Book Club Starts Today

passing-for-black-cover-artJuly 1st snuck up on us and between doctors appointments and vet appointments and . . . I just didn’t get to the first book of the Black Lesbian Lit Online Book Club over at Swandiver’s yet. I’m hoping to get it read today as our dog has finally started to show signs of improvement and my father’s surgery isn’t scheduled until tomorrow. So I’ll write my review when I get a chance, but you should head on over to Swandiver’s to read her review and all the book club reader’s comments on this month’s book: Passing for Black. click here

update 1 – good news, you have all month to read the book as they have broken it into sections!

update 2 – My quick review: Romance novels are not a genre in which I am well read nor familiar and so I find myself wondering if my problems with the writing – the descriptions of the characters, the 2-dimensional representations of “race men and women” and “feminists [and queers]”, the references to sexual “stirrings” in scenes where they seem completely out of place, etc. are a part of the genre and less a problem with Villarosa’s execution. What I can say is that the story was oft-putting for me from chapter one when both Ethnic Studies Professors (far too obviously represented by a black homophobic man) and Women’s Studies Professors (far too obviously represented by a Foxy Brown worshiping white lesbian) have a trite, vitriolic, clash in the hallway that quickly degenerates into transphobia on both sides. This introductory chapter, both establishes the three main characters in the novel: Angela Wright, Keith Redfield (her husband), Cait Getty (her initial love interest) and the general thesis of the book that “real blackness” is at odds with queer identity and same sex desire. While I empathize with anyone who believes their sexuality is in conflict with their race or ethnicity or has to deal with people who do, I don’t understand why Villarosa would choose to represent this dichotomy in such a flattened out way. By which I mean, there is no similar homophobia in white communities with which she interacts nor does she hold them accountable for their subtle racism; she often undermines characters that do call them on the latter, again as evidenced in the trite confrontation in chapter one. As a result, the narrative presents a picture in which homophobia is an ever present, all-pervasive part of the black community, and the white community is guilt free of any forms of oppression w/ the exception of transphobia which keeps coming up in race vs. sexuality fights as if trans identity is a buffer zone and not an actual subject/identity in the novel in its own right. While this echos narratives of race in the dominant culture, including dominant queer culture, it does not reflect the reality of either racism or homophobia in our society. There are plenty of African-Americans and African diasporic people who are neither homophobic nor think that queerness is a “white thing.” And the nature of race in N. America often means that queers of color worry about their connection to their race and culture when coming out while white people do not have similar concerns b/c whiteness is naturalized and therefore de-cultured and ubiquitous. So if we were to racialize white people’s fears of losing their families, their jobs, their friends, and the lives they had before coming out, we might find that with rare exception what everyone fears is actually homophobia not being part of a culture “everyone knows is more homophobic.” Narratives that center race as inherently anti-gay erase the fact that homophobia exists in every culture and so do support networks of allies. It also helps people shift their focuse from institutional and cultural homophobia to race, and for some allows them an acceptable way to express their racism and/or racial anxieties, which ultimately prevents us from looking closely at the political, economic, and religious systems largely founded and run by white people that perpetuate homophobia. And when we do look at those institutions, the hegemony of whiteness, ensures that we will not make an equally offensive racial argument in which we say white people are more homophobic than other races; if you think ab0ut how the argument would be crafted if those socio-economic-politico-religious institutions were run by black people, you can start to see what I am saying about how racialized thinking and/or racism impacts queer organizing and how this book’s thesis helps play into, rather than dismantle, those problems. To couple her thesis of “real blackness” with a near complete erasure of racism or other oppressions on the part of white folks also reifies a racial binary that I can only hope is not one to which Villarosa actually subscribes.  In thinking about these issues, I return to the larger question of authenticity and the ethnic writer.

  • Why are writers of color read as sociologist or anthropologist insiders rather than writers of fiction like white authors?
  • What are the consequences of presenting exaggerated aspects of a stigmatized cultural experience, one of many, in fiction
  • Who is ultimately responsible for those consequences?

Nor do I believe these questions can be asked outside of questions about the publishing industry, and in this case, Villarosa’s publisher in particular:

  • Why does the publishing industry tend to encourage or gravitate toward stories that reify dominant images of racial groups?
  • What compromises, if any, are authors of color making in order to publish?
  • And if they are making them, who bears the larger responsibility – the person who may represent stereotype to publish or the person who encourages it?
  • What does it mean to work with an editor who may not “get it”?

That last question is directed at Kennsington Books as much as blog readers. Kennsington may be implicated in not asking Villarosa to present more multi-dimensional charcters and storyline (again they may not b/c of genre, others will have to tell me this), but they are certain implicated in including a “reading guide” in the back of the book with questions that are quite telling.

  • How many times have you picked up a first edition printing of a non-textbook and found it had a reader’s guide?
  • Given that the answer should be rarely if not never, then why was one included here?
  • And why are there questions like “Does the author give [male characters] a fair shake?” and “Tatiana is a complicated person – . . . black and conservative, among other things. What do you think of her?”
  • Do you think these questions would be included in a book written by a man with a male protagonist?
  • Do you think a black editor or someone with more exposure to black people would need to ask a question about the existence of black conservatives?
  • And how do either of these questions further your understanding of the basic points of the book, ie: coming out in early adulthood, worrying about homophobic backlash from your race, family, and friends, and learning to be comfortable with yourself and your desires?
  • Worse, the guide includes a question about whether or not Cait can parent the new baby playing into racial divisions that are echoed by other questions in the guide while once again failing to adequately center the overarching themes of the book

Ultimately, Villarosa’s Passing for Black successfully presents the experience of a bourgeois black woman trying to come to terms with her sexuality and reject both internalized and societal homophobia. While her descriptions of black women are hopelessly mired in colorism and class issues, and her discussion of lesbian sexuality at a lesbian conference is at times laughable, naive, or simply ridiculous (like when she says something along the lines of “or is this just the way things are in a girls dorm” . . . sure if you’re Beebo Brinker), she does manage to give us a believable main character. Moreover, as her character develops, she has more opportunities to discuss the diversity of sexual experience and meet new, if equal one-dimensional, characters that help shape her ultimate decisions. A lot of people on amazon.com more familiar with the romance genre also found the story engaging and I am hoping that the book group members bring that perspective in order to lesson my rather academic read. Don’t get me wrong, there really are major race, sexuality, and gender issues in this book no matter how you read it, and white feminists and transgender people in particular are likely to resent the way they are represented (and so should everyone else), but a lot of what made this book inaccessible for me is likely genre issues and not Villarosa’s story at all.

Villarosa has a long history of writing about black women’s health and edited the African American specific version of Our Bodies, Ourselves: Body and Soul: The Black Women’s Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being. I have used the later in my former practice, gifted it to friends and former students, and as such expected maybe too much from this freshman novel. I wish she had stuck to the tone and focus of these established works when entering into the fictional arena but it wasn’t my story and therefore I have no way of knowing why she chose to tell it this way.

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