Monday, 16 June 2014

Diversity in Romancelandia

Towards a more diverse population in Romancelandia. An aspiring writer’s perspective.

Harlequin Mills & Boon are running a Historical Heroes tournament at present which is a wonderful thing and a great opportunity. But the limited range of heroes suggested by the competition opened up an interesting billy of worms. The question was asked - Where were the opportunities for ethnic heroes when the competition seemed to be asking for British Gentlemen, Knights and Tudor Lords, Vikings and Warriors? Warriors might encompass a broader demographic. But what of Chinese Scholars and Black Businessmen? Are they not heroic enough or are there supposedly none out there?

There has long been a perception that romance is dominated by “white” sensibilities. Looking back over my decades of Harlequin Mills & Boon reading, I have to say they are not entirely wrong. The most exotic of reading might bring a sheikh or even a Turk. But often this alien culture was softened by a French or British mother and frequently an education received at a fine British institution.

Modern contemporary romances are stretching the boundaries. We have Indian heroes and heroines and even a black Frenchman in the Presents lines. Brenda Jackson, a long established author and also a POC (Person of Colour-this is the term being used in the on-line discussion) has a series of romances in the Desire line featuring African-American protagonists but they seem to be a niche even within the mainstream. Sarah M. Anderson is writing Desire romances and others featuring First Nation heroes (Please excuse me if I get the current designation wrong). Special Edition have a few interracial romances. Harlequin even have a dedicated line for interracial and POC romance. I’ve read the Kimani line and as a Aussi with minimal daily contact with American POC I did notice differences in language but otherwise, not much different.

I’ve been puzzling about interracial romance for some time. Because I’m white and I want to write about POC in my romances. Not deliberately as some kind of crusade, but because characters just come that way. The hero in the romance I put up for the Harlequin Sold Blog first page critique is not entirely white. But he isn’t entirely a POC either. With an unknown black father and brought up by a white mother in Australia, his experience would be different to a POC brought up in a family in the US or even England. I feel comfortable in writing about him because his experience is not so far from my own.

What I didn’t feel sure about was where he could be published as he doesn’t fit standard category lines. I looked at a range of digital publishers, mostly US based, wondering if I should try submitting the story to one of them. But when I look at their offerings I noticed something that made me as an Australian, very uncomfortable. Several of the digital publishers have a category “Interracial Romance”. I hadn’t ever considered it as a “thing”.  Without being aware of it, I wrote an interracial romance. In fact I have written several. I have written a story about a Chinese-Australian girl who falls in love with an Italian-Australian boy.

Now I’m worried. Because I wonder if people will look at my stories as some kind of statement. Will they look at my Chinese-Australian girl and see racial stereotypes. Am I a racist because my heroine does Martial Arts? Should I have made her a surfing groupie or something typically “white” just to prove I don’t see her as “different”? Should I not make my Chinese-Australian hero so enigmatic in case it plays into the stereotype of the “inscrutable Oriental”? Should my Italian avoid Pizza and Pasta? Where do I draw the line?

I recently went to see the Georgian era romance “Belle” at the cinemas. (Twice actually, cos I loved it so much.) It is a beautiful romance with such a positive heroine, the illegitimate daughter of a well-born sea captain and a black slave. The slave trade was in the background through her guardian, Lord Mansfield, who as Lord Justice had to pronounce on a significant legal issue with a slave ship, but it was not the primary story. The romance came first and it was lovely, if a little enhanced for the sake of the story. But at that time, in 1783, Lord Mansfield estimated there were 15,000 POC in England, slaves and free in a population of 7.5 million. I suspect many people would say that constitutes only a handful.

Where is the Black Hero?
In the Castonbury Park series published in 2012, Marguerite Kaye, a historical author has written a romance between a white woman and a black former slave set in 1816. I have come across the odd historical romance with a half Indian heroine, but they are rare. Jeannie Lin has a fascinating series of Chinese historical romances in the Harlequin line. In the broader romance community, Beverley Jenkins writes romances with African-American protagonists and First Nation heroes are found more often in American historical romances. I’m sure there are others but they seem to be very much a niche market.

I suppose to be truly diverse, no-one should feel the need to comment when there is a hero or heroine of a difference ethnicity in a mainstream romance. Somehow I can’t see that happening for a while.