals. Why shouldn’t authors turn to Hurston for inspiration as they turn to Austen and Brontë? But the race line in romance seems incredibly starkly drawn: there is mainstream (read: white) romance, and there is AA romance, and the two strains rarely meet.

It’s a sign of my profound privilege that I’m able to get mad at this only now: black romance authors have been caught in this mess for decades. Zora Neale Hurston herself articulated this problem half a century ago:

Now, do not leap to the conclusion that editors and producers constitute a special class of un-believers. That is far from true. Publishing houses and theatrical promoters are in business to make money. They will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negroes and Jews because they feel that they know the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension. It can then be offered as a study in Sociology, with the romantic side subdued. They know the skepticism in general about the complicated emotions in the minorities. The average American just cannot conceive of it, and would be apt to reject the notion, and publishers and producers take the stand that they are not in business to educate, but to make money.

Beverly Jenkins’ description of getting the copyedits on her first book is heartbreaking proof that not enough has changed since then:

The draft went from the editor to a freelancer. Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “nigger, nigger” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. There should be trust between editor and author.

The truism that white readers won’t buy romance books about black characters has echoes of similar truisms in other media. White readers won’t buy YA books with POC on the covers. Male gamers won’t buy games with female protagonists. Films with women as lead characters are box office poison. They are all self-fulfilling prophecies: it is not considered a wise financial strategy to throw good marketing money at a low-reward product, so movies with female leads and games with female protagonists and romances with POC heroines routinely get under-marketed and under-financed — that these books so rarely become wildfire hits is then taken as proof of the gatekeepers’ sound business sense, and the cycle repeats. Marginalization begets further marginalization.

Rereading Hurston’s book after Beverly Jenkins’ Vivid illuminated distinct similarities in structure. Both books take place in all-black towns, where white people’s oppression happen mostly on the fringes: racism is still a part of the characters’ lives, but not necessarily a central feature or most significant obstacle. I fully expected to see Hurston’s name crop up at some point in that IASPR interview. But it didn’t, and to further confound my assumptions Ms. Jenkins indicates that part of her project as an author is to show strong black women in the past working for the betterment of their society, putting her firmly in the Wright/Locke/Ellison camp:

I do know that what these illustrious foremothers stood for—justice, equality, education, a commitment to community and the desire to push the envelope on race and gender—is something I consciously place in each of my heroines. I “borrowed” the concept from the great historian Dorothy A. Sterling. Her book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, is my bible. In it, she states that nineteenth-century Black women had three gifts: a strong work ethic, a commitment to community, and a penchant to push the envelope on race and gender. Whether it’s schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, journalist Kate Love, or banker Grace Atwood, I try to bestow at least one of Sterling’s gifts on them. Nineteenth-century Black women changed the world not only for themselves and the race but for women of other races as well. Women like Black abolitionist Maria Stewart, who in 1832 became the first woman in America of any race to lecture to a mixed audience; Rebecca Lee and other pioneering Black doctors of the late 1860s were often not only the first Black doctors, but many were the first doctors of any race in their communities. Their experiences helped shape crusading Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the heroine in my second novel, Vivid.

We are down to the heart of things now, where I have too many questions and no answers that aren’t uncomfortable: should we expect all literature to be morally uplifting? Is it hypocritical of me to want to defend Their Eyes Were Watching God against the requirement that it feature social protest and activism, even as I continue to criticize romance as a genre for its perpetuation of harmful attitudes and stereotypes? Romance in particular is often excused on the grounds of “escapism” — critics are told they’re overthinking an essentially trivial genre, that they’re ruining other readers’ fun or shaming them for their enjoyment. In this response there is a tiny grain of truth like the sand that starts the pearl, which is why this response is so irritating. But I think when the word “escapism” shows up there are two questions we should answer before letting the discussion proceed: Who do we imagine is escaping, and what are they escaping from? One person’s hilarious Southern romp is another person’s racist garbage nightmare. And one of the reasons I want to call out problematic tropes in romance is that their existence threatens my own sense of safety in my escapist reading: when a hero turns controlling and jealous, for instance, I feel the muscles in my neck kink up with fear, and the romance loses all its spark and sizzle. I don’t want to erase those books from existence — but I would like to know in advance which ones they are, so I can detour around them and read something more my style. In the growing debate about trigger/content warnings, I come down firmly on the side of more rather than fewer labels and tags.

There are harder, more shamefully personal questions as well: is my desire to connect Hurston’s text with the romance genre an act of appropriation, as I suspect it could easily be? How many of the similarities I see between Their Eyes and Vivid come from my own knowledge of their authors’ skin color? Unconscious biases are the blackberry vines of the mind: you think you’ve pulled them all up at the roots, but they seem to start growing back as soon as you put down the spade. I’ve thought and unthought and rethought every paragraph above: you can tell when my opinions are doubling back because I go very heavily in for parentheticals (which I’ve noticed I use when my thoughts are either too fast or too scattered or both).

I honestly don’t know where to go from here. The best I can say is this: it seems I have a great deal more reading (and listening) to do.

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The Zora Neale Hurston essay cited above, “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” is required reading and feels far more on-the-nose about 21st-century publishing than we might hope. Clearly my next post-April project is to read Hurston’s entire body of work, especially the essays and fiction.

A book-length analysis of black historical romances can be found in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African-American Women’s Historical Romances by Rita B. Dandrige.

A 2006 article from The Free Library about the founding of Harlequin’s Kimani line has some great names and data about African-American romance.

For some amusing hate-reading, here is one gentleman’s one-star opinion (via Goodreads) about how Their Eyes Were Watching God is just like a trashy romance novel.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. Ebook.

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M is for Pamela Morsi

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

One of the great delights as I continue this post series is how intertwined the various books are starting to become. Themes and connections are coming from the woodwork out, which is incredibly gratifying for someone who thinks of books as part of a grand conversation anyways. Last week Eloisa James broke my heart (and not in the good way) with her depiction of a character with a mental impairment caused by oxygen deprivation at birth: Pamela Morsi’s earthy and charming Simple Jess is the perfect book to read as a follow-up, since it features a character with a similar disability and an identical cause. Unlike Rupert, however, Jesse Best is the hero of his story, with a POV and HEA and everything. This book was recommended by Ridley and it more than lived up to its reputation for empathy and charm: Jesse’s depiction is thoughtful and rounded and avoids many of the common problems of mental disability in fiction. (Counterexample: Colleen McCullough’s Tim, which to my shame I read dozens of times in high school.) Additionally, the romance as a whole brings up but doesn’t answer many surprisingly troubling questions about society, difference, and belonging that invite further feminist critique.

Cover of Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi. Blue and pink gradient background with leaves, pine needles, twigs, and a blown dandelion clock. Text is serifed and highly ornate.The village of Marrying Stone is a place where codes of behavior are rigid and vehemently policed by the inhabitants: “On Marrying Stone Mountain, being different was not thought altogether to be such a good thing” (3288). There’s no government or law to speak of, outside of the farcical kangaroo court (which I found both entertaining and excruciating): all the pressure to conform is social pressure rooted in familial ties and individual force of will. The good people of Marrying Stone know what is right and they will require you behave accordingly.

In this narrow-eyed, strong-minded world, every major character struggles with a mark of difference. Heroine Althea is determined to stay unmarried and is letting a fertile farm lie unplowed (hur hur hur); hero Jesse Best tries to be “a man like other men” despite the mental impairment that makes him an outsider even in his own head; Mavis Phillips worries that someone other than her brother will learn she slept with Eben Baxley contrary to ideals of feminine chastity; Oather Phillips worries that the village (and his father) will find out he isn’t drawn to women the way that other men are. Every family/gender role is set and specific, every activity has long-standing rules and traditions: hunting, farming, butchering, the Literary, the kangaroo court. Even the constant near-feud state between McNees and Piggotts is way of maintaining the boundaries of set categories, even though the bloodlines of the two families have been mixed and mingled for generations.

Social pressure is intense because social cooperation is necessary for survival. The people of Marrying Stone are subsistence-level farmers and hunters, and it takes careful planning and hard work to last though the winter. One of the most compelling reasons for Althea to remarry is that she cannot work her farm on her own: “She hadn’t had an idea about putting in a crop last year. Orv and Tom had offered to do it for her. But she’d turned them down flat. As she’d turned down all their offers for assistance. She hadn’t wanted their favors. She hadn’t wanted their presence” (859). These favors aren’t charity, and they aren’t neutral: “it was part of the courting process for the female to feel beholden to the gentleman” (3863). Althea can’t accept help without implying acceptance of sexual or romantic overtures as well: it’s only because Jesse is considered asexual by his fellow townsfolk that there are no innuendoes made about his presence on her farm. Even then, his chores become an indirect courtship, a way for Althea to realize that Jesse is good for her and her son as well as good for her farm. It’s a standard romance narrative — but it also fits in seamlessly with what the townsfolk expect of a courtship.

Of course, Jesse turns out to be anything but asexual. When the town learns of the kiss he shared with Althea, they have to remove him from the category of “child” and place him in the category of “man,” with assumed sexual desires and agency:

Jesse Best had kissed a woman and now people knew it. Whether they believed that Althea had led him on or not, parents would be warning their daughters to steer clear. The notion folks now had of Jesse Best would include not just his sweetness, his strength, and the sounds of his fiddle, but also his sexuality. For folks on the mountain, simple and sex didn’t go together. That was a thing to be feared. (3150).

Despite the town’s newfound suspicion, our hero’s pants-feelings are explicitly coded as natural by the text: “‘The feelings you get in your body, Jesse, they are the same feelings that other men get and they have nothing to do with your mind.’” (1834). Jesse’s mental struggles mean he is forced to depend more on instinct than logic to make decisions: this is often expressed in naturalistic terms, as when he trusts his hunting dogs to be aware of predators in the woods, or describes his sensitivity to people’s scents. I’ll admit to being charmed by Jesse’s private terms for arousal and sexuality, especially “round parts”; don’t we all create our own internal shorthand for sex, after all, even if we know the cultural or clinical terms?

And of course our heroine is equally enthralled, again tied to the idea of naturalness:

He was no practiced lover, but it was his love, as natural as his beauty, that had drawn her into his embrace as easily as had his arms. And it was that authenticity that had kept her there, reveling in the pleasure of it. (4360)

But Jesse’s sexuality is only natural because it is expressed in a heterosexual direction: the closeted Oather Phillips has no such luxury, even though his response to Jesse’s good looks are identical to our heroine’s:

“My God, he is beautiful.” The words, spoken in near reverence, came from the man standing next to her.

“Yes, he is,” she answered languidly from her sensual trance. “Oh!” Her horrified little squeak came immediately thereafter. Althea looked over at Oather, shocked that he had read her thoughts, and such wicked thoughts, too.

Oather stared back at her, his eyes wide in equal alarm. It was as if he too were aghast at his own words. (4360).

Oather’s queerness is often expressed in coded terms, but it’s clear enough to a reader familiar with closeted characters in romance. His behavior toward Althea during his courtship, sadly, is often categorized as unnatural: “Oather put such a polite face on everything. It felt so unnatural, so constrained. He was much aware of the rules of etiquette. Somehow she found Jesse’s more honest assessment more to her liking” (3863). It’s an open question whether this unnaturalness is located in Oather’s denial of who he is and who he wants, or in his homosexual desire more generally: “Oather felt uncomfortable about commenting on what was natural” (3377). He is palpably uncomfortable when attempting to perform any of the prescribed behaviors of heterosexual masculinity: courting, hunting, sexual aggression (Althea notices he doesn’t try and cop a feel like the other men do). Manliness in this book is identified with heterosexuality: we have no burly bearded hunters falling in love with other burly bearded hunters. (Though that sounds like it’d be fun to read.) Jesse Best’s revealed heterosexuality and its expression brings both him and Althea into line with community standards: his simple-mindedness is proven to be compatible with Marrying Stone’s vision of masculinity, and her isolation is ended by marriage and acquiring a husband who can help her farm and raise Baby Paisley. Oather Phillips, on the other hand, spectacularly fails to perform masculinity and nearly kills a child in a hunting accident. His shock at this near-miss is the impetus for him to finally confront his father and leave Marrying Stone for good: “Oather’s different,” Althea says at the book’s end. “He’s always been different from folks here on the mountain. Maybe somewhere else he’ll find folks that are more like him” (5159).

I have said that Jesse and Althea are reintegrated into the community of Marrying Stone, but it’s not a pure surrender. Granny Piggott, sharp-tongued matriarch, gives Althea some advice that subverts the immutability of Marrying Stone’s codes: “Listen and learn. What is worthwhile — and for all that I don’t take great store by Beulah’s pronouncements, there is bound to be some worthwhile — that you keep. The rest you just smile and say thank you, and forget you ever heard it” (3713). This advice preserves the form of tradition, if not the substance. Difference can be masked, not erased. But unlike Althea and Jesse, Oather cannot follow this advice, since his particular brand of difference invites/implies the participation of someone else, another gay man who would then have to similarly reject traditional categories of masculinity. So Oather goes to New Orleans, where apparently there are people like himself, according to the vision that semi-magical Pastor Jay gets from the angels at the end of the book:

“You can show me his future? Now that’s a neat trick if I ever heard one. Let’s see you try. — Why yes, I see it. I see it now. Ain’t this pretty. What a beautiful place. The boy looks so happy. All those friends around. Everybody laughing. What a wonderful place. Oh, Lord, it’s not what I think, is it? — It’s Heaven, ain’t it? Poor Oather dies young and goes to Heaven. — It’s not Heaven. Then where is it? — New Orleans? Hmmm. Sure looks like Heaven from here.” (5568)

This ending is an optimistic one, but it is also a kind of death. It seems Ms. Morsi is playing against the Kill Your Gays trope, but in a way that still invokes it — hence Pastor Jay’s assumption that Oather dies young. This is the final passage in the book and it brings into question the value of separatism: is it satisfying when the narrative suggests that Marrying Stone does not constitute an entire world? That not everybody can be comfortably or safely a part of this small and insular mountain community? That other communities, with other rules, exist? How hard must we work to reform the societies we live in? Is our effort better spent simply creating societies that are safer and more inclusive? What do we stand to gain by leaving oppressive communities, and what have we lost?

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Thoughtful blogger Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on interpretations of disability in romance fiction. Books mentioned include Simple Jess, Tim, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie and others.

Writer Nina Mitchell had a stroke at age 26 and now writes frankly about her experience and daily life. I found her through her series for the Hairpin, but she also runs her own site, Mindpop, with more current updates.

Sunita at Vacuous Minx had a provocative and many-layered post about disability devotees, fetish reading, content warnings/trigger warnings, and genre definitions that has more thoughts in it than I believed one blog post could contain. Comments highly recommended as well.

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Morsi, Pamela. Simple Jess. Jove Books, 2011. Ebook.

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L is for Jeannie Lin

{Content note: the following post very briefly quotes fictional acts of torture during a police interrogation — and, in case anyone else cringes at such things like I do, I should mention the torture involves hand injuries. GAH. 

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

Despite the casual malice of Othello and the oceans of blood in Macbeth, I have always found King Lear to be Shakespeare’s most chilling tragedy. There’s a dark purple void at the heart of that story into which all good things fall, never to be seen again — it’s simultaneously frightening and fascinating, a masterclass in showing how human isolation can tear a whole world to pieces.

I would never have expected to get shades of that same feeling from a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China, but such are the marvelous gifts the romance genre sometimes offers to its reverent acolytes. And by “romance genre” I mean Jeannie Lin, whose Chinese-set historicals just keep getting better and better: Jade Temptress is a stunning and memorable book, maybe even a masterpiece of the genre. The Shakespeare angle only clarifies how the book deconstructs the interlocking systems of money, class, and power.

Cover image for Jeannie Lin's The Jade Temptress. A woman with pale skin, dark hair, Asian features, and deep red lips wears a white gown patterned with bright flowers and wrapped with a blue sash. Large red flowers are woven into her hair. One hand is languid and the other held against her face in a pose of subtle invitation.The first scene of King Lear sets up everything that follows: the king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the most riches to whichever one who loves him most. Or rather, whichever one claims to love him most, since of course love is not so easily measured or proved as Lear seems to believe. It’s a stupid game, thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. As the two eldest fall over themselves in their haste to kiss dad’s ass, Lear’s youngest and best daughter Cordelia decides the only way to win is not to play.

LEAR: … what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing.

LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing. (Lear I.i.87-91)

Lear imagines himself as something like a fairy-tale king who can discern true goodness and reward it with the appropriate amount of wealth. It is stagey and disingenuous, particularly since he has plainly saved the best part, the “third more opulent,” for his darling youngest daughter. Cordelia’s “nothing” shatters the king’s comfortable little play: she rejects the idea that love can be exchanged for anything except itself. To exchange love for money turns love into something like work — or something like prostitution, though Cordelia doesn’t say so. Lear throws a tantrum, the King of France proposes to Cordelia on the spot, the two elder daughters are embarrassed, and everyone agrees Lear is a royal ass. Things proceed to go quite rapidly to hell.

Jade Temptress heroine Mingyu, a famous courtesan in the imperial capital of Changan, is caught in a similar web where familial relationships and profit-based relationships are conflated. Her fellow courtesans are her “sisters,” and the scheming brothel-mistress Madame Sun prefers to be known as “Mother”:

Though they called each other mother and daughter, Mingyu never forgot the truth. She had a true mother once. Her birth mother had sold her and her sister for a small handful of coins. Madame Sun, her foster mother, would never let her go for so little. (Kindle location 352)

A nice little twist of the knife, there: are you really more valued simply because your foster mother sets a higher price on you? (Short answer: no.) Madame Sun is even less able than Lear to imagine human worth as anything other than a financial measure —  as a result, her affections are always expressed in terms of prices and profit. It’s unclear how much of this is artifice, manipulation for her personal gain, and how much is simply her own deeply ingrained belief: even Mingyu is left uncertain about this, at the end. But she is quite clear on her own position in this dynamic: “Always ‘us.’ There was no Mingyu. There was Madame and there was the Lotus Palace . . .” (375). Since her love (or at least its performance) can be purchased, it becomes a commodity — which is to say it has economic value, and therefore cannot/should not be given away for free. Any sense of the courtesan as a person capable of love outside of currency relationships must be suppressed in order to maintain the value of the courtesan’s love as a luxury item. At the same time, since all her wages go to the Lotus Palace and not to herself, the courtesan is distanced from economic agency: she can earn, but she cannot spend. She is in essence a lever by which money moves from her suitors to her foster mother, who quite literally owns her. As indicated by “There was no Mingyu,” our heroine reads this framework as an erasure: “This is a dream world,” she says later of the city’s pleasure district. “We don’t exist outside it” (1223). This is Cordelia’s thought turned inward: Mingyu recognizes that her participation in the sex trade has made her into nothing, both in a legal and an emotional sense.

Since she is nothing, Mingyu has learned to use nothingness as a weapon in Changan’s tangled web of money, gender, and class. She cultivates a quiet and mysterious air of unreadability — an emptiness behind which she conceals her own truth. Hero Wu Kaifeng recognizes this:

“You make yourself into a blank canvas and let your admirers fill it as required.”

“A mirror,” she corrected, unperturbed. “A courtesan is a mirror. The bureaucrats value their own learning, so I give them poetry and music. The generals value competition and strategy, so I confirm the brilliance of their plans.”

“And myself?” . . .

“You value justice, Constable. Unfortunately, that is the one thing I cannot speak to. I know nothing of it.” (2023)

And this is true: Mingyu and her Lotus Palace sisters are disempowered in Changan by the trifecta of gender, class, and economics. They are all women, of low birth, whose earnings go to Madame Sun. They only have agency insofar as they control the agency of others — specifically, men: “Sometimes exploiting a man’s power is the only influence a woman can wield” (526), Mingyu explains. Love becomes a means of channeling power, and money a measure of both. The higher the price a courtesan commands, the more power she wields — and vice versa. (Which goes a long way toward explaining Madame Sun.) Love separated from money is rendered meaningless, unmeasurable: nonexistent. Mingyu’s fellow courtesan Ziyi, burned by heartbreak, expresses this most succinctly: “The inspector is wealthy and offers you his protection. He’ll pursue you at any cost. It’s hardly different from romantic love. In some ways, it’s more reliable” (2565).

This is some Jane Austen-level irony in a genre romance — especially since the inspector in question, imperial official Xi Lun, is so very easily read as the horror-movie version of the classic alpha romance hero:

Xi was pleasing enough to the eye. His face was square and his jaw broad. To match the strong features of his face, his clothing was impeccable and his manners cultured. He was young compared to many highly ranked officials and he was free with his wealth. (1724)

Handsome, powerful, rich, worldly, and younger than many at a similar point in his career — all my Dom Billionaire alarm bells were ringing like mad. His pursuit of Mingyu is relentless and he completely ignores the charms of the other courtesans, all while giving our heroine crushing kisses, pricey gifts, and a barrel full of disregard for her limits and boundaries. This is the complete set of genre-recognized Stalker Romance Hero Cues. Mingyu responds the only way she can: by getting profoundly creeped out. Xi Lun has entirely bought into — see what I did there? — the system of love-as-commodity that she feels erases her as an individual and an agent. He offers her valuable objects and Mingyu knows this is because he sees her as only another type of object. His intent to purchase her bond — to make her legally his property — is the novel’s biggest threat, and even his erotic desire is an expression less of physical lust than of an eroticized control: “Sex would just be another way for him to exert his dominance” (2160). Again, this is language we are used to seeing as the mark of an alpha hero, but in this context the alpha billionaire’s confidence and compliments turn impeccably sinister.

Xi Lun is only the most obvious symbol of a patriarchal system where all women are commodified to greater or lesser extent. I was strongly reminded of activist blogger Melissa McEwan’s “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck,” which details the way marginalized groups — specifically women, though she recognizes parallels to LGBTQ people and people of color — learn to respond to the constant barrage of microaggressions with wariness and guardedness toward privileged groups, as a form of self-protection. For Mingyu and Ziyi and the other courtesans, every man in Changan exists as a potential threat. Even the wealthy men they hope to seduce into providing for them. Even our hero, Constable Wu Kaifeng.

If Xi Lun is a villainous romance hero, Wu Kaifeng is a heroic romance villain. We know Kaifeng interrogated Mingyu at one point in the first book, The Lotus Palace, but it’s only now that we learn the full extent of what happened. Turns out, he tortured her. Actual physical torture as part of a police investigation — and it’s explicitly sexualized:

The first time Wu had interrogated her, he’d taken out six bamboo sticks and laced them between his fingers. He’d held her hand still in his own as he completed the task, a gesture that was grotesquely intimate. (573)

In the hands of an author I trust less, this would have had me side-eyeing the text something fierce. But Ms. Lin has remarkable control of her material and has not led me wrong before — more concretely, this is not the first time Mingyu has been abused at the hands of a man in authority. The late General Deng was fond of making his possessiveness known in subtle but unmistakably douchey ways. She knows how to read abuse rather than merely react to it: Wu Kaifeng puts her in physical pain, yes, but he does it in the course of his duty — torture being an accepted part of Changan police procedure — and most importantly of all, he stops the torture long before he needs to. (And apologizes for it later in a perfect and specific way.) This one fact is enough to show Mingyu that the constable operates outside the usual dangerous networks of social privilege:

“I don’t trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don’t care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don’t care who I am, which means you don’t care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth.” (596)

Note all the negatives in this early passage — Mingyu is starting to rebel against the values of the Pingkang Li by seeing value in nothingness more generally. She will grow bolder about this as the novel progresses.

Merely being a member of the privileged gender is not enough to put Wu Kaifeng at the apex of power in Changan, and he knows it: “I’m ill-mannered,” he says later. “Unsightly. Nothing to anyone that matters” (1271). Mingyu initially recognizes in Kaifeng a lack that gives him power, similar to her own mirror-like unreadability: “Part of her envied Wu Kaifeng and his unyielding approach. It must be freeing to walk through this world and feel nothing” (596). But their positions are differently privileged by class: Mingyu may not have money of her own — except for what she’s been able to hide away in secret — but she does have access to a moneyed lifestyle. Her clothes, her social skills, her musical ability, all these mark her as a member of the rarefied upper echelons of society, even if she only exists there as a shadow of her true self. The constable, in contrast, is a man of unknown birth, fortuneless and indifferently educated, a pariah in the imperial world where scholarship and bloodlines are directly tied to career advancement and power. Mingyu’s position might be a cage, but it’s a cage raised far above the level a man like Wu Kaifeng can hope to reach. If he resists the kyriarchal network of money and privilege, as Mingyu sees, it is because he has as little hope of agency within that network as she does.

A third of the way through, at the very moment when Kaifeng insists he is nothing, Mingyu contradicts him:

“It’s not true,” she murmured. “You’re not really like that.”

He smiled crookedly at her. “Not ugly?”

“Not . . . nothing.” (1271)

And then something happens: he kisses her. Something else happens: Mingyu kisses him back. (This seems as good a time as any to state that Wu Kaifeng is one of the swoon-worthiest heroes I’ve read in quite some time. Jeannie Lin writes the best first kisses.) “Don’t think too much of this,” Mingyu warns. “I won’t,” Kaifeng promises (1271). And then they part: “They both knew that nothing more could become of it” (1309). This kiss, like Mingyu and Kaifeng, is nothing — but like them, and like Cordelia’s ‘nothing,’ this nothingness has a power outside the system of commodified love and desire. Thanks to the iterative nature of romance narratives, the reader knows damn well that something will indeed come of this. Mingyu is changed almost immediately: “Her stolen and precious hour with Wu Kaifeng had emboldened her more than it should have” (1440). She’s using the language of value — stolen, precious — to describe something that by law and custom shouldn’t even exist.

Kyriarchal power systems are bending beneath the weight of actions motivated by honest mutual desire.

Wu Kaifeng may have started as a torturer, but he moves increasingly away from any attmpts to claim, control, or possess Mingyu. All these terms are standard romance sex scene tropes — hell, they’re practically subgenres at this point — but Kaifeng makes a great case for the pure undiluted hotness of un-claiming: “He found her sash and looped the length of silk around her wrists to secure her arms overhead, but the gesture was only symbolic. Almost poetic, for someone untrained in poetry. He couldn’t tie her there, he couldn’t keep her” (2383). [My notes at this point are simply "SWOON SWOON SWOON." From me, not Mingyu. She's not really the swooning type.] This deliberate and careful unclaiming consistently allows Mingyu the metaphorical space to claim herself, to exist again as a person: “When Kaifeng took her like this, single-mindedly, with no motive but for his pleasure and her own, she finally belonged to herself. Her body was her own and this pleasure — this pleasure was hers for the taking” (2737).

But this progression is unsustainable and comes to a head at the climax: Mingyu is growing bold enough to want to free herself from the entire money-love-power system, and talks of leaving the city. Wu Kaifeng knows that although he has come to love her anything he does to claim or take or possess her will only keep her imprisoned. So he retreats entirely, saying they must part.

This next move will take some explaining, so bear with me. Mingyu and Kaifeng are falling in love while trying to solve the mystery of the death of Mingyu’s protector General Deng. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!) At first it appears Deng was beheaded by one of his bodyguards, so the general is given a state funeral and a very expensive new head made of jade. But then it turns out — SPOILERS NO REALLY IT’S COMING UP — that the headless body belongs to one of the bodyguards, and Deng has faked his own assassination so he can start a coup, and he’s been hiding in the family mausoleum, but by the time our protagonists figure this out someone else has killed all the surviving bodyguards and also poisoned the general. And servant confesses and commits suicide, but maybe he didn’t really do it either? And maybe he was poisoned by the real killer? It’s a giant MacGuffin of a murder investigation, with near-constant deceptions and a complete lack of meaning at the end — in short, it’s perfect. And the late general’s oh-so-valuable jade head? Is broken up by Wu Kaifeng and used to buy Mingyu’s freedom from Madame Sun.

So the head of a man who was not actually beheaded is broken, and the pieces used to pay Mingyu’s very real debt — a concrete example of something coming from nothing, of emptiness being turned into profit. Now that the courtesan owns herself again, of course, she is able to reunite with Wu Kaifeng. Mingyu has some money she’s hoarded and they spend most of it renovating a derelict tea-shop: in the book’s final scene, Kaifeng has bought Mingyu a very pretty musical instrument with basically the last of their cash. Now, at the happy ending, nothing is all they have. They’re hoping the tea-shop will turn a profit, but they don’t know. It’s the diametric opposite of the usual romance narrative, where the couple ends up wealthy or at least comfortable — but while a lack of funds might jeopardize the normal HEA, we’ve had the whole rest of the book to know how capable our hero and heroine are at making something out of nothing. Where King Lear let nothingness destroy his life, his family, and his kingdom, Mingyu and Kaifeng find nothingness a haven from the interconnecting dynamics that work to dehumanize them. The vast amount of nothingness at the end of this novel is not a lack, but an opportunity. It’s really quite elegant, as a twist on the usual trope.

A brief postscript: Let this analysis not be taken to mean that sex work per se is necessarily degrading or corrupting or dehumanizing. This is a study of a single fictional text and its motifs. But the intersections beneath which sex work takes place in both Ms. Lin’s Tang Dynasty setting and in our own modern Western Judeo-Christian culture — systems of class oppression and gender bias most especially — these often do great damage to sex workers as individuals and as a class. If Mingyu feels erased as an individual, so too do many real-world sex workers, who are criminalized by an imperfect justice system, and whose voices are discounted by a culture that considers them less than fully human.

An even briefer, much less serious postscript: using the words ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ so often has gotten “Something Good” from The Sound of Music thoroughly stuck in my head — and it occurs to me that the lyrics to that song also set up a system where goodness is rewarded with love as if love is a prize for moral behavior and how is that not a type of commodification and I should probably just stop now before my brain dribbles out my ears.

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Dear Author’s group review of this book touches on the class issues as well as themes of artifice and reality — it’s a really great discussion of a really wonderful book. Miss Bates has a review the parallels many of my own reactions here.

Jeannie Lin’s first book in this series, The Lotus Palace, sold less than expected, so that Harlequin pulled The Jade Temptress from print distribution and made it digital-only. Ms. Lin blogged about her complex reaction to the news, and Courtney Milan responded with print sales figures of her own to back up Jeannie Lin’s thoughts. It’s an interesting conversation on how we interpret sales data in light of race and romance, and there are no easy answers anywhere.

This post from Racialicious is brief but illuminating and touches on capitalism in China, contact between Asian and European cultures, Orientalist stereotypes, and the difference between a concubine and a mistress.

My own views on sex work are rendered largely irrelevant, I think, by the fact that I am not nor ever have been a sex worker. (And no matter what they tell you, erotic romance authorship is not the same thing at all.) For years I have looked to Seattle’s own Mistress Matisse for considered and knowledgeable opinions in a very volatile field of discourse and experience: her Twitter feed is a great source of activism and writing. And while I’ve only just started reading Melissa Gira Grant’s recent book Playing the WhoreI can tell you that it is robust, insightful, and pulling no punches.

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Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress. Toronto: HQN, 2014. Ebook.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. King Lear. Shakespeare Online. Web. 1999. Accessed April 4, 2014.

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