Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Two approaches to romancing the curvy girl: Kilby Blades' THE SECRET INGREDIENT and Sierra Simone's MISADVENTURES OF A CURVY GIRL

While attending the conference of the New England Chapter of RWA last month, I overheard a writer complaining about the rise of "curvy girl" romances. Oh, this writer had no problem with romances that feature girls whose bodies do not fit the rail thin catwalk model profile; rather, she was sick of such romances that spent pages and pages focusing on the female protagonist's issues, problems, and phobias about her body size. "There are lots of women out there who are curvy and proud of it; why can't we see more of them in romance?"

I was thinking about this comment while I read two recent novels self-labeled "curvy girl" romances: Sierra Simone's Misadventures of a Curvy Girl and Kilby Blades' The Secret Ingredient (with the marketing-savvy subtitle A Curvy Girl Small Town Culinary Romance). Both novels feature heterosexual women who do not fit into the size 4-6 clothing made for a typical runway model. One book acknowledges that and then moves on without further comment; the other puts its protagonist's struggles to embrace body positivity in the face of a past history of fat policing and shaming front and center.

These two romances may take the exact opposite approach to depicting the curvy girl, but each does so for distinctly feminist reasons.

In Kilby Blades' The Secret Ingredient, celebrity chef Marcella Dawes has fled the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles for the east coast, renting a cottage on the North Carolina shore to work on her latest cookbook between seasons of taping her television show, "Cooking with Marcella." Her neighbor Max Picarelli is even more peripatetic; as a plastic surgeon, he travels the world on the dime of a nonprofit, doing reconstructive surgery for children with cosmetic birth defects. But in his downtime, Max, who has Italian roots just like his new neighbor, loves to cook, and is a secret fan of everything Marcella, whom he thinks of as "chef extraordinaire and goddess of the kitchen" (Kindle Loc 80). As Max describes her, "Marcella was everything a woman should be: all confidence and curves, and a true classic beauty to boot. He had often admired her generous proportions and everything that perfected them—those vibrant eyes, that gentle voice, and her mane of thick, dark hair" (73).

Marcella is a "curvy girl" only if one defines "curvy" as the norm, a point Blades is clear to make early in the story. As Cella thinks when comparing Max to the typical LA man, "Half the men Cella had dated had skin that was softer than hers. They were usually prettier and skinnier, too. At a size twelve, Cella was an average American women. LA was running as short on those was it was on strapping American men" (206). Advertising and media might make women believe that their curves are abnormal, too much, but Cella knows perfectly well that her size is nothing out of the ordinary. (In fact, Cella may be below the current U.S. norm: see this 2016 study).

Cella has no issues with her weight, with her body image, or with feeling desire for, or feeling desirable to, another person. The conflicts her stem from job satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, for both Cella and Max, not from any issues Cella has with her size or weight. Despite the novel's subtitle, the slow-build romance that builds between Max and Cella has nothing to do with Cella's "curviness." The subtitle is a bait-and-switch in the most positive sense, serving up a story of a woman with absolutely no problem with her size to readers using the search term "curvy girl" to find a romance.

Unlike Blades' Cella, Sierra Simone's Ireland Mills, who is white, has struggled with how to think, and feel, about her body for most of her life. Ireland isn't as skinny as a model; nor is she an "average" size twelve. Ireland's 5' 2", and wears a size 18 (Kindle Loc 102). But at the start of Misadventures of a Curvy Girl, Ireland has determined to break free from the negative thoughts about weight that her sister and her ex-boyfriend have spent years instilling in her (A girl of your size really should have shorter hair. Don't you think that's more of a "goal" outfit? But those dance classes aren't designed for people to lose weight... [65]). Fat-shaming framed as benevolence, Ireland has finally realized, is still fat shaming. And Ireland is so over it: "I was over the diets that didn't work. I was over the grueling gym schedule that left no time for fun. I was over hiding behind my friends whenever we took pictures. I was over shopping for print tunics at Blouse Barn" (Loc 81). Ireland's going to dress the way she wants, have fun the way she wants, and eat the way she wants, other people's judgments be damned. And if that means not having a boyfriend, then so be it: "I'd rather be alone than be with someone who will only love me if I'm skinny" (94).

Simone rewards her protagonist for taking this major step towards body positivity with not just one, but two handsome men who find her curves just to their liking. At a photography shoot on a Kansas farm  (Ireland prefers to be behind, rather than in front of, the camera), Ireland meets hunky farmer Caleb, who is immediately smitten: "She better get used to being pampered and taken care of, because I want to make it my life's work. And that's after only an hour together. Christ, I have it bad" (361). But Caleb is a package deal with best friend, bar owner Ben; the two, who have been besties since kindergarten, have discovered they're happiest when they love (and make love with) the same woman, together. Ireland hasn't ever really considered polyamory, but with two such kind, gorgeous, and sexy men, and her own awakened curiosity, she's quickly on board with the kink.

Erotic bliss, however, doesn't preclude emotional difficulties. Especially when Ireland discovers that her commitment to body positivity can't always withstand self-doubts and the voices of shame from her past. It takes some arguing, a break-up or two, and some honest talk by an acquaintance who doesn't buy into the "accept your body and everything will be OK" hype for Ireland to understand that body positivity isn't just about how you feel, but about what you do:

Body positivity doesn't mean you flip a switch and walk around feeling great for the rest of your life. It's not even really about feelings at all. Body positivity is about what you do. It's about daring to live your life as you are—not fifty pounds from now, not six dress sizes from now. And there are going to be days when ever bad feeling comes back for you again. When you feel all the messy, hopeless things you thought you were past feeling. Those are the days you do it anyway" (2456)

Acknowledge a character's "curviness" and move on; highlight a character's curviness and focus on her challenges and triumphs as she works to accept and enjoy her body—both methods work to convey the feminist message that while fat oppression is real, people who understand its methods can challenge the negative biases it demands far too many of us embrace.

Photo sources:
Average size comparisons: Into the Wild
Stop negative talk: Safecity

The Secret Ingredient
Luxe Publishing, 2019

Misadventures of a Curvy Girl
Waterhouse Press, 2019

A thought-provoking excerpt from Misadventures of a Curvy Girl:

     A couple of years ago, I was watching a movie with a handful of girlfriends as we traded gossip and passed around popcorn and bottles of wine. And we got to the part of the movie where the hero makes his grand gesture, chasing after the heroine and declaring his love for her. Declaring that sh was his.
     The room gave a collective groan at this, popcorn flying at the screen, and someone pronounced how utterly backward and chauvinistic is was and how she'd never be caught dead with a man who looked at her and said mine. A man who looked at her like she was a prize in the machine simply waiting to be claimed. I stayed silent. Because I wasn't going to argue that on a structural level men should act proprietary with women, and I never would. But on a personal level, well...
     It was hard to look at my friend, who was slender and sleek and would no doubt have men wanting her everywhere she went and not think easy for you to say. Her body was the kind of body that people wanted to claim, wanted to stake some kind of sexual ownership of, and mine was not—never had been, and as years of pointless diet torture had taught me, never would be.
     So it was hard not to wish I had the luxury of scoffing at male desire. It was hard to watch those movies and know that, according to them, people like me didn't have heroes chasing after them. People like me are the best friends, the comic relief, maybe even the villain.
     And in real life? In real life, the kind of male attention I received was dangerous and demeaning. Aggressive frat boys who told me I should feel "lucky" to have them fuck me and then got belligerent and nasty when I refused them. Mean men at bars who grabbed and groped and assumed I'd be grateful for the assault since clearly nobody else would ever want to touch my body.
     Girls like me, we didn't get chased, we didn't get claimed, we didn't get the happily ever after. Not in movies. Not in real life.
     And was it such a crime to want those things? (1624)

Friday, May 3, 2019

Imagining the Joys of a Progressive Political Future: Casey McQuiston's RED, WHITE, & ROYAL BLUE

Several of the workshops featured at this past weekend's "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" conference, hosted by my home chapter of Romance Writers of America, focused on "getting unstuck" and fighting writers' block. And I shared many conversations with fellow writers talking about the feeling that something is missing when we sit down to write these days, suggesting that this is an issue for many American romance authors at this particular point in history. Several colleagues pointed not to the prevalence of unpleasant weather currently plaguing America's northeast, but instead to the country's current political situation as the most likely reason why they are experiencing stress, lack of inspiration, and just plain burnout at the thought of writing about happily ever afters. It can be hard to imagine a more progressive future when you feel mired in an ever-expanding swamp of lies, constantly having to justify and defend the values, and the people, you hold dear.

Which was why it was such a joy to sit down post-conference and read Casey McQuiston's joyful but politically pointed romance comedy debut, Red, White, & Royal Blue. McQuiston originally came up with the hook-y premise for this book—the son of the American president falls for the youngest of England's royal princes—in early 2016, before the surprise of that fall's Presidential election. After said election, McQuiston herself felt blocked: "Suddenly what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe needed to be escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality. Not a perfect world—one still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic. I wasn't sure I was up to the task" (Acknowledgements).

I for one am amazingly grateful that McQuiston managed not to give up on this story. For rather than reading as a "tongue-in-cheek parallel universe," the love story of presidential son Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry of Wales served for me as a glorious vision of a more hopeful, progressive, and utterly achievable political future.

What does said future look like? It looks like a country willing to elect not only a female President, but a female amicably divorced from her first husband and happily married to her second. It looks like a country with two biracial first children (Mexican-American senator father, white President mother), who, with the "vaguely bisexual" granddaughter of the Vice President, serve as the country's most talked-about, and admired, twenty-somethings. It looks like a world in which the younger generation, comfortable both working and socializing in a multiracial, international, global world, serves as a model for their more cautious elders.

It also happens to look a lot like a classic enemies-to-lovers romance.

Staffers new to the White House are informed early on of three important things about FSOTUS Alex Claremont-Diaz: he lives at the White House, even though he's still in college (Georgetown is so close!); he often calls for coffee in the middle of the night while working on his college essays or his mother's reelection strategy; and he has a long-standing grudge against the youngest of Britain's royal princes.

A few years older than Alex, Prince Henry has always struck Alex as a dull stick-in-the-mud, undeserving of all the adulation and attention focused on him:

The tabloids—the world—decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex's image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen; Henry's is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas. Henry's role, Alex thinks, is much easier to play.
     Maybe it is technically a rivalry. Whatever. (Loc 149)

Which is why attending the wedding of Henry's older brother is filling Alex not with delight, but with snark. As he tells elder sister June, "You can't just call him my 'arch nemesis'... 'Arch nemesis' implies he's actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself" (93). And so, to the surprise of no-one, Alex can't restrain himself from taunting his "arch nemesis" during the very proper wedding reception:

The most annoying thing of all is Alex knows Henry hates him too—he must, they're naturally mutual antagonists—but he refuses outright to act like it. Alex is intimately aware politics involves a lot of making nice with people you loathe, but he wishes that once, just once, Henry would act like an actual human and not some polished little wind-up toy sold in a palace gift shop. He's too perfect. Alex wants to poke it. (229)

Poking polite Henry, however, quickly escalates into "Cakegate" (you have to read it to appreciate it), an international breach of etiquette so dire that requires major diplomatic efforts (and major acting) to patch up. As his mother's aide sternly informs Alex,

"Both sides need to come out of this looking good, and the only way to do that is to make it look like your little slap-fight at the wedding was some homoerotic frat bro mishap, okay? So, you can hate the heir to the throne all you want, write mean poems about him in your diary, but the minute you see a camera, you act like the sun shines out of his dick, and you make it convincing" (311).

All Alex is convinced of is that a person who lists his hobbies as "polo" and "competitive yachting" has about as much personality as a cabbage. But with his mother facing a challenger criticizing her for her chilly relationship with her British counterpart, Alex gives in and heads to London for a whirlwind weekend visit with his "close personal friend" Prince Henry.

Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, and is convinced that he knows all he needs to about the stuffy, dull prince before he even gets off the plane. But during their tour through charity events, television interviews, and a false-alarm assassination attempt, "he keeps getting these little glimpses into things he never thought Henry was. A bit of a fighter, for one. Intelligent, interested in other people. It's honestly disconcerting" (623).

Even more disconcerting is the friendship the two develop via text message, and occasional in-person meetings, in the ensuing months. Because while Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, his ability to understand himself could use a bit more work. Especially when it comes to his own latent attraction to a not-quite-so-proper prince.

But can the son of the American president date a British prince in the middle of a re-election campaign? Especially if mom needs to win their home state of Texas in order to guarantee a repeat?

I've quoted so often from Red, White, & Royal Blue in the above review because so much of the pleasure in this rom com comes from McQuiston's distinctive, laugh-out-loud voice, told entirely from the point of view of its hyper intelligent but emotionally clueless main character. Though the story is told in the third person, it's also told in the present tense, which gives the narration both immediacy and a certain wry distance, both of which are perfectly suited to conveying Alex's character and charm. For example, after Alex sees a picture of Henry with a "mysterious blonde," the narrator tells us "Faintly, under it all, it occurs to him: This is all a very not-straight way to react to seeing your male frenemy kissing someone else in a magazine" (1655). Or the scene where Alex is trying to figure out whether he might not be as straight as he's always assumed by calling his former (male) best friend and asking, "This might sound weird. But, um. Back in high school, did we have, like, a thing? Did I miss that?" (5485).

No romance reader will want to miss McQuiston's glorious celebration of snark, sentiment, and the progressive political possibilities of a not quite straight royal romance.

And no writer could find a better cure for political-despair-induced writers' block than McQuiston's sparkling, effervescent romance.

Photo credits:
British/US flag pin: Athletic awards
Royal wedding cake: Getty Images
Hate to Love trope sticker: RedBubble 

Casey McQuiston
St. Martins, 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Short Takes: Spring 2019 Historicals by RNFF favorites

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES

After being in somewhat of a historical romance reading funk for the first few months of 2019, I was thrilled to see that several of my favorite historical romance writers had new books coming out in the spring. Here are my short recs for books by three RNFF favorites:

Courtney Milan's full-length historicals feature traditional male/female romance pairings. But her shorter works tends to star more unconventional couples. The duo in her latest, Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure, might just win the award for most underrepresented characters in Victorian romance. Although they are both white, both of her lovers are female, as well as "seasoned"—one in her sixties, the other in her seventies. Though the eponymous Mrs. Martin suffers from a lack of spirits after the death of her best friend, she hasn't lost any of her outspoken manner ("My husband, God rot his soul, used to bring prostitutes home all the time. After he'd finished with them, I'd serve them tea and double whatever he was paying them.... It was hard work fucking my husband. Trust me, I should know. I certainly didn't want to do it" [Kindle Loc 225]). She's certainly not the meek, retiring gentlewoman recently sacked boarding house manager Miss Violetta Beauchamps was hoping for, a woman whom Violetta could somehow swindle into paying the far-overdue rent for her smarmy nephew. Violetta desperately needs that money in lieu of the pension her employer had promised her, but then chose not to pay her upon unfairly firing her after she'd worked for him for forty-seven years. In fact, Violetta is far closer to the meek mouse she had hoped Mrs. Martin would be than is the formidable Mrs. Martin herself.

But after Violetta shares the truth of her nephew's boorish behavior with his aunt, Bertrice Martin decides to set off on the adventure her doctor prescribed: not for a rest in Bath, but to London with Violetta, to help the unfortunate woman drive out the sponging "Terrible Nephew" from what she mistakenly assumes is Violetta's boarding house. Milan's trademark humor is in fine form here, as is her penchant for pushing her characters into a seemingly inescapable corners then inviting us to watch with unabashed glee as they use unconventional methods to escape the confines society wishes them to inhabit. Violetta's transformation, from traditionally "nice" woman who is happy to fade into the background to one who speaks out on her own behalf as well as Mrs. Martin's, is particularly delicious.

An Unconditional Freedom, the third entry in Alyssa Cole's American Civil War-set series The Loyal League, features a man as disillusioned as is Milan's Violetta, but far less happy to accept his fate with any meekness or humility. Before the war, Daniel Cumberland's greatest trauma was that the woman he loved (the heroine of book 1, An Extraordinary Union) did not love him back. But after the idealistic aspiring lawyer is kidnapped from his Massachusetts town and sold south into slavery, his happy, carefree nature is quickly beaten out of him. We meet Daniel after he is rescued from enslavement, unable to fit back into his old life, to "be strong and forget what happened," as his father recommends. Instead, he's working as a spy for the Loyal League, a spy who prefers to work alone. But when Janeta Sanchez, a new recruit, enters the league, the angry, disdainful Daniel is assigned to be her partner.

Janeta, the daughter of a Cuban planation owner and the black slave woman he later married, has grown up taking slavery for granted, even while recognizing that her golden brown skin makes others treat her not quite the same as they do her obviously Spanish half-sisters. Moving from Cuba to Florida changed little for her—until war broke out, and her father was arrested on suspicion of being a northern sympathizer. Her lover in the Rebel army promises that if she will spy on the Yanquis, he'll make certain her father is freed. And thus Janeta, the daughter of a slave owner, finds her way to the Loyal League, using her skill at hiding behind layers of pleasing behavior to ingratiate herself with all of its members. All, that is, but the wary Daniel.

Cole choice to decenter the whiteness that typically looms so large in northerner vs. southerner Civil War stories is not only a boon for readers of color looking for greater representation of their experiences in historical romance; it also allows white readers to step away their fears of being associated with the villain in the more typical white/black binary portrayal of slavery. Which may allow them to read without debilitating defensiveness about the blind spots that many whose heritage does not include a history of enslavement and racism often have towards those whose does, as well as the ways that good people are indoctrinated into accepting what we today often self-righteously believe we would never accept ourselves. Take this exchange between after Daniel and Janeta, after Daniel reveals the scars on his back:

     Janeta thought of the time her family had gone into the city center in Santiago. Her mother had clapped her hand over Janeta's eyes when they'd walked by a man tied to a post with his bloody back exposed.
     You don't need to see such things. You are a Sanchez. You don't have to endure such ugliness.
     She couldn't look away now, though. Daniel has bared to her this proof of his ill treatment and all she could ask herself was, "Why?"
     "That man tried to start an insurrection. They had to make an example of him."
     That's what her father had told her later when she'd questioned him about what she had seen. He'd handed her a gift when she'd asked why insurrection was bad, a beautiful porcelain doll with creamy skin, rouged cheeks, and blue eyes, and she'd let the matter drop.
     "What did you do?" she asked Daniel, and saw the muscles beneath the scars tense.
     "You think I did something to bring this upon myself?" he asked, his voice taut, and Janeta's fear came to the surface then. Not that he would hurt her, but that she'd made yet another misstep.
     "No! I—I meant, why did they do this to you?"
     He shook his head and pulled his shirt back up over his shoulder, not turning to face her as he did up his buttons.
     "I was born a Negro in a country where that is a crime, and I was ignorant enough not to know that I had already been convicted."(Kindle Loc 556)

Both Daniel and Janeta discover their own blind spots as they work together to track Jefferson Davis—and struggle to reconcile the plans of the Loyal League with their own secret goals.

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES
After Elizabeth Kingston's call for "Reclaiming Historical Romance" in the December 2018 issue of RWA's Romance Writers' Report, I was interested to see how she herself would address the problem of white supremacy in her own medieval historical romance writing (you can get a copy of her article free via her online store). The third book in her Welsh Blades series, Desire Lines, features two white protagonists, one an aristocratic the other a servant. But neither protagonist is typical of their class, a major theme of the story. The book also includes a secondary character who is dark-skinned, and a brief subplot depicts a Jewish family persecuted by the English. Such characters, while they do not play major roles, go a long way towards disrupting the "white mythos" of the more traditional medieval historical romance.

Gryff and Nan first meet on the road to Lincoln, when the bandits who have been holding Gryff captive attack the group of travelers of which Nan is a part. It is the servant, Nan, though, not the nobleman Gryff who does the rescuing, letting fly with her deadly knives until all of the robbers are dead. Gryff, fearful for his life from more than just the bandits, doesn't tell his rescuer or any of her fellow travelers his true identity, and neither does the narrative, although brief flashbacks hint at his less than lowly upbringing. Nan, though a servant, has benefitted from the favor of several noblewomen, favor that has not only taught her how to wield a knife, but also to speak Welsh as well as a noblewoman would. During their long journey across England—Nan looking for a long-lost sister, Gryff for his best friend, after which both then travel to Wales—the two exist in a liminal space, outside of traditional societal norms and expectations. Which allows each to see beyond the surface of the other, and of course to fall in love with that person. But when their journey comes to an abrupt end, that liminal space ends, too, and each must decide whether their feelings for one another can survive in a world that expects something far different of a nobleman than it does of a servant. An old-fashioned historical in the best sense—not because it has an all-white cast, but because it glories in real angst, high stakes, and a bucketload of both physical and emotional longing, with personal feelings set against seemingly insurmountable demands of honor and duty.

Not to mention the falcons and hawks...

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Thinks and the Feels: Kennedy Ryan's LONG SHOT

(Content Warning: discussion of domestic violence and rape)

On the eve of the NCAA basketball National Championship, star college baller August West is sitting in a bar, reluctant to return to his hotel room. It's not only the eve of his biggest game ever; it's also the eve of the birth of his father, a former NBA player who died fifteen years earlier, and he's restless and jittery. But after his high school coach, whom he was supposed to be meeting, has an unexpected emergency, West reconciles himself to an early evening.

Until he hears the young woman cussing like a sailor at the basketball game on the television at the other end of the bar.

Said woman's knowledge of basketball is almost as impressive as her colorful language, and West feels an immediate connection. Not because she plays up to him—in fact, she's initially pretty dismissive—but because he discovers that she, like he, is biracial. When he asks her where's she's from, the woman explains about her New Orleans Creole stock on her mother's side, and her German and Irish on father's: "I'm a mix of everything the bayou could come up with... So my cousin says I had more ingredients than gumbo," (Kindle Loc 231). Though West's mother is the white parent, his father the black, West and "Gumbo" share the same experience of feeling like a racial outsider. "Did you ever feel like you didn't quite fit anywhere? I mean, like you were always kind of in between?" Gumbo asks him, which causes West to think "I may not look a lot like my African-American father, but I look nothing like anyone in the family I have left. Most kids were one thing or the other and clumped together based on that. It left me sometimes feeling adrift" (245).

West and Gumbo (her actual name is Iris) get so caught up in their conversation that they end up shutting down the bar. But when West goes in for a kiss at the end of the night, Iris call a halt. To West's everlasting regret, she's already got a boyfriend.

After this opening meet-bittersweet, a reader is expecting that the aforementioned boyfriend is not long for Iris's arms. And that the resultant romance will focus on two people connecting over their mutual biracial identities and experiences.

But said reader would be mistaken. For Ryan's story is less traditional romance and more women's fiction, a journey that the author hints at in the Author's Note that prefaces the novel:

I started writing this book two years ago out of righteous indignation on behalf of a young woman whose journey I didn't understand. I write when I have something to say, and I knew I couldn't say it from a place of judgment and hypotheticals. So I started talking with women who had walked that path.

Ryan writes in abstractions here, but one can't really write a review of her novel without being more specific. For the "path" that she refers to is the path into and out of an abusive romantic relationship. The "place of judgment" Ryan mentions is likely the judgment that many who have not experienced such a relationship first-hand tend to make about not the abuser, but the person being abused. Why didn't they leave? Why did they take it when the verbal abuse started pouring out of a love one's mouth? Why did they stay when the fists started flying? They just must be weak, or must want to be abused, right?

But the Iris we meet along with August is not weak in the least. As August observes, "A lot of girls just reflect. They figure out what you like so they can get in with a baller. This one has her own views, stands her own ground and doesn't five a damn if I like it. I like it" (224). And when we get inside Iris's head, we discover that her main goal in life is to not end up relying on a man, as her mother has for most of her life. She and her cousin have "always been afraid of ending up like our mothers—depending on a man for everything, taking his scraps" (908).

Iris DuPree's relationship with Caleb Bradley isn't about taking his scraps—at least at first. Despite being an economically privileged white college boy, Caleb spent time and effort to woo the reluctant Iris, and they've been dating for almost a year. But readers with any knowledge of how abusers operate is likely to pick up on the clues Ryan drops that Caleb is not as great a guy as he seems. He prefers Iris to wear her hair a certain way, gives her clothes that he wants her to wear, and is prone to angry outbursts on the basketball court when things don't go his way. And he's definitely not excited about Iris's post-college career plans, plans that will likely take her away from him.

Entitled Caleb proves to be a master manipulator, and Iris, despite her reservations, ends up living with her boyfriend soon after Caleb enters the NBA. And since West has also been drafted, Iris and West's paths end up crossing and recrossing, brief conversations with West serving as welcome respite for Iris from an increasingly tension-filled relationship with Caleb.

A relationship that, by the end of Caleb's first professional season, turns verbally and physically abusive. But a relationship that Iris can't find her way out of, at least at first. Ryan does not shy away from depicting the violence that Iris experiences at Caleb's hands; there are multiple scenes of both assault and rape on the page. Such depictions are likely to be deeply triggering for many readers. And for readers who are immersed in rape culture (as are we all), it can be difficult to read such scenes as solely violent when rape has so often been presented as an erotic experience in popular culture. Not at all what the author intended, I'd guess, but still, hard to escape.

Why then did Ryan choose to include such scenes? What purpose do they serve? Is is possible to tell the story of domestic abuse without showing on the page the violence that lies at its heart? Is it empowering or disempowering for those who have been abused to see similar abuse depicted directly, rawly, without a veil? What about for those who have not experienced such abuse themselves? Does seeing such violence depicted on the page make those who haven't been victims more sympathetic toward those who have? I don't think there are any easy "yes" or "no" answers to such questions; each reader will have to decide for themselves whether to pick up Ryan's book knowing that such scenes are included.

What I can say is that I wholeheartedly applaud Ryan's inversion of the racist image of the white woman endangered by overly sexualized black man, an image that has played out over and over in American popular culture since the end of the Civil War (see D. W. Griffiths' 1917 film Birth of a Nation for just one example; see Martha Hodes' White Women, Black Men for a historical corrective). While the majority of sexual assaults in the United States today are intra-racial (victim and perpetrator are of the same race), we cannot say the same about the past; Americans tend to repress and erase the long history of white male rape of enslaved black women during our country's long embrace of slavery. Ryan's choice to make her domestic abuser a white man serves as a pointed reminder of this often forgotten history.


Through Iris, Ryan also makes pointed comments about the way our current society continues to look away from the violence perpetrated by men against women, especially when those men are in positions of power (professional athletes, rather than plantation owners) and the women they abuse are women of color. Once Iris figures out a way to free herself and her daughter from Caleb, she doesn't choose to press charges against him:

"Other athletes outed as abusers are fined and miss a few games, only to be back on the court, back on the field in a few weeks. I'm not trusting my life, my daughter's life, to a system that favors men just like Caleb. I've seen the so-called consequences we have for domestic abuse, and I need more than that."

What she needs is a guy like West, who throughout the story serves as a vision of hope for what a future with a kind, caring man might be like. But Iris never asks West to rescue her; in fact, she turns to her cousin, and to her great grandmother, not to her potential good guy lover, to help her recover emotionally in the wake of her trauma. West may be the idealized prize at the end of the struggle, but the hard work of recovery is one best undertaken with sympathetic female supporters, Ryan suggests.

Ryan is adept at giving readers the "big feels," a vital skill for any romance writer (see West's swoon-worthy declaration to Iris: "If you were mine, Iris, there would be no doubt what position you'd hold in my life. You'd be center. I'd play you at the five."). But she's also just as good at getting readers to think hard about the big issues, issues that American culture would often prefer we ignore: domestic violence; racial identity; the gendered aspects of privileged and power. It's this combination—big emotions and big ideas—that make Ryan one of the most provocative authors writing romance today.

Photo credits:
Basketball bar: DHGate
Pro sports arrest rates: Vocativ

Long Shot
A Hoops Novel (#1)
indie-published, 2018

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Romancing the Balikbayan: Mina V. Esguerra's KISS AND CRY

Due to my travel schedule, I completely missed watching this year's World Figure Skating championships, one of the few sporting events I usually carve out time to take in. I made up for it by moving Mina V. Esguerra's Philippines-set skating romance Kiss and Cry to the top of my reading pile. It's an unusual skating story, and not only because it's a winter sports story set in a country without a winter. Instead of focusing on the tension of competition, Esguerra's story is about adjusting to life after the days of competition are over.

Thirty year old Calinda Valerio, the most lauded figure skater in the Philippines, has won her share of gold-medals: in the All-Asia Games, at the Winter Southeast Asian Games, and in her home country's national competition, Skate PH. Some people wonder if it was worth it, all the hard work and self-denial, given that she never made it to the Olympics. But for Cal, that doesn't matter:

Samantha Cabilles, Filipino figure skater
Sometimes a thing wasn't meant for you but damn you wanted it anyway, didn't mean you'd stop trying. Never mind if you had to knock on more doors and need to work so much harder. Sometimes even years at it wouldn't be enough and the next thing to do was to help make it easier for those coming in after you. (Chapter 2)

Now that her own amateur career is over, Cal is "making it easier for those coming in after her" by working as a choreographer, both for individual skaters and as creative director for Manila's Six 32 Central ice rink. For her past and current work, Cal is being honored by being included in a Manila society magazine's video feature, "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties."

As is 32-year-old Ramirez Diaz-Tan, a leading member of the Filipino national hockey team. Despite sharing the same main rink in Manila for training and games, Cal and Ram haven't spent much time together in the past ten years. Not since her parents and coach insisted that the budding friendship between their twenty-something selves would take Cal's focus away from her skating, and forbid her to date him—or anyone else. As Ram describes it, "It was over before it started; Cal rightly chose skating over him, and managed to live an accomplished life, congratulations." He got the privilege of being her first: the "First Guy Calinda Valerio Was Not Allowed to Date" (Chapter 1).

The 2017 Philippines national hockey team after
winning the SEA Games gold medal
Ram emigrated to the US with his family when he was ten, and now holds dual citizenship. He didn't make the adjustment to living in the States easily, though; at 13, his family sent him back to spend the summer in Manila with his uncle for being, as he describes it, a "bad Filipino son" (Chapter 8). But while back in the Philippines, Ram took up hockey, and has kept coming back every summer since to play. He's grown so skilled that he's spent twelve years playing for the Philippines' new national team.

But traveling back to his country of origin each summer to play hockey is becoming increasingly hard to do, given the need to hold a steady job back in the States. Taking eight weeks off every year to skate competitively in another country—it's not something most employers are ready to accept. And so Ram has made the tough decision to hang up his hockey skates; this will be his final competitive season.

After meeting Ram again at the "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties" photo shoot, Cal is eager to try out the things she was never allowed to do when she was younger and focused on her sport—and to do them with Ram. Shocking her parents and former coach by introducing him as her boyfriend is just one of the things on the to-do list she proposes to her surprised but willing former almost-boyfriend. Even the news that he's headed back to the States in only three weeks, with no plan of returning anytime soon, doesn't discompose Cal. Catharsis and closure are what she wants, not a happily-ever-after. Her parents and coach were wrong to take her choice away from her, as they didn't from her brother; she knows she wouldn't have moved to the States and abandoned her skating just to be with Ram, even if they don't. And she can prove it—by not doing it now.

Ram and Cal's second-chance romance is light and playful, not overwhelmed by the bittersweet. One of my favorite moments, during a discussion of whether Cal would have derailed her skating career if she and Ram had ignored her parents and tried to make a go of it all those years earlier:

"Because they made it seem like the worst thing for me to do, at the time. That if we got together and this happened, I'd suddenly want to quit. When I decided to retire, I tried it out—I dated, I had sex, and sort of... checked if dicks demotivated me."
     He hadn't laughed so much while in bed with someone and he wasn't stopping yet. "And what was the verdict on dicks?"
     She shrugged. "Um, they're just dicks?"
     "I'm sure they'll be sad about that."
     "Oh, come on. They performed well, okay."
     This woman. Only she could say that and make it sound like a disappointment. (Chapter 10)

But even in three short weeks, a sort-of-pretend-boyfriend situation can turn into something surprisingly important. And Ram and Cal find themselves facing some tough choices, choices that, unlike the one that was forced upon them as teenagers, they'll have to make for themselves.

Esguerra writes with a Filipino audience, or at least, with those familiar with Filipino culture, in mind; the book contains quite a few cultural references that as an outsider I had to look up to catch the full meaning (EDSA; Ibong Adarna; longganisas and kesong puti and other Pinoy food). But the book's storyline and romance arc are as accessible to other English-speaking readers as any penned by an American writer. And Esguerra's story has the added benefit of reminding American readers, especially those whose fears of outsiders have been exacerbated by current anti-immigrant rhetoric, that the United States isn't everyone's holy grail. As Ram himself reminds Cal:

     "You said that whether we had something or not shouldn't change what my plans are."
     "Yes, it shouldn't."
     "But it can. Maybe it should. Why aren't you asking me to stay?"
     "No one asks someone to stay here. Especially when they've got a way out already. You know that don't you? It's just not done."
     "You don't think we can question that too?" (Chapter 21)

Photo credits:
Samantha Cabilles: Flickr
Philippines Hockey: ABC-CBN Sports

Kiss and Cry
Six 32 Central #2
Bright Girl Books, 2019

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Sorry State of Diversity in the RWA's RITA Awards: 2019 edition

Yesterday, Romance Writers of America® announced the list of finalists for its RITA Awards, which the organization bestows in recognition of excellence in publishing romance writing. So it's also time for the annual RNFF blog post with data on the state of racial diversity amongst the RITA finalists, with added info on the race/ethnicity and sexuality of the characters of the finalist books.

For the second year in a row, all RITA contest entrants were required to submit a pdf copy, rather than print copies, of their books. Entrants could also submit either an epub or a kindle mobi file as well, for the convenience of judges. As this was not a change that changed the basic demographics of the entrants pool, as the switch from all print to pdf was in 2017, it's not surprising that a similar number of self-published books were chosen as finalists this year as last (22, by my count).

Representation of queer characters is a bit down from last year, although there is one lesbian romance, as compared to no lesbian romances last year.

What about representation of race/ethnicity? What do those numbers look like?

Not good. Not good at all.

Many books, and many author bios, don't explicitly state protagonists' or authors' race. So the calculations below are based on the following:

• In cases where I'd read the book, I knew the race of the protagonists, either by being directly told in the narrative, or from context clues in the book

• In cases where I had not read the book, I examined book covers, book descriptions, Goodreads book reviews, and character names for hints about protagonists' racial and ethnic backgrounds, and made my best guess. Major room for error here, so if you see any mistakes below, please let me know!

• Similarly, for authors with whom I was familiar, and/or who had discussed their own racial backgrounds in public, I went with self-represented racial identities. I had to rely on author photographs and my best guesses for the rest. Two finalists do not include author photos on their web sites, so I classified them as white. Again, room for error (and correction) here.

Overall Statistics:

# of finalists:
  2018: 74
  2017: 78
  2016: 85

# of authors of color:
  2018: 3***
  2017: 5-6
  2016: 4-6

% of authors of color:
  2018: 4%***
  2017: 6-7.7%
  2016: 4-7%

Overall # of protagonists: 149 (73 * 2, 1 * 3 [one erotic romance features a ménage-a-trois])

# of protagonists of color
  2018: 8
  2017: 13
  2016: 5

% of protagonists of color
  2018: 5.3%
  2017: 8.3%
  2018: 2.9%

of queer protagonists:
  2018: 10 (8 in m/m romances, 2 in a lesbian romance)
  2017: 12
  2016: 8

% of queer protagonists:
  2018: 6.7%
  2017: 7.6%
  2016: 4%

Individual Sub-Genre Numbers:

Contemporary Romance Long
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 2
# of queer protagonists: 0

Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length
# of finalists: 11
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 4

Contemporary Romance: Short
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0*
# of queer protagonists: 2

Erotic Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Long
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Short
# of finalists: 6
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Paranormal Romance
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romance Novella
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 1
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 2

Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romantic Suspense
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Young Adult Romance
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 1
# of characters of color: 4**
# of queer protagonists: 0

It's more than depressing that the representation of authors of color in the RITA finalist pool has decreased, despite recent efforts by the organization to better support its members of color. What else can RWA do to begin to address what is a glaringly obvious problem of bias in its judging system?

More than a year ago, RWA stated that it was in the process of polling its membership about demographic issues, but to date I don't believe that information has been made public. Does RWA have any sense of how the demographics of RWA membership compares to the demographics of the U. S. as a whole? And how its overall demographics compare to the demographics of the finalists and the judges? Compiling and sharing such information with its membership would be a good place to start.

Another intervention would be to begin asking entrants for demographic information about themselves and about the characters in the books they are submitting. Percentages could then be compared to the percentages in the finalist pool.

Or RWA could consider revamping the way the entire contest is judged, and create a process in which systemic racism could be, if not entirely eliminated, at least majorly curtailed. I'd strongly urge the Board to create a committee or working group to study the issue in the coming year.

I know more than a few authors who would be interested in serving...

US Census data on race/ethnicity (2016)
White: 61.3%
POC: 40.9%

2018 RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity
White: 97.3%
POC: 4%

* Caitlin Crews' A Baby to Bind His Bride includes this description of its hero: "amalgam of everything that was beautiful in him. His Greek mother. His Spanish father. His Brazilian grandparents on one side, his French and Persian grandparents on the other." I'm not counting this hero as a POC.

** one of these books, written by a white author, features Latinx characters, one of whom is a gang member. I have counted these characters as POC, despite some concern that this representation may be problematic. I have not yet read the book in question.

*** My original post listed 2 authors of color, not 3. I've updated the numbers accordingly, given the comments below.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Race and Romance: The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report 2018

Early this month, the Ripped Bodice bookstore released their third annual "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report." The news about that diversity is not encouraging. The report lists the percentages of romances written by people of color and indigenous authors that have been published each year by twenty of the leading commercial publishers of romance books. As the report notes, in bold blue type, "there has been zero progress in the last 3 years." While a few publishers have increased the percentage of writers of color on their lists since 2016, the majority haven't. Even the publisher with the highest percentage of POC-authored books (Kensington, at 22.8%) does not come close to matching the percentage of the American populace who identify as something other than white (38.7%). Fewer than half of the publishers surveyed can even boast about having a lowly 10% of authors of color on their lists.

Bea and Leah Koch, the owners of The Ripped Bodice, note in their report that "When beginning this project three years ago, we believed that as soon as the numbers were collected and publicly released, publishers would immediately make strides toward correcting this imbalance. We hoped that providing clear data would contribute to the work that authors of color have been doing for decades to prove that there is widespread systemic racism within romance publishing." The first statement seems a bit naive, given the second. If "widespread systemic racism" exists within the romance publishing industry, merely pointing to data from three years of a report isn't likely to root that racism out.

An anecdote by way of suggesting why:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I worked for a major trade children's book publisher, the head of our marketing department prepared an informal report on "multicultural" books. The report concluded that books that could be labeled "multicultural" sold, on average, at a higher rate that those that could not.

One of the "multicultural" books. Written by
author Mwenye Hadithi, aka Bruce Hobson
I don't know if other children's book publishers compiled any similar reports, or if they did, whether it would have helped decrease publishing's institutional racism. Because that report did not differentiate between multicultural books (which included a wide range of content, from folktales from other cultures to stories with primary, or more often secondary, characters of color) and books written or illustrated by people of color. I don't remember us discussing that fact in any great detail. Perhaps because everyone in the Editorial, Marketing, and Publicity departments, including myself, was white? Or because publishers, even publishers for children, were increasingly being asked to focus on the bottom line, rather than was what good for children or society?

Many of our "multicultural" books at the time were written by white authors; a few authors even took on pen names that suggested they were from non-white cultures. Something that really bothered me and several of my similar-aged colleagues at the time. But it didn't seem to bother our superiors. If "multicultural" would sell, then we would sell multicultural books, no matter who their creators.

It would take more than twenty years, and the advent of social media (in particular, Twitter), for  writers and illustrators of color to mount a collective campaign to protest children's book publishing's whitewashed version of multiculturalism. Pressure from the children's lit twitterverse, the work of the the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books (which was formed in 2014), and the publication of statistics on children's books publishing diversity by the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) have all combined to exert pressure on publishers, which has led to a marked increase in the diversity content of children's books being published (from 10% in 2013 to 31% in 2017).

Infographic courtesy of Lee & Low Books
Yet the percentage of books created by writers and illustrators of color still lag far behind those created by whites, even when the content of said books can be labeled "multicultural." Doing some back of the envelope calculations based on the figures cited by the CCBC, I come up with the following:

• Total percentage of books by authors/illustrators of color: 14%

• Percentage of books by black, Latinx, and Native authors: 7%

• Percentage of books by people of color that focus on multicultural content: 9%

• Percentage of books by whites that focus on multicultural content: 16%

14% is still a far cry from reflecting the actual racial diversity in America today (38%). And romance is doing far worse that children's books are...

In their 2018 edition of "The State of Diversity in Romance Publishing Report," the Kochs' place the onus for fixing the problem of systemic racism in romance publishing on publishers: "ultimately, unless acquiring editors purchase more manuscripts for publication by authors of color, these numbers will remain the same." Given my own past experiences, I'm not convinced that relying on the good will (or the embarrassment) of editors will be enough.

Some additional things that might help:

• More information about the publishing industry, like that compiled by the Koch's. And more detailed information, too, such as that compiled by the CBBC about children's book publishing. Is traditional publishing giving white authors preference over writers of color in writing multicultural romances? Are some groups of color underrepresented as writers to a greater degree than others?

• More information about romance's readership. Are publishers' claims that "they don't buy those books," i.e., white readers don't buy books about/by people of color, true? If so, is this true across all demographic categories we might study? (age, educational status, economic status, geographical location)? And what are the best ways to counter such attitudes, if they do in fact exist?

• More scholars to study the genre, to supply some of the answers to the above questions

• RWA to continue to call attention to issues of race and institutional racism in the industry, and to support authors of color. Also, guidance to its membership on how to talk productively, rather than adversarially, about race and racism in the industry

• The continued voices of Romancelandia Twitterverse speaking out in protest of the current situation

• More white readers to buy books about and by writers of color

• More conversations about the difference between institutional racism and prejudice, so that whites don't get so automatically defensive whenever the topic of race enters a conversation

• More blogs and reviews about romances by/about people of color

Will you answer Bea and Leah Koch's call to "join us" in advocating for "significant improvement" when it comes to authors of color in the romance book industry?