I had a conversation over the holidays about the romance genre. I was talking to a friend who thinks fiction lacks truth, so obviously she is wrong. I am quite open about what I read, but she was still surprised that I, a woman of good sense, read a lot of romance. How do you explain to someone who dismisses all fiction as “fantasies” the powerful truths conveyed in fiction? Reader, I could not. We left that conversation each convinced of our own position. The belief that I hold dear is that fiction can reveal the truth under the information. I believe that fiction has the power to challenge our beliefs about the way the world should work. I read romance because romance is about hope, about all kinds of people getting happily ever afters, and about loving and accepting each other for who they are and who they can be. Because I have felt it in myself, I believe that reading writers who challenge patriarchal and white supremacist belief systems can help us unwrite the exclusionary rules in our heads. That seems like a lot to put on a love story with some hot sexy times. Let me introduce you to Suleikha Snyder where you get radical hope and face-sitting.
One of the things I love best about Suleikha Snyder’s writing is the agony of hopeful vulnerability with which she infuses her stories. Her characters believe in themselves but it feels unsafe for them to be in the world. They take risks on lust and love in the face of possible rejection, public censure, and death. They crack themselves open and dare to be vulnerable in a world that marginalizes them. Snyder wants a world in which people can love and be loved without fear.
In the first story, “At Her Service” Snyder envisions a future in which the response to four years of Trump is for the United States to elect an all woman ticket. Vice President Letty Hughes is the first black woman to hold that office and she is having an affair with Secret Service Agent Shahzad Ali Khan. Shahzad is younger than her, Indian and Muslim. The conflict is not over whether they love each other, but over whether her career would survive them going public as a couple. Let’s take that energy into 2020 – a Black woman as Vice President with her much younger Indian Muslim boyfriend. Vote for the candidate most likely to give you that happily ever after.
In the last story, “She’s So Lovely” Snyder was inspired by the 1989 movie Road House (Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott*). Lovely Singh grew up in Southwestern Ohio where she still lives and works as a physicians assistant at the only Planned Parenthood in the area. One of her escapes is the County Line, a roadhouse run by Elliott Ransom and Johnny Teague. Lovely has been lusting after Elliott and Johnny for years, but one night she is particularly tired of being what everyone expects her to be.
She was so goddamn tired of it all. Of the half-assed jokes. Of the half-acceptance. Of being that girl, that woman. The one everybody and nobody saw. The Jim Beam went back smooth. Smoother than her day, her week, her year. Lovely sank against the high-backed stool and sighed like the weight of all that time was in her lungs.
And Johnny glowered at her as he brought the bottle of bourbon back over. “Go easy,” he warned as he poured her another.
“Why should I?” The words were out before she could stop them. Forced out by the assholes picketing the clinic all morning and the bikers who’d stiffed her parents on their room bill last night. And the man in front of her who could barely meet her gaze half the time. “What if I want to go hard, Johnny Teague? What then? What are you going to do about it?”
Snyder doesn’t ignore the racism and homophobia in rural Ohio (or anywhere in the world), but she gives her characters a safe place to be themselves. This is what she gives all of her characters, and by extension, her readers, a safe space. The threats are out there, but what if we could have a place to be ourselves and people there who loved us as we are? Good romance tells us we are not broken, even if we feel like we are, and we deserve to love and be loved.
*Patrick Swayze was never interesting to me, but Sam Elliott, well…yes.