Monday, February 28, 2022

BOOKS! (Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be + Black Love Matters)

I'm back! Took me a bit, but I'm finally writing my first book review of 2022, featuring the first book that I finished this year along with the first book that I both started AND finished this year. I tend to read fiction more than nonfiction, and I can't remember ever abiding by the theme of the month that my reviews are written in, but nonetheless, here I am focusing my February review on two nonfiction books about love! Both are essay collections, written and curated by Black women writers/podcasters, that were published within the past six months or so. First up is a memoir-in-essays examining dating, sex, body image, and pop culture from the author's early days growing up in 1980s Nashville to her current life as a forty-something writer in Brooklyn. And then, an anthology of essays about why Black representation matters in romance media and especially romance novels, edited by a librarian who was the 82nd guest on my podcast (Young, Gifted and Abroad).

Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be: Essays by Nichole Perkins
I was introduced to Nichole Perkins through her guest appearances on a charming yet honest race, current events, and pop culture podcast called Another Round (thanks and RIP as of 2017). However, it wasn't until I became an avid listener of a different podcast called Thirst Aid Kit (thanks and RIP as of 2020) that I gained a good grasp of her voice and her writing. On Thirst Aid Kit, Perkins and her friend/co-host Bim Adewunmi explored how desire ("thirst") functions within pop culture, and what made certain Hollywood men so thirst-worthy. My favorite segment was when, toward the end of each episode, Perkins and Adewunmi would compete by reading aloud the fanfiction-style "drabbles" they'd written, usually depicting imagined meet cutes or scenes of intimacy with the male subject ("thirst object") of the week. These drabbles were exquisitely written—sometimes adorably sweet, more often disarmingly hot—and knowing that Perkins already published a book of poetry and had a memoir on the way, I was excited to read more of her romance-related writing. Released in August 2021, Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be was the last book to arrive from my four-book Harriet's Bookshop order that I placed as a podcasting anniversary gift to myself last summer, and it's the third of the bunch that I can now say I've had the honor of reading in its entirety. (See also While We Were Dating and The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.) 
Though not in strictly chronological order, Sometimes I Trip features around 20 essays about Nichole Perkins's journey as a Black woman who spent her whole life from birth to undergrad in the South, and how she developed her sense of self as a culture critic and a deeply sexual person. She shares the facets of music, TV, and film that have profoundly influenced her understanding of desire and desirability, including Prince, whose 1987 song "If I Was Your Girlfriend" inspired the title of this memoir. (I'll go ahead and embarrass myself by volunteering that as girl who was born in the '90s and who respected Prince but wasn't in any way a committed fan, when I first saw the cover reveal for this book I initially assumed that the title referenced Beyoncé and Jay-Z's "'03 Bonnie & Clyde". Obviously Perkins, a Prince super-fan, learned me something in her essay dedicated to Prince, because of course she wrote one. It's titled "Prince's Girl". ) Additionally, she shares about her family, growing up in Black Nashville, HBCU campus life ("HBCUs Taught Me"), social media/dating app culture, her complicated relationship with academia from New Orleans to Los Angeles to Columbus, her faith journey (deconstruction?), and her experience with depression and low self-esteem in her fluctuating body. And of course, as I've alluded to, there's much talk about sex. Not only in terms of some of the guys she's been involved with and why, but also in terms of how she's flipped the concept of being "fast"—an insult/warning against sexual activity or inviting sexual attention that's often hurled at young Black girls before we even get the chance to understand our bodies as our own—into a catalyst for coming into her own power. Whether as the girlfriend, the other woman, the casual hook-up partner or somewhere in between, with time and experience Perkins has learned to replace the potential shame of loving sex so much with pride in her ability to make men weak overcome, obedient, and well... thirsty. And that sense of power is bolstered by knowing what pleases her. For example, skinny men are high on her list because, apparently, skinny men got that hammer. Also, it's possible for cunnilingus to last for nearly four hours straight. Also also, her first time having sex occurred exactly four months before the day I was born. You learn something new every day.
As I tend to do with poetry, story, or essay collections, I marked the essays I liked most so that I could discuss my favorites here, but there ended up being too many for me to pick concrete favorites. So I'll just touch on the ones that stick out the most in my memory as I write this. "The Night I Took Shrooms" (where Perkins tries magic mushrooms in the presence of the white dude she's seeing at the time, referred to as "The Hippie") was revelatory, to say the least. It's a trip that goes from orgasmic to terrifying to guilt-inducing to orgasmic again, and in the end she proves to herself that she can dabble in recreational drugs without losing control or becoming addicted like her abusive father had. I was astounded by the candidness of "Scandalous", where she recounts a lengthy affair she carried on with a married man during her "ho phase"—even unintentionally becoming some sort of friends (?) with his wife—and essentially argues that the other woman isn't necessarily a bad person, that she deserves empathy too. That essay was a difficult one for me to digest, because her assertions that she shouldn't be held responsible for men's actions (as in, the mistress shouldn't be the only one blamed for cheating) and that she couldn't care more about her lover's wife than he himself did (as a response to the guilt of hurting a fellow woman by sleeping that woman's husband) aren't invalid, but still... I don't know. I guess it's the lack of remorse that rubs me the wrong way? She refuses to feel ashamed about getting hers, which I understand. But as grown as I supposedly am, the messiness of the situation was a little too grown for me.
On a different note, I was very much touched by the way "The Women" highlights some of the influential female relatives in Perkins's childhood. These include her great-grandmother Muh'Deah who combed Perkins's hair and shared a fluffy bed with her whenever she spent the night, her aunt C who took her on many a Saturday lunch/bookstore/wisdom excursion as a breather from the parental chaos at home, and her older sister Izzie whom she's always strived to emulate and comfort. Furthermore, her discussion of sexism in the church, being mad at God, and why she's still a believer but doesn't attend church anymore ("A Woman Who Shouts") was realer than real. And her retelling of how the procedural drama 'Bones' helped her crawl out of a depressive episode ("Bones, Depression, and Me") definitely struck a chord with me. There are only two essays I don't wish to revisit, and only because they're nightmarish accounts of boundary violation and rape. One is "Don't Take Roses Away from Me" (which involves a sex partner who stealths her, then stalks her after she ends things), and the other is "Call It By Its Name" (which involves her being raped by a male friend while incapacitated at a party, not being able to call it rape until 10 years later, and still keeping that person in her life in the present). They're definitely worth reading, even if only to honor Perkins's courage in publicly divulging such ordeals; I just don't think I can handle reading them again, is all.

I like Sometimes I Trip. I was hoping to LOVE it, given how much I've enjoyed Perkins's podcast work and online presence. But it's very clear that Perkins believes in romance and wants to be in a long-lasting committed relationship, and thus she writes about men a lot in this book. Granted, I fully knew to expect this, but for some reason it still felt like... a lot. Her writing about men so much isn't because she can't see herself outside of them (quite the opposite), but because being married to a worthy man is something she still genuinely wants so that she can express all the love she has to give. And instead of just waiting around until she finds The One, she gets it in in the meantime and has tons of stories to tell about doing so. Those are things I sometimes found hard to relate to as someone who simply isn't trying to be bothered with men like that, at least not right now. (My "I'm not like the other girls" phase definitely included turning my nose up at those who devoted what I believed to be too much of their brain space to boys. Even now with the ubiquity of dating and relationship discussions on social media, I resist the impulse to dismiss or judge but sometimes find myself wondering, Don't y'all have anything else to talk about?) But that has more to do with my own positionality; it's not a fault of Perkins's writing at all. Although I do enjoy escaping into the sensual and emotional scenarios that romance writing offers, I'm realizing that I'm not much of a romantic in real life. I almost wish I were, though, so that I could appreciate this memoir even more. Still, it's a very solid "like" for me! If you're interested in the experiences of Southern Black women, sexual exploration, book/TV/movie/internet references, liking what you like even if it's considered taboo or basic, or memoirs that get really personal, then read this book!
Favorite quotes:
"In adulthood, the names for sexually adventurous women were worse, but I still wanted to explore the power I felt when men shook in my arms... I chose to lean in to the desires pulsing through me, and maybe that's what saved me" (15).
"No, this tingling sat at the top of my spine, waiting for me to notice it, and when I did... I thought I heard a deep voice, which sounded like it was smiling at me, say 'I'm here'... I started to worry, until I realized maybe God didn't want anything from me at all. Maybe He just wanted me to know He knew who I was... it seemed like that was the answer and it was enough: I think I needed to now God knew I existed. Church made me feel lonely, but that sprinkle of the Holy Ghost let me know God knew me" (21, 23). 

"I made sure to rub my damp crotch all over the arms of her furniture. I hoped that whenever she napped on her sofa, she dreamed of Black women with big butts parading naked through her home" (58).

"We went to high school together but didn't become close until adulthood brought us back home in ways neither one of us expected. We bonded over the special misery you're in but not allowed to complain about when your plans go to shit and you come back home... people think you have nothing to do. We were also both creative women who tried to be 'good girls' when we're really magic" (213-14).

Black Love Matters: Real Talk on Romance, Being Seen, and Happily Ever Afters edited by Jessica P. Pryde
I met Jessica P. Pryde—a librarian and co-host of Book Riot's When in Romance podcast, among other things—virtually last summer. I was looking for potential guests for Young, Gifted and Abroad and returned to an old Twitter thread I'd found where tons of writers, including Jessica, had chimed in about their study abroad experiences. In late July 2021 I interviewed her about her time in Arezzo, Italy and we had a lovely conversation about that and her journey as a romance enthusiast. When I first looked through her website to prepare for that interview, I'd skimmed through info about her upcoming essay anthology called Black Love Matters being slated for release in February 2022, so I knew that it was on the horizon. However, the enormity of how significant this book was didn't set in until after I'd spoken to Jessica and looked even more into her work than before. (Sadly, I got caught up in the moment of the interview and missed an opportunity to ask her about the book itself.) From there, I was already sold on Black Love Matters because Jessica had edited it, but I was doubly sold when I discovered that one of the essays was written by Jasmine Guillory (the author whose work first set me on a path toward embracing romance novels at the end of 2019). So I ordered my copy in late January when I happened to learn that Barnes & Noble was having a 25% off preorder sale that week. BLM is not only Jessica's first book, but according to her "Acknowledgments" section it's also the first nonfiction book that Berkley Romance has ever published.
I have to say, more of the essays in BLM focused on historical romances than I was anticipating. Historical romance (historical fiction overall) is generally not what I'm into, but I appreciated reading the praises that multiple essayists sang to Beverly Jenkins—who is stunningly thorough in "A Short History of African American Romance", and who is the "queen of the Black historical romance" according to fellow essay contributor Piper Huguley. And how could I not be moved by contributors' passionate and well-substantiated arguments for Black love throughout the centuries (yes, even during slavery times) deserving more attention, research, and care in romance novels set in the past? It's not "inaccurate" to acknowledge Black people loving each other and guarding their love fiercely in places and time periods where many don't believe them to have existed, or to have been capable of knowing love at all.
As for favorite essays, I've got a few. First off, I didn't realize until after reading Carole V. Bell's "I'm Rooting for Everybody Black: Black Solidarity, Black World-Building, and Black Love" that I was already following her on Twitter, and now I feel wonderful about that choice because Bell sure knows how to analyze the mess out of a book! She calls Black romance "the literature of hope and progress", and of the three books she focuses on I was very nearly sold on How to Catch a Queen (Alyssa Cole), thanks to Bell expertly parsing out how Black solidarity and social justice are integral to the main couple's HEA (Happily Ever After). And I actually was thoroughly sold on I Think I Might Love You (Christina C. Jones); the excerpts Bell includes from it are excellent in getting the novella's sense of humor across, so I'll definitely be reading that one. Also, I'm so delighted to have now been introduced to Sarah Hannah Gómez through "Romance Has Broken My Dichotomous Key"! Her analytical yet accessible and blunt yet compassionate writing style, her hilariousness, and our similarities in personality made me almost say aloud while reading, "Ooh. I like you." I kid you not, my notes in the margins of her essay included, and I quote: "Holy crap. Are you me?" (re: being resistant to reading romance and then changing her mind), and "Oh girl. You and I were the same child" (re: deciding in grade school that age-appropriate books were too immature, and casting those aside for adult books in order to seem more impressive to others). Gómez's essay is a true joy, offers phenomenal insight into academia/libraries/publishing, and is the one that I'm still thinking about most.

Another favorite is the essay Jessica wrote herself, "Interracial Romance and the Single Story". I respect the self-awareness with which she, a Black woman married to a white man, examines the predominance of Black romance characters being involved in interracial (especially Black woman/white man) relationships. She draws attention to a concerning trend where mainstream American media and their consumers would rather see "half a Black couple instead of a whole one." I've mentioned in previous reviews about how so far I've chosen to read romance novels that feature two Black people (or more than two, shout-out to Harbor) falling for each other. And being a person with no romantic experience who doesn't spend much time thinking about "Black Love" outside of the romances I read, I still haven't been able to articulate why this reading preference of mine persists. (Other than it possibly being a holdover from my attempts to limit white infiltration into my life via the media I consume as a trauma response to 45 being elected in 2016. That's another story for another day.) But since searching more earnestly for steamy reads that'll be up my alley, one thing I've noticed is that in American romance novels, most of the male love interests seem to be white men, and I can admit that this bothers me. Because it's like, why are white men the prize? Do they deserve love more than any other variation of man out there? 
I've seen glowing online recommendations for romances written by Black women and other women of color, but when I look up some of those authors' work and see a white man framed as The Guy in most or all of their books, it gives me pause. I don't take offense to interracial relationships at all, it's just that the prevalence makes me wonder, Why do you specifically desire white men so much, sis? What's with this fixation? Of all the dream men you could've conjured up to write about, why are so many of them white? Some of it's a consequence of the industry, as Jessica explains that having a prominent white character makes a story more likely to be produced or published in the mainstream, and more likely to be marketed well and thus sell well. But still. Obviously this is my own hang-up, and my intention isn't to cast judgment, especially not with me being relatively new to valuing the genre. My point in saying all this is simply that I appreciate Jessica's essay for making me feel like I'm not crazy for noticing what I've noticed. In her summation, it's not that portrayals of interracial romance are a negative thing; it's that they shouldn't eclipse Black romances just because they're a convenient way for publishers, production companies, and consumers to appear diverse without confronting their discomfort with Black lovers loving each other. And color me elated when Christina C. Jones further echoed my sentiments in her essay, "Black Indie Romance", which is the final full essay of the anthology. I love the way she breaks it down, "I asked for blue. Purple is fine. But it is not blue." (See my favorite quotes below for the full quote.) Jessica gets it, and so does Christina!
Last but not least, I can't say that "(Black) Love Is... (Black) Love Ain't" is one of my favorites in terms of enjoyment, but I also can't deny how thought-provoking it is in acknowledging the ways non-conventionally beautiful people get left out. The guts! The guts with which Da'Shaun Harrison refutes the notion that Black Love is revolutionary, because it's still largely reserved for people and characters who are deemed to be conventionally desirable according to white supremacist standards ("Black people who are thin, light-skinned, non-disabled, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, and/or moneyed"). They go on to argue that the concept of Black Love as we call it, as shaped within the prevailing anti-Black world's definition of "love", is neither possible nor something we should want because it's a concept that continually harms and fails us. Which is a downer, sure, and not an argument I can say I fully agree with at this time. But as someone who falls under multiple categories of undesirability just like Harrison does, I think it's impressively bold to declare that Black people loving each other is necessary and worthwhile for community-buidling's sake, while still pointing out the flaws in believing that Black Love in and of itself will save all Black people from the ills of this world. I respect that boldness.

So, with all that being said. If you are looking for greater context on how Black romance writers and Black romantic characters fit within the history of romance as a genre, want book or author recommendations, want to know why romance novels should be taken seriously (and why some people in romance won't be begging you to take them seriously either way), are curious about how Black romance writers and enthusiasts got their start in a similar style to the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, or simply want to support a Black woman's first book, then read this essay collection!

Favorite quotes:
"I have done what people who look like me often do; I've found slivers of myself and constructed my own belonging in that mosaic, and I am better for it. But queer Black readers of romance should not have to piece themselves apart for the tiniest bit. They should be able to walk into a bookstore and be spoiled for choice. And the next time some tired student needs a release from her coursework, she should be able to find more options to build a queer Black girl TBR than she reasonably has time to read" (Nicole M. Jackson, 76-77).
"How can Black Love be the entity that creates room for Black subjects to love, with all its limitations, if the Black fat is excluded? If the Black queer is reduced only to sex and not their ability to be intimate in myriad ways? If the Black trans person can only ever be a fetish one takes part in and not a living being one gives love to? What is the utility of Black Love if disabled persons are requested, or demanded, to 'cure' or hide their disabilities?" (Da'Shaun Harrison, 214).
"...Black romance gets pushed out. And we're expected to accept it as representative of something it is not. I have not, am not, and will not argue against interracial relationships having their time in the sunthose relationships are just as important and valid as any other.

What I don't accept, though, is being inundated with purple when I asked for blue.
Purple is fine.
But purples is not blue" (Christina C. Jones, 226).

 "I can probably guess who I might be without you, but I don't care to ever find out if it's true" (Jessica P. Pryde, 239).