In Roan Parrish’s novel “Out Of Nowhere” Rafael Guerrera one of the main characters, is an ex-convict. The ex-convict trope is not exactly unusual in gay romance, but Roan took her characters in an unexpected direction. Instead of going for the usual, she confronts us with a man who has turned his anger at the system into fierce political activism.. Rafe is relentless in his work, and refuses to be silent. He is vocal and strong, and as we read his love story we learn so much about our broken criminal justice system, mass incarceration and the decarceration movement Rafe is so involved in.
Since I read the book the first time, (I’ve read it many times by now) I have wanted to talk with Roan about Rafe. Why was it important for her to go so deeply into his political activism? Why is it important for us the reader to understand that side of him? I also wanted to talk about purpose in her writing. For me, reading romance is a lot about more than getting a happy ending with some sex sprinkled along the way (although this aspect is also critical to my enjoyment!) it is about hope, and it is about seeing the kinder side of humanity.
Being purposeful about bringing along the things that happen in our world which suffocate hope and dim kindness into a romance make the stories richer. It also builds empathy. Reading about characters who we may never come across in our own lives, and connecting with them at deep level, makes us more open to the try and understand about experiences and struggles we may have never thought of before.
So, no more of my ramblings…Here is what Roan had to say.
The Tipsy Bibliophile: The ex-convict, is not a rare theme in gay romance, it comes up every once in awhile. In “Out of Nowhere” you did something different, you did not go for the more traditional narrative, giving us a “damaged” ex-con, who is fixed by love. In Rafe’s character we get a man who had been caught up by the criminal justice system as a young man, and emerged from it emboldened to speak out and be an agent of change. Through him we learn about mass incarceration, the prison industry complex, and how the system is failing so many young men of color in our country. This is not the typical romance story line.
Why was it important to you, to let us in on the system that Rafe struggled with? What do you say to those who may argue those themes are too heavy for romance readers?
Roan Parrish: Sometimes, in romance novels, the presence of protagonists who’ve been incarcerated is a positive thing, because those characters get to be fleshed out, and in being so, often the traumas and stigmas of incarceration are made visible. But presence isn’t the same thing as analysis. And just as often, “prison” is used to stand in for a kind of eroticized reformed-bad-boy image, or as code that tells us the character is stereotypically tough. When that equation (prison = tough guy) happens, instead of being critiqued, prison becomes venerated as a kind of factory that produces a type of masculinity that signifies as erotic in many romances. This is a huge problem, because as long as books repeatedly equate incarceration with eroticized masculinity, they give it a shade of positivity, at least within those books. But, as readers well know, a lot of how we experience the world, and especially things that are unfamiliar to us, is through reading. So, if we encounter characters who’ve been incarcerated purely through reading, and those characters are coded as erotic tough guys who go on to find love, then there is an automatic connection between prison and positivity that is deepened with each story like this that we read.
At the most basic level, I believe that prison education and decarceration are issues that anyone living in America should be aware of. America is the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated, and the breakdown based on race and socioeconomic background shows the prison system to be radically skewed against people of color and people with fewer resources (African Americans, for example, make up 13% of the general population, and 40% of the incarcerated population). And people who have been incarcerated face a whole slew of challenges, both while inside and after release, that make it difficult to avoid recidivism.
In Out of Nowhere, then, it was crucial to me to write a character who, first, could express the fear and horror of incarceration, rather than portraying it as a crucible through which he had emerged, stronger or more macho. And who, second, was actively involved in attempting to intercede in the system that he had experienced. It also mattered to me that Rafe was a person of color, because of the overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system. Personally, I’ve been doing prison education and abolition work for years, and the most valuable perspectives on issues related to incarceration are from folks who have first-hand experience with it. So, it was important to me that Rafe not just be working toward decarceration, but be doing so with the insight of having experienced prison himself.
What feels too heavy as a theme for romance novels is certainly a matter of taste. For me, there is very little that is more romantic than the idea that love and connection with another person can deepen our
convictions about what is right in the world, and can make us more grateful for our freedom, and more determined to work toward securing freedom for others.
TTB: I’d like to ask you a bit about purpose. I do a lot of reading on social justice issues. It would be understatement to say, I don’t usually expect to come across such a sophisticated depiction of systematic oppression when I pick up a romance novel. When you decided to delve into Rafe’s activism and his thoughts on the criminal justice system, did you do so in the hopes that it would start a conversation? If so, was it hard to achieve a balance writing about these themes within a romance novel?
I definitely hoped that Rafe’s representation would make people aware of issues with the criminal justice system, if they weren’t already familiar. It’s an issue that is so deeply ingrained in the work toward justice, but one that a lot of folks might not have had reason to become aware of. And, in fact, the most gratifying thing for me, after Out of Nowhere came out, were all the notes I received from readers who hadn’t been knowledgeable about decarceration, and who were now working to educate themselves or get involved as a result of reading the book. It really underlined what I’ve always believed about reading, which is that learning the story of a specific person allows us entrée into issues that might otherwise not have touched us personally.
But I also wanted folks who are deeply politically involved to see themselves on the page. There aren’t many representations of people doing political work in romance novels, and when there are, too often it’s a throwaway trait. Or, worse, it’s conflated with being a “social justice warrior,” a charming designation for people who shout hollowly about political issues online but don’t work toward change in the world. This is a dangerous conflation, because it makes it easy to dismiss any online political activism as empty (ahem, can you tell this is a pet peeve of mine?).
I didn’t find it hard to balance the themes of the book with the romance, no. From a purely practical standpoint, nearly all my friends and community do social justice work, and it inflects our romantic lives in the same way that, say, being a teacher, or a bartender, or a frequent concertgoer might—it affects who you meet, where you hang out, and what you connect with people about. So, it was perfectly natural to write Rafe’s involvement in Books Through Bars or decarceration and have it be one more part of his life, alongside his romance with Colin.
I didn’t choose to give Rafe a history of incarceration and a drive to change that system simply because they’re issues that I think are important, though. I purposely gave them to the character who was going to be romantically involved with Colin, precisely because of the thematic link. Colin has lived his life based on a set of rules and strictures that he grew up in, and that he internalized so strongly that he couldn’t break free from them, even once he was an adult. He was, as Rafe puts it, as much in prison as anyone Rafe met inside, only it was a prison that only Colin had the power to free himself from. So, there is a substrate of understanding between them because of certain shared experiences, even though they have dealt with these experiences very differently. And part of what I hoped to show, as they got closer, was the way that Rafe had infused his life with meaning by helping other people, whereas Colin was drowning because he wasn’t able to reach beyond himself. They needed each other: Colin needed to learn that the world mattered, and Rafe needed to learn that he, himself mattered.
TTB: Finally, are there other social justice themes that you wish to explore in your novels?
RP: Social justice is, in short, the belief that removing the barriers that people face because of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, ability, background, etc., would result in greater equality, freedom, and opportunity for all. It’s a principle that I believe in deeply, so everything I write is inflected by it to different degrees. Some are explicit, as with Rafe’s commitment to decarceration, and some more implicit. I recently finished a book about Ginger (who is Daniel’s best friend in In the Middle of Somewhere), who owns a tattoo shop in Philadelphia, and it explores a lot of the subtle and not-so-subtle sexisms that she experiences as a female business owner, and the misogyny she faces as a woman working in the male-dominated tattoo industry. But, yes, I would never want to write anything that didn’t demonstrate principles of social justice and equality, no matter how subtle.
Thank you for reading! Please share your thoughts on this, if you have them. Or, share any other novels you’ve read that talk about the issue of mass incarceration.
If you would like to learn more about mass incarceration, here are a couple of resources for you.
Book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander, you can learn more about it HERE.
Documentary: 13TH Film which is available for streaming on Netflix, you can learn more about it HERE.
Advocacy Group: The Sentencing Project, you can learn more about them HERE.
Please come back on Monday for my talk with KJ Charles about her book “A Seditious Affair”, and why she let her characters get so political. She’ll also discuss representation in historical romance.
Have a great weekend everyone.
Cheers and Happy Reading!