I’ve been an avid reader all of my life and romance has always had a special place in my heart. But here’s the thing, for all the books I read as a child, a teenager, and later as a young woman, I hardly saw myself reflected in the pages. And romance? Don’t even get me started.
Romance was the sort of thing I devoured but also skimmed over character descriptions of blue eyes, fine-boned heroines, and nothing but blond hair with *shudder* creamy skin. Who made that a thing? Probs the dairy industry with all the milky and creamy skin that was being fondled on my pages. I’m a Latinx woman, Spanish lives on my tongue, my eyes are dark, the food I know is flavored by the spices born in other countries, other continents, borders mean something different to me, the faces I grew up with were mixed of all shades. But on the page, the world seemed to be one flat beige note.
Fiction is supposed to be a place to escape to, somewhere the real world can’t touch you, but for me, it was a tough line to walk with every story serving up reasons for me to be both happy and sad.
Happy because I was getting to see new places and have new experiences through the eyes of the leads, but sad because no one ever resembled me and mine. As a teenager I accepted what I was given, thinking that it was just the way it was but it motivated me to write. I wrote my own stories with dark-skinned men and women, heads full of rizos and locs, people that were complex and frivolous, in possession of agency and dreams.
They weren’t perfect but they were real. Or as real as any fictional character had the right to be.
My love of writing never left me but life got in the way and I stopped writing fiction when I decided to get after my 4-year. I went on to get a BA in Soviet Military History from Kansas State University, and then a little later an MA in 19th century American History from The University of Alabama. It was during my Master’s that I really thought on what I wanted to do with my life because while I went into my graduate program with the goal of becoming a professor, I graduated knowing one definitive fact about myself: Ph.D. life was not for me.
Now let me explain this decision. It wasn’t that history wasn’t for me because I wasn’t into history. I am so into history it hurts. I wasn’t into a PhD track for a myriad of reasons centering around the problems of academia., which is a whole different blog post so I’ll stick to my topic. While I was going after my degrees, I learned a whole damn lot about myself and the world my ancestors moved through.
First: I’m a Latinx with slave ancestry. I found the bills of sale in Alabama archives that showed me my people’s journey from the Dutch Antilles to Georgia, then Alabama, then off to Texas. It was surreal because it had always been talked about in my family, but in hushed tones and with a note of shame that I didn’t understand.
Second: On the whole, my family’s immigration story is something no one wrote down. And that means to a majority of history enthusiasts it’s not significant, right? They want documents and other bullshit, maybe a neat little narrative and plaque to commemorate the event. The lived and oral memory of a people not registering as “factual” for them. I could write a dissertation about the damage untrained history buffs have done to what the idea of history is.
Third: I am the first in my family to attend college, the only to attain anything beyond a certification. Four-year degrees and graduate programs were not things discussed in my family. Ever. This is very important because public K-12 education and what is out in the masses has shaped my family’s idea of our history. Suddenly the shame and hushed tones made a hell of a lot of sense but it took six years of school and two degrees for that to happen.
Lastly: I’m not here for any goddamn shame because the truth is that my ancestors were brave.
I left my graduate program with my degree in hand and knowing that words have power. Fiction was going to be the way that I did something about how people who looked like me, had similar histories and communities, saw themselves. I was going to use the education that I had, a degree with a concentration in the Reconstruction Era–that magically misunderstood period following the Civil War. That Era of unrealized potential when anything was possible regarding the future of race and citizenship in our country for the sheer fact that the laws against or for people and rights did not exist.
Hell, laws banning interracial marriage were suspended in all southern states save Georgia at the end of the Civil War. The Reconstruction Era brought us thrilling political appointments such as not one but two African-American senators, 1870-71 and 1875-1881, respectively.
We would not have the next African-American senator until 1967.
Think on that. 1967. ONE NINE SIX SEVEN.
My points is that the Reconstruction Era was a big-time where the freed community was making some serious moves. Colleges and even whole towns were being created to house three million people who were for the first time categorized as PEOPLE. My family was among those facing down the unknown and I couldn’t be prouder of them. But just because my family and the rest of the freed community were now free, were seen as people, and could choose so much more than they had been allowed as someone’s property, that didn’t mean they were given a world of rainbows and open doors. They had to kick down every “open” door, force themselves through the inch gap of that door and make most of what those in power classified as freedom and choice. But inch or not, they persevered, they survived, they got on and here I am.
And let me tell you, I am very, very interested in all the years between emancipation and now because it wasn’t all bad. There was love, laughter, friendship, family, homes were built and babies born, it wasn’t all tears and pain.
It couldn’t be.
I refuse to believe that it was, just the way I refuse to accept white savior “feel good” stories, or torture porn narratives. My people existed as more than slaves, as more than drunk Mexican stereotypes in smokey bars and gunfights. Expecting them to only exist as flat one-dimensional paper cutouts is pure fantasy.
Black and brown people had heart and dreams. They had good days and happiness. But you know what?
They deserved a whole hell of a lot better than the world they were given and that, that, is why I write historical romance. I gravitate towards low angst historical because the world I’m writing, the stories I’m telling? It’s the world as I wish it had been for them. It’s also a world entirely possible because remember how I mentioned that the Reconstruction Era was a time of crazy mad potential?
It could have happened, it did happen…maybe? Maybe not.
But on that maybe note I want to ask a very important question: Why is it okay for us to read historical romance by the ton featuring white women living outlandish fantasies? There are like seven Dukes running around at any one time in history, even I know that and I’m an Americanist, not Europeanist, but we are supposed to believe that every time a wallflower or out to pasture debutante turned around she spilled her sherry on one?
How come it’s okay and accepted to read about white women solving mysteries with naught but a hat pin and some weird animal companion or mouthy side-kick, you know in a time where women asserting themselves was frowned upon. Like where are the chaperones in these books? If everyone is going to be ruined how come there isn’t more of the REAL consequences of ruination being demanded in the name of historically accurate rather than the rose-colored absolutely fantastical versions historical romance, regency, in particular, is famous for?
Don’t get me wrong. I will deep throat a hot ruination regency faster than you can blink because I’m not here for a long time, I’m here for a good time, baby.
My whole big point on that is why is that accepted as historical romance but anything that features POC living happy lives, living low angst lives, not suffering and just having a grand time doing it is termed inaccurate when the writer is doing the same thing as all other historical romances are want to do but just with people that aren’t white or hetero?
It’s a double standard. It’s gross. It needs to stop.
I’m not here for it. My books aren’t here for it, and hopefully, Romancelandia will continue to not be here for it either. Until then and well after that I’ll still be writing my historical romance, each one more fun and historically possible as the next, or you know, as possible as any other piece of historical romance written ever.
Because my ancestors deserved better and I’m going to give it to them.