Friday, December 6, 2013

Where Are All the Women of Color, RNFF?

Last week, an RNFF reader sent me an email that made me smile, both with appreciation and chagrin. Said reader wrote that she'd found much to admire about the blog, but found it "depressing" that through its choice of titles to review, RNFF relegated women of color to "invisible status." Rather than castigate the blog or its creator for talking the talk of diversity and intersectionality, but not walking the walk, this reader decided to share her reservations, and encouraged RNFF to do something about them: "Romances featuring WoC have very strong feminist leanings. I do hope your site will reach out to diverse authors and feature more diversity in books."

The lack of romances about PoC I've reviewed on RNFF (as well as the near absence of lesbian romance) had been on my mind a lot lately, for two reasons. First, the scholarly one: I recently picked up a copy of Susan Ostrov Weisser's fascinating The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories (Rutgers UP 2013), a book that asks the question, "Why is the story of romance in books, magazines, and films still aimed at women rather than men?" (back cover copy). Weisser's book discusses both high and low literature, historical and current narratives, and I've been delving into individual chapters as my fancy takes me, planning to write a review of the entire book in the not too distant future. But one of Weisser's chapters, Chapter 8 "A Genre of One's Own: African American Imprints and the 'Universality' of Love," has been a bit of a burr under my saddle, urging me to explore in more depth romances written by African Americans.

In this chapter, Weisser compares ten category romances from black genre imprints to ten "Anglo Harlequin" romances, and concludes that while the two groups contain many similarities, black genre romances differ in several noticeable ways:

• African or African communal values and traditions are often referenced and celebrated, "thus countering black invisibility in mainstream novels" (161)

• Feminism more often plays a role in "break[ing] down chauvinism if it  is present in the hero" (162)

• These books display an "unusual and refreshing recognition of other kinds of beauty than that found in most Anglo romances" (163)

•  They include more "sexual conservatism and focus on marriage, including in some cases virginity before marriage" (165)

Despite the positive aspects of the first three differences, the similarities Weisser finds between both groups—the dominant alpha hero; the focus on professional, wealthy characters; the emphasis on the physical beauty of the characters—make her wonder how progressive these novels truly are. The erasure of more painful aspects of African American history and identity from these narratives also gives her pause.

Weisser asks a vital question: "Does a line of romance devoted singularly to African American authors and characters (and most probably readers) represent a long-overdue entrance into a world of human pleasure previously denied? And if so, is it therefore a mark of progressive equality, or is this publishing phenomenon a representation of white privilege in blackface, a false promise of happiness that masks and distorts the problems that surround race relations?" (165-66). I have a hunch that the answer to all three questions is "yes," but I'd feel far more comfortable arguing such a position if I had read more romances by African American writers.

Second, the personal one: This fall, I enrolled in a writing class focused on "smart" genre fiction. Unfortunately, the experience proved a frustrating one; my vision of what the class would be about was far different from that of the instructor's, and his teaching style was not one that worked for me as a learner. Most upsetting to me, though, was the lack of women writers amongst the stories and novel excerpts we were assigned to read. Each week, I'd wait for the teacher to hand out the photocopies of readings for the next class, hoping that the imbalance would correct itself over the course of the semester, that the readings' focus on male writers and male experience would gradually shift in the other direction. But by midway through the course, though, it became clear that such a hope would remain unfulfilled.

After one particularly frustrating class, during which the instructor and I ended up in several verbal tiffs (I admit that I was letting my frustrations out by challenging him as a teacher), I asked if we could talk after the session, so our differences wouldn't steal class time from other students. When I brought up my concerns, the instructor had difficulty hearing me. He viewed himself as a progressive, liberal, even a rebel—we were analyzing both high and low culture, John Cheever and the Muppets, Raymond Carver and superhero comics, weren't we? He'd edited romances once upon a time, hadn't he? And praised soap operas during class for their ability to keep narratives rolling? But when I asked him what he thought the percentage of male to female writers in the course readings was, he said "I'm not sure —about 60-40?" In fact, the proportion was closer to 85-15 at the time we spoke.

I did use the words "male privilege" but at least I didn't sic
feminist superheroine Gyno-Star on him...
And the proportion did not markedly improve over the final weeks of the class. He'd all but told me it wouldn't—"I can't up and change the entire syllabus at this point"—so as far as my own class experience went, the discussion was not all that productive. But I felt better, usually shy me, for having said my piece.

If he teaches this class again, will this instructor revise his syllabus because of our conversation? I'm not sure. But I know the experience has made me even more aware of the need to listen when others, especially those from traditionally marginalized groups, express discontent over the way their voices are (or aren't) being heard.

So thank you, RNFF reader, for emailing me about your problems with RNFF's lack of coverage of romances with and/or by PoC. I plan to heed your advice, to take more active steps to seek out romances by PoC and feature their work on RNFF far more frequently than I have in the past.

What are your favorite feminist romances featuring characters of color? Or written by authors of color? Are there places besides the Romance in Color web site that you go to to find new books by writers of color?

Illustration credits:
Gyno-Star comic strip: The Adventures of Gyno-Star, by Rebecca Cohen


  1. I'm hoping to see some great suggestions because I realize I've read very few romances featuring PoC as main characters and those I've read were mostly paranormals where the characters weren't actually HUMAN and were dealing with a whole different set of issues. Only "real-world" one I can remember off the top is a fabulously wonky historical called The China Bride by Mary Jo Putney. Despite the dubious title, it does a pretty job of showing how the heroine, half-Chinese and half-English, isn't accepted by either society and yet draws strength from aspects of both cultures.

    1. CHINA BRIDE is one of my wonky favs, too, Teresa.

  2. I have some books to list, but don't have any answers. I do have a deep and abiding interest in this subject, even though as a white woman (and conflict avoider), I feel worried about my right to have so many thoughts on this subject...or at least to write them down. But my husband and children are PoC, and so any romances I write (still mostly in the aspiration stage, and also the tired and pregnant stage) will have many brown people in them, because that's my reality--and it's a good one.

    When I first started reading contemporary-written romance novels, I started with historicals--and they are still my favorites--but I also felt some guilt that NONE of the heroes looked like my husband. I stumbled upon the genre in the ibooks store through a new iPhone and pregnant insomnia, so I didn't start out looking in the margins or reading blogs to find anything...I was just awake in the middle of the night and wanted to read something that would affect my pregnant emotions in a happy way, not a depressing way (the last lit-fic book I read was about a mixed girl leaving her family and going to Brazil--it was a well written book, but terrifying for me personally).

    I grew up very WASPy and super-conservative and religious in the South, so honestly, to me, almost all contemporary-written romance feels feminist. Some of my authors might not fit your definition, and especially with historicals, the POC characters are not the main characters, but I'm still a sucker for a secondary romance, so here's a not-exhaustive list of times when I've gone "hey! it's a brown person!"

    Jennifer Ashley: Care and Feeding of Pirates (secondary)
    Mary Jo Putney's Lost Lords series has Indian (or half indian) main characters. I'm not sure how Indian people feel about the portrayal, but it seems pretty positive to me.
    Tessa Dare's A Lady of Persuasion (secondary)--I really liked that one
    Meredith Duran's Duke of Shadows (half-Indian)
    Susanna Fraser's A Dream Defiant (I loved this one so much: free black man in England. but it's only a novella)
    Courtney Milan's The Heiress Effect (secondary full Indian but so good)

    and, tada:
    Regina Hart's Fast Break (black author, black characters).

    I know there are lots more that I haven't read and need to. And there are some probably excellently written books that are in the margins not only because they have POC/are written by POC but also because they are erotic fiction, etc., that I will likely never read, because while I am certainly way more feminist than my mama, I'm still a southern conservative christian pastor's wife.

    But I want to read about POC and support POC authors. I can't know-know what it's like to be a person of color, but for the sake of the people I love...for my daughter (and the one due in March), I want to least be exposed(?) to the variety of experiences that brown people have and have had. And of course, interracial romances that even look a little bit like my own personal story, those are/would be(?) great, too.

    1. Emily Jane:

      Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing your suggestions. Just requested the Regina Hart book from my library!

      Interesting that many historicals depict interracial romances between British people and those from cultures the British colonized. But very few between white and black characters. The secondary romance in Tessa Dare's A LADY OF PERSUASION is one of the few I've ever read in a historical. I, like you, enjoyed that book a lot, especially that secondary storyline. Really wish she had written that storyline as its own book.

      I've read a few contemporary interracial romances, but usually with a black heroine and a white hero. Interesting to speculate about why...

    2. What about Ruthie Knox's current Roman Holiday, Jackie? Have you read it? I really love that book. The hero is Afro-Cuban, and it's interesting to me how as a reader we don't even pick up on or much notice the fact that he is "of color" when he's in Florida, but as he travels north with the blonde heroine to Minnesota (or was it Michigan? forgetting now), his color starts to get noticed and we as the reader slowly sink into how complicated it was for him sometimes in his small Minnesota town as a child. It's being serialized and I was fortunate enough to have an arc and read the whole thing at once, but I don't think I'm revealing any spoilers here. I loved this book and the realness of the characters, although of course I always love Ruthie's ability to capture the real.

  3. We review multicultural romance often at Love in the Margins and should have a piece up soon where a handful of POC authors talk about the genre. I really enjoyed Sienna Mynx's book Harmony, set in Jazz Age Harlem, Meoskop liked Heart Murmurs by Suleikha Snyder, and rameau liked Taste for Temptation by Phyllis Bourne, if you're looking for recommendations.

    If you're looking for books with heroines who take no guff and give no shits, I'd suggest Shelley Laurenston. Her paranormal shifter series is kind of completely bonkers, but it's racially/culturally diverse and the women perform femininity in interesting ways, managing to be femme while also being vicious fighters.

    A lot of the African-American and interracial romance is self-published, so you have to go looking for it. For whatever reasons, publishers seem to shy away from publishing books with POC characters, especially from POC authors, and the result is frustrating for me as a reader.

    Good luck finding more books to read. There are some good ones out there.

    1. Thanks, Ridley, both for the recommendations and for the link to your group blog. It looks like fascinating reading!

  4. "The erasure of more painful aspects of African American history and identity from these narratives also gives her pause."

    It gives me pause that she would think that because it suggests to me that Ostrov Weisser hasn't read enough types of African American romance. If she'd tried some of Beverly Jenkins' historicals, for example, she'd have got a different impression. In addition, if something isn't explicitly present in some books, that doesn't necessarily mean it's being "erased": the guidelines for the Kimani Arabesque line, for example, state that "In general, the hero and heroine should be role models—upwardly mobile and educated individuals that our readers can admire." What's implicit there relates to the history of negative stereotypes about African Americans, and so, as Conseula Francis argues, "When we tell and consume stories of black romance and vulnerability, stories like those in Beverly Jenkins’ historicals or Gwyneth Bolton’s Hightower series, we challenge mainstream narratives about black people that tell us they are aberrant, peculiar, and deviant. When we imagine, and help others to imagine, black love, we tell the full story of black humanity."

    1. Laura:

      Your questions tell me I haven't given Weisser's complex ideas their due. Her book chapter is a lot more nuanced, and a lot more detailed, than I've managed to convey here.

      In regards to your concerns:

      Her chapter focuses specifically on only the ten category romances she read, so yes, her observations do need to be tested on a larger body of the literature, something she herself acknowledges. FYI, she was particularly taken aback by one novel with a black heroine who seemed to embrace an identification with the role of the southern belle, "while ignoring the irony of the legacy of slavery or racism this identification might entail" (161).

      Re erasure: aren't guidelines that specify one type of character "erasing" a different type of character? The erasure happens not on the level of the individual novel, but on the level of the series as a whole. Why are only "upwardly mobile and educated individuals" worth admiration? Weisser mentions the Kimani guidelines, too, noting that other Harlequin imprints don't specific the class of protagonists, perhaps because we already assume that white = middle or upper class.

      Weisser also discusses the fact that black romance is "especially fraught" because of the stereotypes about both black men and black women in American culture: "The deep contradiction, for all women but especially for black women, is that when women's subjective pleasure is emphasized, it can be read as a positive feminist assertion, but when representations of female sexuality seem to affirm the stereotype of promiscuity, the subject herself loses" (168)

  5. Hi Ridley! I enjoy K.M. Jackson, Synithia Williams, and Chicki Brown. After reading this post, I did notice that all the heroes and heroines are middle class or wealthy: an artist from a wealthy family, a city employee, a gym owner and personal trainer, and a sports agent are some examples. I usually prefer those in contemporaries. I do like the "good example" aspect of black couples with some career/financial stability. Some books with black protagonists tend towards the hood lit side, people hustling in rough neighborhoods. I can't pretend that's not reality, but I guess I feel more positive about middle-class values.

    1. Thanks, Shannon, for the recommendations. Doing a comparison of the upwardly-mobile African-Americans in Kimani and similar lines to the romances in "hood lit" would be a fascinating study. Anyone out there who can recommend interesting hood lit romances?

  6. Thank you for this post! And for the recommendations in the comments. I find the "good example" representation of black couples to be really problematic from a class perspective. There's nothing shameful about being poor. The problem here is first conflating black and poor and then coding that as lazy/deviant. I live in New York City, and there are plenty of working class people of all races here who enjoy rich, fulfilling lives. They don't need to be upwardly mobile in order to be admirable, and their lives are not aberrant, peculiar or deviant. They're just not rich. I've lived and worked in diverse working class neighborhoods my whole adult life. I would like very much to see characters in romance who are diverse in both race and class, and portrayed with respect.

    1. The people in the Kimani books aren't all rich.

    2. You're welcome, Rebecca. I'm thinking a lot about the realism/fantasy aspect of romance after reading the Weisser chapter, and your and Laura V's comments. Weisser writes "the fantasy of wealth and success found in much dominant white romance is especially poignant when mirrored in black romance, where the social situation of many black women's lives and the crisis-level correlation of African American unemployment, housing, education, and male incarceration are simply excluded from its imagined world." I guess I'm thinking: what's the purpose of the exclusion? Are there positive aspects to it? Or is it ONLY in service of making the oppressed more docile, more accepting of the status quo?

    3. We absolutely do see “the fantasy of wealth and success found in much dominant white romance,” yes, and it is poignant when mirrored against the lives of working class readers of all races. I object to this fetishization of wealth in romance across the board because it implicitly suggests a number of problematic ideas.

      1) Working class life is dismal, grueling and deviant – which is why we don’t want to hear stories about it.
      2) Working class people who remain “stuck” in this life are there because they aren’t smart, talented, or hardworking enough to become socially mobile – so we can’t reward them with love as though they deserve it.
      3) “Deserving” characters are rightly lifted out of poverty, or never experience it in the first place. (When we suggest this, we ignore the deeply entrenched social constraints that keep the majority of the poor in poverty, like access to quality education, systematic racism, lack of community resources like medical care, affordable housing, living wages, fair policing, etc. This is an important issue where race is concerned, because institutional racism contributes heavily to social stratification and the inadequate allocation of resources to poor communities. Race and class – along with gender – do intersect in social injustice, and this can and should be explored as a reality of life in the romance genre.)
      4) Wealthy people are happier, more fulfilled, and less stressed.
      5) Wealthy people are happier because they own more stuff.
      6) We should all pursue money and stuff because that is what good, worthwhile, happy people do. This is the principle that maintains consumerism and drives the capitalist market. It’s a status quo on which our entire social system relies.

      I get that imagining ourselves wealthy is a nice fantasy. It does seem easier in so many ways. But people can and do live very fulfilling, complex and worthwhile lives on modest incomes. I object to the idea that portraying some black characters as working class is somehow insulting to black people. There’s nothing shameful about being a poor person of any race. We shouldn’t be seeing more poor black characters than poor white characters, surely, but it would be good for our genre if we saw more working class characters of all races who were taken seriously and given our full attention and respect. If we only give wealthy characters love and romance, we’re suggesting that poor characters don’t deserve it. And that is a status quo I can’t live with. To me, the best romance novels empower all women to be active agents in pursuit of love that we all deserve. Many romance novels do this beautifully, but I want to see more.

    4. "I object to the idea that portraying some black characters as working class is somehow insulting to black people."

      I don't think anyone's saying that being working class is demeaning. What they probably are saying, though, is that, as

      [Patricia Hill] Collins writes, “From the mammies, Jezebels and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes and ever present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, the nexus of negative stereotypical images applied to African-American women has been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.” (Colours of Resistance)

      and that

      The stereotyping of Blacks as criminals is so pervasive throughout society that “criminal predator” is used as a euphemism for “young Black male.” This common stereotype has erroneously served as a subtle rationale for the unofficial policy and practice of racial profiling by criminal justice practitioners. (Kelly Welch)

      I think that when Kimani ask their authors to create "role models" they're asking them to create characters who challenge the deeply pervasive, damaging stereotypes about African-Americans. As far as I can tell, the authors try to do that by writing hard-working, financially successful (but not necessarily super-wealthy), law-abiding characters.

    5. Thank you for these quotes, Laura -- particularly from Patricia Hill Collins, who is terrific. I haven't read every Kimani book, but my impression is that, like in the majority of romance, working class characters are underrepresented. Collins writes about the "matrix of oppression" in which race, class and gender are linked. The welfare mother stereotype is the perfect example of this -- a convergence of racist, classist and sexist denigrations of poor black women. One great way to challenge these ideas is to offer counterexamples of financially successful black characters. Another way is to offer working class black characters who are not prostitutes or criminal predators, but rather everyday, hard-working, nuanced human beings. The second approach challenges racist and classist ideas simultaneously, and that's what I want to see more of. I also welcome stories about black criminals and prostitutes that put these characters in a realistic social context of economic stratification, racism and sexism, and paint these characters too as fully realized, nuanced human beings. (A genre film called Attack the Block did this really beautifully about two years back. It's a monster movie about a group of teenagers living in a London housing project. Junot Diaz is a writer who also does this consistently well.)

      Again, what I want to see is more class diversity across the board. I want more stories that portray poor people with respect.

    6. Thanks for sharing these ideas about the economics of romance novels.
      My grandma enjoyed soap operas and she told me "you notice there are no poor people here. We're too busy to work to get in trouble." I always figured that the wealth in romance was to set a stage where the romance could center.
      After this, I will pay more attention to class in romance. I'd like to see more working-class couples too. I always laugh at the stories with a cowboy on the cover, but it turns out he's a millionaire cowboy that owns all the land in the county.

  7. I see a trend here in the comments, in my reading experience, in romance publishing: First, I will read anything if I find the characters admirable (people who I would like to have as my friends). That said, I think the POC romances are still evolving but may be at the point Romances were, maybe in the mid to late 80s?, when the publishers realized that the heroes didn't have to be princes, or multimillionaires, etc., just as the heroines didn't have to be 18-20 year old virgins. There are always exceptions, but still, that is my attempt at an explanation for the apparent lack of everyday POC romance and the preponderance of "good example" couples.

    1. An interesting theory, CynthiaZ, one with a lot of merit.

  8. Suzanne Brockmann writes about everyone--she's got several book with African-American, and multi-racial characters. Harvard's Education, and all of the Troubleshooters books with Alyssa Locke come to mind.

    I think it's an interesting to write diverse characters without it always being ABOUT the diversity. For me, anyway, as your basic average straight white woman(is that even a real thing?) I want to read about everyone, because love is love! I think every sort of person: black, white, green, gay, straight,unconventionally attractive (that's my new term for what some might call "ugly"), fat, short, tall, should be in there. Overcoming societal challenges is only one possible conflict in a love story...I keep hoping that if we just put everyone in there (though maybe not at once), and be like, "Oh, that character's a gay black little person, and his internal conflict is that he doesn't think he's good enough because he is dislexic" instead of "Oh, that gay black little person has to overcome social acceptance issues on his path to love," we'll stop noticing the racial (or whatever) part, and it won't matter in the real world so much.
    Wow, I probably totally butchered what I was trying to say there.
    Anyway, great post, as always!

  9. Yay! I was hoping you'd get around to some novels starring POC characters. Personally, I don't see a problem with AA romances depicting a lot of professional Black characters because broadcast and journalistic media's very busy portraying the opposite. I'm sure as we see more and more portrayals, they will be more diverse. I've enjoyed Beverly Jenkins' contemporaries, JM Jeffries A Dangerous Woman and Karyn Langhorne's Unfinished Business. I have JJ Murray and Eric Jerome Dickey on my To-Read. I also liked Caught in the Act, featuring a Mexican male lead. I haven't read anything starring a Middle-eastern or Asian character that wasn't exoticized. Jenkins, by the way, doesn't write extremely alpha men, if I remember correctly. At any rate, the power dynamic in these romances is so much more balanced -if the hero's obnoxious, then the heroine is too- and such a breath of fresh air in contrast to other romances. If you are open to PNR or erotica, there are more. Here's a nice list, as well:

    Looking forward to your reviews!

  10. "Re erasure: aren't guidelines that specify one type of character "erasing" a different type of character? The erasure happens not on the level of the individual novel, but on the level of the series as a whole."

    Is it any more "erasing" than feminists sometimes choosing to have women-only spaces? It seems to me that sometimes, when certain problems are ever-present, it can be a relief to find a space full of more positive feelings which give people hope and strength to go back out into the space where they'll be surrounded by the problem again.

    In any case, it's not as though these are the only kinds of African-American fiction available, or even the only kind of African-American romance available.

  11. I would love to see you review Beverly Jenkins' Sexy/Dangerous. I read it quite a while ago (huh, over 7 years ago, according to my blog!), when "kick ass" heroines were few and far between. I was finding it really frustrating that authors seemed to feel that if the heroine was physically strong, the hero had to be stronger, and probably rescue her a time or two.. S/D was the first book I ever read where that wasn't the case.

  12. For YA books that feature POC and GLBTQ teens, it's worth checking out
    Malinda Lo's tumblr account: Diversity in YA. Many of the books she cites have a romance.

    This site features YA books with PoC, and they'll mention if there's a romance in the review.

  13. Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind sometimes featured PoC in her novels.
    Kathleen Eagle features First Nations characters in her novels.

  14. If you're looking to go all the way and try stories written by queer WOC about queer WOC, all of my stories feature women of color. I write under Rebekah Weatherspoon. You can also read any number of stories by Fiona Zedde, Yolanda Wallace, Gabrielle Goldsby, Skyy, and Shonda.

    For hetero romances that star POC couples by WOC color

    Jeannine Lin
    Vicki Essex
    Farrah Rochon
    Phyllis Bourne
    Holley Trent
    Suleikha Synder
    Lindsay Evans

  15. Very interesting post. I think that the stereotypes (rich, beautiful, good job, white, etc), do a disservice to the genre as if love, romance can't stand on it's own two feet. This is completely untrue as testified by actually reality. So why this disservice which ends up giving a bad reputation to the genre which we always have to justify when reading.

  16. Thanks, everyone, for all the great recommendations. I appreciate your willingness to share your expertise!

    -- Jackie

  17. Love this!
    And the dynamics of this conversation!
    I just happen to be an WOC and an author! *Gasps!* lol
    As well, my writing partner Alexandria Infante and I are offering free reads this month and next!
    Well lookie thar...

    From the end of December, until the Middle of January.
    We have 48 titles together, and are looking for readers who would like to have some free reads.
    We write from Interracial Historical Romance, MC Contemporary Romance, MC Suspense Romance, MC Erotic Romance, to MC Paranormal Romance; all with a lil Sabor Latina! (except the IR Historical)

    Basically all readers would have to do is got to our news letter
    or blogs,
    choose which book they want, then email us their choice
    @ and it's theirs free.

    All we ask is that readers review the book on Amazon.
    Please let us know if any of your readers would be interested