Reading for Pleasure — Love stories at Williams

People are dancing bhangra and moonwalking in the living room and eating soup in the kitchen. The best man is trying on a grey silk sherwani, a long coat as close-fitting as the wool jackets college students are wearing at the university where his aunt teaches.

Bollywood star Ria Parkar comes back to Chicago for her cousin’s wedding, to family parties and preparations. She comes to her aunt and uncle’s house, where she spent summers with her cousins as a girl.

“It’s a lagna ghar, a wedding home,” her aunt says. “It has to bustle, overflow with people. Otherwise what’s the point?”

Sonali Dev’s “The Bollywood Bride” is a love story. It is also a story of mental illness, trauma and healing.

Writing it has won her national acclaim and introduced her to a genre with a global audience that fuels the U.S. publishing industry and yet still struggles for its reputation.

Dev will speak at Williams College in a rare conference: Reading for Pleasure, from April 21 to 23 — three days of film, readings and talks about romance fiction as an international phenomenon.

Academic conferences focusing on genre romance are rare, said Julie Cassiday, chair of German and Russian and professor of Russian at Williams, and this is the first conference she knows of to set romance in an international context.

It has grown out of her work with Emily Johnson, an associate professor of Russian at the University of Oklahoma. Two years ago, Cassiday said, they began talking about a sub-genre in popular romance with Russian heroes, and that conversation led to romance written in other countries, from Turkey and Iran to Southeast Asia and beyond.

Romance has drawn in writers around the world and readers around the world — millions of them, she said.

The conference will bring together writers, people in the publishing industry, a filmmaker, critics and academics to talk about a genre that routinely outsells mysteries, science fiction and fantasy combined and moves at the front of the rapidly changing publishing world.


A fine romance

By genre romance, they mean a story with an intensely erotic relationship, with a woman at its center, said Leyla Rouhi, professor of romance languages at Williams. The woman takes action, and the story reveals her experiences and needs.

Laura Frost, scholar, critic and adjunct professor of English at Stanford University, will consider those needs as she opens the Saturday morning panel with a conversation about something psychiatry and medicine often refuse to talk about, Rouhi said — women’s desire.

“There’s a myth that it’s elusive,” Cassiday said. “It’s not. It’s right there on the page.”

When women write about their own desire, they can write clearly and intensely, with precise vocabulary and nuance.

But in Western storytelling, in film and in print, men are doing the looking, and women are being looked at, Rouhi said.

“There are entire books and articles about the man’s gaze on the woman,” Cassiday agreed. “Here, the woman’s gaze is on men, on herself, on her own life.”


Natural woman

They feel that focus may have influenced the genre’s reputation.

“To this day people tend to write off genre fiction as low-brow or pitched for women,” Cassiday said.

She traces this bias back to the early days of novels. Women have a long history as readers, she said. Women have read novels since novels began — in the early days, novels themselves were held to be women’s reading — and women have defended reading and writing novels since Jane Austen paused in her parody in Northanger Abbey to give serious praise:

“… we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. There seems an almost general wish … of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them.”

The conference will invoke these roots of the novel, from a talk on Chinese fanfiction of Pride and Prejudice to a book signing Saturday night encompassing Williams College English professor Alison Case with her novel, “Nelly Dean,” reinventing Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” from the point of view of the housekeeper.

“She is very generous to include it,” Cassiday said, “as part of a broader genealogy of romance.”


This time the dream’s on me

From the 19th century, the conference will moves into the 21st, to look closely at the writers, the readers and the market today. The internet is changing publishing at high speed, Cassiday said, and she sees romance at the leading edge. Self-publishing writers have become bestsellers. Publishers can publish e-books without the costs of going into print. Readers have developed online communities for fanfiction: They can write stories set in a fictional world and exchange them, not pretending the world is their own or profiting from it but sharing their pleasure in it — or their opinions of it.

On Saturday and Sunday, speakers will round out the conference with diverse perspectives on the genre, and ways readers and writers who have often had less of a voice have found new ways to influence it.

Author and publisher Len Barot (Radclyffe) will look at lesbian romances and the international market in the digital age, and Sarah Wendell, co-founder of the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, will talk about readers and writers inside and outside the U.S. she feels the genre can represent better.

“The genre still needs to better resemble the people who read and write it – culturally, religiously, ethnically, linguistically, physically,” she writes in her abstract. “What are they reading, what do they want more of, and, most importantly, how are they changing the genre for the better?”

North American publishing still dominates the market, Cassiday said, and several of Dev’s fellow speakers will consider that influence and the ways they see the romance world shifting.

Hsu-Ming Teo, associate professor of English at Macquarie University, will look at the work of Asian writers a genre where, she says, East Asian characters are still rare.

Jayashree Kamblé, assistant professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, will trace the influence of wuxia, a literary and cinematic form in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand.

And Kathrina Mohd Daud, lecturer in English at the University of Brunei Darussalam, will ask “How ‘halal’ are Muslim Romances,” how compatible with mainstream Muslim values.

“There’s not a single identity that is not covered by this (genre),” Rouhi said “— and there’s no doubt in my mind that it is moving in the right direction.”


Beginning to see the light

As a genre, romance ranges widely in time and place from Amish country to Qing-era China to medieval Europe, and crosses into other genres, from spy novels to extra-terrestrials to fantasy. It also gives points in common, narrative elements readers learn to expect.

It gives the pleasure of recognition, Rouhi said — like listening to Tchaikovsky’s opera of Eugene Onegin and hearing an echo of Mozart.

Dev has found it liberating. Form gives her freedom, she said, like a classical dance. It gives fixed points, especially one key element: In romance, a story has a happy ending. But for her, that happiness does not have to be an ideal. It means her people have healed enough to love. Within the form, she has flexibility.

She will speak in a panel on Saturday morning, April 22, on “genre structure and learning to dance within its boundaries.”

She understands from architecture the feeling of playing within a design, she said. She has a background in architectural journalism. Before her three novels, she had always written nonfiction. She did not expect to end up nationally recognized with starred reviews in Booklist, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

Her first novel began in Bollywood. Her best friend is a movie producer, she said, and they have lived for 20 years across separate continents and talk every day. One evening, frustrated by the quality of scripts she was reading, her friend suggested Dev should write one. And she did.

Traditional Bollywood films focus on character, she said, highlighting a hero and a heroine like a Western romantic comedy, with vivid emotion.

“The texture of feelings makes you want to sob and get up and dance.”

She fell in love with the storytelling, she said, and she wanted to go deeper. She set out to write a novel and took writing workshops at the University of Chicago. In class, people would ask what genre she wrote, and she would think I write stories.

“I didn’t know what genre was then,” she said.

The publishing industry can place intense significance on how and where books are shelved — whether a love story should be considered young adult or a novel, a romance, a classic. She has always sought out love stories, she said, but she had not read genre romance until her husband brought her a Catherine Coulter medieval story from the library.

When Dev was close to finishing a draft of her own book, a classmate mentioned Romance Writers of America, a nationwide nonprofit trade association. She found two chapters of the RWA near her house, and they welcomed her, she said. They were willing to teach, to share the names of editors and agents and the process of getting a book published. And the kind of writing she enjoys fell into place for her.

She wrote a new draft “The Bollywood Bride” in three months — and then rewrote it over three years.


I could write a book

Dev sets “Bollywood Bride” in the heightened days before a wedding.

“There’s a magic to them,” she said, “a good energy. “Everyone’s expanding.”

It’s a time that gives hope. It gives a belief in the future Ria has rarely felt. Her family broke when she was born.

Ria’s story comes partly out of one Dev knew growing up. Her father served in the Indian air force, she said, and the wife of one of his bosses had suffered from mental illness after the birth of their child, an illness severe enough that she lived in a nursing home. And she a daughter — a girl who had never known her mother.

Dev grew up in a structured world of uniforms and boarding school. Anything unfamiliar was whispered about, she said. Divorce was very rare in India then (though it is not now), and she knew students with stories that chased them. In her own close family, nieces and nephews often spent summers with family, with aunts and uncles.

So she imagined Ria, moving between her Indian school and her Chicago summers. She has survived violence, and she has scars. Seeing a shape in a grocery store can leave her shaking, and stepping onto a film set can feel like being skinned alive.

“She sees herself as cynical, hard, cold, and really she’s the opposite,” Dev said, because every time she has a choice, she moves toward warmth.

She comes home to face her cousins, Nikhil, preparing for his wedding, and Vikram, the man she left ten years ago when she made her first film.

Vikram grew up under pressure, like many children Dev has known, because their parents, living in a new country, want to help them get on their feet. It feels like the fastest way to grow new roots, she said. He had his life planned out and has never stopped to question it until Ria left him.

They have both faced pain, and when they walk on, they still carry it. When she begins a book, Dev said, she knows how much her characters have suffered. She knows they will be afraid to the bone and come to a breaking point and make a choice.

“I know the people they are going to be,” she said. “I know who they are when they’re healed.”

“… I can’t write a character who doesn’t have a burning need for change.”


This story first ran in the April issue of the Hill country Observer. My thanks to Fred Daley. The image at the top shows a close-up of the cover of ‘The Bollywood Bride,’ courtesy of Sonali Dev.

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