Kennedy Ryan Tackles Race in Romance with Novels Grip and Flow

03/03/2017 08:44 am ET

MW: Can you tell me a little bit about Grip and Flow and how they differ from some of your other romance novels? Since this duet was a departure from the norm for you, were there any incidents or stories, fictional or factual which inspired you to go in this new direction?

KR: There are some common threads in all of my books. I have never written a book that didn’t feature an ethnically diverse cast. It’s important for me to write stories that reflect a spectrum of ethnicities and experiences. And I’ve always wanted to do that in the mainstream, not separate from it because I believe the stories I tell are for everyone. With Grip, it was incredibly important to me that this story be consumed by mainstream readers and readers of color alike because I addressed issues that have too often divided us along color lines. I wanted an exchange of information, understanding, and empathy. If only one group is reading, that exchange can’t happen. In mainstream romance, it’s unusual to find an African-American hero negotiating issues that reflect the reality of what many black men in America actually experience. I wanted a hero who embodied the qualities romance readers look for, and who also fit the mold of the awesome black men I know. It challenged me to walk a fine line between authenticity and stereotype. I definitely think the tensions we experienced this summer between law enforcement and people of color influenced some aspects of the book; made me want to give voice to some frustration and fear, but also to understand people on both sides of that debate. I wanted to approach those issues honestly and make sure I represented both perspectives.

MW: Grip and Flow chronicle an interracial romance, but in this novel you chose to tackle head on some of the very real and often difficult issues that a modern day interracial couple might come across—issues that are sometimes taboo and not often discussed. Is there a message in Grip that you are bringing to the reader?

KR: One of the challenges with having messages in romance is the tendency to overpower the love story. I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I wanted the challenges this couple experienced to deepen their connection and propel the story forward, while possibly exposing realities many interracial couples still face, even in 2017. I think a lot of people would expect me to address the white family not accepting the black man, but I wanted to address the difficulty many black women have with so many successful black men choosing partners outside of their own race. I didn’t want to do it in an accusatory way, but instead help readers to see what lies beneath that perceived prejudice; such as the systemic hurt, rejection and devaluation black women have experienced culture-wide. From being told by high fashion editors that magazines with black women on the covers don’t sell, to being encouraged to change our hair, our skin, whatever to assimilate into mainstream settings. Many black women see black men making that choice, especially highly successful ones, as another layer of rejection. I wanted to address that compassionately, give voice to it, while also presenting a couple who were very much in love and not together for the reasons we sometimes assume or project onto them.

Bristol and Grip have some really difficult discussions, and they don’t always agree, but they listen, they seek to understand. They allow their differences to bring them closer rather than further separate them. That is something I definitely believe we could use more of.

MW: Let’s talk about the original composition you co-wrote for the novel that touches on one of the most difficult and controversial topic in US newspaper headlines on a daily basis: Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter. The danger of “driving while black,” the statistics tell us that the police are much more likely to use force against people of color. A statistic that, heartbreakingly enough, even applies to children. How do you approach this subject fairly without becoming preachy or pedantic?

KR: This was one of the most difficult aspects of the book, the decision that Grip would be stopped DWB while Bristol’s in the car. With Bristol there, it allows the readers to experience it through her eyes. They’re witnessing these things for the first time along with her. Grip grew up in Compton, a part of Los Angeles notoriously at odds with law enforcement both in the past, and to a lesser degree, today. The stops and citations for African-Americans and Hispanics are still appallingly disproportionate, which is statistically attributed to racial profiling. In the story, Grip’s family is divided when his cousin becomes a cop. His community doesn’t view the police force as an ally that serves and protects, but rather an adversary that does little more than harass them. An incident occurs that makes the cousin persona non grata with the family, but Grip continues to interact with him, and becomes acquainted with good cops up close. He sees his cousin’s commitment to being a part of the solution to the tensions they grew up with. Grip and his friends were stopped, searched and cuffed without cause often when they were growing up. I pulled from my own husband’s experiences with discriminatory stops.

In the original piece we wrote for the book “Bruise”, I’m making a play on black and blue, and the black lives/blue lives debate. We wrote verse one from the perspective of a young black man who has experienced racial profiling, and the second verse is written from the perspective of a cop who is trying his best to do his job. It was really important to represent both sides. I knew I would write that scene from Grip’s point of view because I wanted the reader to hear the mental gymnastics he goes through for a “routine” stop; using the mantra his mother taught him about how to conduct himself with police officers. I’ve had so many readers say it has never occurred to them to tell their sons that. Yet Grip’s mother, like so many black mothers, saw it as a necessary survival skill.

MW: Tell us about Grip and Bristol—the familial reactions to their relationship. Typical? Understandable? Appalling? What made you want to expose this aspect of interracial relationships? Who do you think the target audience for these novels is? What do you hope your readers learn from Grip and Bristol’s love?

KR: Grip and Bristol, despite the social issues, are first and foremost, a couple passionately in love with one another, and they don’t dwell on those things when they’re together. They also don’t avoid them. They have tough conversations, and give each other grace to be defensive, offensive, awkward, or ineloquent because they want to understand each other. There is a lot to be learned. When we walk on eggshells in discussions of race, we often sacrifice the honesty that helps us understand one another. I wanted Grip and Bristol to model that balance of candor and respect in their difficult conversations.

As far as family reactions to their relationship, I remember hearing my mother’s friends tell their sons not to bring a white woman home. I’m in conversations all the time with other black women, and as soon as we hear a famous black man is married, the first question invariably is “did he marry a sister?” It has definitely gotten better, but is still an issue in many cases.

Grip’s mother is adamantly against him being with Bristol. She has sacrificed everything for him; made sure he received the best education he could and she’s proud of what he has achieved. His mother wanted to see what she invested in Grip benefit a black woman. She also believes that many black men end up with partners outside their community as a false validation of their success. She doesn’t want Grip to be a “cliché.”

I wrote Grip’s mother as a sympathetic character so readers would see her as likeable and fiercely loyal, yet still holding these prejudices. Blatant racism and ethnic superiority are easily identifiable and quickly condemned. But what about those prejudices lying latent inside many of us? In our parents? In the people we love? I wanted the readers to reconcile the fact that Grip’s mother is a good woman, yet she harbors prejudices. Because if she does, maybe we all do, maybe those close to us do, and how do we reconcile that? Once you recognize it, what do you do about it?

Grip will appeal to anyone looking for an epic love story with substance. I believe romance novels have the same potentially disarming effect that television and standup comedy have. If properly leveraged, they can advance discourse in culture. Archie Bunker did it with race. Will & Grace did it with gay issues. Shows like that gave us space to grapple with questions and issues in a safer, less threatening context where we’re already enjoying, smiling, nodding our agreement.

There is an appetite for diversity in the mainstream; readers are always looking for boundaries to be pushed beyond what they typically read. As a writer, I hope to rise to the challenge, to be brave in my choices; to take risks, stretch beyond the status quo and write quality fiction that satisfies that appetite. I would love to see the mainstream romance market flooded with diverse characters, not just in race and ethnicity, but in life experience as well. When we write authentically, we tell real stories. When we create a character, we put names, faces and dimensions to a life story. We give readers a chance to meet them and to know them. And even though it’s fiction, the story can still teach us a lot about what life is like for others.

You can read more about Kennedy Ryan and her work on her website: http://kennedyryanwrites.com/ or on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Kennedy-Ryan/e/B00HBHK09Q

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