Saturday, August 13, 2011

Snippets: Romance in Lebanon and the Caribbean

Here are snippets from two texts, both available online, in which the romance genre is briefly discussed:

Khater, Akram Fouad. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Feeding the imagination of young men and women of the middle classes was the novel, a new genre of Arabic literature that was revolutionary by definition. While not quite as respectable as the biography, this literature still provided a text which described the category of “woman” and explored her social relations to friends, family, and, most powerfully, to lovers. Romance novels, which, between 1890 and 1914, were either serialized in the Lebanese and the Egyptian press or sold as books, raised the ire of various observers for different reasons. Those who were more conservative registered their distaste for such “foreign” notions as romantic love and declared them quite inappropriate for women of “Eastern” societies. Others, generally more liberal, decried the frivolity of romance novels and pronounced them an absolute waste of time. Underlying both claims is the recognition that these novels were an implicit critique of middle-class society. As Richard Gray noted for German bourgeois literature, these novels were “a muffled protest by middle-class writers against the alienating and reifying tendencies of the bourgeois episteme within whose (signifying) parameters they and their texts necessarily operate.”

To understand this perceived threat, we need only look at the subjects of these early Arabic romance novels. A common thread ran through most of them: a young woman struggles to sort out the complexities of her feelings toward a young man. A competing woman, disapproving and unyielding parents, or another man intrude into her relationship and force her to evaluate her love. In one such story Countess Sarah we read the following impassioned plea on the part of young man: “I swear to you that I would die for you; I beseech you to listen to what I have to say because you must know the truth so that you will not continue to blame me. I never loved Sarah after I fell in love with you.” Within this story and many others, the young female protagonist was portrayed as an individual whose decisions were ultimately hers to make even if they were encumbered by family considerations. This radical notion was made possible by the power of love, even as it stood in testament for that power. [...]

Other romance novels presented love as the highest ideal to which a woman and a man could aspire. In one such tale Love Not Money a young woman's marriage to an older but wealthy man was being arranged by her mother. Painting a fairly unattractive image of the mother, the author wrote: “Truth is that marriage did not occupy the thoughts of Canair much. But her mother, who cared more for material than essential things, had painted marriage as something that is the duty of every young woman . . . . But she [the mother] said nothing of familial love; . . . but Canair . . . had very different opinion[s from] . . . her mother's, and she saw in marriage more than inheriting money and wealth.” These sentiments were equally common in romance novels that were located in an “Eastern” context. Jirji Zaidan (1861–1914) was among the most prolific authors of such stories, which were predominantly written as historical fiction. With titles such The Bride of Furgana,The Beauty of Karbala’, and The Young Woman of Ghassan, Zaidan evoked romantic nostalgia for the Arab past and its “traditions” of courtship and hubb, or love. In each tale a woman and a man struggle amidst political turmoil to overcome all the obstacles placed in the way of their love. In each story love is seen as a virtue that should even if it did not in reality erase class boundaries and dispense with social customs.

Contrasted with such flights of fantasy, reality for young women was surely less charming.
The second text is: Forbes, Curdella. "X Press Publications: Pop Culture, 'Pop Lit' and Caribbean Literary Criticism: An Essay of Provocation." Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 4.1 (2006). Most of this essay is about novels published by X Press and while some of these have romantic/sexual elements, these are not discussed in much detail. There is, however, a short description of romances published by a different publisher:
Black versions of the Harlequin/Mills and Boon romance began to appear in Caribbean bookshops in the 1980s; academic discourse ignored them in a taken-for-granted mode. In the early 1990s Heinemann, a long time publisher of mainstream Caribbean books geared towards the “respectable” and particularly the high school market, began issuing a line called Caribbean Caresses, aimed at “filling a gap” perceived in the romance market. The publishers felt that the voracious readership for Harlequin/Mills and Boon romances signaled a need for similar books about Caribbean subjects in a Caribbean setting; these, it was felt, would be much more appealing, (because more relevant) than their transatlantic counterparts. Despite the problematic, orientalist type of issues raised by Heinemann’s project and the fact that this was a “respectable” publisher seeking to intersect pop and mainstream (Heinemann hoped Caribbean Caresses would attract high schoolers), the series did not attract many academic reviews—Jane Bryce’s “A World of Caribbean Romance” (1996) stood out as an isolated response.

An interesting exception to academia’s general silence on the advent of Caribbean pop romance was seen in the case of Valerie Belgrave’s Ti Marie, published (also by Heinemann) in 1988; this exception had to do with Belgrave’s status as a serious artist in another mode, the setting of the book in the days of slavery—its insertion therefore into the established Caribbean discourse of history—and the provocative statements Belgrave made about what she set out to do in the book. [...]

Heinemann’s short-lived foray aside (the series petered out after fewer than a dozen issues), publishers and critics of Caribbean literature have for the most part been uncompromisingly, self consciously “serious,” concerned with the grand themes of race, nation, exile, diaspora, class, color, childhood/bildungsroman, language, power, etc. They have focused on texts that are implicitly or explicitly invested with a West Indian ethos of “respectability.”

1 comment:

  1. Inventing Home is an awesome book, not just in its analysis of romance novels. It picks up on fascinating sources, ephemera normally left on the wayside, to paint pictures of Arab/Levant life and migration, like the work of Christian factory girls or the migrant tinkers/traders who hold household goods to farmers on the Kansas prairie. Completely worth a read.