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Archive for the ‘Volume 7’ Category

Review: Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

Review by Javaria Farooqui

Romantic love and the religion of Islam have often been combined in western popular fiction to create the necessary element of the “exotic.” This is most evident in the ubiquity of desert settings and the sheikh protagonists in category romance novels. Popular romance studies has shown a considerable interest in sheikh romances, exploring the myriad themes of oriental culture, political fantasy, and ethnicity (Teo, 2012; Jarmakani, 2015; Burge, 2016). However, no amount of familiarity with category sheikh romances can prepare a reader for the personalized, love narratives of Salaam Love, which are termed as stories of “feelings” in the preface. In Arabic, ‘Salaam’ means ‘peace,’ and acts as a salutation or greeting. Thus, the title suggests that the book is about welcoming love in a peaceful, Islamic way. The word ‘Salaam’ appears to be a careful choice on part of the editors, Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, to indicate the connections between gender, Islamic cultural values and love. This anthology was preceded by Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women (2012), which presents a very positive approach towards sexual and matrimonial issues of Muslim women. Both anthologies communicate a distinct variety of Happily Ever After, which is reliant on Islam as a faith and a powerful source of love. Men in Salaam Love have expressed their quests of finding ‘true love,’ which, for them, coincides with religion and cultural acceptance. Their happiness, love and a sense of fulfilment are irrevocably dependant on their identity as Muslims. Whether it is a question of finding the right partner, showing your mettle in the face of social and personal rejections or weighing the decision of having an IVF baby, all the stories in this book communicate a fascinating belief in the healing powers of religion that ultimately leads to the achievement of a deep sense of inner peace and love.

Importantly, the editors of Salaam Love stress that “this book is not a theological treatise,” but a platform for real Muslim men to open up about the “most intimate aspects of their lives” (viii). This clarification is particularly relevant because the sexual and romantic experiences communicated in these autobiographical narratives connect directly with each protagonist’s identity as a Muslim man in the United States. Nevertheless, Salaam Love [End Page 1] frequently feels like a theological, or at best inspirational, collection of stories. For example, in “In the Unlikeliest of Places,” A. Khan learns to synthesize his religious practices and his queer identity after his one-night stand with a successful gay surgeon. Khan writes, “The cliché that God works in mysterious ways becomes real only when you wake up to these mysterious ways in the small moments, in the unexpected and, yes, dark places” (113). What prevents this anthology from being a subtle work of theology is its unorthodox sense of humour. Recounting his break-up with a beautiful, non-Muslim girlfriend, author-narrator Stephen Leeper writes: “By January, she had left me for her white ex-boyfriend, a blow to the Original Blackman’s ego, a carryover sentiment from my Stephen X days” (179). Salaam Love provides subtle amusement, the kind that makes one smile inwardly for a few moments. An apt illustration would be Haroon Moghul’s delightful description of his first date in “Prom, InshAllah.” When his crush Carla agrees to be his date for the prom, Haroon narrates that he “stood there like a Punjabi Peter Parker, when he first becomes aware of his super spidery powers.” He felt like “a new man—taller, better, braver, and a cooler shade of brown” (154). Various examples of this wry sense of humour are evident throughout the anthology, especially when the author-narrators talk about their race.

Salaam Love is divided into three sections, “Umma,” “Sirat” and “Sabr,” which, read in order, move from lightly comic to emotionally complex. The author-narrators in “Umma” find their happily-ever-afters within the boundaries of their expatriate or immigrant Muslim cultures. Again, there are moments of genuine hilarity when authors contrive acronyms: “Unrestricted hyperbole is a well-documented effect of Terrified Immigrant Syndrome (TIS). Thus my mother links a bit of religious laxity to wholesale cultural downfall—another friend’s mother has been known to link Jolt Cola to eventual cocaine use”(32). In the “Sirat” section, love is connected, metaphorically, with a journey. In stories like “Springtime Love,” “Finding Mercy” and “Prom, InshAllah,” protagonists go through dramatic and poignant phases of life to find love and/or peace at the end. The “Sabr” section has strong echoes of Paulo Coelho’s earlier work, specifically The Alchemist. However, in Salaam Love, symbolism of the journey carries explicit Islamic tones, frequently highlighting the role of religion in the lives of immigrant Muslim men. There is an overarching attempt to present the Muslim as a vulnerable, emotional and delightfully positive human being. This portrayal challenges the masculine, patriarchal and dominating image of Muslim men in western popular culture. The protagonists of Salaam Love— crying over their break-ups, desperately trying to find eligible partners for matrimony—are very different from the violent and passionate hero of E. M. Hull’s The Sheikh. Unlike the wealthy, sexually experienced and overly assertive sheikhs of Anglophonic popular romance, the author-narrators of Salaam Love are shy, hesitant and frequently face intimacy issues. Hsu-Ming Teo, in Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels, has argued that category sheikh romances have helped in the formation of stereotypes for uninformed western readers (99-100). It is evident that the author-narrators and editors of Salaam Love have painstakingly deconstructed the stereotypical image of Muslim men through the various romance narratives presented, which manifest a common belief in the healing power of love and faith.

The multiple narratives in this collection highlight the ethnic and cultural diversity that is present in the United States of America. This book stands at the crossroads between literature and popular romance fiction. There is an autobiographical element, gendered perspective and a culturally nuanced sense of humour in Salaam Love. Still, the way in which these twenty-two narratives link happy endings with Islamic bliss is predominantly [End Page 2] characteristic of romance fiction and paves the path for, perhaps, another subgenre: “Halal Romance.” [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. New York: Palgrave, 2016.

Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.

Hull, E. M. The Sheik. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Project MUSE.

Jarmakani, Amira. An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror. New York: New York UP, 2015.

Mattu, Ayesha and Nura Maznavi. Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2012.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. University of Texas Press, 2012.

[End Page 4]


Review: New Directions in Popular Fiction: Genre, Distribution, Reproduction, edited by Ken Gelder

Review by Claire Parnell

New Directions in Popular Fiction is an omnifocal deep dive into specific histories, genres, locations, and formats within the scope of popular fiction publishing. The collection is divided into two sections. ‘Histories of Popular Genres’ includes case studies of particular genres that, as a whole, comprise an interesting yet fragmented history of popular fiction writers, readers, and publishing from the nineteenth century to the present. The chapters in ‘Authors, Distribution, (Re)Production’ focus on writing, publishing and reading in the broader context of the global entertainment industry. The contributing authors explore new directions in genres, formats, adaptations and transmedia technology and production, and scholarship. Chapters focusing on crime fiction explore colonial Australian detective stories (Gelder & Weaver), textual legacies of the Whitechapel murders (Moore), the British spy thriller (Burrow), and feminist crime fiction (Vanacker). North American genres are explored through re-Indigenizing Western dime novels (Bold) and national identity in Québec (Ransom). Science fiction and fantasy are explored in chapters on medievalism and paratextuality (Wilkins), the new weird (Weinstock), the context of prewar Japan (Jacobwitz), the speculative girl hero (Driscoll & Heatwole), and novelizing Assassin’s Creed. The only extensive chapter on romance explores the history of British imperialism and the romance novel (Teo) but romance is also explored to a lesser extent in relation to fan fiction (Schwabach). Other chapters explore form (Hughes), popular fiction and prestige (MacLeod), adaptation (Groth; Whelehan), transnational industries (Carter), and online reader communities (Driscoll). This collection provides authoritative and important contributions for publishing studies, book history and literary studies.

In its assemblage, Gelder discloses his attempts to move beyond scholarship that focuses on popular genres in Britain and the USA given the ‘spectacular rise of ‘Nordic noir’ crime fiction…global award-winning regional African SF [science fiction] and fantasy…and a marked increase in the visibility of Chinese SF’ (15). A small number of chapters have an explicit focus on popular fiction in countries other than Britain and the USA – Gelder & Weaver’s ‘Colonial Australian Detectives, Character Type and the Colonial Economy’, Seth [End Page 1] Jacobowitz’s ‘Unno Jūza and the Uses of Science in Prewar Japanese Popular Fiction’, Amy J. Ransom’s ‘Popular Fiction in Québec: National Identity and ‘American’ Genres’, and David Carter’s ‘Beyond the Antipodes: Australian Popular Fiction in Transnational Networks’ – and one addresses culturally marginalised groups: Christine Bold’s ‘Did Indians Read Dime Novels?: Re-Indigenising the Western at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’. This ‘gesture towards the global range and recognition of popular fiction’ (15) is itself a signal of another new direction in popular fiction scholarship that requires greater emphasis and attention in the academy; that is, authors, readers, and publishers of culturally marginalised and non-Western texts as well as discourses surrounding their creation, production and reception.

Delineating a select few chapters here will provide a snapshot into the historical, scholarly and generic scope of this book. The first chapter by Joe Hughes investigates the work of Eliza Haywood, an ‘amatory’ novelist working in the eighteenth century who was ‘widely considered to be one of the first bestsellers in the history of the English novel’ (24) in part due to being ‘the first to exploit the full potential of the scenic form’ (25). The repetition of the scene, Hughes points out, ‘is not only the mark of a technical discovery that maximises the productive capacity of the writer, it also governs the process of consumption’ (25) – the former is a characteristic of contemporary popular fiction production and the latter a characteristic of its market. It is with this first chapter that we are thus introduced to the rise of popular fiction as a mass-market product and the structural form that enabled its consistent and rapid production.

Hsu-Ming Teo’s chapter ‘Imperial Affairs: The British Empire and the Romantic Novel, 1890–1939’ investigates women’s imperial romantic fiction, a genre produced between the 1890s and the Second World War and ‘created from the fusion of the masculine imperial adventure romance and the more feminine form of the domestic romantic novel’ (88). The genre worked to disseminate imperial fantasies for women finding a place in the empire. Here Teo provides insight into how new genres and hybrid genres develop, and the ways in which the production of popular fiction texts are responsive to the sociohistorical contexts in which they are published. From a similar socio-literary approach, Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver chronicle crime and detective fiction in colonial Australia in ‘Colonial Australian Detectives, Character Type and the Colonial Economy’, arguing that the first locally published Australian novel was crime fiction and that the genre’s early start in Australia emerged out of the ‘experiences of transportation and the convict system’ (43).

The influence of the internet on popular fiction is explored to varying degrees in the two final chapters: Aaron Schwabach’s ‘Fan Works and the Law’, and Beth Driscoll’s ‘Readers of Popular Fiction and Emotion Online’.[1] Driscoll’s work is one of the most groundbreaking of the collection in its focus and approach. The chapter employs a relatively new method of distant reading to explore one of the biggest changes in the publishing field since the era of the Gutenberg: the digital sphere. Investigating reader responses online is increasingly important as digital technologies and connective media systems evolve alongside their users’ behaviours to allow them greater influence over the field, and is especially relevant for popular fiction as it is ‘more susceptible to the influence of the market’ (427). Gelder describes Driscoll’s contribution as ‘an important early step to take, if we want to examine this field more closely and…productively’ (17); I agree that the incredible value of Driscoll’s work derives from combining seminal theoretical models, applying a sociological approach to fan studies, and testing the use of sentiment analysis to reception studies. [End Page 2]

The collection offers a broad historical overview of popular fiction rather than exploring contemporary genres in depth. Nevertheless, several chapters touch on romance. Teo’s chapter on the relationship between romance novels and the British imperial romantic fiction is the only chapter entirely dedicated to exploring the genre of romance, yet other chapters briefly touch on romance or romantic elements: Schwabach explores fan fiction in relation to the law, drawing on examples of romantic slash fan fiction, and Twilight is used as one of the case studies in Driscoll and Heatwole’s analysis of the girl action hero. Ultimately, New Directions in Popular Fiction is an important contribution to the continued development of popular fiction studies as a significant field of commercial cultural production and area of inquiry in the academy.

[1] Disclosure: Beth Driscoll is the reviewer’s PhD supervisor. [End Page 3]


Review: The Popular Culture of Romantic Love in Australia, edited by Hsu-Ming Teo

Review by Claire Parnell

Scholarship into the culture of romantic love has tended to put an emphasis on defining the constitutive elemental concepts (culture and romantic love) and answering specific questions to which their combination gives rise. Hsu-Ming Teo’s edited collection, The Popular Culture of Romantic Love in Australia, taps into these debates strategically; the concept of culture is holistically analysed in relation to both popular practices and its memetic representations, and the book explores how romantic love is operationalised through its understood meanings, representations and practices. Despite the risks of ‘vagueness’ that this approach is susceptible to by its porous nature (that is, the refusal to define romantic love or culture in a specific way and then only study that phenomenon), Teo has turned this into an unquestionable strength of the book. While it does not necessarily lend itself to a straightforward delineation of how Australians constitute or experience romantic love, it enables contributors to explore the expressions of love in multiple Australian cultural contexts, across different times and mediums, by different producers and for different audiences. As is its aim, this collection is an unfettered exploration into ‘how love is produced culturally’ (20, sic), as well as the changing sets of ideas and practices that constitute romantic love in Australian popular culture.

In an epistemological tradition that mirrors the charge against Australians for ‘preferring satire to sentimentality’ (5-6), Teo successfully mixes scholarship with popular culture; a rigorous literature review of the history of romantic love in academic scholarship, from its Platonic roots to its sociological and psychological iterations, is seamlessly incorporated alongside references to Paul Young and TV sitcom The Flight of the Conchords. The intricacy of Teo’s epistemological form is sustained throughout the subsequent twelve chapters. The contributing authors chronicle popular cultural practice in Australia from the nineteenth to twenty-first century, representations of popular culture within particular media industries, and the final two chapters examine the explicit relationship between these two domains. Contributors seem to engage in a constitutive and progressive dialogue despite writing from a variety of disciplines, with the range of research detailing ‘archival collections, [End Page 1] oral histories, letters, advertisements, newspapers and magazines, Valentine’s Day cards, film, television mini-series, romance novels, comics, music, the literature of sexology, and representations and political debates about same-sex marriage’ (26).

Cultural practices of romantic love in early colonial Australia are explored by Penny Russell in ‘Love in a Colonial Climate’ and Matthew Bailey in ‘The Rise and Decline of Valentine’s Day’. The latter argues that cultural practices and products associated with Valentine’s Day, and their rise and decline in popularity over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are, in a very Bourdieusian tradition, ‘used to reinforce cultural constructions of class’ (81) and are reflective of ‘appropriate behaviour, respectability, and taste’ (85). Providing an important intersectional perspective on the enduring history of colonisation in ‘A History of Indigenous Marriageability’, Andrew King outlines how Indigenous Australians have (and have not) been represented as ‘marriageable’ in popular culture.  King examines the controversy surrounding the 1959 public proposal between Mick Daly and Gladys Namagu (a white man and Aboriginal woman) and the recent marriages of Aboriginal celebrities, Ernie Dingo and Cathy Freeman. The importance of representations of who does and does not fall in love in Australian media is emphasised in the following chapter by Catriona Elder (‘Romance and History on Australian Television’) who states that the family, and romantic love by extension, are ‘often imagined as a metonym for the nation’ (129). Scrutiny into who is included in and excluded from this narrative, such as King’s, is thus vitally important.

Jonathan Rayner’s chapter ‘Romantic Love in the Australian Cinema’ builds on this consideration by analysing Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and ‘Red Curtain trilogy’ as contemporary examples of the way Australian filmmakers are portraying romantic love in complex ways. Like Luhrmann’s films, he argues, Australian cinema ‘assumes an instinctively ironic stance’ (175) in its approach to portraying romantic love: mocking while observing conventions, clichés, and outcomes. Jodi McAlister and Hsu-Ming Teo explore ‘cultural changes in the discourse of love’ (194) in twentieth-century mass-market romance novels. In ‘Love in Australian Romance Novels’, McAlister and Teo analyse historical representations of gender, sexuality, and intimacy in Australian romance novels in order to conceive a type of romance that is distinctly Australian. In so doing, they trace the legacy of novels that may be considered Australian in tone, setting and characters across the twentieth century that culminate in the marketable ‘rural romance’ subgenre. In ‘Same-Sex Love in Late Modern Australia: On the Political Straight and Narrow?’ Leigh Boucher and Robert Reynolds offer a strong and poignant resolution as they examine the ways in which political debates about and representations of same-sex love have intersected in Australian media texts.

The inclusive approach of this monograph provides multifaceted insight into the ways various Australian cultural domains have grappled with the concept, feelings and representations of romantic love over the past two hundred years. The contributors have been well selected to cover a range of case studies that work as fascinating standalone snapshots but also culminate to provide a highly nuanced conception of romantic love that is distinctly Australian. [End Page 2]


Review: Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain, by Lisa Z. Sigel; Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918–1939: The Interwar Period, edited by Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green, and Fiona Hackney

Review by Eliza Murphy

The continued rise of periodical studies has been a rich addition to the research landscape, attracting a range of scholars to this interdisciplinary area. Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, writing in 2006, called for researchers “to invent the tools and institutional structures necessary to engage the diversity, complexity, and coherence of modern periodical culture” (530). More than a decade on, it is safe to say that periodical studies (and more broadly, print culture studies) is flourishing, complemented by the archival turn and recent innovations in digitisation. As the excellent quality of Lisa Z. Sigel’s Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain and Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green, and Fiona Hackney’s edited collection Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918-1939: The Interwar Period indicate, new work in periodical studies has much to offer us.

Sigel’s Making Modern Love uses three types of sources – correspondence, magazines, and evidence and testimony – to investigate how individuals self-fashioned their own sexual narratives in interwar Britain. Sigel argues that instead of trying to distil a singular truth from these narratives, we should read them as complex and often fantastical projections: they display how “people experienced a chaotic mix of emotions, engaged in myriad relationships, and viewed themselves and each other in multiple and often contradictory ways” (16). The discussion of these sources is framed by the understanding that it was popular culture (as opposed to sexology) that allowed people to write and read about sex and sexuality en masse for the first time. To help establish this claim, the first chapter offers [End Page 1] a broad overview of how writing about sexuality was able to circulate in Britain and the British Empire in the interwar period. Issues surrounding distribution and censorship made some texts easier to obtain or encounter than others. Magazines and other ephemera were the most readily accessible, followed by popular literature and science, then “serious” novels about sexuality (such as the work of Radclyffe Hall and D. H. Lawrence), and sexology. By looking across these various texts, we can see that there was “no single coherent framework” for people to understand sexuality in the interwar period (44).

The following chapters are case studies, each examining the narratives constructed in relation to a specific type of sexual desire: conjugal love, fetishes, cross-dressing, and whipping. Marie Stopes’s bestselling sex manual Married Love (1918) forms the base for the first case study. Sigel uses the correspondence sent to Stopes by Married Love’s readers to argue that the act of writing a letter to Stopes helped these individuals to construct “a coherent sense of the self as having a sexual identity” (47). The correspondence was in response to Stopes’s call for submissions from the public to help strengthen her theory of periodicity in women; but as Sigel details, this was seen by many readers to be a general invitation to contact Stopes about their sexuality more broadly. Through plentiful and detailed close readings of these letters, Sigel argues that the correspondence demonstrates that many viewed “sexuality as a way to remake themselves”; by contacting Stopes, they hoped to be able to figure out the logistics and pragmatics of sexual activity with their partners, whilst also transforming their own lives (72).

Sigel’s argument is strongest in the following case study, which examines the correspondence column of London Life, a glamour fetish magazine. While Married Love and its associated correspondence focused on normative ideas of conjugal love and procreation, the London Life correspondence column was a space to discuss one’s deepest desires. Looking closely at the discourses surrounding three fetishes in the pages of London Life – corsets, amputee women, and boxing girls – Sigel takes a holistic approach, interrogating the correspondence column alongside other sections of the magazine, such as fiction and essays.  The narratives that were created in the correspondence column were produced in response not just to the individual’s everyday life but also to previous correspondents, the editors, the published fiction and essays, and broader social contexts. An issue that is rightly recognised is the potential inauthenticity of these letters – were they actually written by the London Life editorial team? However, Sigel provides a comprehensive explanation to refute this claim. The magazine’s editorial policies, the inclusion of an editorial reply column, the frequency with which letters engaged with the content of the magazine, and the inclusion of images supplied by readers strongly suggest that the correspondence column was legitimate. Under pseudonyms such as “Sporty Wife” and “Forward Minx,” those who wrote to London Life were able to transform themselves: they could put forward narratives where they were someone else, and write about desires they may not otherwise have been able to express (85). Sigel’s readings of the significance of these fetishes are instructive. Corsets acted as an emblem of nostalgia (even for those who didn’t grow up with them), amputee women provided a way to discuss disability without directly confronting the traumas associated with the First World War, and the boxing girls allowed readers to consider the place and role of the new modern woman in society.

The latter half of the book shifts from these broader case studies to examine the sexual narratives of two individuals: a cross-dresser, and a poison-pen letter writer who engaged with discourses surrounding whipping. Due to this focus on the individual (rather [End Page 2] than a number of individuals, as in the previous case studies), these final chapters do not feel quite as persuasive in their arguments; the links made between the case study and broader interwar contexts sometimes feel tenuous. For instance, Chapter 4 examines the case of Mr. Hyde, a cross-dresser and First World War veteran who was arrested for being involved in the trade of obscene books. By analysing his police records – which show “what Hyde read, wrote, wore, and owned and whom Hyde met and knew” – Sigel claims that we can see how materials and ideas about sexuality circulated during the interwar period, and how these in turn shaped sexual narratives (125). While the case of Mr. Hyde is certainly fascinating, its significance is somewhat inflated; not enough evidence is provided to truly link Mr. Hyde’s circumstances to wider claims about the nature of interwar cross-dressing. Arguing that the First World War allowed for experimentation with gender roles, Sigel posits cross-dressing as having multiple meanings in the years between the wars; for some men, it served as an escape from masculinity, for sadomasochists, it functioned as a humiliation, and for others, it eroticised childhood memories (150).

Frederick Holeman, an author of multiple poison-pen letters in the 1930s, is the subject of Sigel’s analysis of whipping in interwar Britain. Holeman – posing as a concerned mother – wrote letters to other mothers accusing their daughters of being involved in lewd sexual activity. The letters promised that no further action would be taken on the proviso that the mother physically chastised her daughter and placed an advertisement in the local newspaper to prove it. While Holeman was socially subversive through the writing of these letters, Sigel argues that he was responding to a large corpus of ideas surrounding the relationship between sexuality and the whip. The letters are read alongside various documents from the Home Office and Colonial Office about the use of the whip on those guilty of sex crimes, as well as the work of reformers who sought to eliminate whipping as a corporal punishment.

Despite these final case studies lacking some of the force of the first half of the book, Making Modern Love is overall an important contribution to scholarship. Its focus on popular texts and culture provides a rich and innovative way to understand interwar sexuality, and Sigel should be applauded for the extensive archival research undertaken to complete this project. While readers of this journal may have liked to have seen Sigel engage more closely with the popular fictional texts of the early twentieth century (romance megasellers E. M. Hull and Ethel M. Dell receive only passing mentions), Making Modern Love provides constructive insights into the ways in which ordinary people conceived their sexual identities during a turbulent and transformative period.

While Making Modern Love uses periodicals as a means to understand sexuality, Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain – co-edited by Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green, and Fiona Hackney – presents a broader perspective on the potential of periodicals as a methodological tool. In the general introduction, the editors position the collection’s goal as being “to open up the category of the ‘women’s magazine’ beyond the assumptions and expectations through which it is conventionally understood” (1). Rather than attempting to present a singular narrative, the editors write that the collection is designed to encourage new work in this research area and help to spark further conversations about women’s print media and modern periodical studies. The collection indeed realises these aspirations: furnished with plentiful high quality images and boasting an impressive list of contributors who are well-known and established in the field, Women’s [End Page 3] Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain is a significant contribution to our understanding of women’s lives in the interwar period and to the field of periodical studies.

The collection consists of thirty chapters, split into five thematic parts. When taken together, these sections present a comprehensive overview of the key concerns germane to studying women’s print media of the period: culture, style, domesticity, feminism, and community. Each part is prefaced with its own introduction, which provides a brief overview of the broader contexts and concerns that emerge across its chapters. Part I, “Culture and the Modern Woman,” seeks to push interwar periodical studies beyond the study of modernism, with the chapters in this part exploring a variety of women’s periodicals – from highbrow to lowbrow – in order to examine how magazines “taught readers what to read, what to see, and how to consume a variety of modern aesthetic forms” (11). The essays presented in this section are all strong, but highlights include Claire Battershill’s survey of the representation of bookish culture in interwar women’s periodicals, and Lise Shapiro Sanders’s examination of 1920s romance weeklies, which will be of particular interest to popular romance scholars. Sanders argues that a close inspection of girls’ magazines of the period – such as Girls’ Favourite and Peg’s Paper – reveals changes to “the pattern of heterosexual romance,” aided by new attitudes towards consumption and leisure (87). The romance fiction presented in these magazines “both departed from and reflected the experiences of the modern girl” (88). They presented plots where working or middle-class heroines become involved with the stage and screen, depicting this world as a space of glamour and fantasy, while also presenting its potential moral and sexual dangers. Alongside this depiction, however, is the understanding that this involvement with theatre and cinema can only be temporary, with the heroines relinquishing their involvements after marriage – the happily ever after provided by the narratives.

Part II turns to the question of style, exploring how periodicals instructed their readers to be modern. This section takes a broad approach to understanding representations of modern style, aiming to move beyond existing work that has largely focused on the links between style and fashion. As such, the essays examine not only the popular fashion magazines of the period (such as Vogue and Eve) but also periodicals targeted at more specific audiences, such as cinema magazines and young adult publications. Moreover, these chapters offer useful insights into methodologies in periodical studies. For example, Penny Tinkler’s analysis of the middle-class young women’s magazine Miss Modern offers an overview of how the magazine constructed the ideal of “youthful feminine modernity” in its pages (158). Tinkler takes an “inclusive” approach to reading Miss Modern, considering both how the magazine fits into the wider periodical landscape, and its diverse forms of content, such as editorials, fiction, images, and advertising (154). Tinkler argues that this type of holistic approach to studying magazines – one that “engages with text, image, and design and the relationships between them” – is necessary in order to present a comprehensive reading (154).

The chapters on domesticity and the home provide a complex and highly nuanced view of these concerns as represented in the pages of interwar periodicals. This discussion interrogates the common characterisation of interwar domestic writing as being “a retreat into domestic life,” and recasts domestic discourses as being varied and diverse (209). For instance, Adrian Bingham’s chapter on the emergent women’s page in national daily newspapers argues that there was a shift away from traditional domestic routines. Instead, the women’s pages presented modern domesticity as requiring new and professionalised [End Page 4] techniques (such as approaches to housewifery and childcare informed by science and psychology), and engagement with the consumer economy, along with the recognition that women wanted to balance their domestic duties along with paid work and socialising. There are also political aspects to understanding domesticity, as Karen Hunt’s chapter on the monthly women’s magazine Labour Woman demonstrates. The magazine’s column, “The Housewife,” provided a space to engage working-class housewives with politics through their everyday lives, by providing practical tips and advice for managing a household while on a budget.

The shift to feminism in the latter half of the collection is a welcome addition, although some of the essays in this section feel slightly underdeveloped. Take, for example, Helen Glew’s chapter on Opportunity, a feminist periodical for civil servants. While the essay provides a well-researched overview of the journal’s history during the interwar period, it ultimately feels too brief to be able to develop a strong and sustained argument. However, Laurel Forster’s discussion of feminist debates in Time and Tide is the real stand-out in this section, demonstrating how the magazine promoted debate and discussion over the issue of women’s work. Forster’s analysis focuses primarily on a 1926 essay series titled “Women of the Leisured Classes,” which provided deliberately contentious ideas as a means to provoke debate amongst Time and Tide’s readers. Importantly, this debate about women’s work (or in the case of the leisured class, lack of work) spilled over into other arenas, turning up in other print media and culminating in a face-to-face debate between G. K. Chesterton and the author of the essays, Candida, a pseudonym for Time and Tide’s founder, Lady Margaret Rhondda.

The volume closes strongly with a focus on women’s organisations and communities. Seeking to expand perspectives on women’s movements of the interwar period by moving beyond explicitly feminist groups, the chapters in this section examine a wide-ranging selection of titles, including the periodicals of housewives’ associations, co-operative guilds, religious communities, political parties, and journalism societies. These organisations, as Maria DiCenzo notes in her introduction to the section, were not necessarily explicitly feminist, but did engage with “women’s politics and forms of advocacy […] across the political spectrum” in a broader sense (405).

Perhaps the real benefit that Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain offers to those in popular romance studies is that it opens up a number of new avenues for potential inquiry. Romance fiction and romance novelists are regularly mentioned in passing throughout the collection. Ursula Bloom contributed articles to Woman’s Outlook, a feminist co-operative periodical; the pages of Miss Modern, a young women’s magazine, frequently featured romance fiction. The collection provides us with the methodological approaches and tools necessary for future explorations of the ways in which popular romance studies and periodical studies may intersect. Indeed, the volume’s extensive appendix – which details where every periodical mentioned throughout the collection is archived – is supplied in order to help promote further research on women’s periodicals of the 1920s and 30s.

When taken together, Making Modern Love and Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain illustrate the potential print cultures have to reveal how constructions of sexuality, identity, femininity, and community operated in interwar Britain. Both works will be of value to those studying the early twentieth century and the interwar period, as well as those interested in periodicals and print cultures. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Latham, Sean, and Robert Scholes. “The Rise of Periodical Studies.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 2, 2006, pp. 517–31.

[End Page 6]


Review: Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb’s Novels, by Kecia Ali

Review by Jessica Miller

The importance of Nora Roberts to the popular romance genre and, in fact, to the publishing industry, can hardly be overstated. She published her first romance with Harlequin in 1975. She has since has published over 215 books. Her every release in the past nineteen years has hit the New York Times bestseller list. Justifiably famous for her prolificness – she still averages five books a year – Roberts is also recognized as a genre leader in popular romance.

Roberts is widely credited with either pioneering or being at the forefront of many significant changes in the genre over the past four decades including narrative serialization, incorporation of genre elements outside romance (genre hybridization), writing stronger, older, and more sexually experienced heroines who have professional identities, and writing from the male protagonist’s point of view, among many others. In the mid-1990s, Roberts was frustrated with her publisher’s plan to release a trilogy in annual installments to avoid overexposure. Roberts demurred at first when her agent suggested that she publish some books under a pseudonym as a way to capitalize on her fast writing pace without saturating the market. Eventually, accepting that “It’s marketing … I could be two popular brands,” she consented (Charles). That second brand, J. D. Robb, is the subject of Kecia Ali’s 2017 book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb’s Novels.

Naked in Death (1995) introduced New York Police and Security Department Lieutenant Eve Dallas, her lover, billionaire entrepreneur Roarke, and their mid-twenty-first century world. A generic fusion that incorporates elements of romance, suspense, and police procedural, with a dash of science fiction, each installment is a self-contained crime story that also explores the relationship between the two central protagonists. The first few books focused on Eve and Roarke’s initial courtship and marriage, and their relationship remains the emotional core of the series, but the romance plot and suspense plots have tended to share the stage in subsequent installments. January 2018 saw the publication of Dark in Death, the 46th book in the series, which remains as popular as ever among readers, even as the publishing space for similar stories is increasingly crowded. [End Page 1]

Roberts has achieved a high level of cultural visibility and appreciation for her work ethic, her ability to sell books, her relationship with her fans, and her support of the popular romance industry. However, her books and her writing have received less attention, even among popular romance scholars. As popular romance studies has developed in the past few decades, it has moved away from a generalizing approach and towards a differential approach, which analyzes not the entire genre, but individual, intentionally selected texts in thematic groups or in isolation (Goris “Matricide in Romance Scholarship?”). Even so, there remain few studies that focus on Roberts (but see works by Regis, and Goris “Mind, Body, Love”) and almost no work on Roberts writing as J.D. Robb (see Mayangasari and Swaminathan for exceptions). While the In Death series is not a romance series (that would require a complete courtship plot in each installment), it is built around a central romantic relationship, and it is written by the most prodigious, best-selling, and most celebrated romance author of the past thirty plus years which makes it worthy of attention. For these reasons, Ali’s book-length study of the In Death series represents an important milestone in popular romance studies.

Observing that all literature grapples with the human condition, Ali explores those aspects of humanity that seem to her most salient in Robb’s work. Since no one book could cover everything interesting about Robb’s writing, the decision to anchor Human in Death in, first, a vision of the human, provides focus and coherence. Taking her cue from the specific literary genres combined in the In Death series, Ali narrows her scope even further to concentrate on justice, law, and retribution (police procedural), class, race, and technology (speculative fiction), and social norms around masculinity, femininity, and relationships (romance). Chapters are organized topically around five themes: intimacy, friendship, vocation, violence, and perfection.

Noting that “Critical engagement, not condemnation, is my task” (Loc. 71), Ali teases out the vision of human good that the In Death series promotes, as well as its omissions and silences. An important theme throughout is the centrality of the romantic relationship between Eve and Roarke, and how this is intertwined with the suspense plot and police procedural. Where more casual readers, or scholars focusing on one or a few books might focus on continuities across books, Ali’s comprehensive study demonstrates how the relationships, characters, and plots have changed and evolved over time, an incredibly valuable perspective on such a long-running series. Human in Death offers a compelling model for analyzing not only long-running series, but the way writers deploy romance genre elements beyond the constraints of the genre itself, and what happens when they do. Ali’s central argument is that Robb’s futuristic New York and the characters within it reflects both the problems and promise of the current social reality. It is at once economically just, egalitarian, tolerant, and multicultural and beset by poverty, violence, political strife, and prejudice.

Ali, Professor of Religion at Boston University and a noted scholar in her home fields of Islamic Jurisprudence and Women in Early and Modern Islam, marries a fan’s enthusiasm for and detailed knowledge of the study texts with a scholar’s ability to reflect conceptually on them, teasing out themes, noticing omissions, and connecting these observations to the relevant scholarly literature. In each chapter, Ali displays a sure command of Robb’s oeuvre, of relevant popular romance scholarship, and of contemporary debates among readers. She avoids both dense academic jargon and fannish minutia, creating an accessible text for educated lay readers and a compelling one for scholars of popular romance fiction who do [End Page 2] not share her encyclopedic knowledge of all 15,000 or so pages of the In Death books. The endnotes more directly address scholarly and theoretical concerns than the main text, and I sometimes wished that material was brought into the main text. That said, Ali’s approach makes for a smoothly readable book.

Ali’s first chapter, “Intimacy in Death” explores Roarke and Eve’s relationship to generate claims about the vision of the good life Robb’s series promotes. Since all of the chapters follow this pattern, I will summarize this one in some detail. Ali relies on copious, but smoothly integrated, textual evidence to illustrate the ways Robb blends and manages diverse genre requirements. She writes:

The commingling of sex and violence echoes the series’ genre blending. In addition to setting the stage for this brave new world, the first novels in the series interweave a courtship plot with the procedural. Both have their own logics and narrative conventions. (Loc. 141-143)

For example, the murder plot brings Eve and Roarke together as cop and suspect, while also throwing up an obvious barrier to their mutual attraction. The traumatic past that closes Eve off emotionally from intimacy also fuels her thirst for justice and her determined pursuit of criminals, often at great personal cost. And Roarke’s underworld connections and unorthodox investigative techniques make him a powerful ally, but dangerous lover.

In the latter part of this chapter, Ali teases out the many factors that support egalitarianism and gender role reversals in Eve and Roarke’s relationship. Roarke is more caring and open, while Eve is more guarded, so their characters generate a switch of stereotypical caretaking roles. The police procedural plot, with Eve as the cop, influences the series’ focus on her career as opposed to Roarke’s. The suspense aspects, and the constant danger they present to Eve and Roarke, make a child-free lifestyle a fitting one for them, which contributes to a more egalitarian domestic life. Ali also notes the way the earlier books hew more closely certain romance genre conventions, with Roarke as the pursuer in the relationship sometimes acting in ways that invade her privacy and her boundaries. Robb does stick to other romance conventions throughout the series: Roarke is taller and more physically assertive than Eve, and so wealthy that her refusal to conform to stereotypical conceptions of wifely duties is smoothed over by human and droid servants. Finally, Ali explores the wider circle of intimates orbiting around the main characters. The series, in sum, “shows the value of interdependence, the crucial importance of caring work, and the inevitability of vulnerability” (Loc. 432). Ali concludes by observing that Roarke and Eve’s interdependence and working partnership create a solid foundation for intimacy in other relationships, which provides a smooth segue into the next chapter, “Friendship in Death.”

While building a picture of the good life for humans that emerges from a close reading of the entire In Death series, Ali notices, in a fascinating chapter called “Perfectionism in Death”, problematic assumptions and gaps, including ableism, a view of the good life in which disabled individuals are marginalized Similarly, Ali notes that while Robb often mentions race, the author fails to integrate structural racism into her near-future New York City, which is presented as “free of anti-black racism” without explanation (Loc. 674; 1978). Ali points out, for example, that Robb tends to mention race when the character is non-white, with the result that “whiteness goes mostly unspoken” (Loc. 667).  Ali also critiques the “unrelieved whiteness” of Dallas’s close friends (Loc. 692). In an especially compelling section, she [End Page 3] explores the sole recurring black character, Crack, as a window into the series’ relationship to race. A club owner, Crack is “relentlessly embodied” (Loc. 743), and while his name is meant to refer to his physical strength, the “allusion to crack cocaine, scourge of the inner cities, is unmistakable” (Loc. 758).[1]

At times, Ali’s critique doesn’t go far enough for this reviewer, for example when she quotes without comment Dallas’s assertion that “all deaths matter” (Loc. 2022) and that “Murder…harbored no bigotry, no bias” (Loc. 2007). These echo a little too closely the slogan “all lives matter,” a rhetorical move that diverts discussion of police brutality away from the lived experience of black people and away from systematic racism. This is surprising given that in the preface Ali shares that the exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown led directly to the addition of a chapter on violence in the book (Loc. 69). While police violence is a relatively rare occurrence in the In Death series, Dallas’s way of describing murder serves to deflect from the disproportionate and unjust burden of violence borne by people of color in the United States. The issues of race and police brutality are treated by Ali in separate chapters, but connecting them more explicitly might have generated some additional interesting insights.

While all scholarly work reveals something about the scholar, being a fan implies voluntary engagement with and enjoyment of the study texts. Far from rendering her analysis suspect, Ali’s status as a fan opens an additional avenue of inquiry and insight. She questions how to read the books in an ethical way, which, she asserts, requires thoughtful consideration of not only problematic aspects of Robb’s books, but also of gaps in the reader’s (including her own) patterns of attention. While the series may paint a picture of a kind of life worth living – one that includes loving intimacy, friendships, and a vocation – uptake requires reader responsiveness. Readers’ critical engagement can allow them to take transferable lessons from Robb’s work: “If imagination is part of the writer’s toolkit for social transformation, the reader’s more modest but also powerful tool is thoughtfulness” (Loc. 2511-2512). On the other hand, while vigorously defending the claim that, “critical reflection need not oppose appreciation; it can enhance enjoyment,” (Loc. 111) Ali does not explore the possibility that for some readers, problematic aspects unearthed by critical reflection can not only dampen enthusiasm, but create an internal conflict that forces a choice between a reader’s pleasure and her moral integrity.

Human in Death should appeal to fans of the series, popular romance scholars, and philosophers interested in ethical criticism. It works best as a generous, intelligent, and occasionally tough-minded exploration for series readers, much more ambitious, and demanding, than typical companion books full of trivia, interviews, and pop quizzes. It should also be easily accessible for undergraduates, and at about $30 for the hardcover edition (a bit less for the digital version), the cost is very reasonable. It could be used in a course that includes critique of contemporary literature generally, or popular romance fiction, police procedurals, or suspense specifically. It is not necessary to have read any of Robb’s books to appreciate Ali’s insights, although that would obviously enhance a student’s ability to engage with them. Any chapter of Human in Death could be chosen, or indeed the whole book could be used for a course on fiction and philosophy that includes a unit on morality. Specific chapters could be studied in a criminology and literature course, a sociology of violence course, or a professionalism or professional ethics course.

Ali is modest about her aims in Human In Death, which she describes as a form of “thoughtful engagement with fictive worlds,” a prelude to the “essential work” of cultivating [End Page 4] a more just world (Loc. 2517). In the preface, Ali indicates that the project began as “a relatively lighthearted little book,” and, while current events led her to delve into darker themes, with only 100 pages of text, it remains short for a monograph (Loc. 69). Ali encourages readers to explore sources cited in her 100 pages of endnotes, and hopes Human in Death will help stimulate work on aspects of Robb’s oeuvre that she doesn’t cover at all: parenting, technology, and the global political order.

With respect to ethical criticism, Ali remains at the level of assumed shared understandings of common morality, leaving room for a study of the In Death series like The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices. In that book, Edmund M. Kern probes the moral universe of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series via an explicit articulation of Stoicism. Books such as The Politics of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Philosophy provide insights into source texts in the service of teaching key concepts in political science and philosophy, respectively, and a volume on Robb’s work in this vein would not go amiss. Her comments about reader responsibility are confined to the introduction and conclusion, inviting more detailed consideration, especially since such discussions still tend to frame the reader as passively affected rather than actively engaged. And, in terms of popular romance studies, I think some of Ali’s observations suggest fruitful dialogues between the In Death series and An Goris’s work on serialization (“Happily Ever After…and After”; see also Valeo), Roach’s work on the aca-fan-subject position, work in disability studies and romance (for example, Mills, Baldys, Cheyne, and Schalk), and, of course, work in race, gender and ethnicity in romance (such as Taylor, Teo, Kamblé, and Burge). In short, Human in Death raises more questions than it aims to answer, providing an excellent methodological model and example for pursuing them.

[1] It’s worth noting in this context that the phrase “inner city”, while it continues to be used in the scholarly literature, is considered by some to be problematic. See Axel-Lute for an accessible explanation. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Ali, Kecia. Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb’s Novels. Baylor University Press, 2017.

Axel-Lute, Miriam “4 Reasons to Retire the Phrase ‘Inner City’” ShelterForce, 23 May 2017,

Baldys, Emily M. “Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, pp. 125-41.

Barratt, Bethany. The Politics of Harry Potter. Springer, 2012.

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. Palgrave, 2016.

Charles, Ron. A. “Nora Roberts at The Washington Post.” YouTube, 14 July 2009,

Cheyne, Ria. “Disability studies reads the romance.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2013, pp. 37-52.

Goris, An. “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2012.

Goris, An. “Happily Ever After…and After: Serialization and the Popular Romance Novel.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present, vol. 12, no. 1, 2013.

Goris, An. “Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’ Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011.

Irwin, William. The Hunger Games and philosophy: A critique of pure treason. Vol. 59. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

Kamblé, Jayashree. Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Kern, Edmund M. The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What our Favorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices. Prometheus Books, 2003.

Ledford-Miller, Linda. “Gender and Genre Bending: The Futuristic Detective Fiction of J. D. Robb.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, vol. 11, no. 3, 2011, pp. 35.

Mayangsari, Putri. “An Analysis of Personality Disorder and Abnormal Sexual Behavior that Lead to Crime in Seduction in Death Novel by JD Robb.” LANTERN (Journal on English Language, Culture and Literature), vol. 6, no. 3, 2017.

Miller, Kathleen. “‘A Little Extra Bite’: Dis/Ability and Romance in Tanya Huff and Charlaine Harris’s Vampire Fiction.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010.

Regis, Pamela. “Complicating Romances and their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres, vol. 3, no. 1-2, 1997, pp. 145-54.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Roach, Catherine. Happily Ever After. The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Indiana UP, 2016.

Robb, J. D. Naked in Death. Vol. 1. Penguin, 1995.

Robb, J. D. Dark in Death. Vol. 46 St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

[End Page 6]

Schalk, Sami. “Happily Ever After for Whom? Blackness and Disability in Romance Narratives.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 49, no. 6, 2016, pp. 1241-1260.

Sears, John. Stephen King’s Gothic. U of Wales P, 2011.

Swaminathan, Srividhya. “JD Robb’s Police Procedurals and the Critique of Modernity.” New Perspectives on Detective Fiction: Mystery Magnified, vol. 55, 2015, pp. 141.

Taylor, Jessica. “And you can be my Sheikh: Gender, race, and Orientalism in contemporary romance novels.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 40, no. 6, 2007, pp. 1032-1051.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert passions: Orientalism and romance novels. U of Texas P, 2012.

Valeo, Christina. “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger, McFarland & Company, 2012, pp. 229-240.

[End Page 7]


The Stable Muslim Love Triangle – Triangular Desire in African American Muslim Romance Fiction
by Layla Abdullah-Poulos

Romance fiction explores culturally-specific notions of intimacy. Because it portrays a group’s conventions about love and amorousness, it can provide outsiders glimpses of norms and practices. Authors can describe and critique features of a given social context—such as racism or religious prejudice—in ways that inform outsiders and, at the same time, [End Page 1] allow insiders to recognize and identify with behaviors and situations described. For example, Conseula Francis’ analysis of Addicted by Zane demonstrates how romance narratives provide Black women “a powerful counternarrative” to the “oversexed vixens of rap videos or gonzo porn” (173). Romance as a venue to foil extant stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality also situates Black female protagonists as receivers of the eros love typically reserved for White female characters and allows for nuanced social commentary related to the Black American experience. In her analysis of Brenda Jackson’s Tonight and Forever, Julie E. Moody-Freeman outlines how safe sex love scenes between Black protagonists reflect the promotion of Black women’s sexual health during the “age of HIV/AIDS” when the author published the novel (112). Francis and Moody-Freeman’s explorations of African American romance narratives offer powerful critical tools in observing cultural elements of a social group and ways in which the genre may be used by authors to address biases, stereotypes, and social issues affecting its members at the most intimate levels.

African American (AA) Muslim romance fiction is sui generis. It combines Islamic, African American, and American notions of love, courtship, and sexual dialogue. In this article, I explore four romances—Areebah’s Dilemma: Love or Deen by Karimah Grayson, American Boy by Zara J., Khadijah’s Life in Motion by Jatasha Sharif and His Other Wife by Umm Zakiyyah—and argue that they have a consistent, and uniquely AA Muslim, structure. Applying René Girard’s theory of triangular desire to the Islamic thematic underpinnings of AA Muslim romance, I show the consistent presence of a Stable Muslim Love Triangle (SMLT), a culturally-specific triangular romance structure permeating romantic plots. Girard grants fluidity to love triangles in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure and presents one love triangle containing a mediator of desire that dictates the yearning of the subject for the object of desire (2). AA Muslim romance novels consistently include a SMLT triangular structure of desire, wherein Allah (swt)[i] firmly maintains position as mediator of desire at the love triangle’s apex. Consequently, when determining whether to pursue or maintain a romantic relationship with the object of desire, the subject unfailingly relinquishes individual passions and acquiesces to the protocols set by Allah (swt) through interpreted Islamic teachings.

There are three primary manifestations for the SMLT in the surveyed AA texts:

  1. Muslim subject – Muslim object.
  2. Muslim female subject – non-Muslim male object.
  3. Muslim male subject – non-Muslim female object.

Each of the above manifestations of the SMLT involves nuances of religious application and identity that jeopardizes the joining of the novel’s protagonists. When both are Muslim, one protagonist’s un-Islamic behavior imperils the couple’s relationship. When one of the protagonists is non-Muslim, the lack of belief disrupts the SMLT.

AA Muslim romance is a distinctive subgenre reflecting unique notions about love and romance held by African Americans resulting from the infusion of Islamic observations with American heritages. The analyzed works illustrate the multiple cultural identities which comprise the multi-layered American Muslim experience. [End Page 2]

Cultural Identity

Layered Islamic and African American identities encapsulated in the AA Muslim experience simultaneously feed its members’ cultural productions. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish notions of culture and identity that create a distinctive AA Muslim cultural identity.

Although the terms “identity” and “culture” are usually used interchangeably, following Stuart Hall’s approach allows one to explore the differences among the various nationalities, ethnicities, and identities that comprise American Muslim culture while recognizing a common Islamic culture.[1] Hall asserts that identity serves as a point of human delineation: “Identities are constructed through, not outside, difference” (4). Therefore, one establishes identity by creating a distinction from another. An individual may have layered identities from which they have the ability to draw and clarify differences from those around them, although Hall’s identity binary allows for specified application of terms “culture” and “identity”.

Categorizing identity as a space of distinction makes room to apply an explicit definition to the term “culture.” Hall, as well as Geoffrey H. Hartman, designate culture as a sphere of appreciated similarity. Hall asserts that culture comprises practices, representations, languages and customs (439), while Hartman notes that culture is a “specific form of embodiment or solidarity” (36). In other words, a culture comprises associations with people sharing languages, customs and heritages, holding the same values, and relating to representations of shared experiences.

Thus, the term “cultural identity” indicates a distinction within shared experiences. In American Secularism, Joseph Baker and Buster Smith explain that where culture provides artifacts with which an individual may make a stable connection with others, identity is that with which we emotionally describe and differentiate ourselves (504). Personal identification is subjective and varies based on societal influences and internal processes (Baker and Smith 504). Individual relationships to cultural artifacts and desires to identify with cultural nuances of a social group vary as well. AA Muslims, and the authors who identify as such, assert identities distinct from the broader American Muslim culture, wherein they share similar Islamic cultural practices, customs, language[2], and representations. As a result, cultural artifacts from the AA Muslim cultural identity highlight a unique American Muslim cultural experience, influenced by social intersections of religion, race, gender, and national origin. The SMLT expounded upon in this article outlines a standard trope in AA Muslim romance reflective of American religious romances (i.e. Evangelical, Puritanical, etc.), demonstrating literary connections between novels written by authors of varying religions who weave faith with human love.

African American Muslim Cultural Identity

Dominant culture tends to assume Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Middle East or South Asia (MESA). Like many other social spheres in the United States, AA and Black Muslims encounter erasure of their identities resulting from intersections of race and religion via the promotion of a “foreign” MESA Muslim archetype. [End Page 3] Consequently, publishers, agents, etc. feed into the creation of an “ideal type” of American Muslim, and reinforce it, restricting ventures of the inclusion of Muslims to members of those two finite demographics. AA Muslim authors experience professional erasure which limits markets for and appreciation of their literary work. Since having an opportunity to highlight their distinctive—and distinctively American—identities matters to them, they must self-publish and create small presses.

I coined the term Native-born American (NbA)[3] Muslims to highlight social groups whose members have an extended American heritage and merge intersections of the country’s social intersections[4] with Islam. I elaborated on some distinctions existing in the culture when I created the NbA Muslims online platform:

The dynamics of the native-born American Muslims [NbA Muslims] hybrid culture are complex. There are a variety of socio-cultural topics that warrant in-depth academic investigation. For example, many NbA Muslims belong to multi-religious families. Consequently, there are various familial situations such as family reactions to conversion as well as interacting with the family while maintaining an Islamic ethic. Additionally, there are social concerns such as interfaith communal dialogue, gender relations and roles, community involvement, racism, contact with the immigrant Muslim population, and artistic expression (NbA Muslims).

The NbA Muslim cultural identity hybridizes Islamic and American conventions to produce unique social groups which implement components from each. The NbA African American[5] Muslim cultural identity includes the social intersection of race, influenced by the country’s historical and modern racial systems. Thus, literary productions of NbA AA Muslims reflect how the group redefines social intersections of race, gender, and nation for themselves.

The adoption of the Islamic faith by native-born Americans generates an additional cultural divergence in the American Muslim subculture. Unlike immigrant Muslim populations, the Islamic experiences of native-born African-Americans[6] primarily consist of conversion and adoption of Islam as a new faith.[7] Converts comprise ninety-one percent of native-born American Muslims (Pew Research). Therefore, Islam is new for the majority of native-born American Muslims, who must construct interpretations and observances for their new religion.

AA Muslims also maintain ownership of their Americanness, stemming from heritages extending from ancestral enslavement, recognized citizenship after emancipation, and continual assertion of their socio-political capital. They resist the reductive national narrative that Muslims are perpetually foreign.

NbA AA Muslims also encounter racism and anti-Blackness within Muslim spheres, which augment systemic racism from the broader society. Examining experiences of racism and racial micro-aggressions perpetrated by White and non-Black[8] Muslims reveals social clashes among adherents in the United States. The predominance of said racism means that many AA Muslims encounter a paradox, wherein the egalitarian ideals contained in their religion are superseded by the racial objectification inflicted on them (Karim 37). [End Page 4]

NbA African American Muslim Romance

African American Muslim authors represent the largest subset of writers in the NbA Muslim hybrid culture.[9] My research uncovered over thirty Muslim fiction[10] titles written by AA Muslims. A consequence of the continued lack of diversity the publishing industry, the majority of authors self-publish or become indie publishers.[11] Most AA Muslim authors are not full-time novelists. Consequently, publishing remains inconsistent, with no stable annual book releases[12] save a few professional authors like Umm Zakiyyah, Sa’id Saleem, and Umm Juwayriyah.

Of these thirty texts, I chose six to critically examine.[13] Some tropes shared by these works across genres diverged from those used by American Muslim authors who are not African American.[14]

  1. Many titles include conversion experiences and interactions between main characters and non-Muslim characters with whom they share familial (i.e. parent, sibling, relative, etc.) ties, as well as intimate friendships and/or relationships.[15]
  2. Plots tend to center the Islamic faith, and many characters are motivated by or recognize the significance with their relationship to Allah (swt).
  3. There is a connection to the tradition of AA novelists seeking to utilize fiction to articulate their cultural experiences, raise social consciousness, and affect social change—known as the Black Literary Tradition.[16]

Through an extensive African American heritage, AA Muslim authors tap into a rich literary tradition spanning centuries with some steady messaging, and infuse it with culturally-specific Islamic observances and interpretations reflective of members merging faith and race. Also, when centering the Islamic faith and characters’ fictional relationships with Allah (swt), AA Muslim romance authors often produce recurrent themes in Muslim fiction novels that highlight a triangular desire similar to those contained in Christian romance, but with a few marked differences, which will be noted later.

Faith-based Romance

Romantic distinctions stemming from religious and belief structures offer a subtle but significant divergent perspective differing from secular norms exclusively centering the heroine and hero. In romance fiction, the central (and occasionally the only) focus of the plot is on the love relationship and courtship process of the two main characters (Ramsdell 4; Regis 14). Characters and elements exterior to the couple serve to facilitate or foil the developing relationship, resulting in their lifetime joining either through marriage or committed partnership.[17] However, romance critics Lynn S. Neal and Valerie Weaver-Zercher present romance formulas wherein God maintains omnipotent influence over protagonists in Christian love stories. Neal explains in Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction how belief or lack of belief plays a pivotal role in the protagonists’ ability to unite in Evangelical romance (Neal 6): “Evangelical romances place one’s relationship with God before all other relationships [and the characters are] transformed [End Page 5] and brought together through the power of God’s love” (5). In Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, Weaver-Zercher posits a comparable objective for Amish fiction: to encourage readers to cherish and prioritize the sacred love of God (127). Both Neal and Weaver-Zercher seem to agree that “God is the ultimate lover who pursues them and will always be there for them” (Neal 159). However, numerous approaches to faith, love and romance makes it necessary to appreciate nuances beyond one construct. Since multifaceted representations of God as the ultimate lover across Christian denominations requires distinct analyses, so too should literary criticisms of works from authors of different faiths.

Similar to Christian romance models, romances written by AA Muslim authors prioritize Allah (swt) in the development of the romantic plot, barrier to the protagonists’ union, and ultimate objective in the love story. Although not an “ultimate lover” pursuing the protagonists—something I will unpack further later—the deity remains at the pinnacle of the Stable Muslim Love Triangle prevalent in AA romance fiction, whereby at least one of the protagonists’ commitment to Allah (swt), as opposed to attraction to the object of desire, serves as a lynchpin to the union.

The Love Triangle

The love triangle is a frequent feature of romance novels. In The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel, Jennifer McKnight-Trontz outlines ways in which married protagonists encounter challenges to their happily ever after (HEA) via “the heartache of matrimonial trouble by way of adulterous affairs, love triangles, and divorce” (35). However, romance love triangles are not limited to causing disruption in a marriage. David Shumway states that modern “popular novels or stories are much less likely to make love triangles explicitly adulterous [but] the love triangle remains fundamental to popular fiction of the turn of the century” (45). Love triangles are one manifestation of the “triadic structure”[18] of relationships, wherein one subject is excluded (Shumway 14-15). Love triangles present an opportunity to provide “the barrier” to the protagonists’ union, an essential romance element.

Pamela Regis describes the barrier in romance fiction as a series of scattered scenes containing external (outside the protagonists’ minds) or internal (inside of at least one of the protagonists’ minds) conflicts that establish reasons for the inability for the lovers to unite (32). In a romance containing at least one love triangle, an individual often serves as an external barrier to the lovers. However, a common theme in religious romance involves a protagonist’s internal conflict between a commitment to God and human love for another character, generating a love triangle jeopardizing both relationships. René Girard’s theory of triangular desire serves as a base to reveal how AA Muslim romance authors consistently place Allah (swt) at the apex of romantic structures, maintaining principle authority in determining the viability of love between characters.

René Girard’s Triangular Desire

The love triangle involving Allah (swt) as the ultimate arbiter of the feasibility of a union between the protagonists is a constant in African American romance. African [End Page 6] American authors often include an internal barrier where one or more characters use(s) Islamic parameters to decide whether to initiate or continue a romantic relationship. In Areebah’s Dilemma, the titular character Areebah chose not to pursue a relationship with her love interest, non-Muslim Frankie. Although Areebah was in love with Frankie, the character decided, “no matter how much she cared about him, she loved Allah [swt] the most” (134-135). Areebah’s decision indicates the level of dedication to her faith as well as Allah’s (swt) role as the “mediator of desire” (Girard 2) in a love triangle comprising the novel’s protagonists and God. Girard describes the “mediator of desire” as the “model” with which the “subject” pursues objects of desire (2). Girard uses the triangle as a “spatial metaphor” that expresses the triple relationship, wherein, “The mediator is there…radiating toward both the subject and the object” (Girard 2). The mediator of desire dominates all of the connections in the love triangle, and the subject forsakes personal desires and aspirations for the mediator’s criteria.

A triangle with the text "Girard's Triangular Desire" in the middle and "Mediator" "Subject" and "Object" at the top, left, and right points respectively.

A subject surrendering desire to a mediator is present in various forms of literature. Girard uses Don Quixote as an example of the “subject/disciple” surrendering to a mediator (in this case, Amadis and chivalry), allowing it to supersede his desires (2). Others have extended Girard’s mediator of desire love triangle for specific cultural applications. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick states, “The triangle is useful as a figure by which the ‘commonsense’ of our intellectual tradition schematizes erotic relations, and because it allows us to condense in a juxtaposition with that folk-perception several somewhat different streams of recent thought” (597). Sedgwick utilizes Girard’s literary love triangle as a vehicle to convey homosocial bonds between the subject and the mediator (598), demonstrating the pliability of Girard’s model.

Lisa M. Gordis outlines two Christian triangular love structures, both of which maintain a rivalry between a supernatural God and human lovers. In Puritan texts, the human lover—typically the husband—becomes a rival with God for the affection of the love interest—usually the wife. In these works, God is a “full partner” and “active presence” as in most Christian romances, but He presents a superior lover to the wife in particular and an adversary to the husband’s affections (Gordis 324). Portrayals include God as “jealous” supreme being in the love triangle who punishes spouses for having too much love for their [End Page 7] corporeal love interest (325). The structure is triadic, with God vying predominantly with the husband for the affection of the wife, demanding priority in her heart through punishment and death.[19]

Evangelical romances reinforce the superiority of divine over human love, but through less grave content. Gordis asserts that the demand to uphold the genre’s happily-ever-after convention results in God being, “less a jealous God than a matchmaking deity, sending his beloved children earthly comfort” (331). Consequently, the humans must “learn to balance their triangulated relationship,” and God, while consistently victorious, continues to compete with the lovers for amorous supremacy (333).

AA Muslim romances differ from both of these Christian models in their placement of Allah (swt) in the love triangle. The distinctions among and between Christian and Muslim triangular models of desire[20] deserve sustained critical attention beyond the scope of this article. I will focus here on one significant difference regarding the position of Allah (swt) in the Muslim love triangle as well as His roles as competitor, intermediary, and arbitrator for the human couple and stabilizer of the triangular desire when the relationship dynamics between the lovers change.

Instead of positioning Allah (swt) as a victorious competitor—either through pain/death or enlightenment—for love between human subjects, AA Muslim romance authors continually recognize the immediate superior status of the deity in the love triangle. One or both human subjects pursue His affection and approval to the point of deferring to His protocols when determining the suitability of the object of desire. Amina Wadud posits that any relationships between any two people or two groups and Allah (swt) are essentially one of horizontal reciprocity, explaining, “Each of the two persons are sustained on the horizontal axis because the highest moral point is always occupied metaphysically by Allah [swt]” (850). Wadud’s horizontal placement of humans at the base of the triangle structure not only stabilizes Allah (swt) at the pinnacle, it infers and reinforces Islamic teachings regarding the deity’s independence as well as His appreciation for love between humans without the need to compete with it.[21]

AA Muslim fiction presents an additional departure from the Christian romance rivalry between God and the couple worshiping him, in that authors regularly emphasize the individual relationships each character maintains with the deity. Aysha A. Hidayatullah expands on Wadud’s horizontal reciprocity and explains that humans simultaneously occupy “horizontally equivalent” spaces under Allah (swt) while each also maintaining separate “vertical” relations to Allah (swt) (168), which they ideally prioritize. Habeeb Akande includes individual characteristics, stressing worship and love of Allah (swt) as premier attributes in a love interest. Akande highlights “taqwa” (god-consciousness) for men and “righteousness” for women as desirable qualities in potential partners (205, 240).[22] Writers of American Boy, Khadijah’s Life in Motion, Areebah’s Dilemma, and His Other Wife include pressures on love triangles stemming from characters’ embodiment of or challenges with belief or exhibiting righteous behaviors. Main characters must consequently navigate barriers to attaining a happily-ever-after because love interests either do not satisfy expectations of “righteousness” or do, but are not the immediate characters to whom the main characters are attached. The primacy of the vertical relationships existing between Allah (swt) and human subjects highlighted in AA Muslim romance situates Allah (swt) as the exalted arbitrator in the horizontal relationships between them. Furthermore, the authoritative role of Allah (swt) remains stable, whether plots include the deity as a [End Page 8] matchmaker like in some Evangelical texts, wherein he sends “his beloved children earthly comfort rather than deferring their happiness to the heavenly plain” (Gordis 331), or a barrier resulting from issues of faith or lack thereof in the object of desire.

In Muslim romances, Allah (swt) is the mediator of desire, and the Muslim protagonists submit to His dictates and protocols to determine whether to pursue the “object.” The level of commitment each Muslim subject has to Allah (swt) as mediator of desire varies, and Girard posits that simpler characters do not utilize a mediator (2).[23] However, Allah’s (swt) mediator status remains and generates a Stable Muslim Love Triangle at the foundations of AA Muslim Romance, even with the presence of subsidiary love triangles.

Numerous AA romance novels contain standard love triangles involving three characters. In American Boy by Zara J, main character Celine struggles to keep the father of her child Umar with her and away from her rival Tara. In Khadijah’s Life in Motion by Jatasha Sharif, Tyrone returns from prison to find out that his live-in lover Pamela converted to Islam and had a beau in the form of Muslim police officer Ibrahim. Deanna conspires to keep her husband Jacob and best friend Aliyyah apart in His Other Wife by Umm Zakiyyah. However, in addition to the external barriers presented by love triangles between characters, AA romance habitually contain internal barriers emanating from a SMLT, where Allah (swt) is the mediator of desire at the apex. The AA romance novels Areebah’s Dilemma: Love or Deen, American Boy, Khadijah’s Life in Motion, and His Other Wife reveal how Islamic ideals emphasizing love of Allah (swt) produce a SMLT comprising of the deity, heroine, and hero, the specifics of which vary depending on religious identity and adherence.

In a small research study I conducted, all of the self-identified AA Muslim novelists indicated that they intentionally wrote to 1) convey NbA Muslim experience, 2) as a means of da’wah and social commentary. Authors also informed the survey that they included Muslim characters as literary vehicles to highlight Islamic faith practices according to their interpretations (Abdullah-Poulos). In many instances, authors construct Stable Muslim Love Triangles, where faith serves as an internal barrier against as well as a catalyst for the union of romantic protagonists. Consequently, Allah (swt) influences the Muslim’s affection and the moral compass with which the believer determines how to interact with people, including a potential or current love interest. These authors consistently highlight marriage as the primary objective of romantic interactions in their works, and position Allah (swt) as establisher of the protocol with which the believer determines who is suitable. The parameters for an acceptable spouse set in the Quran include: 1) faith,[24] 2) marital status,[25] and 3) familial ties.[26] Observant Muslims should follow the dictates of the religion to assess the qualifications of a potential spouse.[27] Muhammad al-Jibaly describes marriage as “a bond held together by mutual rights and responsibilities,” and spouses should have certain characteristics that make them competent in what is ideally a fair partnership (1) according to divine dictates. Al-Jibaly uses revelation and prophetic guidance to focus on obligations between the spouses, extending the deity’s authority in the horizontal relationships between the spouses as well as horizontal ones directly with him.[28] Thus, Allah’s (swt) exalted status and dual prevailing influence stabilizes the triangle of desire. [End Page 9]

The Stable Muslim Love Triangle (SMLT)

African American romance authors often use the Stable Muslim Love Triangle to serve both as a barrier to and the catalyst for the protagonists’ ultimate union. Two static components of the SMLT are the heteronormative nature of the triangle and marriage. Beyond these fixed confines, the composition of the SMLT, as well as its presentation as a barrier or catalyst, shifts due to a number of factors. Two prominent factors affecting the status of a SMLT in AA romance are 1) observation of the faith, and 2) the religious identity of the object. The former of these two factors influences the SMLT concerning two Muslim characters, while the latter applies to love triangles involving a Muslim subject and non-Muslim object. AA romances containing one or both of these factors generate three distinctive love models, as noted above:

  1. Muslim subject and object;
  2. Muslim woman and non-Muslim man;
  3. Muslim man and non-Muslim woman.

Exploring each of these love models reveals the SMLT’s role in fostering and impeding connections between protagonists.[29]

A triangle with the text "Stable Muslim Love Triangle" in the middle and "Allah" "Subject Muslim" and "Object Muslim/nonMuslim" at the top, left, and right points respectively.

Muslim Subject and Object

Novels include romance triangles with two Muslim protagonists. However, characters’ daily religious application and characteristics frequently differ. Consequently, African American romance contains unions with two Muslim characters strengthened by the Stable Muslim Love Triangle, as well as those weakened resulting from a shift in the mediation of desire dictated by Allah/the mediator. One protagonist in romance upholds an idealized Muslim archetype of a practicing Muslim who prays, fasts, and prioritizes their relationship with Allah (swt) in their daily interactions and interpersonal connections. In His [End Page 10] Other Wife, protagonists Jacob and Aliyyah both fulfill the idealized Muslim archetype. The novel contains scenes of hero Jacob performing Qiyaam al-Layl, a special late-night prayer to seek guidance from Allah (swt) about his marriage to Deanna and love for Aliyyah (182). Similarly, many of the scenes in His Other Wife show Aliyyah offering Qiyaam al-Layl as well as Fajr (early morning) prayer and reading Quran (46, 63-64, 111-112). The praying of Qiyaam al-Layl and Fajr denote a level of devotional excellence in Muslim culture, and Zakiyyah frames the protagonists as idealized Muslim archetypes. Satisfying the idealized Muslim archetype solidifies the viability of the Jacob and Aliyyah’s union and reinforces a positive SMLT between them. However, Jacob pursues Aliyyah while married to Deanna, whose behavior diminishes her ability to exhibit an idealized Muslim archetype and, we will later see, eventually jeopardizes the couple’s marriage.

Unlike the characters engendering Muslim devotional traits, an insufficient exhibition of religious excellence or an error made in the story line disqualifies a flawed Muslim character from obtaining idealized status. There are numerous major character defects contained in the examined novels that may make a character ineligible for idealized Muslim status. Umar in American Boy is a devoted Muslim but flawed by engaging in illicit sex through a one-night stand with his non-Muslim co-worker Celine. Tyrone’s sexual violence via his attempted rape of Pamela/Khadijah in Khadijah’s Life in Motion similarly disqualifies him as an idealized Muslim archetype despite his regular offering of prayers and attending Islamic classes at the masjid. Umar’s brother Khalid in American Boy drinks and gambles; Ahmed in Her Justice is extremely violent. These character flaws prevent them from being ideal Muslims. Whether a character is an idealized or flawed Muslim, their relationships follow a common pattern: if both partners in a relationship apply religion to their lives, their relationship solidifies; if one of them fails to do so, it fractures. Ultimately, characters who observe the Islamic faith to any significant degree defer to Allah’s mediation of desire, which delineates faith as the primary characteristic for a spouse in a Muslim marriage.

In the studied texts, novelists largely prioritize faith and piety at the pinnacle of desirable characteristics for a Muslim subject in AA romance, and when a Muslim object falls short of satisfying the expectations of the subject, there is a breakdown in the relationship. Observant Muslims tend to place religious dedication as their top preference when searching for a spouse. In His Other Wife, Jacob’s relationship with his first wife Deanna begins to deteriorate as his distaste for her perceived un-Islamic behavior increases. In one scene, Jacob and Deanna are driving home and she slaps him (63-64), which introduces readers to her abuse and violation of Islamic protocol regarding slapping (Muslim 6321). Jacob initially tolerates Deanna’s “slaps, hits, punches, or kicks” (63-64) as a part of their marriage, but when layered with more perceivably un-Islamic behavior, such as lying, harassment, and appearing on television with “her hijab pushed back displaying half her hair” and “her lips in a pout, shiny with red lipstick” (184-185), Jacob ultimately dissolves the marriage. Leaving Deanna is not easy for Jacob; she had a firm grasp on him through marriage and sexual control. In one scene, Deanna approaches Jacob during their separation and offers herself for sex. Jacob, torn by his emotions, “yearned for Deanna in a maddening way, and he hated himself for it” (132). Jacob eventually sees Deanna’s proposition for “halal intimacy” as “physical and psychological manipulation” (132). Jacob prays to Allah (swt), “O Allah, give me strength,” spurs Deanna’s advances, and walks away. Jacob’s distaste for his wife’s un-Islamic behavior supersedes the hero’s desires, and Jacob appeals to Allah/Mediator to intercede. Despite being Muslim, Deanna is unable to secure idealized Muslim archetype [End Page 11] status. The combination of Deanna’s physical abuse, immodesty, and aggressive sexual behavior transforms the SMLT she shares with Jacob from a catalyst of their union into a barrier, and ultimately, they divorce.[30]

In AA romance, the Muslim subject concedes to Allah/Mediator and the mediation of desire to initiate and maintain an amorous relationship. The Muslim subject will seek and dispose of a Muslim object love interest based upon the former’s conforming of resistance to the mediation of desire via adherence to the Islamic faith. As demonstrated in His Other Wife, the object’s failure to comply with the subject’s mediation of desire jeopardizes the SMLT.[31] The surveyed stories also convey a theme among AA romance authors that once the SMLT destabilizes, the subject rejects the flawed character, and there are no apparent means of redemption for the object. I have not yet found a novel with a plot structure diverging from this model.

Muslim Woman and Non-Muslim Man

African American Muslim romances with a Muslim subject and non-Muslim object play out differently depending on participants’ gender. Islamic law differentiates between potentially permissible relationships between a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman and always forbidden relationships between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man. As a result, Muslim women choosing to marry non-Muslim men often meet cultural and religious resistance. AA Muslim romance authors address the gender distinction when Muslim characters explore relationships with non-Muslims, and the Stable Muslim Love Triangle functions as catalyst (when the relationship is permissible) or barrier (when it is forbidden).

Unlike the more common romance trope between a Muslim man and a woman outside of the faith, AA romance authors infrequently pair a Muslim woman with a non-Muslim man. One clear example, Areebah’s Dilemma, demonstrates the effects on the SMLT of a Muslim woman desiring a non-Muslim man and their potential union. Realizing that a romantic relationship with Muslim Areebah was impossible, non-Muslim Frankie begins to explore Islam as a faith option. In Areebah’s Dilemma, Frankie accepts Islam, develops his spiritual connection with Allah (swt), and marries Areebah. However, before Frankie’s conversion, Areebah is perplexed and wavers back and forth between avoiding and pursuing him.

Areebah is clearly smitten with Frankie. She loses sleep thinking about him and even considers being his second wife (137).[32] She takes the opportunity to arrange an “accidental” meeting with Frankie at the hospital when he visits his dying mother. Grayson writes, “When she saw Frankie…exit the elevator, she almost jumped into his arms” (112). However, Areebah is aware that Frankie is married and eventually meets his wife, Felicia. Consequently, Areebah and Frankie face an external barrier presented as Frankie’s marriage to Felicia, as well as an internal barrier that manifests because Allah (swt) is Areebah’s mediator of desire, and Frankie’s non-Muslim status challenges their union.

Felicia dies in the novel, removing the couple’s external barrier. Areebah and Frankie engage in a series of text and Facebook direct messages, reigniting their love for each other. However, the SMLT remains an obstacle, and hero and heroine remain distant. Consequently, instead of acting on her carnal desire for Frankie, Areebah appeals to her mediator, Allah (swt), to make Frankie interested in conversion and make him a suitable beau. Because of Allah’s (swt) supremacy over Areebah’s desire, Frankie becomes an object “emptied of its [End Page 12] concrete value and enclosed in an aura of metaphysical virtue” (Dee 391). In other words, Areebah wants an idealized Frankie that simultaneously embodies her temporal desires and the necessary spiritual markers by becoming a possession of the Mediator/Allah (swt). Once Frankie converts, Areebah experiences a fusion of her desire for Frankie and the need for her as a Muslim to adhere to the mediation of desire constructed by the Mediator/Allah (swt) in Islamic marital protocols.

Allah (swt) also becomes Frankie’s mediator of desire when he converts. Wanting to ensure that his conversion would be authentic and not because of his feelings for Areebah, Frankie distances himself from Areebah and begins to study Islam. Frankie did not want to “enter into a way of life for anyone except himself” (168). The character was “determined to learn more about Islam” regardless of whether or not he ultimately ended up with Areebah (168). Frankie’s fervor to study Islam reflects a common theme in AA romance and culture, where non-Muslims develop an interest in the religion because of a Muslim love interest. The shift that takes place in Frankie reflects the malleability of the SMLT, which is constant but not stagnant. Girard mentions that love triangles may change in shape and size without destroying the “identity of the figure” (2). Therefore, the Allah/mediator, Areebah/Muslim Subject, Frankie/non-Muslim object triangle transitions into an Allah/mediator, Areebah/Muslim Subject, Frankie/Muslim object triangle, which reflects Girard’s assertion that the stability of the love triangle emanates from the mediator and subject, while the object “changes with each adventure” (2). The changeable nature of the object – in this case, Frankie – promotes diversity in the SMLT without dissolving the structure.

The relationship between Areebah and Frankie shows a significant pitfall that a Muslim woman encounters when the object of her affection is a non-Muslim male. In practice, Muslims globally do not always observe limitations on Muslim women’s marriage to non-Muslim men. There are instances of Muslim women entering interfaith marriages (Abbas), and there are examples of Muslim imams who perform such ceremonies. However, they face considerable pushback from those strictly adhering to the faith’s traditional restriction. Riad Fataar, a senior leader of South Africa’s Muslim Judicial Council, asserts, “Everybody knows that such a marriage is not permissible in Islam. It is ridiculous to think otherwise” (Moftah). Therefore, Grayson’s portrayal reflects a circumstance resulting from a Muslim woman’s fundamental observation of Islamic law, which frequently occurs in orthodox Muslim cultures.

The lack of a valid marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men simplifies the SMLT between such characters in AA romance. However, when the lovers are a Muslim male and non-Muslim female, the triangle’s nature increases in complexity. AA authors offer prolific storylines comprised of variable relationships between Muslim heroes and non-Muslim women.

Muslim Man and non-Muslim Woman

Compared to Muslim women, the Islamic faith affords more latitude to Muslim men regarding amorous relationships. Although non-physical courtship and heteronormative marital sex apply to Muslim men, the religious status of the inamorata is not as stringent. Islamic law, based on interpretation of a Qur’anic verse (Al-Quran, 5:5), traditionally allows Muslim men to marry certain non-Muslim women, specifically Jews and Christians. Similar to a relationship between a Muslim female protagonist exhibiting interest in a non-Muslim [End Page 13] man, African American authors predominantly respect the Islamic parameters interpreted by the culture for amorous plots involving a male adherent and woman who falls outside of these allowed groups. The majority of the novels include self-identified Christian women and Muslim men.

Muslim male characters in AA romance typically do not desire to sacrifice the idealized Muslim archetype to preserve their relationships with non-Muslim women. In some novels, Muslim male characters attempt to coerce their non-Muslim lovers—with whom they frequently have an existing or past sexual relationship— to convert, insisting that failure to do so will jeopardize the union. In American Boy, Umar refuses to marry Christian heroine Celine, whom he has impregnated, unless she converts. Umar is determined to have a Muslim family; he explains to Celine, “Growing up, my mother always talked about having a good Muslim wife and marrying the ideal woman. It was embedded in us” (180). Umar’s desire for a Muslim wife dually satisfies his desire as well as his obedience to his perception of what Allah/the Mediator arbitrates for him, which further impresses the urgency of the provision of Celine’s conversion before their nuptials. Umar’s ultimatum threatens more than their relationship. Celine’s pregnancy means that if she and Umar remain unmarried when she gives birth, their child will be born illegitimate.

Legitimacy among American Muslims is extremely important; illegitimate children are subject to numerous legal issues. For example, if Umar’s child is born out of wedlock, Islamic law dictates that he or she will have Celine’s last name and the child will not be able to inherit from Umar. Both Umar and his family may be unaware of Islamic law. However, the author presents them as a traditional Muslim family observing Islamic protocols, so it is doubtful. Umar and his family prioritize the main character having a wife who satisfies the idealized Muslim archetype over the interests of the unborn child. The fact that Umar’s “ideal” Muslim wife is available in the form of Tara makes it easier for him to court her and overlook how his decision to marry her instead of Celine will affect his baby. For Umar, standards about a Muslim wife from his upbringing supersede the reality of the need for him to marry a woman, who is an acceptable candidate for marriage under Islamic law, to protect the legitimacy of his child, which is arguably the priority. Consequently, the novel contains two love triangles. The Allah/mediator à Umar/subject à Celine/object presents a barrier love triangle and the Allah/mediator à Umar/subject à Tara/object a catalyst love triangle.

Ultimately, Umar commits to the SMLT with Tara at the detriment of his child, which was acceptable for the novel’s Muslim characters. Umar abandons Celine and their baby because of her non-Muslim status and marries Tara. However, by the novel’s end, Umar eventually takes his newborn child from Celine to raise with his new bride. He leaves the mother of his child alone and showing obvious signs of post-partum depression. The love triangle between Umar, Celine, and Tara excludes Celine, not because of anything she does but because she is a nonbeliever in the Islamic faith. Like Frankie in Areebah’s Dilemma, the main character flaw is being non-Muslim and aggravating the SMLT in each romance plot via their unsuitability according to Allah (swt) as the mediator of desire.

AA romance characters exemplify many issues that exist in AA culture. The romantic connections depicted in their love models involve either 1) two Muslims or 2a) a Muslim woman desiring a non-Muslim man or 2b) a Muslim man seeking to develop or maintain a relationship with a non-Muslim woman. These represent multifaceted applications of the SMLT, which firmly places Allah (swt) at the pinnacle governing the decisions a Muslim character makes about an object of desire. [End Page 14]

The SMLT is a consistent trope in AA romance. It is comprised of Allah (swt) as the mediator in a mediation of desire and one Muslim subject acquiescing to his dictates when determining whether to pursue or maintain a relationship with an object of desire. Variations of the SMLT appear along the lines of religious identity. In novels containing plots with a Muslim subject desiring a Muslim object, a character’s lack of piety and the inability for the object to satisfy the idealized Muslim archetype expectations destabilize the SMLT and disrupt the relationship. When the subject is a Muslim woman, and the object is a non-Muslim man, Islamic marital prohibitions, established by the mediator Allah, disqualify the union. Muslim men may marry Christian and Jewish women in addition to Muslim women. Consequently, when the object of desire for a Muslim male subject is a non-Muslim woman who self-identifies as either, conversion to transform the object and satisfy the idealized Muslim archetype creates the primary barrier to the union. The SMLT demonstrates culturally-specific usage of triangular structural relationships prevalent in romance literature by AA romance authors.

AA Muslim romances demonstrate the existence of a distinctive AA Muslim hybrid culture, resisting stereotypes of American Muslim culture as inherently foreign. Moreover, they offer sharers of the depicted experiences—AA Muslims—opportunities to negotiate tensions stemming from simultaneously belonging to AA, American, and Muslim American communities as well as the global Ummah.[33] Authors also provide unique romantic structures indicative of their cultural experiences, generating SMLT tropes that place Allah (swt) at the pinnacle as an authority over and not a competitor to the viability of protagonists’ love connections.

[i] (swt) is an abbreviation for the English transliteration Subhana wa Ta’ala, meaning “Glory be to Him, the Highest.” It is customary among Islamic scholarship to include the phrase after writing Allah’s name in their works.

[1] It is important to note that the term “Islamic culture” encompasses an array of practices, customs, and representations, with ideally Quranic and prophetic underpinnings – the interpretations of which vary individually, ethnically, regionally, etc.

[2] While American Muslims speak a multitude of languages, including English, Arabic maintains a widespread influence because of the use of the language in religious practices.

[3] Native-born American in the scope of this study comprises African-Americans, Euro-Americans, and Latino-Americans. The premise here is that these three Muslim groups represent specific American experiences and heritages with significant historical influence in the development of the country’s socio-political dynamic.

[4] i.e. socio-political, racial, gendered, nationalistic, etc.

[5] The term “Black” is often interchangeably used by people who also self-identify as “African American”. However, the term “African American” more specifically indicates a cultural identity and heritage connected to the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, to which not all Americans of African descent identify.

[6] Conversion populations also include NbA Latinx, Euro-American, and Native American Muslims.

[7] It is important to note that while there is a large conversion population in the NbA African American Muslim cultural identity, the subculture also contains extensive generational Muslim families, with some having as many as five generations. [End Page 15]

[8] Non-Black in this context represents a cross-section of identities within Muslim communities, including Middle Eastern, South Asian, Asian, and Latinx. In addition, African American Muslims may encounter bias from African-immigrant Muslims, who often seek to disassociate from them—the complexities of which are beyond the scope of this article.

[9] Although there are works of fiction written by NbA Muslims identifying with other ethnicities (i.e. Euro-American, Latino-American, etc.), I did not find a sufficient number of novels to present a well-rounded representative sample of those hybrid subcultures.

[10] Muslim fiction is a budding genre in the United States, with authors from numerous backgrounds comprising American Muslim culture, and Muslim authors and publishers still need to solidify a stable definition. However, there is a current consensus that Muslim fiction is 1) authored by self-identified Muslim authors and 2) contains Muslim characters. I have pushed back on those reductive parameters in conversations with authors and publishers because they tend to alienate certain Muslim author-produced texts.

[11] A few examples of indie publishing presses launched by AA Muslim authors include Mindworks Publishing and University Publications.

[12] The last observable AA Muslim romance, Her Justice, was published in 2016.

[13] Ironically, I informed at least two authors (Umm Zakiyyah and Nasheed Jaxson) that their texts could be considered romances. The author categorized them outside of the genre. Umm Zakiyyah’s text His Other Wife remains so, but Nasheed Jaxson’s text Her Justice is now categorized with romance titles.

[14] Presently, most American Muslim fiction authors write mainly YA and children’s books. I discovered few romance titles by Muslims centering Muslim love interests and the faith—AA Muslim romance authors being the primary exception. There are Muslim authors like Sa’id Saleem writing general romance, but most titles do not fit within current parameters of Muslim fiction, which raises questions about them that makes further exploration by scholars, authors, and the industry necessary.

[15] Intimate relationships serve as a barrier catalyst in some AA Muslim romances, which will be explored later.

[16] Novels written by African Americans often serve as more than sources of entertainment. These literary works frequently reflect historical and social conditions of the African American experience as well as serve as “weapons for social change” within the culture (Carby 95). I explored this aspect of AA Muslim authorship in my thesis and think delving deeper into how authors tap into this tradition is important to understanding complex cultural connections contained in the subculture.

[17] The emergence of diverse romance plots that include polyamorous relationships push against the boundaries of heteronormative monogamous tropes, which makes them worthy for deeper exploration beyond the scope of this article.

[18] According to Shumway, triadic structures in narratives are not exclusively comprised of love interests and may include “father/daughter, king/court” as well as other examples. Triadic structure relationships are “intersubjective because all three subjects of the narrative are represented as both desiring and desirable” (15; emphasis in original).

[19] In her analyses of The Autobiography and The Parable of the Ten Virgins by Thomas Shepard as well as A Christale Glasse for Christian Women by Phillip Stubbes, Gordis provides examples of Puritan female characters who endure suffering and end up on their death beds resulting from an imbalance of their male love interest’s (husband’s) love for her or his inability to handle the stronger pull of God on his bride (325-330). [End Page 16]

[20] American Muslims are hardly monolithic or stagnant in their interpretations and implementation of the faith. The AA Muslim authors and works examined highlight a cultural sampling of a specific experience, which contain additional facets not revealed through textual analysis, which encourages further examinations and expansion.

[21] Quran and hadith both contain references to Allah’s (swt) supremacy and self-sufficiency without needing or desiring worship or love from His creation. In the Quran, Allah (swt) says, “O mankind, you are those in need of Allah [swt], while Allah [swt] is the Free of need, the Praiseworthy” (35:15). Therefore, unlike the Puritan and Evangelical texts, God is not a competitor for or jealous of love or affection between humans, nor does he punish humans for loving each other too much in an Islamic context.

[22] Although, Akande quotes specific ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) as well as scholarship in a way that categorizes them as gender-specific, Quranic teachings encourage adherents of both genders strive to attain taqwa and righteousness. Human subjects in AA Muslim triangular romance will ideally seek said qualities in the love interest.

[23] In Areebah’s Dilemma: Love or Deen, Areebah’s son Baqir has a non-Muslim girlfriend. However, as a minor character, the absence of Allah as mediator of desire is not relevant to the novel’s plot.

[24] Abdul A’La Madudi explains that the prohibition against marrying a “mushrik” (Al-Baqarah, 2:221) secures a believer from being influenced by a non-believing spouse and corrupting the faith in the home (volume 1, 162). He asserts, “One who sincerely believers in Islam can never take such a risk merely for the sake of the gratification of his lust” (volume 1, 162). Madudi’s default use of “his” indicates how androcentric Quranic exegesis from men can be, which influences the broader culture and reinforce misconceptions that Muslim women do not have inclinations towards non-Muslim men—mushrik or otherwise. Except for Karimah Grayson, the majority of Muslim novelists surveyed reinforced this generalization. Grayson’s Areebah’s Dilemma features a Muslim woman torn between her faith and the non-Muslim man she loves, something not uncommon in African American Muslim culture despite efforts to ignore it.

[25] Madudi also expounds on the allowance for Muslim men to marry chaste women from the “People of the Book”—generally accepted to mean Christian and Jews (Al-Maidah, 5:5). He mentions that the sanction contains a caveat requiring the women be “chaste” (volume 3, 20), something insufficiently addressed in AA Muslim romances. While there is yet to be a plot with a Jewish love interest, the chastity of Christian ones is not addressed, and is, in fact, often clearly nonexistent, which will be examined later. Muslim male protagonists in Khadijah’s Life in Motion and American Boy contain love triangles with apparent sexual history between the subject and object of desire.

[26] Prohibitions against certain women one may marry are mostly self-explanatory lists and infer the male gender by default: “Also (prohibited are) women already married…” (An-Nisaa, 4:22-24). Madudi does clarify that maternal and sibling marital injunctions extend to step- and foster parents and siblings (volume 2, 110). AA Muslim authors have yet to include any type of risqué plots involving incestuous desire.

[27] Additional sources that codify acceptable spouses for Muslims exist. There are ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that provide further description for Muslims deciding upon a candidate for marriage, but the mentioned Quranic passages serve as the foundation. [End Page 17]

[28] For example, al-Jibaly asserts, “A woman’s obedience to her husband is an obedience to Allah (swt) in the first place, because he ordered it (73). al-Jibaly’s obtuse treatment of the term “obedience” disturbingly reinforces spiritually-coercive gender oppression by inferring that male domination over women is by divine mandate, but his argument does exemplify the simultaneous vertical and horizontal sovereignty Allah (swt) retains as well as negates notions that the deity is jealous; rather, He directs interactions between the spouses.

[29] NB: I’ve concluded that the repetitive use of the terms “Muslim man,” “Muslim woman,” Non-Muslim man,” and “non-Muslim woman” necessary to highlight the defined heteronormative parameters to which the surveyed authors adhere as well as leave an “open door” for extension of the present frame to include love models that may not neatly fit into the current one. For example, I do not want to erase the possibility that there may be, now or in the future, an AA Muslim author who includes LGBTQ love interests, which would require new analyses.

[30] Deanna also experiences a mental breakdown and hospitalization as further punishment for her un-Islamic behaviors. Although the author reveals that she is a child sexual assault survivor, Deanna suffers a series of humiliations that justify Jacob’s leaving her and marrying Aliyyah, making her the other woman despite being married to the hero.

[31] The Muslim subject and Muslim object are gender-neutral terms. There is an opportunity for portrayals a woman who defers to Allah (swt) as mediator of desire and a man who jeopardizes the SMLT through un-Islamic behavior. Interestingly, I did not discover an example of an African American romance author writing this dynamic in a plot.

[32] Polygyny is never a viable option in the novel. Frankie remains an ineligible suitor for Areebah until after his wife Felicia dies and he converts. Interestingly, the majority of African American Muslim authors surveyed “toy” around with notions of polygyny in their works, and never present it as a functional marital option despite its practice in many AA Muslim communities. Examining portrayals of polygyny is beyond the scope of this article, but it does warrant further exploration.

[33] Ummah is a broadly-used term in Muslim cultures to denote the larger Muslim fellowship. [End Page 18]

Works Cited

Abbas, Rudabah. “‘Halal’ Interfaith Unions Rise Among UK Women – Al Jazeera English.” Al Jazeera: Live News | Bold Perspectives | Exclusive Films, 31 Dec. 2012, Accessed 13 Mar. 2016.

Abdullah-Poulos, Layla. “Muslim Love American Style: Islamic-American Hybrid Culture and Native-Born American Black Muslim Romance.” MA thesis, SUNY Empire State College, 2016. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Accessed 6 Aug. 2018.

Akande, Habeeb. A Taste of Honey: Sexuality and Erotology in Islam. Rabaah Publishers Ltd., 2015.

Al Quran. Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in English Language: A Summarized Version of Al-Qurtubi, and Ibn Kathir with Comments from Sahih-Al-Bukhari. Translated by Muhammad T.D. Al-Hilali and Muhammad M. Khan, Maktaba Dar-Us_Salam Publications, 1986.

Al-Jibaly, Muḥammad. The Fragile Vessels: Rights and Obligations between the Spouses in Islam. al-Kitaab & as-Sunnah Publishing, 2000.

Baker, Joseph O, and Buster G. Smith. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York University Press, 2015.

Bukhari. The Translation of the Meanings of Summarized Ṣaḥîh Al-Bukhâri: Arabic-english = Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī. Translated by Khan M. Muhammad, Maktaba Darul Salam, 1994.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. Oxford UP, 1987.

Dee, Phyllis S. “Female Sexuality and Triangular Desire in ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Mill on the Floss’.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 35, no. 4, 1999, p. 391-416, Academic OneFile, Accessed 24 Sept. 2018.

Francis, Conseula. “Flipping the Script: Romancing Zane’s Urban Erotica.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love As the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A Gleason and Eric M. Selinger, Ashgate, 2016, pp. 167-180.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.

Gordis, Lisa M. “Jesus Loves Your Girl More Than You Do: Marriage as Triangle in Evangelical Romance and Puritan Narratives.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love As the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A Gleason and Eric M. Selinger, Ashgate, 2017, pp. 323-346.

Grayson, Karimah. Areebah’s Dilemma. Create Space, 2015.

Hall, Stuart, and Gay P. Du. Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage, 1996.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. The Fateful Question of Culture. Columbia UP, 1997.

Hidayatullah, Aysha A. Feminist Edges of the Qur’an. Oxford UP, 2014.

Jaxson, Nasheed. Her Justice. Kindle edition, Nasheed Jaxson, 2014.

J, Zara. American Boy. University Publications, 2014.

Karim, Jamillah A. American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah. New York UP, 2009.

Maududi, Abdul A’La. The Meaning of the Qur’ān. 3 vols. Translated by ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Kamal, Islamic Publications, 1988.

[End Page 19]

McKnight-Trontz, Jennifer. The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Moftah, Lora. “South Africa Mosque Holds First Interfaith Marriage: Muslim Woman, Christian Man Marry in Controversial Ceremony.” International Business Times, 23 Mar. 2015, Accessed 13 Mar. 2016.

Moody-Freeman, Julie E. “Scripting Black Love in the 1990s: Pleasure, Respectability, and Responsibility in an Era of HIV/AIDS.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love As the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A Gleason and Eric M. Selinger, Ashgate, 2016, pp. 110-127.

Muslim, Ibn -H.-Q, and Abdul H. Siddiqui. Ṣaḥiḥ Muslim: Being Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muhammad As Narrated by His Companions and Compiled Under the Title Al-Jāmiʻ-Uṣ-Ṣaḥīḥ. Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1971.

NbA Muslims. “Purpose.” NbA Muslims, Patheos, Accessed 5 Sep. 2016.

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. U of North Carolina P, 2006.

Pew Research. “Converts to Islam.” Pew Research Center, Pew Charitable Trusts, July 2007, Accessed 6 July 2015.

Ramsdell, Kristin. Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Libraries Unlimited, 2012.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Kindle edition, U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Between Men.” The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1900-2000, edited by Dorothy J Hale, Blackwell, 2006, pp. 586-604.

Sharif, Jatasha. Khadijah’s Life in Motion. Jatasha Sharif, 2012.

Shumway, David R. Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis. New York UP, 2003.

Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. Kindle edition, Oneworld Publications, 2013.

Weaver-Zercher, Valerie. Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. Johns Hopkins UP, 2013.

Zakiyyah, Umm. His Other Wife. Kindle edition, Al-Walaa Publications, 2016.

[End Page 20]


Review: Cupcakes, Pinterest and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century, edited by Elana Levine

Review by Pauline Suwanban

Scholarship on feminized popular culture in this century must evolve with shifting definitions of the term “woman” as well as the influence of post-feminism, which adds a complex layer to conventional expectations of femininity. This is one of the issues with which Cupcakes, Pinterest and Ladyporn engages, set out in Elana Levine’s comprehensive introduction. Levine defines feminized popular culture as spaces, products, modes of expression, as well as now growing digital realms, marketed to and defined by a predominantly female audience. These spaces also allow an audience to identify, take pleasure in or challenge certain meanings of femininity. Feminized popular culture belongs to a long-standing concept that developed from mass-targeted products and limited perceptions of gender roles. On top of this, “whether by dismissive naming – chick flicks, mommy blogs, ladyporn – or by [the] general derision with which they are treated, feminized popular culture is often constructed as lightweight, frivolous, and excessively emotional” (Levine, p. 1); or perhaps these traits are deemed disparaging because they are associated with an assumed femininity. As Levine incisively points out, “many sites of masculinized popular culture (such as professional football, or ‘quality’ TV dramas) escape gendered labeling” (Levine 7).

With essays on erotica, nail polish blogs and cupcakes, this collection is a fascinating analysis of American culture and how notions of gender, class, sexuality and race intersect. What do cupcakes have to do with feminism? A lot, it seems. Levine directs our attention towards how feminized popular culture, particularly in the twenty-first century, is heavily focused on labor. The postfeminist ideal foregrounds successful careers as well as sexual agency, creating certain pressures for women to “have it all”; lucrative jobs, relationships, family and conventional beauty. Areas of popular culture have emerged in response to tackle, encourage or critique this phenomenon.

The collection is divided into three thematic sections: “Passions,” “Bodies,” and “Labors.” “Passions” focuses on the connection between feminized interests and excessive emotion, especially in entertainment and media. Melissa A. Click begins the discussion with [End Page 1] a contextual reading of Fifty Shades of Grey and the appeal of an “unequal sexual relationship,” given the erotica’s graphic description of BDSM. Drawing on previous scholarship of romance readers by Janice Radway and Carol Thurston, Click conducts her own interviews with 36 readers (white, female and heterosexual). She persuasively argues that their enjoyment of the series is in part informed by the increasingly sexualized environment of a post-feminist culture, one that connects sexuality with power.

Kirsten J. Warner, in her insightful essay on ABC’s drama Scandal and black women fandom, demonstrates that more is yet to be discovered concerning women of color in online fan communities. As these platforms thrive in relation to the increased visibility of non-white representation, previously invisible and marginalized voices are emerging to speak passionately about specific cultural experiences. The complex and contradictory nature of feminized popular culture becomes apparent in Jillian Baez’s chapter on Devious Maids, a drama about Latina women which attempts to deconstruct stereotypes but still relies on them for success. Likewise, in Erin A. Meyers’ research on gossip magazines and blogs, expanding outlets allow women to challenge norms of femininity previously dominated by print media while at the same time reasserting them.

“Bodies” addresses the physical appearance, health and spirituality of female bodies as sites of labor and pleasure. What is valued and what attempts to push the boundaries? Barbara L. Ley examines pregnancy apps as a mechanism giving women control over their bodies and family welfare. However, these apps are designed with a presumed heteronormative context that isolates same-sex and single parents and places fathers in the backseat. Fashion and nail polish blogs are appreciated as spaces that allow self-expression and creativity of the body. Interestingly, nails are treated as a separate entity, a blank canvas, which escapes the objectification that other body parts are subjected to.

The final section, “Labors,” tackles the pressures of feminized productivity and work. Suzanne Ferris begins by looking at heroines in “chick lit” as young white college-educated women in precarious financial situations. Chapters on Bethenny Frankel and the Kardashians address the obsession with self-branding and entrepreneurship as not just a mark of financial success, but of being a successful woman. The Kardashian empire, writes Alice Leppert, is entirely dependent on a sisterhood which involves the audience and promotes the importance of female bonding and traditional family values.

Cupcakes…will hopefully unleash continuing discussions on the topic of feminized labor. Recently there has been a surge of female celebrities encouraging women to become a “boss.” This initiative aims to attack or take possession of the term “bossy,” which has a derogative association with outspoken girls and women. Tyra Banks, in her hit reality competition America’s Next Top Model, requires her contestants to become their own boss and brand. The “female boss” is endorsed as a movement in Sophie Amoruso’s autobiography, #GirlBoss which has been made into a Netflix series about the retail founder’s rise to financial success.

The final chapter on cupcakes, from Elizabeth Nathanson, is the highlight of the study, where the intricate layers of this unassuming item are unraveled. Cupcakes are full of contradictions. They are partly treats that celebrate girlhood and promiscuity, as well as key for lucrative female-dominated businesses. They are also criticized for engaging women in a “retrofemininity” (252), that evokes the traditional “housewife-bake sale” image (253). A striking case is made about the sitcom 2 Broke Girls which, perhaps unknowingly, uses [End Page 2] cupcakes as a symbol of restoring white middle-class femininity, as well as an escape from poverty and racial integration.

This volume has much to engage with romance scholars who are interested in critical discussions of how current cultural industries cater to and inform female pleasure; not just in the chapters about erotica and chick lit, but the specific feminine world in which they are perceived to be situated. The femininity of American popular culture unfortunately remains tied to a white cis-gendered and heteronormative set of traits, a fact that Levine acknowledges. What is left unremarked is popular culture’s concentration on youth, as if the main consumers are in their 20s-30s, post-college or new mothers. This study begins to tap into a vast landscape, where there is much still to explore in terms of spaces for women of color, women of different ages, and expanded to keep up with more social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. [End Page 3]


Review: Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, by Helen Young

Review by Kecia Ali

That popular romance has a racism problem will not be news to anyone who’s been paying attention. Big publishers fail hard at inclusion. The Romance Writers Association (RWA) has a history of marginalizing writers of color, as do many review sites. Some of the genre’s bestsellers include offensive stereotypes while others imagine implausibly lily-white worlds. There is momentum toward change; numerous romance authors, librarians, booksellers, and reviewers have been working to increase diversity in the field, especially the proportion of what Corinne Duyvis has termed #OwnVoices books, written by authors who share a protagonist’s minoritized identity. RWA has taken steps towards acknowledging exclusions in its past and fostering more inclusion going forward. A few white authors have proved willing to hear criticism of hurtful elements in their books and behavior, though others remain stubbornly attached to ideas of their own blamelessness. The time seems ripe, then, for scholarly examination of how whiteness pervades popular romance. Jayashree Kamblé’s treatment (2014) of whiteness and reproductivity is a notable contribution to this endeavor, but there is plenty of work to be done. Helen Young’s new wide-ranging interdisciplinary study, Race in Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, offers findings relevant to popular romance scholars.

Young’s book includes an introduction which explores the relevance of fantasy in popular culture, seven chapters that move across the twentieth century and into the twenty first, and a short afterword. Her focus is mostly on fiction but she also addresses movies, television shows, and game adaptations as well as online fan communities. The first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the study by exploring the genre’s racialized “founding fantasy” in the works of two of its best known and most influential writers, J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. She

argues that race-based ideologies which privileged them as White men very strongly influenced the shape of the worlds they imagined, worlds which were decidedly Eurocentric and reproduced White race-thinking that had justified [End Page 1] both British imperialism and slavery in the US since at least the eighteenth century. (16)

Particularly influential elements of the worlds they constructed are racial logics – linking biological type or appearance to other characteristics; (imagined) medievalism; and eurocentrism. As Young puts it with regard to Tolkien: “Racialized taxonomies shape the cultures of Middle Earth, and although these leave space for multicultural and cosmopolitan readings, they are also very problematic” (23). Moreover, their worlds “are Europe-like and medievalist: they create geographical and social landscapes which support the white ethnoscapes of their people” (28). Young repeatedly notes that her aim is not to adjudicate whether these authors were personally racist but rather to analyze “the ways their writings serve to channel centuries-old constructs into contemporary popular culture” (17). Her focus remains on the ways their writings have shaped the genre as it developed.

Chapter 2, “Forming Habits: Derivation, Imitation, and Adaptation” argues that although Tolkien (high fantasy) and Howard (sword and sorcery) were influential in their subgenres, “[t]he Whiteness so central to both their worlds only became a habit – convention – through repetition … first through imitation and then adaptation” (41). It took the collective work of generations of authors repeating their “tropes, structures, and form” (41) to shape the genre. Setting and characters are key: “The vast majority of Fantasy protagonists … have physical characteristics associated with Whiteness” (44) while authors draw both on real-world geographies and ideas about “foreign” places to represent Others. Dominant, conventional representations within the genre in the mid- to late twentieth century offer white savior protagonists intervening in exoticized foreign places. As similar patterns obtain in romance novels—sheikh romances are only the most obvious portion of that iceberg—romance scholars should take heed. At the same time, work by African American authors Charles Saunders and Samuel Delany illustrate that this was not the only possible path; these writers do not “merely ‘flip’ the somatic markers of their protagonists, but rather create worlds in which the racial logics that structure so many Fantasy worlds do not exist” (47).

Young’s treatment of “The Real Middle Ages” (Chapter 3) focuses on “Gritty Fantasy.” Despite its seeming rejection of certain forms of glossy world-building, this subgenre “draw[s] directly on the habits of Whiteness established largely through the kinds of Fantasy it claims to have rejected” (64). In other words, whiteness is persistent. One element of Young’s study worth emulation is her continual attention to audiences as well as authors as makers of meaning. She explores “tension between real and imagined worlds” – and in the case of the medieval era, “the cultural power of a period that is considered simultaneously past and ahistorical” (65). For scholars of historical romance, the ways authors manage genre conventions/audience expectations and historical realities is worthy of additional scrutiny—as are reader responses to “the convention of reading Whiteness as normative” (79).

“Orcs and Otherness” (Chapter 4), at first glance the chapter least relevant to scholars of romance, focuses on literary, filmic, and game orcs, attending carefully to the ways they are racialized. It will be of particular interest to scholars of paranormal romance. Here, as elsewhere, Young gestures toward but does not fully analyze the parallels as well as disjunctions between fantasized “Oriental” Otherness and depictions of Africa/Africans as Other—something also relevant to various subgenres of romance, including sheikh romance. Chapter 5, “Popular Culture Postcolonialism,” attends to counter-narratives through the [End Page 2] work of authors including Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Heath Justice, while observing that “Multicultural literature is almost always thought of, and approached, as matter for minorities and thus as irrelevant to a presumed-white majority” (116). Through her exploration of founding authors and genre formation, Young has shown how “Fantasy’s habits of Whiteness tend to re-inscribe colonialist ideologies, perspectives, and narratives”; here, analyzing the work of authors of color and indigenous authors, she shows that “those habits can be broken by telling different stories in different ways” (120). Given that publishers continue to marginalize and exclude work by authors of color, especially work that pushes genre boundaries, romance scholars can be attentive to how an insistence on the “popular” in popular romance can reproduce those exclusions. Notably, to the extent that 2018 conference programs at IASPR, PCA, and PopCAANZ are representative, romance scholars already do better than publishers in attending to work produced outside the Anglophone world, and by #OwnVoices authors, though work on Native/Indigenous romance has barely scratched the surface.

Her treatment of urban fantasy (Chapter 6, “Relocating Roots”) also offers useful ways of thinking about paranormal and dystopian romance, as well as small town romances which imagine ethnically homogenous communities as an antidote for white anxieties (typically unacknowledged or disavowed) about identity and difference. Romance scholars have shown how modern notions about female autonomy and companionate marriage pervade romance, especially in historical subgenres; they have been less attuned to how racial logics—and indeed the whiteness of ideal(ized) family structures—operate in tandem with gendered ideals to construct romantic fantasies. If there is a gap in Young’s book, it is her relative silence on how gender structures both the racialized fantasy worlds she analyzes and the ongoing debates about the authority of creators and their worlds. Nonetheless, popular romance scholars can learn a great deal from Young’s study, including the importance of asking how habits of whiteness have come to be inscribed in the genre—and how those habits might be unlearned. To this last point, Young’s final chapter, on “RaceFail 09” (Chapter 7, “Breaking Habits and Digital Communication”) focuses on three months of online debate, ranging from acrimonious to thoughtful, among fans and authors about “race and representation” (171) in the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) genre community. The contours and discursive moves of the hundreds of blog posts and comments from that period are in numerous respects specific to SFF but will resonate with those who have observed similar kerfuffles in Romancelandia. A decade later, Young’s take-away from her brief afterword is spot on: “the idea of greater inclusiveness is more appealing than the process of change itself” (190). [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Kamblé, Jayashree. Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. New York: Palgrave, 2014.

[End Page 4]


♪ Special Issue: Love and Rock (Editors’ Introduction)
by Claude Chastagner & Mark Duffett

Four years ago, during a discussion, my friend Mark Duffett of Chester University and I noticed that a central aspect of rock music (the term is taken here in its broadest meaning) was too often neglected by the press as by academia: the place occupied by love songs. The dominant discourse more readily associates rock with transgression, revolt, protest, or rebellion than with the romantic theme, which nevertheless represents, both quantitatively and in terms of economic and artistic achievement, an essential dimension. Unless the love in question is restricted to sex and can be presented as a form of transgression and rebellion (because that’s what it’s all about, building rock as a language resistance, a grammar of protest), love is rarely considered a worthy subject, but rather an object of consumption without consequence.

Yet rock artists, both men and women, have systematically sung not only Eros, but other forms of love: Agape, compassionate love, courtly love, romantic love, love between man and woman, between men, between women (“Papa Was A Rodeo,” The Magnetic Fields), between brother and sister (“Sister,” Prince), between parents and children (“Father & Son,” Cat Stevens), between friends (“You’ve Got A Friend,” Carole King)… Sometimes love for a dog (“Martha My Dear,” The Beatles), a car (“I’m In Love With My Car,” Queen) or a pair of shoes (“Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley). Sometimes it is only a matter of saying that we were not in love (“I’m Not In Love,” 10 CC) or that it is not even about love (“This Is Not A Love Song,” PIL ).

These are the songs that Mark and I wanted to observe more closely: how to explain that despite their assertive presence, they are not entitled to the same honors, the same official recognition, the same marks of academic and journalistic interest as rebellious songs? Do they only have an emotional impact devoid of any social impact? And in what capacity should we disqualify this type of impact? Would love songs be reserved for specific artists or audiences, on the basis of their gender, age, or social background, disenfranchised artists and public, whose tastes do not deserve the attention of those who write about rock? That there are more serious subjects, more serious than intimate emotions, fragments of amorous discourse, empathy for the other? Yet, if we accept, temporarily, to adopt rebellion and transgression as the sole criteria for assessing the relevance of the rock idiom, even love songs constitute a vector of resistance, to the same extent as more violent, more committed, [End Page 1] more explicitly protesting forms. For example, the treatment of love songs by most punk bands is revealing. Obviously, even if love is an unexpectedly recurrent theme of their repertoire, it is rather to sing the sordid joys of compulsive masturbation (“Orgasm Addict,” Buzzcocks) or to observe with realism (“Love Comes in Spurts,” Richard Hell), cynicism (“If you do not want to fuck me, baby, then baby fuck off,” Wayne County) and disillusionment (“Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you, but I know it’s only lust,” “Damaged Goods,” Gang of Four) the various emotional or physiological manifestations of love. John Lydon summed it up in an interview: “two minutes of squelching…”

But it is precisely this austere, puritanical, asexual look, this rejection of hedonistic enjoyment, the leitmotif of hippie’s “peace and love” philosophy or the very political “enjoy without hindrance” of May 1968, which allow the punk love song to constitute a political act. For there exists an intimate correspondence between “jouissance” and submission (cf. Sade) which makes the rejection of “jouissance” a potential weapon against the market whose ethos is precisely unhindered enjoyment. In its negation of love, punk perhaps gives the key to a fundamental insubordination, a radical challenge to the market. But the place that rock gives to individual inspiration and paroxysmal emotions is also a confirmation of the central role played by love, in the most romantic sense of the term. Rock can indeed be interpreted as a reaction at the same time against the cold rationalism of highbrow, avant-garde music and against the blandness of certain other forms of popular music. By privileging subjectivity and rupture, rock music helped to transform the hackneyed expression of the feeling of love into a demanding exploration, which defies clichés and expectations. Again, those who appreciate rock only by its subversive power can find satisfaction here. For the songs of tenderness and passion, as well as those of disappointed and unhappy loves, the ones that Morrissey says they save your life (“But do not forget the songs that made you cry / the songs that saved your life,” “Rubber Ring,” 1987) contain a seditious charge of an underground, but unquestionable radicality. A chorus like “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” which in 2006 still the Rolling Stones could not sing in China, could cause as much havoc whispered in the ear of a schoolgirl in 1967 as “I wanna be anarchy” thrown to a seasoned punk in 1976.

And what about the somewhat naïve utopia, but reiterated with conviction, stubbornness and a certain courage by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who assert, with “Silly Love Songs” that “Love is all you need,” that “Love is the answer” (“Mind Games”), even if David Bowie turned it into a joke a few months later in “Cygnet Committee” by saying “We stoned the poor on slogans such as […] love is all we need”? By taking up this unilateral message of love of religious origins, the Beatles led us to participate in the colossal undertaking initiated by Judaism, Christianity and, on other bases, Buddhism, aimed at destroying the ultimate sacrificial safeguard inherited from traditional societies. Should we neglect and denigrate songs that have given back to the message of love, which two thousand years of not always glorious history had transformed into a stilted and hypocritical morality, its staggering, revolutionary potency? Rebellion and love are indeed the two poles of the rock revolution, which a wall of May 68 summed up thus: “the more I make love, the more I want to make the revolution, the more I make the revolution, the more I want to make love.” Unless, as Petrarch wrote, that singing love simply allows one to hide one’s anguish and one’s tears? Però, s’alcuna volta io rido o canto, facciol, perch’i ‘no ò non quest’unavia da celare he mio angoscioso pianto. (So, if I laugh or sing, it’s my only remedy for hiding my tears of anguish). Maybe that’s rock too, some kind of noise so that you can keep on living, and roll back death by a few steps, a few seconds. Always and everywhere, assert the power of life [End Page 2] and love. And perhaps then could we conclude with George Bernanos that “the grace of graces would be to humbly love oneself.” So Mark and I did not have anymore reason not to explore these rock love songs further. We decided to organize a symposium in April 2014 at Paul-Valéry University (Montpellier, France), with papers by more than 40 researchers from 17 countries: proof, if need be, that the scarcity of reflection on the issue had aroused some expectations. Rather than a simple topography of rock love songs, useful but ultimately somewhat pointless and tiresome, we chose to focus the reflection on their impact, somehow to contradict what Nick Hornby writes in High Fidelity: “People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.” Yes, Nick, we did worry about these kids.

In this issue of JPRS, we offer a selection of the papers given on the occasion of this conference focusing on the “Latin” perspective: from French rock to its Iberian counterparts, to the geographically and culturally intermediate space of Occitanie. A second selection centered on the English-speaking area was published in Britain in Rock Music Studies in February 2018 (Vol 5, Issue 1). On the French side, Solveig Serre and Luc Robène focused on the love discourse expressed by Gallic punk which, from teenage loves to more dangerous experiences, illuminates the transformations of the world and points to the image of a society that needs to be reinvented. Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud looked at the band Eiffel, which since the 90s, contrary to punk, chisels and deconstructs the French language to explore the most complex and subtle love emotions. Yet like his predecessors, by infiltrating the intimacy of interstitial spaces, Eiffel manages to portray a changing world to which the amorous discourse offers its healing grace. The period of the Movida is the subject of the two articles devoted to Spain. Magali Dumousseau-Lesquer first draws up a panorama of love rock in post-Franco Madrid, highlighting, among other radical challenges, the unprecedented place that women occupied, but also insisting, like the articles on French rock, on the will of artists to highlight a disenchantment specific to the contemporary world and the new sexualities it fostered. Emmanuel Le Vagueresse can then clarify this panorama by focusing on the flagship group of the time, Mecano, which has been able to impose “a vision of love rid of both the conservative diktats of Francoism, but also the excesses or provocations of la Movida,” a vision between passion and reason, the underground and the mainstream. If Jiří Měsíc dedicates his article to the love songs of Leonard Cohen, he does not leave the Franco-Iberian space insofar as he brings to light in the work of the Canadian the numerous borrowings to medieval poetic forms proper to the Occitan tradition, from courtly love to more mystical explorations. Finally, we will conclude with Tosha Taylor’s article on The Killers, who, in their treatment of love, also reflect a recent evolution, from a masculine rock tradition, made of violence and exacerbated sexual freedom to more contemporary forms that take into account new dimensions such as spirituality or marriage. [End Page 3]


♪ Le punk français rêve-t-il en rose ?
Does French punk dream “en rose?”
by Luc Robène and Solveig Serre

[End Page 1] « Mon speed c’est l’amour » chante en 1979 le groupe punk français Starshooter. Gageure ? Provocation ? Si la chanson des Lyonnais mérite précisément que l’on s’y arrête, c’est que le punk ne semble pas constituer a priori le terreau artistique le plus favorable au développement du thème amoureux. Inscrit dans la désespérance des jours et s’adossant à l’absence auto-proclamée de projection dans le futur (No Future), le punk incarne la rupture assumée avec tout ce qui renvoie aux codes de l’Establishment (Hebdige, (1979) 2008 ; McNeil, McCain, 2004) et rejette la contre-culture des aînés engluée dans un vain Peace and Love. Dans cette perspective, que peut-il bien rester à chanter de l’amour, à la fois thème rebattu par l’art institué et figure rhétorique établie de la culture rock désormais conspuée ?

Difficile pourtant d’extraire la sphère amoureuse du répertoire punk tant celle-ci s’impose d’emblée, massivement et charnellement, dans la revendication assumée et provocante des plaisirs autrefois tabous : « Sex and drugs and rock and roll », chante en 1977 Ian Dury. Certes, le sexe, même s’il ne représente qu’un prisme spécifique de la relation amoureuse, est une donnée consubstantielle au rock. Mais il devient brutalement et très visiblement autant l’une des thématiques quasi obsessionnelles du punk qu’un motif répétitif et jouissif de subversion et de provocation largement prisé et utilisé comme étendard par les acteurs du mouvement.

En Grande-Bretagne, les Sex Pistols (« Les bites ») jouent largement sur cette ambiguïté qui s’articule avec un imaginaire empruntant aux codes du bondage. Le groupe phare du punk britannique doit en grande partie son nom au duo Vivienne Westwood / Malcolm McLaren qui, au plus fort de son activité commerciale dans le domaine de la mode, vend dans sa boutique londonienne Sex, située au 430 Kings Road, des vêtements de la vie quotidienne inspirés par les accessoires et les codes du sadomasochisme et du fétichisme (Hebdige, (1979) 2008). Les Buzzcocks (« Les queues vibrantes ») se complaisent quant à eux dans des morceaux qui jettent une lumière crue sur les tabous de la vieille Angleterre. Leur titre de 1977 « Orgasm Addict », interdit d’antenne à la BBC, évoque l’obsession d’un adolescent pour des plaisirs sexuels qui passent par la masturbation : il se cache pour lire des revues interdites alors que sa mère s’interroge sur les mystérieuses taches sur ses jeans. Le thème sera repris un an plus tard de manière plus édulcorée par les Undertones dans « Teenage Kicks ». En France, le groupe Reich Orgasm, issu de la scène punk orléanaise en 1978, joue sur l’ambiguïté du nom qui évoque à la fois « l’empire de l’orgasme » et la mémoire de Wilhelm Reich, psychanalyste de la première moitié du XIXe siècle dont le travail porte sur la fonction libératrice de l’orgasme[1]. Si le sexe s’impose largement comme une épure de la transgression au cœur d’une scène très agitée, les textes du groupe ouvrent sur une vision tranchante et provocante des sentiments. La noirceur assumée du texte « Salope », en 1983, intègre une entreprise de dénonciation de l’ordre patriarcal et du cadre de domination auquel conduit le rapport amoureux appréhendé comme un masque autorisant la réification de l’autre : « L’amour c’est jamais que l’infini / Mis à la portée de tous les caprices / Animal je serai dans ton sexe / Je vomirai mon sperme et ma honte ». Ce thème de la chair, fût-il traversé par la mise en scène de la violence, s’arrime lui-même à d’autres focales amoureuses, en apparence – et en apparence seulement – plus conventionnelles, à commencer par la drague et les diverses péripéties de la relation amoureuse, quitte à renverser les rôles et à détourner le cours établi de l’amour pour mieux susciter un trouble dans l’ordre des relations et des conventions. Dès 1977, le groupe Bijou, originaire de la banlieue sud de Paris, ouvre son premier album Danse avec moi par le morceau « Garçon facile ». Le texte narre les exploits d’un jeune homme aux mœurs légères qui vit dans les affres d’un opprobre dévolu habituellement aux filles de petite vertu : « On m’appelle garçon facile / Et l’on me traite comme un chien / Mais je suis un mec habile / Et je saurai te faire du bien ». Même si le statut dominant de l’homme hétérosexuel n’est finalement que peu remis en cause, ce jeu avec les codes, qui est l’une des marques de fabrique du punk, montre également que l’amour constitue en réalité une matière riche dans laquelle le mouvement va puiser pour tenter de subvertir la société. En revendiquant un être au monde spécifique, caractérisé par des postures de rejet, de provocation et de détournement, le punk questionne et tord le fait amoureux. L’invention d’une rhétorique amoureuse singulière constitue dès lors à la fois un objet en tant que tel, entre subversion des sentiments et subversion par les sentiments, mais également un analyseur pertinent pour éclairer le fonctionnement des grands idéaux et des récits collectifs qui façonnent les imaginaires, et questionner le fonctionnement des sociétés modernes à travers leur capacité à s’émouvoir.

La question n’est donc tant celle de l’existence de « fragments d’un discours amoureux » (Barthes, 1977) dans les morceaux de musique punk que celle du « comment parle-t-on d’amour ? » et « de quoi parle-t-on lorsqu’on parle d’amour ? ». Le travail empirique autour d’un corpus qui embrasse les diverses facettes du fait amoureux, du premier baiser au sexe, en passant par la rencontre et la rupture, l’attirance pour le vice ou la violence, voire le viol, devient ici essentiel. L’analyse du discours amené à devenir tantôt choquant sur le fond, tantôt provoquant sur la forme, permet d’éclairer les transformations du monde tel qu’il se donne à voir, non plus à partir d’un point central, consensuel, conventionnel, mais à partir d’un regard construit aux marges, et dont la vocation à subvertir l’ordre établi renvoie en creux l’image d’une société à réinventer. C’est donc à partir d’un double constat, celui d’un mouvement confronté aux paradoxes de l’existentiel amoureux en contexte de désespérance et celui de l’amour comme terreau de l’expression punk, que nous avancerons dans cet article en proposant une analyse construite sur un corpus (celui de la scène punk en France[2]) dont le périmètre prend en compte la longue durée (quarante ans).

1. Des amours adolescentes aux liaisons dangereuses (1976-1980)

Dans la France du président centriste Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981) où bruissent encore les échos du gaullisme finissant et de mai 1968, l’explosion punk, marquée dès l’été 1976 par le premier festival punk au monde organisé à Mont-de-Marsan (Landes), prend à revers la morosité ambiante liée à la crise économique et à la forte hausse du chômage, et clame son refus de l’ennui[3]. Cette posture provocante traduit l’état d’esprit d’une jeunesse plus que jamais animée par le sentiment confus d’une urgence, d’une liberté à réinventer dans un monde trompeur et trompé. Le Peace and Love des aînés (Sirinelli, 2003), devenu au mieux une caricature, au pire une anesthésie globale de la révolte, a montré ses limites. Alors que la contre-culture des années 1960 a tenté de s’opposer aux formes répressives et conservatrices de la société traditionnelle (Robert, 2013), le punk suggère, à [End Page 3] la fin des années 1970, que cet idéal de liberté a été récupéré par un nouveau régime de domination bien plus dangereux, pervers et séduisant en ce qu’il porte le masque trompeur de l’hédonisme. La contre-culture hippie avait certes ouvert des espaces de permissivité en termes de mœurs et d’amour. Mais le punk, conscient de l’inanité d’une posture béate désormais débordée par les enjeux d’une société qui sécrète efficacement les illusions d’un avenir à bon marché inscrit dans le consumérisme et les rêves enchantées du petit écran, tord ces espoirs vers lui-même et les transforme. La violence et l’ironie mordante des textes portés par une musique simple, efficace, urgente et sans concession alimentent cette posture de défiance. Arborées comme des vêtements de tous les jours, les tenues relèvent d’une provocation assumée inscrite dans l’esthétique fétichiste. Les codes du bondage et du sadomasochisme (chaînes, colliers de chiens, cuir, latex) tournent en dérision l’amour libre en construisant une image provocante, sexuelle en apparence, mais subversive en substance. Car il s’agit bien en réalité d’un découpage quasi chirurgical des relations de pouvoir qui sont masquées par l’impression de liberté.

Dans ce contexte de dynamitage des codes, l’amour pose un double problème : s’il est à la fois l’impulsion vitale irrépressible qui anime une jeunesse libérée des carcans du vieux monde, il suggère en même temps que cette aspiration légitime aux sentiments et à l’intime peut être un piège, ouvrant dès lors sur une critique plus corrosive des états de domination, d’aveuglement et d’égarement auxquels conduit l’état amoureux (Gioia, 2015). D’une certaine manière, le punk réinvente alors la force d’un discours critique sur l’amour. Sans se confondre avec la position des moralistes du XVIIe siècle, des naturalistes du XIXe siècle ou même des féministes du XXe siècle, qui s’accordaient à voir dans l’amour tantôt une illusion, une expression de la vanité humaine, tantôt une ruse de la nature et surtout un moyen d’assujettir les femmes, le punk interroge au prisme d’une nouvelle raison cette passion qui traverse le monde et meut les êtres les uns vers les autres. C’est l’absence même de perspectives qui pose le No Future non seulement comme la condition du « jeune punk moderne » (Hebdige (1979), 2008), mais également comme une posture qui doit permettre l’examen de conscience d’une génération en révolte dans un monde en décomposition sociale avancée. Lorsque les Pistols chantent « There is no future in England’s dreaming », c’est exactement cette question du rêve humaniste, solidaire, social, et par extension celle du « rêve en rose » et du filtre amoureux, qui se pose. Le scepticisme qui en résulte est parfaitement légitime, dans la mesure où sont mis en balance, au moins dans un premier temps, les bénéfices et les coûts de la relation amoureuse. En 1977, le punk s’impose donc comme l’un des segments fondamentaux de la critique du conservatisme, et c’est au prisme de cette critique que l’amour devient l’objet de lectures en forme d’introspection qui articulent, parfois dans un même ensemble textuel ou dans un même album, les facettes jouissives des émois juvéniles et les pièges directement attachés aux emprises amoureuses.

À l’heure de la rupture punk, trois orientations majeures sont repérables dans notre corpus. Le premier discours se réapproprie l’incendie allumé par le « rock and roll » (expression imagée utilisée à l’origine comme une allusion pudique à la pratique du sexe) à la fin des années 1950, et aborde l’amour comme une force irrépressible avec laquelle garçons et filles doivent inévitablement composer : une expérience heureuse ou malheureuse. Les relations amoureuses, essentiellement hétérosexuelles, représentent un thème inégalement investi par les groupes mais néanmoins fréquent, qui émerge à partir de configurations encore classiques au sein de la culture rock. Ces textes interrogent les expériences amoureuses presque exclusivement du point de vue des garçons. La division [End Page 4] sociale du travail artistique qui organise la scène punk place les garçons, au moins dans un premier temps, en position de maîtriser le discours de l’amour. En effet, même si un changement s’annonce précisément avec le punk, ce sont bien les garçons qui s’expriment en premier, ce sont eux qui composent, montent sur scène, jouent de la guitare et chantent (Shepherd, 1987 ; Clawson, 1999) devant un public mixte mais néanmoins largement féminisé. Le groupe parisien Stinky Toys, emmené par une femme – Elie Medeiros –, constitue une exception notable ; et il n’est d’ailleurs pas fortuit qu’un morceau comme « Lonely Lovers » (album Stinky Toys, 1977) appréhende le thème de l’amour sous l’angle de la romance, quitte à jouer sur les apparences et les faux-semblants : « Come on man! / Tell me you love me / Even if we know you’re lying! ».

Derrière ce récit encore conventionnel qui ne s’éloigne guère des représentations et des stéréotypes de genre, ou qui ne remet guère en cause les modèles hégémoniques de masculinité et de féminité, sourd cependant ponctuellement un discours plus abrasif qui permet d’entrevoir précisément le brouillage que le punk commence à distiller. Ainsi le groupe bordelais Strychnine, dans « La leçon » (album Jeux cruels, 1978) imagine un renversement dans lequel le rapport amoureux devient l’occasion d’un apprentissage qui assujettit le désir du garçon au bon vouloir d’une compagne plus âgée ou plus expérimentée. Placé en position de novice, le garçon n’a d’autre choix que d’avouer sa candeur et d’implorer sa partenaire afin d’acquérir les clés du bonheur : « Tu connais l’affaire dans ses moindres détails/ Moi je suis au début et je n’ai pas d’instinct ». Si la plénitude amoureuse s’inscrit ici dans la jouissance et les plaisirs de la chair sous l’angle de la « première fois », c’est bien dans cette initiation orchestrée par une femme qui détient le savoir et le pouvoir que se niche la dimension subversive du texte : « Dans ta forêt je suis perdu / Toi. Apprends-moi, apprends-moi ! ». En ce sens, Strychnine prend à contrepied la figure de l’homme viril qui mène la relation à sa guise et impose sa toute-puissance amoureuse, une représentation détournée à l’envi par nombre de groupes punk. The Boys, par exemple, jouissent d’un réel succès en Grande Bretagne et en France avec « First time », un titre qui parodie les codes de la boom adolescente et des premières amours dominées par l’impétuosité du désir masculin : « Oh, oh oh oh, it’s my first time ! / Oh, oh oh oh, please be kind ! / Oh, oh oh oh, don’t hurt me ! ». Mais quoique sulfureux, l’amour punk de « La leçon » se contente de reproduire une forme finalement bien connue des relations amoureuses, dans lesquelles la femme experte n’est autre que la putain chargée de déniaiser le jeune homme de bonne famille. En revanche, dans le cas des Lou’s, groupe lyonnais exclusivement féminin, la provocation rompt plus nettement avec les figures établies. Si, en prônant la débrouille et le Do It Yourself (DIY) le punk en France permet de révéler à partir de 1976 l’existence et la vitalité d’une scène rock impatiente qui ne s’embarrasse pas de savoir s’il convient de maîtriser plus de trois accords, il donne aussi l’occasion aux filles de s’exprimer. Avec « Take a ride », chanson qui figure dans le film La Brune et moi (Philippe Puicouyoul, sorti en salle en avril 1981), les Lou’s accompagnent la mise en scène d’une figure radicalement nouvelle : une jeune punkette émancipée, bondissante, engagée, qui séduit un producteur et l’enjoint littéralement de faire d’elle une « punk star ». Au-delà des mots, les attitudes provocantes et sexuellement explicites du groupe féminin permettent de donner un sens aux ambitions punk : l’amour est ici une arme et les filles punk ont désormais tout loisir d’en user pour déstabiliser l’ancien monde et subvertir l’ordre patriarcal.

En contrepoint des jeux de l’amour, un deuxième ensemble, au discours plus contrasté et moins conventionnel, se distingue. Il se fissure rapidement sur la question du [End Page 5] bonheur amoureux et laisse apparaître des figures beaucoup plus noires. L’amour y est appréhendé comme un piège, voire comme une emprise ouvrant sur différents mal-êtres. Les textes, sombres, explorent la partie la plus secrète et plus taboue des relations amoureuses. L’amour constitue un lieu de tensions dans lequel s’expriment différentes formes de frustrations. Ainsi Strychnine, dans « Obsession » (album Je veux, 1981) revient fréquemment sur ce côté obscur dans des compositions qui abordent la jalousie et l’envie ou expriment la frustration des amours à jamais perdues : « Il ne faut pas chercher, au rayon des intouchables […] / J’aurais bien voulu me placer, mais l’autre y était déjà […] / Obsession, obsession, tu as touché le fond / Obsession, obsession, excitation ». La dureté du quotidien constitue par ailleurs l’une des dimensions à laquelle s’arrime la question de l’amour, soit parce que la violence des jours est directement intégrée à cette problématique des misérables et des mal-aimés, soit parce que les rapports de force (domination, perversions, dérives ou exploitations de l’autre) impriment à la relation amoureuse une violence qui tord la raison même des sentiments. À ce titre, l’exemple le plus marquant reste sans doute le cas de la prostitution. Gazoline, le groupe punk d’Alain Kan, s’approprie immédiatement ce thème et l’intègre à l’univers interlope des nuits parisiennes, associant désir, déchéance et noirceur du temps, expression d’une vie étroite, exploitée et sans espoir. Leur morceau « Sally » (45 tours Sally / Electric Injection, 1977), est à cet égard particulièrement éloquent : « Sally petite fille du trottoir est une blonde aux racines noires / Elle est vraiment jolie le cul moulé dans son slip léopard […] / Sally petite fille de la rue est du genre dépression / Souvent elle a voulu se trancher les poignets en deux morceaux ». Le punk ouvre par ailleurs une brèche franche dans le silence qui entoure la prostitution masculine. Aux États-Unis, dès 1975, les Ramones avaient franchi le pas avec une composition de Dee Dee Ramone largement autobiographique (« 53rd&3rd »). En France, Strychnine s’empare du thème avec « Pas besoin d’être un homme » (album Jeux cruels, 1978) osant la mise en abyme des bonne et mauvaise consciences : « Tu as vu le jeune garçon qui attend là-bas / Le jean est serré et les traits sont purs / Ton portefeuille est épais et les temps sont durs, durs / Pas besoin d’être un homme pour gagner de l’argent ». L’album des Bordelais regorge du reste de textes dans lesquels la domination, voire la perversité des relations amoureuses, constituent le cœur de l’argument artistique. « Jeux cruels » n’envisage guère la relation amoureuse autrement que comme une épreuve de force, dans laquelle l’un des partenaires est forcément le bourreau, l’autre la victime : « Je suis le gardien de son corps, je détruis sa vie / Je suis un bourreau, rien qu’un bourreau ». Le thème est repris sous l’angle de l’emprise possessive, sans qu’il soit possible de dire, au-delà de l’interprétation masculine, qui de l’homme ou de la femme se trouve pris dans les mailles du filet, à l’instar de « Lâche-moi » : « Tu crois que tout t’appartient, tu crois que je suis ton bien / […] Lâche-moi, je ne veux pas de toi ». L’ensemble préfigure la raréfaction du thème des aventures joyeuses de l’adolescence amoureuse ainsi que la densification des figures sombres de l’amour et des frustrations qu’il peut engendrer, ouvrant sur la mort et le suicide, deux thèmes qui prendront toute leur dimension dans les générations suivantes.

Un dernier segment du discours amoureux est celui qui compose une trame serrée entre amour et addictions. L’amour de la défonce et de l’alcool vient ainsi nourrir le registre punk pour pallier les vides d’une vie sans amour et pour accompagner la lente perdition d’un monde sans substance, un univers dans lequel privés d’une force qui les meut et les transcende, les êtres ne semblent exister que pour mieux se détruire. Les textes du groupe parisien Asphalt Jungle (45 tours Déconnection / Asphalt Jungle, 1977), emmené par Patrick [End Page 6] Eudeline, sont à cet égard emblématiques : « À l’aube tu descends bien saccagé / Le cœur en lambeaux qui ne bat pour personne ». Dans un style qui demeure très personnel, tout en empruntant tantôt à Burroughs, tantôt à Lester Bangs, Eudeline tisse des textes en forme de poésies désespérées. « Love lane » 45 tours Poly Magoo / Love Lane, 1978) est une complainte erratique qui prône l’amour de la dope, car le chemin de l’amour n’est en réalité que celui du besoin sans cesse renouvelé des états éthérés : « Babe, babe, babe babe blue/ C’est la loi du love lane / C’est la loi de la vie […] / C’est Love Lane où je m’éveille chaque matin […] / Too much junkie business ». Au milieu de la ville tentaculaire et anonyme, les héros du punk parisien ne sont que des pauvres hères perdus dans leurs rêves, pendant que leur cœur se dissout dans l’alcool et l’ennui, comme dans « Planté comme un privé » (45 tours Planté comme un privé / Purple Heart, 1977) : « Planté comme un privé au fond de la ville / Encore un dernier cocktail, comptoir anonyme […] / Planté comme un privé au fond de la ville / Tous ces gens mauvais acteurs et moi encore seul ». Le mythe du « grand amour », celui du Peace and Love des aînés, se trouve ainsi désossé, démantibulé et alcoolisé. Passé au crible de la grande « Déconnection » (45 tours Déconnection / Asphalt Jungle, 1977), il devient un repoussoir, tandis que le hippie, figure archaïque reniée par les punk de la première heure, incarne l’échec d’une idéologie débordée par les violences du quotidien : « Hey, toi dans la rue, tout près des crachats de voiture / Tu fais la chasse aux hippies le dimanche après-midi quand ta télé est cassée / […] La ville qui dort t’attend / Tu vas casser les distributeurs, braquer les pharmacies et boire de la bière ».

Par conséquent, dans cette explosion punk, l’amour écorché n’est encore que cet émoi ou cette absence dont il convient de scruter les incidences en termes d’émotions. Le punk tente d’exprimer simultanément le plaisir et la méfiance à l’égard d’une dépendance amoureuse qui peut constituer un piège ou a contrario relever de cette douleur lancinante animant des vies condamnées à scruter un horizon sans avenir ni amour, replié sur lui-même. Le discours est ici largement auto-référencé en ce qu’il reste essentiellement tourné vers les acteurs et n’exprime que la propre finalité des rapports interpersonnels, aussi glauques soient-ils. Avec l’émergence d’une seconde génération au-delà des années 1980, beaucoup plus politisée, le discours tend à changer de nature et le prisme amoureux de fonction : de la plainte ou la complainte émerge une posture critique, un miroir déformant tendu au monde destiné à mieux en saisir les convulsions et les contradictions.

2. Toute la misère du monde (1980-2000)

Dans le contexte des années 1980, marqué par la crise économique et le retour au pouvoir des conservateurs (Reagan et Bush aux USA, Thatcher en Grande-Bretagne) une nouvelle vague punk, davantage politisée, émerge, portée par Black Flag ou les Dead Kennedys aux USA, et par Crass en Angleterre. En France, bien que les « forces de progrès » soient arrivées au pouvoir en 1981, le tournant de la rigueur amorcé par la gauche mitterrandienne dès 1983, la montée du chômage et l’essor sensible de l’extrême droite, les mouvements sociaux et antiracistes dynamisent les discours de résistance et la réinvention du punk : la dimension engagée des textes s’affirme. L’émergence d’une scène indépendante, qui commence à se structurer autour de labels efficaces (Bondage, Boucherie Productions), de réseaux de bars et de lieux de spectacle autonomes, le soubassement idéologique ancré [End Page 7] dans une revendication anarchiste et libertaire plus nette (Gosling, 2004), mais également la relative homogénéisation qui marque les compositions, le son et les productions artistiques du punk sont autant de facteurs qui concourent à délimiter un courant musical, artistique et politique – l’anarcho-punk –  beaucoup plus visible, repérable et stratégique dans ses luttes et ses mots d’ordre. « La jeunesse emmerde le Front national », slogan issu du morceau « Porcherie » (album Concerto pour détraqués, 1985) de Bérurier Noir illustre ces prises de positions. La transition s’opère dans un temps relativement ramassé, au creux des années 1981-1983, lorsque des groupes dont l’histoire s’enracine dans la matrice punk originelle comme Camera Silens (Bordeaux), La Souris Déglinguée (Paris), Bérurier Noir (Paris), Oberkampf (Paris), commencent à acquérir une visibilité nationale et à fédérer un public autour de nouveaux combats (condamnation des extrêmes politiques, du racisme, des violences policières, défense de la jeunesse ou des exclus). Dynamisé par l’apport du punk britannique engagé sur le versant des luttes sociales et ouvrières (Angelic Upstart, Cockney Rejects), ce deuxième souffle punk délimite de nouveaux territoires et de nouvelles focales.

Dans ce contexte, le thème de l’amour est traité différemment. Petit à petit, un basculement s’opère, de l’amour comme sentiment à l’amour comme miroir du désarroi quotidien et des violences sociales, économiques, politiques. Les groupes s’engouffrent dans une voie entrouverte par Métal Urbain dans la période précédente ; la violence dérangeante d’un morceau comme « Crève Salope » (33 tours Les hommes morts sont dangereux, 1981) montre de quelle manière le discours amoureux dans le punk devient progressivement un thème qui permet, par effet de miroir tendu à la société, de dénoncer toute la misère du monde : « Du sang plein le con / Tu pues tu chies tu râles / Fout ma bite dans ton cul / Je te déchire je t’égorge / Ta vie vaut pas cent balles / Sale putain dégueulasse ».

Avec « Suicide » (album Réalité, 1985), Camera Silens approche l’amour par la solitude, l’absence de perspectives et le jeu d’une séduction macabre qui trouve sa propre fin dans le désespoir « quatre-vingt-dix étages plus bas ». Car c’est bien la grande faucheuse qui est ici décrite comme l’amante, et le jeu des mots se plaît à confondre l’amour et la mort : « Je n’sais pas si elle voudra de moi […] / Je la vois en bas, elle est là, elle est ma mort ». Très rapidement, Bérurier Noir, dont l’audience va croissant durant les années 1980, s’emploie à dénoncer la violence quotidienne, en particulier celle vécue par les femmes, les étrangers, les populations vulnérables et tous ceux qui n’entrent guère dans le moule de la société des gagnants. Le thème de l’amour n’est alors plus l’occasion de disserter sur les seuls sentiments amoureux, mais renvoie à une lecture particulièrement crue de la comédie humaine. Les textes se font directs, incisifs ; plus d’allusions, plus d’implicite, juste l’implacable réalité d’un monde en perdition. Ainsi, « Elsa je t’aime » (album Macadam Massacre, 1984) évoque la mort de l’autre que l’on tue pour le posséder : « Tu es douce comme la mort / Tu es douce donne-moi ton corps / Tu es douce j’en veux encore/ Mais tu es morte, je t’ai tué/ Mais tu es morte, pour te garder / Mais tu es morte, peux-tu m’oublier ? / Je t’aime Elsa ». « Hélène et le sang » (album Concerto pour détraqués, 1985) évoque même frontalement le thème du viol, questionnant ainsi une société en perte de repères, en mal de solidarité, une société en décomposition sociale avancée, territoire de nouveaux prédateurs : « Tu retrouveras les salopards/ […] Qui t’ont violée dans un bar / Des marques sur ta peau/ Sous la gorge un couteau/ Quatre salopards/ Une nuit de cauchemar/ Tu n’as plus rien à perdre/ Il te reste la haine ».  Pour Oberkampf, « Linda » (45 tours Linda, 1983) incarne ce « mime pervers de la vie », amour ravagé par la drogue et la prostitution : « Mais qu’as-tu fait de ta vie Linda/ Et [End Page 8] cette putain d’aiguille dans ton bras/ Qui te suce qui te suce qui te sucera /Jusqu’au trépas/ […] Mais Linda tu es morte maintenant / Bonne nuit Linda ».

Dans les décennies 1980-90, la noirceur envahit donc les thèmes des chansons punk de manière plus crue, détournant la fonction initiale du discours amoureux centré sur la relation elle-même et ses affres, pour projeter sur le monde une lumière vive et sans concession. Les thèmes sombres et violents, plus régulièrement privilégiés, deviennent la marque de fabrique de la « chanson d’amour punk » qui embrasse le suicide, l’exploitation de l’autre, le racisme, l’intolérance, la haine et la violence, l’exclusion, le sexe sans amour et le viol. Dans cette dynamique, l’une des particularités du punk est bien de se situer dans une forme de réinvention permanente qui subvertit les codes établis pour recomposer ses cadres d’action. Un bon exemple est fourni par « Adolf mon amour », morceau hautement subversif de Gogol Ier (album Vite avant la saisie, 1982), qui met en scène un coït passionnel et cru impliquant Hitler saisi dans des postures équivoques, participant pleinement à déconstruire l’image de toute puissance du Führer, et à dénoncer violemment le nazisme : « Adolf mon amour,  je t’en prie mon dieu, prends ma chatte oh je t’en prie, donne-moi ta liqueur oh oui, glisse ta petite quéquette dans ma chatte, ah mets-toi à quatre pattes, Adolf je t’en prie, Adolf pour la vieeeee ». La violence sociale appelle également un contre-discours susceptible de retourner la haine pour en faire une arme de résistance, comme l’avait suggéré en son temps Clash dans « Hate and War » (album The Clash, 1977). Ce que nous pourrions appeler de manière provocante la « chanson de haine », véritable invention punk, est en réalité une dénonciation et surtout une manière provocante d’inciter à l’amour. Dans « Rock’n’Roll Vengeance » (album La Souris Déglinguée, 1981), les Parisiens de La Souris Déglinguée retournent à leur façon le discours du racisme engagé et déclarent leur haine aux ennemis de l’humanisme et de l’amour : « Est-ce que tu le sais, pourquoi je te hais / Pourquoi je me bats toujours contre toi / Je cherche à détruire tous tes préjugés / Je cherche à détruire toutes tes croix gammées ».

3. Un monde sans espoir (2000-)

Dans la décennie suivante, l’amour conserve dans les textes punk ce rôle de miroir « sale » des réalités du temps. La chanson d’amour, si tant est que l’on puisse lui conserver ce nom, devient un exutoire pour cracher la haine d’un monde violent où règne la loi des plus forts, de ceux qui écrasent et contraignent leurs semblables. Cette critique réitérée du punk à l’égard des faillites sociales du monde moderne trouve à s’exprimer frontalement avec Les Sales Majestés dans « Y a pas d’amour » (album éponyme, 2000). Le morceau, construit selon une progression tragique, décrit le processus implacable de reproduction de la violence qui s’inscrit, précisément, dans la violence des jours et les vides d’une vie sans amour : la loi des plus forts, l’absence de rédemption et de pardon, et le jusqu’au-boutisme de ceux qui ont tout perdu, trop longtemps, et que même l’amour hypothétique ne peut plus sauver de la violence. Le refrain, implacable, est éloquent : « Y’a pas d’amour, y’a pas d’amour/ Y’a que de la haine et des vautours / Y’a pas d’espoir, y’a pas d’espoir / Y’a que du sang c’est un cauchemar ». De manière assez similaire, Tagada Jones, dans « La Raison » (album Descente aux enfers, 2011), interroge la ligne de partage entre égoïsme, individualisme, dureté de la vie, amour et entraide. L’amour n’a de sens que dans le partage d’une vie meilleure, et c’est exactement [End Page 9] dans ce contraste entre refuge et partage que s’inscrit la dimension politique du texte : « Et elle me dit toujours, qu’il nous reste l’amour / Qu’on a qu’à tout laisser couler / Partir ensemble et s’évader / Et elle me dit toujours, qu’il nous reste l’amour/ Que les hommes se trompent tout le temps / Aveuglés par la puissance et l’argent ! ».  C’est précisément bien de partage qu’il est question dans « Camarades », supplique des Sales Majestés (album No Problemo, 1997) : « Aimer son prochain ne rapporte rien / C’est toute la tragédie du genre humain / Et si le monde ne ressemble plus à rien / C’est parce qu’on oublie souvent son voisin […] Quels que soient ton pays, ta couleur (camarade) / On a partout sur terre droit au bonheur (camarade) ». L’entraide, la coopération, le respect de l’autre ne sont en réalité que les facettes d’un humanisme à réinventer dans une société qui ne saurait renoncer à l’amour.

La complexité et la richesse du corpus des textes punk de cette « troisième génération » permettent également de poser la question du bonheur retrouvé : n’y aurait-il d’amour que l’absence d’amour ? Le caractère résolument original du groupe breton du punk celtique Les Ramoneurs de Menhir (dans lequel on retrouve Loran, ancien membre de Bérurier Noir), lié à leur fort attachement au folklore traditionnel qu’ils revisitent en amoureux de la Bretagne et défenseurs des cultures régionales, invite sans doute à relativiser cette question. Mais en se réappropriant les figures traditionnelles de l’homme et de sa belle, dans la Blanche Hermine (Gilles Servat) le punk des Bretons n’évite pas de réinscrire l’amour dans une configuration de genre pourtant largement critiquée par ailleurs : celle d’un ordre immuable, qui structure les rapports sociaux de sexe et les relations hommes / femmes : pendant que l’homme part à la guerre défendre ses terres et sa culture, sa belle l’attend sur le pas de la porte. De même, Tagada Jones, dans le morceau « Karim et Juliette » (album Dissident, 2014) qui peut se lire comme un détournement de l’œuvre shakespearienne, prend le parti de tordre les conventions et les représentations sociales pour livrer un message d’espoir sur fond de mixité sociale et de transcendance amoureuse : « N’en déplaise à ces gens / Qui votent plus foncé que blanc / Ils vécurent heureux / Et eurent beaucoup d’enfants / Pas de petits noirs ni de petits blancs ». Si l’amour acquiert dès lors une forme de légitimité dans la sphère punk, c’est en prenant à contre-pied le discours plus traditionnel de l’amour idéalisé qui se suffit à lui-même. La chanson d’amour devient en quelque sorte un analyseur de la société, une grille de lecture des rapports de force et de la violence. Elle sert de révélateur à la noirceur du temps et permet d’amplifier et de mieux détourer, dans ce contraste saisissant, les figures de la misère du monde : exclus, paumés, junkies, caïds des cités obsédés par leur « teub », racistes, filles perdues, prostitué(s), violeurs et violé(e)s, meurtriers et taulards. Il s’agit bien d’un dynamitage en règle du discours amoureux par le bas, un « fondu au noir » dont les limites restent d’autant plus imprécises que la société redéfinit au fil du temps ses propres frontières en matière de violence, de provocation, de tolérable et d’intolérable. On peut ainsi questionner les mutations de la provocation dans un contexte très contemporain, au travers des polémiques qui ont accompagné la naissance du groupe de punk nantais Viol (interdit de concert à Paris en 2015) et la publication de ses chansons, en particulier la chanson « Viol » (2009), qui donnent le sentiment – et tout est dans cette question de la représentation – d’une normalisation de la violence, voire d’un appel au viol : « Dans la rue tu m’as provoqué / Petite pute à souliers ! / Tu pensais te faire sauter par ton mec / Mais dans une poubelle je vais te prendre à sec ! ». La subversion et la dénonciation de la misère du monde par la subversion doivent-elles et peuvent-elles s’accorder sur des limites ? Considérer le punk comme le prisme au travers duquel se lisent [End Page 10] les transformations sociales invite à questionner ces ambiguïtés. Un travail d’envergure sur ce thème essentiel reste encore à produire.

Enfin, le punk emprunte aux œuvres désormais établies des musiques populaires pour les retourner, se les réapproprier et y inscrire sa marque. À l’appui des thématiques de fond et de leurs transformations dans le temps, ce jeu subtil s’applique également aux formes. Toute l’originalité du prisme amoureux revisité par cette troisième génération punk réside précisément dans la reformulation très personnelle de thèmes conventionnels. Ce qui crée la rupture n’est donc pas systématiquement le changement d’objet à l’intérieur du territoire amoureux, mais le filtre technique qui lui est appliqué et qui, par un décalage subtil, rend singulièrement insolente une situation amoureuse tombée dans la banalité des usages sociaux, voire dans l’ordinaire du rock and roll et de ses figures imposées. Dans la lignée d’Oberkampf, qui s’était saisi de la figure mythique de la poupée dans « Poupée de cire » (45 tours Couleurs sur Paris, 1981) pour la détourner et la transformer irrespectueusement en « salope », dans un hommage impertinent que n’a jamais désavoué Gainsbourg, les Sales Majestés, dans « Love Story » (album Y a pas d’amour, 2000) s’emparent de la poésie gainsbarienne pour proposer leur lecture revue et corrigée du mythe amoureux, poétique, à l’aune de l’individualisme et de la consommation de l’autre : « Je sais peut-être que tu y as cru / Mais c’était qu’une histoire de cul / Je suis venu te dire que tu t’en vas / Je n’y peux rien désolé c’est comme ça / Je suis venu te dire qu’il faut partir / Rentrer chez toi pour ne plus revenir ». Il est vrai que Gainsbourg, qui avait déjà travaillé avec Bijou à la fin des années 1970 (« Les papillons noirs », album OK Carole, 1978), n’avait pas hésité à pervertir le genre de la chanson d’amour, privilégiant à la romance la dimension hyper sexualisée des rapports amoureux.

Le punk français rêve-t-il donc en rose ? Si la chanson d’amour punk emprunte dans un premier temps la voie des amours adolescentes, entre appropriation libertaire et révolte, parfois poussées à l’extrême tant du côté des fantasmes et de la perversion que des formes d’addiction supposées combler les vides de vies pensées sans avenir ni amour, cette construction évolue au fil des générations musicales, en dynamitant les codes de la chanson amoureuse, en détournant les figures mythiques du « peace and love », de l’amour mainstream et des formes poétiques, mais surtout en s’évadant du simple jeu amoureux pour venir refléter par effet de contraste sidérant ce que l’amour absent ou dénaturé peut révéler de la noirceur du monde. Ce faisant, chaque groupe, à sa manière, réinvente amoureusement sa critique, son credo et sa morale de l’histoire, invitant ainsi à réfléchir, au fil des morceaux, à ces manques et à ces marques de la violence dans une vie que personne ne songe réellement pouvoir vivre sans amour.

Ajoutons que si la critique du paradis de l’amour n’est pas l’apanage du punk, une part non négligeable de la production artistique populaire s’en est largement inspirée. La création musicale s’insère en effet avec un certain bonheur dans une forme de désenchantement tangentiel à la poétique punk. Cette vague génère une lecture subversive des rapports amoureux dont s’inspirent des artistes qui pour certains sont directement issus de la scène punk – « Les histoires d’amour finissent mal en général » (Rita Mitsouko) –, qui flirtent avec elle – « L’amour c’est du pipeau, c’est bon pour les gogos » (Fontaine) –  ou encore qui sont en recherche de nouvelles figures pour prolonger un style qu’ils ont eux-mêmes largement façonné depuis les années 1960 – « C’est l’Hymne à l’amour (moi l’nœud) » (Dutronc, Gainsbourg). La littérature, avec des auteurs comme Michel Houellebecq ou Virginie Despentes, n’est pas en reste, reprenant peu ou prou cet héritage critique punk dans les [End Page 11] années 1980-1990, alors que, symétriquement une large partie des philosophes contemporains (Badiou, Ferry) abandonne ce terrain pour développer un discours d’éloge et de magnification qui réinstalle la relation amoureuse dans ses carcans conservateurs et puritains.

[1] Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) est un psychiatre, psychanalyste et critique de la société autrichienne. Celui qui fut le plus jeune collaborateur de Freud est connu pour ses contributions à la sexologie et à la thérapie psychanalytique et son engagement en faveur de l’émancipation de la satisfaction sexuelle (la « fonction de l’orgasme »). Il est notamment l’auteur de La fonction de l’orgasme, Paris, l’Arche, 1957 [1927].

[2] Notre corpus comprend des groupes qui se désignent comme punk ou qui sont désignés comme tels par les institutions, les médias, les acteurs du monde de la musique, etc. Pour davantage de détails sur ces processus de désignation et d’auto-désignation, voir Robène/Serre 2016 et Robène/Serre 2017.

[3] Contrairement à une idée encore trop souvent répandue (à la fois dans le champ académique – voir Briggs, 2015 – et dans la sphère médiatique – Eudeline, Tandy, etc.) qui voudrait que le punk en France se réduise à un épiphénomène (parisien, dandy, etc) et ne soit qu’une pâle transposition des modèles anglo-américains, notre projet de recherche PIND a pour objectif de dépasser le spectre d’un phénomène réduit à l’évidence culturelle anglo-américaine. [End Page 12]


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Briggs, Jonathyne, Sounds French, Globalization, Cultural Communities and Pop Music in France, 1958-1980, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Clawson, Mary Ann, « When women play the bass : Instrument specialization and Gender interpretation in Alternative Rock Music », Gender and Society, 13/2, 1999, p. 193-210.

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Gosling, Tim, « ‘Not for sale’ : the underground network of anarchopunk », dans Music scenes. Local, translocal and virtual, sous la direction d’Andy Bennett et de Richard A. Peterson, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 2004, p. 168-183.

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Robène, Luc et Serre, Solveig, « Le punk est mort. Vive le punk ! La construction médiatique de l’âge d’or du punk dans la presse musicale spécialisée en France », dans Le temps des médias, 27, 2017, p. 124-138.

Robert, Frédéric, « Vers une contre-culture américaine des sixties », dans, Contre-cultures sous la direction de Christophe Bourseiller and Olivier Penot-Lacassage, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2013, p. 123-135.

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