Men, in general, don’t write romance books. If you narrow that down even further, black men, in general, don't write romance books. Now that isn't to say, any brother in the UK isn't drafting the next Pride and Prejudice, or a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in Peckham.
Apart from Shakespeare and Nicholas Sparks, the populist romance genre is the preserve of middle-class, white women – not that there is anything wrong with that, just an observation.
Bearing all the above in mind, you can imagine the looks on my friend’s and family’s faces when I told them my first novel would be a romance novel. “You? You’re going to write a romance?" was what a few people told me, looking bemused as if I told them I wanted to join Nigel Farage's political party.
While everyone was surprised that I was writing a romance book as my first novel, I wasn't surprised. I've always been fond of the romance genre. This fascination probably started when I was in my early teens and would religiously watch Boy Meets World. There is no shame in admitting I loved the romance between the two central characters in that show, Cory and Topanga (played by Danielle Fishel one of my 90s crushes).
When I started writing my debut novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her, a romance, I did some reflection. What made me, a man, read and enjoy romance books so much that I wanted to write one as my debut?
The psychology of falling in love
I'll admit up front that this is a generalisation but, from speaking to women and reading reviews of popular romance books, I get the impression that romance fiction is so popular because women readers love reading about two people's journey falling in love. The romance genre's appeal is the 'will-they-want-they' formulaic story of two people being kept apart by something or their denial to fall in love with each other. The story must end with a nice, happy ending eventually.
The formulaic romance genre does not appeal to me, however.
I love a good romance when it does a deep dive into the psychology of two people falling in love. To put it another way, I am not captivated just by the journey of people falling in love – but why they fell in love with each other in the first place. But also, the challenges that come after getting together.
Recently, I watched two films which describe the types of romance I tend to like. One is Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and the other is Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. If you get time during this miserable lockdown and want an emotionally-moving story, I recommend watching these two movies. Both films deeply explore why two individual people would fall in love and what causes two people to fall out of love with each other and the pain that comes with that.
I call these type of love stories romance realism. They deeply explore the psychology of love and attraction and the powerful moments of connection that bring people together. But they also examine the harrowing experiences of heartbreak and divorce.
The difference between romance and romance realism
Even though I wish I had, I did not coin the term "romantic realism." Literary critics have been using the word since the early 19th century. My idea of romance realism is similar with novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand’s definition. In her book “The Romantic Manifesto”, she described it as:
"The method of romantic realism is to make life more beautiful and interesting than it actually is, yet give it all the reality, and even a more convincing reality than that of our everyday existence.”
The purpose of fiction is to be a form of escapism from our reality, and populist novels exist to entertain us with drama, characterisation and plot. A pure romance novel aims to arouse a cathartic feeling about a beautiful couple who surmount external odds to come together and have their happily ever after. Keeping them apart is always something external – an evil stepfather, warring families, different locations, etc.
With romantic realism, however, it's not only external factors that keep two people apart, but internal ones too and these are often the focus of romantic realism fiction. It’s the character’s internal weaknesses, fears, and misbeliefs that sabotage their relationships or ruin their marriage. Romantic realism can still have a happy ending, but often it’s an ambiguous ending or a ‘happy-for-now’ ending. But a pure happily-ever-after ending is usually reserved for the romance genre and not the romance realism subgenre.
Why I prefer romance realism
As someone who has had two quite intense and dramatic long-term relationships, I would say I know a thing or two about the highest highs and the lowest lows in relationships. It's not only external factors that are the sole reason for volatility in relationships but also our complex personalities.
The most realistic and most exciting stories about romance explore the psychology of lovers. Whenever I am writing about two people falling in love, I like to examine both people’s idea of love and how they place this expectation of love onto their partner to fulfil.
Sometimes, someone can meet their partner's expectation or fall short due to their own shortcomings or the other partner's unrealistic standards. Pure romance novels tend to explore the first stages of love, where they are finding each other and overcoming obstacles to be together finally, but what about afterwards? Romance realism delves into how people's personalities test the foundation of marriages and relationships after they’ve hooked up.
Novelists are psychologists, delving into their characters' mindset while building a plot and story that tests their protagonists. In the same way, the best romance novels are not just about the beauty of falling in love; they examine the psychology of two people falling in love and why they would also fall out of love.
The best romances don’t end after the happily-ever-after. As a writer, that’s when it’s the most interesting.
Would I deny my black son if he were gay? If you were to ask me this question when I was 18, then I would have said yes without flinching. “My son can’t be no batty boy” would have been my exact words.
If you were to ask me that question as a 31-year-old man, you’d get quite a different answer from me. I would shrug my shoulders and tell you: “That’s his sexual preference. I will love him all the same.”
But where did this seismic shift in my mentality come from? You couldn’t simply put it down to my age. There are many black men who I grew up with that were very homophobic when we were teenagers that haven’t lost any of that in adulthood. So what was it then?
Well before I spend the rest of this article explaining why my views on homosexuality changed, two disclaimers first. I know I’ll have a few critics, so I want to address their concerns right off the bat.
Firstly, the purpose of this article is not to advocate for black men to become gay. Nobody “becomes gay” anyway. Instead, this article is an exploration of black masculinity and why homophobia is not only ridiculous but also not an affront to black masculinity.
Secondly, I am not a homosexual man. I am straight, but I have written this article to address why I would not dismiss my child, hypothetically speaking, if he were gay.
Growing up in a hypermasculine world gave me a homophobic mindset
I grew up in East London or the "ends" as it is colloquially known. My environment was very hypermasculine. Raised by a very conservative and traditional Yoruba man, my first experience of masculinity was one of strictness and dominance. Please don't mistake me, my father was and still is an exemplary father, but he was not one for hugs and kisses or openly expressing your feelings. He was a provider and a protector.
At school, many of the black boys (and to be fair, boys in general) were also very hypermasculine. This hypermasculinity manifested itself in several ways. For example, bragging about how many girl’s numbers you had on your phone and how many girls had you had slept with (everyone would double their body count), how many people you’d beaten up and how good you were at football and how aggressive you were.
What it meant to be a black man, growing up, was all through the lens of being a straight man. It was why I was very homophobic by the time I was in my late teens. During this period of my life, the very idea of another man kissing another man was a perversion of masculinity. It corrupted the concept of what masculinity was in my head, and so I thought being gay was a disgusting and despicable act.
Also, the early 2000s was not as openly accepting of the gay community as it is today. Anyone who suspected of being gay would face backlash, more so if you were black. If someone in the ends thought you were a "batty boy", a derogatory term for a gay man, you would be at risk of violence.
Meeting gay people while I was at university
The first time my dislike towards gay people was challenged was when I first attended university. Fittingly enough, my first actual interaction with a gayl person happened when I left East London to attend university in Brighton – considered to be Britain’s gay capital. At the time of completing my degree application, I was not aware of Brighton's reputation, but by the time it was brought to my attention, I was already in my first semester.
It was while living in halls that I became friends with a boy who was gay. To be completely candid, I was uncomfortable around him initially. In my ignorant, small mind, I had unfounded suspicions that he might fancy me or kiss me in the student lounge. God, I was an idiot. However, once I had gotten to know him, he was, in fact, a cool guy. We both liked watching WWE, reading novels and enjoying cheesy 90s action films.
And he never tried to kiss me.
By the time I had completed my English degree, I had spent three years in Brighton and interacted with many gay people, men and women. There was nothing different about gay love and straight love other than how they enjoyed physical intimacy. I had even watched two gay couples fall in love, get together and then break up – just like any heterosexual couple. My strong antipathy towards gay people, hardened over my heart like ice, had now melted away.
Science over emotion and religion
However, the reason why I would never deny my son (or my daughter) if they were gay is not only because of my university experience. It’s also down to science. Much of the argument against homosexuality, particularly within the black community but not exclusive to it, is that homosexuality is unnatural.
But it isn’t unnatural at all.
Firstly, what we must remember is that humans (homo-sapiens if you want to get all technical about it) are mammals (a fancy word for animals). I've heard many people, not just black people, tell me that other animals don't engage in gay behaviour, but that is entirely inaccurate. Homosexuality has been observed in dogs, elephants, baboons, and even lions, to name just a few. Now yes, an argument could be made that you can't compare the sexual behaviours of non-sentient mammals to that of humans who are self-aware. But considering humans have just evolved from animals and the fact that homosexuality is seen in other animals, even if they lack sentience, is proof that homosexuality is as natural as homosexuality.
Another argument against homosexuality, which I once held, was that the sole purpose of sex is for procreation. However, considering how the millennial generations, and the many generations before, have engaged in sexual acts purely for pleasure, going so far as to use contraception to eliminate the "sole purpose" of sex, renders that argument moot.
By the time I had left university, I was no longer religious, as I felt it limited the human experience and naturally made be a prejudiced person. While I still do draw on the Bible occasionally and my empathy and feelings to examine anything, I also look at cold, logical and impartial science. And from a purely scientific point of view, I can no longer see homosexuality as an unnatural act. Human sexuality is complex and scientific studies have shown that the binary idea of sexuality, male attracted to female and vice versa, is only one expression of the broad spectrum of human sexuality.
Black masculinity does need to evolve
Being from the black community, I can say that, from my observation, there are still negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Blatant homophobic attacks have lessened, but this is mainly in the black diaspora, which has been influenced by western society’s embracement of the LGBT community. However, homosexuality is still punishable in some Caribbean and African countries. It can land you in prison or worse.
Black masculinity is still very much tethered to this idea of hypermasculinity –physical superiority, sexual prowess and intense competition. Homosexuality is viewed as the antithesis of all that. However, there are some black men, who you might consider traditionally masculine, that are gay. The 2016 film Moonlight dramatises the experiences of a black male gangster who is muscular, tall, violent - and gay. Some of the most brutal men in history, who many would categorise as embodying typically hypermasculine traits, were gay such as Ronnie Kray, of the Kray Twins. In prison, there are many examples of violent men engaging in homosexuality. Even if our mainstream society satirises it, it still happens.
The strict idea of male blackness is limited, and this is perpetuated by black mainstream culture – in rap music, our fashion and our films. Over the years, I admit that black masculinity, in the West, has become broader. Still, I do feel there needs to be more of an acceptance of homosexuality as being compatible with black masculinity. Of course, this will take much time as religious ideologies are still influential in black communities – both in the diaspora and back at home in Africa and the Caribbean islands.
Would I purposefully encourage my black son to be gay? Of course not. Never would I influence any child's behaviour to prove an ideological point – an issue I have with many liberals, but that argument is beyond the scope of this article. But I would be supportive of my hypothetical gay son and love him all the same because being gay is not a choice – it’s who you are. And he would still be a man in my eyes, in every sense of the word.