My e-book romance novella publisher, a self-professed white man, has asked me to write an “Urban romance.” We have never met face to face, he and I (preferring to conduct our demi-tawdry business like Charlie and his angels), but somehow I’ve been found out. Perhaps the stealth multiculturalism in my Motorcycle Club and Starcrossed Stepsibling e-book romance novellas has given my skin color away. The publisher is a very nice man and homegirl needs money, so it doesn’t take long to answer.
“Yes,” I find myself typing. “Urban. Check. Love to.”
My first thought is that this feels…tentatively empowering. I am a Black woman, I remind myself. On one hand, hurrah! A chance to write for and about my my sistergirls in the ether! 50 Shades of Brown, here we go!
Yet it’s the word “Urban” that continues to jar and rattle, inviting darker thoughts. The word exploitation comes to mind. Then, blaxploitation. The next thought is more cynical, a rationalization: Better I write this story than someone who isn’t Black.
Because I’ma be real: I know what “Urban” is code for.
To get realer: in e-book romance novella world, this euphemistic “Urban” is not the same “Urban” that occurs next to “Outfitters” or anywhere in the set dressing of urbane, city-centric TV shows like Girls.
My publisher has given me a list of “Urban” titles — for research purposes — and I’m tasked to determine the genre’s most popular tropes so we can build ourselves a bestseller. The main trope: one or both leading characters in “Urban” novellas are necessarily Black. And on Amazon, at least, many of these same titles are tagged under seemingly varied sub-categories like “African American Urban Fiction,” “African American Romance Fiction,” and “African American Women’s Fiction.” It is as I suspected: “Urban” is broad, lazy code for “Black.”
My research also reveals that several bestselling “Urban Romance” writers, like Mz Lady P and Jessica Watkins, tend to set their stories against the inner city — which is to say, against a certain mythos of “the Hood,” where wisdom is derived from violence and where violence is sexy and sometimes sexual currency. (Both “Hood Romance” and “Thug Romance” are searchable tags; they exist under the umbrella categories of “Urban Romance” and “African American Women’s Fiction.”) Hustlers, escorts, and kingpins populate the pages of these stories. I note recurring plotlines of disputed paternity and domestic violence. I also note that stories marketed as “Hood Romance” populate several of the top-ten slots on Amazon’s “African American Women’s Fiction” bestseller list.
Once again, it’s the conflation of terms that rattles me; the coded language. For if “Urban Romance” can mean “Thug Romance” and “African American Women’s Fiction,” what is a reader left to surmise about the group on literary parade? If someone looks at those terms as synonymous, what does that tell them?
I remind myself that genre fiction is a world populated by tropes anyway. Bad romance novels play host to an abundance of problematic and tedious characters — the meek virgin, the reformed jerk, the conflicted step-brother. So what’s so different, so much more problematic, about writing the “kingpin” or the “reformed drug dealer”? I research some more, stop researching, and remember (smdh) oh, right: It’s the fact that the kingpins are forever and necessarily Black, whereas one is so much less likely to encounter a Black millionaire in Urban Romance world — hell, in any world. And the quality of representation matters, even in a bodice-ripper.
Of course, there are plenty of other (and for me, closer-to-home) writers of “African American Women’s Fiction,” who eschew “Hood” tropes while writing about somebody’s Black experience. The author Imani King writes about Black women ensnaring mostly white millionaires and billionaires. Nia Forrester’s multicultural protagonists range from writers to rappers to D.C.’s political elite. But these are not the titles I’ve been pointed to as I prepare to write my own novella. I’m afraid I know what kind of “Urban” is expected of me, and the idea of writing a closer-to-home story and then being told it isn’t “Urban” enough is a prospect so unpleasant that I stay the “Hood” research course.
“Love to.” That’s what I told my publisher. So I will try to write the fraught story. I will write the book that sells. I am Black, after all; I should be able to write what Amazon tells me is Black.
Folks from all sides of the railroad tracks are always trying to distill “The Black Experience,” as if we all have the same secret cultural touchstones and handshakes. So attempting to write any kind of “Black” story, even one that doesn’t qualify as a “Hood Romance,” invites a quiz of sorts: Is there a unifying quality to Blackness? Does my heritage really grant me the authority to write a “Hood” romance, even if I’ve never experienced certain writers’ idea of the “Hood” firsthand?
My editor seems to think so. But I’m starting to get that wary feeling again, so I make a mental C.V., cataloguing my qualifications to speak for and to this imagined “Urban” reader: 1) I had nappy roots, then an afro, so I know Perm Woes; 2) I take the wrongful deaths of young Black people far more personally than my white friends, whose siblings could never have been mistaken for Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown; 3) I am 80% anger below the surface, almost all of the time. Check, check, check. Okay.
Rude tally aside, one sixth-grade bully’s taunt persists in my head as I begin architecting my Blurban world: “You, Brittany, are not Black enough to do this.” For my “Black” is not Amazon’s “Urban Romance” Black, this much seems clear.
I am not Black enough to do this. “This” being a white man’s (and a massive media outlet’s) idea of what makes a sellable, “Urban” story. “This” being the art of wielding an alleged insider’s authority so I can translate a racial identity into a singular experience, and then a whole literary genre. I look at my life and decide I am not the right one to tell a story like Secrets of a Side Bitch, by Jessica Watkins. But if I’m not, who is?
I want to say that certain “Urban” titles are conflating a Black experience with problematic stereotypes, but then again: if these titles are written by Black people for a Black audience, what right does my light-skinned self have to police a narrative thousands of readers have found at least palatably realistic, and often five-star enjoyable?
Folks are always trying to distill “The Black Experience,” as if we all have the same secret cultural touchstones and handshakes.
When Black writers write “Urban” characters including strippers and kingpins, are we perpetuating a dangerous mythology or reflecting an “Urban” world for Urban readers who want those stories? I’d think a lot of these books were tone-deaf and offensive if they were written by white people, but is it possible that the authors write of a much-maligned culture for members of that culture to enjoy? Or are they too at the beck and call of an anonymous white man in Montclair, rendering their products as dubious as mine?
I decide I can’t try to mash my Blackness into a box to suit somebody else’s Urbanness. But perhaps I can find a middle ground. I’ll no longer assume the Race Card grants me full entry to the far-ranging and sometimes stressful scope of the genre. I will do the right thing and just write what I know.
I start drafting an outline — trope-adjacent, but Brittany-flecked: A Howard salutatorian in brownstone Brooklyn falls for a bad boy. T is a wrongfully imprisoned ex-con who used to work corners. I create a crew of outrageous secondary characters. I furnish chapters with jokes I think could have occured on Blackish, which for obvious reasons is one of my favorite TV shows. But then I think about how I made my Black man an ex-con, when no one overtly asked me to.
I try to picture who I’m writing toward, about, for — and no face occurs, exactly. Still, I stay the course.
In his new Netflix show Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev, faces a similar cultural and ethical conundrum as an actor in audition rooms. Dev is an Indian guy, but a second-generation one; he doesn’t speak his parent’s native Tamil, and has never spoken English with an accent. Yet people continue to ask him to “do the accent,” often for roles that don’t require a specific cultural background. In the episode “Indians on TV,” the powers that be insist that the one-line role of “Astonished Cab Driver” be played by an Indian-with-an-accent, as if the accent is integral to the cabbie’s character. We’re left to realize that it’s unfathomable to, say, your average Law and Order viewer that an Indian cab driver wouldn’t have been born and raised in India — as if there’s no accounting for an East Asian actor unless they’re fresh off the boat. The entire Indian experience is thusly dwindled into one symbol the mob can recognize. One experience speaks for all.
Dev doesn’t “do the accent” — not because he can’t, and not because he doesn’t feel connected to people who do speak this way, but because he doesn’t think he should have to. That’s not his voice. That’s not his Indian experience. Dev’s friend Ravi, who also auditions for Astonished Cab Driver, is more pragmatic: he says he has to take work where it comes. Ravi says, hey, at least it’s something, and presumably thinks, I’ll do my darnedest. I’ll make that fraught thing sing.
“Indians on TV” was a gut-punch for me. I finished the episode feeling somehow complicit with the faceless oppressor, because I wasn’t bold like Dev; I didn’t flatly refuse to represent what I couldn’t relate to. I didn’t fight hard enough to be unique when the world, and my own warped imagination, was telling me to bend toward the symbol. Like Ravi, I try to give my portrayal depth and humor and humanity where my publisher and the maw of Amazon might only deign to see a racial identity — but still. I made my male lead an ex-con.
I do the accent.
I often do have fun while writing my Urban romance. The fun surprises me. It arrives in the language I put in my characters’ mouths, which doesn’t feel disingenuous to write. I simply let my people speak like My People, in the voices of Allens at family reunions and in their inner sanctums. My characters crack wise about things I can’t explain to white friends; my characters have divisive opinions about The Help and The Best Man movies. I ache a little realizing what I’ve been made to lose in the muddle of my obsessive, is-this-ethical inquiry: the fact that I do love being Black, and believe there is something special and worth capturing of even this broadest definition of my experience.
Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been so loathe to take this “Urban” project on, it occurs to me, is because I fail to dwell in my own Blackness sufficiently. Perhaps I was so resistant to creating a world whose only real requirement was “it’s gotta be Black, all Black” because it was hard for me to imagine such a utopia, my writing and daily life being often (and lamentably) angled toward impressing white men.
But as soon as the manuscript is done, my demons return. I am suddenly loath to give my story away, as if once the document leaves my desktop it will become an instrument of oppression, all its good intentions and sly inside jokes warped in white-editing translation. The idea that I’ve written this book for my publisher becomes horrifying, even assuming the best-case scenario — in which my book full of empowered Urban ladies getting their grooves back is enjoyed to pieces by an Urban lady readership.
I read the novella over again, hoping to note where I was “punching up” against where I was “writing what I knew.” I waver between 50 Shades of Brown-proud and a darker, certain shame.
It’s a funny thing, to be in the position of checking one’s privilege when history and personal experience have largely conspired to tell you there isn’t much to check. But I’ll say it: in one sense I’m a privileged Black lady. I wasn’t raised in anyone’s idea of a ghetto, and I probably shouldn’t be writing stories as if I have any idea what that’s like. When words tumble out of my own head, they tend not to include fraternally meant n-bombs.
But, media, make no mistake: I am still Black. I want to create thoughtful work about being Black, as I experience it. I specifically want to do this for the girls like me, who were nine and ten and eleven and seeing their own faces nowhere in books, magazines, or movies. Girls like me grew up not-quite-knowing why we were different from others, but every now and then, we’d get told. We’d get knocked down a level, with cold, quick remarks in classrooms and job interviews, at parties, on dates. The perfect retorts to those micro- and macro-aggressions occur to us now only in the dead of night, years later; they wake us and fill us with sharp, righteous anger, anger doubled by the fact that in not speaking out when we were first offended, we tacitly accepted the system that is forever diminishing us.
Girls like me grew up not-quite-knowing why we were different from others, but every now and then, we’d get told. We’d get knocked down a level, with cold, quick remarks in classrooms and job interviews, at parties, on dates.
But girls like me also learned early that to get by in this world, one must mold and flex with the tide of other people’s expectations. Sometimes you “do the accent” because you believe you should be able to — but more often you “do the accent” because you figure, this is how the world sees me anyway.
On Amazon, and in real bookstores, there are sub-genres for Fiction — like “African American Literary Fiction” and “Jewish Fiction” and “Women’s Fiction” — though I’ve yet to meet a writer, literary or commercial, who enjoys being bundled into one category. No one really wants to write to and about one type of person; people want to write about people, to make other people feel like people. A genre that is defined around a particular audience breeds the “idea of the ghetto,” the “idea of the kingpin,” as opposed to creating someone alive, someone precise. To write to perceived type is to pay lip service to the institutional prejudice that keeps minorities exactly where the groups in power expect them to stay.
And while I would never presume to know what Mz Lady P’s thought process is when she’s writing her books, books that may strike me as type-y (though more power to her, either way), I know I am not her. She is not me. We won’t be writing the same stories, even if we happen to share the same skin color. And that’s a good thing.
I now know what I don’t want, in my writing — to tolerate any more holes in a reader’s imagination, or a marketing team’s. Like Dev, I don’t want to “do the accent.” I think it’s possible to write a commercial story that transcends tropes and the binding language of categories. I don’t want to write “Urban” — not because Urban doesn’t exist; not because people I love and feel connected to don’t occupy that world, those pages; but because that loaded term itself isn’t quite me, and I’ve decided it’s disingenuous of me to participate in the “idea” of my own culture.
I will stay on the lookout for better words. I will keep writing for those little girls, and about those little girls, when they’re in love. But I won’t market their stories as “Urban.” Even if they do happen to live in a city.