California Love: Race and Romance
Interview by Yasmine Hachimi in conversation with Margo Hendricks, author of Race and Romance: Coloring the Past
Margo Hendricks is a Renaissance woman. While many people know her as a highly esteemed scholar of Shakespeare and early modern English literature, she is also an accomplished fiction writer, whose seductive prose coaxes readers through plot twists and turns until her characters get their happily ever after.
I first encountered Hendricks on Twitter several years ago, where we bonded over our mutual love of romance novels and our appreciation for one of Romancelandia’s favorite wayward anti-heroes, Derek Craven. We finally met in-person at the 2019 RaceB4Race “Race and Periodization” Symposium in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the Folger Institute.
The focus of the symposium was the relationship between history and race, and I remember the excitement in the air as Hendricks stood at the podium in the Reading Room of the Folger Library, reached for her cell phone, and began playing 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s iconic song, “California Love.” The audience burst into laughter and applause, especially those of us who followed Hendricks on Twitter and knew she had promised to pay homage to her home state by playing the song before she began her talk.
If there’s one thing you should know about Margo Hendricks, it’s that she doesn’t play around. If she says she’s going to do something, she follows through, and this is true of the comments she makes on Twitter, as well as the way she champions her colleagues, friends, and those of us she has taken under her wing.
When she began her career in academia, Hendricks was among a small group of Black Shakespeareans whose work on race in the early modern period continues to inspire new generations of scholars. Since becoming Professor Emerita in 2018, she has been writing fiction under the pen name Elysabeth Grace. Among her publications is Daughters of Saria, a paranormal romance series inspired by a range of early modern literary texts including John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s Richard III.
The heroines in the Daughters of Saria series are strong, intelligent, kickass Black women — some of whom navigate the complex terrain of interracial relationships. The second book in the series, Fate’s Kiss, has a character who engages in white passing while being completely aware of the performance involved in passing as white.
Given her vast knowledge of romance writing, race, and the early modern period, it should come as no surprise that Hendricks combines all three topics in her latest book, Race and Romance: Coloring the Past.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Hendricks about her forthcoming book.
Yasmine Hachimi: In the introductory letter to your reader, you mention how academic writing stifled your fiction writing. What was the process of disentangling yourself (mind, body, and spirit) from the norms of academic writing, which, as you mention in your book, is entangled with notions of perfectionism that stem from the pervasiveness of white supremacy in academia and academic publishing?
Margo Hendricks: Expectations. From the moment we enter the academy, we are expected to separate ourselves from our “subjectivity” — who we are as sovereign subjects and the identities we’ve worn our entire lives. Terms like objectivity, rigor, ambition, and the ever-present civility expect a divorce between our culturally informed lived experiences and our lived experiences as academics. Rhetoric. The language of the academic is pedantic, pompous, and unnecessarily driven by adhering to a white-centric code of what constitutes academic writing.
The moment we enter graduate school, become hired, and pursue an academic career, non-white scholars are trained to divorce our writing from the language of our communities, the wisdom of our elders, and the complex ways ideas can be conveyed. Even if our research grows out of our relationship to a community, we’re expected to conform to an idealized “academic body” that is white, male, cishet, pseudo-patriarchal, and abled.
Academic writing insists that complex ideas and issues can only be understood when the written is cast as not for the “ordinary” person on the streets. Writing fiction is the opposite. You write for the person on the street (I’m still a novice). It is also the case with romance fiction, my preferred fictional genre, that the genre, despite being one of the oldest fictional forms, is trivialized, denigrated, and “othered.” Thus, when I sit down to write romance, I have to unsettle my academic training. Not in the stories I write (all are connected to my scholarly training in some way) but in the prose style. The long paragraphs or sentences, the constant revisions, the agonizing over whether the novel is well-written, the reception by readers, how much I change the “historical” in my historical romances, cultivating a “romance voice” instead of using my “academic voice.” Ultimately, it is about reclaiming my voice and finding a balance between the two.
YH: The beginning of your book traces the romance genre back to the Greeks, particularly to Heliodorus’s Aethieopica, and explores the translation and circulation of Aethieopica in sixteenth and seventeenth-century literary adaptations. Can you tell us a bit about the way early modern writers (and people, in general) were thinking about racial difference and interracial romance?
MH: Ooh, good question. As the book argues, there is a shift in thinking by the time Heliodorus’s novel becomes a popular text for adaptation. By the 16th century, the enslavement of African peoples and their transportation to the Americas was underway. While not on the scale of the late 17th-19th centuries, it was still happening. Race has always been a semantic shapeshifter yet always entwined with culture or biology, and usually both. In premodern romances, “colorism” was a factor, but economic class trumped it. If the “African or Arabic or Ethiopian” woman was the daughter of a King, her social status overrode her “birth lineage” (i.e., the offspring of peoples associated with Blackness). Resolution: change her color, make her skin more palatable to a white-centric gaze. Not a problem for Heliodorus but for the European nations in the early modern period…Damn!
Enter a rewriting of the romance trope of the white-presenting African princess and the non-African hero. Tasso is probably the most instrumental of early modern authors to overturn Heliodorus’s representation of an “interracial” romance. Gerusalemme Liberata is one of the major texts to influence early modern English romance fiction, and what Tasso did was kill off the “White” Ethiopian princess, denying both heroine and hero a happily ever after (HEA). The name Chariclea became associated with a problematic woman (Armida) and the representation Heliodorus crafted of Chariclea becomes embodied in the non-Christian Clorinda who is slain by her love Tancred (a Christian).
This revisionary narrative projects a very specific white supremacist message about interracial romance. Nope. Not acceptable, not even in fiction. At least not without some form of trauma to further inscribe the idea interracial love runs counter to “racial normatives” coming to mark early modern European capitalism. So by the end of the 17th century, interracial romance between Black and white peoples is not just ideologically problematic but (as Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines suggests) politically and culturally dangerous. An ideology many still cling to, not because interracial love is “naturally” wrong but because it bursts holes in the racecraft and racism of white supremacy.
YH: As an avid romance reader and someone whose scholarly work is multi-disciplinary and transhistorical, I was excited to see Beverly Jenkins’s Forbidden and Indigo at the center of your book. When did you first start reading Jenkins and how did you begin to make connections between depictions of colorism in historical romance novels today and examples from the past?
MH: Forever ago (lmao, Ms. Jenkins isn’t that old). I’ve been reading historical romances for decades. At first, nearly all of them were authored by white people, primarily white women. Big reveal: I can’t stand Jane Austen so I didn’t come to romance via that path. I don’t remember where I saw it, but there was a reference to Beverly Jenkins. My first Jenkins historical romance wasn’t my favorite Indigo, which I re-read at least every couple of months. My first Jenkins romance was Night Song and I was hooked. Indigo and Forbidden are amazing not only because they center Black Romance and love and Black communities, but also because the books’ storylines expose white passing as performances of racial subjectivity/identity based on the white supremacist logic of colorism, which, like the emperor’s clothes, is an imagined state of being.
YH: There aren’t many books, scholarly or otherwise, that seriously discuss race and romance novels. How do you envision this book filling that gap and who is your ideal audience? Why was it important to interrogate colorism and, in particular, the nuances of and distinction between white passing and white presenting in the romance genre?
MH: Race and Romance started out as a scholarly tome — extensive footnotes and all. Yet, that is not what literary studies, and particularly romance genre studies, needs any longer. We pretend that the academic flourish makes an argument special; it doesn’t. It dissociates a study from a wider range of readers and marginalizes the subject. I didn’t want to do this with Race and Romance. As to why colorism, white presenting and white passing…blame it on Tasso and his racist handling of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica. We can also blame Aphra Behn. Lol.
The killing of Clorinda by Tancred in Gerusalemme Liberata (translated as Jerusalem Delivered in England) does two things (I probably didn’t say this in the book): first, it subverts and overwrites the HEA inherent to romance in the early modern period and gives rise to the idea that any love story, even those that don’t end happily, is a romance. This results in the blurring of literary genres (Willie S’s Romeo and Juliet is a romance because it has a central love story). Second, Clorinda’s racialized subjectivity as a white-presenting Ethiopian and a non-Christian one to boot is terrifying to ideologies of whiteness and white supremacy.
Who can wear “whiteness” is critical to the sustenance and care of white supremacy and racial capitalism. For Galen Vachon (Indigo) and Rhine Fontaine (Forbidden) to deliberately wear their proximity to “whiteness” on behalf of their communities rather than absolute rejection (both do so in complicated ways) is a powerful deconstruction of the presumptive infallibility of colorism. This is why so much effort is spent shoring up an ideology of absolute difference based on colorism. These two Beverly Jenkins romance novels show why it inevitably fails.
Finally, you can blame Aphra Behn, who started me on this path. Reading all the biographies, I often mused how like a white passing narrative her life appears to be. I fell down that rabbit hole and…voila, Race and Romance.
YH: In light of your academic and creative work on the genre, what three books might you personally recommend to someone who wants to expand their understanding of romance that refuses to center white characters or histories and is more inclusive?
MH: Shit! That’s a tough question and you know I’m going to violate the “rules.” I’m going to recommend authors instead. For historical romance fiction I’d recommend Piper Huguley. Her books center Black communities, Black love, and don’t shy away from difficult topics affecting Black people in the US. Or, Jeannie Lin. Her historical romances are based on Chinese history and offer amazing women characters and stories from a truly non-Western gaze. For contemporary Romance, I’m going to do backflips for Katrina Jackson whose canon is Black and multicultural and sexy as hell. Definitely not for those who want white bread sex (i.e., missionary only). I’d also recommend Adrianna Herrera, an Afro-Dominican author, whose romances are reflective of her multicultural subjectivity.
Race and Romance: Coloring the Past is now available as an open access ebook from ACMRS Press. You can also order a paperback copy of the book on the ACMRS Press website. A hardback version (contingent on supply chain issues) will be available in the coming weeks.
Yasmine Hachimi is an advanced PhD candidate in English Literature at UC Davis. She is currently writing a dissertation on the eroticization and racialization of Tudor queens, which explores a range of popular genres from early modern letters and plays to the tv shows and fanfiction of today. When she’s not working on her dissertation, you can find Yasmine immersing herself in acts of joy centered around rest, reading, and community. You can follow her on Twitter, @YasmineHachimi.
Margo Hendricks is Professor Emerita UC Santa Cruz. Co-editor (with Patricia Parker) of Women, Race and Writing in the Early Modern Period (1994), Margo has published essays on Shakespeare, premodern critical race, early modern women, and whatever strikes her fancy. Her new book Race and Romance: Coloring the Past is available now. In progress is From Cotton Fields to Shakespeare’s Negress: An Academic Memoir. . . sort of. Behind the pen name Elysabeth Grace, Margo is the author of two romance fiction series, the Daughters of Saria and Midsummer Sisters.