For the week around Valentine’s Day, writer Jessica Luther is writing a series of three articles about gender, race, and sexuality in romance novels. Read the first article about diversity in mainstream romance here.
If you are standing in line at the grocery store, you may find yourself face to face with the covers of popular romance novels. Odds are, the characters on the covers of those grocery-store books and the authors who penned them are all white.
But if you take the time to look more deeply and more expansively in the romance genre, you will quickly discover a whole of literature from authors of color and novels starring characters of color.
Three authors of color sat down with me for a roundtable conversation about their experiences writing within the genre, the feedback they have received, and great books with characters of color that you should read.
● Farrah Rochon is an African-American romance author of over a dozen novels and novellas. Her latest novel, Just A Little Taste, explores what happens when a reformed bad boy returns home to win the heart of the woman who got away.
● Rebekah Weatherspoon is a black romance and erotica author whose latest work is At Her Feet, a lesbian BDSM erotic romance. She is also the author of Vampire Sorority series and participated in our first round table on romance novels since she is a contributor at Love In The Margins.
JESSICA LUTHER: When did you first “discover” romance novels that weren’t centered on white people?
Suleikha Snyder: I think the first romances I found that didn't have completely white casts were the sweeping sagas of the late '70s and early '80s, like Michael Korda's Queenie, and M.M. Kaye's Far Pavilions. At the time, I was just reading everything voraciously and it was strange to stumble upon these narratives by white authors about "my people." And then I went on to find more traditional historical romances like Fire on the Wind by Barbara Dawson Smith starring Indian characters, and I was like, "Where are the stories BY Indians about Indians?"
Rebekah Weatherspoon: I think the first one I read was Kate Douglas’ Wolf Tales series. In that story, the heroine is black. Douglas writes multicultural paranormal romance and it’s no big deal. I feel like that is how it should be. She’ll point out when a character is white, too. She doesn’t label “white” as default in her books, which I love.
Farrah Rochon: The first African-American romance I ever read was written by a white author. All of my reading friends were going crazy over this author, Suzanne Brockmann. I was a broke graduate school student at the time so all of my books came from the library. I requested a Suzanne Brockmann title and the librarian handed me Harvard’s Education. When I saw the black couple on the cover I told her she must be mistaken. There was no way my reading friends, all of whom were white, were reading about a black couple. I read the book, fell in love with it, and quickly sought other others. That’s when I ran across Francis Ray’s Someone To Love Me at a used bookstore. The rest is history. Actually, the rest truly is history, because a few years ago I read my first African-American historical romance by Beverly Jenkins, and it completely changed the way I saw the genre. Up until then, historical romances, which I love, consisted of regency-era dukes and the wallflowers who won their hearts. Beverly Jenkins introduced me to independent black women living during the Reconstruction period, and the strong black women of the West who could handle themselves in any circumstance. I was completely enthralled.
How did you come to write romance that has people of color (POC) as the protagonists?
Farrah: My first three novels actually featured white characters and those books remain on my computer collecting cyber dust. The manuscript that eventually did sell was my first romance that featured people of color as the protagonists. Again, it wasn’t a conscious decision, but by then I’d discovered and started to read more African-American romances, so that probably played a part. When the story idea popped in my head, the characters were African-American.
Suleikha: I wasn't brave enough to answer that "Where are the stories BY Indians about Indians?" question by writing any myself until a good 15 years later! And it just came naturally. Why wouldn't my characters be POC? That's what I know. That's who I am. Don't people like me deserve a happy ending, too?
Rebekah: When you’re not white, you experience the world through two different lenses; through your non-white lens, then you’re forced to experience the world through a white lens because that is how the world is presented to you in the western world. My life has always been an inclusive, multicultural life. To look at my friends, to look where I live, it didn’t make much sense to just write white characters. All of my books have multicultural cast of characters and almost all have had interracial couples.
What kind of feedback do you get on your work?
Suleikha: I'm almost lucky that I haven't quite been "discovered" in the three years I've been publishing. So the feedback has been minimal. There's a lot of positive response from those who *have* read my work, certainly, and my publishers have been very supportive of my writing multicultural and interracial romance. But I've yet to find the pearl-clutching, gasping, racist, "How dare you?!" response that I was braced for. I suppose I should keep bracing just in case, huh?
Rebekah: All of my work with my publisher, Bold Strokes Books, has been wonderful. They have been very accepting and open to everything I’ve proposed, even when I thought, “there’s no way in hell they’ll go for this.” The reader reaction has been awesome. I get intimate emails where people will tell me, “I read this book and it changed my year.” I got this amazing email from a black girl who was deployed overseas and she said she had read one of my books and it had made her day. I’ve gotten notes from people, too, saying that they’ve read something of mine and it helped them accept their sexuality. That’s amazing.
Farrah: My readers have been incredibly receptive of my stories. I have my set of diehards who will read my books the day they release, and by the next day are asking for the next story. For years most of my audience was African-American. However, when I ventured into self-publishing, I decided to make my book covers race-ambiguous and I gradually started to gain more and more non-African-American readers. People can read into that statement any way they chose, but it’s a fact. The feedback from most readers, including a huge number of white readers, has been fabulous. They discovered that my stories were engaging, relatable contemporary romances that just so happened to have African Americans as the lead characters.
What are your top three romances that have POC as the protagonists?
Rebekah: Such A Pretty Face by Gabrielle Goldsby. One of the main characters is white butch-ish lesbian. The main character of the story is a plus-sized Latina. Goldsby is a great writer. I’m the biggest Beverly Jenkins fangirl. Anything by Jenkins, you can’t go wrong. I’ve only read her historical but I’ve gobbled them up. She has one set that takes place around the Revolutionary War and she has another group of them that takes place after the Civil War. Vicki Essex has a book called Back To The Good Fortune Diner. Her heroine is Asian-American and the hero is this super hot Chris Hemsworth-looking farmer.
Suleikha: I went through a long, long stretch of reading offensive romances set in India, with half-Indian exotic heroes that made me want to stab myself in the face. Meredith Duran's Duke of Shadows took the knife out of my hand. She got India, understood its people and its beauty and its history, and built a love story without fetishizing anyone. So, that's definitely up there. I also love everything by Jeannie Lin. Her romances set in Tang Dynasty China feature strong heroes and heroines, exquisite language and a completely immersive historical
world. Her latest release, The Jade Temptress, is one of my best reads of 2014 so far. And then there's Meljean Brook's excellent steampunk Iron Seas series, which features POC throughout. Riveted lives up to its name: The love story and adventures of multiracial Annika and David will keep you nailed to your seat from start to finish.
Related Reading: Does Writing Romance Novels Kill Masculinity? No!
Jessica Luther is a writer and activist in Austin, TX. She writes about romance novels at her blog Steel And Velvet.