Category Archives: Text Adventures

P is for Cathy Pegau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds pretty feminist to me.

___

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

O is for Overwhelmed

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

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

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

Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

N is for Zora Neale Hurston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__

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

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

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

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

___

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

Post to Twitter

M is for Pamela Morsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

___

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

Post to Twitter