Why I view romance books as political action

November 20, 2023 | General

A picture with a purple watercolour background. At the top, it says "Romance books as political action". Below it, there's a black and white picture of a Black Lives Matter protest. Over it, there's a cartoon of a woman reading a book.

I used to say I didn’t believe in politics. This was mostly out of cynicism and disempowerment. I thought there was nothing I could do to change those in power or how they ruled my country. My views have changed significantly in the past 10 years: now, I believe everything is political. I don’t know if I would see the world through an intersectional, political lens if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with the people I did at the right time. This shaped me and how I move through the world today, which includes the stories that I write. With my knowledge and experiences, I couldn’t not consider how the choices I made were political. In fact, I had to be purposeful about how politics and romance books intersect. This is why I view romance books as political action, and why I believe that politics belong in reader spaces.

The myth of apoliticism

I’ve come to think of three possible causes for my former so-called apoliticism. The first one is internalized -isms and phobias. Even though I was poor on and off growing up, I believed that, with hard work, I could make as much money as I needed. I also missed how other identities and intersections would affect me. For example: the privilege I had as a light-skinned mestiza or in my last name, and the discrimination I faced when I became fat as a teenager, but that I thought I deserved because it was something I needed to fix. By being constantly exposed to misguided, discriminatory, and prejudiced ideas, we tend to internalize them as true and their consequences as deserved. One of the places in which we consume ideas is through books. In that sense, books are a vehicle to learn about the world and its rules.

The second cause is privilege. After immigration, I learned through lived experience why identifying as apolitical was a reflection of my privilege and internalized patriarchy, capitalism, fatphobia, racism, and colonialism. If we’re not directly affected by the injustices of the world, they may be invisible to us. We may not be aware of our and other people’s suffering after looking away for so long. It is a privilege to have the space and opportunity to disengage from injustice, and it takes intentionality to re-engage. Thinking of books as an escape is creating distance from how powerful they can be, the messages they relay, and how they affect the global consciousness.

The final cause is disempowerment: even someone who is aware of social inequality may see themselves as apolitical. One of the reasons for this may be that they don’t believe they have the power to create change. In fact, hopelessness is a weapon that keeps us stagnant. Why would I ever act, if I believed it would lead to nothing in the best of circumstances? In cases like these, we may see books as simple entertainment, and a way to gain relief from hopelessness.

Romance books as political expression

I write characters that live in very similar intersections to mine. Some of them are Latine, some of them are in bicultural relationships, all my MFCs have fat in their bodies and some of my MMCs do too. Some of my characters are immigrants, and one of my MFCs is Bi. My existence as someone living with intersections is political, and so is writing characters like that.  They tell stories of people not usually portrayed in media. Since books appear to aid in the development of empathy, they have the potential to expand our understanding of ourselves and the world.

However, I also write books that imagine a world where people like me and my characters have great things happen to them. They’re privileged; they get access to wealth. I imagine what a world with more social justice might look like and help create a vision for what is possible for us and others with marginalized identities. This is political, too. It can point us in the right direction, while soothing our heart. Comfort is both a privilege and an act of rebellion against a world where hopelessness is convenient for those who prefer the status quo.

Bookish spaces and politics

Communication theory says that it’s impossible not to communicate. Even when trying to say or show nothing, we’re communicating something. The same is true about politics. Looking away from an issue allows it to continue as is. Escape through books means disconnecting from reality, which not everyone can do. Would they burn and ban books if they didn’t hold power?

All books communicate something about their authors and the world at the time in which they were written. Now, if every act is political, readers’ behaviors will impact the world as well. The books a reader chooses to engage with is a political act. How people approach the reading process is a political act. Choosing to read books like mine, in a world that favors books without a diverse cast, can in itself be a political act.

Books can provide rest, comfort, relief, and even an escape, as long as we’re purposeful. Self-nourishment and joy are a necessary part of rebellion; all we need to do is remember to come back to the promotion of social justice. Intentionality is crucial to engage with our agency. If we don’t, at what point are we giving away our agency to affect change in our surroundings?

We need to remember that every (in)action holds power. Politics are the place where our power and agency interact with how we run and organize our communities. Books can be a vehicle to multiple aspects of this interaction with the world. As a romance reader and author, I invite us to think critically about how we create or consume content in bookish spaces. How are we using our power to create change?