Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
"Trade Me" and Courtney Milan
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2015 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
Today I snarfled up Trade Me, a new contemporary romance novel by Courtney Milan. It stars a Chinese-American woman studying computer science at UC Berkeley. It's about class and classism, deconstructing the Prince Charming/billionaire trope in romantic fiction, Bay Area tech, ally fails, how to deal with cops, authenticity and adaptation, safety and freedom, trust, parents, and work. And one of the main secondary characters is trans, and all the physicality in the relationship is super consensual, and there is a kind-of reference to Cake Wrecks, and (maybe only I see it) to Randall Munroe's "What If?" blog. I link it thematically to Jo Walton's The Just City, Ellen Ullman's The Bug, and the good parts of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. It's pretty great. (ROT13'd trigger warnings that are spoilers: qvfbeqrerq rngvat naq gur arne-qrngu bs n cnerag.)
I'd heard a bit about Milan before via metaphortunate and rachelmanija and enjoyed the Ask A Man blog, but hadn't gotten around to reading a novel by her yet. Then I heard that Trade Me would star someone who sounds far more like me than a lot of protagonists do, and decided it was time to try out this whole ebook-reading thing. Glad I did!
I know more and more romance authors are writing books with protagonists like me these days, not just Milan, and I should check them out. (Milan, like me, likes Zen Cho, and she further recommends another lawyer romance author, Julie James. According to Milan, James "writes ladies who unapologetically have careers and who care about those careers and don't have to sacrifice them in a fit of self-immolating pain at the end of the book." Hurray!) But I'm going to dwell a moment on how fascinating I find Milan in particular.
First off is the software thing. She wrote and wants people to reuse a chunk of GPL'd software to autogenerate links to a particular book at multiple bookstores. Also she used to use Gentoo. Of course she gives her readers permission to strip DRM from their copies of her books. Basically I would not be surprised if there is super flirty pair programming or a double entendre in a bash script in a future Milan book.
Her FAQ goes into more detail on what she does and why. She's neurodiverse, she encourages fanfic, and she has interesting ideas about the romance genre, diversity, and pay.
She brings an analytical approach to all aspects of her work (informed by her past as a chemist, programmer, and lawyer), and is willing to frankly and transparently talk about circumlocutions and the ways powerful systems, organizations and people -- deliberately or inadvertently -- suppress free speech. As a woman of color ("half-Chinese" in her words) she's also especially aware of the importance of writing fictional representations of women of color in STEM, and of fixing broken standards that lead to unequal representation.
If you are into legal minutiae you might enjoy her post on impotence and annulment; even if you aren't, you might like to see her hypothesize a bit about Regency vase cartels. I totally want to attend the workshop she did providing "a very broad overview of how people thought about property throughout history. When she writes historical romance, she writes people who could have existed as outliers; "I import modern morals into my historical romances. In my mind, that's a feature, not a bug."
Since a great "Must Pleasures Be Guilty?" WisCon panel I did in 2010, I've been particularly interested in new perspectives on the stigmatizing of intentionally pleasurable entertainment, and Milan's "The stigma of happy (a rant)" provides! Milan respects pleasure as a good and, in her work, aims to illustrate the work it takes to get to happy. She can snark about the "shame" of reading something pleasurable (and her fake book covers are spot-on), but she can also go deeper and show that another world is possible, one where we can have healthy, respectful conversations about women's sexual desires.
Milan and I are both geeky feminist Asian-American women who went to Cal and are interested in law, writing, and programming. Trade Me cost USD$3.99 (ebook); I can't put a price on what it feels like to read fiction meant for me, by someone who's only a few alternate universes away from me.
21 Jan 2015, 22:31 p.m.
22 Jan 2015, 8:34 a.m.
27 Jan 2015, 19:15 p.m.