Finally! Characters in Romance Novels Who Look Like Me – and Maybe You, Too
In honor of Valentine’s Day, we are spotlighting women of color who are bringing diversity to the Romance genre.
I’ve never really been a big fan of romance novels. They just seem so… unrealistic. You know, the mysterious hero with the heart of gold, the innocent—yet not so innocent—maiden, and all that creamy ivory skin. Always ivory skin. Never golden, brown, or mahogany. It doesn’t help the preferred settings--the Wild West, Ye Olde England, and Medieval Europe--don’t exactly lend themselves to anything but… ivory skin.
A friend of mine recently posed the question of where to find fun reads—with ethnic diversity. Sure, there’s hyphenated American Literature with a capital “L”, but what about the lighter side to life as a woman of color?
Well, I’d like to introduce you to several authors who are bringing diversity into the world of romantic novels.
Mina Khan is the author of The Djinn’s Dilemma (Harlequin Nocturne Cravings, 2011) a sensual thriller about a Texas journalist Sarah White and Rukh O’Shay, the half-djinn assassin who was hired to kill her. Khan grew up in Bangaldesh listening to her grandmother’s spine-tingling stories about djinns (pronounced “gin”) a genie-like supernature creature with deep roots in pre-Islamic Middle Eastern mythology. As a teenager, she read British romances, only to become disconnected with the popular WASP characters by the time she reached college. As a writer, Khan is inspired by the advice, “Write the book you want to read.” It was only natural that Middle Eastern folklore would emerge in her own writing, although she initially received mixed reactions from publishers.
Some thought my non-Hollywood Djinns and mixed-race characters– were too exotic and would appeal to too few. One person flat out told me THE DJINN’S DILEMMA wouldn’t sell. Fortunately, there were others who loved it…loved it enough to buy it and make me a published author. The lesson here: Trust yourself, believe in your work.
Camy Tang is the author of several romance and suspense series (the Sushi series, the Sonoma Series, and Protection for Hire, all by Zondervan) that feature not only Asian American, but Christian themes. When Tang was an aspiring novelist, she went to a writer’s conference where Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins gave her some prophetic advice.
I had been working on a manuscript and thinking about changing my ethnic-neutral characters to Asian characters but hadn’t told anyone about it, and certainly not Brandilyn. Yet as she prayed over me, she told me, “Write your heritage.” I knew then that God wanted me to write Asian American characters, which were scarce in the Christian publishing market at the time.
While Tang believes that ethnic characters, in in romance or suspense novels, can help readers see that others are not so different, her stories were still a hard sell to publishers.
My future editor at Zondervan, Sue Brower, saw the lack of Asian ethnic fiction and the need for it, and she persisted in presenting my story to the editorial and marketing teams until they contracted my series in early 2006. Since then, I've heard from readers both Asian and non-Asian who have really connected with and related to my characters, and I'm very grateful to Zondervan for taking the chance on my books.
Nigerian American (and BlogHer Publishing Network member!) Myne Whitman has independently published two romances, A Heart to Mend and A Love Rekindled. Whitman says she didn’t deliberately decide to write ethnic stories, but the settings and characters just came naturally to her. And while there are African American romance novels, few in the U.S. focus specifically on Africa.
Like Khan and Tang, Whitman faced a lot of skepticism when pitching her ideas to agents, something she points out it common to all aspiring writers – regardless of their race or culture.
I doubt the response was much different from what other debut writer experience, irrespective of ethnicity or nationality. I got a flood of ignores or outright rejections A slight difference may have been in the wording of the rejections from agents and publishers. A couple of them mentioned they did not havea market either for my characters, or specifically for a romance novel featuring them.
Instead of changing her writing or giving up, Whitman chose to self-publish. She says the reaction from readers has been positive.
I've head emails from readers from as far as Indonesia, Mexico and India, writing to tell me what an eye opener it was for them and how much they appreciated a different outlook in their romance. Even Nigerians were captured by the idea. Since most of the country's writers focus on literary fiction, a reviewer in a national newspaper described my first book as a "breath of fresh air".
I’m getting all misty just writing this. Maybe there is a happy ending for minority writers, after all…