From Michelle: From the moment I heard Gwendolyn Pough of Syracuse U (aka romance author Gwyneth Bolton) speak at last spring's Princeton romance scholarship conference, I was dying for you to hear her story -- and learn about her studies of black romance fiction, and how its advent enriches and changes the lives of the women and men who read it. Her presentation was powerful and riveting, and anyone who cares about romance should hear what she has to say, spread the word and give African American romance a try if you haven't. Check out Gwen's amazing bio here. Please offer Gwen a warm TGIF Bella Buongiorno...
From Gwen: Hello, Michelle! Hello, Bellas! Thanks for having me here today. Fifteen years ago two things happened that at first glance have absolutely nothing to do with one another. I started the Doctoral program in English at Miami University in Ohio. My major exam area for the degree was Rhetoric and Composition. My minor exam areas were Critical Pedagogy and 19th and 20th Century Black Women Writers. I wrote a dissertation on rhetorical disruptions and black public culture. But I won’t bore you with any of that… Something else happened fifteen years ago that is far more interesting than my dissertation.
Fifteen years ago, Kensington published the first Arabesque novels. To be sure, there had been a few romance novels published prior to 1994 that featured black heroes and heroines. Before that time, we had Rosiland Welles’s "Entwined Destinies" (1980), Jackie Weger’s "A Strong and Tender Thread" (1983), Sandra Kitt’s "Adam and Eva" (1985) and Joyce McGill’s "Unforgivable" (1992). Traditional paperback romance novels that showcased black love had been sparse to say the least. However, from the time editor Monica Harris got Kensington to publish those first Arabesque novels all of that changed.
Those novels helped me when I was living in Ohio as a single, black woman graduate student yearning for her own chocolate prince charming. I could believe he existed because those early Arabesque authors—Francis Ray, Margie Walker, Rochelle Alers, Shirley Hailstock, Monique Glimore, Sandra Kitt, Layle Giusto, Angela Benson, Adrienne Reeves, Donna Hill, Mildred Riley, Amberlina Wicker, Bette Ford, Francine Craft, Lynn Emery and Roberta Gayle—were writing about him. I also remember pondering if I should just quit graduate school and become a romance novelist.
You see, in addition to giving me hope that I would eventually find my own black hero, those early Arabesque novels gave me hope that I might one day achieve my secret dream of writing romance novels. Before then, I never imagined that one day there would be romance novels with black folk in them. Even though I had studied African American Literature and all of the great black women writers from Harriet Jacobs to Terry McMillan, the idea that I would one day have a box of romance novels with black women heroines delivered to my doorstep, similar to that box of Harlequin Presents novels that my mom used to get back in the 80s, was something I could never have dreamed of back then.
Many black women romance readers, like myself, read romance novels long before the first African American imprints appeared in the early 90s. Many still read a wide variety of romance and don’t limit their reading based on the race of the author or the race of the characters in the book. Some only started reading romance novels when the black romances were published and never will read a romance with white leads. Some have read white authors in the past when they couldn’t find black authors and will never read another white romance again now that they can find black romances. However, most black readers will tell you that they read black romances because they want to be able to relate to the book. They want heroines that look like them.
At first glance, that desire may seem superficial. But imagine growing up never seeing popular images of healthy loving relationships. Imagine hearing nothing but distortions about your sexuality, having your desire demonized, and hearing nothing but myths about your so-called pathology. Could you hold on to the dream that you would one day find love? African American romance novels also offer readers and writers a way to rewrite images of black masculinity. For the most part the stereotyped images of black masculinity that populate the larger public sphere are missing for romance novels.
I believe that contemporary Black romance novels perform a kind of activism. These novels participate in the re-making of African American images and representations. They offer positive representations of relationships between black men and women. And they also work to rescue the images of black men and women from harmful stereotypes, often rewriting and remixing the stereotypes. They work to disprove myths about black love and black people’s capabilities to love and worthiness to be loved.
And this is where those two instances that happened fifteen years ago come full circle. My academic studies of African American rhetoric, language and literacy practices has led me to merge my love of romance with my academic study. Since I have also followed my dream of writing romance novels and write them under the pen name Gwyneth Bolton, this is sometimes tricky. But it is always thrilling. History is still being written for both African American romance and myself. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.
So, Bellas, that’s a little history about why I read and write romance and why some of the black women I’ve interviewed say they read romance. Why do you read romance? Is it important for you to be able to identify in some way with the heroine in the novel? If so, in what ways? Do you think romance novels can help foster healthy, loving relationships or at least offer models that can lead to change?