Michaeline: Writing Multicultural Stories When Your Background is Monocultural

Colored crayons or beads, lined up.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

All of us Eight Ladies are white ladies.

I think as white writers, it’s difficult for us to understand what it’s like when a largely mono-cultural writer tries to jam in a character from a different culture in order to spice up a book, or attempt to be inclusive.

We can get a tiny taste of it in the Bollywood movie, Bride and Prejudice (2004). I love this movie and have seen it more than once, so I’m not complaining. I’d rec this movie to almost anyone because the writing is fabulous, the cinematography is gorgeous, and if you were moving in society in the 90s and early 2000s, there are universal themes that will resonate with you. (Heck, let’s not be so limited. Being based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, means many of the themes cross cultures and time. Time-tested and highly adaptable.)

However, among the deep characterization and fun interactions, there’s a white guy who reads like he’s a piece of cardboard. He’s a bit whiny and a bit shallow . . . and maybe he’s the white guy a lot of people from India see. He’s somewhat believable, but he’s the only white person in the whole production, and he’s not exactly the hero type.

And when you think about it, that’s really unfortunate because he’s Will Darcy . . . you know, Fitzwilliam-fucking-Darcy. The hero.

But only when you stop and think about it, because the rest of the show is heartwarming, and magical and full of subplots that (like Austen’s original book) portray characters in depth – good and bad.

One problem is that in romance, we often treat the hero as the Prize. Not always, but in quickly written novels, he can be just the cocky, heart-of-gold hot prize that the heroine gets for becoming her true self. Romance is written mostly by women, mostly for women, and sometimes I don’t mind the objectification of men as long as I get a satisfying story of triumph for the heroine.

If you are trying to pump out four books a year so you can pay the rent and feed your children, it might be understandable (from the Doylistic viewpoint, or as an author) that one might skimp on hero characterization and a few other things. Especially if this is only the author’s first (or third or fifth) book. But . . . that’s a discussion for another day.

I bring it up though, because a writer just embarking on their career might not have the time or money or networking to hire all the people necessary for making a great book. Or the time to educate themselves quickly AND write a great book (or even a mediocre book, for that matter).

And what if a story with a problematic character makes it through an established, mainstream process? For example, Pathe and Miramax film distributors. Or Berkley Romance? THEY have multicultural staff that have been professionally trained to advise writers. If even they can face scathing criticism, how can a shoestring organization (a self-published author and her posse of beta readers) avoid being humiliated if they make a mistake?

I’m sitting here on the sympathy fence. On the one hand, I feel for writers who want to do the right thing, but become famous for being really clumsy and awkward instead.

On the other hand, being a minority and being exposed almost constantly to monocultural materials that can only relate to my culture in very narrow stereotypes is frustrating. I am a white woman in Japan, and I don’t watch or read much in Japanese. I need at least two trusted recommendations before I’ll spend time on it. I know I’m missing some really great things, but on the other hand, I’m also missing some really crappy things as well.

I see on Twitter that this is also a strategy for some authors of color living in a predominately white country. In one Goodreads review, a reader said that they couldn’t finish the sample of a certain book. “Unless I see a tidal wave of Black reviewers endorsing this book, I’m not going any further.” (For what it’s worth, the book has a 4.1 star rating on Goodreads at this writing.)

And, it’s not a bad strategy. Writers have to write for themselves. Readers have to read for themselves, too. And in this age of self-publishing, we need influential self-published reviewers who can guide us to the best of the best, so critics have to critique for their own tastes, too.

Elizabeth: Diverse Voices (RWA Conference Wrap-Up)

Last week’s RWA National conference is over and I made it home with twelve books to add to my To-Be-Read pile, some fun memories, pages and pages of notes from the various workshops I attended, and a lot of things to think about.  There will undoubtedly be much cogitating here at the Writing Castle in the weeks to come.

Today, however, I want to start off with a few facts:

  • In its 37-year history (1982-2018) no black author won an RWA RITA award.
  • According to the RWA’s own research, black authors have written less than half of 1 percent of the total number of books considered as RITA finalists.
  • Pew Research survey from 2014 found that the person most likely to read a book of any genre is a college-educated black woman.

Do you see the problem?

If so, you’re not alone. Continue reading

Elizabeth: The RITA© Diversity Problem

Last week the list of finalists came out for this year’s Romance Writers of America RITA and Golden Heart contests.  There was much happiness by those who saw their names on the lists, but there was also an obvious, elephant-in-the-room issue out there that couldn’t be ignored.

For all of the talk and focus in recent years on diversity, there was a distinct lack of it represented on the lists of finalists.

The topic of diversity was front and center at last year’s RWA conference, with a number of the RITA and Golden Heart award winners specifically commenting on the lack of diverse-author representation in their categories.  That same conference also included a Diversity Summit attended industry professionals, RWA staff/Board members, members of RWA’s Diversity Committee, and other leaders within the organization who represent marginalized populations.  According to the RWA website, the purpose was to “share ideas, identify roadblocks, and reaffirm a commitment to fostering a romance genre that represents the wide array of authors and readers that love it.”

And yet . . . it doesn’t feel like much progress has been made yet. Continue reading

Elizabeth: 2018 Diversity Results

I had a different topic that I was going to post on today, but then I saw the latest survey results from the Ripped Bodice bookstore on the state of diversity in romance publishing and I got derailed.

For the past several years there has been an increased emphasis on diversity in romance fiction at writing conferences, on writing blogs (we had a series of posts on it last year), and in the mainstream media.  The issue was even brought front and center by several of the awardees at the most recent RWA conference I attended. Continue reading

Elizabeth: Diversity and the Historical

A while back I wrote a series of posts about diversity romance writing/ publishing which included a discussion about the recent decrease in the number of books published by diverse writers (aka PoC); recommendations for some diverse authors to consider when looking for that next book to read; a perspective about diversity in romance from a diverse reader;  and finally, some things to keep in mind when creating diverse characters in your writing.

I didn’t think I had anything else to say on the topic, but then there was the recent RWA Conference, where diversity and inclusion were in the spotlight – from Suzanne Brockman’s Lifetime Achievement Award speech to Kristan Higgins call-out on the lack of diverse finalists in the RITA awards, to an “invitation only” Diversity Summit where “high level publishing professionals, key contacts at major retailers, and members of the RWA staff and Board” talked about . . . well, something.

All of that got me to thinking, as did Nancy’s insightful More Thoughts on Diversity post earlier this week, and Justine’s blog-post comment below. Continue reading

Nancy: More Thoughts on Diversity

Unless you’ve been living under a rock AND falling behind on your 8LW reading, you’ve heard about Suzanne Brockmann’s stirring acceptance speech for her Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 RWA national conference. On Thursday, our own Kay summarized the speech and Brockmann’s career. This launched a discussion about writing diverse characters and including diverse experiences in romance fiction.

One of our Eight Ladies, Justine, disclosed in the comments her own trepidation about writing diverse characters in a meaningful, inclusive, and non-appropriating way. This sums up a lot the discussions the Eight Ladies have had on this blog and outside of it. And Justine threw in a twist – how do we respectfully and conscientiously diversify our historical romances? As I said in a reply to Justine’s comment, I have no answers or advice, just some thoughts and more questions of my own.

How bad would it be to write an historical world where women, and people of color, and characters with non-straight sexual orientations, and those with neurodiversities, and those with disabilities, are treated equally? Continue reading

Kay: Suzanne Brockmann at RWA 2018

Suzanne Brockmann

I was unable to attend the Romance Writers of America national conference this year, an event I haven’t missed in years. And it sounds like I missed a great speech.

Suzanne Brockmann received the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor she richly deserves. She’s written 57 novels, 14 short stories, and three screenplays. She edits a romance line called Suzanne Brockmann Presents. She co-wrote and directed an off-Broadway play and has produced four indie movies.

In romance publishing, Brockmann is well-known for her LGBTQ activism (her son is gay) and her stories about Navy SEALs. In her acceptance speech, she talked about her publishing career, as writers do in this circumstance. Continue reading