It’s the beginning of a whole new year; what time could possibly be better to become more motivated and inspired? You have a whole 365 days ahead of you, and now is the time to start making them count, so we're asking authors what they've got planned for the year ahead!
Rhoda Baxter talks about writing under her real name for the very first time, and what her plans are as Jeevani Charika going forward...
2018 has been a year of huge change for me. It started with handing in my notice in for a job that was making me ill. It was a scary thing to do. I’m still recovering from the anxiety and other fall out. Somewhere during this emotional and financial maelstrom, an opportunity arose to collaborate with a publisher. Why do cool challenges always show when you’re in the middle of some other crisis? Anyway, I said yes. The result was Christmas at the Palace—the first book I’ve had published under my real name, Jeevani Charika.
I’ve been known as Rhoda Baxter for so long I’m used to being two people. There are advantages to having a pen name—you get to keep your facebook profiles separate, for example. Rhoda is all about books and cake and crochet. My personal profile is about those things too, but with added pictures of kids (my own, I hasten to add, not random children). I wasn’t prepared for the rush of excitement at seeing my real name on a book cover. There’s nothing like it.
As Rhoda Baxter, I write about white protagonists and give them Sri Lankan friends—my ‘stealth Sri Lankans’ as I jokingly call them. But before that, when I started writing novels, I wrote about Sri Lankan characters living in Britain. These were usually people who had settled and integrated relatively well, so the stories aren’t about their ‘foreignness’. They were inspired more by Jhumpa Lahiri than Arundathi Ray—although I love both those authors.
When I submitted them—nearly a decade ago now, when you sent submissions in by post—the books got some very nice rejections, mostly along the lines of ‘I don’t know where I’d place this’. The characters weren’t white enough to be mainstream and ‘not Asian enough’, or literary enough, to be marketed as literary fiction. (‘Accessible literary’ and ‘bookclub’ fiction weren’t really established back then). There was a general perception in publishing that genre fiction with non-white characters on the cover don’t sell. There was probably some truth to this.
I’m a pragmatic sort, so I did what I felt was necessary to get published and changed what I wrote. I sold my very next book.
I eventually wrote a few multicultural novellas and self published them, just to get them out there, in case anyone was looking for them.
But 2018 changed things.
Arguably, all the stuff happening in politics has shaken us up and made us look afresh at the things we took for granted. Meanwhile, in the world of entertainment, Black Panther broke box office records, Netflix made To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals books came out. The success of these stories showed that there was an appetite for films and books with more diverse protagonists. Crazy Rich Asians looks like it’s going to continue this trend.
In 2019, I’d like to see this expand in Romancelandia so that we get more people who have different minority backgrounds in regular genre fiction. I don’t mean just race—I mean disability, sexuality, gender, religion or whatever it is that makes them marginalised. Love is, after all, for everyone.
That said, it is important that these characters are fully rounded and not just there as a stereotype to name-check a group. That’s tokenism, not inclusion. 2018 made a start—let’s hope next year builds on that.
Now that I have ‘Jeevani Charika’ as a pen name, I’m hoping that 2019 will bring me the chance to publish other books with Sri Lankan protagonists. Things are changing; hopefully some of it for the better. Let’s see what blossoms in 2019. Happy New Year!
Rhoda's latest release (written as Jeevani Charika), Christmas at the Palace, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.