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I is for American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, Etc.

{Note: for the purposes of this article, I will be using “Native American” as a general term, and tribal designations or individual preferences for identification when appropriate and/or available.

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

When it comes to the treatment of Native Americans in fiction, the romance genre has a lot to answer for. E.g. the millions of historical Western romances with the word “savage” in the title. Or that time white author Cassie Edwards filled her novels with plagiarized passages from nature writing and out-of-print Native American memoirs. I mean, the words holy shit are utterly inadequate there: cultural appropriation does not get more shameless and literal than that.

Romance’s appropriation of American Indian experience is often cloaked in New Age-y terms of appreciation and/or reverence, such as this quote from Western historical author Paty Jager’s 2011 post on Romance at Random:

The Indians love of the land and nature make wonderful backdrops for the use of language and how they portray their lives. This honest connection with the world around them adds to the romance of the story. Their distinct and different culture from ours is fascinating to us.

Notice the use of pronouns there: they are Native Americans, primitive and romantic and exotic. We are romance authors, sophisticated and language-oriented and cultured. The phrasing splits the two groups and allows for no overlap between them. Similar stereotyped language appears in this RT Magazine Theme Spotlight piece: “The Native American romance emphasizes instinct, creativity, freedom, and the longing to escape from the strictures of society to return to nature.” It’s Noble Savages all the way down. With this kind of othering so strongly at work in the subgenre, it’s hardly surprising that actual examples of Native American/American Indian romance authors are very difficult to come by.

Cover image for Her Land, Her Love by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie. A brown-skinned, dark-haired woman in a Navajo rug dress looks sadly down to one side. Gold triangles frame the corners of the image.Naturally, as I often do when stumped, I asked Twitter for help — a Storify of the collected responses can be found here — which is how I learned about Evangeline Parsons Yazzie.

Of all the authors mentioned in that Storify, Ms. Yazzie is the one who most explicitly identifies as Native American (specifically Navajo). Her Land, Her Love (Amazon link: publisher page is here) is the author’s first romance: her other works are children’s books based on Navajo legends and stories. Ms. Yazzie makes clear in her introduction that she chose the historical romance form deliberately, and that this story is a way of remembering and retelling her people’s past: therefore it seems appropriate to talk about the ways in which this book departs significantly from the usual forms of white-authored Native American romance.

This book’s roots are in oral storytelling and the prose shows it: the opening chapters have zero conflict and are simple and descriptive in the manner of folktales and poetry. Time moves in fits and starts and great leaps — we start with our heroine Nínááníbaa’ as a baby and move quickly forward into her youth and the day of her marriage to hero Hashké Yił Naabaah. At the same time there’s a wealth of detail of Navajo daily life: it felt more as though I were reading a work of historical scholarship rather than a historical romance. I’ll admit: it was at times quite frightfully dull. But those conflict-free, happy chapters full of loving family members and yearly rhythms and hilarious sheep and goat sounds give us the space to see the Navajo as they are when they are free to be themselves, with their religion, culture, and living places mostly intact.

This in-depth depiction is the opposite of what we see in the captivity narratives identified by Janet at Dear Author as part of the romance genre’s foundations, where a white heroine (it’s usually a heroine) is captured by a local tribe and gradually assimilated, often marrying a Native American man (or a white dude who has been similarly assimilated). This is the voyeuristic and colonialist arc we see in — to take one popular example — James Cameron’s Avatar, where an outsider can out-native the natives, for some reason. By contrast, none of the white characters in Her Love, Her Land is going to out-Navajo the actual Navajo — this romance novel is centered firmly in indigenous culture, looking out, rather than from the mainstream white colonial perspective, looking in. Practically all of the dialogue is in Navajo, an extremely complex language, with English translations following. I liked this a great deal: it reassured me that the author was writing from within the tradition, with personal knowledge of Navajo language and culture. (I’m also a bit of a language geek, so I would occasionally try and work out which words were doing what in a given Navajo sentence. I got basically nowhere, which isn’t surprising since there’s a reason this language was used for coded messages in WWII, but it was fun trying.) Most of all, this book felt profoundly real – perhaps it was just knowing that many of these stories were real, had been handed down the author’s family tree for several generations. I can’t separate that from my reactions, and I’m not sure I’d want to if I could. Reading this book felt like bearing witness.

This sense of a place well-lived in, with real-life families, makes the text absolutely terrifying for a reader aware of what’s to come. We know this idyllic continuity is not going to last, and the happier our main couple and their relatives become, the harder it will be when everything is taken away from them. We see, in exquisite detail, precisely how much our here and heroine are going to lose in the years to come. And by this point we’ve come to care for them just as they’ve come to care for each other. (Seriously, Nínááníbaa’ and Hashké Yił Naabaah’s four-day honeymoon where they’re living together but not allowed to touch one another is the sweetest, shyest thing. They’re all trembling and nerves and yearning eyes, both of them.) The fall happens gradually — the capture of two daughters here, the loss of a son there, the need to compromise for safety’s sake as Kit Carson’s men burn villages and poison waterholes — and it is all the more heartbreaking for being drawn out. Hashke Yił Naabaah is a war leader, admired and respected and responsible for his people’s happiness, so at every turn he is trying to understand what the white men want from him, how he can find a way to compromise, how to get across the vital needs of his people. There are a few moments of narrative omniscience, where the story pulls back to tell us what one particular white officer might be thinking, but for the most part the white men we see in this novel are all completely opaque, nameless and inhuman. There’s occasional reference to the state of national politics, but it is not nearly enough to outweigh the terrible crimes happening here, on the page in front of us, to people we’ve spent years of book-time with.

One of these moments, however, is particularly worth our attention as intersectional feminists (practicing):

Never in the wildest dreams of the Naabeehó naabaahii did any of them think that the greed for gold and silver was at the forefront of the decision to remove the noble Naabeehó people to a place far from their land between the four mountains. Once again, the soldiers lied to them!

General Carleton, along with a man who had been a territorial governor of New Mexico, had secretly met at Santa Fe and created a grand scheme for removing the “savage” Navajos from their lands. The two men believed the land the Naabeehó occupied was rich in gold, silver, and copper. The Union Army was becoming poor fighting a war in the south known as the Civil War. General Carleton felt their contribution of precious metals would be valuable in helping their Union Army fund the war. (Kindle location 3212)

The Civil War, while not “fought over slavery” precisely as whitewashed history would have us think, nevertheless did have the outcome of making the chattel slavery system illegal in the United States. (Unless we want to talk about sharecropping and Jim Crow but I digress.) The huge effort required for the liberation of the slaves is here directly tied to Indian removal and violent oppression. This is intersectionality at its most basic: the legal/military means by which black people became legally people (as opposed to property) necessitated the destruction of Indian nations in territories hundreds of miles away from the battlefield — at least in the eyes of the white men in charge of the Army and US domestic policy. We like to believe — are often taught to believe — that the US’s story is an arc of decreasing racism and the long slow death of white supremacy: direct connections like this one between black and Native American oppression prove that comforting fiction to be a sweet and poisonous lie.

Ms. Yazzie’s text walks a fine line between realism and romanticism: the pain our hero and heroine suffer — removal from their homes, the loss of their children, fear for their safety and the ever-present possibility of rape and starvation and death — is arbitrary and malicious, unthinkably sadistic. At the same time, the resourcefulness and strength Haske Yił Naabaah and Nínááníbaa’ show in supporting one another and their fellow Navajo is highly idealized. Frankly, I was glad this was so. I didn’t want to watch those strong hearts lose hope in one another, even though they lost hope in plenty of other things (the promises of soldiers, for example). This is not a subtle moment in history, so the heightened contrast feels appropriately stark.

In the middle of the book, our hero and heroine are removed from their home and sent on the Long Walk. Again the tropes of the captivity narrative are reversed: the Navajo people are the ones being taken and removed, forced to depend on the dubious charity of Union soldiers in an internment camp on the outskirts of a fort. People starve, people sicken, people vanish, people die. There’s no moral justification for any of it. Our protagonists are still living in the camp at the end of the book, though historically the Navajo were eventually moved to a slightly better location (not great, and not their proper home, but not quite as barren and hostile as Bosque Redondo). Perhaps this is part of what makes Native American romances so comparatively rare: the implausibility of a happy ending in the face of flat-out genocide. The history of contact with Native peoples in the US is irredeemably tragic and negative, a difficult setting for a genre whose most recognizable trope is a happy ending.

This would make Native invisibility in romance more understandable if it didn’t dovetail so nicely with the prevailing cultural notion that Native Americans only exist in the past, rather than being present citizens, neighbors, friends, and potential lovers/heroes and heroines of romance. I expected to be able to find at least one contemporary romance with a Native American protagonist — but everything skewed immediately paranormal and urban fantasy. You can apparently have Muscogee or Navajo characters, but only if they’re magical. Special. Not really human or normal at all, in fact. It put my hackles up in ways I haven’t been able to articulate, though this post is a good start.

So going forward I shall continue my search for that unicorn: a (hopefully contemporary) romance with a Native American hero/heroine written by a Native American author. If anyone knows of one (or has written one!), let me know!

Let everyone know. We’ll be listening.

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The Navajo People have a truly excellent website, with plenty of links about history, culture, and news.

Native American authors are definitely out there: they’re just writing things that aren’t genre romance. Here is a list of 20 Native American authors you need to read (hometown hero Sherman Alexie shoutout!). 

Speaking of Native peoples and children’s literature, Colorlines recently did an eye-opening post about the interplay of racist sports mascots and children’s books.

Photographer Matika Wilbur’s Project 562 aims to photograph people from every one of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. It’s amazing and beautiful and vital — go look!

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Yazzie, Evangeline Parsons. Her Land, Her Love. Flagstaff, Arizona: Salina Bookshelf. 2014. Ebook.

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H is for Harmony

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

Sienna Mynx’s 1920s-set interracial romance Harmony was a mixed bag for me. The book was self-published and it shows, especially in the comma confusion and some occasional editing errors that jerked me right out of the story (“romp” for “rump” and such). Hero Vinnie is an alpha male mob boss, neither of which tropes are really my jam, and I had some minor quibbles with the pacing and the plot. But by far my biggest disappointment is — spoilers! — the fact that our two villains (well, one-and-a-half villains: thanks, redemption arc) are both gay. People, I am so damn tired of gay villains in romance: it was cliché and reductive in the 80′s, and it’s cliché and reductive now.

Cover image for Harmony by Sienna Mynx. A brown-skinned, black-haired woman with a white flower behind one ear stares challengingly at the camera. She wears a spaghetti-strapped black dress. Behind her, a pale-skinned man with slicked-back blondish hair dangles a cigarette between his lips and stares at the camera with a shotgun raised to one side.It’s especially disappointing in an interracial romance that is explicitly concerned with how societal norms punish our black heroine and Italian-immigrant hero for the taboo nature of their relationship. Harmony and Vinnie lament the hardships they will face as a mixed-race couple, to the point where they end the book starting over in a new town out West where they won’t be so blatantly discriminated against. There are only a few states where their relationship is even legal, and our hero and heroine suffer from the stigma and prejudiced disdain of others at several key points in the plot.

None of this gives Vinnie and Harmony any immediate empathy for their gay siblings: Harmony’s brother Willie’s homosexuality is described as a “sickness” (Kindle location 3185) and Vinnie’s brother Antonio’s as a “madness” (3289) and “sins” (4256). (Side note: I have a hard time using the word “queer” in relation to this text, as it appears several times as a slur.)

Any excuse to post this exchange between Jeff Winger and Troy Barnes.In fact, it is Antonio, our villain, who most strongly makes the argument that it’s hypocritical to defend your straight mixed-race relationship while disapproving of his mixed-race relationship with another man: “You can fuck Annie, playhouse with her, but you would never accept me and Teek” (3208). Teek is the gay brother of Vinnie’s ex-girlfriend Annie — so for those of you playing along at home, we now have three gay brothers. Two of the three are black. One of the three, Teek, is dead when the book begins, and the other two conspire for revenge — though the main impetus is Antonio’s, since Teek was “the only person who ever loved me unconditionally” (3206). Antonio is killed pretty much immediately after this reveal, and Willie gravely injured.

With the various bootlegging gangs poised for war thanks to Antonio’s big gay treachery, Harmony gives her brother a wad of cash and sends him to Chicago, saying he should “go wherever you want and be who you are … You of all people should know we can’t help who we love, only the choices we make” (4053). This has the phraseology of acceptance, but it’s really a Pilate-like washing of the hands: an earlier exchange between Harmony and Vinnie about her brother’s future sees Vinnie encourage her to “Let him go. Let him be his own man, make his own mistakes” (3487). It’s an unfortunate turn of phrase that equates gay relationships with shady criminal activity (the context in which we mostly see men’s choices characterized as “mistakes” in this text). Harmony expresses love for her brother, but it has the regretful love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin flavor we’ve seen so often in ‘not officially bigoted’ homophobic parlance.The happy ending requires Harmony and her brother to be separated, possibly forever. The text’s inability to distinguish between Willie’s criminal actions and his sexual desires is one of the many points where a thoughtful editor could have improved the book immensely. Instead we’re left with a three-pack of the Bury Your Gays trope, with a hefty sprinkling of the myth that black people are especially prone to homophobia.

Fortunately, this disappointing dynamic is only a small part of the text. The part that resonated most strongly with me is the way this text deploys the human voice as a tool and a motif — in particular, the voice of our heroine Harmony.

Harmony’s voice is an instrument of unassailable power. It soothes her when she feels anxious, and it undermines her opponents. In a narrative where she is often vulnerable, trapped and surrounded by violent, untrustworthy men — our hero included — the power of her voice consistently levels the playing field: “Nothing could touch her when she sang” (532). Even as Harmony’s song keeps her protected, it utterly destabilizes our aggressive alpha hero:

Words he hadn’t spoken since he parted the shores of Sicily escaped him. He whispered them forgetting she didn’t understand his language. He wanted to stop time. Never in his life had a woman’s voice had such an affect on him. Silently he had craved her for months after the first time he heard her sing. He bought all the jazz records he could, trying to capture the calm soothing feeling of her voice that chipped at the iceberg in his chest most would call a heart. (543)

Harmony yells “No!” more often than any heroine in my recent memory. Shouts it, more than once, to the hero and others, often after eavesdropping and overhearing something vital she wasn’t supposed to hear. In keeping with this vocal self-assertion, she consistently refuses to be sidelined, deceived, discounted, ignored, or dismissed. At one point she is given solid cause to distrust the hero, and — praise be! – she distrusts him, as any reasonable person would when choosing between a long-loved brother in peril and a three-days’ Mafioso hookup who has kidnapped you and is keeping you in the dark about his plans. When Vinnie’s racist henchman beats her and tries to prevent her escaping from the isolated farm where she’s being kept, Harmony takes a pickax to his face. Then she steals a gun and a car, finds her brother, and threatens to shoot our hero for being a jackass. The fact that she happens to be wrong about who’s really behind the conspiracy does not become an emotional plot point: she is not made to atone for her mistake the way romance heroines are so often punished by the narrative for distrusting the hero. In fact, Vinnie seems rather impressed (as well he should be).

Words are the heroine’s best weapons. Antagonists more than once refer to her as “mouthy.” This in a text that emphasizes different modes of speech — singing, promises, lies, and confessions most prominently — makes Harmony something of a superhero. She argues back against those who would shame her for loving a white man. She unravels lies and compels the fulfillment of promises. At the book’s climax, she persuades two rival gang leaders to help her rescue Vinnie from assassination — a welcome reversal of the usual suspense dynamic.

Hero Vinnie, unfortunately for him in such a world as this, is more a man of concrete physical action:

He should just hold her and talk out their goodbye. Find the comforting words to give her so she would remember him fondly, and not like this, broken and needy. But he craved the physical more. (3901)

In the course of the plot, Vinnie tries to fight violence with violence and gang warfare with gang warfare. The fight scenes tend to feature him grabbing someone by the throat, choking them, or stepping on someone’s throat — silencing moves, reflecting his discomfort with language and speech. He is simultaneously paranoid about and vulnerable to his brother’s lies, and his inability to discern the truth of someone’s words often leads him to retort with his fists rather than with argument. Many romance heroes are described as dangerous, but few truly are: Vinnie kills multiple people in truly brutal ways over the course of the plot, and experiences little if any remorse for it. Yet time and time again, Vinnie fails at what he sets out to do — to reform his brother, to get back his stolen booze shipment, to convince Harmony to trust him implicitly, to be different than his abusive, larger-than-life father.

Often in romance the violence of a dangerous hero is justified and made palatable by the narrative: he defends the heroine, he kills the villain, he defeats enemies who are equally or more brutally vicious. The hero’s violence is within his control, or at least within the scope of sympathy and heroic morality. But Vinnie’s violent nature is almost fatal to himself, to Harmony, and to their shared future. It’s a part of himself that he hates, and for once the narrative supports the hero’s self-loathing: Vinnie is absolutely right to hate the part of himself that is hateful. Harmony gives him several earfuls about it, and his stubborn refusal to listen to her is presented as a mistake (unlike her earlier distrust and threats against him). His brother, his booze-running, his loyal gangster friends — all of these are taken from him, one by one, as the consequences of violence compound and increase. Just stop, I was mentally pleading by the time of the final showdown. Just leave while you’re still alive. There’s nothing left for you here. Vinnie nearly dies in a blaze of glory, haloed by bullets, hung from his arms in the barn where he failed to get former captured enemies to confess (that language weakness again). His farm, a longtime refuge, burns to the ground in the turmoil, while Harmony throws an unconscious Vinnie in the back of her car and they take refuge with the unspeaking Amish (no, seriously, it was kind of weird).

Normally, especially in romantic suspense (which I’d argue is the proper subgenre for this book), we see the heroine’s life destroyed to push her closer to the hero. In Vivid, for instance, Viveca’s cottage was set on fire by a disgruntled local douchebag, after which she moved in to the house where Nate and his family lived. In Harmony, for once, it’s the hero’s world that burns: Harmony gets everything she dreamed of since the start of the book. Vinnie puts aside his violent urges, for the sake of Harmony and their child. It’s like the end of Jane Eyre, if Rochester used more Italian words and was only emotionally rather than physically wounded at the end. I am left feeling that it really shouldn’t be so rare for an alpha hero in the romance genre to renounce a life of violence. To have a black heroine’s voice be the most powerful in the book, to have the white alpha hero ultimately yield to her authority, is kind of a radical move.

I think I’ve talked myself into liking this book.

I guess there’s something to be said for overthinking things.

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For actual period takes on black-authored romance in the 1920s, check out this gem from the Popular Romance Project about romance stories in black newspapers of the early 20th century. 

And for a wider historical perspective, here is a piece from The Root on black LGBTQ authors during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Mynx, Sienna. Harmony. The Divas Pen: 2012. Ebook.

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G is for Gold Mountain

{Click here for the complete A-Z of intersectional feminism in romance.}

So yesterday was really something, wasn’t it? Today will be much more relaxed, I promise. Less righteous vitriol; fewer italics; hardly any swears at all.

It appears that this blog series is developing ongoing themes and topoi — such as 19th-century California, which has appeared in Beverly Jenkins’ Destiny’s Embrace and yesterday’s unmentionable disaster. Sharon Cullars’ short romance Gold Mountain is set during the wild and lawless days of the building of the railroads: our heroine is a black laundress/cook and our hero is a Chinese immigrant building the railroads. It’s a short, quick read that didn’t entirely work for me but did have the benefit of featuring hardly any white people at all.

Cover art for Gold Mountain by Sharon Cullars. A brown-skinned woman with dark hair looks out at the reader. Behind her, a shirtless man with narrow eyes and golden skin hides half in shadow. As we saw with Tessa Dare‘s book earlier, portrayals of marginalized identities can become stronger and richer when you have more than one character with that identity. I mean, come on Olivia, that’s called tokenism and we knew that. But there’s often a sense, when writing books specifically in resistance to a dominant kyriarchal narrative, that building books with marginalized characters is an act of rehabilitation. There are so many reductive, venomous stereotypes out there for us to rebel against. Highly Recommended Author Zen Cho describes how this very impulse informed her creation of Jade Yeo:

I think of this imaginary genre as being a reactive one, a thing that I am producing as part of a long slow recovery process. What I am doing with it is, I am processing my childhood reading — all the stuff that was really influential and enjoyable, but also kind of secretly toxic — and I am trying to extract the poison from it while preserving the things I loved.

So when romance has a long, long history with the gay villain, for instance, the initial temptation is to write the Nicest, Most Moral And Upright Gay Character Ever in response. And this is important and necessary, because we need to see heroes and heroines of every stripe; because I really believe that heroism (in both the romance sense and in the wider sense) should be something every person on earth feels they have access to. The title of protagonist should be one any human being can claim for themselves.

Unfortunately, we are not all heroes. Or heroines. Or admirable. Some of us are shit-eating bastards — okay, so there are a few swears in here — and others of us are purely mediocre, or cowardly, or weak, or self-serving. And being disabled or black or queer etc. doesn’t magically forestall any of this. (Apparently today is Saying Obvious Things day on the blog — bear with me.) So the need to resist toxic stereotypes is therefore directly at war with the need to depict human foibles in all their ugly reality.

The solution is obvious and yet so often not employed: if more than one of your characters is black, or Asian, or trans, you do not have to worry so much about making them all Model Minorities. Authors are also free, in this scenario, to complicate the story’s conflict in realistic ways. Because marginalization is not martyrdom, and ugly power dynamics have a tendency to trickle downward through increasingly vulnerable layers of the social fabric. Oppressed groups can and do respond to systemic discrimination with violence of their own. This is precisely what we see in Gold Mountain, and I found it by far the most compelling aspect of the book.

The reason there are not a lot of white characters in Gold Mountain is this: white people in this world are dangerous. Our black heroine Leah and Chinese hero Quiang avoid them when they can. The two white people we spend the longest time with are a pair of bigoted arsonists who (it is implied) would probably not be averse to a little bit of rape as well. Then there are the railroad overseers, who are as negligent of the life and safety of their Chinese employees as you would expect.

The way that abuses of power filter through the social strata is very clear in this text. We start with 19th-century robber barons, who hire cheaper Chinese labor as a cost-cutting measure:

All the [Chinese] workers knew they were making far less than the whites who worked alongside them, but there was nothing they could do. The one time they’d decided to strike for better pay, the railroad management withheld their monies until they all went back to work. (Kindle location 890)

Naturally, the lower-class white workers are sympathetic to this Catch-22 in which their Chinese counterparts are trapped. Oh wait, no they are not:

If anything the Chinese were often the victims of those who resented their good fortune in this land. That was why the esteemed families had come together as the Seven Companies, as the Heaven and Earth Society, to protect those who were regularly beaten and sometimes even murdered. (1427)

In other words, when faced with economic hardship, abuse, and no legal recourse for redress, the Chinese immigrants organize their own shadow authority. Naturally, the triad is focused on justice and benevolent care for those harmed by the state of California’s racist policies. Oh wait, no they are not:

The night running was often dangerous because several families were in contention for the opium trade. And certain independents without honor thought to push their way into the competition, making the running even more hazardous. On two occasions [Quiang had] had to take extreme measures to protect himself. One man would never walk again. And he had gained a few more scars to join those already mapped on his body. (1427)

Racist penny-pinching policies by railroad company men whose names we do not even know are directly responsible for the fact that Quiang has to maim a fellow immigrant in self-defense. And it must be stated: the dramatic tension of this situation makes for some eminently compelling scenes. My favorite moment in this novella is not anything to do with the romance — though the romance is well-handled — but rather the scene where Quiang is framed for stealing from the triad, resigns himself to death, and then convinces the dragonhead that if he must kill someone for the crime, to kill both Quiang and Quiang’s boss, the real thief. It’s a total badass move on the part of our hero as well as a riveting piece of drama, and it’s all due to the fact that we know he has no legal recourse and is at the mercy of this deadly, whimsical brand of outlaw justice.

Meanwhile, our heroine Leah is dealing with similar though less obviously fatal dynamics. Black Pastor Caldwell has noticed her continued absence from church:

She didn’t know how many Sundays she could let pass before it would be plain that she just didn’t want to go to that church any longer. She was as pious as anybody, but she liked to worship in her own way. Not within the confines of a place where the menfolk made it known they were there more for wife hunting than worshipping God. She had just gotten plain tired of the male parishioners coming up to her with nary a word of wooing and expecting her to accept off-the-cuff proposals … It didn’t help that Pastor Caldwell was one of those men. (440)

Naturally, the black men are only looking out for a sister in a land full of predatory and lawless white men. Oh wait, no they are not:

She understood too well that in a community of only a few Negroes, any unmarried Negro woman was open game for not only decent-minded suitors, but those with less-godly intentions … Some folk would always assume that a Negro woman, no matter how primly dressed, was a loose woman. Outside of the church and the colored women’s auxiliary, there weren’t too many places she and Clara could go to socialize. (465)

But of course, naturally, when Clara is killed and Leah in the hospital recovering from injuries, Pastor Caldwell offers to help her because of disinterested Christian charity. Oh wait, no he does not:

“I know you don’t have a place to live right now. There’s a room above the rectory where the church puts up visitors. I can have it made up all feminine-like for your comfort, and you can stay as long as you like. I know people will probably talk — they always do. But maybe in a few months, we … we can make the talking stop by … I don’t know any other way to bring this up. I haven’t courted you properly, but I think you might have figured out by now that I have a soft spot for you, and I would be honored and privileged –” (1571)

Leah cuts off his inelegant speech at this point before he can go completely Collins on us. Her objections are that A) Clara loved him, and B) Leah does not, so his proposal is doubly unwelcome to her. Naturally, Pastor Collins takes this refusal with good grace. Oh wait:

The pastor took up his hat and stood. His face was stern and formal. “I’m sorry to have overstepped myself. You can trust that I will not make that mistake again. I wish you well, Sister. And .. if you ever do need anything … well, the church is always open to you.” (1597)

Injured and grieving, Leah has now been cut off from the only society she knows by her refusal to prioritize the pastor’s romantic desires over her own. Racist discrimination in society and the law directly lead black women to be victimized by black men as well as whites. I’ll admit that I spent a large part of this book giving Pastor Caldwell the side-eye as he lurked creepily through his scenes. He doesn’t end up being more than self-absorbed and unpleasant, but the threat was very palpable. And if his fiancée Tallulah — an engagement acquired immediately after Leah’s refusal — had not offered our heroine a place to stay after her discharge from the hospital, she would have been out on the dangerous streets of Sacramento.

These two social groups, black and Chinese people, each building a unique response to a unique pattern of repression, are deliberately isolated from one another, just as Quiang and Leah are initially separated from one another by the language barrier: Quiang does not speak English, and Leah does not speak Taishanese (Quiang’s particular dialect of the Chinese language family). Mixing the systems of black, Chinese, and white power and resistance gets volatile very quickly: the one scene we have with characters of all three races leads rapidly to Clara’s death. Leah is in no doubt about her responsibility for this: “Clara was dead because of her, because she had stood up for a Chinaman” (1336). Nothing good can happen when different groups or ethnicities mix:

At near midnight the streets were deserted but for the most base of the citizenry, whether white, Irish, Chinese, Negro, or Mexican — races kept apart by the laws of man, brought together by the pursuit of illegal or lascivious distractions.” (1355)

Quiang’s inability to get free of association with the triad puts his and Leah’s lives in immediate danger. Being shut out from legal existence means that illegal existence will necessarily flourish — we see this with alcohol Prohibition, and we see it here in Gold Mountain. During the course of Leah and Quiang’s romance, I was on tenterhooks to see how these tensions would be resolved.

Turns out — spoilers! — they aren’t. Quiang and Leah move away, driven by the need to get away from the sinister control of the triad and its leaders. They raise happy children in Colorado, which I had a hard time believing was free from any prejudice against a mixed-race couple and their mixed-race children in 1865. The children are sweet and the romance was too, but I wish there had been more answers at the end.

___

Sharon Cullars really, really needs a new website — seriously, no way to click through to page two of your blog? does page two even exist? I can’t tell — but the landing page did provide a link to this excellent interview she did with late mystery author and former Massachusetts cop Judith Smith-Levin (link is at the top left).

Lately activist Suey Park has provoked a larger — and often vitriolic — discussion about anti-Asian racism and white progressive allyship. Feministing has a piece that discusses how the response to Park’s #CancelColbert mirrors other recent backlashes to women’s online speech, particularly women of color.

___

Cullars, Sharon. Gold Mountain. Loose Id LLC: 2010. Ebook.

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Cover for Sandra Hill's Frankly, My Dear. A tan-skinned shirtless man with dark hair holds a tan-skinned, dark-haired woman in a yellow historical gown. Red background. The cover pose references the famous movie poster for Gone with the Wind.

F is for Fuck’s Sake, Frankly, My Dear

{Content note: this post discusses slavery and pernicious anti-black racism all the way down.

Click here for the complete A-Z of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Let’s imagine you are a slave on a sugar plantation in 1845 Louisiana. Which of the following things do you think you want most?

  1. Modern makeup
  2. Aerobics lessons
  3. Group psychotherapy (from amateurs, not professionals)
  4. Cosmo-style sex tips

If you answered 5. My fucking freedom or at least a decent working wage, you bigoted asshat, you are correct. But if you picked 5, you would be far too astute to be any of the characters in Sandra Hill’s Frankly, My Dear – not naïve time-traveling white supermodel heroine Selene, not emo slave-owning Creole hero James, and certainly not the cheerful and well-fed slaves on the Bayou Noir plantation, who are just so happy to have our heroine’s opinion on their physical attributes, mental health, and sexual adventures.

And yes, the aerobics lesson actually happens on-page, while everyone sings “Achy-Breaky Heart.” Hand to God, head to desk.
Cover art for Frankly, My Dear by Sandra Hill. Red background. A shirtless man with dan skin and long dark hair stands. In his arms he holds a woman with tan skin and dark hair, in a butter-yellow off-the-shoulder gown.  White formal text reads: SANDRA HILL above and FRANKLY, MY DEAR below.

This novel reads as though someone is lovingly pulling out every mint-condition antiquated racist stereotype of black characters from all of comedy and film. Every black woman is a Sassy Black Woman, except for the ones who are Eeeeevil (and inaccurate) Voodoo Priestesses. (Many thanks to Virtual Chaplaincy for that link.) There are multiple Magical Negroes (can I posthumously apologize to Marie Leveau for her cameo in this book?) and the heroine’s time-travel is accomplished through a voodoo spell — which felt like such a waste of a premise. Imagine a world where black people had the secret of time-travel in 1845: wouldn’t that be the best way of escaping from slavery? It would be the ultimate Underground Railroad. Can somebody write that book, please? Because I would really love to read that.

Instead, a black woman’s magical powers are leveraged to serve the white protagonists. What we have here is a romance where a slave plantation is a Fun Unique Setting!, starring two preposterously shallow and self-involved white people. How appropriate that this entry falls under the letter F, as there are many, many f-words in my Kindle notes for this book.

Ms. Hill’s text makes heavy use of the language of appropriation. Black experiences of dehumanization and torture are merely a useful metaphor with which to describe the lives of our white hero and heroine. In other words — do you know what is just like slavery? Western beauty ideals (all emphasis mine):

  • “Besides, I don’t have to diet now … In fact I feel as if I’ve been emancipated.” (507)
  • In deference to the temperature, she scandalously insisted on wearing only one crinoline — one too many, in her opinion. Apparently, most ladies wore five or six. They must be masochists, Selene decided, or else slaves to the dictates of a fashion-conscious society, just like modern women. (1028)

Also just like slavery: paid work:

  • Five years of working side by side with the natives on a Santo Domingo sugar plantation as an indentured servant had taught him good and well what servitude felt like. (1368)

(Side note: you weren’t working with the ‘natives,’ James honey, you were working with imported African slaves and their descendents. The native Taino people of Hispaniola were wiped out centuries before by your slave-owning asshole forebears.)

Also especially like slavery: hating slavery but still choosing to acquire slaves to work your land for you:

  • Escape… that was what he yearned for — escape from the burdens of running a struggling sugar plantation, escape from the responsibilities of a family that was splintering apart, escape from the loneliness of his self-imposed exile. Most of all, escape from the system of slavery he abhorred and yet benefitted from. Sometimes he thought he was as much a prisoner as his slaves.(1386)

In the face of such rank, self-aggrandizing, unempathetic bullshit, I lose all critical distance. My notes for this passage are a motley collection of all-caps and swears and ludicrous errors by the Autocorrect.

But don’t worry about all the black people, the text assures us in this same passage — our hero James is nice to his slaves. (Surely some historical slaveowners were nice, too, right?) He lets them earn their freedom after five years of good slavitude, followed by five years of indenture, during which he pays them not in wages but in land they can farm and sell the proceeds from. He pays them in extra work after their slaving work is done. What a champ. But at least it’s better than nothing, right? Give the poor heartbroken slaveowner a break: he’s a motherfucking job creator: “If I don’t make this land thrive, not only will my future be bleak, but there will be no future at all for the hundred slaves who depend on me” (2125). There is no sense here of slaves as people with independent dreams or desires: if James does not provide them with work, clothing, and food, they will have nothing. Black people in this text have no agency of their own — despite not only the historical fact of the Underground Railroad and various slave uprisings during this time period, but also all the free black people we saw living and thriving in California in Beverly Jenkins’ books. In fact, when the hero and heroine of Frankly, My Dear move to California at the novel’s end to avoid the future Civil War, many of the slaves go with them willingly. Because of niceness, or something. It’s a blatant narrative move to justify our hero and heroine morally and ensure the reader’s sympathy: if the slaves choose to stick around even in free territories, it proves James and Selene weren’t Real Slaveowners ™ at all. The subject of back pay for years of unpaid labor somehow never seems to come up.

I  might forgive this set-up (though it’s a long shot) if James had inherited the plantation and the slaves and was making the best of a shitty deal — but James bought into this toxic system, his mother explains:

  • “For more than ten years, he worked as little more than a slave until he earned enough to return for me and purchase Bayou Noir.” (3728).

Heroine Selene is shamefully quick to abandon her initial distaste for slavery: “I don’t know why I’ve been sent to the past, but somehow I know it’s wrong for me to be trying to change history — impossible, actually” (4066). Why is it wrong or impossible? Because fuck you, that’s why. This little moment of gut-feeling is all we get for an explanation, and soon our heroine is leveraging slave labor as though she’s been doing it all her life (but she’s really nice about it, so that’s okay, right?) and boinking the slave-owning hero.

You know what else is like slavery? Dirty talk during sex:

  • She moaned and nodded, a willing slave to his graphic questions. (5394)

But then James’ dead wife turns out to be alive — and an addict! and our villainness! and she uses the n-word! which is how you know she’s evil, because good people obviously feel terrible about forcing black people to work for them for free. Upon seeing how difficult opium withdrawal is for the not-dead wife, Selene is seized with angst and remorse. Because you know what’s worse than slavery? Adultery:

  • Selene had trouble reconciling her morals and making love with a married man. (6155)

Sure, keep a hundred human beings in perpetual bondage for your own material gain — but no consensual sexytimes with another white woman’s husband! That’s immoral.

Lest you think I am being petty by taking a rocket launcher to the fish in this hapless book-barrel, I should point out that as of press time this staggeringly heartless novel, though first published in 1996, was reissued this year in both print and digital by Avon, and currently has a 4.02 star average on Goodreads, from a total of 480 ratings. That’s not too far from the same average as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a time-travel sci-fi classic featuring a black woman who gets pulled back in time to save her white slave-owning ancestor in 1815, which was published in 1979, and which is much, much better by any legitimate metric.

Granted, Frankly, My Dear‘s high ratings are partially the result of self-selection, as anyone cognizant of the subtler omnipresent forms of modern racism (microaggressions and benevolent prejudice ahoy!) would run screaming away from this book’s blurb. The most common reason the 33 text reviews give for their scores is this: the book is funny, hilarious, an escape. One reviewer describes it as “pure fantasy,” and even a few of the negative reviews mention how much they laughed, especially at the blond jokes, because the parts of this book that aren’t about racism are about how stupid and slutty blond women are. Hi-larious. I’m sure all those five-star reviewers would hasten to say that I am overthinking things, that it’s all just a joke. I have been told such things before.

But it begs the question: precisely whose fantasy is this?

Merrian Weymouth‘s idea that romance reading functions as an escape into privilege has never been more clearly illustrated. Heroine Selene and presumably plenty of this book’s readership want to ‘escape’ into the romanticized Scarlett-esque version of the Old South. Big (white) ballgowns. Aubusson carpets. Hepplewhite, Duncan Phyfe, Hitchcock and Seignouret furniture. All of these are explicitly name-dropped to underscore the desirability of Bayou Noir as a home, in the same way that plantation tours today emphasize the luxury  and emotional content of the enslavers’ lives but soften their treatment of slaves. It’s presented as simply an unfortunate accident of history that this particular fantasy comes with a genocidal price tag. It’s not like we mean to say that we wish we could get slavery back, you know. We just want everything else from that time. Oh, and also not to do our own housework, because nobody likes housework, amirite? Come on, it’s just a joke. It’s not like most modern domestic service workers are people of color or anything like that, right? I’m sure that’s just an irrelevant coincidence.

This is the petty tyranny of inconvenience — just as the heroine believes that her individual comfort somehow justifies the enslavement of roughly a hundred other human beings, romance readers feel it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to reflect on the ways the genre not only has marginalized but continues to marginalize not only characters, but also readers and authors of color. This book was not written by an obscure self-published writer with a small niche audience. Sandra Hill is a New York Times bestselling author, a genre mainstay for the past two decades; she is still writing books set in the contemporary South, though I am certainly not going to read them. And lest you think maybe she has rethought some of these depictions and dynamics in the years since this book’s publication, let me tell you that not only is this ebook a recent release, Sandra Hill and Avon are reissuing the sequel next month. Interracial romance doesn’t sell, they’ll tell you, but racist books apparently do;  there’s nothing troubling about an HEA for a slave-owning couple in the antebellum South, but you’ll get called out for depicting anything close to adultery, even if it’s clearly consensual and the wife is cool with it. Because adultery is too immoral to stomach but owning slaves is not. Because fuck you, that’s why.

Are we really supposed to believe this is all just an enormous coincidence? That there’s nothing to interrogate about our readership, our genre, and our cultural history of systemic anti-blackness?

Whether or not you consider Gone With the Wind a ‘real’ romance novel, there is no doubt that it is part of the genre’s discourse. The plantation has been a stock romance setting for half a century, from Rosemary Rogers to Kathleen Woodiwiss and onward. It’s still fairly easy to find romances with Union or Confederate Army soldiers as heroes, especially when you add Weird West and steampunk stories to the mix. I chose Frankly, My Dear for this blog series because I thought it would help showcase a particularly troubled thread of the romance genre’s history — Margaret Mitchell would be worse than Sandra Hill would be worse than some imagined novel yet to come. (I didn’t trust Sandra Hill not to have a few broad stereotypes, after all — I’ve read her before.) As they say, be careful what you wish for: a feminist reading of this book only shows how deeply the genre continues to fail in matters of race and ethnicity.

Where is the Save the Pearls-type backlash to this book and others like it? Or the thoughtful critique, as we see with depictions of rape and dub-con? Is the book’s light tone really a good enough cover for the steamingly obvious racism at the core of this premise? Is it really enough for so many readers that our hero and heroine pay lip service to the idea of racial equality, while continuing to perpetuate a violent, degrading institution? Slavery is wrong, unless you’re polite and/d or angsty about it. How is this an acceptable position for a character we are expected to sympathize with and root for?

Is it really so difficult for us to do better?

___

I haven’t even touched on all the other problems with this book — such as the moment when our heroine gets twisted up with sexual jealousy over a THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD girl she describes as moving “with the body language of an oversexed Sharon Stone” (2029). Then she calls the girl a “Lolita” (2047). We never see this girl again and she’s not important to the plot: her appearance is just a cute narrative trick to artificially raise the sexual stakes between the hero and the heroine. Or the highly racist use of dialect to Other all the black characters. Or the scene where our heroine sits down with a copy of Jane Eyre two years before Jane Eyre was actually published — which is not at all on the same level as the other things but which does speak to the idea that the author cares very little about the actual facts of the world she is trying to reflect in her fiction. Or the moment at the end when two slaves announce they’re getting married, and everyone congratulates them, when in fact slaves had no legal standing to marry and the idea that they could have happy and undivided families is a pernicious way of recasting slavery as both beneficial and inevitable. I don’t think a single page goes by without some obviously racist or sexist fuckery that should make any author ashamed in the year 20-fucking-14, and I need to stop talking about this since my fingers are shaking too hard to type.

In this keen and necessary post, Olivia Cole discusses 12 Years a Slave and its resistance to myths about white women’s role in slavery and violence in the antebellum South. There is also a romance-focused discussion of whiteness-as-default in this post at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

For fiction, if you value yourself and your blood pressure, do not read Sandra Hill’s book. Instead choose anything else from Fuck Yeah Interracial Romance Novels on Tumblr, or one of the books recommended in this post from The Toast, or if you really must read a romance novel that deals with slavery, please try Beverly Jenkins’ Indigo instead.

___

Hill, Sandra. Frankly, My Dear. New York: Avon, 2013. Ebook.

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