Category Archives: Text Adventures

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.

___

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.

___

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.

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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. {Update: this trailer comes pretty close! And has a great soundtrack, to boot.}

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?

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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.

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

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E is for Vicki Essex

{Content note: the text below describes a character dealing with being triggered and recovering from a past sexual assault, though nothing is graphically depicted in this post. There is also some transphobic language quoted.

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

Vicki Essex has one of the sleekest voices writing in contemporary romance today. Her prose is clear and engaging, grounded in her characters’ physical reactions, studded with moments that take my breath away as a reader and as a writer: “Kyle was still smiling, but inside, threads of anticipation and dread tangled into a tight, messy knot” (Kindle location 792). Damn, that just gets me right in the chest. This talent and her three-dimensional characters are what get me coming back to Ms. Essex’s books even though, as I found when I read Back to the Good Fortune Diner last year, her plots tend to leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. In Her Corner, Ms. Essex’s latest Harlequin Superromance, worked better for me than the earlier book, but still left me with unresolved questions.

Cover image for In Her Corner by Vicki Essex. Background is a running path at a park. A dark-haired woman with olive skin wears a yellow tank top with sweat stains and black athletic pants. She is running toward us, smiling off into the distance. Behind her runs a paler-skinned, dark-haired man in a blue tank top and shorts. He is smiling at the woman ahead of him.When your heroine is a Brazilian MMA fighter from a legacy family and your hero an Olympic gold-medal wrestler, your story is going to be more than usually concerned with the human body and your characters’ physicality. For once, the romance genre’s tendency to idealize its protagonists’ bodies makes sense, because these characters work hard to be in peak physical condition:

She was shorter than he’d first thought — five-eight at most. But she was built like a brick house with thick biceps that showed through the stretchy biking top and a trim, tapered waist. He’d been wrong to say that the biking gear hid all her feminine assets, because he could see them clearly defined now. Her grin widened as she unsnapped her helmet and shook out her hair. Long, thick, wavy black tresses slick with sweat tumbled out, barely tamed by an elastic hair tie at her nape. (133)

I have to admit, I cheered to see thick biceps on a heroine. Not just because it makes sense for the character, but because many athletic heroines are presented as slim and gamine rather than stacked or muscular, and it’s nice to have a little variety there. Notice, though, how careful the text is to make sure we know that even though she’s muscular she’s still obviously a woman, and more specifically a sexy woman (would an Olympic wrestler really use a word like “tresses”?).

Not long after, we have some equal-opportunity objectification of the hero:

He was the living portrait of a Greco-Roman wrestler, complete with broken Romanesque nose and dark brown Brutus-style haircut. She wondered idly if he’d ever wrestled naked like the pugilists of those bygone days. (152)

(Pause to envision and appreciate the underrated sexiness of the Brutus haircut.)

Both Bella and Kyle are pressured to match this idealized physicality with an idealized performance of binary gender roles: Kyle’s father was abusive and hypercritical, a chauvinist of the old school, and his son has been “forged by his father’s unyielding will into the manliest of men” (2273). (Reader, I giggled.) Manliness, as I’m sure you’ve heard, requires a person to suppress all emotions, to defend others (especially ‘weaker’ women and children), to disregard physical caution and safety in favor of pride, and to never let a girl “push you around” (504). Meanwhile Bella’s family — all of whom, brothers, father, grandfather, are into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and training as a career — are urging her not to fight, to settle down instead and raise babies with the boyfriend she dumped because he wanted her to stop fighting: “He said he didn’t want to see me get hurt. He kept going on about how it wouldn’t look right and how our kids would be affected” (102). Her family agrees, calling her desire to have an MMA career “selfish” (103). It’s a pretty standard patriarchal line, and it’s to Bella’s credit (and Ms. Essex’s) that she mourns their lack of support but never truly considers giving up on what she wants. I like a heroine with drive.

The tension between what is expected of Kyle as a man and Bella as a woman propels most of the plot. Bella struggles against gendered expectations for female fighters (skimpy costumes, sexism, underestimation of her abilities) while Kyle struggles to find ways to articulate the emotions he can no longer suppress (fallout from his father’s abuse, the trauma of being a rape victim, the depth of his feelings for Bella). One of the more elegant tensions of this story is that Bella needs what Kyle has (encouragement for her career,  training in wrestling) and Kyle needs what Bella has (emotional support and reassurance, unconditional affection). This is a romance where the two genders meet in the middle (stay tuned for why this is not necessarily ideal!). The text throughout is careful never to portray Bella and Kyle as meaningfully different based on their physical bodies — Kyle has experience and skills that Bella does not, and vice versa, which is why they are training together in the first place — but the expected gender performance for male and female bodies in the gender binary system leads to vastly different experiences within the highly sexist culture of the UFF (a fictional stand-in for the UFC).

MMA fighting in this book is generally presented as dangerous but acceptably so, a physically difficult yet uniquely rewarding career … except that there’s Wayne. For anyone who’s been following the increased scrutiny on concussions in the NFL and the long-term health effects of contact sports, Wayne’s sudden bursts of irritation, frequent migraines, and prescriptions for painkillers are a puzzle too easily solved, even before he explains it:

“It’s  nothing you need to worry about,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’m just getting old … Even if I’d known this would happen, I wouldn’t have given any of it up. That’s the price of glory. This –” he indicated his worn-out body ” — is just a thing that happens.” (3034)

Kyle himself has a bad knee from his early wrestling years — and he is none too happy when Bella points out that this means his peak athletic days are behind him. It’s less a matter of fetishizing youth and skill and more a question of control: “You think you can control everything in your life?” she asks him. “You can’t” (2881).

The great fear in this book is not physical danger, but lack of control over one’s own body. The real danger of a fighting career is not immediate pain, but a long-term debilitating injury — the risk is that the fighter will lose physical control, either in the present or in the much-battered future. Wayne regrets his aches and pains not because they hurt, but because they mean his body is doing things he does not want and cannot stop. This is inevitable and tragic. Meanwhile, Bella loses an important exhibition fight when she is distracted by Kyle’s voice at a critical moment, and this loss echoes the way Kyle’s father once took ownership of Kyle’s body and career:

The moment he’d opened his mouth, Bella had shifted because his voice had triggered her into taking a staggered stance. It was a Pavlovian response: the same thing had happened to Kyle whenever his father had pitched his voice in certain ways. They’d drilled that way, too, with Dad shouting instructions and Kyle going through the motions like a trained monkey. (1771)

This fear is the connecting thread between the gendered obstacles against which Kyle and Bella struggle: both dread giving (bodily) control over to someone else — Bella because it is too expected for a woman, and Kyle because it is not permitted for a man. The “Pavlovian” and “trained monkey” language in the above passasge puts both Bella and Kyle in the position of objects rather than actors; part of Kyle’s horror and regret after this scene comes from his disinclination to manipulate others the way his father manipulated him.

No wonder that in this context assault — whether violent or sexual — is presented as a more terrifying experience than simple hand-to-hand combat in a controlled setting. We have three characters assaulted over the course of the story: Kyle (raped by an ex-girlfriend), Bella (physically assaulted by a douchebag agent), and Shawnese (a teenaged recovering addict and prostitute who is stabbed by her former pimp). Control is a key issue in all three events, because the act of being assaulted takes bodily control away from the victim — not just because of the physical force involved in the incident, but because of the resulting emotional and physical instability. For instance, when Bella’s douchebag agent Ryan (a stock villain whose lines all come from Rape Culture 101) grabs her during an argument, Bella easily gets free and slams Ryan into the ground. But this moment is not followed by a rush of triumph:

Bella started trembling. Her heart pounded in her ears. She felt light-headed.

“Easy, easy.” Kyle was at her side instantly. He sat her down in a chair and pushed her head between her knees.

Her vision cleared as she breathed deeply to calm the jackhammer of her pulse. What the hell was wrong with her? She fought for a living. She’d fought against women and men tougher and better trained than Ryan. Why was she freaking out? (1379)

She is freaking out specifically because this was not a fight, something she’d trained and prepped for — this was an attack, by definition unasked-for and unwanted. When Bella next sees Ryan at a UFF gala, she loses physical control again: “She glared down at her ex-manager, heart pounding in her throat as those horrible feelings from that shocking day returned. Her fury intensified as all the things she should’ve said to him bubbled up” (2579). Again, the rush of rage is followed by a feeling of weakness: “I don’t want to sound like a wuss, but I’m kind of freaked-out” (2578).

Bella doesn’t use the word in the second scene, but it’s obvious she’s been triggered. Kyle recognizes it — though he doesn’t use the word either — because the same thing happens to him on a fairly regular basis. Including the scene immediately following this one, when he and Bella first try to consummate their relationship: Kyle panics and stops the sex right at the end of Chapter Fifteen. He describes his rape and how it is still haunting him: “I might as well tell you you’re not the first girl I’ve left in this state. They all thought I was just a doped-up loser who couldn’t get it up … It’s hard to fall asleep when every creak sounds like someone in your house” (2756). This is by no means the first rape we’ve seen in romance, but it’s one of the rare instances where the violation is separated from physical penetration (which I would argue is the feminized standard, particularly in the romance genre where rape or attempted rape is so often the province of the heroine). Kyle’s experience traumatized him not because he was penetrated (he wasn’t) but because someone took control of his body away from him without his consent. This is uniquely traumatic for Kyle on account of his father’s past abuse, which took similar forms of physical control and denial of his agency and autonomy.

When he and Bella finally — finally! — do succeed in seducing one another, Kyle believes (in true romance fashion) it has healed his broken self:

Born again. That was the only thing Kyle could compare this feeling to as he woke up the next morning. Every limb felt supple, and his back and chest felt light. It was like he was twenty-one again, rather than thirty-six — energetic, vital, invincible … A sense of accomplishment and pride rushed through him. He’d made it through the night with Bella. He hadn’t had any nightmares, hadn’t shot up out of his bed at the slightest sound. He’d had sex without embarrassing himself. His body had listened to him. He’d stayed fully in control of himself. (3383)

Kyle’s reaction to this miraculous event mystified me when I was first reading: he pushes Bella away and focuses on making future hotel-sex plans with his supermodel fuck buddy. No, really, he does. It’s baffling — there’s a woman you care about, and you can finally have sex again after so many lonely years and sleepless nights, and the sex was amazing, and you’re like, “Yep, time to ditch her in the most hurtful way possible!” But sitting down to compose this argument has shown me Kyle’s deep need for control, and how Bella threatens that. (This deeper understanding of a book is one of the reasons I love criticism, and one of the reasons I’m doing this project in the first place.)

After successfully fucking Bella, Kyle believes he’s fixed now. That he can go back to old playboy patterns (supermodels, no-strings-attached sex). One sexual assault caused the hurt, so naturally he thinks one sexual triumph can heal it. He feels younger, so he believes he can act like he did when he was younger. He’s not thinking about his life currently, about his feelings or Bella’s. He still has a profound disassociation from his own emotions, which has the unfortunate tendency of making him rather opaque from a reader’s perspective — and from the heroine’s. “I didn’t cure you, Kyle,” Bella tells him. “You can’t go chasing women trying to make yourself feel better. You need to talk to someone. You need help” (3540). (A heroine who refuses to play amateur therapist! Ten points to Gryffindor!) It is at this moment, when she questions his newfound sense of stability, that Kyle turns into a bastard and tells her he only slept with her to help her unwind before her big fight. (It may also be worth pointing out that Bella uses Portuguese words more in this scene than in the entire rest of the book — no doubt on account of the unique and explosive emotional tenor of this argument, but I can’t help wondering if this evidence of her foreign-ness helps Kyle find her more threatening than he would have if she’d been cursing at him in English.)

This theme of bodily control helps explain something else otherwise inexplicable in the book: why the text’s presentation of Kyle’s trans sister Jess is so ham-handed. I’ll start with the concise analysis from Ridley’s review at Love in the Margins:

The line about slapping Kyle’s shoulder seems to illustrate masculine strength, and a guffaw isn’t generally used for women’s laughter. When Bella compared her to a drag queen, I cringed, but the story goes on to basically portray her as one. She’s tall and ultra-feminine and her contribution to the book is to be part of Kyle’s rough relationship with his late father and to outfit Bella in a fabulous dress for a glitzy party. I wanted more substance and less stereotype. She wasn’t a character so much as a convenience.

It’s abundantly clear that both Kyle and the narrative have no idea what to do when confronted with Jess’ physical body:

He watched for that moment in Bella’s eyes. That slight widening when she realized Jess hadn’t been born a woman. With her surgically enhanced body and flamboyant style, he could understand how some people might miss the little details, but there were some things surgery couldn’t erase. (2254)

Jess is presented as masculine-in-disguise, a man in drag rather than a ‘real’ woman. In this book’s world, the body does not lie: it expresses the truth about sexual attraction, emotional trauma, age, strength, and someone’s ‘original’ gender. These things can be distractions — emotions especially — but there is very little of the ‘traitorous body’ language we’re used to seeing in romance. The body is right: it is only brains and hearts that get confused. Just as Kyle and Bella can’t ignore their bodies’ responses to one another, Jess’ assigned-masculine body can’t hide its ‘true’ gender. Therefore a trans woman is presented as a drag queen, and her assigned-masculine body combined with her feminine gender performance are read by other characters as dissonant and disturbing. Because of the body problem, the text has to go to great lengths to feminize Jess — so she becomes of narrative necessity a makeup artist, highly skilled in performative femininity even though she fails to pass convincingly as a woman.

This contradiction is the symptom of a system unaware of its own baked-in assumption that gender and sex are identical concepts in a fixed binary system. (There’s a lot to argue in that statement, I know, but I’m still only a neophyte in that regard and the short answer for our purposes is: no, sex and gender are not identical or equivalent and the binary turns out to look more like a spectrum.) Trans embodiment troubles a text so fixated on physical, corporeal truth, and Jess’ appearance functions as something of a trigger for Kyle: “Jess reminded him of all the lessons their father had beaten into him, all the things a man was supposed to be. All the things he’d failed at…” (2291) The existence of a trans woman — even his own sister! — for Kyle does not lead him to realize that rigid sex/gender roles are notionally flawed, that there is a wider range of human experience and gender expression than simply This One or The Other. Genitalia is not destiny. Instead, Jess’ existence is a reminder of the gap between Kyle’s own fragile manhood and the fetishized, idealized masculinity his father insisted he embody both physically and morally. (Whispers: nobody tell Kyle about intersex people or he’ll have to go have a lie-down.) While Jess’ inclusion in the text is a step forward for trans representation in romance — your mileage may vary — it feels like Ms. Essex missed an opportunity for a deeper commentary on the way cultural binaries fail to describe the full possibility of human existence.

In short, I’m glad this hero gets himself a professional therapist by the end of the book. It seems like he’s gonna need it.

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While writing Back to the Good Fortune Diner with its Chinese-American heroine, Vicki Essex incorporated much of her own background and experience as a Canadian of Chinese descent. She also wrote a post looking forward to the first women’s fight in the UFC.

For an upcoming multi-authored look at trans experience and resources, check out trans bodies: they’ve got a book coming out sometime this spring!

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Essex, Vicki. In Her Corner. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin Enterprises, 2014. Ebook.

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