Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 47c - Book Appreciation: Black Authors/Black Characters - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/06/20 - listen here)
In this month’s On the Shelf program, I went on a tiny little rant about the frustrating and heartbreaking dearth of black authors and black characters in f/f historical fiction. There are a lot of dynamics in play, of course. The financial incentives for writing in the genre are small and not everyone can afford to bypass settings and genres that offer more promise of a living wage. Authors as well as readers can be brainwashed by popular culture into thinking that black people were absent from vast swaths of the favored historical romance settings. And if a reader is actively searching out black authors and black characters in the field of f/f historical fiction, they may find that book lists and review sites aren’t designed to search on that particular combination of features.
So I’m putting my money where my mouth is and curating a list for this book appreciation show. I am immensely indebted to several websites that gave me a leg up in cross-checking and expanding my list, especially sites featuring authors of color writing romance, or authors of color writing queer fiction. Here’s a shout-out to SIstahs on the Shelf, Women of Color in Romance, the Black Lesbian Literary Collective, and The Brown Bookshelf, and also to LGBTQReads who reminded me of the existence of these excellent resources. You can find links to all of these sites in the show notes. It still took some searching to track down historical fiction within those resources, and to identify f/f stories within the results.
What I’ve come up with are twelve books. I certainly hope this isn’t the full extent of what’s out there! In particular, I may be missing self-published works where the ethnicity of the main characters isn’t foregrounded in the cover copy. Twelve books. As it happens, I’ve read six of them and two more were already on my TBR list. Two of the authors have been guests on this podcast. Very few of the books fit solidly into the romance category--only two or three by my count--though most involves some sort of romantic subplot. Four of the books are historic fantasy and another two use a cross-time motif where characters in a contemporary setting are researching the past. Eight are set in the 19th century and four in the first half of the 20th. None are set earlier than that. And--touching on another point I made in my earlier rant--most of them do feature elements of the trauma of black and colonial history in their plots.
On to the books! I’ve organized them more or less in chronological order, just for fun.
Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roadshas a gloriously inventive structure, set in three different times and places--early 19th century Haiti, later Paris, and Egypt in the early Christian era--all bound together by manifestations of Ezili, the goddess of sexual desire and love. The chapters are introduced as musical motifs making me imagine how a theatrical version of the story might play out. I’ve blogged previously about how the representation of many different identities and sexualities in this story made me feel seenin a way that characters who resemble me more superficially haven’t always. The book has many dark moments--how could it not, when it covers the conditions leading to the Haitian revolution? But it circles around to end in joy.
The book that falls most solidly in the historical romance genre is also the one where I’m least certain about having a woman of color as a protagonist. The author, Gabrielle Goldsby, is black and very often features black characters, but a close reading of The Caretaker’s Daughter, a mildly-gothic Regency romance, only has hints that the title character might be biracial. (Her father is described several times in ways that suggest dark skin.) On the other hand, I may have missed more specific evidence since I’m afraid I didn’t finish the book because the writing style wasn’t working for me. You, dear listener, may well have a different reading experience--it happens quite often. Set on a classic English country estate, the unhappily married Lady Bronte finds friendship and then love with the daughter of her groundskeeper.
The most delightful and charming romance on my list is the novella “That Could Be Enough” by Alyssa Cole, who also has a very popular m/f historic romance series featuring black heroines set in the American Civil War. Alyssa Cole was a guest on this podcast to talk about her story, inspired by the setting of the musical Hamilton, in which the repressed Mercy Alston, acting as secretary in Eliza Hamilton’s interviews of those who knew her late husband, encounters the vibrant and challenging dressmaker Andromeda Stiel. I loved this story and wish that it was enough of a bestseller to tempt Cole to write more like it. “That Could Be Enough” is near the top of my list of recommendations for those who want to dip their toe in the waters of f/f historical romance.
The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghostsis by Tiya Miles who is an award-winning historian and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. The book uses fiction to explore a little-known part of American history: the participation of Cherokee tribes in Georgia in the slave-holding economy. The author herself is of African-American and Cherokee heritage and has focused on this intersection in her historic research. This book presents that research in fictional form, framed by three contemporary women who come together on a Georgia plantation to investigate the past. The book is tagged as LGBTQ in Goodreads, though the specific content isn’t evident in the cover copy. Perhaps I’ll be able to provide more information in the future as I’ve just added the book to my TBR list.
One way to have a book cover a wide swath of history is to make your protagonist an immortal vampire. Vampire stories are often weak on historical grounding, but Jewelle Gomez’s collection The Gilda Storiesis a solid exception, tracing the protagonist’s life from 1850s Louisiana through to the present day. I remember reading this collection back when it first came out and was a rare example of overtly lesbian characters in SFF. The writing is atmospheric and explores issues of community and isolation.
Within the last year I had Penny Mickelbury on the show to talk about her novel Two Wings to Fly Away, set in Philadelphia shortly before the onset of the Civil War. There is an inter-racial romance that shows the delicate masquerade required when different worlds collide, though it is only one subplot among thrilling escapes, mysteries, and the building of a precarious community of free black people and those fleeing slavery at a time when one’s status could change in an instant. I found the writing rich in historical detail and atmosphere in a way that can be traced to Mickelbury’s background in journalism.
Justina Ireland has created an alternate history that asks the question, what if the American Civil War ended with a zombie invasion? In Dread Nationand the sequel Deathless Dividewe follow the adventures of a young black woman trained to fight zombies to protect her upper class employers. The sapphic content enters in the second book, though not the main focus of the plot, as our heroine and her companion set out on a journey west through dangers that are not limited to the restless dead. These books are on my TBR list. It is, alas, a very long list.
Also tackling alternate history with a speculative fiction twist, Nisi Shawl’s steampunky Everfairposits the creation by British and American idealists of an independent nation carved out of the colonial hellscape of the Belgian Congo. But having established it, they must find the resources to defend it, not only against their colonial neighbors but against their own deep-set prejudices and conflicts. There are several queer relationships among the extremely large cast, and though they are not the focus of the story, they normalize a variety of identities, expressed in historically grounded ways. This is a vividly imagined alternate historic path, with the assistance of some innovative tech that gives our protagonists just barely enough of an edge to survive.
Nik Nicholson’s Descendants of Hagarfollows the life of a gender-transgressing woman in Georgia in the early 20th century. Rejecting a conventional woman’s life, Linny takes on the role of her father’s “son” until she makes a promise that brings her into conflict with her responsibilities to her family. From the description, this looks to depict a complex extended family in which one woman slips sideways through society’s expectations. I haven’t read this one but it looks intriguing.
Set very closely in time to the previous book comes Jam on the Vineby LaShonda Barnett. A scholarship enables our protagonist to pursue her childhood dream of journalism, but she returns home to the hard reality that the only jobs she’ll be offered are medial labor. Leaving the South, Ivoe and her lover set up the first female-run African American newspaper just in time to cover the outbreak of lynchings and race riots in 1919. Like many of the non-romance books in this list, the plot centers around flash-points of racial oppression and injustice.
Those books are far more likely to be published as literary fiction than genre fiction, and that’s definitely the case with Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple, following the lives of sisters Celie and Nettie in early 20th century rural Georgia and tackling issues of domestic abuse and lives constrained by poverty as much as by race. Same-sex desire is a minor thread in the story as part of the complex relationships the women experience.
Bringing us into the mid-20th century, Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Treestackles the Nigerian civil war shortly after the country gained its independence in the 1960s. Ijeoma, temporarily displaced by the war, falls in love with another girl, but her mother’s disapproval and homophobia result in a long internal struggle for Ijeoma to find a balance point between her desires, her desire for her mother’s approval, and her religious beliefs. Although the protagonist’s lesbian identity is central to the novel, this is far from a feel-good romance. The social context it depicts is still prevalent today, reminding us that acceptance is not evenly distributed. Under the Udala Treeswon a Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction.
It’s a short list--I’d love for listeners to suggest more books that would fit. And it’s a narrow list in many ways. No books set earlier than 1800. Very few romances with happily ever after endings. Plots that too often rely on Black suffering for their conflict. And when you talk to authors, it isn’t that these are the only books they want to write, but often it’s the ones that publishers want to see. I know I’d like to see many more, with more different plots and settings. And more happy endings. Don’t we all want to see more happy endings, in real life as well as on the page?
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