How Inclusive Romance Changed my Life for the Better

How Inclusive Romance Changed my Life for the Better
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Have I ever told you the story of how I got into pleasure magic?  It’s a lovely tale, although like any good narrative, it starts with conflict.  But first, it’s always a good idea to get a little refresher on what pleasure magic is, exactly.  It’s the magic of consciously and actively welcoming pleasure and joy into your life.  It’s about treating simple pleasures sacred, viewing self-care as a form of social activism, and understanding that joy is an integral part of hope and healing.  It’s kind of a like a good romance novel: the promise of the HEA is everything.  A simple concept, sure, but hard to conjure for those of us who occupy othered bodies.  

I didn’t even know what it was called when I went in search of it all those years ago, only that I had to discover what this ephemeral thing called joy looked like and felt like in my own life.  I wanted to be the embodiment of an empowered happy brown woman in a world that so often featured brown bodies in stories of trauma and suppression.  As a mestiza from the American Southwest, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I am a product of colonization and a history of violence.  I am descended from both the colonizer and the colonized, which means I’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of unlearning those histories of oppression.  Pretty heavy stuff, right? 

This is why pleasure magic is essential.  This is why, so many years ago I started blogging about the things that made my life wonderful.  I was looking for my own HEA.  I was trying to understand what happy stories about women of color looked like.  I was conjuring as I wrote, determined to craft a narrative that was different from so many depictions of brownness or  otherness that I saw in the media rooted in racism and xenophobia.  Thankfully, brown woman magic is a powerful antidote to these issues and I am so grateful everyday that I found my way into brujeria to do the pleasure magic—and social justice work—that needs to be done.

I say this as a mixed-raced woman with many privileges, the fact that I can sometimes pass as white chief among them.  I also live in a city that has a large Latinx and Native American populations, which means I don’t stand out in the ways I would if I lived in a whiter city.  I feel safer living here with so many brown bodies beside my own than I have in the less diverse cities I’ve lived in or visited.  I’m likewise cishet, able-bodied, an neurotypical. But I’m still learning to take up space in a world that isnt comfortable with me, let alone my successes, achievements, and the moments when I can prove that women of color can be more than legacies of trauma—and that we don’t need a white savior in order to succeed.  

I bring up my various privileges, too, because it isn’t enough to find joy and strength in celebrations of brown woman magic.  Pleasure magic is about actively participating in the changing narratives of all underrepresented group by changing the stories that get told about us, the stories we read, the stories we write, the stories we live out everyday, the stories we choose to spend time learning from and listening to.  It’s an essential form of social justice, in fact, to aggressively seek out and celebrate narratives that explicitly and unequivocally assert that HEAs are for everyone.  And I owe this wisdom, in part, to romance novels.  

In fact, romance novels were an incredible help at a time in my life when I was in desperate need of remembering that I deserve joy.  I did my graduate work on British courtship novels, finding myself in the Eleanor Dashwoods and the Margaret Hales, as they tried to carve space for themselves in a world that only saw them as pawns in the marriage market.  But that’s the rub: they were white stories about white women.  As nourishing as they were, they were also a reminder that it was difficult to find people like myself in stories with HEAs.  When we don’t see ourselves represented in narratives of happiness, it sends the implied message—one we internalize—that happiness isn’t something we can experience.  

It wasn’t until I started reading more contemporary romance novels that I began to see myself embodied in the narratives of hope and happiness.  I started with chica lit, making my way through Kathy Cano-Murillo’s Waking Up in the Land of Glitter and Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s Dirty Girl’s Social Club and Make Him Look Good.  I then moved on to Sabrina Sol’s Delicious Desires series.  It was an incredible feeling to read joyful books featuring Latinx characters working through their issues and finding fulfilling romantic and professional lives.  They helped me when I was finishing graduate school and figuring out what I wanted my own HEA to look like. 

I didn’t have any answers just yet, but I did know one thing:  I wanted more.  More romance novels.  More stories about underrepresented people finding joy—the literal title of one of Adrianna Herrera’s latest books.  She became a fast favorite of mine, as did Beverly Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, and Alisha Rai.  But Herrera and Jenkins, in particular, did something I had never seen depicted in popular genre fiction: a frank discussion of what it means to pass as white when you are a person of color.  Jenkins’s Forbidden was a revelation, exploring the power and privileges passing can offer, as well as the inherent drawbacks of cultural and communal disconnect that come with it. Herrera likewise addresses these issues in American Fairytale.  The discussions between the protagonists Thomas and Milo—one white passing and wealthy, the other a social worker who can’t pass—offers one of the most realistic depictions of that kind of conversation I’ve ever read.  I’ve had many of those conversations in my life, but never have I seen the dynamic explored in such an honest and productive way on the page.  

But it still wasn’t enough!  I wanted to read about passion and compassion, fulfillment and connection in all the variety of ways they can be manifested.  I devoured Helen Hoang, E.E. Ottoman, and Casey McQuiston.  I fell in love with Olivia Waite, Lydia Andres, and K.J. Charles, not to mention Kennedy Ryan, Cat Sebastian, and Mia Sosa.  As I devoured more books featuring sex-positive, consent-mandatory, communication-celebratory inclusive stories, dormant parts of myself began to come alive.  These authors and their book help me conjure pleasure in my life and remind me that I deserved an HEA just like anyone else.  More importantly, by taking the traditional courtship narrative beyond upper-class, white, cishet, able bodied, and neurotypical romances, these authors redefined what happiness, sexiness, and romance look like.  

I would still consider myself a novice in the romance genre, as everyday I learn about more authors who are consistently challenging social norms and dismantling institutionalized oppression by making HEAs for everyone. The stories that nurture me don’t have to be about brown women.  They just have to be stories, ideally Own Voices stories, that actively, aggressively, joyfully resist the perpetuation of trauma on othered bodies and instead offer hope that we can be more than the limits placed on us by social inequality.  This is perhaps best said in Alisha Rai’s Girl Gone Viral, in which the heroine repeats variations of the statement, “happiness is a radical act.”  And it is, for so many of us from underrepresented backgrounds or with life experiences that make happinesses a difficult thing to feel like we deserve or can readily access.  

Even now, as I write this, I can picture the collection of Alexis Daria books waiting for me on my e-reader, including her latest, You had Me at Hola.  I’ve recently discovered Katrina Jackson, Talia Hibbert, Roan Parrish, and Rebekah Weatherspoon and each one of those authors now occupy a significant amount of space on my bookshelf—and in my heart.  I look forward to discovering more authors and books that explore the range of the human experience, including neurodiversity and ability.  I am eager to continue learning from these stories that thoughtfully and lovingly grapple with the complex identities many of us occupy—privileged in some ways, less so in others—to show how we can all be more compassionate, empathetic human beings.  That’s the beauty of inclusive reading: the more you read, the more you discover, the more you dismantle institutionalized oppression.  If that’s not an HEA, I don’t know what is.  In fact, this sentiment was the inspiration behind my quarterly book club and share-space, HEAs All Day: Romance Novels as Social Justice Narratives on Goodreads and Facebook.  

So how does that relate to our personal pleasure magic practices?  As I mentioned in my last article, we are what we consume, which means that reading inclusive romances and stories with happy endings for all goes a long way to conjuring that energy in our own lives.  If all we expose ourselves to are negative representations of people like ourselves, or other minority groups, in the news and other media, we internalize that.  But the reverse is also true: if we surround ourselves with love stories, pleasure-drenched narratives with the promise of hope and healing, we become those too.

In fact, pleasure magic—and reading romances—has forced me to come to terms with the limits I’ve placed on myself.  Hello internalized racism, impostor syndrome, and, yeah, some issues that are all my own.  We get stingy with our joy.  We shut down and think that we are only allowed so much.  We get too successful and we fear the mal ojo—the evil eye of envy—or some sort of divine punishment.  But thanks to romance novels, I’m learning that I have the power to welcome in my own HEA.  Like the witchy heroine in Take a Hint, Dani Brown, I can call this abundance and joy to me, as we all can, when we focus our time and energy on healing the past and finding joy in the present.  Or, like Xeni in the book of the same name, we can remember that all women are witches (though not all witches have to identify as women!) and so, take our power back.  

So if you’re looking on ways to conjure your own HEA through your pleasure magic practice, 

start by asking yourself the following questions:

What limits have you placed on yourself? 

How would you change your narrative?

What does your own HEA look like?

As you explore questions, imagine yourself as the protagonist of your own life.  Forget playing the side character.  The token minority.  Or the best friend who exists solely to help the central character find love.  Put yourself front and center.  Relish the attention and focus on your own joy down to every last detail.  And please, get as corny and cheesy as you can.  Indulge in your every fantasy.  And remember that the most powerful part of pleasure magic is in allowing yourself to let your narrative change—to be that change and to know that you have the power to conjure—and fight for—your own HEA.

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