Books, Prose, and Conversation

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Black Belt, 1934
Archibald J. Motley Jr., Black Belt, 1934. Oil on canvas, 33 x 40.5 inches (83.8 x 102.9 cm). Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

One thing I’ve been pondering as I work on two different MSS is the hows and whys of social change, and how people of the day responded to them. Looking back at the Harlem Renaissance, or even the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in Edwardian England, we can easily pinpoint this style happened in this year because of XYZ. We are able to say “Important Writer/Artist was saying this to another VIP here after ABC.” It’s all very self-conscious of the past and whose work we consider influential and game-changing, but what was the every day life like for the people in the thick of modernism?

I finished Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M.M. Blume last week, and was left incredibly curious about Hemingway’s belief that he was going to change literature with his first novel. Was his assurance more than simple arrogance and self-congratulation? Was 1920s society really clamoring for something new and different? What if his book bombed? (There are plenty of now-forgotten modernist novels published at the same time)

Since my primary WIP is set during the Harlem Renaissance, I’m reading copious amounts of poetry, essays, short stories, fiction, plays, and artwork produced by the leading figures of the New Negro Movement, not simply for research but to understand the conversations between their creators. I am also listening to blues and early jazz, and reading newspapers to find connections between the creatives and the common people in Harlem since, after all, the movement was dominated by the educated, somewhat financially secure Harlemites.

But in general, I’m trying to figure out the actual conversations of my characters as they move through the 1920s. Would it be pretentious, precious, and self-conscious for them to espouse what was going on right now? (And the swiftness with which new ideas are exchanged in 2016 is something to consider when reflecting on the speed of the past) Would over-awareness seem like info-dump? Would holding too much back make the characters formless and opaque?

I’m still working on this.

Where Do We Go From Here?

wheredowego

Much has been said about For Such a Time by Kate Breslin. I haven’t read the book, nor do I plan to, so I will direct you to the thoughtful, sometimes painful responses to the book from Katherine Locke, Rose Lerner, Sarah Wendell, K.K. Hendin, Abigail Nussbaum, Kelly at Instalove, Jackie Barbosa, Janine & Sunita at Dear Author, Ros Clarke, Laura Curtis, Emily Jane Hubbard, Joanne Renaud, and…I’m sure I’ve probably missed more. The Twitter conversations are vital as well.


My thoughts have circled around “What next?”.

The book and the responses to it have gone fairly international, with many mainstream news outlets picking up the ~controversy~ and its ~tearing apart~ the romance community. Wendy the Super Librarian and Sunita have focused on the romance community’s complicity in the existence of FSaT because of the popularity of romances with consent issues and wonky power dynamics, as well as the love for “extreme heroes.” Other conversations have made the regulations of the RITA Awards a focal point. Both are valid conversations to have with regards to FSaT. A number of people have asked why now? Why not when the book was initially published? Why not when SBTB posted their review in June?

As I posted on Wendy’s blog:

This dialogue has come to encompass many overlapping topics, of which consent, power dynamics, and other problematic elements are one. However, the genesis of the conversation mostly–if not entirely–derives from the microaggressions and sometimes hostility experienced at RWA in the context of diversity in the genre and its strong presence in the form of authors in NYC.

My response is threefold:

This book hurt people. This book violated the safe space the romance community purports to represent for women authors. And lastly, this book should make the romance community take a closer look at itself for how it marginalizes and silences the voices of certain women.

It’s quite possible that no one spoke up before now because they know and have experienced the artificial reception to saying, “hey, this is hurtful/wrong/problematic” within the community.

We’ve marched so fervently under the banner of “yay women’s fantasies, pleasures, and personal kinks” that we have built a community that decimates any critique of the content.

We’ve marched so fervently under the banner of “romance is feminist/for women” that we denigrate anyone who asks “which women? whose feminism?”.

We’ve created a community that prefers to doggy paddle in the shallow end of the pool, even as we present ourselves as Olympic divers to naysayers.

I sat on my response to Sunita’s post because it felt unformed, and it wasn’t until I happened to discover an article about “ethnic romance” in the December 1982 issue of Black Enterprise that my thoughts fully coalesced.

There’s a popular saying that “History is Written by the Victors” (ironically, no one knows to whom to attribute the quote!). This is used as a generic, catch-all excuse during debates over history and historical accuracy in any field in which history is vital.

I will go further and say that history is written by the privileged, for the benefit of privileged audiences, who internalize them and, if they are a writer, regurgitate them all over again for the privileged readership. And it impresses upon the marginalized audiences that they are not the norm–and that to be the norm means to believe in and to perform those privileged narratives.

The Black Enterprise article, written at the height of the romance boom of the early 1980s, was astonishing and painful to read for many reasons, the most outrageous being the deliberate throttling of a diverse romance industry.

Without this article, the old chestnut that Terry MacMillan’s Waiting to Exhale is the genesis of African-American popular fiction, which then trickled down to the romance genre, could remain unchallenged. Without this article, you could continue believing there were little to no romance writers of any ethnic background trying to break into the genre before 1995–and that the publishing industry was absolutely shocked that African-American women read romance. You probably wouldn’t even be aware of the powerful, influential African-American romance editors who not only shaped general romance industry trends, but went to bat for diverse romance.


When I decided to write a romance novel, I didn’t know anything about publishing, the RWA, other authors, writing communities, etc. I had read a boatload of Regency romances and felt the urge to write one of my own. As is usual with young writers, my first novel was complete self-insertion: a mixed race American girl travels to Regency England to claim her inheritance and is swept away by an earl (don’t ask to see it! It’s on an old hard drive). At the time, I was heavily involved in the fanfiction community, so I was certain there existed a romance writing community online, and there was! I joined a few forums and loops and settled in to have fun.

Gradually, I realized that non-white romance writers did not exist to the mainstream romance community. And that to succeed on an equal playing field meant suppressing part of my heritage. Oh, it wasn’t a conscious effort to “pass”–I genuinely love Edwardian England, and I’ve always been a bit of a square peg in general, so I never go into any community expecting to fit in 100% (I never do *sad trombone*). But the realization that writing romance with characters of my ethnic background meant I too would no longer exist to people I admired and whose books I loved was a bit traumatic.

Call me naive and sheltered at best, or stupid at worst, but as a kid who was often ushered into gifted programs, encouraged by teachers to explore my talents, and happily chosen for a number of extracurricular activities–I have never entered a situation where my existence would be automatically marginalized and where my talent would be automatically second-guessed, until I became involved in the publishing industry.

Thankfully, my rather (racially/ethnically) sheltered upbringing keeps me more optimistic than I would assume, but when presented with the opportunity to present my work on a mainstream platform, I took the plunge and wrote myself back into the story.


One of the major selling points for the romance genre, when combating negativity from naysayers is to cite romance’s billion dollar market. In 1982, the money to be made in romance was distinctly marveled over by the Black Enterprise reporter: “With advances on the typical romance averaging $5000, against royalties of about $20,000 for each book…it is not at all unusual for prolific full-time romance writers to make $100,000 or more yearly.”

Economic freedom and empowerment of women is what this emphasis on sales revenue promotes, particularly post-2010 (KDP’s inauguration).


Last year, Sunita initiated a great conversation about “id reading,” with particular emphasis on historical romance. Her post about Nazi heroes in romance fits into this “id reading.”

I’ve had a great opportunity to think about my Christian privilege throughout the conversation surrounding FSaT, and the book’s existence is both the result of id reading and the cultural privilege of (generic) Protestant Christianity in American society. This goes beyond the Christian/Evangelical/Inspirational Fiction community vs Secular. This is about how American society easily co-opts the Holocaust because it has little to do with our everyday lives. Because Christianity, in whatever form, is the default. Because Americans like to believe we’re the heroes of the world, based on our superiority through Christianity. “Redeeming” a Nazi, whether it be in inspy fiction, m/m fiction, etc, thus falls under the umbrella of American=hero=Christian=saving=superior.

And this is all up in the most popular romance tropes of the good, moral heroine saving the dark, evil, amoral, troubled vampire/Navy SEAL/duke/BDSM billionaire/MMA fighter millionaire college freshman by the redemptive power of love.

Circling back to historical romance specifically, the genre co-opts a lot of popular narratives from novels and film and turns them into tropes (e.g. Tarzan, The Sheikh, etc), with little unpacking of the troublesome baggage attached to them. And popular narratives also contribute to the erasure of diverse peoples in the past because their points of origin go unquestioned (hello Production Code, which deliberately ironed out the real lives of the past [1930s-1960s]) and passed this down as how life was Back Then [wholesome, all white, good, upstanding, and moral]).

Combine all of these elements, shake em up, and you get why FSaT can be conceived, written, published, read, and feted without anyone in the line of production bringing it to a screeching halt.


I have a little bit of a radical streak at times, so I’ll be frank: the calls for diversity and inclusiveness can often seem a little like the story of the little boy with his finger in the dam. And to use a little Biblical allegory–you don’t put new wine into old wineskins.

The posts on SC Write and Buzzfeed give voice to this.

To ironically quote Gwyneth Paltrow, we need to consciously uncouple from the structures that have historically marginalized certain voices.

Historical romance in particular needs to be decolonized.

So, now I ask, where do we go from here?

On Using Public History to Restore Forgotten Voices in Historical Romance

T'Chin Quan Chan Family, ca. 1911
RS 27464, Chin Quan Chan; Seattle District, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, Applications to Reenter, c. 1892-1900]: Chin Quan Chan Family, Chinese Exclusion Act Case File, circa 1911

As some may know, I’ve recently returned to school for a double degree in Public History and American Studies. Where I once had a vague sense of history and historical fiction/romance existing on somewhat different planes, I now have a strong sense of this theoretical statement. And each day, each quarter, spent in various courses in both disciplines expands my vision of what history (and memory and place and literature and identity) actually is, and how it can be applied to writing historical fiction.

In a nutshell, Public History takes history out of the ivory tower of academia and is also an act of social justice. It is the process of engaging the public with history–museums, historical societies, cultural events, all the way down to a monument or plaque to a public hero/ine. If you take a look around your city, you will likely find evidence of public history at work.

Public History also works to address memory and the meaning of place, particularly with regards to those whose history has been destroyed or hidden or misinterpreted. American Studies seems pretty self-explanatory, but where it was once the creation of “myths” about American identity, it has transformed over the past few decades into an interrogation of these myths and the various facets of what it means to be “American” (United States).

Over the past few months I’ve worked on a project focused on a local Chinatown, whose site has been reclaimed after decades of legal wrangling. Over the past four months, I–and others–have been holed up in the nearest branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, combing through boxes and boxes of files dedicated to the Chinese Exclusion Act in search of the people who lived in this Chinatown and other Chinatowns in the region. Needless to say, this research has been illuminating.

Each file I’ve opened has sparked so many thoughts and ideas–academic and for fiction–and increased my awareness of the stories untold. It has increased my awareness of the people wedged in the crevices of what we think we know and what we produce from that “knowledge.” My research for this project has made it impossible to not see this story from the inside out, to hear the story of this period in US history through the voices of the local Chinese-American population of the early 20th century.

At the beginning of my involvement, the files meant little to me; the photographs of the Chinese immigrants placed on their certificates were just men from long ago, and their lives were filled in with my vague knowledge of Chinese-American culture based on trawling through San Francisco’s Chinatown. This four month project also yanked other stories into the picture: white Americans who were against the Exclusion Act, who vouched for immigrants; kinship; entrepreneurship; marriage and gender; education; religion; legal history.

There is public history theory, of course, but I spend most of my courses doing public history, whether it be speaking to the city government about historic preservation, or observing community activism, or attending historical events (and speaking there too–eek!). And when I forge connections with other public historians and integral voices in the community, I get chills over the history out there locked in someone’s attic or in their mind.

As I stated in my previous post, this is not easy history to find. You can’t walk into B&N and easily find a shelf groaning with books on Chinese American history the way you can about the Kennedys. You can’t type a few words into Google and come up with tons of websites and blogs about daily life for African Americans in Los Angeles the way you can for daily life in, say, Victorian London (and that is problematic in and of itself, since these sites usually erase Brits of color from the landscape). What you can do is look in the margins:

1) Oral history projects and transcripts.
2) Special collections at a local library.
3) Visit a branch of the National Archives to use their access to Ancestry.com and newspaper archives.
4) Historical societies and niche museums.
5) Veterans groups.
6) Check the schedule at the local university’s history department for talks by visiting historians–believe me, they welcome the public.
7) JSTOR if you have access–and some articles are free.
8) Conduct your own oral history projects with family and friends.
9) Research for whom buildings in your city are named and why.
10) Email historians in your topic of interest! They love discussing their work and field.