This past week, I read The Mane Squeeze by Shelly Laurenston. About halfway through the book I realised the heroine’s best friend was black and though she had previously struck me as slightly annoying, I finished the book eagerly anticipating a sequel with a romance story for her.
Why was I all of a sudden so interested in this character? The long and short answer: it’s because she was black. A slightly annoying white best friend would have garnered no more than cursory interest for me, but once I learned that Blayne – in the most superficial of ways – “resembled” me, I was invested in her story.
I have existed for most of my literate life on a steady diet of romance novels and ninety-nine percent of the characters in these novels are Caucasian – and American. I expect that for the rest of my literate life, my diet will remain pretty much unchanged. African-American romance novels are hard to come by in my neck of the woods and because I don’t read with race in the forefront of my mind, it is very easy to accept the status quo. That said, my reaction to Blayne (with whom I had absolutely nothing else in common apart from skin colour) highlighted for me a subtle but present undercurrent of need for recognition in my romance.
It is a need which goes beyond race. For example, I suspect that my ambivalence towards African-American romance is strongly linked to the fact that though I am black, I’m not American. And so, the differences between “white” and “black” American-centric romances are not stark enough for me to go out of my way to read more “black” (American) books. Whether the heroine has black twists or a blonde French plait, her country is the same, her accent is not mine, and her culture is still different than mine. Drilling further down, outside of the romance genre, there is ample Caribbean representation in the literary world, but I believe I still lack representation as much of these works focus on the grass-roots Caribbean. I, in contrast, live a charmed life. I’ve come to the realization that I hanker after bits and pieces of my own story, in the romances I read. If Blayne had been described as not only black, but overweight, short, from the Caribbean and a lawyer, I would probably have keeled over, unable to handle all that recognition in one little character.
I know that many people read romance as a form of escapism (I include myself in this bunch) and when you’re escaping, it’s generally accepted that you’re headed towards a paradise of your own making. I suppose this is why, though reading of perfect love stories makes for a fine paradise, reading of perfect love stories when the people, the surroundings, the events feel somehow nearer and dearer to your heart, this is when it evolves to the sublime.
All of this is not to say that I want to read about myself in romance novels. But to recognise bits of myself, well, I would never pass on that experience. It’s the type of thing to turn a mediocre novel into a Desert Isle Keeper; that emotional tug that can’t be logically placed in a review and may be difficult to describe to a book club compatriot. It’s the reason New Jersey natives love (or hate) Janet Evanovich; it’s the reason we have “chica lit” and AA romance. On some level, recognition, even in fiction, counts for a lot.
Do you ever feel the need to connect on a more personal level during your reading experiences?
Do you think it’s either dangerous or ridiculous to seek that sort of connection?