Everyone Deserves Their Romance: A Short Review of So For Real

I’m certain my first encounter with romance novels came during my childhood. My grandmother had what appeared to be hundreds of Harlequin romances all over the house. I picked one up every once in a while but never read any all the way through. The old paperbacks just held no appeal to me. Too grown up, too unfamiliar.

Quite possibly the closest I came to reading romance during my adolescence was V.C. Andrews, who technically isn’t romance. Perhaps that’s what made it palatable to me as I often spent most of my youth in an “ewww romance!” phase. As a whole, the genre just didn’t interest me, not even after I let go of Andrews for good.

Or so I thought. During my last years of high school and first years of college, I belonged to a couple of paperback bookclubs and expanded not only my book collection but also my tastes in genre. I read a book called Renee and Jay that I very much enjoyed even after I found out the author was a white male with a Black wife. The book was entertaining and I enjoyed the tone of it, written from the perspective of the Black female protagonist. Yet at that point I still would not have called myself a romance fan even though I acquired other books such as the anthology The Bluelight Corner and continued dipping my toe in the romance waters every once in a while.

Around my first or second year of grad school, I read Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance. It was one of those texts that helped me get over my preconceived notions of romance as a genre. I still did not intentionally seek out works in the romance genre although I was more receptive to it. Films like The Truth About Cats and Dogs also helped me see a value in romance where I had missed it before.

But my official foray into romance would not come until after 2006 and I’d left grad school. With no money for books, I found myself taking up various offers for free e-books no matter the genre or author. One of those offers came in 16 free e-books from the name synonymous with romance itself, Harlequin. This was the first time I learned that the publisher had several imprints catering to niche targets including a Nascar imprint. I read all 16 of these books and even found a favorite with Harlequin Historical selection.

This would probably be when I began taking romance seriously as its own genre. It might also be where I found the reason I had never been eager to embrace the genre: I did not identify very much with the characters. It’s difficult to look for yourself in works that give absolutely no regard to your existence and often treats it as an afterthought when you are included. Slowly over the years, networking has introduced me to various authors whose works take us beyond the predominantly lily white world of romance.

One of those authors is Rebekah Weatherspoon. Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a couple of her trilogies: the Fit trilogy and the Sugar Baby trilogy. Of the two, I favor the Sugar Baby series. And just this past week, she released the third novella of the series, So For Real.

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With this series, Weatherspoon finishes the story of Kayla Davis and Michael Bradbury who meet through the unlikeliest of circumstances. Without giving away any spoilers, I will say that I think I enjoy this series so much because I relate to the need of this type of fantasy in my life right now.

However, my own personal preference is secondary here. There are many reasons Weatherspoon’s work stands out in a genre that somehow seems to think that only cishet white women read romance. However, not only does this work include women of color, particularly Black women, at its center, but it also centers queer women of color and women of size. She goes beyond vanilla sex to explore different types of sexual pleasure in mutual, consensual settings.

Yet one of the biggest pleasures of her work is that the obstacles of romance do not focus on the marginalizations included in the characters’ identities. Rather, they face obstacles such as work, insecurities, backstabbing and other people’s problems in their love lives. While factors such as race, size and sexual orientation are present, they are not the obstacles to happiness. But they are important aspects of the characters.

This is much of the appeal of Kayla and Michael; they’re perfect for each other. As the reader, you get to be happy with their journey without the tension of will they or won’t they. There’s a pleasure in knowing they will overcome, but they get curveballs thrown at them that remind them that they live in a world outside the cozy one they’ve created for themselves. And yes the fantasy of jetsetting with a billionaire doesn’t hurt either.

Oh and yes there are plenty of sex scenes not for the faint of heart or vanilla. Seriously, there’s no kinkshaming here.

The last book in the series, So For Real, keeps the tone and pacing of its predecessors So Sweet and So Right. It’s the perfect ending for those of us who have grown to love Kayla and Michael over the past year. As a romance, it might not be a spoiler to say that this one is awesome for anyone who likes happy endings of the happily ever after variety. The ride is in seeing what speedbump has thrown itself in Kayla and Michael’s way and how will this offbeat pair handle it.

Unfortunately, those of us who are not white and cishet still have trouble finding romance that speaks to our experiences and desires. Fortunately, there are a growing number of writers who are more boldly proclaiming that romance comes in more flavors than vanilla in more than one way. Authors such as Weatherspoon create characters previously ignored and maligned in romance and shows that they have their romantic inclinations just as anyone else. Everyone deserves their romance.

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Sailing the Sasil Ship: First Impressions of WGN’s Outsiders

For the past couple of weeks, many people in my social media circles have been rejoicing in the Richonne fandom, finally seeing a beautiful dark-skinned woman consummate a relationship with a (white) male lead character on a highly rated television show. I enjoyed the glee with which everyone relished this ship and the validation many finally felt in seeing at least one Black woman become even more well-rounded in her character development.

However, over the past couple of weeks, a new ship has emerged in my social media spaces. A few weeks ago, WGN debuted a show called Outsiders, focusing on the Farrells, a clan living off the grid in the mountains of the Appalachians on the outskirts of a depressed Kentucky town. The local sheriff is reluctant to take actions when a large fossil fuel company comes to town with aims to blow the mountain in order to mine coal. The company comes with the promise of jobs for the town, which of course means the tenuous relationship between the Farrells and the rest of the town is about to come to a head.

Of course, there are many other storylines going on, in-fighting in the clan, power grabs and the plight of the jobless in town, but the one relationship that caught the attention of many of my circle is that of Hasil (portrayed by Kyle Gallner) and Sally-Ann (portrayed by Christina Jackson).

With this in mind, I gave the show a chance and caught up with the first five episodes. Unsurprisingly, Sally-Ann only appears sporadically and does not have as much character development yet. (According to IMDB.com, she is only credited in five episodes and she has appeared in four or five as of the sixth episode.) However, the relationship between Sally-Ann and Hasil is actually a bright spot in the show, but I still have some reservations.

First of all, I cannot divorce the relationship from the context of the rest of the show. Although Outsiders is a well done show, the overwhelming whiteness of it bothers me. While it is hinted (or possibly blatant) that the sheriff has a problem with Oxycontin, I can’t get past how reluctant he is to execute court orders and use the law to remove the Farrells. His motivation does not seem to be anything such as respect for the Farrells to stay on their own land. It feels more like fear, but it is unclear where this fear stems from.

I’m bothered by this because I can’t help but think how this whole scenario would play out if the Farrells weren’t white. I keep seeing images of the SWAT raids of suspected drug houses as well as more current police actions that have resulted in the deaths of innocent Black and brown people. There did not seem to be any fear of people dying. Furthermore, when the sheriff brings up the last time there was a confrontation with the Farrells, he makes it sound as if it was a massacre. In fact, only two people died, which is a tragedy but does not bring to mind clashes I have seen between the police and Black people.

*SPOILER ALERT*

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This is the context in which I see the Sasil relationship. I cannot completely separate Hasil from the Farrell clan and how this affects Sally-Ann. In fact, the two first met while Hasil talks to her as his clan robs the store where she works. (Yes there is video surveillance clearly showing the Farrells, but the sheriff still will not arrest them.) Hasil flirts with her, which at the time seems to be his way of distracting her and keeping her from worrying about his family who have ridden their ATVs into the store and begun taking what they want.

However, Hasil isn’t simply trying to distract her. In subsequent episodes, we see that he is genuinely interested in Sally-Ann. He takes long walks (about 12 hours) just to see her and tries to build a rapport with her. He asks her almost immediately if she has a boyfriend or someone else who has her affections. Despite their initial meeting, Sally-Ann does not rebuff his advances. She seems just as fascinated with him, since the Farrells are like local legends.

Admittedly, watching the two of them together is sweet. It has the feel of young love and Hasil comes to understand that Sally-Ann wants to be courted properly, which means he needs money to take her out on a date – a problem since the Farrells don’t believe in money. However, Hasil is determined to take her out and resorts to stealing his family’s fabled moonshine so that he can sell it. When he is caught, two of his fingers are chopped off and his money is taken.

Still, Hasil returns to Sally-Ann and convinces her to go out with him. But while he waits to meet her, he is arrested for vagrancy since his presence scares the people in town. This is also where I hesitate to celebrate this relationship between Sally-Ann and Hasil: he is shown to be dangerous.

In his attempt to get money from the local dealer who bought the moonshine, Hasil attacks him. I will admit that this is the only time I’ve seen Hasil get violent with anyone. Furthermore, while he can be dangerous, it seems that he isn’t or won’t be dangerous to Sally-Ann. (And quite frankly I’ve written a character with similarities, so I can’t judge.) He is never less than a gentleman when they meet, even sidestepping her inquiries about how he lost his fingers so that she doesn’t have to worry about the ways of his family.

I mentioned before that the Sasil relationship is a bright spot on the show and I have to give credit for that for the way Hasil is written. For instance, when Sally-Ann mentions that he doesn’t watch TV and probably doesn’t even know Katy Perry, he gives the best possible reply in the situation: “All I know is she ain’t half as pretty as you.”

White boy game: 100.

Okay, I’m willing to give this one a shot. And besides, Kyle Gallner’s eyes are so pretty that I won’t even pay attention to his wig. Furthermore, you always have to prove to me that you’re good enough for a Black female character and a dude who tells a woman that no one else can be as pretty as she is, even without seeing her comparison, has my attention.

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Then here comes the real reason I’m willing to give this ship a chance. Yes it’s a sex scene. And in my humble opinion, it is very well executed.

In episode 5, Hasil again finds Sally-Ann as she leaves her job and apologizes for not making their date. He even offers her a gift, telling her it’s symbolic of his feelings for her. Sally-Ann notices he tries to get out of view of a passing police car because he isn’t supposed to be down the mountain. However, she kisses him and tells him that she knows where they can go.

Now here’s the impressive part: Sally-Ann takes Hasil to an abandoned house with no electricity. She explains to him that a woman from her church owned the house but passed away. She sometimes goes there to read. Once inside, Sally-Ann begins to light a few candles she has placed around the house. One of the things I loved about this scene is the lack of pretense. While Sally-Ann lights the candles, Hasil begins to undress. They become playful again, but Hasil takes off all his clothes and tells Sally-Ann to come here. And now here comes the other thing I love about this scene. Hasil is completely naked, and from what we can infer from Sally-Ann’s reaction, already aroused. Yet he still asks her if she wants to (have sex with him). He asks. We can guess what happens next.

Wait, there is an afterglow scene, but it ends abruptly when Sally-Ann realizes she has to go home.

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So there is a lot to process with Sasil. While it seems to have some good character development between the two, I’m still holding my breath on how this will turn out. See it is only at the end of the episode we finally see Sally-Ann’s character developed in a scene without Hasil. We only now get an idea of what her life is like. (I know there’s more in episode 6, but I’ll watch that later.) And with Sally-Ann only credited in five episodes, are we going to know more about her?

I’m also hoping she isn’t the only body through which the show explores blackness. Sally-Ann is very well aware that her relationship with Hasil can turn out badly for any number of reasons. I’m also a little worried that Hasil will be written as “innocent” to racial issues given his family’s isolation. Seriously, he apparently didn’t realize that “coon” was a racial slur and Sally-Ann has to explain to him that the word is not “nice.”

There is lots of room to explore this relationship and the racial implications of it. I couldn’t help but notice that Hasil does not use a condom and it seems unlikely that Sally-Ann is on any type of hormonal birth control given the implications of a strict, religious upbringing. What if she got pregnant? While both Sally-Ann and Hasil are adults (I hope), they are also still young and apparently a bit reckless. This could actually work out well for character development.

Overall, the show is well-written and engaging, so I’m hoping the Sasil ship remains a bright spot despite the overwhelming whiteness. The show doesn’t look like it will shy away from the difficulties other than the physical distance the two will face, so let’s see how far this ship will sail.