The genre of romance is one of the most enduring in the literary world. It’s conventions-that date back to its conception are just as old. A few books down any list will illuminate the formula: meet-cute, bubbling tension that’s often accompanied by some sort of denial, acceptance, conflict, and finally reconciliation. Sometimes bits are rearranged and adjusted to fit the author’s choices, but most of it is left intact. As old as genre, is its singular representation of the type of person who gets to go through this rollercoaster of love and desire- from which the world has only recently awoken. “…this should be obvious,” Sareeta Domingo writes, “but-human beings of all kinds fall in love, and have desire and heartache, and heartbreak.”
Enter Who’s Loving You; a compilation of stories by British women of colour, orchestrated by contributing writer and editor Sareeta Domingo, which at very least borrow from the form, and at their most rebellious challenge it. The main characters are all women of colour, the subjects being considered in the title of the anthology. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and have all sorts of motivations and we watch them grieve, yearn, endure heartache, love and be loved back. Underneath these emotionally affecting stories, the reader will find the quiet mischief of engaging with work that chips at the mould- each writer masterfully bringing to the table a new perspective to consider when we imagine a love story.
Sareeta, whose debut novel The Nearness of You straddles both what would be categorised as literary fiction and romance, is not new to bending the conventions of what constitutes a romance. In particular, her knack for positioning the lives of the characters, especially the women, as central to the story. Maybe even just as central as the romance. Her contribution in the anthology has similar sensibilities: a young woman, washed ashore after a precarious journey on the ocean from her home, Dakar. Amina is held to safety by Andre, the male lead. “After the journey here… After that, I am no longer afraid of much at all,” her journey followed by her machinelike days working at the hotel have numbed her. We are asked to consider what immediate and ongoing survival might look like when you have to carve out a life in a foreign place. And of course, how this ultimately influences her interactions with her 6ft dreadlocked surfer and their rekindled connection.
For other characters in the book, feeling foreign takes on a different form. In Motherland Sara Jafari writes a character who finds herself in Tehran for her mother’s funeral. A common tale for first generation immigrants, Iran feels alien to Safie, as she had lived in and considered England her home. Such is the backdrop that informs the romantic crash city tour that Javed, her love interest, takes her on. Perhaps the brief structure of a short story does not do justice to the complicated process of getting acquainted with a place that holds a name as intimate as a motherland, but that you don’t feel like you fit in. The end of the story is filled with these seemingly profound realisations like “their methods were different, but really young people here were no different to young people in England,” or “she had been wrong about Iran, she realised then. It had its own charm.” Realisations that seem premature coming from a highly sceptic Safie. The romance between her Javed however, was highly satisfying. Him attempting to create a bridge between her and her home country, his “excited grin that made her insides leap,” and of course the fact that he understood what it was like to grieve a parent. This is a recurring theme in the anthology; a lot of the couples in the stories feel anchored by mutual attraction, sure, but also a mutual understanding of loss.
In Varaidzo's Long Distance, a bored June, night technician for Journal (a fictitious social network website) develops a virtual connection with a bright-eyed May. They bonded over their respective heartbreaks: June’s a breakup, May the death of her girlfriend. As their connection deepens, the writer takes liberties with our understanding of time and space- “what if I could time-travel,” June ponders about meeting May. At some point it becomes unclear whether May actually exists at all or if June conjured up a virtual companion to help her heal through her heartbreak. The lucidity of time as the backdrop of an otherwise solid intimacy, speaks to the strange sensation of finding something as assured as love in a place as fickle as the internet. Not that it matters once you’re being held up in the clouds by only the butterflies in your tummy.
This idea that nothing matters when you are made weightless, and sometimes even helpless by desire is taken to an extreme length in Sarah Collins’ Brief Encounters, a story which will test your empathy and moral compass alike. A married Evie meets Seb at the train station, a tall man who resembles “a beautiful dreadlocked Fanon” (that’s right, another hot guy with locs) with “a deep seam of cockiness that goes right down the backbone of good-looking men.” A few suggestive conversations later and Evie ends up straddling Seb while he has “his hands right where she needed them, between her skirt and her skin.” She snaps out of it and leaves before any more happens, but depending on who you are, perhaps enough has already happened. Adjacent to Evie and Seb’s encounters we find out a series of facts about Evie’s marriage:
1. She has been married to her college sweetheart, Jacob, for eight years.
2. Following the tragic loss of their child, a grief-stricken Jacob became a depressed alcoholic.
3. This has taken a toll on Evie- her thoughts a clear indicator: “she loved Jacob…’til death did them part. But, then again, maybe it had.”
That Collins only gives us insight into Evie’s psyche is a dead giveaway that she is urging us to empathise. “The appeal of strangers is that they allow you to edit yourself into something interesting,” a sentiment you don’t need to be in Evie’s shoes to understand. It’s difficult to break the lull of monotony and routine around those who already know us as we are. Of course, it’s unjustifiable when this comes at the expense of another, and even Evie is aware. We observe her in denial as she separates herself from “the picture of an adulterer in her head...a woman…who blows up her life for nothing more than the bone-marrow goodness of finally getting a good seeing-to.” Our main character doesn’t actually get to experience this bone marrow-goodness from our dreadlocked Fanon- but the almost of it all had “reached into her loneliness, her numbness, and shocked her into wanting to live.” Although this story does not position romance as the morally pious entity that we see in the other ones, it does show just how transformative it can be.
Who’s Loving You works because it's writing to a particular silence situates love and intimacy within contexts so specific, that they hold the breadth for universality. In the stories not mentioned here, you will find the lives of many other women of colour and the very lucky people that get to experience loving them.