All posts by Olivia

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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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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