Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Escaping Escapist Romance? Tasha L. Harrison's THE TRUTH OF THINGS

Heterosexual genre romance is filled with heroes whose professions are all about public service. From firefighters to Navy SEALs, CIA agents to cops on the beat, male characters who their lives on the line for the greater good rank high in the standings of readers' favorite romance heroes.

But what happens when the society in which you live considers the police something to be shunned, rather than celebrated? Where dating a cop is tantamount to fraternizing with the enemy? These are questions that Tasha L. Harrison's The Truth of Things made me consider.

On her way home from an evening with friends, photojournalist and wedding photographer Ava Marie Greene tries to shrug off catcalls from the small-time drug dealers who hang out on the corner in her northside Camden New Jersey neighborhood, "a few blocks from the reach of gentrification" (Kindle Loc 86). But the call-outs escalate until Emiliano, another dealer with whom Ava is friendly, intervenes. Before Ava can de-escalate the confrontation, Emil and another dealer are brawling, and the police are on their way.

Officers on patrol in Camden, NJ
For Ava, the sound of sirens and the flash of blue lights don't offer the same reassurance that they would to a white person in a suburban neighborhood: "I wish I could say that I was relieved to see her [the cop], but to me, it felt like another gang had rolled up. One that was just as unpredictable as the boys with their bellies on the sidewalk" (131). Ava's suspicion proves warranted; the cop treats her with as much aggression as she does the fighting men, shoving Ava to the ground and breaking one of her expensive camera lenses. The cop, Stevenson, "looked like she could be a Latina or maybe mixed. Not that it mattered. All cops were one color. Blue" (193).

But the aggressive cop is soon joined by another, an African-American man who dials down the antagonism, even apologizes for his fellow officer's behavior. And insists on walking Ava home. But in Camden, even such an apparently chivalrous offer can be dangerous to accept. The officer tries to get his flirt on with Ava, but she shuts him down: "Well, kind sir. Thank you for escorting me to my front door after a lovely evening of street and police harassment" (224).

Ava is expecting that to be the last of Levi Raymond. Yet after she runs into him again at the Camden police station, where she's gone to file a complaint against the officer who damaged her property, Officer Raymond proves he's a bit more persistent than Ava had originally realized. Going out for a "I'm sorry" cup of coffee would not be the same as dating a cop, would it?

When Ava begins to tutor Emil in photography, though, the thought of her impending not-date is sitting pretty uncomfortably: "A girl who just offered to mentor a drug dealer, who cared about racial injustice, and the plight of the common man had no business having a casual cup of coffee with a cop" (650). But even though Ava tries to break her date, she and Levi end up talking—and then meeting, and then meeting yet again. Because the presumptuous, arrogant officer also does something no man has done for Ava in a long time—puts a smile on her face.

As Ava and Levi get to know one another, Ava discovers Levi is far from the stereotype of the cop who bleeds blue. He's kind, and honorable, and is interested in Ava's photography work; his parents are devoted lovebirds; and he spends his free time volunteering at the local Boys & girls Club. And he apologizes so easily, far easier than wary Ava. Ava, used to family letting her down (her father abandoned them when she was young, and her mother abandoned her for drugs), gradually begins to lower her defenses.

But when a police shooting rocks Camden, Ava and Levi are right in the middle of it, both professionally and personally. And when, in the face of police apathy about the shooting, Ava tweets out a video of the incident, sparking explosive public protests against the Camden police department, will Levi side with Ava and the protesters? Or with his department and fellow officers?

Many romance readers defend the genre by arguing it is a form of pleasurable escape, a way for readers to stop thinking about the problems of their lives for a few hours while they turn the pages of a book, a book in which the only real conflict is between potential lovers. After reading Harrison's romance, though, I began to wonder if even the idea of escaping into a romance novel is built on a certain assumption of privilege. What I mean is, just as white Americans, because of the history of white dominance in American society, have the privilege of not thinking about race all the time, but people of color do not, perhaps the option of escapist reading of all types is equally one reserved for the economically and racially privileged.

And perhaps romance novels that attempt to grapple with race and racism could help readers escape from their escapist romance blinders. If only for a few short hours...

    "I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this."
     "Yes, you can," he said. "You want to know how I know?"
     "Because you're strong. Stronger than me. You've already been through so much, Ava. You're the strongest person I know."
     People were always saying that.
     Ava, you've been through so much. You're so strong.
     For the first time, I allowed myself to say the one thing that was always on the tip of my tongue when people said that. "I wish I didn't have to be." (3889)

Photo credits:
Camden police on patrol: New York Times
Police and protestors: Sean Rayford/Getty Images via NPR

The Truth of Things
Dirtyscribbler Press, 2017


  1. Sold. I'm going to go buy my copy now!

  2. Once again, you have written a great essay which has made me think!

    Yes, I agree, the romance novel trope of the heterosexual male hero in a public service role, is a powerful one, which I like to read and write in. I haven't had much of an interest in police officer heroes, but I do like military heroes.

    But there is one aspect of this story which touches upon something which has been on my mind, and which I spoke about in the essay about the dearth of minority writers.

    There is a certain genre in stories about contemporary African American female characters where they share the same characteristic, that they are from broken homes. In the novel you reviewed, the father abandoned the family and the mother was a drug addict. The heroine befriends drug dealers.

    This is the third such novel I have heard of in weeks, black female heroines from broken homes. The other two heroines were raised in foster care.

    What is the message about the black female experience? About black women in urban environments? If this is what the writers or publishers believe black women want to read, where is that coming from? Is this how black women want to see themselves?

    I mentioned before that I noticed this pattern when I first began reading novels.

    It is not one I can appreciate, because it is merely a caricature of black women in urban environments.

    1. Funny that you should say that because I had a very similar thought recently. Yesterday, a lovely young black woman was handing out suckers with a piece of paper stuck to it that said something to the effect that more black people are in prison for drug related crimes than white people.
      I got to thinking that perhaps it's not just race but economics which got me thinking about how black people are portrayed on television - how many shows show them as drug dealers and criminals? Even shows that are black positive, there is still this portrayal of success because of criminal enterprise.
      It may be because I am thinking of these examples or my limited exposure but it does make you wonder what is the narrative that is desired?

    2. Hi, I feel the same way about the narrative. That is why I write sweet romances, because I want to see black women as characters in romance novels living wholesome lives and experiencing wholesome relationships.

    3. You bring up some interesting issues, Barbara, about the depictions of African-American women in romance. I have to say, though, that I've read as many romances with WHITE heroines who come from broken homes as I have romances with African-American heroines who come from broken homes. Would you also argue that white heroines shouldn't be depicted this way, either?

      Perhaps the problem is more one of balance? The perception that overall, the PERCENTAGE of books with A-A heroines that give heroines negative family backgrounds is greater than the percentage of romances with white heroines who are given negative family backgrounds? I'm not sure this is in fact true; 3 books does not necessarily make a pattern. It might be interesting to go through all of the books featured on the WOMEN OF COLOR IN ROMANCE Instagram recommendation list for 2017, and count how many of their protagonists come from broken homes. That would be a large enough sample to be worth chewing over...

      The other issue you bring up—what narrative do readers desire—is a complicated one, not easily answered in a single blog post or comment. I would argue, though, that insisting that black romances ONLY feature heroines who come from positive family backgrounds turns a blind eye to the institutional racist causes of family dysfunction in the black community.

      I'm totally behind the idea of having MORE romances with heroines of color that come from positive family backgrounds. Just not the suppression of other stories, stories about social dysfunction that play out on the personal level. Such stories can provide positive role models AND can play an important role in pointing out society-wide problems.

  3. It's true, three books don't identify a pattern, and it would be a project to undertake, but I was observing what I saw in the moment. My point was that if in certain sub-genres, the tendency is to emphasize female characters who grew up in foster care and whose parents were addicts, then there needs to be more stories with female characters of color from positive family backgrounds.

  4. It's easy to lament the dearth of romance fiction with ethnic protagonists other than African-Americans. But the thing is, there may not be a big enough audience for it. We're all aware most romance novels feed fantasies (I think they're also hopeful and life-affirming)and most female readers prefer heroines they can identify with.

    I've written a series of three books, the third of which is about an interracial couple (she's an Asian/Pacific Islander—like me) and another has a heroine raised in a traditional Polish household. Before I put Book 1 (all white American couple) on perma-free, it was easily the best selling one of the three.

    I also wonder sometimes, of course, if the author's ethnicity might influence romance readers' buying habits.

    1. Might be a chicken and egg problem.

      Most romance readers are white American women, because that's what most protagonists are (yes, also the British women in historical romances!).

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