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In the second part of our interview with author LaQuette about her Critical Lens workshop, she discusses historicals, why this class is valuable for reviewers and readers as well as the importance of normalizing marginalized characters in the romance genre.

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Show Notes

Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.

Interview Transcript – LaQuette

Jeff: And I like that you took part of the class and didn’t just set it in the here and now, you talk about historicals too where so many things can go amiss. Because not all of history has been told to everybody.

LaQuette: No, and that’s the thing. I’ve mentioned this quote before and I’ll do it again, the brilliant Dr. Piper Huguley who is also a…not only is she a historian and is actually a history professor, she’s also a brilliant romance author. And oftentimes…and she writes historicals at that. And so, oftentimes, she gets this like, “Oh, that’s not historically accurate.” You’re writing these characters who aren’t miserable because they aren’t in chains because they’re, you know, having…you know, black people could not have been happy in history because 400 years of slavery.

And yes, 400 years of slavery, and we’re still to this day feeling…you know, they’re still currents of slavery from when it was actually a thing until now, right. It’s not legal anymore, but there are still remnants of it still in today’s time. But that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t find happiness, right that’s not the same thing. And it’s because people don’t know the whole history, they only know that little portion of history. So, you know, yes, black people were enslaved but not every black person on the face of the earth was enslaved. There were freed black people.

Whether they bought their freedom, worked and bought their freedom, bought the freedom of their family members. Whether they were born in other places where they were able again to, you know, not be enslaved. It was true that there were black people who were part of the, you know, aristocracy, there were. But history has been very whitewashed. History is always told from the victor’s perspective. And history is also a sort of propaganda. It’s a way of making yourself the hero of your own story.

So, when the United States is teaching its history, it’s not going to teach you about the ugliness of slavery. It’s not going to teach you…not in any real meaningful way. It’s not going to teach you that because to teach you that, will then make you understand that the people who created this…not created this country. The people who…the country that we know as the United States, you know, as we know it today, these forefathers were extremely problematic. And we don’t want to tell that story. We want to celebrate them. So we erase, we try to erase the things that they actually did. Again, all you gotta do is look at the political landscape today and you can see a lot of that unrest is still because of not admitting to that, you know, for all these years.

So, people read a history book and they think they know the history, but if white people are telling the history and there were literally…I mean, there are lots of reasons why you don’t have a lot of history of black people on the books. And a lot of it was because it was illegal for a really long time for enslaved people to read. And so it wasn’t until…they would have to sneak to learn to read and write. So, doing all of that, our histories are not necessarily recorded in the written form.

On top of the fact that you have an entire system that is created to erase your existence. So, there’s a lot of things that white historians and white historical writers of romance don’t know because they’re looking at texts that are written by other white people who are not acknowledging any contributions or any histories other than the ones that they have created. So, they’ll read a historical romance novel, and we’ll assume that the author, the black author doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or he’s talking about. And then it’s, well, because I read this book, and that’s not what happened I’m like, “No, that’s not what happened according to that book.”

But if you really do some deep dive, you know, some deep digging, you’ll see that there was a whole other world going on, you know, where people were thriving all over the world, people of color were thriving. So, to be able to say that only white people were happy in any period of history, it’s…if you think about it logically, like, how narrow must your mind be to really believe that only this one type of person was ever able to have any sort of happiness throughout history? Like, it doesn’t make sense. When you say it out loud like that, it doesn’t make sense. But we believe that.

And it’s proof that we believe it because of the stories that we accept and the stories that we question. So, those character sketches that I present, under the right circumstances, any one of them could be believable or not. But what we have to focus on is the ones we question and why. Why do we question whether these characters are so unbelievable? The white lawyer nobody blinked an eye at. The white lawyer from a rich family, no one would barely mention Camden. No one thought twice about him. We knew the billionaire was fake because he’s a billionaire, but everyone was cool with it.

But a black man who is a police lieutenant owning two homes, which is like one of the most normal things in the world, was problematic for people. Because again, we are assuming things based on what we’ve been taught. And, you know, not realizing there’s more than our understanding that things happen simultaneously, yes. You can know this thing to be true and be happy in this one space, but at the same time simultaneously in another space, someone else could be having a similar experience. So, we have to reckon with that.

And that’s what my class really is. It’s an opportunity for people to reckon with all of these thoughts that they’ve held on to so tightly for them to say it out loud, so they can realize how much really doesn’t make sense when you say it out loud.

Jeff: This class was fully online and we did it through forums, so there was no face-to-face interaction between any of us. I know you offer a live in-person version of this, have you done one of those yet? And what’s the vibe, I mean everybody…

LaQuette: I did it once at RWA…

Jeff: …is confronting this together.

LaQuette: It’s harder to do in a…because when I do it live, it’s about a three-hour course, we can touch on some topics, but we can’t necessarily get as in-depth as we do on the four-week course. What the four-week course really does…because I give them the same information, but what’s different is the opportunity to digest that information, right, to read what I’ve given you in lecture notes, and digest it and come back with questions. Or hear someone else say something and watch me respond to it and then process that and take it all…kind of go back to your own little corner where you can think about those things on your own and process them and think about “Wow, like, I never really saw it that way.” “I never really even entertained this idea that it could be you know, this thing.”

In order for people to really get the full effect of it, I would definitely recommend the four-week course. It is…When I do it in the three-hour course, I do see people…you know, you can kind of see that surprise, that look where it’s kind of connecting, where you can see where people are really finally making those connections. And realizing that you have to…when you are speaking of someone’s identity, I liken it to having a baby, right. When you have a baby…and I don’t know if you’ve ever like been around small, you know, like a newborn, they’re really fragile, right. You’ve gotta hold them a certain way.

And some people don’t necessarily…I have pictures of my husband holding our firstborn and let’s just say thank God I was in the OR and they were like sewing me up at that point and I wasn’t in the room because I would have had a fit with how awkward he was holding our baby because he didn’t really know. But if have a newborn baby and this is the first time you’re ever holding a newborn baby, and it’s kind of awkward and they’re squiggly and, you know, they move around a lot. And you don’t really know how to…you wanna keep them safe, but you don’t wanna hurt them at the same time.

And someone says to you, “Hey, you can’t hold the baby like that, because you need to have their head elevated and secure, you know, to make sure you don’t hurt them.” You don’t say, “I know what I’m doing.” Or, “That’s not…” You go, “Okay, it’s a baby.” And you obviously see that that person cares enough about the baby to want to instruct you so that you can not harm the baby, right. So, when someone from a marginalized community says, “Hey, you’re writing things that are painful, you know, and exploitive just to be able to tell a story, and you’re not looking at the whole picture, you don’t know the whole picture. So maybe stop trying to tell my story.” I’m not saying…And people confuse this, “Oh, well, you know, you’re telling writers what they can’t write.”

No, I want you as a white writer, I want you to write black people. Because when you do it, it normalizes black people in your books and then when…for your audiences. And then when I do it and your audiences pick up my book, it won’t seem so strange that a black person is in the book, right. There’s a difference between writing a black person and putting them in your story than trying to tell the story of what it is to be black. And if you don’t understand what it is to be black, what it is to be LGBTQ plus, what it is to be disabled, then you can really do some damage with presenting information. Because there are people in the world who may never have come across a marginalized person before in any real substantive way. And they will believe what they’re reading is truth, which is part of the problem, right?

Pop culture teaches us who people are, what people are, and how we are to respond to them based on their identities. And when we write things that kind of perpetuate that, then we continue to spend that same narrative. And again, the words have…they have an impact. So you may think it’s just a book, but again, when you continue to write that, and then when I come along and try to write my own story, and then to have publishing tell me that’s not realistic so we’re not gonna sell it, or as a reader, I’m not gonna read it. That impacts my ability to not only tell my story but to have a successful career.

It impacts my ability to demand a higher advance because people will say that my books are not really…my stories aren’t really in demand, right. Because this is what pop culture has said you are, and people are not gonna wanna read anything other because this is what they know you to be. And that’s why it is very important for people to be cognizant of how they’re handling other people’s histories, identities. Because if you don’t, you are perpetuating harmful and sometimes even dangerous stereotypes.

Jeff: With that important to say, too, that this class isn’t just for authors. Reviewers take the class and even readers can take the class.

LaQuette: Yeah, it’s not something that’s just for authors, it’s also…because authors are readers too. Many of us start writing because of what we read. And when you’re reading, again, you’re taking in all of this information and you’re processing it. Well, if you don’t have a frame of reference for, right, if you don’t know any marginalized people in your real day-to-day personal life, then you don’t really have a frame of reference for what that community is like. And then to want to read it then, it seems strange, they seem foreign and you question whether, you know, this is something that would really be.

And the truth of the matter is you don’t come to mainstream romance thinking those things, you don’t question those things. Because it’s automatically assumed that by the whiteness of the characters, the straightness of the characters, as well as the author, that there is a level of competence expected, right. But when marginal lives people write, there’s the scrutiny that’s applied to their work through readers because they’re looking for things that will tell them that this is not true, right. Because in their heads, they know these people to be one thing. But when the author actually from that community is writing it, and they’re reading it, it doesn’t connect with what they think they know about people’s communities and experiences. And so, it can be very jarring for a reader to pick up a book.

I once had someone tell me…the person meant it as a compliment but it really wasn’t. It was like, “Oh my God, LaQuette, I read your book and like, I loved it. Like, it didn’t seem like a black book.” Wow, what does a black book seem like to you? And people don’t recognize that. The thread that connects us all is our humanity, right. And so, what we’re really fighting against is not necessarily, you know, people’s beliefs about this or that. What we’re fighting about is people acknowledging our humanity and validating our humanity.

And when you are from the dominant culture, your existence is validated in every part of life right. You turn on the TV what do you see? White straight people, right. You read a book, what do you see? White straight people and enabled people. You see these things constantly in every medium, right, in literature, in film, and television, in the theater. Like, you see this over and over and over again, and we’re repeatedly told, this is the standard. If you can’t be this, then you are somehow substandard or abnormal. And we don’t realize that, like, we really don’t recognize that.

But if you kind of look at things in life…I forget the name of the researcher, but there was a researcher who took small children, gave children a white doll and a black doll. And they all chose, black children included, they all chose to play with the white doll. Because the white doll was what they had seen, they’ve been told was beautiful and pretty. And so, that’s what they believed beautiful and pretty looked like, white. And so, if we keep creating these images of love, only, you know, look in a certain way, with people who look a certain way, or who identify a certain way, or who are able to do things a certain way, or who think a certain way. When we do that, what we’re saying is everything else is abnormal, and you somehow are broken because you can’t meet this standard. You somehow are not as valuable because you can’t meet this standard.

And we have to get past that in order to…Like, I read a book and I don’t look at the characters and go “Okay, this is gonna be a good book because white people are on the front of the cover.” Like, I don’t. I read the blurb. Well, I’m actually kind of like…I’m really in love with covers. So, if you give me a good cover with, you know, people on it that look like they are about to rip each other’s clothes off, I’m good with that. I don’t really care who they are. I’m good with that, all right. But if you can convince me that these two, three, or however many people involved should be together and you create a really good story, I’m buying in.

And that’s another part of the issue that marginalized people are taught to uphold the dominant standard, right. We’re taught to understand it, we’re taught to engage with it. But the opposite is not true. So, I read white romance for years, right, but there are still white people in 2020, who have never read a book by an author who is a person of color. There are heterosexual people who have never picked up a book that features LGBTQ plus couples. Still, 2020 and we still have people who have never read outside of what they consider the normal. And that is telling, it’s telling why this industry is so slow to become more diverse and inclusive because people get to self-segregate, and then get to continue to read the same things they wanna read.

And they, you know, like…they chalk it up to, “I like what I like,” right. Which, you know, to some degree, we all have a thing we like. But when you like that, to the exclusion of everything else, you have to ask why. Like, why is the question that will always yield the most answers.

Jeff: Yeah, to me, it should be…I like second chance romances and that can include everybody.

LaQuette: Exactly.

Jeff: But to narrow it down to the people that are in them, they’re problematic.

LaQuette: It’s weird like when you say it out loud, it’s weird. When you say it out loud, it’s very weird. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why I teach this course is I want for people to be able to say those things out loud so they can hear themselves. Or read rather their own words and realize, wow, I put that out there and, like, I wrote those sentences. And I don’t know if I actually meant that, but I’m looking at what I said and that’s, kind of, you know, out there. Like, maybe I might wanna rethink that. Like, why do I think that?

And it doesn’t make you a bad person. And that’s one of the things I try to get people to understand day one on class. This is a safe space, we’re not going to chastise you, we’re not here to make you feel unwelcome or to badger you. But it’s not gonna be easy, I’m not going to lie to you, right, I’m going to tell you the truth. I’m going to give you the opportunity to say what you have to say but then I’m going to tell you why that’s problematic. And that’s the only way you will learn. And it’s a process, right, like, my class is the start, it’s not the end it, it’s the start, the beginning of the journey. It’s the moment you start asking questions about…you know, you’re thinking about things beyond the superficial.

And, like, someone raised the point of, in a Joanna Shupe book, the individual didn’t care for how the white man has to come in and save the heroin when a black man was standing there, and she couldn’t understand why Joanna chose to do that. Now, I hadn’t read the book but instantly, I knew why Joanna chose to do that because we’re talking about the Gilded Age, slavery hadn’t been, you know, over 100 years at that point. You know, a black man putting his hands on a white person for any reason, could have ended in his death.

But that never even crossed that reader’s mind. It never occurred to her that there’s a real reason why this man would not interfere when he saw a white man attacking a white woman. Like, why wouldn’t he…he should jump in, why did he have to wait for the hero? Because, in reality, he would have…regardless of whether he was right or wrong, regardless of him saving this woman, regardless of her standing up for him and saying he did it, because, you know, this man was gonna kill me. He still would have been either arrested or killed because of it.

But that is the luxury that people from dominant culture have. They don’t have to think about these things because the world is built for them. And so, when you read, you have to be conscious of these things. You have to ask, why, why is this happening? Why did this author choose to do this? What can I…You know, the point of reading is not just to read to consume, but to read to question. To read to kind of understand what’s going on because you’re not just trying to read, you’re also trying to comprehend. And I think people in the enjoyment of reading romance, they kind of forget to still be thinking critically as they…thinking about what they’re reading as they’re reading.

Jeff: How could people keep up with when you offer this class? Like, I found that you were teaching this particular one through this RWA chapter because of your Twitter feed?

LaQuette: They definitely keep track of it probably a little better than I do. Because sometimes I’ll see it I’m like, “Oh, I am, let me go check my calendar.” I usually keep it on my website, And as things come up…sometimes things come up a little unexpectedly even when I plan to have months off, sometimes I get an emergency call. Like “Listen, I really would like you to teach this” and we have to work it out the way we work it out. But generally speaking, it’s on my website.

The next four-week class I’m teaching is in September for the Golden Network. You can contact them to find out if they’re selling tickets to the public, because I’ve not yet been told that. But whenever I get dates, I try to put them on my website so that people can see, you know. And usually, I’ll add like a link to wherever they can go for registration. But I’m looking into trying to find basically an automated platform for this so that even if you’re not a member of RWA and you wanna take this course, you can still take it. But we haven’t found that out yet but we’re working on it.

Jeff: Very cool. When you find that out, do let us know so we can pass it on to everybody so they can go take this separately from the individual teaching times that it happens. So, I always ask authors who jump into teaching. Now, you’ve got the teaching background, you’ve taught before. How did you know when you were ready, though, to teach your author peers? Because Critical Lens isn’t the only class you offer to your author peers either.

LaQuette: I teach other courses but this is the one that’s like…You know, I think it’s also the timing. Like, we’ve had some serious problems with diversity, and equity, inclusion, and access, and RWA and in the romance industry, and they’ve all kind of come to a head over the last few months right and so over this last year, especially. And also with the political climate, all that…it’s like a perfect storm for people to try to…People don’t wanna try to make sense of the things that are going on in the world. And especially when it seems like things don’t make sense and they’re so hard to understand, you know, people really do flock to this course.

Because ultimately…And I can say this, having this experience with this class. The people who come to this class, like, if you’re bigoted in any way and you are embracing your bigotry, you’re not coming to my class, right. Those are not the people that are coming to my class because they don’t care to hear what I have to say because to them, their perspective is right. So, the people who are coming to my class are generally coming to my class because they either want to write diversely or they…some people come because they think that writing diversity is the new thing. And so they come to the class, so they can learn how to do the new thing. And I can always tell those participants why they’re there.

But generally by the time the class is done, if they’re really participating and really engaging, you begin to see a change in the questions they ask and the assumptions they make, and the discussions they like to raise. And that’s when you start to see that maybe people are actually thinking about this a little bit more critically. They’re actually questioning what they’re reading and they’re not just consuming. They’re analyzing, they’re breaking apart, they’re looking at the small parts to analyze the whole, right. Understanding the meaning of the small parts to get a deeper meaning of the whole.

You also get people…But mostly people who come to my class, they generally come because they want to do better. And they may not necessarily know how to do better, or understand exactly what it is they don’t know. And so, a course like mine gives them the opportunity to see through a different lens. Because you will never understand what it is to be marginalized if you’re not marginalized. But it will help you understand how marginalized people see themselves.

Jeff: Excellent. Well, LaQuette, thank you so much for coming and telling us about this course. I really can’t recommend it enough to authors and readers and reviewers. It’s so enlightening and so great that it’s out there for people to take and to get a better understanding.

LaQuette: I’m very flattered that you would have me on. I’m really glad that you really got something out of the course. Because honestly, I really do want people to take something away from this, because I think if we do…if we take it seriously and really think about it, that just means we’re gonna get better stories, right, that we’re gonna get richer, fuller stories. And we won’t have to cringe when we read stuff. Because there’s some stuff that I pick up and I’m like, “Oh, like, I can’t.” I have a visceral, a physical reaction to some of the stuff I’ve read. And it’s just…I hope that I’m just doing my small part to change that.