Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gwyneth Bolton - Sweet Sensation

As usual, this isn't a review, and there will be spoilers. There's an excerpt from the novel here and very positive reviews from the Romance Junkies and RAWSISTAZ. The novel is the second in Gwyneth Bolton's “Hip-Hop Debutante” trilogy of novels which "all take common romance plots and give them a hip-hop remix. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me remixed the arranged marriage plot. And Sweet Sensation will add some flavor to the secret child plot" (from here). In the spirit of full disclosure I feel I should add that Gwyneth Bolton is the pen-name of Gwendolyn D. Pough, one of the Teach Me Tonight team and "an Associate Professor of Women's Studies and Writing at Syracuse University. Her research focuses on black feminist theory and the public sphere with an emphasis on Black popular culture" (from her bio). Gwendolyn is also a poet, like her heroine Deidre James who's "a former female rapper turned spoken-word artist", and you can read some of Gwendolyn's poems here and here. Sweet Sensation includes poetry and also draws on song lyrics:
the title Sweet Sensation comes from a old Stephanie Mills song. “Sweet Sensation… so sweet… a fantasy… love vibration… And I just want to let you know… That I'll never let you go…" [...] Anyway, the novel has a soundtrack of hip-hop love songs that I kept in mind as I wrote it.
You can find more details about all those hip-hop love songs here, at Gwyneth's blog.

Poetry and song lyrics all use words, and exploring the use of language and the impact of words is both a part of Bolton's own writing technique and a central theme of the novel. For example, here are the heroine's thoughts on the second page of the novel:
It's for the best. You can't change the past. Everything happens for a reason. You made your bed, now lie in it. The series of clichés ran through her mind, and not one of them made her feel any better.(2)
There may be some truth in clichés, but as noted in Wikipedia, a cliché is "a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty". Repetition, then, can affect the power of words. The tone in which they are spoken is also significant, as when Deidre addresses her daughter: "'Kayla, what are you still doing up?' Deidre hugged Kayla and tried to put a sternness that she didn't feel into her voice" (3). When things are going well in a relationship, the exchange of words can be what brings a couple closest: "She'd missed the late-night conversations they had after making love when they were in college [...]. She'd missed the way he listened to her, really listened to her, in ways that no one ever had before or after" (122). Perhaps because this is so, the withholding of words can sometimes be an even more powerful statement than using them: Flex interprets Deidre's failure to tell him about his daughter as a betrayal (15) and Deidre "didn't think things could get much worse than her daughter not speaking to her" (19). Deidre herself doesn't "talk to her father. She had dodged having to say more than two words to Dr. Howard James for years" (20).

The importance of public words provides a frame for the text, as the prologue opens with the words of one of Deidre "Sweet Dee" James's songs. Deidre has just returned from "Miami where she'd performed for the first time in eleven years. The performance had gone well. After years away from hip-hop, it amazed her that she was still able to grab a microphone and rock a crowd with such ease" (1). The performance pulls Deidre out of her "life of relative obscurity", and into the eye of both the media and the reader. The novel concludes with the a media report on a very much more personal performance/use of words: "last week super producer and former record label mogul, Flex Towns, married Deidre 'Sweet Dee' James in a small wedding ceremony" (214) and, just a page after Flex "grabbed the remote and turned off the television" (214), the remote is also turned off, metaphorically speaking, on the reader, as the novel ends.

Roughly at the centre of the novel, both literally and in terms of emphasising the main theme of the work, is Deidre's poem, "Word", about the power of language:
When I first heard
brothers on the block saying word
I got excited
I sensed we would be getting our power back again
There is power in the word
the strength of NOMMO1
was going to take us home
But when I tell you of this new coming strength
all you can say is
Word! [...]

In the '70s the word was spoken and black was beautiful again
We'd lost the knowledge
of our beauty for so long
And all it needed was to be spoken into existence
We spoke it and there was power [...] (115-116)
I imagine Deidre performing her poetry in a manner similar to Zora Howard, age 14, with her poem "Bi-Racial Hair", at the New York Knicks Poetry Slam.2 Zora's only a couple of years older than Kayla, Deidre's daughter, who is already able to demonstrate her own skill with words.

Some months ago an item appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution which caused some anger among romance readers. Leaving aside some of the most controversial statements, at the centre of the arguments on either side, both for and against romance, was the question of what effect the novels have on the reader. Shaunti Feldhahn stated that she
was concerned to learn that many romance novels are not as harmless as they look. In fact, some marriage therapists caution that women can become as dangerously unbalanced by these books’ entrancing but distorted messages.
In her rebuttal Diane Glass responded that
Romance novels are about entertainment, not the dissemination of seriously dangerous notions. I don’t think Harlequin readers believe they’re doing in-depth gender research or that Fabio is going to ride up on his white horse.
Deidre herself has decided that song lyrics are not "harmless":
It was hard trying to raise a girl who clearly loved hip-hop culture and rap music as much as she had when she was growing up. Deidre had never thought she would turn into the moral police and criticize the culture and the music, but some of the things she heard on the radio made her cringe. She did her best to filter and control what Kayla was allowed to listen to. (4)
So are words dangerous, or are they safe if they're just "entertainment"? The might of words is asserted in statements as diverse as: "the pen is mightier than the sword" and "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1 John: 1). Standing against them is the old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Of course words can and do hurt, yet Meaghan Morris suggests that
the lesson of the chant is not itself a lie, but a magical theory of language: 'saying makes it so'. The chant is an incantation, a spell that we cast at aggressors to keep the power of their words at bay. When someone pelts words at us to try to hurt our feelings, we block them with a ritual formula that vows they will never succeed. So, like all good spells, this formula 'means' something different from what it seems to say: 'names can never hurt me' means 'you can't hurt me; who cares what you think? your insults are powerless; you don't matter, and I am stronger than you are'.

We learn that language is powerful, and we can do things to each other with words; that language is a social bond, as flexible as it as forceful; and that meaning depends on how we use language in all the varying situations of life. From its singsong cadence, we also learn something obvious that language moralists forget when they call some words good and others irredeemably bad: there's a lot more to language than names. The powers of language, written or spoken, include rhythm, tone, accent, pitch, and rhyme as well as reason. Much more than a way of describing things and trading information, language is a relationship between people. However routine or perfunctory most everyday contact may be, we touch each other with words.
Deidre is a skilled user of words who is extremely aware of the ways in which the "powers of language, written or spoken, include rhythm, tone, accent, pitch, and rhyme": "She spoke her words with such rhythm and flavor that he could have sworn he heard music, but there was no music playing" (117).

The novel raises questions concerning how much words can hurt and how much they can heal. Words may take the place of physical violence, as is the case with a "battle rap" (37) or "free-style battle" (115, 160-164):
Battle rap is a style of hip-hop that stems from the quest to be competitive within the culture. Although, battle rap is sometimes directed to anonymous rivals or used as a forum to sharpen one’s lyrical swords, it could be utilized in calling out detractors when made specifically for an individual.

Braggadocio is the crux of battle rap. Battle emcees focus on boastful lines and self-glorifying rhymes about one's proficiency or level of success, accompanied by verbal insults hurled at the other party directly or subliminally. Battle rappers often go as far as researching the dirty past of an opponent in order to dig up some self-injuring facts. These are then incorporated into the rhymes to downgrade the opposing party. (Adaso)
Sometimes, however, words can lead to, or accompany, violence, as when Deidre, as a child, "lived in a constant state of fear. I remember all the arguments. For years you simply yelled and made her cry. [...] Then I guess yelling wasn't enough. I remember the two times you hit her" (177). Or, outside the family, when "disrespect" is followed by a shooting. Stacks, Flex's enemy is released from prison and, after an angry conversation with Divine, a close colleague of Flex's, thinks: "All the exchange showed him was the level of disrespect that had been allowed to grow and fester since he'd been out of the game. Flex was going to have to be hit and hit hard" (106). It's not long before an old friend of Flex and Divine's, "Rapper Louie 'Loose Eye' Jones was gunned down" (110) and Flex "knew that Stacks was behind it somehow" (111).

This close relationship between verbal and physical conflict finds a parallel in the France inhabited by Cyrano de Bergerac, in the play by Edmond Rostand, in which Cyrano, who quite literally has a rapier-sharp wit, can, as demonstrated in this performance, duel and compose poetry simultaneously: "While we fence, presto! all extempore/ I will compose a ballade." (36, Project Gutenberg English translation).3

Cyrano's aggressive poetry in that scene is a means by which he can reject the judgements of others and impose on them his own assessment of his importance. Rap can be used in much the same way: "As a former rapper known for being good at free-styling, she knew it was a powerful weapon" (42) and Deidre's "battle rap" at the time she first began her career similarly challenged those who sought to define her by labelling her a "trick":
So, all y'all punks can just
Kiss what I twist
I'm Sweet Dee, niggas
Not your average trick! (36)
Yet, Cyrano will always be defined, at least partly, by the size of his nose and Deidre "would tire of bitch and ho being substitutes for woman" (38).

As that would be a somewhat negative note on which to end this post, I can't resist including a link to this love poem performed by Benjamin Zephaniah. He's got a beautiful voice and it includes the line "It's the truth I'm telling you, poets don't lie."

  • Bolton, Gwyneth. Sweet Sensation. Columbus: Genesis, 2007.
  • Morris, Meaghan. "Sticks & Stones & Stereotypes." Australian Humanities Review 6 (1997).

1 "The Kiswahili word, NOMMO, is difficult to translate, but the concept is that of a seed. The Word (play, song, dance, etc.) is a seed planted through the senses into the mind of the observer." (NOMMO Performing Arts Company)

2 In case that link breaks, here's a link to Howard performing the same poem at the 2006 Urban Word NYC Annual Teen Poetry Slam (link from Angela).

3 The original French text of the ballade accompanying the duel can be found here.


  1. Great analysis, Laura! I love the nuances of language that you picked up on and the way you bring it all together here. When I started to write Deidre and Flex's story, I can't say that I set out to examine the use of language and the impact of words. But these are certainly very important themes in my academic work, so I'm not surprised that they found their way into my creative writing. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and engage my work. That means more to me than I could ever express. In case folks are interested in the poem "Word," I posted it on my blog during National Poetry month in April. The link is below.

  2. I love that poem. Here's a direct link, to save people the trouble of cutting and pasting. :-)

    There are so many fascinating issues that are raised by the poem. And I found it interesting that all the main characters work with words, in one way or another: Deidre, obviously, is a poet; Kayla's still a child but she's got her "little flow" of words and ambitions to be a rap artist; Flex is a producer who puts rhythm to the words of others'; Deidre's mother's a teacher and introduces Deidre to the idea of keeping a journal, to express her feelings in words; Flex's father's a judge (which involves assessing other people's words, and then delivering a verdict (words of power).

    Ironically, it's Deidre's father who isn't good with words. Or rather, who was bad with them in terms of causing harm. And he's a medical doctor. Perhaps he took the "sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never harm you" approach to language, and it was only when the abuse turned physical, and thus came into his area of professional expertise, that he realised he had to stop. And the cure was counselling, which of course involved more words.

    I felt that the novel really invited the reader to think about the words that were used. I particularly liked the mention of a need for "protection" (as discussed briefly in one of the sex scenes). Flex is talking about using a condom, but there are other nuances to the word, because of the way the characters have tried to protect themselves emotionally, and because of Flex's need to protect Deidre and Kayla from physical harm. There was also some talk of a "shotgun wedding" and again, it was ironic because the only shotgun in question was one that might be used (by Stacks) to threaten the bride.

  3. Awesome! I've got to read this book. I've seen a lot of condemnation by largely white media of hip-hop, as if the entire art form were entirely about the negative stuff that has been said using it. And I know that's not true, because I've come across some truly beautiful stuff done in it. The way its dismissed reminds me, a bit, of how Romance is sometimes deduced to its lowest or most offensive number. I think it would be great to read a book written intelligently, and from a feminist perspective, about the hip-hop scene/art. And I love "Word"! Thanks for the post. :)

  4. I'm not really informed about good Hip Hop, but you might like to hear Talib Kweli, Laura. I love his song Get By. I played it in the car the other day, and my mom had this instinctive flinch to the Hip-Hop sound 'cause it was so associated with misogyny in her mind, and then we talked about how it can be a really powerful voice for social commentary, and just great music, too.

  5. Laura ~ That's a good observation. I hadn't thought about the significance of Deidre's father being the only one who does not work with words and language and ironically he's the only one who had problems using his words. He had been verbally abusive and moved to physical abuse. I'm pretty sure I wasn't even thinking of the link with his career on that one. But I think you're right, my muse must have been.

    Angel ~ That's a great point. Both romance and hip-hop are often dismissed wholesale. And the people who dismiss them don't often make distinctions. That's a great connection. And I like that Talib Kweli song too.

  6. Angel ~ That's a great point. Both romance and hip-hop are often dismissed wholesale. And the people who dismiss them don't often make distinctions. That's a great connection. And I like that Talib Kweli song too.

    I've been reading a really good book titled "How to Suppress Women's Writing" by Joanna Russ, and she mentioned how some of the same techniques used to disregard women's literature are used against other groups as well, so I've been trying to notice when I come across that.

    I think that not making distinctions is, in part, intentional. Or at least a result of the subconscious desire people have to plug their ears. If all Romances are portrayed as bodice-rippers in the mainstream, and all hip-hop as violent, ignorant, woman-hating insanity, then really important things that are being said in these genres can be ignored.

    I think that a lot of people would rather imagine that all hip-hop is of the "pimps and hos" variety that nasty little suburban white boys like so much, than face genuine, wrenching social indictments, like Kweli's "The Proud":

    "Niggaz with knowledge is more dangerous than than niggaz with guns
    They make the guns easy to get and try to keep niggaz dumb
    Target the gangs and graffiti with the Prop 21
    I already know the deal but what the fuck do I tell my son?
    I want him livin right, livin good, respect the rules
    He's five years old and he still thinkin cops is cool
    How do I break the news that when he gets some size
    He'll be percieved as a threat or see the fear in they eyes
    It's in they job description to terminate the threat
    So 41 shots to the body is what he can expect
    The precedent is set, don't matter if he follow the law
    I know I'll give my son pride and make him swallow it all (damn!)"

    It hurts to face that kind of truth. And I think that denigrating women's writing, particularly the genre we have the majority voice in, is another way to keep the ugly truths of a particular group hushed up.

    Your book is so awesome because it's speaking out positively and intelligently about from different areas that tend to get dismissed, and that is *so freaking cool*. Part of what you're doing, aside from telling your story and moving your readers, is proving the lie of both stereotypes. That's just so exciting to see! :)

  7. Thanks, Angel. I found the lyrics to "Get By". There's so much meaning compressed into those lyrics that they read like poetry (which also means that, as with a lot of poetry, I can't be certain I've pinned down all the meanings and understood it all, but I think I get the gist).

  8. Phenomenal review! SWEET SENSATION is my favorite Gwyneth Bolton novel. Oftentimes, we readers don't really know really why a novel is a favorite. I think you may have defined why this one is mine. Thanks!

  9. Part of what you're doing, aside from telling your story and moving your readers, is proving the lie of both stereotypes.

    Angel ~ Yes, I think that's a big issue for me with both romance and hip-hop. And you are so right about the reason why these genres are often denigrated. It is a part of the silencing women's culture for romance and people of color's issues for hip-hop. That's an on-point and astute observation!

    Kimber An ~ Thank you! I'm glad you liked Sweet Sensation.

  10. Thanks, Kimber An! I always hope that the literary criticism I do will add to the enjoyment people find in reading novels, rather than "spoiling" the experience for them, so I'm delighted you enjoyed reading my post.

  11. I haven't read the book, but I keep coming back to this post because I like the cover! It's so much more individual than most romance covers. It's screaming red, but not like the "look alike" Silhouette Desires. And most of all, the woman meets my eye and shows a lot of personality.

    One of the things I dislike about many romance covers is the stylized expressions. There's the female expression of shyness, awe, or lust (head cocked uncertainly/attentively on the older Harlequins, or mouth wide open porno-style on a historical), or these days sometimes a tough-girl pose (hands on hips, gun, etc, with sterner jaw like the man). And the male expression of sternness or lust (brows lowered, mouth or jaw tight), with occasional male expression of tenderness (almost smiling, or a hand cupping her jaw).

    It's no secret that I don't like those covers, but I hadn't really articulated this before. I feel the covers visually reduce the novels to cookie-cutter sameness, but I *also* don't get a sense of unique characters from those stylized poses. (Nor, usually, from the cover copy.) And for me, most romances depend on interesting characters as much as on the relationship.

    So, congrats to Bolton on a good cover. I hope she likes it as much as I do!

  12. Thank you so much, RfP! This makes all the time I spent trawling the internet for the photo worthwhile. Seriously, I did spend quite a long time looking for it. The photo of the cover that's on most of the websites looks more dull in colour, the lighting's different and somehow it doesn't seem to me to get the expression right ("right" as compared to the real cover - most of the other photos make Dee look a bit more pouty/huffy rather than looking as though she's got a bit of attitude, a sense of humour and a sexy twinkle in her eye, which is how I think she looks on the real cover and the picture I found for this post). I'm sure it's only a tiny number of pixels different but precisely because it's not a cookie-cutter look that makes a difference and it seemed important to me to get it right. The photo I've put in my post is possibly a bit more bright red than the real cover, and the strange crinkles must be due to someone scanning it in in a strange way, but you can see Dee's expression better, and the details of her dress.

    Of course, it could just be that all this is only true for the picture as it appears on my computer, and maybe other people's screens make it look different, but I did try. And even when it's the version I don't like so much, it's still a very eye-catching cover.

  13. I agree, the cover you posted is more appealing. Her expression is subtly different--more humor maybe. I definitely see the twinkle in her eye.

  14. Another good Bolton cover:

    I'm Gonna Make You Love Me

    The man has a nice smile, and once again I really like the personality in the woman's expression.

  15. RFB,

    I love the cover for I'm Gonna Make You Love Me . Even though they look nothing like the characters in the book, their expressions fit the tone of the book perfectly. The guy is looking at her with that "You just wait and see, I'm gonna make you love me girl..." smile. And she has that "yeah, go for it, stud... I'm not going out without a fight..." expression. I fell in love with the cover when the press sent it to me. I have to say the Sweet Sensation cover had to grow on me. I like my romance covers with couples on them. When the press sent me the cover for Sweet Sensation I tried every thing I could think of to get them to change it. It's growing on me a little though. I like the cover for I'm Gonna Make You Love Me better.