Perhaps it’s a matter of confirmation bias, or just how my Twitter feed is constructed, but it seems to me like people are looking around Romancelandia and wondering where the multicultural stories are. Editors say they’re looking for it and readers say they want it. After a couple Twitter conversations with Alyssa Cole, K.M. Jackson and Evangeline Holland, the idea for this roundtable was born. We wanted to talk to authors who write multicultural romance and see what they had to say about the genre.
The following authors graciously offered to participate and answer our questions:
- Lena Hart – Author of the Because You… series from Secret Cravings Publishing.
- Lisa G. Riley – Chicago-based author of sexy interracial romance published by Loose Id and independently.
- Alyssa Cole – A romance writer and science editor with upcoming stories published by Wild Rose Press and Loose Id.
- Reese Ryan – Author of the Bad Boys Gone Good series with Carina Press.
- Solace Ames – Writes erotic romance and SFF, with two books coming soon from Carina.
Is there a book or an author that inspired you to write multicultural romance?
Lena Hart: Not necessarily multicultural romance, but after reading so many romance novels, I started to realize I had characters of my own who demanded their own romance stories told. My characters just happen to be multicultural because that’s how I envision my characters when they come to me.
Lisa G. Riley: No, there wasn’t. I’ve been writing a long time, and thought I’d try my hand at an interracial romance.
Alyssa Cole: Yes, Sandra Kitt’s The Color of Love. I still remember picking it up at the Waldenbooks and being completely amazed that there were romance novels with heroines that looked like me. I was a very widely read kid, but was mostly limited to my parents’ library, so this was like a lightning bolt. I had already been tentatively writing my own stories, and seeing a real book made me aware that this wasn’t some crazy dream I had.
Reese Ryan: I’m a big reader of romantic women’s fiction. So I’m inspired by writers like Benilde Little (Good Hair and Who Does She Think She Is?) and Pearl Cleage (What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, etc.)—whom I adore. However, my desire to read about people and communities that reflect my personal experience is the primary reason that diversity is inherent in any story I write.
Solace Ames: I can think of individual books that inspired me, but no one single book or author. I’m a relative newcomer to romance (although not to erotic themes) and when I jumped in, I looked for multicultural stories from the start. And luckily, I found them!
What sub-genre do you prefer to write in, and why?
LH: Does “contemporary” count as a sub-genre? I would have to say I like to write contemporary because they’re more relatable and deal with real issues that anyone can connect with. That doesn’t mean, however, that’s all I plan to write. I do have a time travel and a few historicals that are on my to-be-written pile…
LGR: I have written in a couple, but find that I am mostly drawn to mystery/suspense. Stories seem to naturally flow in that direction for me. I like the excitement of it.
AC: I’m a genre jumper. My first novel, which is being released in January, is a romantic suspense involving a Brooklyn teacher and the Albanian mafia. My erotic short story is based in South Asian mythology. I’m shopping a contemp MC Irish fantasy and my NaNoWriMo project is an interracial historical. I love seeing the different ways that cultures connect and overlap, more so than a specific sub genre, although I guess there is usually an element of suspense or tension in my stories.
RR: I love reading about love in the here and now, so I write contemporary romantic fiction. Besides, if I had to do all of the research required for historical romance, I’d wander down a rabbit hole and never get around to writing the book. :-) I also enjoy New Adult and romantic thrillers, and have plans to explore both genres.
SA: I used to write urban fantasy m/m, but now I’m doing erotic romance contemporary in m/f and mmf. I’m attracted to any genre where big epic things happen, whether it’s time travel or wild sex.
Where do you draw your support from? Critique partners? Local RWA chapter? Somewhere else?
LH: From all over. From my family, my friends (both in person and online). I’m a member of my RWA chapter and a few great writer’s loops that have been inspiring and motivating in their own way. But my biggest supporters are my family. Though they don’t really read my stories (well, my little sister and cousin has), they all think my stories are great and are just as defensive of them, lol.
LGR: My support comes from family, friends and I have a great critique partner and a couple of good friends who happen to be authors. Of course fans of the work are always awesome.
AC: I get so much support from my critique group, who are amazing and supportive and will give me a “Girl, no. Just no.” when I need it. They write varying things and although they are not POC, they are very excited about multicutural fiction becoming more normalized. I also get lots of support from the RWA-NYC chapter, which is a wonderful group. Also, I get lots of battery charging from people on Twitter and social media, who help me to push forward just by seeing how hard they are working.
RR: I’ve gotten tremendous support from my local and online RWA chapters. I would especially recommend joining a local chapter of RWA, if that’s possible. I can’t say enough about the wealth of information and encouragement I’ve received from my local chapter. I’m also part of a local critique group. This, too, has been extremely beneficial.
SA: I have a small group of writing partners who’ll beta my work. Some of them are writers of color, others are white but up to speed on the important stuff and people whose opinions I deeply care about. I do the same for their work. It’s difficult for authors of color to get out what we put in. I believe we have to work twice as hard and twice as smart to go half as far.
I’m always happy to advise on how to write MC/IR while skirting stereotypes, if they’re a partner of mine. And if they’re not? I’ll do it at a decent paid rate. I’m all for this kind of expertise (which I definitely have, both through lived experience and study) being professionalized instead of regarded with quasi-mystical dread, as I feel it so often is.
Do you self-publish or work with a publisher? What played into your decision?
LH: My current books are published with an e-publisher and that was because I had not a clue of what the publishing world was like and wanted to see if my stories were good enough to get published by someone else. But with the way the industry is changing and I’ve learned a lot this past year on the world of publishing, I do have plans to move into direct publishing.
LGR: I self-publish, but have been published traditionally. I like having more control over the process.
AC: I am currently working with two publishers. I think I would self-publish in the future, but it’s very hard work to put out a product that is professional all on your own. Many people succeed, but I’ve been disappointed with some of my self-pubbed purchases, to be honest. Great stories with terrible editing make me sad.
RR: The first two books in my Bad Boys Gone Good series were published with Carina Press—a digital-first imprint of Harlequin. I liked the idea of working with an experienced publisher who could guide me through the editorial process and offer some marketing support. I’ve learned so much from that experience and am grateful for it. I’m currently pitching another book in the series to Carina Press. But I definitely have plans to do some indie publishing within the next year or so.
SA: I publish with Carina Press. I’ve self-published free and short stories before, but I like working with a large publisher. I don’t have a lot of time in my day anyway, and I’m not a fast writer, so the amount of marketing that the road to self-published success demands… well, I’d never have time to write!
What themes or tropes in multicultural romance do you love?
LH: I like stories with angst so there isn’t really room for the sweet stuff, lol. I want my hero and heroine to deal with deep issues, experience that push-pull attraction, before they get to the happily ever after. Any element of betrayal, secrets, forbidden temptation, (believable) misunderstandings all work for me!
AC: I guess the same thing I love in any romance: two people working together to heal themselves and help others. In regards to MC romance, I feel there are even more ways to address this, as there are many built in tensions (even if the characters’ cultures are not the prevalent conflict in the book, which they almost never should be, IMO).
RR: The same tropes I enjoy in all romantic fiction. I’m a sucker for the friends-to-lovers and enemies-to-lovers tropes. I also love stories involving secrets (but no secret babies!) and hidden identities—two themes you’ll often find in my stories.
SA: I don’t think MC/IR really involves tropes that are different from mainstream romance. In any kind of romance, I generally like friends-to-lovers and anything involving menage as long as there aren’t any fated mates. I love menage—in fact I used to run a menage review site.
I do think multicultural romance places a greater emphasis on the whole individual when it comes to tropes. What I mean is that the lovers come from a certain family and culture and place and time. I like that. Characters aren’t as real to me if I don’t understand where they come from. I love the added sense depth. Not to say you can’t achieve this same sense with white characters—in fact, I really like seeing their ethnicities and family backgrounds explored just as much.
Multicultural romance feels more historically grounded, too. I can read and enjoy contemporaries without people of color, but not historicals. The very thought of reading something like “Gone With the Wind” makes me break out in a prickly sweat.
Which do you not like so much?
LH: What I’m starting to notice lately are the billionaires that have been starting to sprout everywhere. Like the Dukes in historicals and the Vampires in paranormals, Billionaires are running wild in the new adult/contempories stories. Not that I don’t like them (they obviously serve a need) but I do find it interesting that there’s so many 20-something billionaires around, lol.
AC: Oh, so many things: 1.) Fetishizing of either the hero or heroine’s race/skin tone/etc. 2.) In stories where POC characters are paired with white men, the POC exhibiting signs of gratitude that the man would date her.Yes, I’ve seen this several times. 3.) Putting down minority characters/making other minority characters walking stereotypes. If you’re pairing a POC character with someone from a different culture, you shouldn’t have every other POC character in the book be stereotypical or evil. That makes me really uncomfortable about the author’s motivations for writing multicultural romance. Self-hatred is not cute.
RR: I like relatable characters, so I’m not usually drawn to billionaire stories. (Though I have read a few I really enjoyed.) I love a bad boy, but I’m turned off by assholes masquerading as alpha heroes. I’m obviously an advocate of diversity in romance. But I prefer that diversity be a seamless part of the story, rather than a message I’m beat over the head with. I actually find the message to be more effective that way. Shonda Rhimes is absolutely brilliant at creating seamlessly diverse worlds.
SA: Oh God, I don’t even want to start. There’s so much that bothers me. I remember I was reading an erotic romance that was pleasant up until the midway point, when the hero proved his love for the heroine by rescuing her from being gangraped by evil Asian and Arab businessmen. That was the entire external conflict in the story, and it came out of nowhere. It’s depressing how very often I have to DNF a book because my race is used in an exploitative way. The #1 thing that bothers me is the titillating-sexual-threat-by-man-of-color trope. This can range anywhere from an external plot device to an all-out epic slave-rape-fantasy, and when they sneak it in by surprise it’s worse than advertising it on the cover, because I can’t avoid it as easily. I feel very insulted by it, even physically slapped in the face. It’s like… you can’t even let women of color be a rape victim? We’re not even good enough to suffer, much less be happy? The story really needs a white person rape-threat for it to mean something narratively?
But I’ll forgive a lot of smaller things if the writer seems committed to writing complicated characters. For example, I’ve read a few AM/BW romances that were poorly researched because the Asian names were way off, even nonsensical. But the characters themselves had integrity and humanity, so I could overlook that and still enjoy the books. Often, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and I frequently see MC/IR books getting judged on standards that are way stricter than their all-white equivalents.
How could multicultural romance grow or improve? What role do you see your peers and publishing gate keepers playing in that growth?
LH: As long as authors continue to put out interesting, engaging, well-written and professionally edited stories, MC romance will continue to grow. It’s a genre that has almost a cult following but the publishing “gatekeepers” choose to ignore it for now… It’s not about the characters being black, white, Asian, or latino–it’s about them being relatable. And many MC romances out there are. But publishing chooses to see the color, not the content and thus it gets judged, packaged, and shoved into this “box”.
LGR: There are plenty of authors, so the market is practically saturated. I don’t know how you attract more readers. As far as improving, more of us need to pay better attention to the editing process. Additionally, underselling our work won’t help us in the long run.
AC: I think it could grow and improve with the assistance of the mainstream publishers. I don’t think they are the be-all, end-all, but, in general, having skilled and experienced editors working with MC romance writers will be a boon for everyone, especially readers, who have had to put up with subpar editing in MC/IR romance for years.
RR: As in any genre, improvement begins with individual authors continuing to learn, grow and improve our craft so we can put out the best product possible.
Growing the multicultural romance genre will take a multi-pronged approach. As writers we must continue to establish and support venues that celebrate multicultural fiction while also networking with mainstream tastemakers. I would love to see publishers offer more marketing support for authors of multicultural fiction. Even simple measures can have a huge impact. For instance, I find it astonishing that you can easily search for Amish fiction, BDSM or science fiction romance on a publisher’s website, but not multicultural fiction.
SA: I think romance is behind many other genres, such as written SFF, in terms of diversity and how willing the genre is to critique itself. There’s too much fear of judgement and shaming. And I don’t think this is entirely because the genre is geared towards women, because there are also genres geared towards men that have the same “ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME” circle-the-wagons kind of atmosphere.
So the first step is dispelling some of that fear so that people can actually speak their minds about the real problems. As it is, writers get tired, and we retreat, or maintain our artistic vision but resign ourselves to a small subset of the audience because we get hurt so much when we try to reach beyond that.
I’ve been lucky to have supportive publishers, for the most part. Publishers want books to sell, of course, so they’ll push you in certain ways. At Carina, I’ve never been pushed in a way that ultimately wasn’t good for the book. I like getting good, rigorous editing! But the e-book industry is in such constant flux that it’s impossible for anyone—even Amazon—to get a handle on how best to market books. They’re not racing cars, they’re surfing choppy waves in rough weather.
There are supportive publishers. There are great writers. There are hungry readers. But a lot of times, people are afraid of risk, and stay with known quantities. I understand that fear. I sympathize with it.
Two main strategies for progress are audience-building and what you might call “Trojan Horse”. Audience-building focuses on getting good books out to people who already want them. We need to promote and interact with the receptive reader communities. One example is the IR Group on Goodreads, where I’ve had some great conversations. There are blogs like Romance Novels in Color and awards like The Swirl Awards. I have a book coming out featuring a AM/WW romance, and I’m working on promoting the book to some Asian-American literary audiences that normally shy away from romance.
Trojan Horse is basically sneaking in your characters of color. And you know what? I’m all for it. People get excited about a trope, a plotline, a blurb, they buy the book… oh, and on page three it turns out the hero or heroine (or both) isn’t white. But they’re hooked, so they keep reading anyway. I actually like the trend towards abstract covers in romance for this very reason. This is a controversial thing to say, but honestly, I think the situation is so dire that whatever gets the books into readers’ hands, we need to go for it. Throw the kitchen sink at the problem.
Finally, Alyssa had the following question for the other authors: “With shows like Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, The Mindy Project, and The New Girl, it’s quite clear that diversity sells. Why isn’t this translating to publishing?”
LH: I think because there’s a huge misconception about MC romance. I won’t go into the many I’ve heard because there not true to just MC romance. These judgments, i.e. clichés, poorly written, etc, could be said about any romance novel. I think with publishing, it’s being forced into a niche that big publishers don’t either have time/money/interest to pursue so many of the MC authors are self-publishing and doing very well. Of course, however, it’s the big houses that gets a book the publicity and attention it needs to cross over into “mainstream” so until there’s a house willing to break down the walls put around “multicultural” romance we’ll continue to go unnoticed by the larger public that will miss out on a great romance story.
LGR: Shortsightedness and blind allegiance to old, wrongheaded beliefs.
AC: I think it will translate eventually, and it will come down to cold hard cash. Fox Television made a specific choice to diversify their show and they have enforced the choice. It is now paying off in cold hard cash for them. Publishers may be slow to get with the times, but I doubt they will pass up opportunities to make that money. Hopefully, the end result will be multicultural romance being taken more seriously and seen as being a viable choice for readers. All of those IchAbbie and Olitz shippers need something to read between episodes…
RR: That is the million dollar question. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do believe that the diversity we see in these shows will eventually have a ripple effect. For instance, I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of an African-American president on 24 “paved the way” for the election of President Obama. However, I strongly believe that his solid portrayal of the POTUS opened people’s minds and hearts to the possibility. So we’ll see what future has in store.
SA: I think it’s because of the long legacy of racism hanging over romance. You don’t have the same legacy hanging over television shows. In fact, we had more racially diverse television shows back in the 1970s, so in a way, what we’re experiencing now is only recovering what we used to have. Progress isn’t always linear—it moves in fits and starts.