I’ve never gone on a rant on this blog, which frankly is surprising since I seem to spend most of the time in breathless outrage lately. When it comes to the world of romance readers and authors I usually try to keep things in perspective, I adjust my expectations and try (for the most part) to appreciate it for the joy reading this genre brings me. I am a devoted fan of romance. It’s the part of my life that I always find myself defending to my loved ones. Explaining and educating them on how rich it is with smart and thoughtful books. That they are wrong to generalize what romance is or what I get out of reading these novels.
I tell them how much more enlightened we are compared to most literary communities, that we get to read books with heroes an heroines who are fearless and brazen in their pursuit of happiness. As Damon Suede one of the most popular gay romance authors out there likes to say, “romance is the literature of hope.”
There is so much about this genre that I love, and yet every so often I feel so slighted and frankly hurt by the lack of care there is when it comes to the representation of people of color. Not to mention the teeny tiny number of authentic heroes and heroines of color in romance. I am not saying there aren’t some out there, there are. Amazing ones actually. Unfortunately we are still along for the ride in many ways, just happy to be remembered.
What brought on my rant today was a recent event put on by one of the biggest, if not the biggest independent bookstore in NYC, a bookstore I love, go to all the time and that always puts on awesome and thoughtful events. Being a voracious reader in pretty much all genres, this store is basically the equivalent of my book Cathedral. So, when I saw that they were having an event on “Feminism and Romance” I was thrilled, my two passions together. When I saw the authors that would be on the panel, I was even more excited, all of them are wonderful, and I’ve read many of their books. Then at a second glance, I realized they are all white women. A conversation about feminism in romance and not a single woman of color on the panel. In New York City, in 2017, it was not possible to find a Black, Latina or Asian woman who writes romance who could come and speak on her thoughts about feminism and romance.
It was disappointing to say the least, and discouraging. Not because I don’t think that the women who were on the panel did not have important things to say on feminism (on the contrary from what I saw on the clips it seemed like a great conversation) but because once again our voices just did not seem to be important enough to have seat at the table. In one of the clips from the event on Instagram, (I watched them since I decided to skip the event), one of the authors talked about the need for intersectionality in romance. As much as I vehemently agree with her, I could not help but notice the irony. Because she is right, we do need more intersectional characters in romance, and a good place to start is more people of color and minorities being part of the conversation.
Romance like so much of what out is out there for women’s consumption is solidly grounded on an Eurocentric and White (and patriarchal) perspective. This is something which cannot be dismantled just by hugging it out, or by saying we’re all about the love. These narratives and paradigms run deep and we have to do the work to break from them. To make romance more inclusive and well represented by all ALL kinds of people. I am not going to go further into my views on cultural imperialism (although maybe I should), but I will challenge this community to take a harder look at how we go about things. To be honest about who makes up our community, as opposed to who gets to speak for it. Whose voices do we consider to have value? Who gets to define what romance means to all of us?
I was at another literary panel last month, it was a panel called Badass Women: Speaking Your Power, put on by the PEN World Voices Festival, all the panelists were women who belonged to minorities, it was a powerful conversation and one where the challenge was made: “We are here. What we have to say has value. We are ready for the invitation, but if you can’t see that we won’t do the work for you.”
It is on all of us as a community readers, authors, reviewers, bloggers, publishers, editors, cover artists, ALL of us to start asking these questions. Why am I at a panel on Feminism and Romance and there is not a single woman of color here? How are minorities represented in the genres’ leadership positions? Is there value in adding their voices? Really, that question needs to be asked, and there needs to be action in the answer. Because, sadly I think that for many in the genre, getting the answer to that question right is not nearly as important as we’d like it to be.
Personally, I’d love to be say that I believe there is will in the genre as a whole to be more inclusive, to see more of us represented. The reality on the other hand is that I am an Afro-Caribbean, immigrant woman, who has read thousands of romance novels and very very few of them have a heroine that looks like me. As the author from the panel on feminism said, despite how far we have come, we have a long road ahead. I hope that soon we can start having the conversations which will start paving a way with room for more of us.