#ViveLaDifference: Writing as an Author of Colour
This month the Pink Heart Society is welcoming authors from many different backgrounds as they talk about writing romances as authors of colour.
Writing is hard. As authors, we are tasked with telling compelling stories with interesting characters in real-seeming worlds. And while we strive for mindful relevance, writing can become a veritable minefield when you want to incorporate diverse elements into your books.
When it comes to diversity, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is something I hear a lot from writers. We’re criticized if we aren’t inclusive enough; we’re criticized if we marginalize a group; we’re criticized if we tell a story using a voice that isn’t ours. The should you/shouldn’t you argument, coupled with our own personal biases, blind spots and privileges, make writing about marginalized peoples extremely challenging, so much so that some people avoid it altogether.
Here’s the thing about being a writer of color: I’m never criticized for telling a story about white middle-class Americans, even though I’m Chinese Canadian. Why? Because Western storytelling is told through the lens of whiteness.
Instead, as a writer of color, my work is either criticized for being “too ethnic,” or else it’s inauthentic because it doesn’t “speak to the immigrant experience.” If I have characters of color, I’m expected to write a story about escaping hardship and going to a better place, only to have those hopes and dreams dashed. Happy ever afters, and therefore romance, are not for people of color: readers only want to experience our lives through our suffering. That’s the message we got from the publishing industry for years.
That tune is changing, or at least we hope it is. From a greater awareness of #OwnVoices stories to recognizing the need for more critical discussions about diverse acquisitions, publishers claim they’re welcoming diversity with active submission calls.
The problem is, diversity is not a “trend”. My existence is not a subgenre or a passing fad. According to Publishers Weekly, 82% of editorial departments are white: the lack of diversity in the industry needs more than just a call for submissions. This is not a problem that can be solved by a contest or an anthology or one or two diversity panels or workshops.
When the message in media has historically been that “those people” and “those stories” are not ones that sell, or when we dismiss concerns about a lack of representation in the media, we are telling marginalized peoples they don’t matter.
And yes, a lack of diversity is a problem. The racism, bigotry, hatred and violence being perpetrated across the globe stems from an overwhelming lack of empathy—empathy which is developed by seeing different faces in books, on TV and in the movies, and by engaging with different people in your day to day life.
We aren’t a monoculture. We have different origins and backgrounds and upbringings and values and experiences. We eat different foods and speak different languages and worship different religions and celebrate different holidays. But when it comes to romance, we all want the same thing: a happy ever after.
Yes, writing is hard, and it should be hard. Growing our awareness of the issues, educating ourselves and listening to those criticisms is the only way we can begin to understand the challenge of not only becoming more inclusive, but also decolonizing our stories and actively engaging in anti-oppression. Discomfort means we’re getting somewhere; it means we’re thinking.
Anything by Sarah M. Anderson—she writes contemporary romances featuring Native heroes and heroines.
I've been a self published author since March of 2015 and I've learned so much. But everyday there is so much more for me to learn to try and get my work noticed. I know being a author of color writing diverse romances will make it more difficult for my books to be discovered. Like when I decided to change the categories for the first and second books in my series to multicultural, biracial, and interracial they were placed in the urban categories. They were out of place among the other books in those categories. A big part of that was because I was a new author and I only had ten reviews. I quickly realized my books were not going to get a fair chance to be seen by as many readers as they would be if they were just in the new adult/contemporary romance category.
In my first two books the female lead is biracial. I wrote it so it's not glaringly obvious but most readers figure it out on their own. I didn't want readers main focus to be on the race of the characters. I wanted their focus to be on the struggles, the love, and the relationships between the characters. How they navigate their way through it all to find love and happiness. What will matter is if they are able to make a connection to my characters and if I've taken them out of their lives for a while and into my characters. If I've done a good job the color of my characters skin doesn't matter. Overall when readers do realize most of the main characters in my books are of color they don't care.
Another thing I had trouble with when looking for a cover for my book was stock photos. It was difficult to find a image with a interracial couple. I found some but they were ones I've seen multiple times for other books and they didn't fit my story so that was a challenge. The same thing for my third book. There is a lack of diverse cover art. Those are the times I wished I had the money to do a custom cover shoot which most new authors don't have. I definitely didn't. I could have done a cover where I put two people together from different photos but I can always tell when it's done on a cover and that's not what I wanted. I wanted the cover to convey an intimacy you just can't get by piecing two pictures together.
Since publishing my first book I've learned you want to be as diverse with the readers and authors you know, as much as the stories you create. Even authors who are not in your genre, there is something to learn that can be applied to your writing and marketing of your books; especially being self published. Reach out to other authors and ask questions. Facebook is your friend. I've found great groups of authors who are willing to help each other. Search for authors and cover designers groups and one thing will lead you to another and another etc. Join RWA then join CIMRWA chapter. I've found review sites on twitter like, WOC In Romance and Romance Novels In Color which reviewed my book. There are places to look to if you are a AOC and if you write diverse romance. They may not be as easy to find on your own but if you're willing to ask (which is one of my faults) you'll find what you need and things will become easier to find once you start connecting with other authors.
Writing romance and romantic women’s fiction is a joy. I love crafting complex, twisty plots. I love my characters. (And when I say love, I really mean love! All the heroes I’ve written I’ve had to fall in love with at least a bit to make the stories more convincing.) I enjoy envisioning the settings and mulling over just the right words to use in each sentence. If I could stay down my writing rabbit hole, I’d probably be the happiest woman ever! But of course, I can’t stay down there. I’m a writer, but I’m also a mom, a wife, and I work full-time as a magazine editor. My mind may be floating off in world of romance, but my feet are firmly planted in the real world—and every now and then, the real world breaks your heart.
My heart was broken back in May when I found out Harlequin Books was shutting down many of its category romance lines, including its only exclusive African-American romance line, Kimani. I was surprised at how hard I took it, considering I had never published with them. But I knew several authors who had written for the line. I loved their works. I applauded their good reviews and retweeted their release dates. I encouraged other aspiring black romance authors to submit to Kimani.
So I was devastated when I heard one of the few African-American romance lines in the book industry with the exception of one or two others was shuttering its doors. What would happen to all those voices and all those stories? How would this affect the black readers searching for romances featuring people who looked like them?
Sure, some would go to other imprints or publishing houses though, let’s honest, many don’t publish black romance authors. And many of the authors could self-publish. Thanks to publishing platforms, those authors can release ebooks.
But according to the Pew Research Center, though the percentage of adults who read an ebook climbed to 28% in 2014, those who reported reading a print book in 2014 was 69%—making print still the most popular format by a sizeable margin. And though predictions said that ebook market share would continue to grow, it’s actually done the opposite. The Association of American Publishers reported e-book sales had declined 18.7% over the first nine months of 2016, while paperback sales were up 7.5% over the same period and hardback sales increased 4.1%.
Now, by presenting these statistics, I’m not trying to put down ebooks. (I publish in both ebook and paperback formats.) I’m presenting the stats to show that ebook self-publishing isn’t the magical quick fix to address the racial disparity in romance that’s created by imprint closures like Kimani. Plus, I don’t think it’s a positive trend when store bookshelves become more bereft of brown faces on the covers. It sends a clear message, and not a good one.
But I can’t change the real world, only the fictional worlds I’ve created. I’ll keep imagining, keep writing, and keep publishing. I’ll also keep encouraging other black romance authors to do the same.
Does category romance engage with issues? Why and how?
There seems to be a perception among non-romance readers (all over the world) that the romance genre is all fluff and no substance. I have been reading romances for a long time and I beg to differ. Under the guise of a breezy romance, category romance writers have been engaging with serious societal issues.
As a writer of romance novels (two of which were published in India by Mills & Boon) I have touched upon issues that are relevant in modern Indian society.
For instance in Trouble Has a New Name, the protagonist Rayna Dutt is a modern Indian woman who is trying to make it big in the competitive world of modelling and leads an independent lifestyle that her family looks down upon. How she overcomes their opposition and makes a mark for herself is one of the sub-themes of the book.
Another sub-theme that the book tackles is that of the bias against ‘dark complexioned’ girls. Open any newspaper in India and you are bound to find column upon column of matrimonial ads from men “seeking fair brides”. I chose to break the mould of a fair-and-lovely heroine with a protagonist who is a model with a dark complexion. There is even a scene in the book where she takes a stand on the issue.
Similarly, the plot of my latest book No Safe Zone, a romantic thriller, deals with the grim topic of child and women trafficking. The protagonist, Qiara Rana, is a lawyer and an activist who takes it upon herself to rescue a girl who has been trafficked.
This is going to sound corny as hell, but I love my job. I really do. There are few professions in the world where you’re allowed such flexibility. Or where you can sit at home in your pajamas or sweats or a ratty T-shirt and make a living while making up stories. But that’s my job as a romance author.
Despite loving my career, I had to learn a few things along the way that didn’t fit into the “norms” of the writing industry. Specifically, I’m a Black woman writing romance about Black women, and that can result in a different experience.
I never always wanted to be a writer but was an avid reader, and the over-the-top fantasy storyline of princes, millionaires, and super alpha males of the Harlequin Presents line had entertained me for years. When I submitted my first novella, The Arrangement, to a small press in 2010, I paid homage to that line of books, but I changed one detail. Instead of pairing the sexy Latin hero with a white woman, I made my heroine Black.
That first book started me on my journey as a published author, and ever since, the ideas haven’t stopped coming. Over the years, I’ve written for three e-presses and participated in an anthology for Harlequin Kimani, but most of my releases have been self-published. I’ve learned quite a bit along the way. What I’ve learned you’ve probably heard from plenty of other authors, but I share my thoughts through the unique lens of being a Black author.
Lesson 1: Ignore the naysayers. There was a time when I was told that Black romance (romance with two Black leads) doesn’t sell. Yep, you read that correctly. Back in 2011, before I self-published my first African-American title, it was not uncommon to hear that statement from industry folks. Lucky for me, I didn’t listen to the naysayers. Instead, I trusted my instincts, my own observations, and my desire to write a compelling story with two Black leads. After all, Black authors had been writing and selling black romance for decades—long before I decided to try. The first book in the Hawthorne Family series was The Temptation of a Good Man, and the follow up books in the series did very well, exponentially growing my readership as a result.
Lesson 2: Know your market. There’s a lot of advertising advice available on the internet, in books, on podcasts, etc. But as a Black author, I have to be selective and extract what applies to me, while ignoring what doesn’t. If I’m interested in a blog tour, I’ve learned to seek out niche blogs with readers anxiously awaiting books with characters who look like them. These venues are not always easy to find because they don’t get the same fanfare as larger blogs, but the hosts are welcoming and supportive, and it’s worth the effort to find these hidden gems.
I’m proud of the body of work released by me and my Black colleagues every year. We write contemporary romance, historical romance, and everything in between. My own characters are as diverse as Black people are, coming in different shades, sizes, and backgrounds. My heroines include a teacher, a biomedical engineer, a waitress, and a business owner. My heroes run the gamut as well, and include business owners, a furniture maker, an astrophysicist, and a family of billionaires who run a beer and restaurant conglomerate. People who look at the covers of our books, see dark skin and immediately assume the book is not for them, are missing out.
My road to becoming a romance writer isn’t unusual. I started reading romances when I was around thirteen, fell in love with love, and have been reading romances ever since. I always wanted to write romances, too. I hand wrote two novels in high school and hoped that one day I would be a romance writer. Well, life happened: college, marriage, kids. My dreams of writing romance dwindled, but I still loved to read romance. I'd read about dukes, duchesses and viscounts mostly and also noticed I a hard time finding romances with people who looked like me.
In college, I had a brief stint with urban romance and urban fiction. I devoured those stories mostly because they featured characters of color, but after a while, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t live that life, and even though the books may have contained romance it wasn’t always the guaranteed happy ending I wanted.
When I finally got the kick in the tail to pursue my writing dream, my goal was to write romances with characters that reflected the friends and family who surrounded me.
When I tapped into the romance writing community, I finally discovered romances with people of color. I know that may sound crazy, but I didn’t know a thing about Goodreads groups or websites dedicated to connecting readers to books featuring diverse characters. I devoured books by Delaney Diamond, Sharon Cooper, Candace Shaw, and Farrah Rochon. Romances featuring people living, falling in love, and overcoming obstacles who just happened to be people of color. I’ve been lucky since I came into the romance community.
I haven’t experienced some of the horror stories other authors of color have. No one has told me my characters were too black or not black enough. I’ve gotten help, support, and encouragement from black and white authors. The biggest obstacle I’ve noticed has been discoverability.
I remember the days when I had no clue who Brenda Jackson was—yes that’s true. If I, a person who devoured romances, didn’t know who she was before I joined the community, then that means there are plenty of other readers out there who don’t know me and may never find me.
When you search African American or multicultural romance on some websites the list is full of urban romance. Not to knock those books, but that wasn’t what I was looking for when I went searching. Someone who wants to read a straight up romance novel is less likely to find my books if I’m buried under so much?
The other obstacle is getting my books not just in front of black readers but non-black readers. I have readers who aren’t black, yet when I’m promoted by a publisher it’s just to the African-American audience. Not that that’s bad, but if I’m never even put in front of all readers how can someone realize my books are about regular people falling in love if it’s always promoted as “other” or just for black people?
Despite the obstacles, I still love reading and writing romance. I have hope that something good will come for the push for more diversity in romance. That one day readers will pick up a romance just because the story sounds great, or the author is someone they love and it doesn’t matter the color of the author of the characters. Hopefully, I’ll still be cranking out stories when that day comes.
I’ve been a writer from the time that I can remember. I wrote my first book at six, and it was published in our (very small) public library. By the time I hit high school, I’d abandoned the short-lived idea of becoming a marine biologist, and knew that I wanted to be a journalism major. Yes, it was partly because of the science and math involved with becoming a biologist but mostly it was because even then I knew that my talent was with words. Yes, I loved the ocean and its vastness and beauty but that didn’t mean I had to study it---I could write about it.
By the time I entered college, I knew for sure that I wanted to write for magazines because there seemed to be more creative freedom there than in traditional print newspapers. But all the while, even after I got my first job as a writer at a weekly entertainment publication, I knew that I wanted to publish books. Part of my desire to write was to simply be a voice. Writing is obviously a creative outlet for me—it’s cathartic. But it’s also important.
I have a perspective and opinion about music, and hip-hop, and pop culture, and politics and social justice issues, and love and what it means to be a woman, and especially a black woman. I wanted to share that I wanted share with the world. I wanted to share an underserved perspective with folks that could maybe lead to more understanding, healing and in some cases a resolution. I think that idea applies to the work I’ve done in journalism as a music/entertainment and arts/culture writer, as well as my romance books.
When independent publishing became a viable, easily accessible option for me, I started publishing books. But even that was propelled not just by my desire (and need) to write but because I wanted to serve an underserved market. I started out reading New Adult romance back in 2014, and was just floored and frankly, hurt by the lack of black voices in the genre.
I loved the freedom of the new adult genre- how it shoved aside conventional romance tropes in favor of more realistic storylines and flawed, well-rounded heroines finding their way through life and love but I wondered why none of those voices, none of those heroines were black? When I wrote my debut novel, Better Than Okay, which went on to be nominated for an independent writing award (RONE Award), that need to fill a void was definitely a catalyst for me to write. Since then, I’ve started a series about black alternative-soul college band and have written several more contemporary and new adult romances.
My journey as a romance writer has somewhat mirrored my journey through life as a black woman living in a society that often distorts, minimizes or outright silences our voices. While I have readers that extend beyond black women, they are scarce, which is sad. If I can relate to the humanity in a story featuring a white heroine, why can’t white women do the same?
Still, the reward is not just in the sales and reviews, but in knowing that I touched someone with my words—rather through simple entertainment or because my writing uplifted them and made them approach life a little differently. There are few things cooler than that.
Black romance authors that I would recommend reading are those that explore black women who don’t fit the typical characterizations assigned to us, who explore love and life in a meaningful yet entertaining way and who chuck aside old romance conventions in favor of a great story, even when it gets super real. My author suggestions are: Nia Forrester, Rae Lamar, Lily Java, Delaney Diamond and Blu Daniels/Tiffany Jackson.
The joy of finding my voice in writing was that I discovered I liked the way it sounded; the way it came alive. The heartbeat of it was love and the breath of it my experiences and the color of it was my own. I don’t think about being a writer of African descent while I’m writing my stories; not at all. In fact, being reminded of the color of my skin isn’t something that happens until I step foot outside my house and interact with those not quite like me in appearance and when I watch what’s happening in the world to people who do look like me, but in my home at my computer, I am me, Aja. And it just so happens that the experiences I’ve had are shaped by who I am culturally, and those things about me, I give my characters. Those things, give the fictional, life.
Writing romance as a woman of color is me writing my heart in words and handing it over to those like me or those interested in my story, and hoping that they can find themselves in it, and maybe they will since the thin rope that binds us all is in fact our human race with our subgroups connecting us further. But even though I don’t think about my color when I write, I know the person that looks at my covers, does. The person that cracks the seal on it and starts down that road of my love story—they see it and they reach out to me once finished to tell me how the experience I wrote of was one they connected to in that sacred place—in their heart.
Being a black woman, writing stories about people of color falling in love, is me giving love to those who may need it most. Those people who don’t see enough of those images of brown and black skin coming together not from oppression and pain… tragedy, but us coming together to touch and to feel, and to heal and to make love, and to start a life together and to have children and that cycle being repeated until the end of time. It is about fostering the hope and belief that there is such a thing of happily ever after that belongs to us. Those things, that I share in my words, bring them love even if fictional and their enjoyment of it, in turn returns love back to my voice in writing so that I can do it again and again. And so, maybe me writing romance as a black woman is really about me…loving myself.
You know how when you accomplish something how proud you are of yourself? How shocked are you at getting it done? And the relief you feel that all those pep talks you gave yourself weren’t for not. That what you thought, was true you can and did climb that mountain.
Well, that is what I have felt every single time I released one of my 30 books. Every single time.
See I was a single mother, a baby momma, a bitter black woman, and every other negative stereotype society could think to put on me. I was born to a 17-year-old mother and wasn’t supposed to amount to anything. That was the narrative that even my mother bought into as time went on.
So for me to do something that I always dreamed of doing, something that is well respected and revered, on my own, every single time book that I release is a gratefulness, and blessing that is indescribable. I am grateful to God for every key stroke, every plot, every character he allows me to create.
However just as I am happy with the entire book writing process, I am also pissed off at the “business” of writing.
From the other authors that write bad mouthing your story, or outright telling lies because they are afraid of a little competition. To the friends, family, and fans of other authors leaving bad reviews on your book, even though they haven’t read it. To a company as large as Amazon and a man a wealthy as Jeff Besos plotting to STEAL from independent authors because they don’t have the support to fight the dirty underhanded things they are doing.
To the racial tension of society and all the ignorance of small minded angry people preventing them from reading your book simply because your characters are of another race or you are of a race, religion or creed they don’t like or care for.
However, none of this would make me stop writing. Why you ask
Because as an author I can write stories that can affect change. I can be a voice that says I know it looks like this, but maybe, just maybe it’s like this. I can help a little girl who doesn’t think anyone can understand her and what she is going through, see a story that will make her feel connected and not so alone.
My grandmother uses to say there is power in words. As a grew up as a child I didn’t understand what that meant.
I mean there is a schoolyard song that says, sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you, so wouldn’t that be a contradiction?
I believe it’s true. Words can hurt, and help. I choose to use my ability to create a story to help.
The heroine in every book I’ve written, is a plus size, African American, successful woman. She had a life, friends, family, and people she loves, and now thankfully she is at the point where she can say, I am ready to find love. I refuse to cater to the stereotypes of what society thinks black women are. The way that a lot of us have decided to allow ourselves to be seen on TV, the internet and in movies in order to make money. I refuse to create women that demean the women that I love and adore and have respect for, simply because I believe it may sell more books.
I have given myself that responsibility and I take it seriously.
As I go along on the journey as an author, I connect with many people, people I probably would have
never looked up to notice had I not realized God had given me a story to tell.
What is my experience as an author?
Good, Bad or Indifferent, it has been amazing, and I am a better woman for having traveled this road.
What is there to say about writing as an author of color that hasn’t already been said countless times? I struggled with what to write for this Pink Heart Society blog post―what tips to impart, which diverse authors and inclusive books to recommend, how to underscore the importance of happily ever afters for everyone. It’s a lot to cover and a lot to think about. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Because every time you turn around, there’s a another book with harmful portrayals of marginalized people, another movie or TV show whitewashed (I'm looking at you Ghost in the Shell and Death Note), or another white author profiting from their privilege.
So what I want to talk about today is fostering hope. How do we maintain optimism when it seems like the odds are against us, when the libraries and bookstores still shelve us separately, when the mid-list has room for hundreds of white, straight, cis authors but LGBTQIA POC folk have to be the Highlander, the Only One?
I, for one, try to take heart at every success my peers achieve. Alexis Daria finaling in the RWA Golden Heart contest for Take the Lead. Zoraida Córdova netting a six-figure deal from Disney Hyperion for a new series and having her YA smash Labyrinth Lost optioned by Paramount. Alisha Rai’s Hate to Want You coming out from Avon this month. Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union taking Romancelandia by storm. None of this happened overnight. These talented women have worked for years, have earned every bit of their success. It reminds us that deals don’t fall into our laps, no matter what Hallmark movies and Jane the Virgin like to tell us. Life isn’t about presenting you publishing contracts with bows ― even to authors with privilege, though it certainly might seem that way when another celebrity signs a hefty book deal.
So, you have to maintain hope. It can happen. It will happen. Just keep at it. Don’t give up. (I realize this is hilarious, considering how often I consider throwing in the towel. Do as I say, not as I do.)
I also maintain hope by reading, boosting, and buying―by supporting with my own dollars. Because, as writers, you can’t expect support if you’re not supporting others. (It’s the ciiiiircle of life.) And also because reading, immersing ourselves in these stories, is how we remind ourselves that our stories our valid. We all deserve an escape. We all deserve a happy ending. So, I’ve devoured Ruby Lang and Sabrina Sol’s contemporary romances, Jeannie Lin is probably my favorite historical romance author of all time. Sonali Dev’s books for Kensington just keep getting better and better. Santino Hassell makes me fall in love with New York City anew every time I pick up one of his Five Boroughs books. These books are out there―by us, for us, and also for everyone.
Because you know what gives me the most hope...? Young readers. There is a vast and vibrant sea of readers out there, hungry for diverse and inclusive books―and demanding representation! They want stories by authors of color, stories by queer authors, stories by disabled writers, and their dollars prove that. Their presence at book events and conferences proves that. Their engagement on social media proves that. If we write it, they will come.
And if we keep going, keep writing, keep hoping and keep fighting, they will stay.
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