Forbidden, and Reading During Tragedy

About once a month, I get together on Twitter with some fellow romance readers and talk about a book. This past Sunday we were planning to discuss Forbidden, Beverly Jenkins’ latest novel. But when we heard about Orlando, we decided to reschedule; none of us could stomach a light hearted chat. As I finished Forbidden, I found that I couldn’t separate what I loved about the book from my my efforts to process the news of the tragedy.

Forbidden is the story of two black people falling in love in Nevada in 1870. Like all of Beverly Jenkins’ books, it takes place at an especially scary time for African Americans, but manages to convey the optimism of a group of people who live joyful lives even under the shadow of violence and bigotry. One of the characters, Rhine, has been passing as white. When Rhine decides to announce that his mother was a slave, he knows that he’s going to face bigotry, slurs, and the very real threat of physical violence. The black community responds by throwing him a “coming home” party: they roast a couple of pigs and have a pot luck supper. They celebrate despite fear. They celebrate because of fear.

That’s how we keep living in the face of danger and hatred: we hold our friends close, we seek out joy, we help one another out. And I can’t help but think, that’s what the victims at Pulse were doing when they were killed. They were dancing and flirting and falling in love. They were in a community they had built, a place of safety, a refuge from the wider, bigoted world.

So while I’m in the relative safety of my house, mourning the loss of other mothers’ children, developing an honest-to-god eye twitch when I think about this world I’m sending my own kids out into, I think of the community in Forbidden. They celebrate love, they celebrate community, they celebrate welcoming children into their homes. They celebrate these things people have always looked to as sources of joy.

Those same sources of joy are why we read romance, or at least why I do. It’s a story I’ve heard from so many romance readers: when times are especially dark, either personally or more broadly, it’s infinitely comforting to pick up a book and know that you’ll find evidence of the things that are good about this world. The reader is invited to feel that joy along with the characters: happy endings are available for everyone, there are things worth celebrating.

Jenkins creates a happy ending that doesn’t depend on her characters living in a world free of bigotry or deciding to turn the other cheek. There’s this scene where Rhine, after coming out as black, is belittled by the racist bank clerk. The bank manager steps in and says (basically) that Rhine must be treated with respect because he’s wealthy, and that his race doesn’t matter as much as his money. Rhine then asks the manager why he keeps black and white accounts separately. The manager responds that he must look as bigoted as his clerk. Here’s what Rhine doesn’t do: he doesn’t make excuses for the manger, he doesn’t say “oh, it’s ok, you’re doing your best, thanks for not calling me names like your clerk did!” He lets the manager be uncomfortable. I felt like cheering.

There are a dozen other aspects of Forbidden that I loved. I appreciated how sex work is normalized in Beverly Jenkins’ world—it’s just an economic fact of life for some women, at some times in their lives. It struck me that religion is a background factor in the characters’ lives (like it is for a lot of people!) without this being anything like an inspirational romance. I’d love to write about how Jenkins pulls off the feat of keeping her main characters apart for most of the first half of the book, without ever making me question their affection.

Instead I’ll only say that I’m so glad I was reading Forbidden this weekend and not some bleak dystopian misery. I’m so glad I was able to see Jenkins’ characters have a happy ending in a hard world.