In her second novel, “Dating Ryan Alback”, J.E. Birk blends a pretty serious issue into what is for all intents and purposes a sweet and light romance. In her story, Jason, one of the main characters is a public high school teacher in Colorado. He is also trying very hard to start a nonprofit that will provide support to students whose parents have either been deported or are at risk of deportation due to their immigration status. When I read the novel, I was struck by how deeply J.E. went into the issue of immigration and how our current policies are disrupting and some times tearing apart families, all over the country.
When I decided to explore the presence of social justice themes in romance, I wanted to intentionally look at topics that were not about LGBT rights. I think it is important to broaden the outlook of the social justices issues that fit in romance, and that there there are vast numbers of ways in which injustice and oppression can intersect in a person’s life.
Immigration or the treatment of undocumented persons in the U.S. is a topic that comes up occasionally in romance. An though it is a tricky subject, I think the authors who choose to write about it do so because it has somehow touched their lives personally. I think this makes a difference in how the story is approached. They seem authentic and heartfelt.
The topic of immigration has been a hot one for awhile now in this country. I found it particularly brave for J.E., a newer author, to decide to go with this story line. So I asked a couple of questions about why she went in this direction with her second novel.
Here is what J.E. had to say…
The Tipsy Bibliophile: In your latest novel, “Dating Ryan Alback”, one of your two main characters is a public high school teacher, on the side he is working on starting a nonprofit that will support kids who have undocumented parents. What struck me the most about this, was not just that you chose to put forth such a controversial issue in our country right now, but that it was such an important part of the story. You could have been vague about what the program was about, who it would help, and it would have still made the character likable. Why was it important to you to highlight this issue to the degree that you did?
J.E. Birk: That’s a great question. The weird thing is that I never even considered making the nonprofit vague. Jason teaches in southwest Denver, where I used to teach, and this issue was/is hugely important to students and the entire community there. It just made sense to me that Jason, who cares deeply for his students, would tackle this particular issue if he was going to start any kind of nonprofit in that area.
I’ll never forget the first time one of my students told me their mother had just been deported and they were worried they’d never see her again. A lot of my teaching life is in Jason, so he too has never been able to forget that moment.
TTP: As a romance reader (and an social justice advocate IRL) I am always surprised when social justice topics are done well in the stories I read. However it is not a common practice to explore these issues in romance. Do you think there is more space in the to explore injustices and difficult topics?
J.E. Birk: Many people have asked why I chose to add this subplot to a story which is largely very fluffy and feel-good in nature. I personally think social injustices should be explored everywhere, especially in the books we read more for entertainment and escape purposes…because when we read those books we are at our most relaxed. We’re more likely to be able to separate ourselves from the politics and simply consider the issue on a humane and real-world level. I too love when romance novels tackle social justice topics, and I actively seek those novels out when I’m looking for my next read.
Like I mentioned earlier this theme has been occasionally done in gay romance. Most recently Heidi Cullinan went deeply into it in her sequel to “Dance With Me”, “Enjoy The Dance”. I think this another book that does this topic justice, and recommend it highly.
If you would like to read “Dating Ryan Alback” you can buy it HERE.
If you want to know a little bit more about immigration and how you could help organizations that are assisting families. the ACLU has great resources and information HERE.
Thank you for reading my Social Justice In Romance Series, if you this is the first post you read, there are three earlier posts which explore other social justice themes to read, you can start HERE.
Thank you to Roan Parrish, KJ Charles and J.E. Birk for the amazing conversation, and I hope this has sparked some chats within our community of readers and authors.
My hope is to do a series like every month…My next one will be on Trauma. How do authors research and write characters with severe trauma? So stay tuned!
Cheers and Happy Reading!