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.

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.

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.

___

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.

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

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.)

___

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. 

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

N is for Zora Neale Hurston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L is for Jeannie Lin

{Content note: the following post very briefly quotes fictional acts of torture during a police interrogation -- and, in case anyone else cringes at such things like I do, I should mention the torture involves hand injuries. GAH.  Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Despite the casual malice of Othello and the oceans of blood in Macbeth, I have always found King Lear to be Shakespeare's most chilling tragedy. There's a dark purple void at the heart of that story into which all good things fall, never to be seen again -- it's simultaneously frightening and fascinating, a masterclass in showing how human isolation can tear a whole world to pieces.

I would never have expected to get shades of that same feeling from a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China, but such are the marvelous gifts the romance genre sometimes offers to its reverent acolytes. And by "romance genre" I mean Jeannie Lin, whose Chinese-set historicals just keep getting better and better: Jade Temptress is a stunning and memorable book, maybe even a masterpiece of the genre. The Shakespeare angle only clarifies how the book deconstructs the interlocking systems of money, class, and power.

Cover image for Jeannie Lin's The Jade Temptress. A woman with pale skin, dark hair, Asian features, and deep red lips wears a white gown patterned with bright flowers and wrapped with a blue sash. Large red flowers are woven into her hair. One hand is languid and the other held against her face in a pose of subtle invitation.The first scene of King Lear sets up everything that follows: the king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the most riches to whichever one who loves him most. Or rather, whichever one claims to love him most, since of course love is not so easily measured or proved as Lear seems to believe. It's a stupid game, thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. As the two eldest fall over themselves in their haste to kiss dad's ass, Lear's youngest and best daughter Cordelia decides the only way to win is not to play.

LEAR: ... what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing.

LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing. (Lear I.i.87-91)

Lear imagines himself as something like a fairy-tale king who can discern true goodness and reward it with the appropriate amount of wealth. It is stagey and disingenuous, particularly since he has plainly saved the best part, the "third more opulent," for his darling youngest daughter. Cordelia's "nothing" shatters the king's comfortable little play: she rejects the idea that love can be exchanged for anything except itself. To exchange love for money turns love into something like work -- or something like prostitution, though Cordelia doesn't say so. Lear throws a tantrum, the King of France proposes to Cordelia on the spot, the two elder daughters are embarrassed, and everyone agrees Lear is a royal ass. Things proceed to go quite rapidly to hell.

Jade Temptress heroine Mingyu, a famous courtesan in the imperial capital of Changan, is caught in a similar web where familial relationships and profit-based relationships are conflated. Her fellow courtesans are her "sisters," and the scheming brothel-mistress Madame Sun prefers to be known as "Mother":

Though they called each other mother and daughter, Mingyu never forgot the truth. She had a true mother once. Her birth mother had sold her and her sister for a small handful of coins. Madame Sun, her foster mother, would never let her go for so little. (Kindle location 352)

A nice little twist of the knife, there: are you really more valued simply because your foster mother sets a higher price on you? (Short answer: no.) Madame Sun is even less able than Lear to imagine human worth as anything other than a financial measure --  as a result, her affections are always expressed in terms of prices and profit. It's unclear how much of this is artifice, manipulation for her personal gain, and how much is simply her own deeply ingrained belief: even Mingyu is left uncertain about this, at the end. But she is quite clear on her own position in this dynamic: "Always 'us.' There was no Mingyu. There was Madame and there was the Lotus Palace . . ." (375). Since her love (or at least its performance) can be purchased, it becomes a commodity -- which is to say it has economic value, and therefore cannot/should not be given away for free. Any sense of the courtesan as a person capable of love outside of currency relationships must be suppressed in order to maintain the value of the courtesan's love as a luxury item. At the same time, since all her wages go to the Lotus Palace and not to herself, the courtesan is distanced from economic agency: she can earn, but she cannot spend. She is in essence a lever by which money moves from her suitors to her foster mother, who quite literally owns her. As indicated by "There was no Mingyu," our heroine reads this framework as an erasure: "This is a dream world," she says later of the city's pleasure district. "We don't exist outside it" (1223). This is Cordelia's thought turned inward: Mingyu recognizes that her participation in the sex trade has made her into nothing, both in a legal and an emotional sense.

Since she is nothing, Mingyu has learned to use nothingness as a weapon in Changan's tangled web of money, gender, and class. She cultivates a quiet and mysterious air of unreadability -- an emptiness behind which she conceals her own truth. Hero Wu Kaifeng recognizes this:

"You make yourself into a blank canvas and let your admirers fill it as required."

"A mirror," she corrected, unperturbed. "A courtesan is a mirror. The bureaucrats value their own learning, so I give them poetry and music. The generals value competition and strategy, so I confirm the brilliance of their plans."

"And myself?" . . .

"You value justice, Constable. Unfortunately, that is the one thing I cannot speak to. I know nothing of it." (2023)

And this is true: Mingyu and her Lotus Palace sisters are disempowered in Changan by the trifecta of gender, class, and economics. They are all women, of low birth, whose earnings go to Madame Sun. They only have agency insofar as they control the agency of others -- specifically, men: "Sometimes exploiting a man's power is the only influence a woman can wield" (526), Mingyu explains. Love becomes a means of channeling power, and money a measure of both. The higher the price a courtesan commands, the more power she wields -- and vice versa. (Which goes a long way toward explaining Madame Sun.) Love separated from money is rendered meaningless, unmeasurable: nonexistent. Mingyu's fellow courtesan Ziyi, burned by heartbreak, expresses this most succinctly: "The inspector is wealthy and offers you his protection. He'll pursue you at any cost. It's hardly different from romantic love. In some ways, it's more reliable" (2565).

This is some Jane Austen-level irony in a genre romance -- especially since the inspector in question, imperial official Xi Lun, is so very easily read as the horror-movie version of the classic alpha romance hero:

Xi was pleasing enough to the eye. His face was square and his jaw broad. To match the strong features of his face, his clothing was impeccable and his manners cultured. He was young compared to many highly ranked officials and he was free with his wealth. (1724)

Handsome, powerful, rich, worldly, and younger than many at a similar point in his career -- all my Dom Billionaire alarm bells were ringing like mad. His pursuit of Mingyu is relentless and he completely ignores the charms of the other courtesans, all while giving our heroine crushing kisses, pricey gifts, and a barrel full of disregard for her limits and boundaries. This is the complete set of genre-recognized Stalker Romance Hero Cues. Mingyu responds the only way she can: by getting profoundly creeped out. Xi Lun has entirely bought into -- see what I did there? -- the system of love-as-commodity that she feels erases her as an individual and an agent. He offers her valuable objects and Mingyu knows this is because he sees her as only another type of object. His intent to purchase her bond -- to make her legally his property -- is the novel's biggest threat, and even his erotic desire is an expression less of physical lust than of an eroticized control: "Sex would just be another way for him to exert his dominance" (2160). Again, this is language we are used to seeing as the mark of an alpha hero, but in this context the alpha billionaire's confidence and compliments turn impeccably sinister.

Xi Lun is only the most obvious symbol of a patriarchal system where all women are commodified to greater or lesser extent. I was strongly reminded of activist blogger Melissa McEwan's "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck," which details the way marginalized groups -- specifically women, though she recognizes parallels to LGBTQ people and people of color -- learn to respond to the constant barrage of microaggressions with wariness and guardedness toward privileged groups, as a form of self-protection. For Mingyu and Ziyi and the other courtesans, every man in Changan exists as a potential threat. Even the wealthy men they hope to seduce into providing for them. Even our hero, Constable Wu Kaifeng.

If Xi Lun is a villainous romance hero, Wu Kaifeng is a heroic romance villain. We know Kaifeng interrogated Mingyu at one point in the first book, The Lotus Palace, but it's only now that we learn the full extent of what happened. Turns out, he tortured her. Actual physical torture as part of a police investigation -- and it's explicitly sexualized:

The first time Wu had interrogated her, he'd taken out six bamboo sticks and laced them between his fingers. He'd held her hand still in his own as he completed the task, a gesture that was grotesquely intimate. (573)

In the hands of an author I trust less, this would have had me side-eyeing the text something fierce. But Ms. Lin has remarkable control of her material and has not led me wrong before -- more concretely, this is not the first time Mingyu has been abused at the hands of a man in authority. The late General Deng was fond of making his possessiveness known in subtle but unmistakably douchey ways. She knows how to read abuse rather than merely react to it: Wu Kaifeng puts her in physical pain, yes, but he does it in the course of his duty -- torture being an accepted part of Changan police procedure -- and most importantly of all, he stops the torture long before he needs to. (And apologizes for it later in a perfect and specific way.) This one fact is enough to show Mingyu that the constable operates outside the usual dangerous networks of social privilege:

"I don't trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don't care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don't care who I am, which means you don't care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth." (596)

Note all the negatives in this early passage -- Mingyu is starting to rebel against the values of the Pingkang Li by seeing value in nothingness more generally. She will grow bolder about this as the novel progresses.

Merely being a member of the privileged gender is not enough to put Wu Kaifeng at the apex of power in Changan, and he knows it: "I'm ill-mannered," he says later. "Unsightly. Nothing to anyone that matters" (1271). Mingyu initially recognizes in Kaifeng a lack that gives him power, similar to her own mirror-like unreadability: "Part of her envied Wu Kaifeng and his unyielding approach. It must be freeing to walk through this world and feel nothing" (596). But their positions are differently privileged by class: Mingyu may not have money of her own -- except for what she's been able to hide away in secret -- but she does have access to a moneyed lifestyle. Her clothes, her social skills, her musical ability, all these mark her as a member of the rarefied upper echelons of society, even if she only exists there as a shadow of her true self. The constable, in contrast, is a man of unknown birth, fortuneless and indifferently educated, a pariah in the imperial world where scholarship and bloodlines are directly tied to career advancement and power. Mingyu's position might be a cage, but it's a cage raised far above the level a man like Wu Kaifeng can hope to reach. If he resists the kyriarchal network of money and privilege, as Mingyu sees, it is because he has as little hope of agency within that network as she does.

A third of the way through, at the very moment when Kaifeng insists he is nothing, Mingyu contradicts him:

"It's not true," she murmured. "You're not really like that."

He smiled crookedly at her. "Not ugly?"

"Not . . . nothing." (1271)

And then something happens: he kisses her. Something else happens: Mingyu kisses him back. (This seems as good a time as any to state that Wu Kaifeng is one of the swoon-worthiest heroes I've read in quite some time. Jeannie Lin writes the best first kisses.) "Don't think too much of this," Mingyu warns. "I won't," Kaifeng promises (1271). And then they part: "They both knew that nothing more could become of it" (1309). This kiss, like Mingyu and Kaifeng, is nothing -- but like them, and like Cordelia's 'nothing,' this nothingness has a power outside the system of commodified love and desire. Thanks to the iterative nature of romance narratives, the reader knows damn well that something will indeed come of this. Mingyu is changed almost immediately: "Her stolen and precious hour with Wu Kaifeng had emboldened her more than it should have" (1440). She's using the language of value -- stolen, precious -- to describe something that by law and custom shouldn't even exist.

Kyriarchal power systems are bending beneath the weight of actions motivated by honest mutual desire.

Wu Kaifeng may have started as a torturer, but he moves increasingly away from any attmpts to claim, control, or possess Mingyu. All these terms are standard romance sex scene tropes -- hell, they're practically subgenres at this point -- but Kaifeng makes a great case for the pure undiluted hotness of un-claiming: "He found her sash and looped the length of silk around her wrists to secure her arms overhead, but the gesture was only symbolic. Almost poetic, for someone untrained in poetry. He couldn't tie her there, he couldn't keep her" (2383). [My notes at this point are simply "SWOON SWOON SWOON." From me, not Mingyu. She's not really the swooning type.] This deliberate and careful unclaiming consistently allows Mingyu the metaphorical space to claim herself, to exist again as a person: "When Kaifeng took her like this, single-mindedly, with no motive but for his pleasure and her own, she finally belonged to herself. Her body was her own and this pleasure -- this pleasure was hers for the taking" (2737).

But this progression is unsustainable and comes to a head at the climax: Mingyu is growing bold enough to want to free herself from the entire money-love-power system, and talks of leaving the city. Wu Kaifeng knows that although he has come to love her anything he does to claim or take or possess her will only keep her imprisoned. So he retreats entirely, saying they must part.

This next move will take some explaining, so bear with me. Mingyu and Kaifeng are falling in love while trying to solve the mystery of the death of Mingyu's protector General Deng. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!) At first it appears Deng was beheaded by one of his bodyguards, so the general is given a state funeral and a very expensive new head made of jade. But then it turns out -- SPOILERS NO REALLY IT'S COMING UP -- that the headless body belongs to one of the bodyguards, and Deng has faked his own assassination so he can start a coup, and he's been hiding in the family mausoleum, but by the time our protagonists figure this out someone else has killed all the surviving bodyguards and also poisoned the general. And servant confesses and commits suicide, but maybe he didn't really do it either? And maybe he was poisoned by the real killer? It's a giant MacGuffin of a murder investigation, with near-constant deceptions and a complete lack of meaning at the end -- in short, it's perfect. And the late general's oh-so-valuable jade head? Is broken up by Wu Kaifeng and used to buy Mingyu's freedom from Madame Sun.

So the head of a man who was not actually beheaded is broken, and the pieces used to pay Mingyu's very real debt -- a concrete example of something coming from nothing, of emptiness being turned into profit. Now that the courtesan owns herself again, of course, she is able to reunite with Wu Kaifeng. Mingyu has some money she's hoarded and they spend most of it renovating a derelict tea-shop: in the book's final scene, Kaifeng has bought Mingyu a very pretty musical instrument with basically the last of their cash. Now, at the happy ending, nothing is all they have. They're hoping the tea-shop will turn a profit, but they don't know. It's the diametric opposite of the usual romance narrative, where the couple ends up wealthy or at least comfortable -- but while a lack of funds might jeopardize the normal HEA, we've had the whole rest of the book to know how capable our hero and heroine are at making something out of nothing. Where King Lear let nothingness destroy his life, his family, and his kingdom, Mingyu and Kaifeng find nothingness a haven from the interconnecting dynamics that work to dehumanize them. The vast amount of nothingness at the end of this novel is not a lack, but an opportunity. It's really quite elegant, as a twist on the usual trope.

A brief postscript: Let this analysis not be taken to mean that sex work per se is necessarily degrading or corrupting or dehumanizing. This is a study of a single fictional text and its motifs. But the intersections beneath which sex work takes place in both Ms. Lin's Tang Dynasty setting and in our own modern Western Judeo-Christian culture -- systems of class oppression and gender bias most especially -- these often do great damage to sex workers as individuals and as a class. If Mingyu feels erased as an individual, so too do many real-world sex workers, who are criminalized by an imperfect justice system, and whose voices are discounted by a culture that considers them less than fully human.

An even briefer, much less serious postscript: using the words 'nothing' and 'something' so often has gotten "Something Good" from The Sound of Music thoroughly stuck in my head -- and it occurs to me that the lyrics to that song also set up a system where goodness is rewarded with love as if love is a prize for moral behavior and how is that not a type of commodification and I should probably just stop now before my brain dribbles out my ears.

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Dear Author's group review of this book touches on the class issues as well as themes of artifice and reality -- it's a really great discussion of a really wonderful book. Miss Bates has a review the parallels many of my own reactions here.

Jeannie Lin's first book in this series, The Lotus Palace, sold less than expected, so that Harlequin pulled The Jade Temptress from print distribution and made it digital-only. Ms. Lin blogged about her complex reaction to the news, and Courtney Milan responded with print sales figures of her own to back up Jeannie Lin's thoughts. It's an interesting conversation on how we interpret sales data in light of race and romance, and there are no easy answers anywhere.

This post from Racialicious is brief but illuminating and touches on capitalism in China, contact between Asian and European cultures, Orientalist stereotypes, and the difference between a concubine and a mistress.

My own views on sex work are rendered largely irrelevant, I think, by the fact that I am not nor ever have been a sex worker. (And no matter what they tell you, erotic romance authorship is not the same thing at all.) For years I have looked to Seattle's own Mistress Matisse for considered and knowledgeable opinions in a very volatile field of discourse and experience: her Twitter feed is a great source of activism and writing. And while I've only just started reading Melissa Gira Grant's recent book Playing the WhoreI can tell you that it is robust, insightful, and pulling no punches.

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Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress. Toronto: HQN, 2014. Ebook.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. King Lear. Shakespeare Online. Web. 1999. Accessed April 4, 2014.

I is for American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, Etc.

{Note: for the purposes of this article, I will be using "Native American" as a general term, and tribal designations or individual preferences for identification when appropriate and/or available. Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

When it comes to the treatment of Native Americans in fiction, the romance genre has a lot to answer for. E.g. the millions of historical Western romances with the word "savage" in the title. Or that time white author Cassie Edwards filled her novels with plagiarized passages from nature writing and out-of-print Native American memoirs. I mean, the words holy shit are utterly inadequate there: cultural appropriation does not get more shameless and literal than that.

Romance's appropriation of American Indian experience is often cloaked in New Age-y terms of appreciation and/or reverence, such as this quote from Western historical author Paty Jager's 2011 post on Romance at Random:

The Indians love of the land and nature make wonderful backdrops for the use of language and how they portray their lives. This honest connection with the world around them adds to the romance of the story. Their distinct and different culture from ours is fascinating to us.

Notice the use of pronouns there: they are Native Americans, primitive and romantic and exotic. We are romance authors, sophisticated and language-oriented and cultured. The phrasing splits the two groups and allows for no overlap between them. Similar stereotyped language appears in this RT Magazine Theme Spotlight piece: "The Native American romance emphasizes instinct, creativity, freedom, and the longing to escape from the strictures of society to return to nature." It's Noble Savages all the way down. With this kind of othering so strongly at work in the subgenre, it's hardly surprising that actual examples of Native American/American Indian romance authors are very difficult to come by.

Cover image for Her Land, Her Love by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie. A brown-skinned, dark-haired woman in a Navajo rug dress looks sadly down to one side. Gold triangles frame the corners of the image.Naturally, as I often do when stumped, I asked Twitter for help -- a Storify of the collected responses can be found here -- which is how I learned about Evangeline Parsons Yazzie.

Of all the authors mentioned in that Storify, Ms. Yazzie is the one who most explicitly identifies as Native American (specifically Navajo). Her Land, Her Love (Amazon link: publisher page is here) is the author's first romance: her other works are children's books based on Navajo legends and stories. Ms. Yazzie makes clear in her introduction that she chose the historical romance form deliberately, and that this story is a way of remembering and retelling her people's past: therefore it seems appropriate to talk about the ways in which this book departs significantly from the usual forms of white-authored Native American romance.

This book's roots are in oral storytelling and the prose shows it: the opening chapters have zero conflict and are simple and descriptive in the manner of folktales and poetry. Time moves in fits and starts and great leaps -- we start with our heroine Nínááníbaa' as a baby and move quickly forward into her youth and the day of her marriage to hero Hashké Yił Naabaah. At the same time there's a wealth of detail of Navajo daily life: it felt more as though I were reading a work of historical scholarship rather than a historical romance. I'll admit: it was at times quite frightfully dull. But those conflict-free, happy chapters full of loving family members and yearly rhythms and hilarious sheep and goat sounds give us the space to see the Navajo as they are when they are free to be themselves, with their religion, culture, and living places mostly intact.

This in-depth depiction is the opposite of what we see in the captivity narratives identified by Janet at Dear Author as part of the romance genre's foundations, where a white heroine (it's usually a heroine) is captured by a local tribe and gradually assimilated, often marrying a Native American man (or a white dude who has been similarly assimilated). This is the voyeuristic and colonialist arc we see in -- to take one popular example -- James Cameron's Avatar, where an outsider can out-native the natives, for some reason. By contrast, none of the white characters in Her Love, Her Land is going to out-Navajo the actual Navajo -- this romance novel is centered firmly in indigenous culture, looking out, rather than from the mainstream white colonial perspective, looking in. Practically all of the dialogue is in Navajo, an extremely complex language, with English translations following. I liked this a great deal: it reassured me that the author was writing from within the tradition, with personal knowledge of Navajo language and culture. (I'm also a bit of a language geek, so I would occasionally try and work out which words were doing what in a given Navajo sentence. I got basically nowhere, which isn't surprising since there's a reason this language was used for coded messages in WWII, but it was fun trying.) Most of all, this book felt profoundly real -- perhaps it was just knowing that many of these stories were real, had been handed down the author's family tree for several generations. I can't separate that from my reactions, and I'm not sure I'd want to if I could. Reading this book felt like bearing witness.

This sense of a place well-lived in, with real-life families, makes the text absolutely terrifying for a reader aware of what's to come. We know this idyllic continuity is not going to last, and the happier our main couple and their relatives become, the harder it will be when everything is taken away from them. We see, in exquisite detail, precisely how much our here and heroine are going to lose in the years to come. And by this point we've come to care for them just as they've come to care for each other. (Seriously, Nínááníbaa' and Hashké Yił Naabaah's four-day honeymoon where they're living together but not allowed to touch one another is the sweetest, shyest thing. They're all trembling and nerves and yearning eyes, both of them.) The fall happens gradually -- the capture of two daughters here, the loss of a son there, the need to compromise for safety's sake as Kit Carson's men burn villages and poison waterholes -- and it is all the more heartbreaking for being drawn out. Hashke Yił Naabaah is a war leader, admired and respected and responsible for his people's happiness, so at every turn he is trying to understand what the white men want from him, how he can find a way to compromise, how to get across the vital needs of his people. There are a few moments of narrative omniscience, where the story pulls back to tell us what one particular white officer might be thinking, but for the most part the white men we see in this novel are all completely opaque, nameless and inhuman. There's occasional reference to the state of national politics, but it is not nearly enough to outweigh the terrible crimes happening here, on the page in front of us, to people we've spent years of book-time with.

One of these moments, however, is particularly worth our attention as intersectional feminists (practicing):

Never in the wildest dreams of the Naabeehó naabaahii did any of them think that the greed for gold and silver was at the forefront of the decision to remove the noble Naabeehó people to a place far from their land between the four mountains. Once again, the soldiers lied to them!

General Carleton, along with a man who had been a territorial governor of New Mexico, had secretly met at Santa Fe and created a grand scheme for removing the "savage" Navajos from their lands. The two men believed the land the Naabeehó occupied was rich in gold, silver, and copper. The Union Army was becoming poor fighting a war in the south known as the Civil War. General Carleton felt their contribution of precious metals would be valuable in helping their Union Army fund the war. (Kindle location 3212)

The Civil War, while not "fought over slavery" precisely as whitewashed history would have us think, nevertheless did have the outcome of making the chattel slavery system illegal in the United States. (Unless we want to talk about sharecropping and Jim Crow but I digress.) The huge effort required for the liberation of the slaves is here directly tied to Indian removal and violent oppression. This is intersectionality at its most basic: the legal/military means by which black people became legally people (as opposed to property) necessitated the destruction of Indian nations in territories hundreds of miles away from the battlefield -- at least in the eyes of the white men in charge of the Army and US domestic policy. We like to believe -- are often taught to believe -- that the US's story is an arc of decreasing racism and the long slow death of white supremacy: direct connections like this one between black and Native American oppression prove that comforting fiction to be a sweet and poisonous lie.

Ms. Yazzie's text walks a fine line between realism and romanticism: the pain our hero and heroine suffer -- removal from their homes, the loss of their children, fear for their safety and the ever-present possibility of rape and starvation and death -- is arbitrary and malicious, unthinkably sadistic. At the same time, the resourcefulness and strength Haske Yił Naabaah and Nínááníbaa' show in supporting one another and their fellow Navajo is highly idealized. Frankly, I was glad this was so. I didn't want to watch those strong hearts lose hope in one another, even though they lost hope in plenty of other things (the promises of soldiers, for example). This is not a subtle moment in history, so the heightened contrast feels appropriately stark.

In the middle of the book, our hero and heroine are removed from their home and sent on the Long Walk. Again the tropes of the captivity narrative are reversed: the Navajo people are the ones being taken and removed, forced to depend on the dubious charity of Union soldiers in an internment camp on the outskirts of a fort. People starve, people sicken, people vanish, people die. There's no moral justification for any of it. Our protagonists are still living in the camp at the end of the book, though historically the Navajo were eventually moved to a slightly better location (not great, and not their proper home, but not quite as barren and hostile as Bosque Redondo). Perhaps this is part of what makes Native American romances so comparatively rare: the implausibility of a happy ending in the face of flat-out genocide. The history of contact with Native peoples in the US is irredeemably tragic and negative, a difficult setting for a genre whose most recognizable trope is a happy ending.

This would make Native invisibility in romance more understandable if it didn't dovetail so nicely with the prevailing cultural notion that Native Americans only exist in the past, rather than being present citizens, neighbors, friends, and potential lovers/heroes and heroines of romance. I expected to be able to find at least one contemporary romance with a Native American protagonist -- but everything skewed immediately paranormal and urban fantasy. You can apparently have Muscogee or Navajo characters, but only if they're magical. Special. Not really human or normal at all, in fact. It put my hackles up in ways I haven't been able to articulate, though this post is a good start.

So going forward I shall continue my search for that unicorn: a (hopefully contemporary) romance with a Native American hero/heroine written by a Native American author. If anyone knows of one (or has written one!), let me know!

Let everyone know. We'll be listening.

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The Navajo People have a truly excellent website, with plenty of links about history, culture, and news.

Native American authors are definitely out there: they're just writing things that aren't genre romance. Here is a list of 20 Native American authors you need to read (hometown hero Sherman Alexie shoutout!). 

Speaking of Native peoples and children's literature, Colorlines recently did an eye-opening post about the interplay of racist sports mascots and children's books.

Photographer Matika Wilbur's Project 562 aims to photograph people from every one of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. It's amazing and beautiful and vital -- go look!

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Yazzie, Evangeline Parsons. Her Land, Her Love. Flagstaff, Arizona: Salina Bookshelf. 2014. Ebook.

C is for Zen Cho

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} Let me not even pretend I can write with perfect objectivity about author Zen Cho's The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. It has been a long time since a book has charmed me so thoroughly, on so many levels. This Dear Author review by Sunita sums it up nicely: "It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle." I love champagne, both as a beverage and as a metaphor for intoxicating prose, so this was precisely to my liking.

Oh, there will be so many spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.

Jade (Geok Huay) Yeo is a Malayan writer of Chinese descent, living and working in 1920s London. She has a Dorothy-Parkerish keenness of voice, self-deprecating and self-confident by turns. She writes both articles with titles like 'What The Well-Dressed Woman Is Wearing' and literary pieces for the Oriental Literary Review. Her critic's eye is crucial to her story, which is surprisingly rich in literary antecedents for so short a book: Eliot, Austen, two of the Brontës, Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Wodehouse are all represented -- and those were only the ones I noticed. This post and the comments name a few more.

But most significant are the frequent allusions to Jane Eyre, whose plot the novel parallels rather closely:

  • Our bookish and independent heroine refuses to be intimidated by a volatile, wealthy man.
  • The volatile, wealthy man finds her resistance irresistible.
  • The two begin an affair, but the first man turns out to have a wife already.
  • After a confrontation with the wife, our heroine takes refuge in a quiet spot in the country.
  • Our heroine finds a second chance at romantic involvement, with a less wealthy but more moral partner, and makes the choice most conducive to her personal happiness.

These are the broad strokes, though I could go on (our heroine has an overbearing aunt, our heroine finds employment through periodicals, Jade is one letter away from Jane, etc. there are so many it's really exciting I'll stop now honest).

Despite all these clues, Jade refuses this very comparison: "I had no intention of being anyone's Jane Eyre, particularly as Jane Eyre herself declined to be a second wife" (Kindle location 726). When filtered through a Malayan cultural lens that includes polygamy, the  catastrophe at the heart of Brontë's text -- the strong taboo against bigamy -- becomes something quite different. Jane Eyre in this context does not flee from a nearly committed crime: instead, she rejects a form of inclusion that would make her subservient, secondary. Western literature's meaning alters when it is viewed from the margins rather than from the center.

Jade's gently ironic tone should not prevent us from noticing that the state of second wife is the very type of subservience she is being offered by Diana Hardie. Again the threat is not bigamy or even adultery: the threat for Jade is being subsumed into a Western, high-literary, colonialist house; being subject to endless microaggressions about her country of origin; being "Hardie's assistant" rather than a writer with her own name and career. It would mean the obliteration of her entire self and experience: "It would be like forswearing rice, and only eating cake for the rest of my life. I couldn't do it" (752).

Sebastian Hardie, after all, could not be a more obvious symbol of the Western colonial and literary agenda. He is a celebrated author with a sexually adventurous lifestyle and a rampaging libido -- the perfect Roaring Twenties sheik -- the consummate romance novel hero. And like his wife, he would place Jade in a role as a sidekick. On their very first meeting, he refers to her as "Ariel ... Alone on an incomprehensible island"  244). It's clear he's  attempting flattery, envisioning the Asian female critic as a waifish, magical sprite who was rescued by a European and must repay that debt with servitude and gratitude. But Jade's not having it. "I'm really more of a Caliban," she replies. It's probably nothing more than a one-off joke, offered in a moment of social anxiety, but Hardie attempts for the rest of the novel to confine her within this persona: he refers to her as "little Caliban" (534) and writes revealing poems to her under that name. He has effectively colonized Jade, renaming her and confining her personhood within an explicitly English, literary framework.

It is never made explicit in the text, but I believe it's safe to assume that in this little game Hardie imagines himself as Prospero, a figure often associated with creative and artistic powers (not to mention God complexes). But from the perspective of a reader it is abundantly clear that Sebastian Hardie is a Miranda, traipsing around his island home, talking a great deal of nonsense about love, and wondering if the people he sees are real people or magical spirits. The role of Prospero is reserved for Sebastian's wife Diana, who is very clearly in charge of everything: "Being with Diana must be like living in a beautiful play written by a playwright of the modern school" (674).

Pregnant and disenchanted, Jade leaves the Hardies (and The Tempestbehind and goes to the country to have her child in seclusion. Like Jane Eyre, she finds herself in a place that operates on high moral principles and charitable acts:

Mrs. Crowther is a widow, but her assistants are Misses mostly. They are all very nice: they knit and are tremendously tactful. The food is British and hearty, and the furnishings are soothing, if plain. Perhaps they thought patterns might distress our minds further. (856)

Also like Jane, Jade finds friendship in this lonely place -- but while Jane finds solace in the puritan spirit of the Riverses, Jade is drawn to a fellow inmate, Margery, who suffers from what is pretty obviously clinical depression: she describes "a black thing with horns and wings ... that stares at one with yellow eyes -- and one can't get out of bed, but lies there and wishes one was dead" (910). Their sisterhood is not a literary-coincidental blood connection, but a sympathy created by marginalization. "I'm mad," says Margery; "I'm bad," replies Jade (892), but they do not let the prevailing cultural narratives about madness/badness impede their connection as human beings. Strict adherence to the plots of such narratives belongs to people like the Hardies, or to Margery's relatives, who privilege "scientific" medical authority over her own lived experience of her illness (933).

By this point in the book Jade has realized the depth of her true feelings for her friend Ravi, the editor of the Oriental Literary Review, but she has no hope that he returns them -- until he shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm. Jade is reading Agnes Grey and cites David Copperfield  -- another book with two wives -- to describe her shocked reaction. These are small details, but it soon becomes apparent that Ravi and Jade have each been telling themselves stories about the other, and that those stories have not matched. They get things sorted out almost in spite of themselves, in the charming way of all the best romantic comedies -- and since we're talking about the Jane Eyre parallels still you may note that Ravi has been imagining himself as suffering from unrequited love for an unattainable object, just as St. John Rivers does for Rosamond Oliver. In the course of proposing, Ravi reveals that he knows Jade's untranslated name, Geok Huay. Jade is puzzled, as she'd never actually told him this -- but he mentions that she had written it but then crossed it out on the very first letter she'd written to him as an editor. It is clear that Ravi has deliberately chosen to address her by the name she'd chosen to use in public, in London, in the literary world -- but he has not forgotten her real name, and in this private, intimate moment he uses it, setting aside the colonial need for a 'normal-sounding' (read: British) identification.

If Jade excels at subverting and deflating the narratives of privilege and colonialism -- her initial bad review of Hardie's novel, her refusal to adore London's golden boy, her refusal to move in with Hardie and his wife, her rebellious friendship with Margery -- Ravi "remembers the things one has said" (176). He is an editor, someone who can keep multiple versions/visions of a narrative in his head without contradiction -- and also someone who can spot the telling details, the places for improvement, the moments where a story's plot or tone may be revised. As Jade says quite early about the Mimnaugh review: "I was worried he would give me helpful critique, which I would have to listen to because Ravi's judgment is unerring" (87). Jade is constantly shifting between social and personal narratives -- British imperial subject/foreigner, good girl/fallen woman, literary critic/pleasure reader -- and Ravi is the one person in the book who can follow the thread between all these shifting stories. As such, he is perfectly suited to her, and Jade recognizes it.

And of course, in a truly subversive move that's like catnip for lit-nerds like myself, Jade finds happiness not with the Rochester figure but with a much friendlier, warmer version of St. John Rivers, who initially offers her a similar kind of companionate marriage (before the two realize their mutual romantic feelings).

Nobody's Jane Eyre, indeed.

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There is often the sense, as Zen Cho explainsthat "that fiction by or about people who are traditionally underrepresented in Western literature is kind of innately worthy and dull." This perceived gap between reading-for-escape and reading-for-representation became a strong theme in a recent Dear Author thread asking what books readers were hoping to see in the future. But this is a false dichotomy, a lingering symptom of the way that non-white people have been Othered and limited throughout literature and history. I for one am thrilled that Zen Cho is hoping to write more "post-colonial fluff for book nerds."

She has also complied this handy list of Malaysian science fiction and fantasy writers working in English, for your further reading pleasure.

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Cho, Zen. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Seattle: Zen Cho, 2012. Ebook.

B is for Beverly Jenkins

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Ask anyone who knows: they'll tell you Beverly Jenkins is the queen of African-American historical romance. I've had Destiny's Embrace sitting in my TBR pile forever, just waiting for me to pick it up. And I finally did! And ... I didn't like it.

Cover image for Destiny's Embrace by Beverly Jenkins. Pastoral background. A dark-skinned, dark-haired woman lounges on her right elbow facing away. Her light blue gown is undone to bare her long back. Facing her and the viewer is a dark-skinned, dark-haired shirtless man, gazing into her eyes with heroic intensity. Pink text above reads BEVERLY JENKINS. Yellow text below reads DESTINY'S EMBRACE.Let's be clear: this is mostly a matter of personal preference. Destiny's Embrace is a romance in a very classic mold: virgin heroine resplendent with niceness, alpha hero terrified of commitment, cast of secondary characters whose goodness is directly related to how much they help or are sympathetic to our protagonists. Plenty of conflicts are foreshadowed -- the heroine's abusive mother in Philadelphia, the hero's current mistress, the sinister neighboring rancher who's busting down fences to poach water he doesn't have the rights to -- but all these problems are resolved in a single scene each, and none of the solutions have any consequences or repercussions.

In short, I was bored silly.

This unsettled me so much -- was it due to unconscious racism? seriously, everybody talks about how much they like Beverly Jenkins -- that I bought and read another book of hers, Vivid, for comparison.

Cover image for Vivid by Beverly Jenkins. A flowery landscape. A shirtless man with dark skin stands behind a dark-skinned woman, his hands on her upper arms, his face tilted down toward hers. The woman wears a white gown with a red sash. Her eyes are closed, her shoulders are bare, and she is leaning back into the man's chest. Pink text reads BEVERLY JENKINS in the upper right and VIVID across the bottom edge.I liked Vivid a great deal more, not least because the heroine's goal was more concrete and emotionally plausible, but in many ways it felt like the same book with the same basic underpinnings. Like a book that had kept its boned corset but changed the color of its gown. And that book is one I've read before, over and over, in many a historical romance over the years. In fact, I checked the publication date on Destiny's Embrace to make sure it was published recently and was not a reissue from the late 80s. (It wasn't.) It's a very familiar romance type, and it is very much not my bag.

This is not necessarily something Beverly Jenkins needs to change. For one thing, she has a thousand awards, a passionate following, and can cheerfully ignore the opinions of a newbie author of weird erotic paranormal historicals.

For another, I kept remembering part of this Ann Leckie post about tradition and inclusion in genre ficion:

And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing.

I had a similar thought two years ago when I discussed a contemporary romance with a trans heroine  that felt old-fashioned and cliché to me: having a romance heroine from a usually invisible group who is written the same way as all our much-discussed TSTL heroines is something of a triumph.

And yet ...

And yet here I am, unsatisfied, about to think overly hard about these two Beverly Jenkins novels and the value of resistance.

My very favorite line from Vivid comes early on, when our titular heroine meets the hero's mischievous daughter and recalls her own less-than-proper childhood:

Vivid's partner-in-crime had been her late grandmother Maria, founder of the Female Plotting Rebelling Society. Grandmother Maria believed that all females, regardless of age, race, or circumstances, should always be plotting rebellion to better the state of women. (Kindle location 512)

The Female Plotting Rebelling Society! I was enchanted. I imagined something like a black 19th-century Michigan Lysistrata taking place (tell me you wouldn't read that!) especially since the text has at this point already established the parameters of a gender battle: Vivid is a female doctor, determined to build her practice despite the era's rampant sexism, and Nate, our hero, is a man whose spoiled and adulterous ex-wife has left him convinced that women are flimsy, treacherous things not to be trusted or loved or anything. (Alpha heroes can be so adorably fragile, can't they?) Sadly, the FPRS is never again mentioned, as the plot meanders through several seemingly unconnected episodes of suspense and family melodrama.

Still, this quote helps set up a fundamental theme of the book: rebellion and resistance are important virtues. The indignities of Jim Crow are depicted, and several characters speak against those racist policies or find ways to work around them as best they can. National politics are mentioned frequently and in-depth, and I admit (nerd alert!) that I was delighted to find a mini-essay on the pros and cons of Frederick Douglass as a representative of black experience in a historical romance novel. Black voters in the text are forced to choose between a Republican Party that has neglected them and a Democratic Party that has worked for their disenfranchisement and destruction; some characters stay loyal to the party of Lincoln, but others make a different choice. This rebellious spirit, defending the dignity and humanity of black persons, is presented as entirely compatible with patriotic fervor: we are not resisting the state, so much as we are attempting to improve it.

Additionally, we have our heroine's resistance to rigidly sexist gender roles as conceived by the inhabitants of Grayson's Grove. Vivid is an excellent doctor, well-trained and passionate, who saves numerous lives and spends her off hours reading case reports and compiling patient histories. (Even in the 19th century, most of good doctoring is paperwork.) In defense of herself and other women, Vivid speaks out against prejudiced locals, including our hero himself -- and all of them are demonstrably wrong for distrusting her abilities. Her resistance to the town's initial sexist skepticism guarantees her own happiness in her profession and new location, and it also ensures that Grayson's Grove has a trained and competent doctor for the first time in decades. It's both a personal triumph and a sign of social progress.

In fact, Grayson's Grove has a particular history of anti-sexist action by the women who live there, as Nate himself reveals to the reader:

The women owned many of the businesses, oftimes they voted as a bloc on Grove affairs, and generally they had their way when they wanted it. According to legend, during his grandfather's day the men once tried to rein in their wives. It resulted in a disaster so cataclysmic that even today Nate could not get any of the elder men to discuss what had transpired. The women won, that was all Nate and his contemporaries knew. (1328)

(Shades of Lysistrata again...)

Unfortunately, resistance is also especially virtuous in courtship relationships. Both Vivid and Destiny's Embrace present their heroes as generally irresistible: handsome, caring, moral  men who have dropped panties all over their respective landscapes. Destiny's Embrace is particularly explicit about this, and features this memorable line from the hero's internal monologue: "How dare she be immune to his charms. Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?" (3182). In my mind he was wearing a fedora for the rest of the book. Also from Destiny's Embrace: "'I believe you will be good for my son,' Mrs. Yates was saying. 'Other than myself, he's unaccustomed to a woman who'll stand her ground as you did today'" (1217). This was the point where the phonograph in my head began playing 'Gaston' on endless loop.

In both texts the heroine's unique resistance to the hero's sexual appeal makes her different and therefore more desirable than other women. Both books also feature secondary romance storylines involving an elderly female relative of the hero -- and these romances are even more adversarial than that of the main protagonists. Witness local curmudgeon Adam Crowley from Vivid, declaring his intentions toward the hero's Aunt Abigail: "If Nate can court a recalcitrant female, then so can I ... I'm putting you on notice. Before the snow falls, you and I are going to be man and wife" (3262). Note the absence of a question mark or any suggestion that Abigail is permitted to refuse this offer.

The result of such a dynamic is that real, earnest resistance to romantic overtures is erased or at best transformed into mere temporizing and game-playing. There is a passage in Destiny's Embrace when local jerk Silas Cook decides Mariah would make him a fine wife: "She [Mariah] did not have a good time. One, Silas Cook kept referring to her as 'sugar,' and two, when she told him she was flattered by his proposal but uninterested in becoming his next wife, he refused to take her seriously" (3682). Hero Logan's announcement later in the book that he and Mariah are courting only infuriates Silas -- and the target of is anger, naturally, is the heroine: "Don't you hello me, girl. You led me on" (4111). The only difference between his and Logan's pursuit of Mariah is that Mariah secretly desires Logan -- but her spoken interactions with the two men are nearly identical in many places. Throughout both texts, female characters will express resistance or refusal to sexual overtures, only to have everyone around them chuckle knowingly and wait until refusal magically becomes blissful acceptance. Such is the textual, sexual power of the romance hero.

Structurally, the patterns of these three layers of resistance -- political, social, and romantic -- serve to equate the position of men with the position of the state, giving the world of the text a patriarchal authority that may be softened, but never completely overthrown. Black citizens resist the state, but are still contained within it and subject to its racist laws. Women in Grayson's Grove are educated and outspoken, but still subject to the tyranny of male opinion and control. That great passage about the prior generation of intelligent, active women? Their victory is hollow, because nobody currently knows how they won or what they were fighting to get (besides the vague 'not reined in').  It's a little chilling to think that because the men won't talk about it, nobody knows what happened -- why, exactly, can they not ask the women themselves? Male silence on this matter erases the effects of female rebellion from oral history as well as from living memory.

And female resistance to romance slowly evaporates beneath the exertion of male desire. Female desire exists, but it is tempered by both Vivid's and Mariah's (highly fetishized) virginity, which renders their desires less than fully active. The hero's good looks and sexual prowess frequently overpower the heroine's physical and emotional reservations in ways that longtime romance readers will instantly recognize -- unspoken attraction leads to bickering, arguments end when characters begin making out, etc. But because the sexual arena in these books is very much a sphere of masculine authority -- the 'let me teach you how to sex' language is everywhere -- the result is that feminine speech and self-assertion are subtly but consistently undermined.

Witness this climactic moment from Vivid. Nate and Vivid have gotten engaged and Vivid's parents are on their way to town to celebrate. But another stranger arrives first -- some weeks earlier, Nate had secretly sent out a batch of letters seeking a replacement doctor. Specifically, a male doctor, who has now arrived and proven to be lecherous and arrogant and generally gross. Vivid is naturally furious at Nate's betrayal, breaks off the engagement, and storms out -- but in the midst of her fury, we get this: "She knew she'd eventually be calm enough to hear Nate's explanation, but damn him, she hadn't reached that state yet" (4160). He has brutally undermined her career and lied to her (if only through forgetfulness, though that wouldn't make me any less angry in her shoes) -- but she's already putting her own emotions aside, thinking outside herself and prioritizing Nate's perspective over her own -- all in less than a page after the reveal.

We have come a long way from the Vivid of the first few chapters, who fired a rifle at Nate's hat when he tried to walk away mid-argument. Despite all the book's description of women as formidable, as strong, as troublesome, as rebellious, the narrative arc shows a process of taming, muting, and restraint. (And don't get me started on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character, really just don't.)

This brings us back to the Ann Leckie quote, about the importance of the tradition for the marginalized. Black Americans in 19th-century Michigan were heavily Othered, and thus may have more stake in mantaining (a typo, but I'm leaving it) the politics of respectability. The excellent Trudy from Gradient Lair explains it perfectly this post; I'm only borrowing the most relevant sentence for my analysis, but please feel encouraged to click through and read the whole thing.

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation.

I think it's fairly safe to say that Nate's urge to make Grayson's Grove a successful, thriving community in a racist country definitely leads him into some oppressive, anti-feminist behavior. Female rebellion threatens Nate's ability to counter the social pressures of white supremacy: his intentions are noble. This is precisely why intersectionality as a field exists: because this need to combat anti-black racism, both in history and in Vivid, has as a frequent consequence the erasure of black women's identities and perspectives.

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An interview with Beverly Jenkins was featured in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

The history of the romance genre is only starting to be written, and black romances in particular are often overlooked. For more reading, this past February RT Magazine posted a timeline of African-American romances. There is also this Multicultural Romance Roundtable from Love in the Margins.

P.S.: If anyone has read Jenkins' Night Hawk and has insights to share, please weigh in!

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Jenkins, Beverly. Destiny's Embrace. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013. Ebook.

Jenkins, Beverly. Vivid. N.p.: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Ebook.

Face Reading, Racism, And The State Of The Romance Today

This is not going to be a nice post. It is not going to be a short post. It is, however, a necessary post, if only to keep me from feeling slimy in my soul. Please accept honesty as a virtue today in lieu of graciousness. Tomorrow my chapter of the Romance Writers of America is having their monthly meeting. I generally look forward to chapter meetings, but tomorrow I will not be in attendance. Because the speaker is Jean Haner, talking about her particular school of face reading, also known as physiognomy.

And from everything I can tell, physiognomy is kinda racist.

I am not simply skeptical because The Wisdom of Your Face sounds like something Leslie Knope would yell when angered. (It totally does!) I'm also skeptical because I'm a historical romance author, and like virtually every historical romance author I have read about phrenology and I know that it is a load of crap.

More specifically, it's a load of racist crap, used to justify both slavery and eugenics (among other atrocities) on the grounds that African people were less intellectually developed than Europeans. This despite the fact that none of the evidence amounted to a hill of beans, scientifically. None of the research I've done on face reading in the past three months has convinced me that physiognomy is any more science-based or any less racist than phrenology.

And calling it "Chinese face reading," as many do, does not reassure me on this front. You might as well drop the words "exotic" or "Oriental."

Also a red flag: when you talk about what the shape of a person's nose can tell you about their relationship with money. Because that's certainly never been a talking point of anti-Semitism, nosiree.

The science: I'm not the only one out there to shout "What about genetics?" in response to the fuzziness of phsyiognomy's data. One face-reading website I found addressed these concerns in a FAQ, but the response is chock-full of shoddy science. (Hint: if the romance author can spot you're doing science wrong, you're doing science really, really wrong.) The FAQ in question comes from Rose Rosetree's school of face reading:

So you're claiming that genes have nothing whatsoever to do with how we look? It's not mere chance or coincidence?

No, I believe your soul chooses from what's available in the gene pool. And sometimes it's a pretty long reach in that pool to find the trait that's needed. For instance, one face reading student of mine pointed out that, in his family, there are four brothers. All of them look alike except "the rebel," whose face looks completely different from all the others.

Say it with me now: Correlation does not equal causation!

That is, it is just as likely that the rebellious brother's facial differences caused him to act differently from his brothers as it is that his personal differences are reflected in his facial features. Especially if everyone in the family was frequently making a big deal about it. Oh, you look so different from your brothers! Maybe you were adopted! Maybe the milkman is your real dad! Ha ha ha! It's just a joke—why aren't you laughing? That would certainly lead me to feel rebellious.

Another excellent post, from the hitherto unknown-to-me Motor City Blog, talks about going to a face reading event. Our reviewer is asked to consider the shape of her own eyebrows (because the eyebrows are windows to the soul, or something):

After telling us that women can have high, moderate, or low eyebrows, but there isn't a man on the planet who has high eyebrows (high-brows being, naturally, more sensitive), she had us evaluate the lower arch of our own eyebrows. After a long moment of mirror-gazing, I asked what seemed the obvious question: Before or after plucking? "The way they look right now," she told me. "Because you chose it."

It's one thing to suggest that the shape of a facial feature is drawn by genetics, or behavior, or even choice. My eyebrows are drawn by Cyndee. Although I'm generally satisfied with the styling (read: I don't really care), I had no input into the process other than "ow." Now, it could be argued that a good stylist (and Cyndee is, without a doubt, a good stylist) shapes a woman's brows based on her bone structure etc., but I don't think the sensitivity of my nature was taken into account. This is completely aside from the physiognomy claims, particularly since she also told us that temporary/styling considerations -- like hairstyle -- are not a part of the "read."

I have a related question: what about survivors of trauma—army veterans, for example–whose personalities are deeply altered by their experiences? Do their facial features change shape to reflect their new selves?

The face reader in Detroit then went on to compare the faces of candidates for political office, as Jean Hauer has done in a post about the current election cycle:

Western studies have found that it’s almost always the politician with the strongest jaw who wins the election. Gingrich has a massive jaw compared to Romney.

In Chinese face reading, the jaw is called “The Roots of the Tree.” A tree with strong roots can’t be easily knocked over by the wind. So like the tree, a person with a strong jaw can’t be easily influenced by other people. In other words, they have strong beliefs and will stand up for those beliefs.

Aside from the fact that Gingrich has taken a massive dive in the polls since that post was written, here are my two problems with this:

  • Saying that people will vote for the politician with the strongest jaw may well be a sociological fact. But that just means we have a cultural preference for strong jaws, not that strong jaws are an indication of strong will. After all, "strong jaw" is just a phrase that means "big jaw." It's already a loaded term. And as far as I know there is no way to measure the strength of a politician's determination, so that we might quantify the actual ratio of strength-of-jaw to strength-of-will. I can't believe I even just typed that sentence.
  • People are not trees! Jaws are not actually, factually roots! Do I really have to explain that metaphors are not the same thing as data? Because metaphors are not the same thing as data!

None of the websites I've found have any actual numbers to back up their assertions, or citations of the studies they claim support their arguments. Most of what they offer is specious, transparently cultural assumptions like the above—and such assumptions have no place in science. Or in art, for that matter.

Why This Matters To Me As A Romance Author Specifically

Leaving questions of science or prejudice aside—and oh, how privileged I am to be able to do that—there are reasons why a workshop on face reading is also an offense against the craft of writing.

The strong jaw and trustworthy face ring bells to me as someone who reads and writes romance. The classic romance heroine's mouth is just a little too generous, her chin just a little too stubborn. And from this we are to infer that the heroine herself is both generous and stubborn. Trustworthy people have trustworthy faces, and all our villains are ugly. I'm as guilty of this as anyone—have you met Lord Wart? he's my favorite—but I'm trying to do better.

Lately romance fans have been talking more about the way our characters are physically described and how we can expand more upon the traditional forms of beauty. (Example: this Smart Bitches thread from last year.) Romance as a genre is moving away from the Endless Perfection Parade it was in days of yore. We don't really think that all beautiful people are good, and vice versa. We don't really believe that people with wider mouths are kinder than others. (I mean—we don't, do we?) It's just a convenient way of making our words work doubly hard for us—something we're trained to do by all the writing advice on all the blogs and in all the world. So we make physical descriptions carry the load of character-building as well.

I am here to say now that this is sloppy. It's cliché and trite and plain lazy writing.

So I'm writing no more heroes or heroines with generous mouths. (Villains, maybe—that sounds promising. I need to write more villains.) Or stubborn chins. I would rather show my hero smiling generously, or my heroine stubbornly sticking out her chin. Gestures are fine. Gestures are actions. We can legitimately judge people (and characters) based on their actions.

Because this idea that we can tell what kind of person someone is just by looking at them? It's pseudo-science, and I won't have it turning my books into pseudo-craft.