author – activist – faculty – mom
One of my favorite things about being a novelist is realizing how much I deceive myself about my motives for writing particular characters and stories. In order to sustain the focus of writing a novel, an author has to be deeply fascinated by the subject matter. A passing fancy won’t do it, particularly in a series, where a writer might be working on some of the same material for upwards of a decade.
My most recent revelation has been becoming aware of my motives for writing romance. A couple of years ago, I might’ve said I had chosen the genre because I wanted to get my subversive feminist messages to the masses of women, and romance would be the perfect Trojan horse vehicle. Which is true. And is part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. Now that I’m three novels into my Justice Hustlers series with Kensington Books, I can see that I’m writing romance aspirationally, conjuring visions of relationships as contradictions to racism and sexism. Now, I can see that I’m writing about the triumph of love between people of color.
One of the core damages of racism is that people of color are wounded in the loving of ourselves and each other. This shows up in internalized self-hatred that makes it difficult for us to sustain warm, caring relationships within our communities. This is not to criticize any particular relationship that crosses racial lines. On the contrary. If you have found a loving and mutually supportive relationship across racial lines, more power to you. And, at the same time, as communities of color, it can often be difficult to sustain loving relationships with each other, due to the inter-generational impact of racism, genocide, slavery, and colonization. The residue of this viciousness shows up in our love lives, and undermines our intimacy, commitment, and tenderness with each other.
So I write romance about people of color with the same or similar racial and ethnic backgrounds falling in love with each other. This is about that mirroring of culture, in which each lover has to be able to look at his or her reflection and say yes to her/himself, and yes to her/his people. In each relationship, the coming together of the partners represents a healing and a homecoming to her/his community.
When I began writing the first book in the series, UPTOWN THIEF, the love interest sprang into my mind, fully formed. He was Puerto Rican, like the protagonist, and from her same neighborhood. He was, in fact, the little brother of her best friend from high school who had always had a crush on her. No longer a scrawny pre-teen, there’s immediate chemistry between them. And as in any good romance, there’s push-pull. He pursues her, but she doesn’t have time for a relationship. She is, after all, busy saving her community and being a financial genius/criminal mastermind.
Yet he persisted. Making my protagonist his middle school crush was really important to me. Part of my intention here was to fix the part of him that desired in her in his history from before he had developed all the adult sexism of how he related to women—guarded, entitled, or a little of both. The part of him that loved and wanted to be with her was more open, more willing to risk. And the fact that he had known her then, and was connected to one of the only bright spots in her very difficult childhood, was disarming to her, as well.
In my second book, THE BOSS, Tyesha is paired with bad boy rapper Thug Woofer. Both of them are raised poor but upwardly mobile, and have a hard time finding partners who can operate in the range of their contexts. In my third book, Violet is an assimilated Triniadian immigrant. She is on the verge of marrying an African American millionaire, but drawn to a Jamaican immigrant who reflects the authentic self she’s hidden in the US. All of these men hit huge challenges in these relationships, and have to rise to the occasion.
Part of what I’m working with here is about how men—particularly commercially attractive men with wealth or power or charisma—often have so many choices for female partners. In this abundance of options, men may be unwilling to face the difficult emotional work of being with complex women who don’t center their lives around their male partners. My female romantic leads: Marisol, Tyesha, Violet, Lily, Serena, and Deza, all have big lives. Their men need to understand they get to be central to their partner’s lives, but not the center of their lives.
And the relationship project is messy. These men have internalized sexist notions of who their women are supposed to be. In any good romance, something has to come pull the lovers apart, just when things are getting good. In every case in my series, the man upsets the apple cart based on some form of sexism: one man can’t handle the challenges of his partner’s sexual past, another man makes a decision in his work life to collaborate with a notorious sexual predator, another man gets irrationally jealous and enraged when his partner has contact with her ex-.
These men fuck up in their relationships, but they return to their partners to make amends. The men have to struggle to push past their entitlement: the idea that they shouldn’t have to deal with the emotional challenge to their own insecurities. This could be acheived by having a partner who has less sexual experience than they have or has no contact with former partners. They might also feel entitlement to build their careers with men who mistreat women, even if that alliance would be professionally advantageous. I throw these roadblocks in the path of my lovers, and have them work to circumvent them. My male characters need to not only be with their women, but also accountable to them and to women in general. My female characters need to understand that their men will be pulled toward sexism, and not harden into disappointment or bitterness. Clearly, the larger black community is grappling with this challenge, as evidenced by Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Jay Z’s 4:44 (beautifully explored in this essay by Britney Cooper).
As I said, I have deceived myself here about my own motivation. I am a black/Latina/Caribbean woman in an long-term relationship with a black/West Indian man. We have cultural similarities and differences, but are striving for what I think of as black/Caribbean love. Our current lives, as parents and a long-time married couple, look very little like my romantic leads. I envy their dates and their leisure time, and their nights of passion without a kid with a runny nose waking them up. Yet, I am writing these characters, and I am consistently interested in these characters, because they are saying the same thing to each other that we say in my marriage: I choose you. Not because it’s easy. Not because we’re perfect. But our love and commitment to each other transcends the hurts that have been done to our people historically and to us individually. Our love transcends the bullshit we’ve bought into and the mistakes we’ve made with each other. Our love doesn’t demand that we be perfect, only that we be willing to make amends and heal and grow and try again with each other. I love my husband, in all of both our imperfections. And I write about other people of the African Diaspora, finding each other, and meeting real obstacles that are strong enough to take a relationship out. But I write about these couples fighting through those obstacles to hang on to each other. I write romance in the service of affirming that our relationships are worth the struggle, and we deserve to be loved.