Multiculturalism & Romance

There have been a number of interesting discussions lately about the prevalence of white, straight, able-bodied and otherwise privileged characters in romance. This is a complicated topic and I don’t know if I can do it justice with a short comment. I also feel weird about entering a thread for readers and giving my life story, going on and on about my books etc. So I’ll do it here, where I’m expected to talk about myself! I’ve been neglecting my blog anyway.

The first thing I’d like to address is privilege. When white authors like me write characters of color, they get things wrong. The same idea can be applied to men writing women. Men don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. They don’t have to worry about their physical safety as much as women do. They make more money for the same job. They have male privilege, and any man who denies that is deluding himself.

White privilege is also undeniable. As a white author with a white name (Jill Sorenson, Whitest Name Ever), white people are more likely to read my books than those by non-white authors. This is my privilege. Even if I write about people of color, white people will assume that I’m doing it in a way that doesn’t upset them or make them feel racist.

What I don’t do, or try not to do, is exoticize or fetishize people of color. Some romance novels featuring POC are sweeping fantasies about dark sheikhs who overpower fainting white women. I’m not going to look down on that, but nor would I dismiss the complaints of POC about this stereotypical representation. Do real sheiks mind? I don’t know. It seems fairly harmless to me, but I’m a white person with a white perspective. Whether I approve of sheikh fantasies or not, I don’t write books in that style.

In the discussion I linked above, someone said that white people don’t have to think about race unless they want to. I’m going to disagree. I think about race every day. When I watch a movie without people of color, I notice. Race isn’t something I compartmentalize and ponder about when I’m feeling philosophical. It’s part of who I am.

I live in a diverse community and I’m part of a diverse family. Multiculturalism is important to me as a mother, a wife, and a resident of San Diego. I walk my daughters to school every day, and I run in my neighborhood. I don’t insulate myself inside an air-conditioned SUV. I don’t even own an air-conditioned SUV! If you can live in a border town without being confronted by race and culture, maybe your head is buried in the sand. Or, you are very rich.

What I don’t have to think about on a daily basis is prejudice. I’ve never felt snubbed because of my skin color. No one assumes I don’t speak English. The only time I have to deal with prejudice is when other white people make racist comments in my company, thinking I’ll be receptive to this because I’m Very White Looking. They are wrong.

Here are a few more ideas I’d like to respond to.

Some readers have said that half-white characters or mixed couples are more palatable to a white audience. This is not my motivation for writing characters like this at all. My husband is half-Mexican. Intercultural couples are the norm in my family and circle of friends. Almost everyone I know is mixed-race or in a mixed marriage/relationship.

Another comment was made about a “built-in” readership for multicultural authors. Asian authors have a built in readership of Asians, in theory. For Kimani Romance, most readers will be African-American. White people will read mostly white characters. I don’t feel that I have an additional or automatic reader base with Latinas. I wish I did. The reality is probably that my audience is made up of readers who normally read white characters, and the multicultural aspect narrows that base.

I can’t speak for other authors, but that is my feeling about my audience. Readers have said that they don’t look for authentic depictions of culture in romance. Too often, they are disappointed by stereotypes.

Two personal examples. My husband has a lot of female cousins in their teens and twenties. They read exactly what other girls their age read: Twilight. The Hunger Games. Harry Potter. If they’re looking for better representation, I don’t know about it. They do tease me about the sexual content in my books, which they approve of. 😉

When I was at the RT Convention last year, I signed books next to Kerrelyn Sparks. She had so many fans, many of them young Latinas. I sat there, unnoticed, with my gritty romantic suspense featuring a twenty-something Latina heroine. What could I do? Those girls wanted fun paranormals. They didn’t even glance at me. *weeps*

I didn’t know how to reach that demographic. I still don’t.

What I do know is that my readers have begged for stories featuring Eric Hernandez from The Edge of Night and Maria Santos from Caught in the Act. But those books haven’t sold like hotcakes, so I’m on the fence about writing sequels. I feel like I need a breakout hit first.

My next two books, Aftershock and Freefall, both feature white couples, but there are secondary characters of color. Actually, there’s a skinhead sort of guy in Aftershock and I’m nervous about how he will be received. I’m hoping to write a third book in that series, Badlands, with a Mexican-American heroine. I haven’t abandoned my interest in multicultural characters or race issues, although I’m trying a different tack. Wish me luck!

Sorry for such a long post. Did you make it to the end? You are awesome.

Thanks so much for the support so far, Dear Readers. It means everything to me.



Multiculturalism & Romance — 20 Comments

  1. I cannot say for anyone but myself. I am an Asian and not living in the US. But my ‘preferred’ read is a romance set in the US or Europe feathering whatever race characters except Asian.


    Because for me, reading is an escape and this is my preferred escape. I do not want to read anything that had any similarity with my life, which also means I do not like to read about accountant at all. I do not see any relation between reader’s race and character’s race to be connected at all. And I do not feel that author or film or anything had any responsibility to represent all races in their works. If people preferred to have that (all races in movie, book, whatever), it would reflect in sales and that is the best way to voice opinion.

  2. “Asian authors have a built in readership of Asians, in theory.”

    But not in practice. And I think that’s true in different degrees all over. A diverse range of readers are used to white being the default—the factory setting. I think the situation is gradually changing for the better, just very slowly….

    I do wish you luck!

  3. I admire that you jumped into the fray of a hot topic that always seems to get somewhat emotional.

    For me, I like reading stories with POC and stories set in different cultures. Before I read romance I read mainly translated books by Asian authors.

    I get what some are saying that AOC are shut out due to their race because that’s their experience and it’s probably the case for them with publishers.

    However, I don’t know of any reader who’s ever mentioned that they choose their books based on the race of the author. I don’t get that. That’s not even a consideration for me when I buy a book. And if it does enter it’s about wanting to read “authentic” representations of POC and MC. But I don’t check out the author first to see her/his race.

    What I also find true from experience but which will never be brought up on the DA thread is that within the lesbian romance genre there’s a high proportion of POC characters and POC authors represented compared to the het romance reading/writing community.

    And I think part of that is because already gay/lesbian is segregated and books within that with POC or MC stories/characters are easier to find.

    But also I think the GLBT writing/reading community is maybe more open to reading “other” than the white/het romance, which represents mainstream.

  4. Hi May,

    I’ve always enjoyed reading about people who aren’t like me. It’s interesting that some readers want the opposite, to see themselves reflected on the page.

    I have quite a few Asian readers (judging by reader emails) and I think that’s pretty cool. Welcome!

  5. LVLM, That’s a good point about GBLT romance. I’ve noticed a lot of diversity there and think the readership is more open to it.

    Do I check out authors for authenticity? Sometimes. If it’s a f/f story and the author pic looks like a porn star = fake. I assume most AA romances are written by AA women. I’m probably more likely to buy a POC book written by an AOC. I don’t blame readers for being fed up with stereotypes; it’s such a legit complaint.

  6. Violetta,

    I just wanted to add that I really loved Jeannie Lin’s Butterfly Swords. From what I’ve heard around blogland, a lot of other white readers enjoyed it also. I wonder if her readership is diverse or mostly white. And how would she know?

    I understand how a marketing dept. can say they don’t know what to do with (non-AA) multicultural romance, when more whites than POC (maybe?) are reading it.

  7. Great post, Jill. Honest and straightforward and thought-provoking.

    Everyone who writes gets something wrong. I write nonfiction and I joke to my students that the one constant of social science research is that we are going to be wrong. They think I’m kidding at first, and then they realize I’m not.

    You’ve spurred me to try and finish my half-done post on mixed-race characters and my problems with them. Not because I disagree with you, but because your honesty in your post is helping me understand where I’m coming from a little better. Thanks.

  8. I commented on the DA thread, but it’s very hard for me to articulate my thoughts clearly in an online context. I’ll give it another shot anyway.

    First, I’m not American, and I live in a country that has different ethnic and cultural divisions than the ones in the US. Obviously, it affects how I look at questions of multiculturalism in general and in the romance genre.

    What really came through for me in the DA thread is that the question is whether the important thing is to make the content more diverse or to ensure more opportunities for AOC (though I don’t understand why it’s presented as a choice). For me, I really don’t care what an author’s background is; I care what she puts into her books. I do want more variety and diversity in my reading material – I just don’t particularly care who writes it, so long as they get it right and in ways that are compelling to me as a reader. I realize that a reader whose experiences were different from mine will likely have a different take on what “getting it right” means. But Sunita is right: everyone will get things wrong; part of writing is learning to accept that you won’t be perfect. So no, I don’t think an author should limit herself to writing about people like her, and I didn’t like the implication that there is something exploitative about white authors writing POC characters. I want to see more authors include diverse characters in their books because multiculturalism shouldn’t be a niche; it should be part of the genre.

    Having a white sounding name might help your sales – I wouldn’t know – but because you choose to write multicultural characters, it may also be a hindrance, as some readers will automatically categorize your books as inauthentic based on your name or your author photo and look elsewhere. So you do not face the challenges an AOC might face, but you have other challenges: you might have to work harder to get the voice right, do more research, and deal with a different set of reader expectations.

    Finally, I don’t think the conversation about diversity in the genre should be so focused on specific types of diversity. Multiculturalism and diversity, to me, means that we should be seeing more racially diverse characters, sure, but also more religious diversity (where are the Muslims and Jews and members of other religions?), non-American characters and settings (beyond historicals Regency England), more variety in the characters’ ages, more people with disabilities… the focus on POC is, in my opinion, important – but it is also somewhat limiting.

    And please write Eric’s and Maria’s books. I will buy extra copies if that helps :)

  9. I don’t (usually) buy a book because of a particular ethnicity/setting – it can be a factor but it’s more if the story interests me, if the author has a proven track record to give me a good read. Possibly, I might also need to be able to relate to/find the hero attractive as I’ve discovered I’m a very hero-centric reader (but I haven’t given the latter a lot of thought – I don’t think that the heroine is a placeholder for me but I do like to “fall for” the heroes in a book – and now it is clear to all that I haven’t given this bit much thought!).

    I read your books because I like your writing. Whether or not they have multicultural characters is not a factor for me (perhaps it should be, but I’m being honest here).

    I am guilty of believing what I read about a multicultural character in a novel unless someone with authority tells me otherwise but I’m always happy to learn about diverse cultures too.

    I’m not sure I’ve added much to the discussion… :)

  10. Sunita, I’ll look forward to that post with great anticipation! I think you mentioned having some problems with Duke of Shadows, but I really like the hero portrayal. I also recently read “Santa Olivia,” about a fictional border town with a Latina/black heroine, and it just blew me away.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Meri. I don’t think my name is a hindrance, but I wouldn’t change it to something more ethnic. I’d feel dishonest.

    I’d love to see more diversity of all kinds in romance as well.

    And thanks for the enthusiasm for Eric & Maria!! In both cases I wish I had wrapped things up in a more satisfying manner. Hindsight.

  12. Thanks Kaetrin! You always add to the discussion!
    I think of myself as a heroine-centric reader but I like to “fall in love” with the hero also. If I can’t understand what he sees in her…fail. So they have to be a good match, and I’m harder on heroines/women because I expect a lot from them. Men, gah. I’m used to them making stupid moves.

  13. Someone recommended me to read your books, but I had to find out what your books were all about and came upon on your blog, and the topic above convinced me to read your books. I love romance, but I wanted to make sure your books are not about vampires. I am so burnt out on that genre.

    I am half asian half mutt. I really don’t identify myself with any race but “mutt”. So that means whenever I have to fill out forms about myself, I always don’t check or check “Other.”

    I will read anything that is actually interesting for me, no matter what race, alien, what have you, as long as the story sucks me right in.

  14. Hi Katherine, thanks for the kind words. I hope you enjoy my books! I know what you mean about forms. Sometimes I check more than one box for my kids. My husband always checks other or prefers not to answer.

  15. Hi Jill!
    I thought your portrayals of MC characters in Stranded with Her Ex (to me it will always be Shark Island) were very realistic. The team of experts included a range of people from varying backgrounds and experiences. I wasn’t thinking — hey, that’s a great Latina or Phillipino characterization. I was thinking that this group of people seemed true to any random group of peers I would see sit down at any university round table discussion. Or any random group of friends sitting down for dinner.

    Late commenting, but I was following the multicultural romance thread as well and what I got from it was that there is a split between AA romance and other multicultural romances. Specifically that African-American romance is separated out into its own sub-genre and market while other portrayals tend to be mainstreamed. There are both negative and positive market influences to that. There appears to be more of a defined AA romance market which has developed over the years and due to the efforts of many AA romance authors. However, the industry has separated that market out with separate category labels and sections and bookstores and with disturbingly narrow definitions of what should be included in the category depictions. (I would be so upset if editors, even if, and especially if those editors were Asian, were to tell me exactly HOW I was allowed to depict Asian culture.) The Kimani and Arabesque line definitions went way beyond the typical “we expect alpha heroes in powerful positions” type of suggestions.

    So with a market that has been pigeon-holed into a separate space for so long, I’m completely not surprised that AA romance authors and readers would have such a strong reaction to the thought that inclusion and more portrayals by big name authors would help the cause. The very way that AA romances have been marketed make it impossible–or at least highly difficult. The inclusion and mainstreaming mentality assumes that familiarity brings more readers to read non-traditional characters. But the marketing of AA romance has been focused on exclusion and narrowing of portrayal (at least in the category lines) not on the broadening of the audience. So even if it’s true in general that readers don’t care about the color of the authors, AA romances are marketed and shelved in a way that they won’t get into the hands of mainstream readers. I know this is an ugly word, but the separation has been “institutionalized” by the publishing industry.

    Since Latino and Asian characters don’t have a separate market (I’m shortening the list of MC descriptions here for brevity) they are shelved with everyone else. The flip side is that there is no specific identified readership like there is for AA romance and thus less sales, harder entry into the market, and higher perceived risk by publishers. The advantage though is that any reader, not just MC romance readers, can find the books. That’s a difficulty for AA romances.

    To answer your question Jill, the majority of my readers are the readers of the Harlequin Historical line which is mostly comprised of Regency, Victorian, European medieval, and American Western romances. That’s what writing for category buys you. :) Of those who sought my books out and have contacted me, I’d say they’re more likely to be unusual historical or Asian fiction enthusiasts — this includes both Asian and non-Asian readers. So I don’t feel the majority of my readers are Asian at all. On the other hand, the only people who have ever commented that they absolutely would not read any of my books no matter how good the reviews are readers of Chinese ethnicity. Tough crowd. :)

  16. Hi Jeannie,

    Aw, thanks for the kind words about “Shark Island.” Some of my books have more cultural flavor than others, but you make a good point. I loved Butterfly Swords for the romance and characters. The setting and cultural details added a lot though. I liked that uniqueness–it’s the reason I bought the book.

    I hadn’t thought about a lot of these issues in such depth before, so it’s interesting to explore the differences between marketing AA and other MC books. Thanks for your detailed response. I kind of figured that about your readership, and I’m glad I’m not the only one whose “built-in” readers aren’t interested!

    There is some overlap between my single-titles and categories. Some of my readers buy both. I can’t say how those groups differ otherwise.

    I said on twitter that my local B&N doesn’t segregate AA romance. I’ve seen readers argue for and against it, but I wouldn’t want my books shelved in a separate aisle.

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