T is for Twisted

{Content note: the following post is about a romantic suspense novel and contains some discussion of physical and sexual violence. Nothing graphic, but it's a pervasive mood. There are also some mild spoilers, but that's the price we pay for informed criticism. Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

I'll admit, I picked up Ms. Curtis' romantic suspense Twisted because not only were there two major characters with disabilities, but also the author has epilepsy and penned a pretty epic rant about disability portrayals in fiction. So I bought a copy of Twisted (see? rants do sell books!) and it kind of sat around until I thought of this post series, because I am terrible at reading books in a timely fashion. And now that we're in the home stretch of the alphabet -- the letter T! I'm amazed it's gone so fast! -- I feel like resisting the urge to talk about specifics of the disability portrayal. Yes, there are two main characters, each with a different disability (one genetic, one a result of injury) that impact their lives and the plot in different ways, but do not take over the bulk of the story. They're well-rounded and specific portrayals, which is such a relief. But I'm trying to keep this project from becoming myopic, from making the inclusion of marginalized characters a niche topic -- so it's appropriate at times to talk about a particular book's inclusion in the wider world of romance. Because these books are romances, and must be understood as such. And Twisted in particular seems to be a book that exists in conversation with its genre in a more self-aware, metafictional way: the novel simultaneously illustrates and refutes some of my personal issues with the subgenre of romantic suspense.

Cover image for Twisted by Laura K. Curtis. Cover is divided in two. Upper half is a sepia-toned image of the top part of a blond woman's face. She looks frankly out at the viewer, her curling hair tumbling over one eye. There is a faux-paper tear that prevents us from seeing more of her face. Lower image is blue-toned, a man from the chin down, head tilted slightly to the side. He wears a pale uniform shirt with a star over his left breast. Trees wave ominously through the mist behind him.First, let me say this book is a page-turner; despite the occasional moments of feminist-lens side-eye, I was desperate to find out what was going to happen next and I had pre-ordered the sequel even before I hit the final page. It starts with our heroine, true crime writer Lucy Stone, returning to her hometown to solve her mother's cold-case murder. I believe it's significant that Lucy writes true-crime rather than mystery; she's neither Jessica Fletcher or Harriet Vane (love you, Harriet!). She deals in fact, not fiction: her skills are the same as any detective's, and unlike many true crime authors she specifically focuses on the victims and the survivors:

"All that time and energy, all that ink and air devoted to a man whose every act was destructive. It's criminal in and of itself. He doesn't deserve it. How do you think the friends and families of his victims felt when, every time they opened a paper or flipped a channel, they were confronted by another talking head spouting off about him? He killed those girls, but the media machine erased them."

"So you fix it."

"I can't fix it. All I can do is create a tiny bit of balance, a little resistance." (1424)

Lucy resists the true crime genre's slant toward voyeurism and fascination with monsters in favor of empathy for the survivors and the victims of violence. I am very tempted to also read this career choice as a subtle reaction to the way women's perspectives and experiences are often discounted in the justice system: Lucy is a woman who is literally not in the business of making things up. She's a great heroine, steely and vulnerable and sympathetic without feeling syrupy.

Our hero, police chief Ethan Donovan, is the perfect blend of laid-back charm and sharp-eyed observation. He's got secrets of his own and the usual ex-wife -- who, charmingly, is not demonized or blamed for his relationship failings! Oh frabjous day! things just didn't work out -- and he's also got a protective streak a mile wide. And I've got an absolute hair-trigger sensitivity for protective streaks: not enough, and I read the hero as callous; too much, and I read him as controlling. Ethan does pretty well, but he has an unsettling tendency to push Lucy's boundaries in ways that put up the hairs on the back of my neck. One example, from mid-(consensual)-kiss:

He palmed her breast through the jersey and she froze, a reaction even he could interpret. Lost in his own fantasies, he'd pushed her too hard, too fast. He loosened his grip, easing back slightly. She tried to wriggle completely free, but he kept her near. If he allowed her to step away, it would create a rift he'd never bridge.

Besides, he wasn't ready to let go. He wasn't at all sure hanging on to her wasn't the only thing keeping him standing. (1254)

We've already had plenty of hints in the narrative that Lucy's past includes trauma: she goes pale and chilly when certain men show up, she avoids questions about her childhood in Dobbs Hollow, she asks that evidence be sent to the state lab for testing and not the county lab controlled by the sheriff who she went to high school with and who she point-blank claims not to trust. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that something happened, and I expect any decent cop to be able to put two and two together. I would also expect any decent cop to respect a woman's physical boundaries and resistance, even if they happen to contradict his urgent pants-feelings at the time. Alas, little beats like this crop up continually during the romance and rather kill my buzz. We're in a romantic suspense, with heightened stakes, where women are being raped and killed and tagged with the word whore, or left to die in a pool of blood on the kitchen linoleum: it's an atmosphere where I'm encouraged to think of the world of the text as sinister and rife with hidden agendas. Ethan's disregard for Lucy's physical boundaries made my stomach twist every time, even after she started to accept it, even as they grew closer both physically and emotionally. It reminded me of the thousand Victoria Holt books I read as a teenager, where the hero is brooding and mysterious and may have killed his first wife but (probably) didn't (except for that one time he did, not that I can remember which Holt book that was). And we're supposed to thrill at the contrast of the good man who seems villainous versus the villain who seemed good up until the point where their villainy was unmasked.

The problem for me is the problem of escalation: just as many killers start sloppy and grow more methodical, as Lucy and Ethan discuss, men who push small boundaries are much more likely to push large boundaries. (Required background reading: Shrodinger's Rapist.) It's the sense that the hero knows what Lucy needs (emotional support, physical touch) more than she does, and that that knowledge entitles him to override her wishes, expressed or merely telegraphed physically. (And Ethan is under no misapprehension as to her wishes in the above quote.) So while a certain balance was built into their relationship from the start -- his disability (bad knee, mild mobility issues) meant he couldn't be as physically overpowering as many RS heroes, while Lucy's martial arts training and willingness to pick up a gun felt more empowered than I expect from a RS heroine -- it was not enough to override that little pulse of Ethan knows best, Ethan knows best. Especially since all Lucy's self-defense training never seemed to help her out in the clutch: I feel that was a missed opportunity. And Lucy's parallel desire to protect her younger brother Tim -- who has in fact been targeted by our villain -- is presented as a bit suffocating, as something she needs to let go so that Tim can be a full human being. Why is Lucy not granted the same privilege?

This aspect, and a persistent undercurrent of gender essentialism ("super-feminine" was used of our heroine's feeling of attraction at one point in the text and I rolled my eyes to the point of strain) were my biggest problems with the book, and they are problems I have with romantic suspense more broadly. Why are so many villains sexualized, and so many killing scenes eroticized? I think sometimes there must be a lot of overlap with mysteries and thrillers and horror, genres that skew male in their readership and are thus more prone to make victims out of their female characters in order to motivate their male heroes and titillate male readers. I think the urge to make fictional crimes more shocking and edgy pushes things in directions that go wrong quickly in careless hands. And, too, humans are never entirely immune to the voyeur's urge. That little twist in the gut that I hate so much is some people's sought-for pleasure.

Where Twisted really gets interesting, and definitely meta, is not the scenes where characters are in danger. Shootouts in the woods (spoiler?) is a pretty standard climactic move -- instead, the genre's usual feature of the villain's POV scene is twisted (aha haha) and multiplied, to really great dramatic effect.

Villain POVs are always a bit squicky for me, and the first one we see in Ms. Curtis' book is no different -- except that our villains are named. I was a little puzzled by this, since usually you'll get a few clues and a few red herrings in this kind of scene, but rarely names. Names give the game away too soon, would deprive the reader of the fun of solving the puzzle along with our hero and heroine. And then there comes a second villain's POV, from a second villain -- and it becomes clear (to the reader at least, if not to our protagonists) that there are two sets of crimes being committed in Dobbs Hollow. That we have two networks of bad guys whose operations are starting to converge and get in each others' way.

Reader, I was delighted. Not only does this triple my fun as a puzzle-solving reader (solving is the thing that keeps me coming back to mysteries and romantic suspense, despite all my other reservations), but it breaks the usual good/evil binary down. Evil in this book is not a monolith. Some people are monstrous, but some others commit terrible crimes just out of apathy and entitlement. Persistent harrassment, isolation, and poisonous gossip can be as traumatic as outright harm. Good is equally various -- witness librarian Eulie, who starts off as the classic Small Town Harridan but segues into a more humanized figure. I won't spoil the end of the book for you -- I will just say that this narrative choice made me super-happy despite all the dozens of disappeared and drugged and raped women, and that is no small thing.

Of course, we do have all those nameless, faceless victims -- rapes and murders and kidnappings, other cold cases that have never been solved, that may not have even been intensely investigated, which form the data constellation that helps our heroes solve Cecile's murder. This constellation shows us exactly which groups of people are considered disposable in the small Texas town of Dobbs Hollow: prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and Hispanic women, no matter their class. There's an unsettling construction of personal strength, particularly female strength, that sometimes veers a little too close to victim-blaming for my taste. Some sample quotes:

  • "'It's only fair you understand up front that whatever he can do to you is nothing compared to how far I am willing to go to find out who killed my mother.' The words were emotionless, cold, but over the red rage that filled him, Ethan noticed the rise and fall of Lucy's chest, how her breath came faster and her chin rose even as she half flinched, expecting the violence in him to take physical form. Why would she deliberately provoke such a reaction? Did she even believe what she was saying? He already knew she didn't trust him, so perhaps this was nothing more than another test. Artie had been right. Lucy's single-mindedness would get her into trouble in an inhospitable town with secrets to hide. She might not want a protector, but she was going to need one." (623)
  • "'Pretty' doesn't exactly scream 'competent police officer.'" (1059)
  • "'I'm not like those poor Hispanic women you chased through the woods,' Lucy said, leaning over. 'I fight back. I'm stronger than you are. Better in every way.'" (3723)
  • "'He killed her because she wouldn't sleep with him.' Impending hysteria added a sharp edge to Lucy's voice. 'Of all the men she could have turned down and didn't, she had to pick the psychotic killer to get some standards with.' Ethan jerked his head at TJ, who rose and left. He took her spot, putting his arm around Lucy and pulling her into him. 'She always had standards, sugar. She'd never have slept with anyone in your school, and she never brought men into the house. You stressed that yourself. He broke her rules, rules she set to protect you and Tim, so she sent him and his pals on their way. You've lived in Dallas. I'm sure you saw women there who truly lived without standards, whose lives had beaten any fight out of them. You can't say that about your mother.'" (3738)

Again: if Lucy's as take-charge and self-protective as the opening scene would have us believe -- and it's one hell of an opening scene -- why does she never actually get to fight back effectively in the course of the novel? Why is women's strength always tied to how sexually attractive and/or available they are? Why is women's agency -- Cecile's thwarted plan for escaping the town, Lucy's plan to find her mother's killer -- seen as provocative, as a woman making herself a target? Dobbs Hollow in these moments brought up a lot of the same questions asked about True Detective -- remember True Detective? -- particularly one raised by the Hairpin: what is the distinction between a work of fiction that shows misogyny, and a work of fiction that is actually misogynistic? I had no trouble buying the realism of the above quotes. But they would make my lip curl if uttered by someone in whose presence I was standing. I'd mark them down silently as a minor red flag and make sure not to have feminist arguments with that person unless I felt like I could spare the effort. Yes, Lucy is a strong heroine in many ways -- but when the heroine's strength is somehow exceptional among her gender, I start to have questions about the politics of the worldbuilding.

In the course of writing this I found a fascinating argument, not all of which I agree with, by author Tracy Cooper Posey:

Romantic Suspense novels had their golden age in the nineties and the early years of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that was when women were just getting used to the idea of equality and beating men at their own game.  The glass ceilings were crashing down all over the place.  Having alpha heroes rescue us was still sort-of okay in our fantasies, until erotic romance fantasies like Sex and the City showed us that we could be equals or better in bed,too.

These days it’s no longer a matter of equality.  It’s a matter of being more powerful and completely different.

She goes on to suggest that paranormals and urban fantasy grew more popular because they gave their heroines power, rather than damselling them, while still preserving the marks of difference that keep men and women from being identical rather than equal (I'm extrapolating from her use of phrases like "And she never forgets she's a woman"). Someday I'm going to do a lengthy post on power structures (race, class, gender) in PNR/UF, but that day is not today. Suffice to say I rather disagree with her analysis of how power functions in paranormal romance -- and her assertion that alpha male heroes and rescue plotlines are a thing of the past.

I quote Ms. Posey's argument because to me it seems, like the worldbuilding in Twisted, expressive of the idea that women and men are equally but differently powerful. Men in Ms. Curtis' text are in positions of official authority: sheriff, mayor, DA, chief of police, county coroner, FBI agent. Women are in service or communication positions: author, librarian, cleaning service, diner owner. Lucy's friend Tara Jean/TJ is a cop, but most of her time is spent either talking with Lucy or eavesdropping on her well-connected family (including the mayor) for our hero and heroine's benefit. This unequal division of power is precisely what allows for the crimes Lucy and Ethan are eager to solve: women will always be primarily victims in a world that constructs them as inherently less powerful. This is true of Dobbs Hollow, it is true of romantic suspense, and it is sadly true of the real world in which readers live.

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A powerful refutation of the 'monster myth' has been making the rounds of the internet recently, and seems like an excellent companion piece to Lucy's focus on the humanity of her subjects.

Romance Novels for Feminists has done several posts on romantic suspense and related genres like the Gothic, which may be found via the tag.

Speaking of sex workers, writer and activist Melissa Gira Grant has a great roundup of the best sex work writing of 2013. It's a lot of links and a lot of information -- I plan on coming back to this one many more times myself.

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Curtis, Laura K. Twisted. New York: Intermix, November 19, 2013. Ebook.

R is for Robin Hood

{For the full alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.} Carrie Lofty's What a Scoundrel Wants is a Robin Hood romance. Yes, technically the hero is Will Scarlet, Robin's nephew (in this version of the mythology) rather than Robin himself -- but we spend a lot of time in the woods, Scarlet's a dab hand with a bow, he's angsty because of his impossible youthful crush on Maid Marian (now Robin's wife), the villain is the new Sheriff of Nottingham ... You get the idea.

Cover image for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. Forest background. A shirtless man with tan skin and folded arms faces us, slightly to the left, visible only from his chin to his incongruous belt buckle.If people know one thing about Robin Hood, it's this: He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Socialism, or at least a sense of wealth redistribution as a social good, is baked right in to the legend. But we don't see a great deal of that in Lofty's text. We've got a few peasants in Nottingham, some more in a smaller village, and a gaggle of refugees in the woods, but aside from a general sense of sucks to be poor there's not a lot of social dynamics or even description of what the general public is supposedly suffering from.  In some ways this fits with Will Scarlet's more ambiguous morality -- but even when Robin himself shows up to help with the big battle scene at the end, the focus remains on a handful of larger-than-life heroes rather than the dismantling of an oppressive social system.

In fact, collective action in What a Scoundrel Wants is almost universally bad. The first scene  of the book involves Will being framed for the murder of a nobleman, purely because he was the only one of the guards not in on the conspiracy. Then a group of forest refugees try to hang him -- it's technically on the orders of their douchebag leader, our heroine Meg's ex-lover, but it's presented very much as the will of an angry mob. A second, much angrier mob later attempts to burn Meg as a witch -- an epithet Meg is used to, since this amorphous mass of peasants has often persecuted her on account of her blindness and her mysterious alchemical talents. The reunion of Robin's band at the end of the book seems to promise a positive scene of group unity, but then his men turn cowardly in the face of the Greek fire Meg has made for them to use in storming the villain's castle, and only Robin's personal bravery and charismatic leadership keep them from breaking ranks and running away.

Essentially, every group in this text is an amoeba. Heroes and villains stand out and can exert their will upon the group. The text's world is divided between these two types of characters: leads, who have agency, and extras, who don't.

It is in this context that we must evaluate our heroine Meg's blindness.

(Side note: The Dear Author review from 2008 manages to get through 800 words without once mentioning the heroine's disability. I suppose they did this to avoid spoilers, but it feels like an erasure, especially when slightly euphemistic language comes into play: "Meg has enough of her own troubles." Translation: We shouldn't talk about blindness: it's not polite.)

First of all, Meg is a fantastic heroine of a very unusual type. She's prickly, mendacious, and constantly horny. She gives fewer fucks than just about any other romance heroine I've seen, and I love her even more on this re-read than I did on my first time through. As a blind heroine, too, she avoids the most common pitfalls of disability in romance: she's not a Magical Cripple or a litmus test for the moral purity of other characters. She's accepted her disability to the extent that she has learned to cope with it in her daily life, but she is far from happy when it leaves her vulnerable or disadvantaged, and she's not above using it as a verbal dagger to win points when she has to. The text allows her to be difficult and human, and that's  worth celebrating.

However, Meg's blindness exists in the text's world of negative collective action. Her disability isolates her and forces her to depend on others for basic needs (food, shelter, translating ancient alchemy texts, not being stabbed with swords). She has worked hard to find ways around certain aspects of this dependence -- keeping the inside of her cabin strictly organized so she can find her alchemy supplies, for example -- and this is presented as heroic and admirable. But because she is a lead and not an extra, this dependence on others is presented as a problem in ways that seem ridiculous outside the plot context.

Such as when the hero drags her from her sickbed (literally, not figuratively) and ditches her in the woods. Because if she's truly strong, she'll make it back to the castle.

At this point in the narrative, Meg has been severely burned. On her hands, which are her primary tools for navigating a world. She has not regained feeling in her extremities since the injury, the skin is blistered and tender, and her hands are wrapped in thick linen bandages. This is not the first time Meg has been injured in the course of the book -- the text beats up on every character at some point -- but this is definitely a pivotal trauma. To make things worse, she's being tended at Loxley Manor by Marian, who she knows Will had deep tortured pants-feelings for. So she turns quiet, and emotionally distant, and worries that her hands will be as useless to her now as her eyes have become.

Whereupon Will Scarlet hauls her into the woods with this justification: "If you're strong enough to be my partner, come find me" (289).

She does, of course, because Meg is a heroine and a Lead With Agency. Tearing off her bandages, fueled by anger, using the moss on the north side of trees to orient herself (which: nope), she struggles back to Loxley Manor. Her hands are bleeding, her scabs open and painful. Naturally, she and Will fall instantly into bed, happy together at last: "He had hoped and gambled, and she rediscovered her strength in the forest, conquering the melancholy that hindered her recovery" (305).

Call me cynical, but it seems like groping through a forest with open wounds would hinder her recovery a lot more than a sulky attitude. It's the year 1199 and not only do we not have antibiotics yet, but we're not all that clear about bacteria or hand-washing, either.

But none of this is as important to the story as making sure that we demonstrate Meg's heroism by showing that she can rise above the limitations of her disability. Because to do otherwise requires her to depend on the kindness of extras -- of that amorphous, amoral mass of humanity that has no will of its own or sense of personhood.

If you've read much in the way of disability studies -- and I am by no means an expert -- you might have encountered two models of disability: the medical model (or individual model), and the social model. Lisa Egan at xoJane explains:

Someone with a medical/individual perspective would state that I am prevented from getting around my city because I’m a person with a disability and it’s tough luck that the Tube is so inaccessible. If I want to use the Tube then I’m just gonna have to find a new skeleton from somewhere.

The way I see it is that I’ve been disabled when it comes to travelling around my city by the architects that installed stairs and escalators instead of ramps and lifts at the majority of Underground stations. Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility.

The world of What a Scoundrel Wants very clearly adheres to the medical/individual model, not only because of its emphasis on Meg's personal strength, but also because it removes any agency from the extras who make up this world. Notice in Egan's description how the social model foregrounds the actions of non-disabled people in making the Tube inaccessible: the architects have chosen to use stairs and escalators instead of ramps, and that choice impacts Egan's ability to travel through the city.

The emphasis on personal resilience somewhat undermines Meg's strong portrayal, in my opinion: if only individual determination and heroism can make a disabled life manageable, if there is no room for a discussion of how society's choices impact a disabled person's ability, then there is no way forward. Indeed, at the end of the book, we're left with no hint as to what Meg and Will are going to do next -- where they will live, how they will earn their living, how they will afford to continue Meg's alchemical experiments (all issues previously discussed in the text). The background lack of agency in Lofty's world reaches up at the end to swallow even our hero and heroine.

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It's a new blog to me, but the website Blind Spot run by UK researcher and lecturer Hannah Thompson has some excellent analysis of literature and media relating to blindness -- for instance, the Lego Movie.

For other books featuring disabled characters, check out this Dear Author thread and the always incisive Love in the Margins.

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Lofty, Carrie. What a Scoundrel Wants. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008. Print.

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?

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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.

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

K is for Jacqueline Koyanagi

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance. And be warned that there are enormous spoilers in the post below!} It's easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi's luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who's in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters' disability is a plot point, but it's not The Plot Point -- the same goes for queerness and race: they're baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

Cover image for Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. A green space-ish, tech-ish background. A dark-skinned woman with dreadlocks stands in profile with one hand on her hip, looking skeptically at the viewer. Her suit is close-fitting and very jointed, with futuristic seams. Her left hand holds a large futuristic gun, pointed down.And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can't wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.

I say problem because human bodies are a source of profound tension, both in Ascension and in fiction and philosophy and human existence more generally. Our bodies are ourselves -- but they are not entirely ourselves. They connect us to the world -- except when they prevent us from connecting to the world. When we looked at the meaning of bodies in Vicki Essex's In Her Corner, they were always one or the other: male or female, healthy or injured. Bodies in Ascension are better described with the conjunction and: they are weak and strong, burdensome flesh and transcendent gifts all at the same time. Characters are not restricted to one single and never-changing attitude to their own physicality: instead, there is a web of constantly shifting priorities, needs, limitations, and abilities.

We begin with Alana Quick, whose genetic disability, Mel's Disease, is a daily obstacle:

I dropped the scrap and looked at my empty hands to determine how bad the tremors were today -- hands that should have ben learning the curves of a ship instead of reaching for prescriptions. Hands that would become unreliable without medication, weak and gnarled. I didn't feel sorry for myself. I knew I could accomplish amazing feats with these hands, given the right tools and a ship to love. It's just that, well, I got frustrated that my ability to function -- to do the one thing I'd loved since childhood -- was entirely dependent on synthesized chemicals. (Kindle location 87)

At the same time, the self-awareness her disease requires of her enhances Alana's natural flair for mechanics and ship-fixing:

Every ship I worked on, I got to know by learning her song. I imagined each one stringing wires through me like new arteries, connecting us until I could feel what ailed her reflected in the pain patterns of my own flesh ... Each job made me feel alive. (319)

Her body's particularity, her disability, becomes a source of helpful experience. It's not an idealization -- disability here is not a superpower --  but it has given her practice with a mode of thought that comes in handy in her work.

At the same time, Alana's disease is more than simply a personal affliction: it's a financial burden as well. Alana (and her aunt Lai, who has the same disease) are dependent upon a medication known as Dexitek, which means they have an extra expense they can ill afford with the lack of ship-repair jobs: "People like [therapist] Shrike had no idea what it meant to have to choose between paying bills and paying for food" (107). This is a classic and very real meeting point between disability and poverty: the one reinforces the other, compounding Alana's suffering just as it compounds the suffering of disabled persons in our own present society. "Life was a privilege, not a right," Alana says. "Something you had to struggle for when you were unlucky enough to be born at the intersection of poverty and bad genes" (1841). Yes, precisely.

As with Tessa Dare's Three Nights with a Scoundrel, in Ascension we have a plethora of disabled characters, each of whose experiences is unique and personal. Captain Tev Helix (oh, the hotness!) wears a prosthesis since she lost a leg in a mining accident: her disability has a before and an after with a moment of trauma as punctuation, leading to a different experience of embodiment than Alana's chronic pain issues or pilot Marre's terminal slide toward invisibility. "At some point I knew I couldn't pretend to be whole anymore," Tev says. "It didn't even occur to me at first that I'd still be able to have a leg, just not the one I was born with" (2267). The prosthetic is still her leg, still a part of her body: but years later, she's still paying off the debt for the new leg and her post-injury medical care.

Tev's leg and Alana's Dexitek highlight the common SF trope of technology as a means of compensating for physical disability. Where Ascension goes a step further is treating implanted non-compensatory tech as a part of a person's embodiment. To elude the authorities, who are pursuing them for a crime they didn't commit, the entire crew of the Tangled Axon remove their communication implants. Alana finds this loss profoundly disconcerting:

I still slept on one side to avoid hitting the transmit switch even though it wasn't there anymore. I still reached for my neck when I wanted to talk to someone. I still had to remind myself that I now had to seek them out face-to-face. I'd lost a sense almost as integrated as my vision or hearing, and I didn't know if I'd ever not feel a little incomplete. My body missed the metal I'd lost just as badly as if it had been blood or bone. (1899)

The great anxiety surrounding cyborgs, of course, is that adding robot parts decreases a person's humanity (Robocop, replicants, the Terminator, the Borg, the current preview for that Johnny Depp thing I'm too lazy to look up right now). Here, the tech incorporated in the body is all but transmuted into human flesh. This is a flexible, inclusive definition of humanity that I admit I can't stop thinking about: of course we're going to think of implanted tech as part of ourselves, just as we already personify and anthropomorphize our cars and our phones and our gadgets. Add to this Ascension's overlap between a ship's body and its captain's, and the metaphysical connection between the pilot and the ship and the crew ... There is a receptive physical inclusivity in this world, a fluid resilience and incorporation (pun intended) that I want more of.

Though the Dexitek works well enough most days, Alana and her aunt are saving for a more permanent cure, which the sinister corporation Transliminal Solutions offers for a hefty price tag. At the book's beginning Alana is offered a temporary taste of this cure, but once she takes it she will need to keep taking it and each treatment is shockingly expensive. Her therapist assures her there are payment plans: "I knew all about their 'payment plans.' More like indentured servitude. They'd own not just my city, but my body. My suffering and its relief. My life" (126). Alana carries this miracle drug with her for over half the book but never ingests it -- her disability, though often frustrating and limiting, is not the worst-case scenario for her as an individual. Her struggle with Mel's is at least a familiar struggle -- she would like a cure, but not at the expense of her personhood. Life with a disability is preferred to (and importantly not equivalent to) dehumanization.

That able-bodied-ness is not itself an idealized state in Ms. Koyanagi's text is shown by the attitude of Alana's sister Nova, a spirit guide (read: New Age-y type thing) who feels that her own healthy able body is still not good enough, still not the sum total of her true self:

The first time I saw Nova injured as a child -- a paper cut, nothing more -- she screamed and wept for hours, unable to reconcile the visceral, heartbreaking reality of blood and split skin. It was too much, too far removed from her expectations of what little girls should be made of. Surely a tear in her flesh should have leaked purity and rapture into the world. Surely her soul should have escaped in vaporous arabesques, dissipating into the ether. (1115)

The language here is strongly reminiscent of our own culture's trope that girls' bodies are innately delicate and ethereal -- witness this stunning Yahoo Answers thread from the antiquity of the internet about women farting, only some of which appears to be trolling -- but despite that, from all I can tell the hierarchy in Ascension is gender-neutral at minimum and matriarchal at maximum. Most of the characters we meet are women, including all those in positions of power. It's a straight gender reversal of the usual fictional ratio and as such is welcome and soothing as sinking into a warm bath.

And yet it's unsettling that in this book we have a sci-fi religion that elevates asceticism and self-starvation as practices that purify the soul, in ways that echo both the modern dietary compulsions of high fashion and the spiritual guidelines from, say, medieval Catholicism or Jainism. I admit to a personal lapsed-Catholic distrust of any doctrine of self-abnegation. Alana, so connected to her body even when that connection causes pain, is horrified by what she sees as her sister's casual disdain for a functional body: "Her words came from a kind of healthy privilege I couldn't begin to process" (2168). To Alana, Nova feels ungrateful, squandering a pain-free existence for no practical gain, unnecessarily scornful of an able body that does nothing to impede her connection with the wider world.

And yet ...

And yet Nova's words in this passage are impossible to refute:

"One day, you'll feel it too ... Only you'll feel it when it's too late. Your eyes will weaken. Your legs will start to hurt when you climb stairs. The space behind your knees will ache, like growing pains all over again, but this time you'll know the feeling is your body stretching and reshaping, pulling itself apart to make room for death. You'll fight it with medication like you always do, but she'll still come for you. Memories will lose definition around the edges, smoothing over in places that were once sharp and precise. Your skin will seem to expand and deflate, wrinkling in places that were once like silk. You'll feel as if you're shrinking inside your skin, disappearing. You'll get implants and upgrades, you'll fill your body with scaffolding to hold it together, to buy time, but the truth will remain: you're dying. You've always been dying. Life is a thin film, a veil between deaths." (2169)

Nova is right: Alana is going to die. Even the cure from Transliminal that she hopes for proves to be an illusion, a fraud. Alana's focus on her body blinds her to the long-term destiny of every human life. I was strongly, gut-wrenchingly reminded of the passage in Catch-22 where Yossarian spends entire pages wondering which organ could be the first one to fail, the first soldier to fall, the first sign of his own impending demise. And barring catastrophe, there has to be a first step into the descent, doesn't there? Nova is entirely, horribly right: by virtue of the fact that we are alive, our bodies are destined to fail and to die. This is the way of all flesh.

There is a quote late in the book from another character who resists the inevitability of death: "Birke's voice echoed in my thoughts. I will never lose her again. I will build a new universe where bodies aren't fragile, where the soul is limitless, where medicine is pure magic" (4093). And this is our villain. Who -- spoilers! -- happens to be a double of our heroine, from another universe, one where Nova had Mel's and died of it instead of Alana. So the Alana-double is searching through various realities, trying to find a Nova-double she can use to resurrect her sister. She is Alana's resistance to the gospel of death, taken to its logical conclusion.

And yet ...

And yet Birke is clearly, unambiguously a villain. She kills remorselessly, wiping an entire planet and its population in one stunning surprise of a scene. (I told you there were spoilers!) It's doubtful this is the first time she's done this in one reality or another; if death is inevitable, why bother waiting for it? Why allow other people to wait for it, when you have a personal stake in eliminating them? Nova's self-abnegation is a questionable virtue, but Birke's willingness to abnegate others is clearly much more terrible.

While Birke-as-Alana's-doppelganger does show up somewhat out of nowhere at the climax of the plot -- can this really be the very first double we've met from the othersiders? -- the way her appearance complicates the text's structure of embodiment is symbolically satisfying to a profound degree. As Alana wonders: "How could someone who shared my body be so alien? Was it the difference of a single synapse? One twist in the timeline, and this is what I would have been?" (3904).

The answer to this question is yes, as Alana realizes while Nova chooses to give her life in sacrifice to save Marre's (despite what she's said earlier about death's inevitability):

Her [Birke's] grief resonated with mine. I knew its bitter taste, its color. I knew how it felt to see the empty space they once occupied. To resent even happy memories for the flaying pain they brought to the surface. I understood then that it was true: given the right set of circumstances, I could have become Birke. Any version of me from any reality could have become her. (4093)

Body and self, self and other, the individual and the universe -- it always comes back to that first conjuction, the all-important andAlana is right about the body, and Nova is too. Nova is also right about the soul: her last gift to her sister is this memory from their childhood:

"I said there's two reasons to have a soul ... One ... is to feel the all world inside you, from now to then and back again. To breathe the breath of every ancestor, to know where you've been and anchor you to the physical world -- to your body and everything it touches."

I grabbed Nova's finger and pretended to bite it. She laughed and shook it out, but didn't break her stride. "The other ... is so that one day, you can look into the eye of the universe and burn away that which separates us from God." (4112)

Reader, I admit I teared up at this part. So often genre fiction will set one ideology against one another until one of them wins -- the brooding isolated hero is brought back out into the world, the cold uptight heroine learns to relax and enjoy life. Ascension manages to draw a great deal of tension out of opposing worldviews, yet it doesn't feel the need to resolve the tension in favor of one or the other. Engineer Ovie is a wolf and a man, simultaneously. Alana and her sister are both right, and both wrong. The body is a gift and a burden. It depends on who you ask -- and how they're feeling when you ask them.

Side note: Stay tuned for my upcoming essay Oh My God, I Just Realized How Many Parallels This Book Has To Star Wars Let's Talk About Them Forever Especially The Things About Tech And Disability And Family And Choices.

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Last year Tor.com posted an excerpt from Kathryn Allan's Disability in Science Fiction, and later a review of the book. I haven't had a chance to read this yet myself, but Interlibrary Loan has a chance to change all that!

Dr. Laura Vivanco let me know that for a limited time, the archives of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies are free to access. There's a lot of great things in there! I'm going to learn so much!

I owe a great intellectual (and therefore personal) debt to the incisive Ana Mardoll, whose writing on the now-defunct-but-still-visible FWD/Forward was a light in the darkness of my privilege, and who continues to be awesome by writing the viscerally readable Annotated Index of Ross Geller.

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Koyanagi, Jacqueline. Ascension. Masque Books, 2013. Ebook.

D is for Tessa Dare

{For the complete alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.} There's a lot to like about Lily, Tessa Dare's deaf heroine in Three Nights with a Scoundrel. Lily combines a fundamental optimism with the sympathetic resonance of grief -- for her murdered twin brother, for the best friend she slowly realizes she's fallen in love with but who has her on an uncomfortably high pedestal -- and a quiet practical side that keeps her grounded (she likes lists and accounting ledgers). Her deafness is real and palpable in the text, but is not the main focus of the story.

Cover image for Three Nights with a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare. Blue-toned landscape. Block of color in the middle has white text reading: THREE NIGHTS WITH A SCOUNDREL and, smaller, TESSA DARE. Above, a tan-skinned dark-haired woman in an apricot gown puts her hands on the shoulders of a tan-skinned, dark-haired man wearing apparently nothing at all.But the very best thing about Lily Chatwick's portrayal is that she's not the only deaf person in the book.

So many disabled heroes or heroines are the only ones so depicted in their stories. They labor under the burden of tokenism: how you depict your Significant Deaf Character reflects on all deaf people. But in real life the experience of being disabled is a spectrum of reactions, adaptations, limitations, attitudes, acceptance, and struggle that is exquisitely unique to each disabled person. In real life no single person is the One Deaf Person.

It happens just before the halfway point of the book. Lily and Julian, our hero, have dressed as commoners and gone to sit in the cheap seats at the theater (like you do for kicks when you're an aristocrat in a Regency romance). After the play, however, the suspense plot rears its head and Julian drags Lily across half of London to a run-down coffeehouse he partly grew up in, where nobody will think to look for Lady Lily Chatwick.

And then we meet the landlady:

Even inside the coffeehouse, they continued this way. Neither speaking a word. Not with lips or tongue, at any rate. No, Julian and the landlady were communicating solely with their hands. Rapid, precise, two-handed movements that Julian only belatedly -- after sending Lily an apologetic glance -- began pairing with speech. (159)

Unlike Anna the landlady, Lily wasn't born deaf, but lost her hearing after an illness five or so years back. She can read lips reasonably well, given the right conditions: adequate lighting, clear sightlines, no sudden tangents in conversation, help from gestures and expressions. But she cannot sign, and her experience of disability is not the same as Anna's  -- nor, we learn, is it the same as the experience of Julian's late mother, who was deaf and taught him to sign:

"My mother was born deaf. You were deafened by illness. It's an entirely separate thing. I can say to you, the pianoforte is out of tune, and though you don't hear it, you understand exactly what I mean. Not so with my mother. But she and Anna and the others downstairs, they notice things -- little subtleties of sights and smells and textures -- that you and I would never think to heed." He smiled. "If it helps, they don't see you as one of them either." (174)

It's somewhat radical that the born-deaf are presented here as rejecting association with Lily -- especially since she is a wealthy member of the nobility, and the born-deaf we see are all commoners. There is no big monolithic The Deaf in this book. There are only deaf people.

Of course, what becomes abundantly clear through the use of such a character spectrum is that the intersection of class and disability: Lily suffers plenty of microaggressions over the course of the novel, but her position as a lady (and her wealth) prevent her from being more thoroughly victimized. Julian's mother, by contrast, is raped while serving as a housemaid -- her illiteracy and the lack of people who know sign make her an easy target for predatory gentlemen.  She ends up pregnant, unemployed, and homeless. Julian recognizes the combination of  luck and determination it took for her not to abandon him in such straitened circumstances:

He'd been a help to his mother when he grew older. But Julian knew at any time in his infancy, she could have made life a great deal easier on herself by dropping him on the doorstep of a foundling hospital. She hadn't.  They'd always had each other. Most times, that was all they'd had. (166-167)

If disabled characters in historical romance are rare, depictions of a whole community of disabled people are unheard-of. I did a little digging based on the feeling that this background detail was based on real history, and it only took moments to turn up a Wikipedia page for Old Kentish Sign Language, which leads to a page on Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, and so on down the internet rabbit hole. The potential here for new ways of approaching familiar historical times is truly compelling -- imagine a small-town historical romance set in a village of people who are bilingual in spoken English and sign language -- if that doesn't get you at least a little excited, well, I don't know what else to say.

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Updated because I knew there was a link I had forgotten: Matt and Kay Daigle produce the awesome webcomic That Deaf Guy, which is not only sweet and hilarious but also a great take on the day-to-day challenges of life as a deaf man and father.

For disability in romance, definitely follow the ever-marvelous Ridley at Love in the Margins: reviews, links, and thoughtful commentary abound. 

There is also this Dear Author recommendation thread for books featuring disabled characters, and this Smart Bitches thread for books with disabled heroines.

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Dare, Tessa. Three Nights with a Scoundrel. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print book.