Every October, it seems love and relationships begin to underscore everything. The start of cuffing season begins and suddenly engagement ring commercials, complex flash mob proposals, and holiday themed romantic comedies increase exponentially during the months-long ramp up to Valentine’s Day. With all that, one might be hard pressed to find many works of fiction focused on the romantic lives of Black women.
Award winning author, Rebekah Weatherspoon wants to change that.
A little more than a decade ago, while working in the entertainment industry, Weatherspoon happened upon something she hadn’t read before: fan fiction.
“One of the women I worked with told me about it,” Weatherspoon says. “I started reading High School Musical fan fiction. It was right when Hairspray had come out. I was paying attention to everything Zac Efron was doing. That branched into other things. I read Twilight for work, and then I started reading and writing Twilight fan fiction. I had some great friends who were like, ‘You should really take a crack at writing a novel.’”
Seventeen novels and novellas later, Weatherspoon is still twisting tales that will leave you cackling, sweating, tearing up and lusting out loud. “Life is stressful, so if you can pick up one of my books and feel happy, get a cathartic cry in, or whatever you need—I want people to be entertained,” she says.
I caught up with Weatherspoon to chat about her latest novel, “Xeni: A Marriage of Inconvenience,” what inspired her to write romance, how she subverts patriarchy in a genre that historically has leaned into it and why she created the website, Women of Color In Romance.
The Lighthouse: What led you to writing romance?
Rebekah Weatherspoon: I don’t think I thought about writing anything else. I tried writing a literary fiction piece. It was kind of like a “Little Fires Everywhere” thing. Small town, family in trouble, secrets—all that stuff. It was kind of depressing. When I started reading romance, everything just kind of made sense. It felt like home.
TL: Why is it important to write about Black women getting their happily ever after?
RW: Why wouldn’t I write about Black women and women of color? I am a Black woman. White women have plenty of books about them, so why not write about Black women and women of color.
TL: What else were you reading around this time? Was romance a part of your go-to content?
RW: A lot of people start reading [romance] because their moms or grandmas have romance novels. I wouldn’t say my mom is a big romance reader. We had a lot of books in our house. My dad’s a teacher, so our family library was [made up of] African American history books and things he taught in class. We had plenty of things to read, just not much fiction.
During college, I was a Shakespearean major, so I was reading a lot for school. When I graduated, I read a lot of what my parents were reading. [Then] I read “Twilight,” which was kind of my gateway drug. It wasn’t the book itself; it was the women I met through reading it. They were big romance readers. They gave me a list of books and everything they recommended I just loved so I kept reading romance after that.
TL: How do you think patriarchy influences the romance genre and how do you subvert it in the stories you write?
RW: Patriarchy, in general, sees positive emotion as a negative thing, whether it’s viewed as negative because it’s a feminine thing or because it makes you appear weak. For example, when a sports team wins, it’s not just, “Oh we should celebrate and be happy.” It’s ‘We should celebrate and burn down half of our city.’” There’s this idea that if men participate in things there has to be some sort of negative or violent aspect to it.
I think that’s why a lot of romance back in the day had a lot of rape plots. Women would be kidnaped by a Viking, or a pirate, or they would be in a relationship with a Duke, and they would be raped. The act of violence along with any kind of emotion seems to go hand in hand with patriarchy.
With the kind of romance [novels] I write, it’s important to give men voices and stories, but also to give women a place—because I also write lesbian romance—where the love they’re experiencing is joyful and safe at the same time.
TL: You feature characters of all kinds of backgrounds, body types and sexualities in your books, which isn’t something we always see with other authors. Why is this important to include different perspectives?
RW: It’s a couple of things. One, I don’t want to write the same heroine every time. I’ve been writing Black women [in] the last few books and I don’t want all of them to be the same. They need to be different people and they need to come from different backgrounds. They’re all going to have different experiences as far as sexualities and body types. Look around at your friends, your co-workers [and] the people you see at the grocery store. Everyone’s different. Why wouldn’t you make your characters different and give them a wider slice of life?
TL: Your latest release, “Xeni: A Marriage of Inconvenience” is a great example of finding joy and safety when you least expect it. Xeni and Mason are both in tight spots, but Mason always checks in with Xeni about how she feels and what she wants. How do you write such well-rounded and thoughtful heroes?
RW: I start with the heroine. Xeni popped up in “Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny,” so I already had a sense of who she was. Her aunt has a cancer diagnosis, so the family is already concerned. At that point, Xeni is dealing with her mom and her other aunts fighting.
I had to keep the tone a certain way because she’s just lost someone that’s close to her. I was trying to think about what she needed overall and what she needed was a neutral third party to have her back. Her mom and her stepdad love her very much but they’re involved in the drama. She can’t talk to her aunt because she’s not there anymore and she can’t talk to her other aunts because they’re not neutral.
Xeni is someone who takes a little bit of time to open up about certain things. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger. Mason is neutral. He’s what she needed.
TL: Your male characters never come off as one note and they’re never positioned as men coming to save your heroines. Do you look at your characters as saving each other?
RW: I was lucky to grow up with parents who were nurturing and loving with each other. In my mind, a healthy, positive relationship is a partnership. Whether it’s two women, or a man and a woman, [those people] feel empowered, nurtured, listened to, and supported.
In “Xeni,” I wanted Mason to feel like she had his back. He shows up for her a lot, so when things get hot on his end, I thought it was important for him to know she was willing to stick up for him.
TL: You created the Women of Color in Romance website – which promotes women of color authors and their books – after creating #BlackWomenInRomance. What inspired you to create these two movements?
RW: I was just annoyed that people kept acting like there were no Black women writing romance [novels]. There are a lot of Black women writing romance. In 2015, I decided for Black History Month I would showcase a different Black woman [author]. I found so many that I couldn’t keep up.
I thought, “You know what? Maybe I’ll do something where I keep highlighting Black women, but I’ll also highlight other women of color.” I have Latina, Asian, South Asian, friends who were also looking for romance that featured people like themselves. I wanted to create a space for all women of color to be able to find romance by and about them. We’ve shared almost 3,000 books so far. There are lots to read out there.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.