Tuesday, November 20, 2018

JCUF VOL 5 NO 1 (2018) - FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS: Developing Romantic Relationships During Life's Transitions

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (1996) - Despite the title's implications, this is not a book about sexual promiscuity, a lack of virtuosity, or an erotic urban novel. This book was written while I was finishing high school, preparing to attend university at a time when the curiosity about the life and love of a "college woman" was increasing amongst my peers and I. What challenges would she face? How would she balance her romantic world with her academic life? Without the restrictions of parental regulations, with a later curfew, access to a vehicle and cash flow, how would life change from high school to college/university, and how would that affect things? How would her womanhood develop?

The theme of this story quickly unfolded to be about the broader issue of self-love, about lifestyle choices, and how to develop and maintain romantic relationships. The idea of having options and being presented with potential partners, yet having the ability to choose a path was enticing. The process of having the character discover herself and understand her choices was liberating.

THE GENERAL THEME OF "FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS": A young woman learning about relationships.

THE SOCIAL THEME OF "FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS": Understanding the importance of making good relationship choices, during a transitional period of life.

Dionne Codrington wrote an article about "Black Women Writing History" for a 2006 edition of The Link (Concordia University's student publication)--like most young Black girls, searching for self-identification in books at a young age was something that was attempted, but rarely fulfilled. Dionne mentioned how she felt when she first discovered a story about Harriet Tubman, and then with age, how she also became obsessed with writings from Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes. She said that when she discovered Maya Angelou... "I knew I had finally come home."

Home = Black womanhood. There is something powerful about seeing yourself, your flaws, and your strengths, reflected in print and or the media. Even the routine choices like boyfriends and college courses are strenuous, and of utmost importance to a young mind, but a relief to see as a a commonality.

Dionne said, of Maya Angelou's writing: "Even though her portraits of Black women were not always gracious or glamorous, they were real." She continued to speak about reading Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," and how those words spoke to the heart of Black women, in particular. As a "young Montrealer of West Indian descent, far removed from their realities...I heard them. Reading their novels was a conversation among sisters."

What I loved about Dionne's article was that she enjoyed reading the pain as well as the success. She learned from the stories of chaos as much as she learned from the stories of perseverance. In the character Michelle, from "Friends with Benefits," I hoped to create the every day Black female in Toronto, in her early twenties, navigating her way through college and hoping to discover personal victory at the end of her journey. I wanted her flaws, her choices, and her mistakes to be something readers could relate to. I also wanted her decisions and the related consequences to be something readers could learn from.

Far from an erotic novel, the story "Friends with Benefits" carefully explores Michelle's sexuality as an important part of her character, the driving force behind her relationships, yet an obstacle in her daily processes. While writing characters' sexuality is not a strength or common feature in the novels of the Urban Toronto Tales, in this story I believed it to be an important enough element just based on the freedoms Michelle had, and the future she was trying to build for herself. She wanted the comfort and the attention. She craved the support system and oftentimes, this all came under the guise of sexual relationships with the three main suitors of the story.

Richard (an academic athlete), Jeremy (an old fashioned gentleman), and Darnell (a hustler) represent the various directions she could take her passions, and inspiration from. While trying to finish her college program, she is also trying to find routine and consistency in these men, and try to maintain her self-respect, her personal pride, and also the approval of her parents who were quietly watching her navigate...and ready to pass judgement where they were able to intervene.

In her article "Black Women Writing History," Dionne Codrington quotes professor Patricia Hill Collins, the chair of the department of African-African studies at the University of Cincinnati, who believes that "Efforts to control black women's sexuality lie at the heart of black woman's oppression." Dionne said that she worried about "who will tell our stories," and I had to agree. Again, in the pursuit of relatable texts and contemporary stories about real life in Urban Toronto, I felt that the character Michelle as a young, single, and upwardly mobile woman had a right to have her relationship story told. It wasn't a story of deep oppression, racial struggle, or feminist sociial pursuits...but it was a story about her heart, learning to love, learning to trust, and also exploring her sexuality through three secure--but different--male friendships.

"We have moved from the stereotypes of the 19th century, but still have a long way to go," said Dionne.  Indeed, this particular story of a Black woman only touches the surface of the social, political, and economic struggles Black females face (and have faced) in comparison to their counterparts of other races. As for this twenty-three year old college student, who she engages with, and the conversations she has, are of utmost importance to her world and who she is becoming. These encounters, these discussions, and these decisions will shape the way she interacts with the world, and the way the world views her as a result.

I loved the opportunity to pursue love and understand relationships through the character of Michelle, and would hope that this book could serve as a cautionary tale, as well as an accurate reflection of emotion and circumstance for other young woman at a similar point in their lives who need to safely explore ideals and fictionalize the what-ifs without causing actual impact to their personal lives.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction."

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