Shelf Love

062. Transculturalism & Wuxia in My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

Short Description

Guest Jayashree Kamble, romance scholar is back to discuss My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas. This novel is a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a passing narrative, and layers in discussion of Chinese culture and the history British imperialism. Jayashree explored the Wuxia influence and transculturalism in a paper published in March 2020 in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.


romance novel discussion, historical romance

Show Notes

Guest Jayashree Kamble, romance scholar is back to discuss My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas. This novel is a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a passing narrative, and layers in discussion of Chinese culture and the history British imperialism. Jayashree explored the Wuxia influence and transculturalism in a paper published in March 2020 in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.


Show Notes:

Shelf Love:

Guest: Jayashree Kamble

Humanities Commons | Twitter | Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction



062 My Beautiful Enemy

[00:00:00]Andrea Martucci: Hello. And welcome to episode 62 of Shelf Love, a podcast where we have thought provoking, critical discussions about literature's most polarizing genre: romance novels. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci and my guest today is Jayashree Kamble, a romance scholar and vice president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.

Back in episode 60, Jayashree took us through some basics of romance research, and now she's back to discuss My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas.

This novel is cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a passing narrative. Jayashree explored the Wuxia influence, and transculturalism in a paper published in March 2020 in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

The link to that article is in the show notes.

Marker [00:00:55]

  Why do you think My Beautiful Enemy is a romance novel worth reading?

Jayashree Kamble: I think My Beautiful Enemy takes the standard romance plot and it gives it a global vision in a way that also brings in a whole different culture's way of storytelling and mythology.

And it also puts it in the context of the history of British imperialism and ongoing colonization. So the scope of the text is so vast and so appealing at the same time, that to me, it almost feels like it exists in a slightly different space from most other romance novels. It's the kind of book that you read and then you go lie down and think, what was that?

I don't think I've ever encountered something like this. So I think it takes everything that is good about romance and just expands its potential both across space and time.

Andrea Martucci: Prior to reading this, I had only read Sherry. Thomas's as you referenced in the paper, like her Anglo, white romances,  And, yeah, so this was both very "Sherry Thomas" to me. And also, yes. I mean, she just exploded a lot of what you would expect from a British historical, which it's not a British historical. So just to real quick give listeners an idea of what this novel is about.

And let's decide on the names we're using.

Jayashree Kamble: I usually think of her as Ying-Hua [00:02:30]

Andrea Martucci: So we'll call her Ying-Hua, she goes by many names over the course of the novel, including Ying-Ying and Catherine. This all takes place between the 1880s and early 1890s between, Victorian England and - it's ("king?") Qing China?

Jayashree Kamble: Qing ("Ching")

Andrea Martucci: Qing ("Ching") China.  Hidden beneath Catherine Blade's uncommon beauty is a daring that matches any man's. Although this has taken her far in the world, she still doesn't have the one thing she craved: the freedom to live life as she chooses. Finally given the chance to earn her independence, who should be standing in her way, but the only man she's ever loved. The only person to ever betray her.

Despite the scars Catherine left him, Leighton Atwood has never been able to forget the mysterious girl who once so thoroughly captivated him. When she unexpectedly reappears in his life, he refuses to get close to her, but he cannot deny the yearning she reignites in his heart. And basically they initially met in Chinese Turkestan - (Jayashree laughs)

Jayashree Kamble: as you're reading this, I have not read that blurb in a long time, and I was fascinated by how much it obscures that, the fact that it is in China and that she is in fact half Chinese. I thought that was a fascinatingly, misleading blurb.

Andrea Martucci: I have to tell you, speaking of metatext, I find blurbs fascinating for how they both describe and don't describe what happens.

Jayashree Kamble: Clearly that's somebody who thought Oh, let's highlight this stuff, but let's not talk about this other stuff, which is fascinating. Because again, I think the stuff that the blurb doesn't talk about is the stuff that is actually, it elevates the novel to such a degree, but yes.

To your question. Yes. They first meet in 1883 in Xinjiang , which you can also call Chinese Turkestan. Yeah.  In the Western part of China, where where she is posing as a Kazakh man, and spying on local warlords for her foster father who has been exiled there from Peking by the Manchu emperor.

And Leighton just seems to be this dude who is also pretending not to be who he is, cause she just refers to him as the Persian for a long time. But of course he has his own secrets and is British. I don't know how much to give away in this plot summary

Andrea Martucci: As much as it's relevant to what we're going to talk about.

Jayashree Kamble: So yeah, that's their first meeting in 1883 Turkestan. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: And, where to start with this. [00:05:00]

Oh and, I should also mention, I'll put a link to it, this, article is available freely available on JPRS. but you wrote, "When Wuxia Met Romance: the pleasures and politics of trans culturalism in Sherry Thomas's My Beautiful Enemy."

So we're going to reference this probably a good bit slash it's going to coincide with what you're going to say. I'll put the link in the show notes for anyone who wants to figure that out.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah. Yes, I wrote the article, which she came out of a conference at Williams College, that had to do with the idea of what is pleasurable about romance.

And so I was talking about some of the pleasures of that text, which are partly political, and partly about this other mythology that she draws on. In My Beautiful Enemy to sum up is a story it's a second chance romance.  So their first encounter, their first chance is an 183 Turkestan.

There are a bunch of misunderstandings, and so when the novel actually opens, it starts in 1891 England or en route to England on a boat. And then she meets her lover, who she knew in China  in England, and they both realized that they've both been lying. And over the course of the novel, they realized that they both also misunderstood certain things.

And so it's a second chance romance. And you get flashbacks to that period where they first met throughout the book. So the chapters are interspersed with flashbacks to 1883 Turkestan.

Now what's even more complicated is that this is the second book in a duology. The first book is actually a YA novel called The Hidden Blade, where you get the story of Ying-Hua's growing up in Peking. And so you get a lot of the backstory in that and the Wuxia (pronounced Woo-shee-ah) , which is for readers, It's a genre that came out of China, that you would be most familiar with through the movies Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, or House of Flying Daggers or a more comedic version is Kung Fu Hustle. And so it's a sub genre where there are these like warriors and they have magical almost physical power, so they can jump on top of buildings and they can essentially fly and they fight with swords.

And so this is a whole genre that's existed in some form in China since probably the second century BCE and, really became big in cinema after the revolution and people fled to Taiwan and Hong Kong. And so that's where a lot of it exists now. And so she's responding to that. She's talked about that, on her website and in many articles that she loves those, that geode, and she incorporates that into this book.

And so you get that [00:07:30] kind of martial arts action, throughout the text. So it's very much a love story. It's very much a second chance romance, but at the same time, it's also this other form of martial arts and she's the master of it. So the heroine, her name.Catherine Blade, is very apt.

Andrea Martucci: And so she's a fascinating character. It sounds like you have since written even more about her, but so even her name. So she's, she basically has this hybrid identity. So "Ying" means England. Hua means China. So she is multiracial. Her mother was Chinese. Her father was, English and she inhabits all these different roles and passes in these roles quite fluidly in a way where she can both be anything, but is also none of them.

Jayashree Kamble: Correct. Yes. Yes. That's absolutely right. And I think, in my current book, I'm looking at this particular novel in the citizenship chapter that I'm writing and citizenship and belonging and what is legitimate belonging for heroines, which then is the larger question, for women in general, in our world. And so I'm using her, as one of my samples to deal with this issue.

In her case, it's a very explicit question of what's her belonging in terms of ethnicity? Like where does she belong? But the book also breaks down the very clear sort of binary of Anglo versus Chinese.

Those are the two halves that we would normally think of. But then the book breaks down the Chinese parts very substantially as well. So she's posing as a Kazakh man, and nobody seems to think that's weird. And it sort of hints at the fact that China itself is comprised of numerous tribes and people looked very different.

So whatever the westerner or the non-Chinese person thinks a Chinese person looks like, like she blows up all of those stereotypes. There's no way to read her, in that sort of stereotypical way. That's because there's so much in so many different ethnicities and, or I suppose in the current environment, you may want to think about nationalities within China, because this book is set where the current Uyghur issue is occurring, where people are struggling for their space and their place and their nationality.

So part of, I think, of what Sherry Thomas is doing with this, her sort of hybrid identity is like constantly picking things apart to show us that there are many levels to every label that you want to put on and everybody else [00:10:00] keeps trying to impose those labels on the character. The character is  trying to work through all of them as a sort of a survival mechanism.

And the question is like, where does she get to be her authentic self? And how does she get to determine that? What space geographically, in a sense, will even allow for all of those things to be present because even within Peking where she grows up, we realize at one point, especially in the previous book that she is Han Chinese, which is the dominant ethnicity in China now, at least the one that as far as we know, that has political power. But the empire is Manchu. So in a sense, she's a minority within that empire in late 19th century China, and is at a disadvantage because of it. And then her foster father gets exiled to Western China, partly because the Manchus are not having the vision that he has for a strong united China. And so that's why he's getting pushed aside. But when he is in Western China, the way he's trying to handle that space is by trying to control the local warlords, who all have their own different tribal and ethnic identifications. And so she's trying to sort of manage that.

And then when she comes to England, she's trying to do a mission for him, which actually involves finding some kind of Buddhist-related treasure that will help restore China and make it a strong country in the face of Western imperialism. And so it's also talking about, what does it mean to have that mission when half of your parentage is British Imperial?

Because her British father came to China and then essentially bought her mom at a brothel. So it's also all these echoes of what imperialism means and how the descendants of that identify right and - critique. yeah, I think her mixed identity is many things and not just the biracial element.

Andrea Martucci: And it's like a Russian nesting doll of like power and political control. And there's like a control through, what's the word I'm looking for? Like folding in. This is what you were writing about with otherness and immigrant communities. Like you need to assimilate, otherwise you are held back from receiving resources. And so that happens in an, like a cultural level, a racial level, a gender, the gender constructs.

And on the racial level one thing that I thought was interesting, so obviously kind of like seamlessly passes between racial identities, depending on where she is and like how she [00:12:30] presents herself.

One thing with whiteness I thought was interesting was Leighton is a white man. What is considered white changes depending on where and when you are. He passes as, I'm not super familiar with the racial identities of people in Turkestan at the time, or whatever he passes as a Brown man, right?

Jayashree Kamble: yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Like he does not present as white, even though  all he does is - he's tan. And has a beard.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah. Yeah. there is certainly something about that kind of fluidity that A. Men just get. Right, like men get to pass through spaces in a way that women often cannot. So part of that really is gender based.

But the second thing, I think what Thomas is pointing at is that particular space was home or was friendly or accommodating or comfortable with many different kinds of people and the kind of racial marking that gets done now, or that started as a result of Imperial projects out of Europe, was not really the thing that people did. You weren't constantly trying to identify somebody's race, especially white versus black or white versus non white. So I think part of it is just the fluidity that existed that then got crushed by 19th century racist discourse that came from Europe, right?

This desire to categorize everybody and to watch everyone in that specific way. Now I'll give you anecdotally an example. When I came to the United States, I could tell when people were Indian or South Asian, and I could tell when people were black, if they had what I distinctly thought of the stereotypical Chinese or Japanese features, maybe I had another category, but otherwise everybody looked white to me.

So the discourse that's around Latinx people was completely foreign. I couldn't see it. Like I couldn't see what distinction people were making. So I think that's part of maybe what is happening with Leighton, so that he gets true, a kind of fluidity that is sometimes problematic because whiteness and the fact that it allows people to go anywhere and do anything.

But I think partly it's really just the fact that this is on the Silk Route, and many different people with many different genetic inheritances passed through it, and that was considered normal and nobody would have thought, Oh, what is this white man doing here?

Andrea Martucci: But if he was wearing like a British uniform

Jayashree Kamble: For sure, that would [00:15:00] somehow become a marker of something. And so he's very aware of that, which is why he's dressed the way he's dressed. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: And so with Ying-Hua's, gender presentation. That is also fluid. You were writing a bit about in Wuxia , you were bringing in some sources talking about how in the traditional Wuxia narrative, femininity had to - to maintain gender coherence of the martial arts and who is able to wield that power that at, in these traditional narratives, female  warriors would basically renounce their femininity, motherhood they're basically for all intensive purpose is transformed into a man.

And it is very interesting, like textually in this novel where very little is described about her body at any point.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: And he knows early on that she's a woman, but never remarks on it, literally. Never.

Jayashree Kamble: yeah.

Andrea Martucci: And yeah, she is very fluidly presenting across the gender spectrum and it never makes a difference, like even when they are having sex, there is like very little body part description that is given in such a way that describes things in like overtly masculine or feminine terms.

Jayashree Kamble: Correct. That's exactly right. Yeah. I think that's a pretty deliberate move on her part.

I don't know that the, as you say, the sexual descriptions of that have to do with the, with its sort of foundation in the Wuxia understanding of gender, because I think that part is really much more about the fact that she is free with her body because when she is doing the female gender presentation, which in her memories as a child or a younger woman, she describes to us, right?

Like the way you have to walk and the way you have to dress. And so there is confinement there, whereas here, when she's doing the masculine, it's about the freedom of movement, right? The speed with which he can throw the dagger, the speed with which she rides, the speed with which she does. All those things are the way she sprawls with her legs spread in the brothel or whatever.

And so it's really more about the energetic body, than it is I think about like the description of breasts or butt or thighs or whatever standard ways people might have of describing a cisgendered female body.

Yeah, I think there's something about the way Thomas is getting us to step away from some of the expected things, whether it's about how we identify someone's race or how we think, or [00:17:30] treat someone based on their external body that she wants us to maybe back away from, instead of think in more in terms of like essences in politics of different bodily movement and spatial movement.


Marker [00:17:43]

  Andrea Martucci: And so you also wrote about how the time periods that she chose to write about are very intentional and mirror kind of the situation today where, in her novel, she's speaking about empire and colonialism, and the corollary to that in today's world is the neoliberal attitudes.

Can you talk more about that?

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah. Yeah. So what I was thinking was that part of what feels to me is happening in the text with the paralleling of those moments of history. So in that period in 19th century China, again, under the Qing empire, the Manchu rulers, there was a lot of reevaluation that people were doing  about the Chinese way of life that had existed.

And part of  the


philosophy that had existed, because they were getting so many threats from the west, and that in some ways it seemed like they were failing and falling in front of these external enemies. And so it required people to rethink, you know, who are we? What are we? Is the way we've been doing things correct?

And where women are concerned there's a very specific thing that happened where they used to be - there's a long tradition of, these biographies of heroic women that used to get published. And in that time period, people were trying to then think, maybe we need a different kind of womanhood. Maybe the things we have held up are problematic.

And so they started to present a lot of Western women as exemplars. That's literally what the text is called. And so I'm thinking that to a certain extent, she's hinting - she doesn't mention any of those books by the way - but the way Catherine's life works out or Ying-Hua's life works out, is that she's written as someone who's trying to negotiate that moment.

The Chinese nation  crumbling and she has this British dude who's interfered in her life. And so there are these pressures from the outside and the failing inside that's happening at the same time that Catherine embodies, which is representative to me of a larger political issue that's happening at the same time.

And then there's this pressure that, so for example, those exemplars were maybe putting on existing women to behave in those ways, not have the traditional Chinese womanhood, but be [00:20:00] braver or stronger or study, go outside and study abroad or do other things, right, be more physical, that was coming on them because they were upholding women like, French anarchists and so on, right like revolutionary women.

And I feel like you see versions of that in how Catherine is being forced to act British or to act martial or to act in a certain way. And to me, there's a parallel between that and what's happening now in the contemporary moment of globalization, where we've pushed from the west a lot of ideas of what it means to be successful or whatever, but especially how to be a particular kind of woman as a model. We've pushed those out from the West, through the cinema, through television, through our books and they've dispersed across the world world because that's the media landscape of globalization, that things have come out of what we call the global North and dispersed into the global South.

And so I feel like it's showing us how, what happened that moment in time is happening now in a similar way, and she's speaking to some of those pressures and anxieties. That's what the character represents.

And partly, I do a slightly psychoanalytical reading where I think that Sherry Thomas herself, is an immigrant to the United States, right? Like she's talked at length about coming as a teenager from China to the U S and acquiring more fluency in English, she already knew it, but, more fluency in the language. And I personally, when I look at her oeuvre, her body of work, I can see that right at the beginning, she's doing a lot that feels like passing, right?

If you didn't know who she was from the text would not recognize it. As you said, you've read her Anglo character romances, they feel very settled into what was being done in romance at that time. And so to a certain extent, she's displaying the kinds of behaviors that Catherine, Ying-Hua, displays right in that particular room.

But they're both trying to figure out how do I work in this system that is asking me to work in a certain way, just as women will try to color their hair or have thinner waists or whatever, because that's what is being pushed from the global media model.

And so that's what I see happening in the texts that we're seeing a reflection of political history, through particularly how women experience it through the pressures that come to them from the outside, especially women from the global South.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I think part of my education through romance novels has revealed is, in [00:22:30] exploring a lot of these questions, I think revealing how much of our understanding of gender expression, comes from the media and how every, everything is, learned, right?

Jayashree Kamble: Mediated

Andrea Martucci: Yes. And desire, and culture specific- attributes of what is considered desirable and what is considered normal quote unquote. And I think that, as you were talking about Sherry Thomas's evolution as a romance author, I just looked up, I think Private Arrangements was  -was that her first?

Jayashree Kamble: Yep.

Andrea Martucci: Okay. I'm thinking about the plot of this one. And I'm literally thinking about how many of the tropes that she uses in this book are very romance tropey, like pure tropiness

Jayashree Kamble: Yep. Very much the core of the genre.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and I mean, she's Sherry Thomas, so like it's just beautifully written and

Jayashree Kamble: correct,

Andrea Martucci: like heart wrenching at every stage and all of that. But we're talking about this earlier, I think about,  talking about students or readers or, anybody first, you have to learn to walk before you can run first, Picasso had to learn how to paint classical art before he could learn how to deconstruct it.

And what is he a post-modernist?

Jayashree Kamble: A Cubist.

Andrea Martucci: A Cubist. Thank you. It strikes me that her evolution  it really shows that. Let me master  the genre norms

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: And do them really well. And then she reaches a point where she starts to play with those genre norms, break out of them. Not just writing British people who grew up in Britain. which this novel subverts.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: A little bit, a lot a bit. Playing with gender, playing with the relationship. I think that this relationship in this book is very interesting because what I noted was first of all, the relationship is a hundred percent external conflict that keeps them apart.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: I think that personally, I really enjoy the exploration of relationships through like internal conflicts.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: But I think that what this novel does so well is use these external conflicts to really explore these fascinating topics that we don't also need them having a big misunderstanding and -

Jayashree Kamble: yeah.

Andrea Martucci: and, or having huge interpersonal issues that would keep them apart. Like why should they be together if they both have external [00:25:00] internal reasons keeping them apart?

Jayashree Kamble: yeah. Overkill.

Andrea Martucci: Exactly. it's totally, I think, the right relationship for this story, but I do think that this is a classic example of just the two perfect puzzle pieces fitting together. Like the way these two characters are built, just they fit together. And I appreciate that, through the plot, I think it reinforces this idea of, together they were able to defeat evil, which was personified through the, the baddie in this  named The Centipede where when she was alone, she could not overcome him. But once they were able to come together, like the final fight scene.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Literally it was a team effort.

Jayashree Kamble: Yes, correct. Yes. Like he offers a shoulder and she mounts the rifle on it and shoots, right? Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And there's crucial moments where if they were not working as a team they'd be done for

Jayashree Kamble: yeah. Yeah. I think that one of them pushes the piano. The other one pulls down the curtain on the guy and then the rifle comes out and one offers a shoulder, one pulls the trigger. Yeah. It's definitely a combined effort.

To go back a little bit to you talk about the external conflict and the internal. I think there is an internal conflict, which is again, her sense of who she is and where she belongs, because she's always been fatherless. Her mother's died early. Then she's been forced into this other because of the Wuxia thread of the plot, into playing this other persona. She's always living a double life.

And so part of her immediate acceptance of what leads to their separation is that internalized sense of, does anybody want me, do I make sense to anyone? Or am I everything and nothing. So that's part of the reason why, when Leighton says what he does and she immediately shuts down, like they don't really have an extended conversation about why he's saying what he is and then the separation occurs.

I think part of it is that issue, that there is a certain sense of I don't know, like why should I trust anyone? Like things have always fallen away from me. But I also think that part of the scope of the physical landscape and what's actually happening on that landscape is these like Imperial struggles.

So she places him there during The Great Game, which is allegedly this thing that Russia and Britain were trying to make inroads into central Asia. And so that's [00:27:30] that large map that's happening there is it to a certain extent like just a reflection of their internal psychologies, right?

Like they're both - they have these vastnesses inside them that they haven't quite bridged yet. So those physical journeys are really about their internal landscapes. And so they're mimicking what's happening inside and trying to get to that place of home that they're trying to, because at the end of the text, you don't really have a sense of home, they went to Britain, they did what they did.

And then they come to China where they're apparently going to talk to her dad, but then what? You're going to keep moving, right? Like this idea of going to Kashmir and going to different parts of Darjeeling in British India. It's a sense of they will find home with each other, but that the space somehow has to be part of that internal journey.

Andrea Martucci: That's a lovely way of thinking of it. And I'm like, why did I not think so hard about that internal conflict that you were speaking to that, do I make sense to anyone, that Y ng-Hua was feeling? And I think it's because I think as I was reading it, I associated that so much with the larger things at play, but you're right, that is her growth.

Jayashree Kamble: Right. Yeah. I can't remember if it's in My Beautiful Enemy or in Hidden Blade where like she comes across a photograph of her father and she's instantly repelled because he's the white devil. So this idea of "that's me?" It starts from that moment, who am I like, if this is my dad, what does that mean for me? And then I'm nothing like my mother. Like who everybody just thinks is the epitome of everything cultured. And I can't do any of the things that she does. And so there's already, I think like a, both a family issue happening there, but also the whatever politically, both of those parents represent.

And then of course that and the foster father and what he represents, when you talk with Eric Selinger, you'll talk about many things, but he has much more deep thoughts about the Buddhism strain throughout the texts and what the search for the Buddhist artifact can mean and how that journey is part of that conflict, too.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And that was beautifully put too as well. I mean like how her mother represented very much, perhaps a traditional, version of Chinese womanhood

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah

Andrea Martucci: and so very much representing what is soon to be lost of Chinese culture or at least tamped down or [00:30:00] diluted, I should say. and her father literally representing cause he was like a governor or something.

Her biological father. What was his role? Why was he there?

Jayashree Kamble: He was just one of the British that went to Asia. Like he doesn't have a specific title or anything like that. He's not a big shot.

Andrea Martucci: Just invader.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah. (laughs) Yeah. British man who went to make his fortune in China.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. but so even in that representing just like this casual, hi, we're here, we're in charge now, we take what we want.

Jayashree Kamble: And it's early days of that happening. Initially - it was still at that point, at least it's still more trading posts and things, but yes, you can definitely see the foot of the British empire coming down pretty hard, pretty quickly.


Marker [00:30:40]  Andrea Martucci: And now I found a video of Sherry Thomas - I found videos of you too! This was part of the, what was it called? The popular romance project?

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah. Yeah, it was an accompaniment to the documentary that Lori Khan did, Love Between the Covers.

Andrea Martucci: I need to rewatch that it's been a while since I watched that, but, there were all these fantastic videos and in one of them, Sherry Thomas is talking about something I've been circling around on the podcast for a while, but I think also speaks specifically to the connection with Wuxia and connected to the ideas in this novel and romance generally.

The quote I wrote down was "all genre fiction is filling that void, the thirst for justice and fairness, because what we promise is if you do things right, if you do what's right, rather than what's easy,  in the end, it's all worth it.

There's a deep human desire in all of us. Love life is such a huge part of your life. When people are kind and loving and will sacrifice for the other person, we want them to be justly rewarded for it."

And I think that's beautiful. I think that narrative of justice  which she spoke about earlier in the video, that I didn't write down, but, I don't know how familiar you are with like Wuxia more generally, but is that also a theme? It's this idea that the right people are going to win?

Jayashree Kamble: Based on my research there's two kinds of return of action idea that undergirds Wuxia. So there's, Someone does something bad and you reply in the same way. So an eye kind of thing. So there's that kind of punishment, a model that exists, someone does something that they said to be did something bad. You have to pay him back. So there's that kind of, idea.

But, so the terms that I found were called boa [00:32:30] and boa-ying, those are the terminology that exists in the genre for that kind of cyclical narrative impetus that exists in Wuxia texts, and reverse is somebody does something good then you do something good in return, right? Like you have to pay back in the same manner. They give you bad, you give back bad, they give you good, you give back.

But that's within human beings. And then there is a secondary sense, which is divine. So you mess up and then there is divine retribution or divine payback. And or it may not even be a God it's like the universe somehow pushed back in a certain way.

And so that's the undergirding of that. And I think it's interesting, the quote that you use where she is maybe drawn parallel between maybe some of those values and what's happening in romance or arguably what's at the heart of comedy as a genre. And so Oscar Wilde says this sarcastically, but of course he was always writing comedy. So I don't think he really means it.

There's a line in The Importance of Being Earnest, I think. But he says like the good end happily and the bad unhappily, like that's comedy or whatever. And he's kind of making fun of it, but it's true. That's not what happens in life. And so that's maybe an infant genre or something like that.

But, that is in fact, the core of comedy, right? Like at the end of Shakespeare in comedy, like the folks who are good people, we want them to have something happy happen to them at the end. And so romance very much falls into the comedy side of the genre in a traditional sense versus tragedy.

Andrea Martucci: Well and it's like,  I mean, this is often spoken of with Chekhov's Gun, you know, don't, don't have something show up if you're not gonna resolve that and like tie the loose end up, right?

Like, like a character doing something nasty. Why would you have that character do that unless

Jayashree Kamble: yeah. There's going to be something to get back. Yeah. And with My Beautiful Enemy there's, I'm looking at an interesting pattern there where she's driven by this impulse multiple times.

And so she feels, for example, Da-Ren has been a good foster father to her. So what drives her mission to England, which is like not a small thing to do for anybody to go on a ship all the way to another country to find this thing that you don't know where it is and try to pass at the same  time.

But she's doing it because of this thing of bao. Like he did something good for me. I have to do it back. And to me, this is in a way a part of the Confucian thing that she brings in the Wuxia [00:35:00] thing that she brings to this text, which is that the obligation to the person who has raised you is your primary obligation.

Which is unusual otherwise for Western romance, right? Like your obligation, not to the romantic lover first, everybody else comes second. Whereas here he's the first, like he drives all of that and that's comes from that bao idea. But she also has she practices bao, I think when it comes to Lin, The Centipede, because he did something bad. So she has to pay him back. Like she's not going to rest. Even under extreme pressure.

And so she practices both kinds of bao. But with Leighton, she actually does both because he messes up. But her retribution is so much higher. Again, I don't want to do any spoilers, but you know how she reacts to what he, she thinks, is his him walking away.

And so that's a disproportionate kind of bao. She messes up. She thinks she's acting appropriately. They did this, so I have to return and kind, but it's like vastly higher, right? Like the price he pays. So she over-correct and then,

Andrea Martucci: I'm laughing. Sorry. I'm laughing. Cause it literally is a big misunderstanding.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah. Yeah. And so the punishment is extraordinary, right? Like the thing that she does is extraordinary. And I think somewhere, either in that article or in my book, I say you don't have an example of anything like it, except maybe in Lord of Scoundrels with the shooting scene.

Like I don't think anything equivalent really exists. And so she does this thing. And then she repents because, and then she imagines that she is suffering baoying because then the universe kicks her in the mouth after he leaves. And she thinks it's because of what she did to him, that the universe paid her back.

So that's sort again, sense of divine retribution comes back to her, in baoying form, and then she tries to make amends right, towards the end to fix the thing that she thinks she did wrong to him. She tries it in multiple ways.

Andrea Martucci: I wonder, you said you were trying to think of other examples of a character doing physical violence to the other main character in - is that where you're getting it?

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah,

Andrea Martucci: but that's specific to heroines right? Because, Oh, sorry. Maybe not physical violence, but I feel like in a lot of romance novels, Heroes do really like, again, like not physical violence, but like emotional violence.

Jayashree Kamble: For sure. For sure. Yeah. No, I mean,  a very specific example of a heroine doing that to a hero. Yeah. That kind of bodily injury. Yeah. With [00:37:30] longterm consequences. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Right, right, right.  She fixes it. right by the end, right? Yeah.

Jayashree Kamble: That's what I mean, like she, she has to act out like she has to complete the cycle, like she messed up. And yeah.

Marker [00:37:41]

  Andrea Martucci: So was there anything else with this book that you wanted to talk about?

Jayashree Kamble: Was there anything else?

Andrea Martucci: Honestly, there's so much, like all of these threads could be their own paper,

Jayashree Kamble: Right? It's a huge text. And again, like I said, there are many, many things that could be said, many of which I've never thought of, but I've learned from Eric Selinger because he teaches it in a very different way.

So there are ways to look at the Buddhist narrative in there. What does it mean that they're look for the heart, right? The heart Sutra in Buddhism and the way that helps them to go on that physical trip to find the thing that then turns out to not be the thing that they thought they would find.

So what is, that's almost like a sort of a koan, right? Like you're searching for the thing, but the thing that's at the heart of the thing is actually not the thing that you expected. And there's some kind of the metaphor there. I think about romance and the genre and all kinds of issues that she brings up.

When Eric, I think teaches it - again you can ask him in more detail, but when he teaches it, students often critique, I believe  Leighton's father's story and how that plays out. Like they feel like that's problematic - that couple, they feel like that's not fairly treated or that it feels to them - how come the straight couple  gets the HEA.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah.

Jayashree Kamble: And so I think his students, again, you can ask him what more complexity there is in those conversations, but so there's, if you approach that same novel with a queer studies lens, certainly there is a whole other bunch of things that I think you could unpack, out of that text.

There's, I touched very briefly on this - almost, I think in a footnote, but again, if you're doing critical race studies in a specific way, in the subset of critical race studies, which is biracial studies, then you could actually look at the character of Lin,  in much more depth because both he and Ying-Hua are biracial.

And yet he is cast as like the worst of all of it, where she is some ways getting the best of all of it. And she managed to retrieve a sense of identity, whereas he falls apart and gets darker and blacker and more full of hatred. And so the question becomes why can't the two biracial characters align and work together?

Like why are they actually created as enemies? And so there's a whole analysis that one could do about  biracialism in that text.

Andrea Martucci: [00:40:00] I mean, just thinking about, the passing narrative generally, especially with a, a biracial character-  maybe more accurately, like the tragic mulatto narrative.

Jayashree Kamble: yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Again, maybe like in a very American, in the context of slavery way, where I suppose thinking about it from that lens, there are aspects of her questions of identity that verge on that tragic mulatto narrative.

Like I don't belong anywhere.

Jayashree Kamble: yeah. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: I don't know. I don't have answers.

Jayashree Kamble: no, I think you're certainly - like there's, there is that, narrative history, of course, but I think when it comes to the legal issue of biracial people, in Britain, in the British context, it's very different from the American context. So again, I don't know if it's in that article or it's probably in my book. Like, I look at what miscegenation law or equivalent to miscegenation laws exist in Brittain. And there really isn't one. There isn't one against people marrying across races. And there isn't one that like ostracizes legally the children of biracial relationships. Any law that actually exists that forbids congress between people is actually about religion and it was supposed to separate out like Catholics and Protestants or Christians and Jews. So that's the law that exists in Britain.

And so legally speaking, she doesn't have the sort of tragic weight that somebody who might be biracial or trying to pass or whatever in pre Civil War, especially, or if it was Jim Crowe, a United States has, so it's a different kind of weight. So her crisis really is, to me more, a crisis of the person trying to understand, because no one really is like pushing anything. No one is like making her do one thing over another, right? Like her exploration, like nobody in China, for example, tells her, Hey, you're half white, but

Andrea Martucci: You're too white to be a proper Chinese woman, no one, nobody says that.

Jayashree Kamble: Her awareness, right? Like she's the one who's trying to process what all of that means.

And so I think she's not tragic in that sense. Really. It's more of a struggle. And I think she does have a little bit more agency about it.

Andrea Martucci: You're so right. The points that you're making - I think everything really just reinforces that like, these divides that are created between people are a hundred percent artificial, both in time and place. 1930s Alabama is a very different time and place than, 1890s England.

Jayashree Kamble: yeah. [00:42:30]

Andrea Martucci: or 1960s New York. Like these are all different places and times where, meaning is ascribed to things differently. Just like how being an Irish immigrant in 1900 is very different from being an Irish descent in 2020, right?

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And for her, she is passing, right? Like she's pretending to be a white ex-pat who's come home to England in 1891 London. But if it were to be found out that she is half Chinese, she's not going to have the consequences that somebody who was passing as fully white in the United States would have, especially in the 19th century, the same period of time.

The consequences for her would probably be something like the same families maybe wouldn't want to hang out with her. She'd be fine. So yeah, absolutely. They're very specific, very much a certain time and place. Yeah. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: I did have a thought about Da-Ren. Am I saying that correctly?

Jayashree Kamble: I think so. Yeah. I don't know either. It's a title. I don't know what yeah. Honorable property.

Andrea Martucci: And so this is obviously, there's a cultural element here of, I'm looking at this through the Western lens of individualism and, lack of value, in a familial loyalty, but her relationship with him was difficult for me. Because of how subservient she was in that relationship. How much, even at the end - if this was a Western novel, by the end of the novel, she would have learned that she doesn't need his approval and that seeking it is futile. Instead, she continues seeking his approval until the end and he has a realization of some kind about her value and finally opens the door to them having a more meaningful relationship and interacting as equals as opposed to this hierarchy. But yeah, there was some sort of, in my brain, as I was reading that, I was like, I don't like him.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah. I certainly understand what you're saying. And I don't think we're supposed to like him. That's part of how we emotionally attached to the heroine, like that's one more thing she has to deal with. So yeah, I think he's definitely written as a distant forbidding father whose approval one seeks again, it's a very sort of basic psychoanalytical reading, but, yeah, maybe I don't struggle with it [00:45:00] as much because I was raised in similar traditions.

I was raised, the elder is the one who's venerable. And the elder is the one you look up to and the elder is the one you respect and so on and so forth. But throughout the text, she actually like almost never listens to him. So like,

Andrea Martucci: True

Jayashree Kamble: I take great pleasure in her constantly skirting has authority. Sure. She wants his approval, but like how many obedient daughters are going to be riding around Western Turkestan dressed as a Kazakh. Like she chose those roles. And so I think part of what Wuxia allows her to do is to escape that traditional patriarchy, right? Yes, it confines you in certain ways in terms of gender presentation, because that's how the genre is written.

But at the same time, it gives women a power, which outside of Wuxia you don't have. It's like you're confined under the patriarch in a very specific way. And he also, I think exists as the symbol of a dying way of life. That's not going to continue. What he wants is not going to happen. His vision of China will not be fulfilled in the way that he thought. And so he has to come to value other things, which is why I think he eventually turns to her, towards the end. But yeah, he's a, yeah. He's not a cuddly.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. It's okay. It's okay.

Jayashree Kamble: For people who have read it or whatever, but haven't read her Charlotte Holmes books yet, one of the characters from My Beautiful Enemy does pop up.

So I will leave it at that.

Andrea Martucci: Oh, cool.

Jayashree Kamble: Yeah.  Marker [00:46:28]Andrea Martucci:   What is the best way for listeners to connect with you or learn more about your work?

Jayashree Kamble: I think my whole CV is on the humanities commons website. And so if you search my name and humanities commons, it shows up. So that's lists all the work that I have done.

And just to reiterate what you said, some of my latest work is on the Journal of Popular Romance Studies site, and it's free, that's JPRstudies.Org, and on social media, I'm mostly on Twitter. I never know what to give people because I can never tell which is the handle and which is the name. So it's Prof Romance and the it's @outtolunchyear. And I thought that was funny because I was in sabbatical this year.

Andrea Martucci: Okay. I will put the links in the show notes to those. And, also since you are the Vice President of IASPR (pronounced Yasper) we should also plug that people can become members if they're interested, right.

Jayashree Kamble: Yes, we are very welcoming of [00:47:30] all folks in the romance community. The membership information is on our website. And also if you're attending any of our showcases, from this week's worth of digital showcase, you can look for us under #IASPR2020, but also through the website itself.

The memberships are sliding scale. They're not expensive. And at this point, honestly, it's really just, if you want to be a supporting member, we would love your financial support. There's the Journal of Popular Romance Studies linked through that as well for folks who want to access anything on the journal, there will be, coming up, we're doing a transition of what used to be the romance Wiki, which had every possible thing of romance scholarship that had been published listed under there, but we're moving it to a different house. So it's not on right now, but keep an eye out for that. I think it'll go under the University of Birmingham, eventually. And then, I think Laura Vivanco, also keeps track of a lot of romance scholarship for people who are interested.

We meet annually at the Popular Culture Association, romance stream. We don't know what'll happen next year, of course. But we welcome people at that conference. And so for example, we would love to have you come and do a presentation and talk about your podcast experiences.

So we are very open to every kind of scholar reader, somebody who wants to be in the community and has a thing to say, you should keep an eye out for the PCA abstract call.

Andrea Martucci: Awesome. That was amazing.

Jayashree Kamble: Thank you for having me. That was so fun. I could talk about this book forever and probably will.

Marker [00:49:06]

    Andrea Martucci: And now I wanted to share this PSA from Jayashree about the use of the word karma.

  Jayashree Kamble: I'm just going to push back on the use of the word karma, very hard simply because it's misunderstood. People tend to think of it as you do something bad and then something bad will happen to you. And it's in this life. That's not what the word means. It's actually much more problematic. It's actually the justification of the caste system. So when you are born into the lowest caste, the justification that's given is because you sinned in your past life. That's why you're suffering in this one. I did good in my past life, that's why I have privilege.

So it's a very bitter concept for people like me who are from the untouchable community. So keep it or leave it in the podcast. I don't really mind, but it's my personal mission to tell people. Don't use it.

Don't use it in that way because it's really a polluted word. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Okay. No, I [00:50:00] appreciate you. I  Marker [00:50:00]So FYI, I was definitely using it wrong prior to this point, but now this is burned in my brain and I'm so glad that Jayashree educated me on the original meaning of the word karma. Obviously it's an idea that has been used and continues to be used to cause harm, so I hope you similarly feel motivated to be mindful about how you use the word going forward, because it does not mean retributive justice. Thanks for listening to episode 62 and thanks to Jayashree Kamble for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on

I'd be grateful if you rated and reviewed the podcast on Apple podcasts. I love to hear your thoughts on the show and it helps other romance nerds find the podcast. You can also skip the middleman and tell a friend about Shelf Love.

Thanks for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I'd love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to [email protected]. This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Thank you also as always to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson and Tasha L. Harrison. Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad, and keep reading romance.