G is for Gold Mountain

{Click here for the complete A-Z of intersectional feminism in romance.} So yesterday was really something, wasn't it? Today will be much more relaxed, I promise. Less righteous vitriol; fewer italics; hardly any swears at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

___

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