An Extraordinary Union
May 1, 2018 3:23 PM   Subscribe

"The company has forged a chain uncommon in mainstream publishing: an unbroken line of black women, from the novel's protagonist, via the author, to the editor, to the art director who created the cover art (featuring a black woman). This was a 'black on all sides' mainstream publishing project. And it worked." Novelist Alyssa Cole, editor Esi Sogah, and art director Kris Noble discuss with Bim Adewunmi the development, packaging, publication, and reception of Cole's Loyal League series, a trio of romances centered around black women and men during the U.S. Civil War.

Alyssa Cole On the Magic of Writing Romance:
"No, I don't think they're real, but in a way these characters are little slivers of my ideals. Hope. Justice. Equality. It's like putting your intentions out into the universe. And then November 9 came along and crushed all those ideals and intentions into dust. And all the nightmarish things I'd been reading about in my research, that never really stopped, were slowly becoming part of the status quo. It's frightening. But even though I can be pessimistic, I'm trying to look at the hopeful things I've come across in history. And you know what? The Confederacy lost. They fucking lost. They didn't lose by accident. They lost because they were, as a government, inept and overconfident and they didn’t have the range."
Why This Romance Writer Decided to Tackle the American Civil War, After All:
"My own thoughts were also formed by, in the same way that everyone else's have been—you only think about the stories that have already been told. Subconsciously, you feel like maybe there's a reason that there aren't many of this kind of story. But then as you do more historical research and look around, you start to see, okay, well, there are reasons and it's not because they're not realistic and or that they can't be done, it's because pop culture—and especially with the Civil War—we have these single stories of what happened during that time period and who was around and who contributed and who didn't."
Slavery Was No Opera: [Includes quotations with references to rape.] Qiana Whitted situates Cole's work in the context and the history of art portraying interracial intimacy.

Want to know more about the larger history of black romance novels? Pioneering novelist (and 2017's Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award winner) Beverly Jenkins discusses black history and love stories with Kelly Faircloth, and at the Rumpus, Christine Grimaldi looks at how Beverly Jenkins, Brenda Jackson, and other authors "are changing perceptions, one happily ever after at a time."
posted by mixedmetaphors (16 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
This is so great. I'm not a romance fan but I will definitely read these.
posted by amanda at 5:02 PM on May 1, 2018

I read Alyssa Cole's most recent contemporary romance, A Princess in Theory, after seeing it heavily promoted by other romance authors. It's completely silly and delightful. I somehow missed that she'd written historicals too!
posted by nev at 6:19 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've always wished there were more people of color both in romance novels and writing them. If nothing in the story contradicts it, sometimes I imagine the characters as people of color if for no other reason than variety.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:58 PM on May 1, 2018

Thanks, this is awesome!
posted by eggkeeper at 7:00 PM on May 1, 2018

I am a romance fan, and Alyssa Cole is great. I haven't started the Loyal League series yet (I've bought the first one, but it's still in the 'to-be-read' folder of my kindle). So far I've read her 'Off the Grid' post-semi-apocalypse trilogy, 'Let It Shine' (1960s setting Civil Rights activism setting, African-American heroine + Jewish hero, former childhood friends-to-lovers story), and 'A Princess in Theory', which I'd been anticipating since the cover reveal.

Seriously, look at how utterly gorgeous that cover is! His bowtie is of the same pattern as part of her dress! And her dress was designed for the book (Adorned by Nicole on Etsy, see this Smart Bitches Trashy Books podcast interview with Cole here for a discount code). And here's a behind-the-scenes of the photo shoot from Avon. Have I mentioned how much I love this cover?

I've only read one Beverly Jenkins book so far (Forbidden), which was good, but not my particular brand of catnip. Check out her 2017 RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech if you've got 10 minutes, or this podcast interview if you've got 50 minutes.
posted by oh yeah! at 7:10 PM on May 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

On the issue of black romance novelists, it's been really nice to see FOAF Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Date burning its way up the charts. It's a multi-racial romance with witty banter and hot sex scenes, and the female lead is a short curvy black lawyer. I just finished it tonight, and if you like romance, you'll like it.

(She got blurbed by Roxane Gay! OMG!)
posted by suelac at 10:46 PM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

...centered around black women and men during the U.S. Civil War.

A popular YA book that just came out last month isn’t exactly a romance novel, but it is a Civil War story with a young black woman on the cover. Dread Nation discusses "racism, classism, sexism and religion," while it’s specifically about the Battle of Gettysburg... and zombies.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:00 AM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

A Princess in Theory was lots of fun, and the heroine felt like a real person, not a conglomeration of attributes. She also had agency, you couldn't fuck with her and I loved that about her. Everything about that novel was my jam. I liked The Wedding Date less but it was still better than many, many other romance novels I've read.

I really enjoy, as a romance fan, how inclusive and diverse the genre has recently(?) become. There always seems to be something new and interesting, and I love that. Not being white myself, it feels like a big deal to have other experiences represented.

I've been enjoying the contemporary Cyclone series by Courtney Milan (better known for her historical novels) where the characters are super-diverse in terms of race, sexuality, body-type, you name it, and matters such as mental health are very openly discussed. That's not the only reason I like them; they're funny and sexy, too. I will be following this thread with interest: it would be great to get some more recommendations.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:50 AM on May 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

... Dread Nation discusses "racism, classism, sexism and religion," while it’s specifically about the Battle of Gettysburg... and zombies.
posted by LeLiLo at 3:00 AM on May 2


/places order
posted by magstheaxe at 8:45 AM on May 2, 2018

I really enjoy, as a romance fan, how inclusive and diverse the genre has recently(?) become.

Unfortunately, I would say "has recently started to become, barely, on its margins, sometimes" would be more accurate. The RWA has still never awarded a RITA to a black author and Harlequin just killed off its imprint for black writers. Courtney Milan has a pretty decent Twitter storm about it.

If you're seeking out authors of colour writing about characters of colour, they are there to be found. But if you're not looking, you could easily never know they exist despite being a pretty big romance reader.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:29 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have a feeling that what's going on is not so much that romance is becoming really diverse as that there's a really visible online community of writers and readers who value diverse romance novels. If you tap into that community, then you're going to hear about a lot of stuff that you might not have encountered otherwise, especially if you're white and previously mostly found out about books through distribution and marketing networks aimed at white readers. But the overall picture is still not great. It's just easier to find the good stuff if you're interested in it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:56 PM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

The push for acknowledging racism in both the romance publishing industry and the books themselves is significant right now! But it's still occurring in just a small segment, and even within the online & liberal Romancelandia, there's still a disappointing amount of White Lady Tears and other forms of pushback. Part of why I really loved Adewunmi's article, and what it contributes to this ongoing conversation, is the positive showcase of how good work is getting done.

From my perspective (and I'm just a reader), romance has been lagging behind SFF and YA in understanding and trying to resist the damage being done by assuming a white, heterosexual, Christian, patriarchal status quo. I think this recent public conversation about the RITAs and about how black women and other writers of color have been treated within the RWA is a step forward (and makes me optimistic), but there's still so far to go.

And I haven't yet read Cole's latest contemporary but I've had it propped up on my bookshelves just because that cover is SO BEAUTIFUL, as oh yeah! mentioned above. I didn't fit it into this post, but I loved this article by Alyssa Cole, too: Don't Call Princess Stories "Frivolous" — For Women & Femmes Of Color, They're Crucial.

For anyone looking for more historicals, Decades: A Journey of African-American Romance is an ongoing project featuring a historical romance set in each decade of the 20th century (and then in the 21st). There's five out now, and though I haven't read any yet, I've enjoyed books by some of the involved authors before (Lindsay Evans, Kaia Danielle, and Kianna Alexander) and I'm looking forward to reading the new-to-me authors, too.

For an unconventional historical/paranormal romance, I love recommending Cerece Rennie Murphy's To Find You. I'm personally comfortable calling it a romance because it has a well-earned HEA in the end, but because the concept invovles reincarnted soulmates who live (and die) through multiple iterations, I can understand why other romance readers might not feel the same. It's the most imaginative romance, and one of the most interesting, I've read in years.

And my go-to Beverly Jenkins rec is Winds of the Storm, with its awesome heroine and Reconstruction-era spies and intrigue.

I read a lot more contemporaries than historicals, and I love recommending Phyllis Bourne (hilarious + wonderful food descriptions + fun family dynamics) and M. Malone (such intricately & sturdily narrated emotional arcs).

WOC in Romance maintains a listing of romance releases by all women of color, sortable by subgenres and tropes. And Girl Have You Read covers black romance releases. (And in general, for anyone new to the genre or who wants to read more widely within in: So You Want to Read a Romance? has a flow chart worth of diverse romance novels that might be good places to start.)
posted by mixedmetaphors at 3:55 PM on May 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

I mostly read historicals, and I really appreciated Elizabeth Kingston's recent presentation writeup, Romancing White Supremacy. It's a loving tribute to the historical genre that does not hold back its criticism in any way. Her followup outlining practical advice for authors wishing to avoid perpetuating these problems is also excellent.
posted by nev at 5:05 PM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have really enjoyed Alyssa Cole’s writing, and through her have found many of the resources mixedmetaphors mentions. They’re so worth checking out—so many great romances by/about women of color!!
posted by epj at 12:39 PM on May 3, 2018

Just chiming in because I finished An Extraordinary Union just yesterday and have been trying very hard to sell my non-romance-reading friends on it. Cole is phenomenal and I loved reading about the team responsible for producing her work!
posted by libraritarian at 4:47 PM on May 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is maybe not so WoC related (it's been a while since I read it so I can't recall how many are featured), but if you're into princesses, there's a book called In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:26 AM on May 4, 2018

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