Ways of seeing: My romance with romance
When I first moved to Vermont, a dear friend of mine on the West Coast sent me a novel. “Everyone in our town is reading this,” she told me, “We all love it.” The novel, “Outlander,” told the story of an army nurse who, while having a romantic holiday in the Scottish Highlands after reuniting with her husband in the aftermath of World War Two, is mysteriously transported through time to the late 1700s, a period of castles, kilts, and intense sword fights.
Like the people of my friend’s town in Oregon, I was enchanted with the book and went looking for the sequel. After fruitlessly scanning the entire fiction section of the Vermont Bookshop, I went to ask for help. “Oh, those books are in the Romance section,” the clerk told me. I was mortified — I didn’t think of myself as a Romance Novel kind of person! I think my face turned red and I stammered something like, “Oh, I thought it was historical fiction!”
Fast forward to today, 11 and a half months into the pandemic: Give Me All the Romance. My serious books on critical race and gender theory are gathering some dust while they wait for me, in a big stack, as are some history books and serious novels by authors I love. They are going to have to wait a little longer. My stressed out Pandemic Brain is only accepting contemporary romance, with its emphasis on emotional intelligence, misunderstandings that get resolved, and reliably happy endings. In fact, while doing a little research on the romance genre and its fans, I came across this little rallying cry: HEA or GTFO. It stands for Happy Ever After or Get the F Out!
Speaking of happy resolutions, one of the few bright lights of the political hellscape we’ve been living through has been watching the remarkable resilience of Stacey Abrams. When she lost the governor’s race in Georgia by 55,000 votes, she could have retreated from public life and curled up with a mountain of books. But instead she forged ahead, determined to build progressive political power for Black Georgians, who are often the targets of voting roll purges, polling place closures, and other discriminatory actions by the Republican-led state legislature. It was due to her efforts, along with other Black voting rights activists like Nse Ufot, Helen Butler, Deborah Scott, and Tamieka Atkins, who registered hundreds of thousands of Georgians to vote, that Biden ended up winning Georgia, and that on Jan. 5, the two Senate seats in Georgia went to Democrats.
What does Stacey Abrams have to do with contemporary romance novels, you ask? Well, when she’s not fighting vote suppression and disenfranchisement in Georgia, she’s writing them! Under the pen name Selena Montgomery, Abrams has written eight romance novels, all published by Avon, the romance imprint of Harper-Collins. It turns out that in the Venn diagram in which one circle is people who like juicy novels where everything turns out allright in the end, and the other circle is people who want an end to police violence, homelessness, and hunger, there’s quite a bit of overlap! Black romance writers like Montgomery/Abrams, Alyssa Cole, and Beverly Jenkins explore themes of overcoming difficulty, embracing beauty (in its many forms), and finding joy and pleasure in spite of the existence of oppressive power dynamics.
In a beautiful display of Happily Ever After Sisterhood, romance writers Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole and Kit Rocha used their considerable platforms to throw support to voting rights for Black people in Georgia, by creating a fundraising powerhouse called Romancing the Runoff. By auctioning off special copies of their books, and encouraging romance lovers to donate to Stacey Abrams’ voting rights organization Fair Fight, Romancing the Runoff raised almost half a million dollars in just a few days! As romance writer Sarah MacLean put it, “Happily ever after — and who gets it on the page — is political.”
Throughout history romance, sex, and love have been healing balms to the pain and struggle of getting through each day. Books that center on female pleasure and joy, as well as describing beauty outside the norms of white, patriarchal beauty standards, just might, in their own way, be as radical as the most fierce polemics against the violence of predatory capitalism.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys cuddling her cat, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected].
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