A good romance is like putting two puzzle pieces together. One piece can be gruff and grumpy while the other is sweet and affectionate. Two rooms can be very similar, but hate each other: similarly shaped curves that just don’t line up. A proud piece, one with prejudice. The dramatic heart of the romance novel is when the two plays end up Click on! up, but for that click to be satisfying, readers need to know those puzzle pieces in detail. Their shapes, their stories, their hard and soft edges, the curves and extent of all the different parts that make two people work. This means that every romance novel is at its heart a character study, an examination of those details that make someone who they are.
It is therefore not surprising that in romantic literature as everywhere else, race matters. The choice to write a character as a particular race is never a coincidence. Although whiteness is often allowed to pass without comment, Sally Rooney’s novels are as much about what it’s like when two white people fall in love as Tia Williams’s are an ode to the romantic experience of two black people. Our racial identities and experiences are an integral part of who we are. In a character study, they are significant.
Race relations underscores this, bringing cultural and racial differences to the fore – the main edges of these puzzle pieces. A series of new novels portray interracial relationships with intimate and nuanced attention, from the highly optimistic (Jasmine Guillory, Tracey Livesay, Talia Hibbert) to the most ambiguous and even fatalistic (ranging from Alexandra Chang to Raven Leilani). Not all novels are an idealized version of love that breaks all boundaries; some, like “Lustre” by Leilani, actively despise the privileged white love interest. But even the most traditional happy-ever-afters spend careful and thoughtful time understanding how an interracial relationship can and does work.
Likewise, interracial romances – long coded for “a white person and a person of color” – are becoming more diverse in their own right, with a growing appetite for interracial romances that don’t center a white character at all. “Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers and Adiba Jaigirdar’s “The Henna Wars” both depict interracial lesbian relationships where neither character in the partnership is white. But when half the relationship is white, the growing diversity in publishing and the proliferation of authors writing color novels that reflect their experiences has led to my new favorite trope: the White Boyfriend.
Half of an interracial relationship written by an author of color, The White Boyfriend strikes me as an inversion of the Pocahontas-style narrative in which a white man ventures into an unfamiliar space and falls in love with a foreign, “exotic” love. “whom they treat more like a specimen than a significant other. But now it’s the White Boyfriend who is the exotic specimen, appraised for its potential value, scrutinized for its privileged position, and groomed for eventual rejection. Novels that consider the White Boyfriend are often humorous: He’s a 10, but he thinks panch phoran is a soundcloud rapper. The love interest for Sara Jafari’s ‘The Mismatch’ is a British boy with all the embarrassment that entails; wearing running shorts in the winter, posting shirtless selfies where he pouts at the camera. But as they grow closer, Soraya, the initially reluctant Iranian-British heroine, begins to realize that they are not so different after all.
Now the White Boyfriend is the exotic specimen.
Kidding aside, The White Boyfriend offers the opportunity to explore complex issues of race and cultural difference in a close and intimate way. As two lovers grow closer, we watch the personal and the political collide. Cultural, historical and political differences are all present in the intimacy of a relationship, like a pressure cooker or an experience that seems to have wider repercussions and meanings. For many people of color, connecting with white people is difficult, leaving us nervous or even vulnerable. This vulnerability is intriguing for writers, worthy of further exploration.
My own novel, co-written with my wife Mikaella Clements, centers on the relationship between British-Indian actress Whitman Tagore and her white playboy lover, Leo Milanowski. In “The View Was Exhausting”, this puzzle piece Click on! comes in spurts and gasps, largely due to the tension between the identities of the two protagonists. Leo and Win are both famous, but Win has to work hard, cling to every moment of public attention, seek space in the spotlight; Leo rolls out of bed with his handsome face and leaves the cameras running. Win is judged, castigated, sneered at for the slightest mistake; Leo beats his baby blues and all is forgiven. (In fact, his eyes are brown, but the point remains.)
We wanted to write how race informs and determines the arc of a person’s life. Win and Leo are inherently similar, best friends who understand each other on an instinctual level, but their different races have driven them apart, in ways Leo himself can’t even fully comprehend. “Talking to Leo was sometimes like shouting over a giant chasm that opened up between them that Leo thought was just a crack in the sidewalk,” Win recalled. “He thought he could lean forward and offer his hand and lightly guide Win. But Win wasn’t even sure she wanted to be on the other side.”
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Because racism isn’t always – or even primarily – about virulence and hate, it was important to me that Leo be an ally who gets it wrong all the time. Win and Leo talk a lot about race; more often than not, these conversations go wrong. “I forgot I was talking to the only real guy,” Win tells her once, and of course she means the only real good white man. The white boyfriend may not be deliberately racist, but he’s often clueless: “Just talk for her,” Leo advises Win about his first-generation mother, who has no experience with the internal dynamics and workings of immigrant families.
For me and other writers of color, The White Boyfriend offers a compelling opportunity to reconsider and rewrite classic, racist tropes in interracial romance. A common pitfall is the white love interest appearing as a savior, rushing to free the protagonist from their predicament. Nicola Marsh’s “The Boy Toy” responds by transferring the anxiety to white love interest Rory, who worries about meeting his love’s large Indian family. His desire to fit in and meet the high standards of Samira’s mother and aunts helps destabilize his own privilege, often to great comic effect. Tracey Livesay’s “American Royalty” allows her black heroine Dani to be vulnerable without forcing her main man to solve problems for her. “When they know there’s a chance their relationship could be more serious, they both realize the issues they’re going to face,” Livesay said. “At this point, I hope I’ve written a love story that shows they’re ready to handle anything thrown at them.”
The White Boyfriend offers a compelling opportunity to reconsider and rewrite classic, racist tropes in interracial romance.
Privilege is a useful concept in a structural sense, but it tends to get complicated in interpersonal issues, especially in one-on-one conversation where each character is acutely aware of flaws, failures, hurts, and weaknesses. other’s dreams. Interracial romances make way for playfulness and transgression as well as disorder, resisting idealized solution in favor of real, complicated feelings. Alexandra Chang explores this dichotomous sense of the personal and the political in her novel “Days of Distraction”. Newspaper articles, court documents, and online chat threads feature among Chang’s more traditional narrative to present a messy and complex portrait of the interracial relationship at the heart of the novel. The mosaic format gives the reader a broad and detailed look at the pressure Chang’s protagonist is under, highlighting the insidious anti-Asian sentiment and how racism creeps into a relationship, even against the best intentions of both partners.
For us, the key was giving Leo an arc that was as much about understanding his own whiteness as Win’s Anglo-Indian identity; see themselves, and not her, as the other in their dynamics. Saving someone is simple, a one-time act that involves a moment of bravery without much judgment. The daily, repetitive, tiring work of understanding someone and their life is much harder, but that’s what a good partner does. The white boyfriend on his way to happily ever after is ready to roll up his sleeves and get busy.
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