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.