Although this is a review of a collection which is labelled "erotica," it contains reflections which are about romance:
In high school, nearly 20 years ago in the highlands of Kenya, at a girl’s only Christian school, I read what I now recognise to be my first erotica. Back then, these books were referred to as ‘romance novels.’ Starved of any honest and exciting information about sex and sexuality, romance novels became some kind of a compass, showing us, albeit in dubious ways, what we could expect sex to be like. (2 - page ref to the online first version, which may change after publication)
Many of these books were written by and for a white North American audience therefore my introduction to the idea of sex and any sense of my own sexuality had references to porcelain skin and nipples the colour of rose petals, white bodies that I had never seen nor could I build any of my own sexual curiosities around. After reading quite a number of these novels, I began to notice a pattern that characterised the white heteronormative erotic/romantic story.
The stories followed a trajectory where the chemistry of the story’s main characters depend on the push and pull of fundamental socio-economic or socio-political differences. For example, class (the stable hand and the castle princess), race (the Indian chief’s son and the Dutch pioneer family’s daughter) or the able-bodied man that is drawn to the woman with a disability.These two people, from glaringly different walks of life, cross paths and the initial dominant emotion is one of hatred and some-times disgust. Their differences are irreconcilable, but somehow, they continue to collaborate on a project that makes contact and conversation inevitable. Over a very short period of time, the hatred and loathing turn into curiosity as the main characters, always a woman and a man, start to take less interest in their nemesis’ socio-political inferiority or superiority and more in each other’s physical appearance. In the book, physical perfection is an element that most if not all these erotic novels had with at least two chapters dedicated to describing popular white representations of beauty and attractiveness. The woman will have an impossibly small waist and the man incredibly broad shoulders. Skin is always clear and the consistency of glass. There is more hair than you can imagine on your African head. (2)
The stories in these romance novels presented bodies and places that I could not imagine, and laid a shaky foundation for my understanding of what sex, lust, desire and sexuality look or feel like. Even at a time when I did not understand what sex was, or what went where and how this whole sex thing happened, these books made me feel something that I did not have the language for. (3)
The majority of erotic stories in Africa are nestled in chapters of novels, in anthologies and collections of short stories written by African writers but not called‘erotic’ or ‘romantic’ stories. African writers in particular prefer to frame erotic narratives as love stories. This framing correlates with Lorde’s interpretation of the erotic which makes room for life stories and love stories to be considered as contributions to erotica. In this regard,‘love’,‘romantic’ and ‘erotic’ are used interchangeably, depending on the writer and their context. (4)