I was honored to be invited to do the keynote for the Spring Fling conference, and though we all attended from the comfort of our own homes, it was wonderful getting to virtually see people!
Here is my speech (I did ad lib a bit, but this is the [unedited] written version):
Hi everyone and thank you for coming to this virtual Chicago Spring Fling, and to the hardworking organizers for having me. I’m not going to talk for long. I’ll talk, and then we can do a Q&A.
The last few months have been trying to say the least. The thing that’s gotten many of us through this has been either rereading old favorite romances or diving into new ones. I know for me, I found comfort in old school faves like Julie Garwood’s The Bride and new releases like Nalini Sing’s Alpha Night, Nia Forrester’s Resistance, and Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Harbor. For those who found books difficult to focus on, shows like Itaewon Class, Insecure, or Indian Matchmaking have been an escape from the everyday horrors that have become so unfortunately normal lately.
Romance, in so many forms and formats, has been a balm for many, even people who prior to the last few months had never considered themselves fans of romances. People are learning, and being reminded of, the power of a love story to rewire your brain and, for a short period of time, let you experience the highs, lows, and eventual highs (again) of protagonists we root for, yell at through our readers and laptop screens, and both cry for and laugh with as we follow them on their relationship journeys. The power of romance is in drawing you so completely into the protagonists stories that you can’t wait for a book to be over, so you know how things turned out, and then wishing it had never ended when you do reach the end.
Romance is powerful because it taps into our most deeply rooted fantasy—unconditional love and acceptance.
Like most of you, I was looking forward to Chicago in April—to being in the US, and visiting my family between conferences, and seeing friends I hadn’t seen for months. And then COVID happened, and continues to happen due to the purposeful mismanagement of the current president and his party. And then the murders George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and too many other people to count happened, and the ongoing protests in response to these acts of police violence continue to happen. A week ago, in Chicago where this virtual conference is being helf, an 18 year old activist who fights against gun violence had her teeth knocked out, by the police.
Now, I know some of you are probably like “Isn’t this keynote supposed to be about romance?” And well there are two answers to that. I wish I lived in a world where I–a Black queer woman, the daughter of an immigrant, and the descendant of enslaved people both American and Caribbean– didn’t have to use every freaking keynote address to talk about the ongoing injustice faced by so many people. I really do. It’s not fun. But the injustice is ongoing and has to be addressed. And also, this IS about romance.
Romance centers stories of love and connection and belonging, but it’s also about accountability. Every time we pick up a romance, we know there’s a good chance that one or both of the protagonists are going to fuck up to some degree, perhaps just a slight misunderstanding or maybe a full out bleak moment (yes, BLEAK, which makes more sense than BLACK anyway) where the protagonists truly feel they’ve been betrayed by the person they love. The reason we tolerate bad behavior or missteps in these beloved books is because we know that eventually, there’s gonna be a grovel. The person who committed the error will eventually understand what they did wrong and they will do anything and everything they can to fix it. Because romance teaches us that love is more than words, it’s showing contrition and growth through actions. The appeal of many romances is that someone can be wronged and someone can do wrong, and it’s not on the shoulders of the wronged party to just accept this and pretend everything is fine. NO ONE wants to read the romance where the rake is never reformed, where the starchy heroine never wrinkles, where no one ever says, “I’m sorry I hurt you, and I will do everything I can to make this right.”
We often explain to people outside of romance that happily ever after isn’t just all kittens and rainbows—and I believe, it’s really something more powerful than it often gets credit for. A happily ever after is an emotional reckoning, and the fantasy that one can be had in a world that often makes us do without. This is part of the satisfying ending, the thing about romance that edifies us and lifts our spirits, just as much as knowing the couple we’ve rooted for are together and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s knowing that they belong together, in part because they are able to communicate and support each other in a way that makes them both better.
In books where we feel the grovel is insufficient, we’re left feeling cheated, angry, and unable to believe that the happily ever after is possible. Those are the books that get thrown across rooms, that have ereaders dropped onto the bedside table with an annoyed clatter, that spark debates amongst readers on social media.
If a protagonist in a romance refused to apologize after countless errors, after endangering the other characters’ lives, causing them stress and trauma, stealing from them, and causing all kinds of unnecessary pain? If they then told the characters they’d hurt to get over it, or to pretend it didn’t happen, or even that it was actually their fault? What would we, romance readers, classify them as?
They’d be the villain.
America is the protagonist that refuses to grovel, refuses to admit the sins of the past, and refuses to make amends. I don’t know about you, but I think that I’m allowed to expect as much from this country as I would from a repentant rake. I think that the Black and Latinx people dying at a proportionally higher rate from COVID are allowed to expect more. I think the trans community, especially Black trans women, are allowed to expect more. And, whether you think this metaphor is trite or not, I hope that all of you expect more.
Because we can be more. Right now, as you watch this keynote, there are people marching. Protesting. Fighting for the rights of people they don’t know and will never meet.
We’re a genre that loves a badass heroine who calls truth to power. We love romance heroines who save the world in small ways, like by working as an emergency room technician. Miracle Boyd, the girl who was beaten by Chicago police, could be the heroine of a YA romance—should be able to be at home reading YA romances instead of fighting systemic injustice. Breonna Taylor might have been the heroine of a contemporary romance, but she was killed, and her and her boyfriend’s happily ever after was snuffed out.
What does what’s happening in the world today have to do with romance as a genre?
Think about Miracle. Think about George. Think about Dezann Romaine, the principal of a Brooklyn high school who died from Covid-19. Now think about who publishing as a whole imagines when people talk about romance heroes and heroines, and for how long people from marginalized groups have been told directly and indirectly that their love stories were unwanted by readers—that they were not seen as worthy as love. Think about who is seen as worthy of love on the pages and how that translates to how they get treated outside of those pages.
At this point, a grovel is insufficient, but all of the people I’ve named, and everyone working to make America a place that is safe for everyone, deserve a happily ever after.