IASPR2018: Subversions of Race, Culture and History

This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2018 International Association for the Study of Popular Romance conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of literary academia. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.

The Wild Heart of the Continent: Love and Place in Sherry Thomas’s Silk Road Romance Novels” – Eric Murphy Selinger (DePaul University)

(Kat Mayo tweet) Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband set in Pakistan, where politics in 2009/2010 when the book was released affected its reception. Bantam asked her to change pen names. Walmart declined to publish future books no matter the setting.

This novel was much vaunted, but sold poorly, to the extent that Thomas’ publisher, Bantam, asked her to change her pen name. She “broke the rules of the game” by using that setting. However, the book has steadily sold since then as the negative associations with the Swat Valley have reduced.

My Beautiful Enemy (Heart of Blade) (2014) was set in the wake of the opium wars

  • Heroine is Anglo-Chinese
  • Hero praised for his softer qualities
  • Inverted tropes
  • Binary elements used to mark contrast (hot and cold) etc.

This novel has been discussed in at least seven academic papers, and four of Thomas’ novels were in the AAR Top 100 survey (although not My Beautiful Enemy).

(Kat Mayo tweet) My Beautiful Enemy: Place and religious intersect in the portrayal of Leighton as the hero. His equanimity is highlighted + loving kindness, compassion, etc and embodies Buddhist ideals and connects him to the Heart Sutra.

Selinger asks the audience – do we need a more systematic way to choose what to study? Niche vs popular, and the ‘critical darling’.

My Beautiful Enemy has a prequel The Hidden Blade: A Prequel to My Beautiful Enemy (Heart of Blade Book 1), which subscribes to the wuxia tradition, and Selinger thinks they should be taught together.

  • Attempts to hybridise wuxia and an American romance sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t
  • Designed to de-centre Britishness (in historical romance)
  • Simultaneously this book’s heroine admires some aspects of Britain.

(Kat Mayo tweet) Q on using the book as a teacher of Asia. Eric: Students skeptical at first. Extremely impressed not just by historical accuracy but that novel focused on moments & figures in Chinese history in a way that was appropriate historically & connected thematically in the book

 (Kat Mayo tweet) Q on colonialism. Eric: One of the things the novel takes pains to point out is that China is itself vastly multiply (?something). Vastly contested … There’s a sense in the novel of a deep desire and pride to present to an American audience multiple versions and ideas of Chinese culture that the author would like them to know about.

Love is (Colour) Blind: Race, Belonging, and Nation in 21st Century Historical Romance Fiction. Mallory Jagodzinski (Indiana University South Bend)

Looked at books with Anglo-Indian heroes:

, by Meredith Duran

, by Courtney Milan

, by Theresa Romain

These books aspire to show an American audience the possibilities of a more inclusive national view.

(Amy Burge tweet) Second paper is by @FeistyHeroine who is arguing that the way American authors – Milan, Duran, and Romain – write historical Anglo/Indian interracial relationships is their way of working through race/racism in the USA today

HEA – the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice.

But what about when emotional justice incorporates social justice?

  • Typical romance fights the patriarchy
  • These three books also fight racial stereotypes and wider society issues

Citizenship: Anne McClintock “granted by men”, and the idea of nationhood rest on male identity. Women, historically, seen only as a symbolic bearers of citizenship (only exist to create boy children).

These three books look beyond the patriarchal issues of citizenship, and address intersectionalities of race, class, social justice – but within the bounds of the genre.

Romain’s book has no villains on page, internal battles only

Duran’s book is highly violent

Milan’s book is the middle ground with villains who aren’t always violent on the page (torture is discussed but not always shown)

(Kat Mayo tweet) Romain portrays a neoliberal type of citizenship. Duran’s citizenship is complicated by violence (and mental illness, I think?). Milan works hard to find a way for the couple to resolve issues of citizenship/belonging.

This conversation is important – at the time of Jagodzinski writing this paper, RWA’s membership was 83% white.

(Jodi McAlister tweet) Jagodzinski: in “confrontation” scenes, white heroines are asked to consider the hero’s non-whiteness and their own whiteness, engaging in notions of citizenship.

(Kat Mayo tweet) In Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress, heroine insists that hero is not obviously other and could be mistaken for Welsh. In this novel, rather than heroine changing her view, it’s the hero who changes perspective that maybe his colouring isn’t as noticeable as he thought.

(Kat Mayo tweet) Mallory looks at endings: DoS ends with sex scene, domestic, mention of heroine becoming a duchess; HE epilogue is domestic, political dinner, Anjan considering government work; SoaSH h/h business partners, capitalist fantasy.

Conclusion – In order to portray citizenship well:

  1. Villains serve a purpose.
  2. Whiteness must be explicitly confronted.
  3. Does it matter where/how in society these interracial couples land at the end of their stories?

Side note: My book, The Heart of a Bluestocking, features an Anglo-Indian hero, Ravi, and will be out in September 2018.

You stayed: Love, law, and the reservation in Jenna Kernan’s Apache Protectors series: Johanna Hoorenman (Utrecht University)

These books deal with the chronotope of the ‘native reservation’. (Note: use of native throughout this report is as per Hoorenman). This first book in the series is: Shadow Wolf (Apache Protectors)

(Profromance tweet on definition of ‘chronotope’) From Russian Mikhail Bakhtin‘s study of the early novel, translated as “space-time”.So the Regency in historical romance is a chronotope, not the actual era, that readers & writers understand as a time of a certain culture set in a very specific version of the U.K.

(Jodi McAlister tweet) Hoorenman: all representation is subject to a semiotic gap between representation and actuality. Much depends on strategies of representation and commodification.

Gerald Vizenov:

  • Not a native USA but a portrayal of one
  • A western construct
  • Commodity of trauma (eg the holocaust in Schindler’s List)

Huyssen – no pure space outside

(PopFicDoctors tweet) Hoorenman: Native American themed novels are generally historical romances written by non-native authors and highly anachronistic.

Anochronistic trope with Native American set books, eg Savage Thunder (Wyoming-Western Series)

  • White heroine
  • Tribal hero (who ‘luckily’ speaks English via a friendly agent)
  • White feminist argument against the purity of patriarchy
  • Very problematic
  • Native people always described from the outside

(Kat Mayo tweet) Problems around portrayal of real lived experiences of Native people: learning English from friendly missionary (book) vs violently at boarding school; smallpox epidemic in tribes; viewed as ‘savage’ & doesn’t question if it’s the military that should be seen as savage.

What is the appeal of native man as heroes?

  • Strength of protection, especially from white villains
  • Heroine is not a threat to tribe but an asset
  • Idea of lost culture
  • Connection to nature
  • Reviewers express an interest in learning about the past and ‘other’

What happens when books like Savage Thunder (historical westerns) are moved to a contemporary setting? How does the author navigate social issues?

Jenna Kernan series:

  • Harlequin Intrigue
  • Law enforcement
  • Suspense
  • Fictional reservation (probably based on White Mountain Apache)
  • Re-writes problematic elements from historical books (above)
  • Social issues discussed (drugs, race, unemployment, law from different angles)

The series allows different views, which stops the monolithic ideal, however, Kernan is not a native writer (not #ownvoices)

(PopFicDoctors tweet) Hoorenman: the subgenre hybridity of contemporary romantic suspense shapes the way Kernan deals with issues facing native Americans today. The form here is important. The series allows a continued meditation on these themes, where a single novel could not.

Key Elements of this series

  • Remoteness
  • Hyper-modern re; technology and law
  • Combines older elements such as tracking skills
  • Connected to land, but depicted as an economically modern space (cattle farming, casino, etc)
  • Attracts crime due to remoteness and lack of FBI involvement on reservation (this legal status drives much of the suspense plots)
  • Author makes a considered effort to fix tropes

However, one example of the problems of a non-native author arise in the Coming of Age ceremony. The ceremony is related to the reader by a white character who functions as a mediator.

  • No author notes on the research done
  • What can’t the reader see?

In reality this ceremony is connected to menstruation, a powerful moment of growing up for a young girl, however, the scene in the book doesn’t mention the menstrual cycle, so misrepresents the ceremony. This assumes a taboo over a woman’s body which exists in white society, but not in native culture.

A western het-patriarchy assumes women’s ceremonies are taboo and primitive. With the author erasing the core reason for the ceremony, this continues this assumption. This information would have been available to the author (and was readily available to Hoorenman), so it must be a deliberate erasure.

(Kat Mayo tweet) Contrast with explanation of the ceremony in We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies (Indigenous Confluences) by Cutcha Risling Baldy. Mentions link to menstruation, and attempts to counter the imposition of Western taboos. (I paraphrased A LOT.)

Conclusion – this series does a lot to subvert the old problems (of Native portrayal) but still erase some aspects by using a western gaze.

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