Celebrating Diversity in Romance (or Why #WeNeedDiverseRomance)

Havana by Bryan Ledgard

I’ve always enjoyed experiencing and learning about other cultures. Mediterranean, Thai and Indian foods are among my favorite. I am endlessly fascinated by the beauty found in other cultures. Ancient sculptures, paintings and architecture. Colorful, elegant saris. The beautiful, dark skin and naturally blonde hair of Melanesians, native to the Solomon Islands near Australia. The rich, multicultural diversity of Toronto. The colorful, yet harmonious structures characteristic of many cities in Latin America.

Having appreciation for other cultures has broadened my perspective, for which I am grateful. However, in recent years I made a surprising discovery. As the debut author of an African American romance, I discovered that I had read very little in the way of African American romance.

I know. Let that sink in for a minute. Because it hit me like a shit ton of bricks.

I Wish I Had a Red Dress by Pearl CleageAs a kid I was a voracious reader who spent more time in my neighborhood library than I spent outside. I adored Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Paula Danziger and my favorite, Judy Blume. But I can’t recall one book I read back then that had a protagonist that was black, brown, red or yellow. Nor can I recall reading fiction by an author of color.

While there weren’t a lot of books by people of color on the general shelves of my little neighborhood library (in an urban neighborhood, y’all), that was nearly four decades ago. Surely things have changed.

Uh…not so much.

There are a lot more authors of color and books with POC protagonists. However, they’re still not that easy to find. Unless you go looking for them.

And I wasn’t.

Like many open-minded readers, I just wanted to discover great books. Books that made me laugh and cry and swoon. Characters that stayed with me. Settings that made me feel like I was there. I wasn’t actively seeking black or white or Latino books. I just wanted to be lost in a fantastic story, and I expected those great stories to find their way to me. Very few of them had.

Over a period of ten years as an adult reader of fiction, I’d still only read a handful of women’s fiction titles by or about people of color. Floating by Nicole Bailey-Williams. 72 Hour Hold by Bebe Moore Campbell.  A Day Late and a Dollar Short by Terry McMillan. The Dirty Girls Social Club and Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. Good Hair and Who Does She Think She Is? by Benilde Little. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Babylon Sisters and Seen It All and Done the Rest by Pearl Cleage, whom I adore. An infinitesimal fraction of the chick lit, women’s fiction, literary fiction and romance I’d read during that period.

The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology by Kianna Alexander, Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart and Piper HuguleySo there I was, a bonafide POC author of multicultural romance who had read ZERO African American romances. Can you say #EPICFAIL ?

I realized I needed to make an active effort to discover books authored by POC authors and about characters of color. So when the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign arose last year in response to the lack of diversity on author panels at BookCon, it was a message I understand well. Kids of all races and ethnicities need access to diverse books.

The recent extension of that movement, #WeNeedDiverseRomance, started by KM Jackson, also hit home. Not only as a black author who wants to be widely read, but as a black reader who only recently discovered fantastic romance authors like Farrah Rochon, Beverly Jenkins, Brenda Jackson, Francis Ray and Rochelle Alers. This movement has also led me to discover fabulous authors of Indian, Asian and Latino descent. Authors I wouldn’t have discovered, had I not been actively seeking them.

So to those who question the need for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseRomance campaigns I say, all things being equal…things are by no means equal. When they are, we can celebrate the superfluousness of such a campaign.

Want to meet and connect with diverse authors and readers? Try an event like Romance Slam Jam or the Hot Multicultural Authors of the Mid-Atlantic (Hot M.A.M.A.s) Fly Hat Society Meet and Greet.

Photo of Havana courtesy of Bryan Ledgard.


Celebrating Diversity in Romance (or Why #WeNeedDiverseRomance) — 17 Comments

  1. Well said, Reese! All of us need books that reflect…us. I know it’s not the same thing, but I remember the first time I read a Harlequin romance novel that was set in Canada. Up to that time, everything I’d read had been set either in the UK or the US. They were great stories, but they weren’t about my world. But when romance novels started to be set in my own country, it was like “Yeah! We matter here! We have stories and we’re romantic,too!” Good on you for working to bring diversity to romance novels.

    • I totally get that need to experience a familiar sense of place, too, Jana. I was reading a sample of Renting to Own by our recent guest author Linda Rettstatt and I was so excited that the book takes place in Ohio, my home state. In fact, I’m excited every time I read a book set there.That was my one gripe during the height of chicklit. All of the stories were set in New York, LA or London. I wanted to see the Midwest respresented, too. :-)

  2. A great post, Reese, and reminds me of when I was a kid (in the early 1960s–cringe!). I didn’t look for or avoid diversity in the books I read, but even now I recall one by Elisabeth Hamilton Friermood in which one of the best-friends-teenage-girls (which were in all the books I read) was black and the other one was white. I don’t even remember which book it was, because I read all of Friermood’s, but I do remember that it made me think. And pay more attention.

    • I was right behind you, Liz! I’m a 70s baby. :-) I’m still mystified by the fact that I read so many books each week growing up, but I can’t recall any POC reads. At one point I was reading as many books per week as they would allow me to check out. Reading books about other cultures is eye-opening. I loved Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and Kim Wong Keltner’s romantic comedies about life as a Chinese-American woman trying to navigate two worlds.

  3. Thanks for the post Reese and so well said. I’m very much like you and only read what was readily available to me and came late to discovering the wonderful diverse romance writers out here. It’s a shame that the problem of discoverabily is still almost as difficult as it was when we were kids. I’ll keep hashtagging #WeNeedDiverseRomance until it’s no longer necessary.

    • Thank you for starting the #WeNeedDiverseRomance movement, Kwana! It is disappointing that not much has changed since we were kids. Here’s hoping the situation will be better for our grandchildren.

  4. Pingback: Why I'm the Poster Child for #WeNeedDiverseBooks

  5. Okay, off to one-click a Kim Wong Keltner book. If you haven’t read it, Lisa See’s Peony in Love was incredible and fascinating and heartbreaking. Fantastic post. I read a few books about POC as a child, but they weren’t written by POC. In school I read dead white men and a few dead white women. From my kids’ experiences, I know that’s changed, but the curriculum is still heavily weighted toward dead white men. I take that back. By the time my daughter had gotten to high school, Common Core had come into play, and they were only reading two books a year. One of those was usually written by a POC.

  6. Reese,

    My experience was similar. I loved reading and before I was twelve, Mills & Boone and Harlequin romances were part of my staple. By the time I got to high school, I started writing them myself, but until about 2009, I was not aware that there were romance novels written by black authors – part of the legacy of living on an island. Let’s say I’ve been trying to play catch up over the years. :)

    • I’ve been playing catch up, too. In doing so I’ve discovered that I really enjoy historical romances, like THE BRIGHTEST DAY Anthology, anything by Courtney Milan (LOVE her stories and voice) and books by Beverly Jenkins.

  7. Fabulous post, Reese, and you make such valid points. It was only when I started buying ebooks that I started discovering more books with POC and that’s only been in the past 5 years. There are so many diverse books out there and we should all be reading them.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Kiru! The growth of the e-book market has been particularly helpful in making books by POC authors and about POC characters more accessible to readers. Hopefully the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseRomance movements will continue to make readers aware of these books.

  8. Great post, Reese. And spot on. I think these movements will expose readers to authors they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. I’m especially interested in diverse romcoms in lit. I couldn’t find very many books in that genre with diverse characters so I wrote my own. I love helping to spread the word about new, diverse books, so I will definitely be using that we need diverse romance hashtag.

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