#ViveLaDifference: Religion and Romance
This month the Pink Heart Society is welcoming authors from all kinds of backgrounds as they talk about writing romances with religious protagonists.
Medeia Sharif : Religion and Romance Writing
I don’t write religious romantic leads, but I do write romantic leads who observe their religion. My main characters do not heavily read the Koran or go to mosques, but they consider themselves Muslim. Religion is experienced at different gradients. There are people who cover their heads all the time, while others do so occasionally or not at all. There are people who observe every single holiday, while others don’t. Some people are extremely well-versed in holy knowledge, while others aren’t.
Two of my works, Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. and Snip, Snip Revenge, fall under the category of having main characters who observe their religion, but not to the fullest. They weren’t raised to—religion is often transferred from parent to child—and they’re eager to fit into an American lifestyle (not to say that you can’t be religious and American). They are my first two young adult books and they both have female Muslim characters exploring romance.
I never saw an obstacle writing these two books. I follow my heart and throw myself into the writing process. I rarely get writer’s block. My reading tastes have changed over the years—I read more nonfiction and middle grade now—but at the time of writing those books, I read plenty of romance, both adult and young adult. I encountered romantic movies and books with Christian and Jewish main characters. Some of these stories even happened during the holidays. There are plenty of romantic stories that have a Christmas setting.
One chick lit book that sticks in my mind is Matzo Ball Heiress by Laurie Gwen Shapiro, which had some romantic fun during the Jewish holiday of Passover. People experience romance during the holidays. It’s realistic. When I wrote my books, I had all of those stories in mind. They were light and fun. Why not do the same, except with Muslim characters?
In the back of my mind, I almost wanted to censor myself. What if people didn’t understand my work? But I don’t want to inhibit my writing. I don’t ignore my ideas, so I keep writing. Obviously, others won’t always share my vision. Once a book is out in the world, everyone reacts to it differently. One reviewer called my main character young and naïve, while another too sexual because she had a crush and actively pursued the boy. Some reviewers thought my work was cute, while others disrespectful to Islam. Dealing with reviewers is a whole other issue, though. Everyone sees things through their own lens.
As far as characterization goes, for both books I aimed for normal characters ready for romance. I didn’t see myself doing anything differently from what other authors did. There was like at first site, flirtation, the pursuit, mixed signals, obstacles, sweet words, lingering caresses, breathtaking first kisses…I used typical romantic elements in my young adult writing. My characters were teenagers, and they weren’t any different from teenagers of different faiths. Dealing with teenagers from all sorts of backgrounds, I see this in real life. They all have their universal desires and issues.
My advice to writers who are creating main characters of any religion is to go with your instinct about sticking with a book idea, keep writing, and go with the flow of the process, which includes using feedback from beta readers and industry professionals. For readers, read the books if you want to view different perspectives. If you feel like the work won’t interest you or will trigger you in some way, then don’t read the books. I’ve read reviews that start out with “I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this book” and “from the cover and first few pages I knew this book would make me angry.” Okay, then the book isn’t for you. It doesn’t mean that book won’t satisfy someone else. Either way, I hope both writers and readers have open minds for these characters and where the plots take them.
Sara Taylor Woods: Faith, Judaism and Romance
My decision to make the main character of Hold Me Down Jewish was deliberate, even though I knew it would bring some unique challenges. Since there aren’t that many of us—less than two percent of the US population, as of 2010—I had to consider that my fictional Talia Benson would be many readers’ first exposure to a Jewish person. As well as serving as the narrator and the protagonist, she also had to function as an ambassador: she had to be relatable and approachable, the narrative had to be patient and authentic, and the dialogue had to be illustrative without being pedantic.
While about one in five Jews is secular—culturally rooted without religious investment, though no less Jewish—Talia is not, so it was necessary to address both her Jewishness and her Judaism. The first chapter establishes her regular observance of Shabbat, including attending services and abstaining from most (but not all) work. When the hero, Sean Poole, asks her out the first time, he suggests Friday night—when Shabbat begins—and she turns him down even though they can’t immediately figure out an alternative. As interested as Talia is in seeing him again, she unequivocally prioritizes her observance over a man she’s just met:
Yes: instead of going out with hot, forearmy Sean Poole on Friday night, I went to synagogue…. Sean could wait. And if Sean wouldn’t wait, then I’d find someone who would.
Talia lives in South Carolina, and a reality of her life is that the only other Jews she knows are her family and those she seeks out in a specifically Jewish setting. Neither Sean nor her longtime best friend Mallory are Jewish, and while Mallory is more fluent in Jewish tradition than most non-Jews, she still can’t translate Hebrew phrases on the fly. When Talia tries to explain to Mallory how rules make her feel safe, how she needs direction to feel secure, she ends up using a number of Hebrew terms that are recognizable to many Jews, but leave many non-Jews in the dark.
“I need rules,” I said. “I need no work on Shabbos and no bacon and teshuvah and tikkun middot and fasting and…I need to know when I’m outside them.”
Shabbos is the Yiddish pronunciation of Shabbat; teshuvah is repentence; tikkun middot is the practice of bettering oneself. But the literal translation in this case isn’t the important part; it’s the authenticity of the interaction. It’s that Talia’s brain supplies her with the Hebrew, not the English—and it’s not an isolated incident.
While she struggles to reconcile her desire for pain and dominance, the only approval she seems sure of is God’s. Her only faith-based concern about her relationship is that Sean isn’t Jewish.
Judaism doesn’t tell you how to have sex, only that doing it with your spouse is kiddushin, sanctified. It’s holy. Having a joyful physically intimate relationship with your spouse is a blessing.
So sex with Sean wouldn’t be holy. Okay. But who says the opposite of holy is evil? The Torah never explicitly tells us not to have sex outside of marriage, only that sex within marriage is sanctified.
Jewish holidays and observances aren’t tied to the Julian calendar, so bridging that gap was necessary. Fall midterms came around the same time as the eight-day festival of Sukkot, and the last day before spring break also happened to be the day after Purim. Our holidays often precipitate a great deal of reflection, and it was imperative to have Talia’s reconciliation of her sexual desires tie into that. She speaks about forgiveness on Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. A few days after Purim in the spring, she lets Esther’s courage bolster her. During Passover, an eight-day festival in the spring that commemorates our liberation from bondage in Egypt, she comes to some contextually significant realizations about slavery and freedom.
Of course, what’s not in the narrative is just as important as what is. Her worldview will never be framed by Christian doctrine or theology or holidays—she won’t reference confessing sins (we don’t do that) or a sacrifice-based absolution of sin (we don’t believe that). Her December nostalgia won’t include bringing trees inside or singing carols or strings of electric lights; it’s frying oil and chocolate coins and miracles and rebellion and the smallest lights beating back the dark.
Judaism and Jewishness isn’t limited to how we view the Almighty, and it’s not just the difference between reading the New Testament and not. It’s a sense of self imbued in us from the day we’re born, an identity both tied to and separate from that of our country of citizenship. In a story about girl reconciling her desires with her worldview, it’s important to know that her Jewishness is just as much a part of her as her sexuality.
Jill Kemerer: Romance Protagonists from Different Backgrounds
While romance novelists have never shied away from tackling hot topics in their books, mainstream romance novels rarely include faith or religion as a prominent theme. But publishers realized a niche audience wanted spirituality in their books, so a separate genre evolved—Christian fiction. Most large publishing houses have a Christian imprint. Harlequin, a division of Harper Collins Publishing, publishes Christian romance novels through Love Inspired. Each month Love Inspired releases six contemporary romance novels, six romantic suspense novels, and four historical romance novels. These books feature characters growing in their faith as they open their hearts to love.
Protagonists in Christian romance novels have real problems like everyone else. They struggle to trust in love. They have painful pasts preventing them from fully embracing their future. Their goals might collide with the goals of their romantic interest. Heroines and heroes typically pray through problems, read Scripture, attend church, or have conversations with friends about their faith. By the end of the book, the hero and heroine have reconciled their spiritual issues and found a deeper trust in God as a result of falling in love with each other.
Writing faith-based romance can be tricky. Readers don’t want a preachy sermon—well, really, who does?—and books that too easily wrap up complex faith issues are criticized for not being authentic.
Some readers protest any sensuality and prefer the characters not show physical affection. Many readers of this genre do expect a clean, sweet read, as it’s the CBA’s (Association for Christian Retail) promise to their audience. Within this context, to include premarital sex would be a breach of contract between the Christian reader and author. On the flip side, another way to offend readers is if they’re turned off by faith or religion and they don’t realize the book is written from a Christian viewpoint. This is one reason why religious fiction often has its own section at brick and mortar bookstores.
While most Christian romances on shelves today feature Caucasian characters unaffiliated with a specific denomination, the boundaries are expanding with characters of different races. Love Inspired recently released a novel with a black heroine and white hero in Reunited at Christmas by Belle Calhoune. Belle has also published the Seven Brides, Seven Brothers series which features grown foster kids of different nationalities. Debut author, Patricia Beal, showcases her international roots by including characters of various nationalities in A Season to Dance published by Bling! Romance.
Diversity Between the Pages is a terrific resource for readers who want more diversity in their Christian romance novels. For a detailed list of such books, check out “Diverse Book Recommendations” compiled by Toni Shiloh. Toni writes Christian romance with characters of different races, and Finding Love, the second book in her Maple Runs series, releases this month.
Amish fiction continues to remain popular with Christian readers. People gravitate toward Amish stories because of the unique problems the characters face in today’s society as well as the lure of a simpler way of life. Love Inspired regularly publishes Amish books across all their lines. Their Pretend Amish Courtship by Patricia Davids is on sale now.
One of the main misconceptions about Christian fiction is that authors are trying to convert every non-religious reader through heavy-handed preaching. Writers do their best to convey faith as realistically as possible without writing a sermon. People’s lives are messy, and Christian characters reflect this.
Today’s readers of Christian romance novels want to grow in their faith, and they want books that show imperfect characters triumphing over their problems. More than anything, these readers want a good romance. Watching two people falling in love is the main event, and it should be. Faith is just one part of the story. The warm, fuzzy feeling of the happily ever after is the reason readers keep coming back for more.
Aleksandr Voinov: Pagans Walk Among Us
I’m not even sure what started it – possibly a discussion with one of my friends about representation and acceptance of us LGBTQ+ folks in the wider pagan culture. See, I’ve always been interested in “other” faiths, by which I mean faiths outside the Abrahamic-Christiano-Islamic triad (I know, not a technical term). As such, it was only a matter of time until my characters would reflect that.
I’ve written about deeply faithful Christians in a contemporary setting, convinced atheists in a fantasy setting, and several things in between, but I hadn’t written about the expressions of faith that I encounter most often in my inner circle – pagans, witches, heathens, shamans, and various other flavours of magick users. Even the corporate coaches and hypnotherapists I studied with, would, given a glass of wine after the workshop, talk about their interests in, say, Huna, and various past-life experiences.
At first, I shied away from it; it’s not easy to step out of the “broom closet” and tell random people on the internet about your faith, especially as it’s iterative, changing, developing – for me, faith is trial and error and a search for “what works” and specifically “what works for me”. Also, the internet is a strange place, and you do get folks “praying to Jesus for your soul” if you say the wrong thing. But hey, I’m trans* and queer, so this was just one more thing.
Originally, I was going to write about a tarot reader and his client falling in love. Simple enough – I’ve read the cards for money (or, at times, cake) since I was about 14. Considering how emotionally vulnerable many clients are, I could totally see a romance play out. And tarot is quite accepted, very standard, nothing scary. But then I remembered one thing, namely that witchy people cluster together to be among our own kind and because then we can talk about these things without encountering blank stares. Suddenly, I knew my tarot reader character belonged to a group of similarly interested people – all of them queer. The setting, by contrast, was going to be completely mundane, current day, and a location I know reasonably well: Witches of London was born.
At lunch time, I sat there in a café and made a list of practices I’m familiar enough with to write about them. I’d have a tarot reader, an astrologer, two traditional Wiccans, a corporate NLP coach, a shaman, a Reiki healer/energy worker, and somebody who follows Asatru. Lars, the Asatruar, ended up being the first character I wrote about. What does it take to worship the Norse gods in London, in 2016? I drew from my own experiences and that of my queer compatriots, and also addressed the less lovely aspects (ie, racism and homo- and transphobia in certain unpleasant branches of the faith). I could only join Asatru when I had convinced myself that my organisation (TAC, The Asatru Community) is inclusive and has a zero-tolerance policy towards racists and supremacists of any type.
At this point, this had gone well beyond playing with tarot and the strange and lovely interplay between a reader and a client – I’d seriously entered the world of pagan, heathen and witchy characters, and they lent themselves very well to a little series, tied together by the characters being part of the same circle, or coven.
As much as I loved the idea (enough to devote a few years to write the 6-7 novels it will take), this meant two things for me: One, it was pretty clear I’d have to take a position, at the risk of horrifying somebody out there on the internet, as I was not going to write pagan/witchy characters as anything less than “real”. I was going to write about people like my friends, rather than a freakshow. I was going to write about magickal practices and people not as the usual way “paranormal” romances do – no vampires, werewolves, and pitched fireball-throwing battles on the streets of London. I wanted to write about magick exactly how it’s practiced and how it’s being done, now, today, by me and my friends and teachers – quiet, profound, and very often utterly deniable, but no less real and powerful.
The second thing was, I grew very tired of being a “solitary” – I’ve been a guest of Wiccan covens and I know a few dozen witchy people and am a member of several Facebook groups, but what I really wanted was to form a real-life coven myself. I set that intention, charged it with yearning, cast that spell and made that request to my personal gods. Six months later, I found two witchy friends who were similarly looking and willing to make that commitment, so we teamed up and it’s been working beautifully. Sometimes it takes a book to step out of the broom closet and find your people.
Shosha Pearl: Writing Orthodox Jewish Erotic Romances
I write Orthodox Jewish erotic romance. Jewish laws on sex and relationships provide a great source of erotic potential. If we take Georges Bataille’s definition of eroticism - which I will outrageously summarise as the way in which we rub up against that which we consider spiritually taboo - then there is plenty of scope for exploring the erotic in Orthodox Jewish life.
I’m not alone in this niche: there’s Adam Arotti who writes Biblical erotica and Orthodox taboo; Jessie Ash and her Orthodox transgender erotica; Jayde Blumenthal’s dirty kosher stories; and Tamsen Parker’s exploration of Orthodox BDSM.
My work focuses on religious Jewish protagonists who keep their expressions of love within the confines of Jewish law. Some of my stories are sweet, some are smutty, but none transgress mainstream Jewish laws on sexual relationships. I do this in the hope that readers of my stories, no mater how religious, can feel confident that they will not be confronted (or turned on) by concepts that may be forbidden to them.
Judaism may have lots of laws about sexual relationships (as well as many other things!), but at its core it has a positive and pragmatic approach to love and sex. Like most religions it prioritises marriage, but it also recognises sex as a primal drive which, when directed appropriately, has tremendous potential for good. In Jewish life, sex is fundamental to a harmonious and productive marriage. In Jewish mystical literature, sexual union can have cosmic manifestations.
The religious observance of my characters is not incidental: it is essential. A story can emerge from a character’s struggle to abide by a particular law and the tension this choice creates for them. For example, if a husband and wife have not touched for a number of days in accordance with Jewish family purity laws, then their abstinence may result in increasing erotic tension as they anticipate the moment in which they will come together again.
Writing in this field has exposed me to creative possibilities that I may not have discovered working in a different genre. The dynamism of relationships is a great example - who knew marriage could be so sexy? For example, in my novella, Her Neighbor’s Pleasure, a sheltered young wife of a rabbi witnesses her neighbours having sex and, in that moment, her understanding of what intimacy can look like is transformed - changing her and her expectations, and turning her marriage upside down. The journey she and her husband then go through is tumultuous, confusing and invigorating. Both are forced into personal growth – and the results, I hope, are both sexy and touching.
The task for writers constructing worlds for religious protagonists is substantial. Many readers of my stories are curious about what happens behind the walls of an Orthodox Jewish home – and, of course, what happens between the marital bed sheets. For readers who come from a different background, an author must create protagonists who are relatable even if their lives and world views appear so different.
On the other hand, religious readers can be sensitive about the way they are portrayed, scrutinising a story and its sense of authenticity. Do the characters seem real? Does this writer understand the world they are portraying? Is there a subtle critique hiding between the lines?
I carry a sense of responsibility about my portrayal of Orthodox life. I am also aware that there are people who believe that religion is repressive and its proponents victims or villains - or both. I try to be sensitive to all perspectives, but ultimately, my aim is to tell stories of love and desire, not to examine the merits or failings of any particular community.
Orthodox Jewish life is a rich – and largely unexplored - source of creative material. While I may not push the envelope as far as Bataille, I do like to investigate how we, as humans with passions and primal drives, travel the lines that are marked out by our beliefs and traditions. After all, no matter who we are, our expressions of love and intimacy will always be influenced by the society in which we live. It is when we dance beside, along or across these lines that story begins.
Avril Tremayne: Researching Religious Protagonists
As 2017 rolled around, I had a special reason to feel excited.
I’d been gradually stepping out of category romance into single title novels with Penguin Random House and I was on the verge of having my first single title print book published.
I consider Now You’re Mine to be my love song to the Middle East. Most particularly, it celebrates the poetry inherent in the Emirati men I met when I lived in the United Arab Emirates – so of course my hero is a Muslim.
I had a stack of personal anecdotes to share at launch time – fish-out-of-water experiences, quirky conversations, charming incidents of the kindness and generosity shown to me – but when a wave of anti-Islam sentiment flooded the world shortly before my book was released, I froze. I was ready to stand my political ground, but I didn’t want to be seen to be leveraging a serious situation for my own gain. Overly sensitive? Yes, I think so, in retrospect, but the thing is, although I’ve never considered Now You're Mine to be an issues-driven book, it’s certainly a story of two worlds colliding – and the reason for the collision is that the hero’s world is Islamic.
Boston born-and-bred Jenna meets Kalan in the Abu Dhabi desert on her first trip outside America and she’s shocked by his world, for example: religion is part of the culture and sharia law is the rule of the land; a man can take four wives; arranged marriages aren’t uncommon; and sex outside marriage is illegal. She gradually comes to the realisation that those things, which are so alien to her, aren’t the sum total of who Kalan is, and that he’s no more stifled in his world than she is in her own much freer one, but at first she can’t see past his differences to a future where they can be together so she rejects any notion of a future.
I was determined to handle the ‘Muslim’ subjects without adding any gloss over the lens, but also minus the outrage some people attach to them. I’d asked a gazillion cultural and religious questions in my time in the UAE and I felt confident enough to represent them authentically – from an outsider-looking-in perspective, at least. But I didn't fool myself that I had all the answers, so when it came time to refine the story, I enlisted one of my ‘local’ UAE friends to guide me and provide a sensitivity check. Where he thought I’d dealt too flippantly with something, I rewrote it - and as with all editing, the book was the better for the rewrites!
I’ll share one specific challenge, concerning the book’s title, as an example. My publisher chose the title Now You’re Mine because Kalan says those words to Jenna at a pivotal moment. Specifically, he says, ‘Alan anti li wahdi’. When Jenna requests a translation, she’s expecting something like ‘sweetheart’ and when she gets ‘Now you’re mine’ instead, she freaks out at the possessiveness of it. My friend was as horrified as Jenna when I shared the phrase and its translation with him. His view that it was too arrogant and demanding – too ‘unequal’. And his view was backed up by an independent translator I consulted as a triple-check: was it my intention for my hero to sound like the typical possessive male people assumed all Arab men to be?
I agonised over this, but in the end, I opted to keep the phrase exactly as it was – because yeah, Kalan, for all his poetry, has a touch of the autocratic about him regardless of his heritage, and because Jenna isn’t the only one in this book with a few lessons to learn…
Tamsen Parker: Researching for a Religious BDSM Romance
Craving Flight is an Orthodox Jewish BDSM erotic romance. Written by me, who is not Orthodox Jewish or Jewish at all, or really any stripe of religious. Which meant the first thing I kept in mind while writing was to do no harm—my goal was to portray a community of which I was not a part as complex and beautiful while still providing the conflict that makes good story-telling. I also wanted to write a book that could be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their knowledge (or lack thereof) of Jewish culture, which meant giving context clues about vocabulary and traditions without the book reading like a religious studies dissertation. It was also important to me to show the hero and heroine as being happy with their choice of religious practice and secure in their beliefs while not being preachy. Taken together, trying to achieve these objectives was not easy, but important.
Wanting to do all of this—and in the space of about two months, because of the parameters of the writing event Craving Flight was penned for—meant trips to the library, asking an Orthodox Jewish friend of mine to provide feedback on cultural content before I even claimed the prompt, a very unusual internet search history, and a trip to an Orthodox neighborhood including meals in strictly kosher restaurants.
I loved writing this book—I’m a permanent student at heart—and I’ve been so proud of how it has been received, particularly by people of the Jewish faith. While I’m always grateful for notes and reviews, the ones that warm my heart the most are the ones which essentially say, “I saw myself.” I love too the ones that say the reader learned something.
The most important thing to do when you’re writing characters of faith is to treat them as you would any of your characters—with nuance and respect, with an understanding of their beliefs and their psychology. It’s not necessary to make them perfect, because that makes for a boring book, but it’s possible to make their flaws personal instead of stereotyping the community to which they belong. People who are religious or practice a certain faith are no more a monolith than any other group of people and should be treated as the individuals they are.
When I write characters of faith, I do my best to write them as realistic and complex, people who have intricate relationships with themselves, others, and the world around them…you know, human. And if they happen to be different from myself, with an extra layer of caution and sensitivity. I am deeply indebted to everyone who brought Craving Flight to life from my cultural reader, my critique partners, the authors of the books I used as references, and the people who created and maintain the web sources I used in my research. I wouldn’t have been able to bring this book to life without any of them.
I would love to see more books outside of Inspirationals that address the role of faith in people’s lives. It’s not something that comes up often in contemporary romance even though faith and religion are frequently part of how people define themselves; it shapes their values, their traditions, their allusions, how they spend their time and resources. In addition to the evangelical Christian market and faith-based romances which have conflicts centered around the characters’ religious beliefs, there’s room for more “casually” religious people as well—those who go to church on Sundays or synagogue on Saturdays, or those who only attend services for their religion’s most central holidays, or perhaps not at all but have still been shaped by the presence of religion in their lives.
Give me Muslim, Quaker, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Pagan, Atheist, Mormon, and other religious romances. Give me characters who are devout and observant, to less so, to not at all. There is so much room in romance for books that represent the world we live in, including but definitely not limited to varying religious beliefs. Books are how people so often learn about a world that is unfamiliar to them, and develop empathy for people who are not like themselves or those they encounter in daily life. Which is why it’s so important to make characters multi-dimensional. We all contain multitudes, and part of that may be our faith.
Do you read/write romance novels which feature more protagonists who observe their religions? Is it something you would like to read?
We want to hear your religious protagonists recommendations! Share them with us in the comments or on social media using the hashtag #ViveLaDifference!
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