Note: Those dealing with the problem on a daily basis don’t need this post. I was debating about publishing this but my tweet on the subject is mentioned in Newsweek, so…here we go.
This year, one of the nominees in the inspirational category of the Romance Writers of America Rita Award for Excellence in romance fiction, For Such a Time, featured a romance between a Jewish concentration camp survivor and a German concentration camp *commander.*
In the end, both find God and convert to Christianity.
If you are appalled at that very concept, you’re not the only one.
Once the storyline of For Such a Time became widely known, there was an uproar that eventually caused the RWA to issue a statement about the inclusion of the book in the awards, which basically boiled down to “yes, we see the problem with this book but we can’t censor entries for content rather than quality, that’s up to the judges.”
Most of the blowback, especially outside the romance community, has not only come back to the author and this book but on inspirational writers and their stories in general. That makes me wince because there are so many wonderful inspirational novels out there with love stories that work beautifully.
But controversy is part of a larger discussion that we, as romance writers and readers, need to have about diversity in our books.
As someone who wrote a Jewish heroine, I have first-hand knowledge that the inspirational community isn’t the only one with a problem with Jewish heroines.
These are the judging comments I received this year in a prominent published RWA contest for my steampunk, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:
I would also advise the author to be cautious about bringing in religion into a novel if it is not necessary and is mixed with magic. Culture, including Indian, Jewish, or Christian, sure, but it can drive readers away if it is not essential to understanding the story. Although the author might believe some of those Jewish tenets are necessary to the plot like man being the head of the household in this historical context, those tenets are actually in other religions like Hindu and Christian at the same moment in time – which is why I’m suggesting to treat it more like a cultural/family history belief rather than a religious teaching within the context of any story. Quite frankly, who cared that August was Christian and wanting to marry our heroine? It didn’t really add anything nor add conflict.
When I first began reading these comment, I thought they would concern the dangers of cultural appropriation (as I’m not Jewish myself) and a warning not to cross that line, which would have been absolutely appropriate.
But it quickly becomes clear that what I was being told is that there had to be “a reason” for the heroine to be non-white or non-Christian. In other words, the book would be better if my heroine were Christian and not Jewish. WTF?
This is faulty and dangerous reasoning.
As one of my fellow panelists at the Diversity in Romance: Why it Mattters panel at RWA National last month said, diversity isn’t important only in providing a wider range of stories for everyone–g: changing people’s minds and hearts about those they view as “different” is literally a matter of life and death to people who live with this prejudice everyday, people like Sandra Bland.
Being a straight white Christian is only *one* of numerous choices authors can make for characters.
There doesn’t have to be a “reason” to write non-white characters.
Your characters simply have to be characters you’d like to write about. Period.
This false, insidious reasoning is an attitude that filters down from publishing to writers and has a chilling effect, leading to comments like the ones I received.
The fascinating part of all this is that this is the first *negative* comments I’ve received on this story about the heroine being Jewish. I’m not even close to a bestselling author but this book is my bestselling book.
What that tells me is readers are already way ahead of the curve.
But the purpose of sharing these comments isn’t to slam the judge or the contest or RWA. It’s to illustrate a problem. (ETA: Yes, I emailed the contest coordinator with a polite note that basically said ‘this is so not right’ but they never emailed back to even acknowledge receipt of my email.)
And to suggest some solutions:
1. We have to acknowledge and get this stuff out in the open so it can be shot down as myth and we can, as writers and readers, move past it. Bury this whole “but they need a reason to be…X.”
2. Two, we need to let publishing know they’re wrong for believing readers won’t read books about non-white/LGBTQ or other marginalized groups.
A great start would be to tell Harlequin to stop segregating romances written by black authors featuring black protagonists in their separate line. As Farrah Rochon said at the Diversity panel I mentioned above, it’s segregating pure and simple. All of Harlequin’s other lines are segregated by genre: suspense, spicy, sweet, etc. Only the Kimani line is “black” and has all romance subgenres in it.
Send an email to Harlequin about this at CustomerService@Harlequin.com
Better yet, send a snail mail to either
P.O. Box 5190
Buffalo, NY 14240-5190
P.O. Box 615
Fort Erie, ON L2A 5X3
I’m a romance readers and I love romances of all kinds. Stop the segregation and place black books by black authors featuring black protagonists in their proper subgenres.
It won’t solve every problem but it’s start.
3. We, as a romance community, need to have this discussion and, more, we need to listen to authors of colors, LGBTQ authors, and authors with disabilities about the change that needs to happen. Their voices must be heard. At the RWA Board meeting at National last month, the board established a diversity ad hoc committee. That’s also a start.
The very last thing that those of us who are straight, white authors should do?
Actively discourage diversity, as this judge did for this contest.
Don’t be that judge. Don’t be that person.