Saturday, May 21, 2022

RIP Gwendolyn "Gwen" Osborne

I met Gwen Osborne when I was an infant. It was 1999, I was fresh out of Library School and greener than grass. My first job was to select adult fiction for a small, rural, library system in Michigan - which sounds like a dream job (it is) for someone who grew up spending every waking moment of her summers checking out mystery novels from her hometown library.  One small problem - two college degrees in 5.5 years, who the hell had time to read for pleasure? I was mainlining soap operas.  My romance knowledge had stopped with Jude Deveraux and I didn't know who Nora Roberts was (I'm dead serious).  I needed help and through a series of happenstance I found The Romance Reader online. 

You young whippersnappers gotta understand, prior to the Interwebs taking off we had Romantic Times (who loved everything) and that was it.  The Romance Reader sprang to life in 1996 because the founder was enraged by a Julie Garwood book and had to word vomit her feelings somewhere - and decided the Internet was the place to do it.  A couple years later All About Romance launched and romance readers now had two places to read critical reviews of romance novels.  The good, the bad, and the Dear Lord Why?!?!

Gwen was already an established reviewer at TRR when I joined in 1999 (I would review for TRR until 2007...) and she immediately told me we were long lost sisters - Wendy being a derivative of Gwendolyn.  And like me, Gwen was a Michigander, although from the other side of the state. She was a Detroit girl, a Michigan State Spartan, and a law librarian. Gwen was based out of Chicago but Motown ran through her veins - the city, the music, the cars, the aesthetic.  

Words like "trailblazer" and "pioneer" get thrown around a lot, but Gwen truly was both. She sprang from the womb a reader, but had an awakening in the 1990s when she discovered Arabesque Books. A light bulb went off for her when she discovered romance novels written by Black authors featuring Black men and women falling in love...she was hooked.  And from that moment on Gwen was an evangelist for Black Romance.

You have to understand the time in which Gwen was beating this drum. Black Romance was relegated to segregated "African American Interest" areas of bookstores and distribution was the pits on top of that. The romance genre as a whole got next to zero mainstream attention other than sneering, but Black Romance? You could hear a pin drop. Gwen was the first reader I met, the first reviewer I met, who truly championed Black Authors and pushed their names into, at the very least, my consciousness.  And no way was I the only one. Would I have heard of Beverly Jenkins, Francis Ray, Rochelle Alers, Brenda Jackson, and so many others if I hadn't met Gwen?  I don't think so. And I was A. LIBRARIAN.   

Gwen was also kind. In 2000 I was randomly assigned to review the mystery Killing Kin by Chassie West - not knowing at the time of West's romance roots (she wrote under the name Joyce McGill). I loved that book, but was having no luck tracking down the first in the series, Sunrise, or West's stand-alone novel Loss of Innocence. Gwen, loving Black Mystery as much as Black Romance, loaned me copies from her personal collection. A lending library through the US Mail. This is what we resorted to back in the day before eBooks.

Gwen also loved audiobooks and was one of the few lovers of the format I knew back in the days before they were "cool" (we listened to books on cassette y'all. CASSETTE!).  A few years ago she reached out to me about judging The Audies, which I did for a couple of years until the time commitment got to be too much (OMG, it's intense y'all).  We became Facebook friends and I could always count on my Baby Boomer friend Gwen posting great video clips of Prince, Stevie Wonder, and countless Motown musicians.

I met Gwen exactly once in person, at an RWA conference - and no I cannot remember what city or what year. It was one of those things - neither one of us knew the other was going to be there.  She was walking down the hall with a group of women, one of them being Beverly Jenkins. As they walked past she caught sight of my name badge and the mother of all hugs ensued. I'm not sure which one of us squealed loudest.

Gwen passed away earlier this week, in an absolutely preventable tragedy (two other women in her apartment complex also died). I am sad and enraged that this vibrant woman was taken from this Earth and Romancelandia too soon - but we are all richer for the work she did while she was with us.  Rest easy Gwen and know we love you.

To learn more about Gwen's Romancelandia contributions to academia, see this Teach Me Tonight post.
 

6 comments:

azteclady said...

May Gwen rest in power.

willaful said...

What a devastating thing to happen. I'm sorry for your loss. This is a beautiful tribute.

Jazzlet said...

What a senseless loss, but what a beautiful tribute.

Jacqueline Diaz said...

I used to follow TRR back in the day. I always appreciated that they reviewed everything in romance, and as honestly as possible. I'm sorry to hear about Gwen's passing and my sympathies to you and her loved ones.

Keira Soleore said...

I am so sorry for your loss, Wendy. I loved your story about her and how much she enriched your life and those of countless Romance fans. It's a great tragedy how she lost her life.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your interactions with Gwen. I just learned of her passing and the unforgivable circumstances. We attended Michigan State at the same time and were Facebook friends as well. May your fond memories continue well into the future