Romance novels taught me how to think about the incoherence of attachment. To see this incoherence, one needs to look at the range of failed and failing relationships that background romance novels: unhappy mothers, divorced friends, jaded bachelors, devious perverts, anxious children, disappointed spinsters, abusive marriages, terrified singles, an entire catalogue of unhappiness from which the privileged couple form emerges.
At a certain point, I noticed that more romance novels concluded with a leap forward of either several years or decades to prove that love lasted, that romantic love could sustain togetherness. I think I started to notice this trend in the mid-90s, though it could date to the early 90s (my archive of romance is too vast and disorganized for time to make much sense). This marked, I think, a certain anxiety over the divorce statistics that increasingly worked for and against romance narratives. Whether true or not, the idea that divorce rates in the U.S. have hovered around 50% over the past 25 years or so has been consistent. Romance novels succeed (and fail) because of this divorce rate; indeed, the faith in “rightness” and “fit” succeeds and fails to sustain an entire industry in which I would argue romance novels play a substantial part as they filter through various forms of cultural adaptation: you might not be reading Mills&Boon, but the logic of these books infuses almost all concepts of romantic love.
This post has mutated
When I started it a few days ago, I wanted to think about incoherent attachments and about attachment as inherently incoherent. It was a post about Kenya and love and relationships, about what keeps us tethered to certain imaginings of worlds that are “no good for us.” Perhaps it was also a post about country music, which, to my mind, registers so often the banal incoherence of attachment. (I keep repeating the phrase incoherence of attachment because I’m not sure what else to call it.)
I have been thinking about what it means to work with and against incoherent attachments: the attachments we find difficult to narrate, and the ones that can’t really be narrated for us. The ones we resist, even though they might name something that we are not sure how to think about.
A for-instance: I don’t like the term patriot. To me, it suggests an uncritical love of nation, a jingoistic, unthinking allegiance to exclusionary and masculinist and normative forms of nationalism. No doubt, much of this comes from my upbringing in a sycophantic country, where to be a patriot was to shut up and worship power. No doubt much of this has also been shaped by the past few years of living in a post-9/11 U.S., where patriotism has often meant shutting up and defending government actions, not to mention the violent xenophobia expressed against “aliens.” And, no doubt, this distaste for “patriotism” is even now being fed by the fawning sycophancy that seems to have swept Kenya, as people line up to worship the new regime.
I remain “attached” to Kenya: for better or worse, that is where my political and social and aesthetic inclinations lie. It is the place I have been writing “from” and “for” for many years, no matter the topic and method of writing. It is the place that I “wait for,” “watch for,” “lean toward.” It is also the place that keeps breaking my heart over and over and over.
And that I can’t quit.
Some might call this love, and perhaps it is. Others might call it duty, and perhaps it is. And maybe it is “patriotism” of a kind. Not one that revels in pride, but one that finds itself most at home in the cliché-ridden sentimentalism of romance novels and love songs: “I just can’t quit you.”
The “you’re no good for me” but “I stay” mode of attachment; this thing that’s about disappointment and hope. This thing that’s about promise. This thing that’s about “this thing between us.” This thing that’s also not like “Mean.” Because I keep returning to it.
There’s a moment in some romance novels when the banality of one’s attachment is named by someone else, a moment of clarity for the character willing to assume that banality: yes, I am in love. I am in love because someone else has named how I feel. Love might name this thing. This thing that’s about not knowing how not to be with someone or something else. This thing that’s about knowing how not to be with someone or something else.
Perhaps I’m writing about Rihanna and Chris Brown.
Perhaps the reason romance novels are considered such a debased genre—despite and because of their mass popularity—is that they register the messiness of attachment in ways that the ostensibly psychically rich worlds of literary fiction are unwilling to contemplate: feeling is not all detachment and irony and strategically deployed madness. Instead, it is red-faced-blotchy-messy. It refuses to be organized by beautiful sentences and philosophy. It spills over, interrupts, unmakes, disorganizes.
Romance novels have as a constant refrain, “I had not planned this” or “I wasn’t looking for this” or “this is not how I thought it would turn out.” If this is an ordering into normativity, as it undoubtedly it, is it also an indexing of disorganization, a rearranging of a plot. That is, if one critical reading of the marriage-love plot is that it is too genre-bound to suggest anything “significant” or “meaningful” about the world, I would suggest that it is precisely because it is genre-bound that it can tell us something about the world, for genre is a mode of organizing formal categories that never quite fit. The heterosexual romance plot may always include men and women and love, but even a cursory reading demonstrates the range between, say, a Barbara Cartland and an Amanda Quick. One notes, for instance, that women’s virginity is less fetishized now than it was in 70s and 80s romance, though it is still very fetishized.
One not-wrong reading of this writing would suggest that it asks how what I learned about incoherent attachment from romance novels has guided how I think about attachment to place, to Kenyan-ness. I do not have the distance to evaluate this particular interpretation.
I am interested in what acknowledging incoherent attachment, what refusing to name it as “love” or “patriotism” could enable, especially for those of us for whom “love” and “patriotism” carry too much baggage to be used in a casual way.