Romance novels tend to have, shall we say, an “open relationship” with reality. They rely on garish stereotypes of Greek tycoons and single damsels just aching for their escapist fantasy. This is one of the genre’s impossible topics that emergent publishing imprint, Sapphire, hopes to correct.
Sapphire, a fresh new series of romance novels (in the general style of Mills & Boon) targets successful, entrepreneurial black women and simultaneously hopes to rescue romance from the clutches of exaggerated fantasy. While Hollywood notions such as “the one”, “falling in love”, and “happily ever after” still figure very much on its agenda, the series touches on local issues and local culture, creating “accessible, realistic” love novellas for black South African women.
“I think there’s always been a gap in the market,” says Nani Khabako, 22-year old author of the predictably titled Her Forever After. “People have always wanted romance they can identify with.” While a committed reader of Mills & Boon herself, she’s always found its offerings detached from the local experience of romance.
“I think readers will respond to these novels because they’re written for them. They’re home-based. We don’t offer this over-exaggerated idea of love.” Her own story, for example, one of several published by an expanding group of young (predominantly under 30) Sapphire series writers, focuses on an aspirant glossy-magazine journalist who re-encounters an old flame.
Khabako also claims to place an emphasis on strong, independent female leads – part of the move towards writing a more “real” kind of romance. Her writing is about “regular people pursuing a dream”.
“They’re trying to make it out there in the new South Africa and they fall in love in regular circumstances. The way I try to portray these characters is in a fantastical way, but still realistic. The Sapphire heroine is not someone who’s waiting to be rescued.”
Nelleke de Jager, publisher of Sapphire press, echoes Khabako, saying: “In all these stories you’re looking at financially independent female characters, often looking after one or two family members. They’ve got an entrepreneurial streak.”
She adds: “We’re not that prescriptive on the guidelines of romance, apart from the fact that it has to follow the recipe: girl meets boy, falls in love happily ever after.”
What the emergence of these novels does suggest, as Khabako hints at, is the growing number of black women straddling the lines between traditionalism and western corporate culture. “I try to include cultural references to who they are and where they come from,” she says. “These women didn’t just show up in Cape Town or Joburg. They have a past in previously disadvantaged communities; a past inherited by them as black people. But they’re also part of the new South Africa with new opportunities.”
She says this is what motivates the common thread in the series, of women engaging with newfound (business-minded) opportunities. “I think a lot of black women will be able to identify with this – this new possibility where they can pursue anything they want.”
De Jager has worked with several romance genre-novelists before and she doesn’t think writing these books is as easy as it sounds. Believability and authenticity are apparently tricky to capture. “You have to make the reader believe in your world,” she says. “You can pick up immediately if the writer doesn’t believe in his or her characters.”
She also thinks that important qualities of the novel are a kind of “rite of passage”, whereby the lead character grows, or transforms, in some way. There is mild disagreement between Khabako and De Jager about the extent to which these romance novels are liberating texts for women. But all this talk of the genre’s much maligned (deservedly so, I think) place in the literary pantheon distracts from what it is that Sapphire was created to do: publish slim novels full of passionate romance and fantasy, and slip in the odd sex scene cloaked in delicate euphemisms.