Can we talk about multicultural romance?

So, I subscribed to RT Magazine because of this headline:
RT Magazine February 2014
I was so stoked. Multicultural and interracial romance (they’re not necessarily synonymous) are topics I discuss passionately, but generally in safe, private spaces. It’s hard to discuss multiculturalism without getting sidetracked by politics because issues are so inextricably intertwined.

My worldview is colored by my roots. My ancestors have been mixing it up since they stepped off their boats on the East Coast. I’m a mix of innumerable African ethnicities, about 30% Euro-trash (I type that with as much affection as possible), and have a bit of “mystery flavor” (probably Roma).

That’s why I mix up my casts – both ethnically and culturally. Mixing is what I know, so I’m glad whenever more colorful romances, particularly those written by women of color, get discussed in mainstream periodicals.

However…the title of that article is a bit misleading. The story isn’t so much about multicultural romance so much as pushing mainstream readers to consume African American and interracial romance. While I’m all for that, I think the article conflated multiculturalism in romance with “reading diversely.”
Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 2.39.48 PM
I define multicultural romance as having two lead characters who have different cultural backgrounds. That could be nationality or ethnicity. A Jewish heroine from Brooklyn and an Italian, Catholic hero from Long Beach: I count that as multicultural as much as I count a Black American soldier with his Korean War bride. I do NOT define it as a reader consuming a book about characters who are different from her.

Shit, I do that almost every time I pick up a book. Very rarely is a heroine like me, and I like it that way.

Also, I didn’t even bother raising my eyebrows at the frequent references to lines like Kimani and Dafina. They always get brought up in these discussions because they’re established print lines from major houses, but those lines aren’t reflective of what’s happening in the greater industry right now. (And I think most of their titles aren’t so much multicultural romances as African American.)

I don’t submit to those lines, and it’s not because I don’t like them or think I’m not talented enough, but because my totally legit multicultural and interracial romances don’t fit there. cover art My Nora by Holley TrentI’ve got interracial and multicultural works at all three of my publishers. For instance, Crimson Romance has my contemporary romance My Nora, which is a really mainstream book that happens to have a Black heroine. She’s snarky: she’s not one of the “happy, shiny people.” Not only that, the hero isn’t wealthy or even well-employed, for that matter. He’s a fisherman and has no aspiration of upward mobility. (Category romance editors tend to like heroes to have their shit together, at least when it comes down to the J-O-B.)

That’s a story that would never have fit in with established print lines not just because of content, but because of my author voice. It’s been described by editors as everything from “fresh” to “funky.” Both of those f-words can be a hard sell to new audiences, and not only that, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with another f-word: FUCK. My characters say “fuck” a lot, and not just when they’re, well, knocking boots.

I digress.

There was a brief mention of authors are self-publishing the stories that don’t “fit” anywhere, and you know what? That should have been the focus of the article. That’s where multicultural and interracial romance thrives – in the self-publishing community. Sometimes, we know how to sell our books better than publishers do.

I think this article aimed for the stars but hit the trees. I feel like the feature would have been of better service to those mainstream readers who need to break out of their shells if the author – Ms. Bhattacharjee – had pulled more voices from the digital trenches. They’re telling relatable stories about waitresses, not just rock stars.

Fishermen, not football players.

Museum curators, not millionaires. (Heh.–>)Under His Kilt by Melissa Blue

These are stories that don’t always fit the mold of established category line tropes, and what about emerging South Asian-American authors (hello, Bollywood!) and second generation Mexican-American authors and others whose works aren’t just being ghettoized, but don’t even have a ghetto be discovered in?

Most romances that have POC casts that are coming out now won’t ever end up on bookstore shelves. They’re digital-first/digital-only, but none of those voices (many of whom have far huger audiences than I ever will) were given a nod in the article.

Still, I suppose it’s a good start. Awareness is key, and I do hope mainstream romance readers will stretch from their comfort zones. I just think part of the reason they’re stuck there is because the industry has exoticised stories that should never have been made “other” in the first place.


For more vigorous discussion about this topic that’s far more eloquent than I am today, check out these posts at Love in the Margins:
1 – Recommended Reads: Multicultural Romance
2 – Reading While White (The Finicky Reader)
3 – Multicultural Romance Roundtable