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REVIEW:  The Dom Project by Heloise Belleau, Solace Ames

REVIEW: The Dom Project by Heloise Belleau, Solace Ames

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Dear Ms. Belleau and Ms. Ames:

The Dom Project is erotic romance with heavy emphasis on the erotic side. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have a happy, satisfying ending — but it’s set in a milieu in which the traditional romance “rules” simply do not apply. And it creates that world so well, I didn’t miss them.

While on the trail of rare photographs of a kinky 1930s sex symbol, special collections librarian Robin notices that her best friend John is surprisingly knowledgeable about BDSM terms and paraphernalia. And John realizes that his best friend might actually be a “buttoned-up-real-fucking-life-naughty-librarian.” He knows her habits so well that it takes him little time to track down her blog, The Picky Submissive, which chronicles her efforts to find a dom who meets her needs and isn’t a jerk. And for the first time they open up about the fact that they’re both kinky, and that Robin is profoundly dissatisfied.

[Robin] “I’ve been trying and I’ve been waiting. I’ve been communicating my needs and I’ve been letting go of my highest standards and it’s just not working. Maybe I just attract assholes. Maybe the creepy guy to nice guy ratio among doms is higher than among ‘normal’ dudes. Maybe I’m not really a submissive at all, and if I was, I’d be okay with guys calling me whore when we’re out to dinner or telling me to put my hair in pigtails or grabbing me and telling they’re mind readers.”

[John] “Maybe I can prove you wrong.”

With the basic premise that there won’t be sex — “I don’t see you that way, and you don’t see me that way, and really it’s a moot point” — John proposes that he help Robin define what submission means to her. “I know all about you. I know what makes you tick. If I can’t dominate you, then maybe nobody can.”

Does that quote make John sound like an arrogant douche? He’s really just appropriately confident and assertive — as well as highly ethical and conscientious — and he does indeed know Robin very well.

They begin with a carefully worked out contract and a systematic approach — testing out an intriguingly long list of items such as Denial, Restraint, Pain, and Role-play to find what really floats Robin’s boat — but there’s nothing clinical about the intensity of their sessions. Some scenes are more for fun and help Robin write off certain aspects of submission; others take her out of the stratosphere. Although the narrative is third person, we’re right there inside Robin’s head, which makes the scenes blazingly erotic. As the one who has to stay in control, John’s point of view is naturally less overwhelming, but it shows his growing attraction to Robin as he strives to please her without breaking their contract.

This isn’t my usual beloved angst-fest. Problems do predictably arise, as John and Robin begin to have stronger feelings for each other and want to change the rules. And of course they both have fears about it, and make some mistakes. (Robin sometimes uses her safeword! John sometimes screws up a scene! It’s almost like they’re supposed to be real people!) The strength of the story is in the powerful D/s writing and the authenticity of the characters and situations. They have genuine issues, like the fact that toys and equipment are expensive, and that John has other play partners/lovers (both women and men) that he doesn’t want to casually discard. (They do move towards exclusivity over the course of the book.) I also really liked the inclusive of an old, ailing kinkster as a character, in a world which is usually portrayed as the exclusive domain of the young, beautiful, and rich.

Incidentally, John and Robin are an interracial couple, and it does feel almost completely incidental. Robin is white, John is apparently Chinese-American. (He may be one of the few contemporary romance heroes to have tattoos that aren’t cultural appropriation.) Although John’s family members are important secondary characters, race doesn’t enter into the story much, except for a wry comment from John about how he’s perceived as a large, tattooed Asian man. Since Robin and John have known and loved each other for years, the lack of issues around race seems plausible.

I really enjoyed this, as a smokin’ hot story and as a vivid portrait of people leading unconventional lives. I would have liked to see more romantic feeling between John and Robin that doesn’t stem from sex; the book used standard short-cuts to squeeze in the love. And I yearned to know more about how they ultimately made their relationship decisions. The ending left some unanswered questions, though maybe that’s just me wanting things tied up neatly, so to speak. I give The Dom Project a mostly satisfied B.

Sincerely,

Willaful

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Dear Author

POC romance and the authenticity question

Over the years we’ve had a lot of spirited debates here at Dear Author about questions of authenticity and authority. Who gets to tell the stories of the disadvantaged and the historically silenced? As women, many of us are keenly aware of what it means to have someone more powerful, more connected, and more privileged tell our stories, and we don’t want that power relationship reproduced in our genre fiction, even if we’re “only” reading for fun or relaxation. We’ve mostly had to agree to disagree or stop talking to each other, since there is no one resolution that suits us all. Some readers are happy to read books about POC characters that are written by non-POC authors, others think that POC books by POC authors are the way to go, and still others argue that the most important goal is for more POC authors to be able to write whatever they want, whether they write traditional Regencies or multicultural contemporary.

I’m not going to rehash that debate here. What I want to do is have us think seriously about what it is we’re asking for when we ask for POC books. What experiences are we seeking to read about? What do we consider “authentic” in a book about historically disadvantaged or marginalized groups? And what makes an author the “right” person to write about these groups?

I’m approaching these questions as a reader, not an author. I’m interested in how readers can navigate the increasing numbers of books we come across that are written by POC authors and feature POC characters. To make things easier, I’m going to use examples from books I’ve read and have reviewed (or have reviews in the pipeline for). For the most part, these are books I really enjoyed and strongly recommend.

Example 1: Jeannie Lin’s The Sword Dancer and The Lotus Palace. Jayne reviewed the former, which I enjoyed even more than she did, and she and I jointly reviewed the latter, which is one of my favorite books of the year. I think that Lin does a superb job placing the reader in Tang Dynasty China. I and others have remarked how well she conveys the customs, social relationships, and language of the time, even though the book is indisputably a genre romance novel. The books feel authentic, which is my holy grail in historicals.

Lin satisfies the strongest condition, that of a POC author writing about POC characters, in an under-represented setting. But does it matter whether or not she’s actually Chinese? If she’s East Asian, is that sufficiently close? And if it is, why? Do we think the differences between different East Asian cultures are so insignificant that if you know one, you know them all? I certainly hope that’s not the case. There’s no doubt in my mind that Lin’s familiarity with Chinese culture enhances her ability to tell her story, but so does her research, her imagination, and her natural talent.

Example 2: Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. I love this book and want everyone to buy it and read it. It’s a terrific novella about a young Malaysian Chinese woman in 1920s London. One of the potential love interests is an Indian Tamil man, Ravi, also living in London. We rarely see multicultural historicals, let alone a multi-cultural historical where the non-white heroine rejects the handsome, rich, charming white option, so on that basis alone you have to love the setup. And Cho does a superb job both of locating her characters in the time and of conveying the pricks and slights of what it means to be a nonwhite colonial in the imperial capital. There’s a great scene where Jade is at a party; she is handed an empty glass by someone who thinks she must be the help, and she wishes she could talk to the Indian servant rather than the English guests.

Cho makes the reader understand what it’s like to be an outsider in London (even though as a colonial, Ravi is as much a subject of the Crown as the English Hardies). But what the average reader might not pick up on is that while Ravi and Jade are outsiders in London, Ravi in particular is the product of immense privilege. He chooses to come to London and we can assume from the storyline that he rejects some of the casteism of his particular Indian Brahmin community. But he has clearly benefited from the dominance of Tamil Brahmins, who were not unlike the 1% we talk about today. They comprised about 5 percent of the population where they lived and exerted extreme social, political, and economic dominance over everyone around them except the British. One of the most important Indian social movements for equality was called the non-Brahmin movement and was directed at lessening this dominance. So Ravi is a pretty complex character. He’s open-minded, sensitive, and generous, but he’s also the embodiment of a specific type of male, caste privilege.  And of course both Jade and Ravi, by virtue of being able to attend college in England in the 1910s, are members of elites in their home countries.

Example 3: Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel. I’m in the process of reading and reviewing this book, about which I have very mixed feelings. It is a historical novel with romantic elements that is set in 1940s India, and it is written by an Indian-American author whose family are from the area she is writing about. Her family were also part of what social scientists sometimes call the comprador class: they were indigenous elites who benefited directly from colonialism by gaining employment in British businesses. The narrator, Layla, marries Manik Deb and goes off to live on a tea plantation in Assam. The evocation of the countryside and the British managers, as well as the feel of small-town Indian life, are very well done. But the story also reproduces unpleasant stereotypes about some Indian regional and caste groups, and the narrator seems to sympathize much more with the British at the plantation than with the Indian workers (who are mostly represented as childlike and happy to be led by their superiors). The book definitely captures aspects of this world very well, but I’m not entirely comfortable reading about people for whom independence from colonialism was at best a mixed blessing, and whose prejudices about their fellow Indians go unchallenged. It’s realistic, though, so should I really object, just because these were the type of people who made the job of fighting for independence more difficult (or at least more complex)? I’m honestly not sure. It’s definitely Patel’s story, and she has the right to tell it. But it isn’t what I signed up to read POC books about.

Example 4: The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye. I haven’t read this book. I’ve tried multiple times and failed every time, even back in the 70s/80s when I would read pretty much anything that had romance in it. It’s just too White-People’s-Raj for me, and I don’t find Indian princes and princesses interesting. But the biggest problem I have is that every time I hit the point when Ash is saved by his ayah because she stains his skin brown and he passes for an Indian child, I flinch. That requires too great a suspension of disbelief. But I am in a minority on this book. It is beloved, and not just by non-Indian readers. Kaye’s books are widely available in India at bookshops and lending libraries, so Indians are clearly reading them.

By POC-author rules, Kaye fails because she was British. BUT … she was raised in India. She had more immediate familiarity with India than she did with the country of her ancestry. Wasn’t the story she was telling partly her story? Do you only get to claim authenticity if you are ethnically similar; does lived experience not count? Imperialism and colonialism (and migration more generally) created generations of people who had intimate familiarity with countries whose ethnic heritage they did not share. Jade, the Malaysian Chinese character in Cho’s book, is both Chinese and Malaysian (or more correctly for the time, Malayan). An Indian like my grandfather spent more than half his life as a subject of the Queen-Empress/King-Emperor, studied English common law in law school, and was governed by British law until independence. We don’t deny him his British-Indian status, so can we deny Kaye hers? Can we say that her lived experience isn’t enough to allow her the legitimacy to write a book set in the country in which she spent her childhood and part of her adulthood?

I’m an academic, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t know where to draw the boundaries for legitimate authority when it comes to reading about disadvantaged people and underrepresented places. For myself, I try to read and talk about books written by these groups, even when they’re not really written FOR readers in these groups. And I can’t help but notice that even when we’re reading POC books, we’re all too often reading about characters who are part of the social and economic elite.

But I ultimately evaluate the text, not the intentions of the authors or the publishers. So I seek out books by POC authors like Zen Cho and Jeannie Lin, but I also read Guy Gavriel Kay. When I have trouble with depictions of POC characters and contexts, as I do with the Patel book, I try to explain why. I tend to cast my net widely rather than narrowly. That’s how I’ve come to terms with some of the complexities; I’d love to hear how you negotiate these waters.