Tag Archives: race

Z is for Zoe Archer

{Content note: the following post contains brief mentions of rape and nonconsensual attitudes in romance.

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

This post is both an ending and a beginning: an ending, because we have reached the letter Z, and after tomorrow’s brief wrap-up of the whole series I am going to explore the exciting new field of Shutting The Hell Up; a beginning, because Zoe Archer’s books were the ones that first got me really looking for more varied representation in romance all those (five) years ago. Rebel is the third book in Ms. Archer’s Blades of the Rose series, which I thoroughly enjoy for their mix of magic, historical romance, and adventure. (I’m several books behind in terms of keeping up with her many series — the curse of being a slow reader!)

Cover image for Rebel by Zoe Archer. Background of snowy peaks and high alpine forest. In the foreground a sharp-faced, dark-haired, tan-skinned man kneels, looking around observantly. He wears trousers, boots, a pale coat, and a fancy gold waistcoat. One arm is thrown out protectively to the woman who stands behind him, looking off in the opposite direction. She has pale skin and blond hair in a long braid down one shoulder. She wears goggles, trousers, a belted overshirt, and a long duster coat. A long knife is tied to the belt at her waist. One hand holds a pair of binoculars, and the other rests lightly on the man's shoulder. The premise of this series is an explicit treatise on the ethical and unethical uses of power. The Blades of the Rose (as in compass rose) are a group of fighters, spies, and scientists who travel the world to protect magical artifacts from being exploited. Their nemeses are a group known as the Heirs of Albion, whose purpose is to collect as many magical artifacts as they can for the purposes of elevating England above all other nations: “If the Heirs had their desire, Britain’s empire would see no limits” (Kindle location 13015). The contest is perennially uneven: the Heirs are aristocratic and wealthy, central figures of the real-world British Empire, and they do not scruple to use every means available to achieve their goal. Our heroes, in contrast, only use magic “that is theirs by right or gift” (15869). It leaves them perpetually outgunned and outmanned, forced to rely on their wits and strategy rather than brute force — ripe terrain for anyone who likes rooting for the underdog.

It’s been a while since I read the whole series, but in broad strokes the Blades’ own structure unfortunately replicates the pattern of imperial power, where the center is located in England (Southampton) and agents are dispatched out to the margins (Mongolia, Greece, Africa, Canada) on limited-time missions. I chose Rebel to discuss not only because it has a Native Canadian hero, but because the colonial themes of the series are brought out most vividly in this particular installment. Unfortunately, just as the Blades’ resistance to imperialism takes an imperial form, the resistances to oppression and colonial power in Rebel often replicate the patterns that sustain those systems.

Hero Nathan Lesperance is part Cowichan and part Stoney, but he’s never really known either tribe. Like many Native Canadian children, Nathan was taken from his parents at a young age and raised to be assimilated into white Christian culture. It’s a particularly cruel piece of North American history whose present ramifications include dying languages, broken traditions, lost cultures, and traumatic isolation for many First Nations people. Nathan’s determination to resist the colonial pressure that attempts to erase his history and his personhood has led him to become a lawyer on Vancouver Island, doing pro bono work to ease the burdens of injustice on Chinese and Native populations: “From the inside out, he’d smash apart the edifices of their prejudice, and the victory would be all the sweeter because they’d put the hammer in his hands” (12464). I was reminded of heroine Starbride from Barbara Ann Wright’s Pyramid Waltz, who also hopes to use the law as a means of fighting imperialism. I was also very strongly reminded of Audre Lord’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Cannot Dismantle the Master’s House” (PDF). In this light, Nathan’s project is doomed to fail because he cannot see that the very foundations of the edifice are stacked against him. The law is created by imperial minds, with racist biases, and backed by prejudice at every level. A system that encourages settler colonialism through land grants, broken treaties, and military action cannot be used to dismantle imperialism: it would be like trying to use a hammer to smash itself.

Nathan, moreover, is not even truly within the system. One of the first descriptions we get of him explicitly marks out his difference through the eyes of a local Mountie:

“I’m not your typical lawyer,” said Lesperance, dry.

On that, the sergeant had to agree. For one thing, most lawyers resembled prosperous bankers, their soft stomachs gently filling out their waistcoats, hands soft and manicured, a look of self-satisfaction in their fleshy, middle-aged faces. Nathan Lesperance looked hard as granite, hale, barely thirty, and more suited for a tough life in the wilderness than arguing the finer points of law in court or from behind a desk. (12231)

This description is a typical hero’s look — “hard as granite” in particular is one of romance’s more often-applied phrases. But we’re still gazing at Nathan through the imperial lens here: the definition of banker or lawyer implies male, middle-aged (well, yeah, after all those years of schooling!), soft and white. By invoking Nathan’s difference from this type, the text reiterates his marginalization.

Soon after this, Nathan discovers an ability to shapeshift into a large grey wolf. Our Native hero quite literally has a beast inside him, one which matches faintly remembered stories told to him by his dead mother: “A legendary race of changers lived in the sacred mountains” (12811). But our white heroine has to fill in the gaps in his knowledge: “The race of changers are called Earth Spirits … I have heard the legends, too. But I learned long ago that there is much more truth to legends than society would have us believe … You are an Earth Spirit.” The colonialist rupture of tribal tradition means Nathan now has to learn about his innermost self from a woman who comes from that same colonizing culture. When Nathan objects, as this seems to confirm every bigoted thing that’s ever been said about him — and he’s not really wrong, is he? — Astrid qualifies her statement:

“I did not say you were a man-beast. A man who can change into an animal. That is different.”

His bark of laughter held no humor. “Stupid of me not to see the difference.” (12847)

Bark of laughter — again, a common romance turn of phrase that in context proves rather infelicitous. The problem of where Nathan’s self as man begins and where his self as wolf begins (or later bear or hawk — spoilers! he has three beasts in there!) troubles the text. As is common in paranormal romance, strong emotions tend to bring out Nathan’s bestial form, especially anger, arousal, and fear. I am increasingly uncomfortable with the way these emotions are elided into one another in romance generally and paranormal romance most of all; I get that it’s all connected to self-control but as someone who can’t help flinching at loud noises I get uncomfortable at the thought of a partner who’s one inciting incident away from literally turning into a slavering monster with sharp teeth and claws. Nathan can change shape at will and is able to understand speech in his animal forms, but this comforting sentience disappears when he changes under the pressure of emotional impulses. And the way this ties back into the stereotypes of Natives as bestial only compounds my discomfort:

An animal within himself. He’d always felt it, fought it down every day. White men thought Indians were animals. He would prove them wrong, even if it meant brutally tethering a part of himself. But that hidden beast recognized her [Astrid], saw its like within her. And demanded. (12313)

The existence of Nathan’s beast-form here is a literal proof that white prejudice against Native peoples has some basis in fact in the world of the text. Some Native people are literally, not figuratively, animals. And the bestial nature is brought out by contact with (and attraction to) our white, blonde heroine.

It must be confessed: I love Astrid as a character. She’s lonely and standoffish and deeply wounded in ways that usually only the hero is allowed to be. I love a prickly heroine, and she’s a top-notch example. Astrid is frequently characterized, like Nathan, as beast-like or having a hidden beast that matches his. Astrid’s beast, however, is metaphorical: Nathan’s is literal. I cannot read this as an even distribution of power — unless her position as a white colonizer with greater knowledge (of magic, of his own people, of the threats posed by the Heir) compensates for the fact that Nathan is constantly fighting the urge to — if you’ll allow me a mild euphemism — disregard her sexual non-consent:

Nathan lowered back down to sitting, though he grimaced in pain from his aching cock. He breathed in hard, forcing himself and the beast back under control but having a hell of a time. The beast demanded more. He never took an unwilling women — even if the woman’s body was so damned willing she could start a firestorm with her heat … He clenched his jaw so tightly it throbbed, felt the animal in him growl, demanding to be set free. But he was more than animal. He had to prove that to her, and to himself. (13959)

“He never took an unwilling woman” — the pronoun’s most immediate antecedent is the beast, not Nathan, but both are active so both are mingled here. Normally such language is an externalization of a purely interior struggle — the classical example is Athena grabbing Achilles by the hair in the Iliad to prevent him from striking Agamemnon. But Nathan’s inner beast is frighteningly, fatally real. He never for one moment accepts that Astrid might honestly, truly reject him: all her denials are ascribed to fear, or avoidance of pain, or her desire to hide from complicated emotions. Their bond is presented in the text as something diegetically real and palpable even before they have exchanged more than three sentences: it is not quite a fated mate scenario, but it is close. The problem with this is that, like Nathan’s beast, the ethical landscape changes when what is usually a metaphor becomes factual. If you meet someone and the two of you have an instantaneous, real bond that happens because of magic, then it is accurate to say that rejecting that must be immoral or deluded, just like denying climate change or the benefit of vaccination is deluded (note: there will be no arguing about those statements in comments). But in real life, such palpable bonds are not scientific, they are not demonstrable by any outside measure, they are not objectively true — they are, however, frequently used as justifications for sexual assault and abuse. A brief tour through the many blog posts about the Jamie-Cersei rape scene from the recent Game of Thrones episode “Breaker of Chains” (this one from the Mary Sue is my favorite) will provide ample parallels for why this is an important sticking point.

This tension between threat and desire is resolved in the plot when Astrid yields her consent, as often happens in romance, whereupon Nathan’s beast of course turns protective instead of ominous. And to the text’s credit, Nathan’s change is not purely presented as an increase in power. It unsettles him, disturbs the course of his life, and makes him vulnerable in new ways. In fact, he way Astrid and Nathan progress from shame about the change/looking away, to watching the change as though watching is a gift, becomes highly sexually charged: “‘We shared something before,’ he nodded toward the direction from which they’d come, the riverbank on which they’d made love. ‘We’ll share this now.’ He pulled off his boots with hands that shook slightly with the intimacy of what he was about to do. A greater intimacy than the joining of their bodies in sex. They both knew that no one had ever seen him so unguarded, so truly exposed as he would be in a moment” (27211). This further complicates the interplay of violence and sexuality, and strikes me an unsatisfactory answer to the questions raised by the text. More and more, I am unsettled by the idea of romances whose erotic charge is He could hurt you, but he doesn’t. That is not a fun fantasy for me; that is not an escape; that is far too close to real life and my nightmares. You’re special: you’re the only one he shows the monster to. <– A horrible pun I could not resist.

If Nathan’s sexualized shapeshifting is a vulnerability, it is one that makes him and the other Earth Spirits a target for the Heirs, who want to colonize tribal powers the way the British colonized tribal lands: “Captive breeding … They will force you into captive breeding and create their own army of shape changers” (14754). The Heirs will do this by using three totems — a bear, an eagle, and a hawk — that each give them the power to control that animal’s shifters. There are repeated statements that the tribes can do nothing to resist the Heirs. There are repeated statements that the power of the Heirs is generally irresistible. It is hard to discern which of these statements are textual (setting us up for the eventual triumph of our heroes) and which of these statements are interacting with real-world historical narratives, which holds that all Native cultures eventually fall beneath the onslaught of white settlement and militarism. Similarly, Astrid’s eventual sexual submission is never really in doubt in the text — this is romance, where we know our hero and heroine will get together, so all her protestations are mere bumps in the road. Nathan has been colonized and is under the threat of an even more terrifying colonization by the Heirs — at the same time, his determined sexual pursuit of Astrid bears a strong resemblance to the forward movement of an irresistible, implacable enemy. At one point when Nathan is explaining why it’s particularly hard for men to watch the women they love take risks, Astrid says, “I thought that, rebel that you are, you’d have a bit more progressive attitude.” Nathan’s reply: “Some things are carved into a man’s blood and bones” (15520).

Let us have rebellion, this book says, but not too much.

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Snarky Cake’s post Multicultural Tokenism in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy has informed much of my analysis in this post, and aligns with many of my own observations of the genre.

I really wish I had had the time to read Stranger as well for this post, since black English genius inventor and waistcoat enthusiast Catullus Graves is the closest I’ve ever come to having a real-life crush on a romance hero. And Ms. Archer pairs him with a buxom, redheaded writer, so the self-identification for me there is off the charts.

Now added to my impossibly long reading list: Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture.

Definitely worth checking though it may not be still trending when this post hits: the hashtag #DiversityIsNot. Those who devalue Twitter as a means of amplifying decentered voices are talking out of their (frequently centered) ass.

This Goodreads thread about abuse red flags, sexual violence, and paranormal and erotic romance (and a bit of romantic suspense) is full of food for thought. I don’t necessarily endorse every comment in here, but I do endorse having the discussion. This post asking whether we give paranormal heroes a pass on abusive behavior is also important.

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Archer, Zoe. Blades of the Rose bundle. New York: Zebra Books, December 1, 2010. Ebook.

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U is for Katya Nar Umbriel

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

Barbara Ann Wright’s The Pyramid Waltz is a charming lesbian adventure romance in a fairy-tale setting. Heroine Katya Nar Umbriel is a quick-tongued, irreverent princess who strolls around the castle in tight trousers looking bored and charming the pants/skirts off any woman who catches her eye — this rakish persona is an excellent cover for her real work, which is ferreting out threats to the throne and the lives of her family along with a band of roguish misfits.

Cover image for Barbara Ann Wright's The Pyramid Waltz. A gold stone gastle stands gleaming against the background of a reddish sunset. In the right-hand foreground is a CGI illustration of a woman with chunky shoulder-length blond hair and pale skin. She wears a short red coat over a long white vest with gold buttons, unbuttoned to show a bit of cleavage. Her hips are canted slightly,  her feet apart, and in her left hand she loosely holds a long thin sword.Our second heroine Starbride is a new courtier with red-brown skin and dark hair, who is less interested in the politicking and catty gossip of the court and more interested in the trade law of the kingdom of Farraday, since the people of her home city are being taken advantage of by Farradain traders. Unlike the world of Ash, women are free to marry other women and start families; they can wear trousers or gowns as they please, and daughters can inherit titles and estates and even the crown, depending on their place in a family’s birth order. It’s a fun premise and a sweet romance, though a little less sophisticated than I hoped. It hits that awkward spot where it’s too sexy for YA, but feels too juvenile for adult romance. (Fantasy NA? Is that a thing yet? Please tell me it isn’t a thing yet.) But despite the lack of refinement, the world of the text has a great many things to say about the ebbs and swells of power that are precisely what intersectionality was created to address.

Katya is second in line to the throne, but her elder brother the Crown Prince lives elsewhere with his wife and children so Katya is the nearest direct link to the King and Queen. (The royal family can’t be all in the same place, for reasons that only eventually become guessable.) She is constantly besieged by favor-seekers, opportunists, and those who offer false friendship to advance a hidden agenda; as a result, she finds it hard to trust the kindness of others, particularly new acquaintances. At the same time, she plays the role of rebellious princess and seductress to mask her work as head of the Order of Vestra, a small band that uncovers traitors to and conspiracies against the crown — Katya’s friendship or attention, when offered, is therefore often as false or calculated as the flattery she receives in return. Katya unhesitatingly uses against others the same tactics (persuasion, lies, flattery, evasion) that she considers unethical when used against her.

(Over the course of the novel, I started to feel perversely sorry for the courtiers as a group — they’re characterized as universally shallow and silly and rank-obsessed and trend-mad in a way that reminds me a lot of the baseline misogyny in fantasies like Game of Thrones, where Sansa’s girlish desire to be a lady with a devoted knight is negatively contrasted to Arya’s boyish desire to take fighting lessons and run around outdoors.)

Complicating this power dynamic is the fact that Katya bears the Aspect, which is roughly to say she can transform into a Fiend when provoked or when involved in certain rituals. It gives her enormous physical power (horns, fangs, super strength and speed, the whole demon bit) but it is terribly inhuman and its lust for slaughter is insatiable. The pyramid necklace she wears keeps it mostly contained, but there is always a risk that anger or fear or other strong emotions will break the pyramid and loose the Fiend, in which case lots of people will die. This is different than many fantasy or paranormal romances, where the beastly side of a shifter is usually within the person’s control and does not impact their personhood — with the Fiend, however, Katya-as-Katya is so lost that she doesn’t even remember what she does when she’s changed. The Fiend is decidedly Not Her on a profound level — which makes her to some extent its victim, though not as victimized as those she kills when transformed. Power in this metaphor is something inimical to humanity, something cold and malevolent that needs to be kept in check.

Starbride’s POV expands the terms of power, for Starbride comes from a colonized people. I’m going to quote at length:

She ignored the Nereems’ words on courtly life and studied the architecture and tapestries, the small statues, and the representations of the ten spirits that were everywhere. She knew them already, though she hadn’t grown up with them. Like all aspects of Farradain culture, they had seeped into her homeland like a creeping tide of marmalade.

Allusia allowed Farraday into their land over one hundred years ago, to the mountains where the pale-skinned outlanders harvested the crystal to make pyramids. Some of the Allusian warlords had traded with them; others who attempted to drive them out were crushed by their army. The remaining Allusians organized to meet the Farradains on equal footing, learning more about these people, about their laws, but there was always more to learn. One hundred years hadn’t solved all their problems. (Kindle location 296)

Starbride has come to the Farradain court at Marienne because her mother would like her to find a well-connected lover to ease the trade burden on the people back home in Newhope; Starbride herself means to do research on the law to help her people, rather than offer herself up as bait to induce someone else to do it. She has a meet-cute with Katya while trying to find the library, but the more they talk and the closer they become, the less Starbride is inclined to explain her people’s problems to the princess: “Allusia has to fight its own battles. We can’t expect Farraday to solve all the problems it creates. [Ed note: why, precisely?] If we lean on them to do everything for us, we won’t know how to do anything for ourselves. We won’t even know when we’re being taken advantage of” (1172).

I have several problems with this approach  — the first being that Starbride quickly finds that what Farradain traders are doing in Newhope (something like price-fixing?) is illegal under Farradain law. Now obviously this is a bullshit move on the traders’ part, but what it tells the reader is that Farradain trade law has become the standard even in the Allusian capital. This is as clear an illustration of an imperial situation as I have seen in my recent reading. It is the threat of the Farradain army that makes this imposition possible and sustainable — so while Starbride’s urge to learn the law is all well and good, this will do nothing to eliminate the military threat that maintains the social imbalance. Her bootstrappy assertion that Allusians have to learn to cope on their own similarly ignores the nature of colonization and creates the illusion that Allusians and Farradains are operating on equal planes of agency. They are not, and we know it in the text: Starbride is ridiculed, fetishized, and Othered by the Farradain courtiers, who more than once refer to her as “exotic.” Eventually, she reveals the situation to Katya, who not only says that she should definitely have been told (on account of the illegality) but who instantly comes up with the idea of offering law scholarships for students from Allusia. Though this does further entangle Allusia and Farraday in the imperial machinery, it does so by including Allusians as actors and so must be counted as something of a win.

Not that Allusian culture is entirely free from problematic elements — they have a servant caste with something like a lifebond pledge. There wasn’t enough detail for me to explore, but it reads like a very cultish, benevolent slavery and I wanted either more or less of it than I got. More, because then it would be more than a throwaway, and less, because then I wouldn’t have to be occasionally squicked out by the casual way Starbride’s maid offered to sacrifice her life to save Starbride’s — like all the time, in casual conversation, in hypothetical poisonings, just constantly. It was weird.

The imperial legacy of Farraday, rather underexplored in the text considering how troubling a dynamic it is for the romance, dovetails with the sinister origin of the Umbriels’ power base: more Fiends. Every Umbriel within three removes from the throne has an Aspect like Katya’s — because centuries ago, an Umbriel ancestor bound the great Fiend Yanchasa beneath a giant pyramid and saved the kingdom. This was only possible by taking some of the demon into himself and his children, and the royal family has continued performing the binding ritual (the titular Pyramid Waltz) every five years, adding later descendants and children as needed. Yanchasa has become legend rather than fact in the minds of the common Faradains, so the Umbriels have to hide the monstrous sides of their nature from the population they rule over, even as they induct spouses and children into the ritual and give them their own Aspects to (hopefully) control. It is obviously in the kingdom’s best interests to keep the great Fiend imprisoned, but the Umbriels assume royal power is the reward they earn for being the Fiend’s jailers — even though this reward is not consented to by the populace, and in fact there are many who would object.

Needless to say, I am uncomfortable with this status quo. Which makes for a really fun read, until the threads start to unravel. Some pretty major spoilers to follow.

Ready? Let’s begin.

I knew by the third time dead uncle Roland’s name came up that he was probably going to turn out to be not-dead uncle Roland, and sure enough there he is, leading the rebellion. Roland had been leader of the Order in his day, and he had often been eager to use pyramid magic and mind-magic in ways not endorsed by his family or his teammates. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ is about the size of it — he was more concerned with his own right to information than to any other person’s right to anything (mental privacy, health, life). Katya has been warned away from similar impulses by her father’s pyradisté (pyramid-wizard) Crowe, just as he’d once warned Roland. But Roland’s near-death experience has led him to merge himself with his Fiend: “Roland smiled, and the features of his Aspect dropped over his face … But his expression didn’t lose its character, didn’t become the Fiend’s. He was himself, even with the Aspect” (5283). Note the ambiguity in “he was himself”: Roland’s lust for control has caused him to embrace the monstrous side of his nature to the point where all human affection and empathy disappear. All that’s left is the desire for power: “All I ask is a kingdom ruled the right way, my way … the people of Marienne will finally get a ruler they deserve, one who will protect and guide them by any means necessary” (5301).

Katya refuses — but in the course of the fight scene that follows, she has her own humanity stripped away by the rising Fiend within. By the time Roland escapes, Katya has imbibed far more of Yanchasa’s essence — far more demon — than is considered safe. Starbride’s newly discovered powers as a pyradisté mean she is the only one nearby who can help, but in her inexperience she takes away not just the extra demon, but all of Katya’s Aspect. This is presented, quite clearly, as a loss:

No Aspect. No Fiend. That which her parents had passed to her, that which all Umbriels possessed, gone. What did that make her? … No more Fiend, maybe no more Umbriel. How could she lead the Order of Vestra if she didn’t have what the original leader of the Order had possessed? (5584)

Considering the nature of the Aspect, it is tempting to snark back a reply that What that makes you, young lady, is safer to be around, but it is not so simple. The Fiend is the embodiment of both personal and political power. Many of the secret passages running through the castle are tuned only to those who have Fiendish elements, for instance — and what’s worse, it is not made clear how Katya’s cleansing (if you can call it that) will affect the way the great pyramid imprisons Yanchasa. I’m sure this is covered by the next two books in the series, but I could have used a bit more closure at the end of this first novel. As it is, we’re left with an unfinished thought on how much monstrous power one person/kingdom can contain without it consuming them.

{Minor note because it was just too good to let go unpraised: during one early scene Katya’s Fiend is unleashed and we get one of the best descriptions of violence I have ever, ever read: “She reached between his legs and clawed him from groin to chin, cutting through him as if he were warm pie.” Warm pie! I still squirm with delight to read it. GRRM eat your heart out.}

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Lately I’ve been finding and enjoying a lot of great sff that deals with colonialism and/or race relations in some way: for instance, Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo and Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

N. K. Jemisin, whose Inheritance trilogy fits in nicely with the above list of books, had a great post recently on confirmation bias and epic fantasy.

Wonderful author Malinda Lo recently posted her breakdown of diversity in the NYT YA Bestseller lists. She has pie charts for characters of color, characters with disabilities, and LGBT characters: the numbers are pretty stark and worth checking out.

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Wright, Barbara Ann. The Pyramid Waltz. Bold Strokes Books: September 18, 2012. Ebook.

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S is for Suleikha Snyder

{Content note: the following post contains very brief discussion of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.

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

One of the biggest themes of this series is the idea of people being trapped by stories — we saw how Jade Yeo refused to yield to the colonial narratives that threatened her autonomy, and how the Navajo were destroyed by the lies and omissions of American authorities. Suleikha Snyder’s Bollywood-set novella Bollywood and the Beast is a further addition to this list. Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has already done a complete breakdown of the feminist elements of the novella’s plot, which covers just about every point I jotted down during my reading, so I’m free to go in a more metaphysical direction as I discuss the ways in which characters in this book struggle against the narratives that entangle them or mask their true selves. Because the film world of Bollywood is, like its Western counterpart, a tailor-made metaphor for exploring the points where image and reality differ, where appearance and substance are at odds. And I’m going to break with the analytic essay format and use bullet points! I like bullet points. This may partly be the Theraflu talking. My brain is going in tiny swirls and circles and I cannot seem to make it do anything in a cohesive line.

Cover image for Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast. A background of lush red brocade pillows. A tan-skinned, dark-haired woman with closed eyes has one arm wrapped around a brown-skinned man in a half-on, half-off white shirt. He is facing away from the viewer, and she is pressing her lips to his shoulder.

  • Taj Ali Khan

The main story tangling around Taj is Beauty and the Beast and he knows it. He positively relishes his role, sitting around in dramatic half-lighting and using a wheelchair as a prop more than a mobility aid. (Which our heroine rightly chastises him for.) He takes a visceral pleasure in monstrosity and heroine Rocky immediately calls him on it; it becomes a running conversation between the two of them as their relationship progresses. The scars from a long-ago car accident and fire destroyed Taj’s career as an action star and filmi hero; since then, he’s stayed locked away from the outside world, growing roses in the garden and watching his old films alone in the dark: “he’d built himself a perfect cage of stone and soil and celluloid” (Kindle location 75). Appearances are currency in this Bollywood world: since Taj cannot trade on his anymore, he chooses to have no appearance, to retreat from the world entirely and go unseen by anyone for ten long, dark years. To surround himself with flickering, intangible images, like a Bollywood Norma Desmond. Jackie Horne rightly pointed out that the novel’s end requires Taj not to fulfill the original fairy tale’s narrative arc, but to rebel against it — to go out in public is not only to refute the Beast’s domestication of Beauty, but also to reassert the existence of his own face. I honestly tried to find a more elegant way of putting that — damn you, Theraflu — but there really is a nearly mystical sense to Taj’s seclusion and then emergence: to the outside world, it really is as though he has recreated his own features from nothing. Taj is really very compellingly sharp and epic in scope: it’s hard for me to be convinced that a hero is large these days because all heroes are written to be large — but with Taj, it was very easy to believe that this one man could fill not just the room, but an entire crumbling mansion.

  • Rakhee/Rocky Varma

Rocky is the Beauty in our story, but this is by no means the only fairy tale she inhabits. There’s a scene at the beginning where she imagines a trio of catty Bollywood starlets as predatory birds — as RNFF put it there’s a whiff of misogyny here, but I liked the slight unreality of the imagery. I also liked where it wound up: “[Her mother said,] ‘This is no fairy tale.’ Maybe not the Disney kind. But the dark, gory, original kind with all sorts of ironic lessons …? Rocky stared at the blood-red heel of one fallen shoe and shuddered” (53). And I clapped gleefully, remembering the vicious birds and the lopped-off heels and the bloody shoes of the original Cinderella story. Cinderella’s arc, like Beauty’s, finds its closure in a castle with a Prince — but Cinderella’s arc is also about escaping the house, about class boundaries and artifice and whether or not you’re the same person when you’re dressed up as when you’re in your workday wear. An entirely appropriate fairy tale for an actress, whose job description is to put on masks and take them off as needed. It’s an open question whether this Cinderella promise is fulfilled in the novella; the ending is a trifle too ambiguous on the practicals. (I think Taj should become a director!)

And also, there’s our heroine’s nickname. “Rocky” is an American error: “The first time someone had mispronounced her real name, Rakhee, it had turned into a nickname she embraced wholeheartedly” (92). But by adapting to the American syllables she’s made herself in a way unfit for Mumbai. In Bollywood the nickname becomes another reminder of her American-ness, associating her with a Western film about a lower-class male fighter whose voice is distinctively low and slurred; this is the opposite of the high, refined treble tone and fluid tongue expected of heroines in Hindi-language films. Like her namesake, Rocky goes through intensive training and works constantly to live up to the industry’s expectations: diction coaching, Hindi language courses, script memorization. (And now, yes, I’m imagining all this happening in a montage set to “Eye of the Tiger,” or better yet this catchy Bhangra remix.) The reason why Rocky comes to stay in Taj’s house while filming is that her fellow actors and industry people are miffed because she dropped the polite, perfect heroine’s mask and spoke too candidly in an interview about Bollywood’s hypocrisy and bigoted underbelly: she pulled the mask off, just for a moment — but nobody likes a spoilsport. So she is sent to the haveli, where she pulls off more masks. Taj’s, of course — but also his younger brother’s.

  • Ashraf Khan

The gap between appearance and the substance beneath is most poignantly illustrated with Ashraf, or more familiarly Ashu. Like Rocky, he has two names: one formal and public, the other a private diminutive, familial and intimate. Ashraf Khan the actor is attempting to fill the void left by his brother’s departure from the industry. There’s a lot about this dynamic that I may be missing, since I haven’t (yet) read the earlier book in the series, but Ashraf’s bitterness and terror are palpable enough. He is acutely, achingly conscious of the many ways he fails to be as big a star or as powerful a presence as his elder brother; this consciousness becomes more and more a figure he uses against himself, to erase his own talents, desires, and even his existence:

He had never been one to hallucinate. Not until his brother’s phantom taunting had taken root in his brain and Nina’s oily threats had begun spreading like a slick down his spine. Now, those voices were almost deafening. With him always. And they all said the same thing: You are worthless, Ashu. You are terrible. You are filthy and dirty and godless. No one will ever love you. (1030)

Bollywood’s conservative cultural standards place great burdens on their stars: no nudity, no kissing, no alcohol — at least not where anyone can see you. It’s a world of polite fictions and open secrets, of making sure you always smile for the cameras no matter how much you are hurting inside. Ashu’s growing despair is typical for those who feel out of step with systems that privilege silence as a means of maintaining a pristine, false image of wholesomeness. His traumas are significant and impossible to speak about: he was sexually abused at a young age by an older woman in exchange for career advancement (an advancement that has tragically failed to materialize, which is also a source of trauma); he posed for nude photos for her, which she later uses to attempt to blackmail him and which could end his career completely; eventually it is revealed that Ashu is also gay, an orientation still highly marginalized and recently re-criminalized in India. The constant effort it takes to bridge the void between how Ashu feels and how he knows he should feel drain him both physically and emotionally — eventually he is interrupted in an attempt to throw himself from the roof of the haveli. His brother, his co-star, and his caretaker Kamal have to talk him down. It’s a moment as intensely, perfectly melodramatic as anything in a classic Bollywood tearjerker (personal gold standard for tearjerkers, and not just Bollywood ones: Kal Ho Naa Ho). At the same time, it’s also a desperate gesture toward nothingness: Ashu has been straining against the void for so long that eventually he concludes it would be easier just to throw himself in. He is only able to begin recovery with the (unexpected) love of Kamal.

  • Kamal

The most opaque character, especially to a Western-culture influenced reader: I find it very hard to separate Kamal from the stereotype of the Magical Asian, or from other South Asian/Indian caricatures (hello and goodbye forever, Punjab). The other characters appear to be at least as puzzled as I am — they refer to him at times as a ghost, a dead man, as cursed, a resident of the Hotel California, and so on. He is, as animated Kirk might say, the least scrutable man ever, a doctor who has somehow become a domestic nurse of sorts but who only follows his own orders, the bearer of an unrequited passion that finds only the tiniest gestures of expression until suddenly it bursts forth to give his beloved a new reason to live. Kamal has virtually no surface, no expression — his smiles are rarer than diamonds, his mask welded on and impenetrable. He is entirely substance: even when he becomes more human toward the end of the book, he is still something a little bit apart, too much himself to really fit into anyone else’s narrative — not the fairy tales, and not Ashraf’s burgeoning love for him. I freely admit that Kamal is a piece of this puzzle I have not yet figured out. Is there some key that I am missing? Or is he simply inexplicable? And why, if I do not know who he is or what he means, do I feel so much for him?

I have dabbled slightly in the films of Shahrukh Khan, so I am not entirely ignorant of Bollywood culture, but I wish I knew more about the politics and the industry to comment further, particularly on the dialect issues, which strike me as emblematic of a lot of fractures in current Indian politics and culture. I’ve included a few links to this effect in the extras — just because I don’t know what to say doesn’t mean there aren’t other smart people who are more expert and on top of this.

And finally this, because I could not resist, is “Dhoom Taana,” a song from 2007 film Om Shanti Om, in which Bollywood reimagines its own history. If you ever have a chance to see this in theaters, I highly recommend doing so. There’s an essay waiting to be written about Om Shanti Om and Singing in the Rain and a medium retconning its own past via musical spectacle for an audience in the know, but that Theraflu is really kicking in now and I feel a nap coming on.

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On Twitter recently, Suleikha Snyder tweeted a link to this piece about Bollywood’s mishandling of mental illness. The Guardian also recently discussed sex and censorship and Bollywood, and Priyanka Srivastava in the Daily Mail talked about Bollywood’s use of ethnic stereotypes for comedy.

Recent legislation in India has recriminalized gay sex but also given legal recognition to transgender people — which goes to prove that barometers of improvement in social justice vary from culture to culture. There is no Great Historical Narrative of Universal Progress: there is only the work that must be done in every culture to undo oppression and inequality.

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Snyder, Suleikha. Bollywood and the Beast. Samhain Publishing: February 11, 2014. Ebook.

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Q is for Queer Vampires

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

There’s really no point in my rehashing how vampires have been associated with sexuality (especially forms of sexuality coded as deviant) since long before Bram Stoker. Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, and Charlaine Harris did not invent the metaphor: they simply developed the nuances of the theme in different ways, and Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters is part of this tradition. (Side note: I love a book that does what it says on the tin.) No surprise then that this book also dabbles with many of the ancillary themes of the vampire-sex association: belonging, bodily autonomy and consent, sexual identity, and predation.

Cover image for Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red. Black background with a red swirl on the left-hand spine. One pale-skinned woman with long red hair sits on a bed far away with her nude back to us; she has her head turned slightly as if about to look over her shoulder. Closer to the viewer, a pale-skinned woman with short dark hair, who is also nude, stands facing away from us, looking at the redhead.It all starts when our heroine Ginger meets the girls of the ABO sorority (I see what you did there!). She connects with one of them at once, a black girl with “a beautiful, full afro” (Kindle location 148):

“Ginger?” Cleo asked, taking in my long red hair. “I thought my parents were cruel. Tsk, tsk, naming a ginger kid ‘Ginger?'”

“Yeah, it could be worse,” I said with a shrug. “At least it doesn’t rhyme with anything.”

“True. It could be worse. My last name is Jones.” I couldn’t say what sucked more, a name tag mocking your hair and your God-given beauty marks or being named after a blaxploitation character. (166)

Cleo becomes a lodestar and a mirror for Ginger over the course of the plot: both girls are humans living among vampires, they’re both gay but unsure about coming out to their families, they’re both certain they don’t want to be turned. Cleo is a locus of comfort and safety in Ginger’s new vampire-oriented lifestyle — a comfort she desperately needs, since even through her overwhelming attraction to vampire queen Camila, Ginger is starkly aware that she is at an enormous physical and sexual disadvantage. Camila is gorgeous, Camila is experienced and dominating in bed, and Camila is deadly: “Were amazingly good looks reason enough to trust your blood lusting captor?” (754). It’s a question many women and girls will find familiar. Rich, beautiful, great in bed, a little frightening — Camila is the standard alpha romance fantasy, complete with tragic backstory, emotional distance, and a few too many abusive red flags for my personal comfort.

Ginger’s phrase ‘blood lusting’ is spot-on — a vampire’s bite is orgasmic for both the vampire feeding and the human feeder. We haven’t only linked sex with violence: we’ve linked sex with violence and food. Camila explains:

“Well, you eat meat, right? Imagine if you had to chase the cows. You don’t have a gun, so you have to use your fists and you can only chase those cows at night … Wouldn’t it be easier if the cow showed up at your door and let you take all you needed? … We live off what humans give us. Humans were beginning to suspect our existence. When we are starving, our kind can drain a human in a matter of minutes. That sort of feeding leaves bodies, and they began to hunt us. A few vampires realized if they could just find humans to volunteer to feed them on a regular basis, no humans would have to die and there would be no trace of a monster to hunt. Our master finally settled on this sorority as a guise and many of us have become accustomed to finding our feeders this way. It’s about convenience, comfort, and routine.” (901)

The sister-queens’ “convenience, comfort, and routine” requires that the human sorority pledges essentially restructure their entire lives around keeping vampires’ existence secret and being fed upon; it’s posited as a volunteer relationship, but it’s also cloaked by the usual rituals of sorority pledging and maintained in strictest secrecy from the wider human world. I have to wonder: does this cloaking undermine the ability of pledges to give meaningful consent to this arrangement? Especially since the sister-queens use mind control to remove the girls’ fear during the first feeding: isn’t that a little bit, well, squicky, from a consent standpoint? The reason I was willing to trust that the narrative wouldn’t just brush this under the rug was because of Ginger, who clearly sees the creepiness here and isn’t afraid to call it out, even in her own head. I can stomach a great deal more consent iffiness when it’s labeled openly as such.*

Ginger is an exception even in the vampire sorority: she has a small amount of demon blood from her birth mother, which means her blood isn’t nourishing to vampires (though Camila still bites her frequently — she likes the taste, and the orgasms). Alone among the new ABO pledges, Ginger is not food. Nor is she a feeder, and this combined with her intense romance with the Queen leaves her a little apart from the other girls.

Now that they’re bonded to the sister-queens, the new pledges have their freedoms strictly curtailed: a curfew, required escort after dark, and although the girls can date whom they want they will be ejected from the sorority if they contract an STI: “As of last night, we know you’re all clean,” Cleo says (1343), which is a hell of a thing to announce so casually in a group setting. Medical privacy rights be damned! And the reason for this rule is not to protect the vampires, who are immune to human diseases — it’s because the group feeding almost always involves group sex, “and we play together too much to give each other the clap.” Sexual orientation and personal boundaries don’t matter in the face of the vampires’ sexualized hunger, and over the course of the book we see some characters couple up while other characters sleep around — but all of them except Ginger are participants in frequent multi-partner orgies where intense orgasms are a shorthand for consent with a partner someone may or may not desire outside of the feedings. Again: a little squicky. (Though it must be admitted, these scenes are hot as hell — Ms. Weatherspoon writes an excellent sex scene.) The emphasis on secrecy and all the lesbian loving parallel the narratives of the closet, of being on the down-low, of all the times where being LGBTQA has been scorned or outlawed or forbidden and must be hidden from mainstream ‘normal’ society. While it’s become much easier in the past decades for queer people to come out in American culture, for Ms. Weatherspoon’s vampires that moment will never come. Revelation, as it appears in the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the True Blood tv show, is not an option for these sorority girls: their closet is for life.

New ABO members are given teardrop rubies they are required to wear at all times, so they might be recognized in case of emergencies: “If you get hurt, hit by a car, fall down some stairs, drink yourself half to death at Chi Nu house, you’ll be taken to a hospital that is bound to our sister-queens … If you know your turn to feed is coming up, do not drink or take any illegal substances. Our sister-queens can taste it in our system and I’ve been told it makes our blood taste like piss” (1363). Again, the girls’ physical independence and choice is restricted for the vampires’ convenience. While gathering this quote from my notes I had to do a double-take, because it’s a rather spooky little piece of text that — spoilers coming up! — foreshadows the fate of first Cleo, then Ginger.

Cleo is in a terrible car crash and suffers horrible burns. (Car accidents: Olivia’s Least Favorite Plot Point Ever.) She’s in a lot of pain and isn’t expected to last the night. Camila makes it plain that she intends to turn Cleo to save her life. Ginger objects, on the very relevant grounds that Cleo “doesn’t want this” (4751). Cleo has explicitly said as much, because becoming a vampire would mean severing ties with her human family. But Cleo’s decision not to become an immortal demon (vampires and demons are roughly equivalent, or at least related, in this mythology) does not, in the Queen’s eyes, take precedence over Camila’s own wishes: “‘She’s mine. I can’t let her suffer in pain any longer. She’ll be upset for a while, but in the end she will have wanted me to help her.'” Ginger is forced to wait in the corner while Camila and the other sister-queens perform the unwanted ritual on the unconscious, dying black girl in the hospital bed. There is a terribly unsettling echo in this of the way black people’s consent has been routinely discounted in the course of American medical history: TuskeegeeOak RidgeHenrietta Lacks.

At first Cleo seems fine but things soon turn sour, especially with her maybe-girlfriend-maybe-not Benny. Benny has been raised in vampire culture and wanted Cleo to turn so Benny could feed her; her happiness that she can now do what she wants royally pisses Cleo off: “‘She’s fucking happy I died just so she could have me the way she wanted me'” (4980). Cleo begins arguing with Camila, acting out in ways that are completely psychologically understandable but which the vampire queen describes as troublesome. She’s also feeding too much from one human, which is dangerous. The other girls have to meet Cleo’s grieving family and not let on that Cleo’s still alive at the ABO house; it does not help at all that Cleo’s family is a mirror-version of Ginger’s mom, dad, and brother: “I made it to the hall of Camila’s quarters before I leaned against the wall and sobbed. Cleo’s poor family. And I thought of my parents, what Dad and Mom would do if they lost me too soon and what Todd would have to say to the girls if he was in Maxwell’s shoes” (5181).

Ginger becomes immensely frustrated with the situation and with Camila — but she gets distracted by the approaching exams and then — oh, look, more spoilers — her lab partner and OBA frat pledge Greg sexually assaults her and pushes her down a flight of stairs. (Remember that prophetic quote? Yeah.) Our heroine suffers a massive head injury and Camila is there instantly to dispatch Greg — and to turn our heroine, again with the justification of saving her life, again without proper consent: “Her blood was flowing into my mouth before I even thought to stop her” (5365). We learn from master vampire-demon Dalhem shortly after that unlike Cleo, who really was dying, Ginger could have been saved without being turned: “‘Your sister-queens could have healed you and left you human, but our Camila let her emotions for you get in the way. She let her emotions overrule what she truly knew to be just” (5574).

This is a major, major failing. Even Dalhem thinks so, for he strips Camlia of her royal rank and gives the queenship to Ginger. I must admit I was a little frustrated at this point: new black vampire Cleo is unwillingly turned, loses her girlfriend, and turns a little bit feral — but new white vampire Ginger is given control of the sorority, gets to keep Camila despite the gross breach of trust, and is praised for having more restraint than her years suggest. Not that Ginger feels all that liberated by the change: “There was nowhere for me to go. I couldn’t hide in my dorm room. I couldn’t go home. The ABO house was my home now. Even if I escaped to another sister-queen’s room, Camila was a part of me now … Making things right with Camila was something I had to do, though at the moment I wanted something different” (5790). Camila as Queen was a power fantasy; Ginger as Queen now feels limited, constrained — imprisoned. Lost to the world she’s grown up in and the family who adopted her and loved her and supported her when she finally got up the courage to come out to them. It highlights the fact that the vampires, like their human feeders, are not entirely free of important constraints: they must avoid daylight, they must live in secrecy, they are surrounded by a web of blood-bonds and hierarchy and rules laid down by God hisownself. The more I think about it, the less certain I am that anyone in this text is ever allowed to make a truly free and unconstrained choice. This feels both frustrating and realistic, an unresolvable tension.

Fortunately for my poor aching heart, Ginger gets to keep contact with her family, who are welcomed into the vampire culture as feeders in the area around their home. (PFLAG for vampires?) We learn that Cleo would have lost her family anyways if she’d told them she was gay: her mom would have cast her out due to church pressure. Tolerance for lesbianism is equated with tolerance for vampirism, and I just don’t have an extra thousand words to use to unpack that right now. Ginger and Camila enact a vampire marriage that makes them truly — finally — equals, which is pretty good as far as happy endings go. I was still troubled by Cleo’s plotline, by what had happened to her and between her and Benny and how they both had been betrayed by Camila’s thoughtlessness — until I learned she was the heroine of the second book in the series. That’s a pretty great hook, actually. Well played, Ms. Weatherspoon.

Looking over this post, it sounds grumpy and unsatisfied and as though I did not enjoy the book. I did, very much — especially once some of my worries about Cleo’s storyline were soothed, or at least postponed. There’s a lot of ambiguity about identity and consent in here — taking apart the dynamics of animalistic vampires and humans who are compared to food animals could keep me busy for another week at least. At lot of these ambiguities strike me as important, and they’re ones we’ve yet to really decode — I’m not sure this book is perfectly suited to my tastes, but it’s a hell of a set of questions.

*This is one the reasons I actually love the terms dubcon and noncon — they mark a recognition that consent is questionable or absent, and I can read on or avoid it as I choose. Sometimes I read it, though usually in erotica rather than romance. My biggest problem with the use of dubious consent or even rape in romance is that it’s so often excused as ‘close enough’ to meaningful, unconstrained consent. I see this elision as a symptom of rape culture.)

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I am quite picky about my vampire fiction, but here are some gems I’ve discovered over the years. Dracula’s Guest is an anthology of pre-Stoker vampire stories and legends, edited by Michael Sims. It is highly recommended for alternative visions of vampire mythology, some of which are still unexplored in fiction (a goldmine for authors!). For a different exploration of vampires-thinking-of-people-as-cattle and issues of autonomy and consent, Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum is a perennial personal favorite, and quite funny to boot. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series also features homosocial/homosexual vampires, many of whom are adorably dandyish and playful and fun, and some of whom are masterminds of espionage and politicking.

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book thoroughly worth the reading: deeply researched, empathetic, and significant. It is still, however, a black woman’s story filtered through a white woman’s voice. This piece at the Grio by Ronda Racha Price gives a solid overview of events since the book’s publication and asks important questions about the financial agendas at stake with Henrietta Lacks’ legacy and the use and abuse of black bodies in medical science.

Favorite website The Toast’s series of Femslash Fridays features great snippets of imagined lesbian couples from pop culture: this one on Bend It Like Beckham is chock-full of insight into representation in media, self-awareness, and the full spectrum of queerness beyond the binary and the stereotypes.

I became aware of this book because of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Tumblr, which is delightful and sexy and smart. 

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Weatherspoon, Rebekah. Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters Book 1. Bold Strokes Books: November 15, 2011. Ebook.

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