Social Justice in Romance Series: J.E. Birk Talks Balancing Light Romance with Serious Topics

33632459In  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!

 

Social Justice in Romance Series: KJ Charles talks Political Heroes and Representation in Historical Romance

25241403In her book “A Seditious Affair” KJ Charles gives us a torrid and intense love story between two men who see the world from totally opposing sides. Their views on how society should work, and what justice means are like night and day.

The “opposites attract” trope is tried and true in romance, and yet the story KJ presented to us unusual, it goes deeply into class injustice,  and the atrocities that can be committed by an oppressive state in the name of “the greater good”.  She also explores, the idea that even if two people are on completely opposite sides, common values like respect, decency and loyalty can bridge those differences.

Silas and Dominic are fervent in their political beliefs, they live and die by them. Silas fights to end the oppression his people are living under, even if by doing so, he risks his own life. Dominic staunchly defends the system that he believes is the only way to maintain “social order”, and yet they fall in love. In these the days of polarization and partisanship the idea that two men can come together and find common ground by valuing each other as human beings is almost magical.  The proposition that being humble enough to listen and try to understand the other side can bring healing and unity is very powerful. So, I reached out to KJ and asked her if she could talk a little bit about Silas and Dominic, and why she decided to build her love story on such rocky ground.

I also wanted to ask KJ about her stories with people of color. As much as I love gay romance, and I do love it VERY MUCH, something that is not done very often (or well unfortunately) are characters of color. In historical romance specifically it’s practically unheard of,  yet in KJ’s books POC are often represented and in two of her recent stories they are the main characters. I wanted to hear from her why it was important to have people of color in her novels, and to speak about how she went about writing these characters as a white woman.

Here is what KJ had to say…

The Tipsy Bibliophile: In “A Seditious Affair” and other books, you make a point of exploring class injustice and oppression at very deep levels, you expose the hypocrisy of such systems, even at the expense of your own heroes. Romance is supposed to be an escape, you know, “light reading”. What do you say to that? Do you find that your readers react to those elements of your story in particular, if so, do those reactions surprise you?

KJ Charles: It’s funny: people say ‘don’t talk about politics’ and ‘romance should be escapist’. But actually “Seditious Affair”, my most overtly political book, is probably the book that’s got the most intense love from readers. And I think that’s *because* of the politics. For one thing, fighting an unjust system is an absolutely real and brutal conflict, not a fantasy one, and that raises the stakes on the romance hugely. For another, I think passionate dedication to doing the right thing and making the world better is pretty damn sexy. And frankly, at the moment, I’d say two politically opposed people falling in love and learning to listen to and understand each other’s views is about as big a fantasy as you can get.

My heroes in that book both have deeply held senses of right and wrong, and they both have to compromise beyond comfort to be with the other, without losing their souls. I did not expect readers to get quite so hooked on radical politics 1819-20, but…well, it’s a fascinating time, an evident matter of injustice, and I think readers like to learn from their books; I certainly do.

The set-up of that book involves one hero very much on the wrong side of history–he works for a government that is actively trying to suppress calls for democracy, in ways that seem grossly unjust. What I tried to do was show how a basically decent man could do those things–because, you know, I don’t think it helps to present the people we disagree with as villains as a matter of course. Sometimes people support unjust systems out of cowardice, selfishness and greed, but sometimes it’s a matter of different world views. Dominic, in my book, is a Tory who opposes enfranchising the working man. That doesn’t mean he hates poor people: it means that, like many men of his time, he believes in a hierarchical society, and in the responsibility of those at the top. He thinks there is a God-given order to things, which includes a ruling class, and that democracy would lead to anarchy, chaos and murder, as in the relatively recent bloodshed of the French Revolution. We might now not find a lot to agree with in those views. But it’s worth noting that the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was a Tory who opposed any enfranchisement for the working classes, even as he dedicated his life to ending enslavement. He didn’t think the Government should do anything for the poor; he near bankrupted himself personally giving charity to individuals. It isn’t always a simple matter of right and wrong where one person has to change his mind, and I think readers appreciate the nuance of that in books because they see it around them every day.
The Tipsy Bibliophile: I am as you know, a BIG fan of your writing, and as a person of color in an interracial marriage, I have been very interested, and pleased, with your interracial stories like “Wanted, A Gentleman” and “An Unseen Attraction”. Specially because they are so rare in gay romance, and practically unheard of when it comes to historicals. This is very delicate ground to tread on. So much can go wrong! Why is it important for you to write these stories? What was different for you in writing them?

KJ Charles:  I feel passionate about including POC in my stories because I am sick to death of seeing my city’s history whitewashed. There have been POC recorded in London since records began. I think the version of Victorian or Regency London where everyone is white and upper class isn’t just untrue, it’s painfully limited and honestly not that interesting. Opening out romance to variety of race, religion, occupation, class, gender and sexuality has produced most of my favourite historicals, and so many wonderful new stories. As a white author I am vividly aware of the importance of doing my research, representing with respect and as much historical accuracy as I can, and all I can say is, I’ll try my best to get characters and stories right. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a white-only version of London because I don’t live in a white-only version of London.

I am in no way an expert but it does seem like the US and UK have very divergent historical attitudes when it comes to interracial marriage, because of course we have very different histories.  I’ve seen Americans assume that the UK had laws against mixed race marriages, which has never been the case. There are an absolute ton of mixed marriages recorded throughout London’s history, as one might expect for a port city and capital of empire, and that’s something I’ve reflected in my books as a matter of course. (Obviously we don’t have written records of queer relationships in the same way we do m/f marriages, but I think it’s fair to extrapolate the social attitudes.)

You can buy “A Seditious Affair” HERE.
You can buy KJ’s interracial romances “Wanted, A Gentleman” and “A Unseen Attraction” HERE.
Another historical series that explores class injustice incredibly well, please look for Joanna Chambers’ “Enlightment Series”. It is an AMAZING historical and an education on Scottish history. You can find the series HERE.
A few other novels with interracial couples that delve into racial justice that I LOVE are:
“Bolt Hole” by Amy Lane, you can find it HERE. 
“Other Side of the Line” by Margaritte Labbe. (this story explores the segregation and civil rights movement in the US, and it is WONDERFUL), you can find it HERE.
“Death of a Blues Angel” by Sarah Black (ANYTHING BY SARAH BLACK!), you can find it HERE.
“But My Boyfriend Is” by K.A. Mitchell, you can find it HERE.
Thanks so much for reading, and please let me know of any other romances which explore these themes that you love!
Come back tomorrow for my interview with author J.E. Birk where we talk about her decision to explore the struggle of undocumented families.
Cheers and Happy Reading!