Race and Character Identification

I was re-reading the “What’s Hot in Black Romance” entry on Monica’s blog when this line in the interview with author Maureen Smith caught my eye:

“SMITH: Unfortunately, there are many people who won’t read multicultural romances because they don’t think they can identify with the protagonists.”

If this is true, that’s pretty damn sad because many romance readers enjoy historicals, and I think the average middle-class white (or in my case, light khaki) woman has a hell of a lot more in common with the average middle-class black woman than an aristocratic English girl living in 1811. People snapped up Memoirs of a Geisha when it came out, and man, talk about immersing yourself in a foreign culture, right? And The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is told from the perspective of somebody with Asperger’s Syndrome, ferchrissakes. And let’s not even get into how popular SF/F is, with its preponderance of characters who aren’t even HUMAN.

So the whole “I won’t read black romances because I won’t be able to identify with the characters” excuse doesn’t sound quite right to me.

I wonder why black genre fiction tends to be invisible? Actually, why is genre fiction so WHITE in general? I mean, I can name several literary lions who are Not Lily White: Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Ralph Ellison, Rita Dove, bell hooks. I can also think of other authors of literary fiction who come from various ethnicities, and these are names just off the top of my head: Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Gail Tsukiyama, Banana Yoshimoto, Arundhati Roy, V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan.

For romance authors, Marjorie M. Liu is the only recognizably Asian name of the lot that I can think of. Wait, hang on, just remembered: Karen Harbaugh and Shana Abe are part Japanese. And then there are a host of black romance authors, of course, most of whose names I’ve learned of through Monica’s blog: Donna Hill, Reon Laudat, Leslie Esdaile, Brenda Jackson, etc. Can’t think of a single black, Asian or [insert ethnicity of choice here] SF/F author, nor any for mysteries and thrillers, though I haven’t read extensively in the last two genres.

Anyone have any good theories on why minority authors (and characters, for that matter) seem drastically under-represented in genre fiction? If they’re not under-represented, why are they so low-profile? Any recommendations for good genre fiction (not just romance) by authors who are Other Than Anglo?

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  1. 1
    Ankah says:

    No theories here, however, one of my favorite vampire series (and I’m a big fan) is L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress Legends series.

    http://www.gravityintegrated.com/leslie.html

    Anyone looking for a new slant on a sometimes tired theme, L.A. Banks is your wo-man!

  2. 2
    Meljean says:

    One of my favorite SF writers is Octavia Butler—I’ll blog about her books at some point, because I have a strange, love/hate relationship with her book DAWN that I’d love to get others opinions on.

    I’ve just discovered Nalo Hopkinson in SF as well. (Actually, I guess she’s more fantasy hybrid than anything).

    As for why? I don’t have a good answer: poor marketing? a lack of interest in middle-white America who don’t want to identify with black middle America? In my case, before Monica’s blog is was having only a vague awareness of AA romances, and then not seeing them when I went to the bookstore, so they weren’t in my line of sight. I had to actively seek them to find them.

  3. 3
    Candy says:

    In my case, before Monica’s blog is was having only a vague awareness of AA romances, and then not seeing them when I went to the bookstore, so they weren’t in my line of sight.

    Exactly the same case with me. I did see a couple of Beverly Jenkins books one time and I gave them my 15-page trial, but they flunked. After that, black romance authors weren’t even a blip on my radar until the All About the Coochy brouhaha ‘sploded between Monica and LLB. So I guess I have to Thank the Coochy.

  4. 4
    Beth says:

    My theory: it’s not about identification; it’s about fantasy. White people don’t generally fantasize about being black (or any other color), butthey DO fantasize about being rich and having servants and stuff.

  5. 5
    Sarah says:

    Candy and I had a long email conversation about this, and I’m sure this will light the fires of hell under my ass and cause much flame-bombing of the site for my response, but here it is. Back in grad school, in fem crit class, we discussed black feminist theory, and I had to say in class that some of the issues present I could relate to entirely. But other elements of the struggle for black feminists, I didn’t feel like I had a full and comprehensive understanding. I compared it to my glasses prescription, in a trite and probably callous way: I wear a prescription built from years of wearing glasses, and that’s the lens through which I can see the world. I can try another prescription, another way of seeing the world, but it won’t match my (optical) history as well. Some things I’ll be able to see; other things I won’t.

    I can put on the lenses, so to speak, of black feminist criticism, and apply it to various works, but as a white chick, did I think I was going to fully appreciate the nuances and more subtle struggles of a black woman? I thought it was beyond egotistical to assume that I could. Of course, at the time, the whole class jumped on me for being an insensitive racist.

    So I’m a racist apparently. But I still hold that there is some huge ego involved in the idea that I would be able to appreciate feminist struggle from a racial perspective in which historically, my race is the oppressor. Can I appreciate feminist struggle? Sure. I’ve experienced it. Can I appreciate oppression? Sure. I’ve experienced some degree of that, too. I’m Jewish – surely you’ve heard stories about oppression of Jews. Can I appreciate what it truly means to be black in America? Yes – but that knowledge is not from experience.
    It’s from empathy, which is different. Useful, and often employed, but not the same as experience.

    So when approached about the idea of reading black romance, I confess that my first thought was, “There’s going to be stuff I don’t get.” Did I think black romance was going to be filled with heroines whose issues I couldn’t relate to, whose references and perspectives I wouldn’t understand? To be honest, yeah.

    So I read a black romance. And I was wrong. As Candy pointed out, attraction, romance, love, and sex are all elements that transcend race, and certainly that commonality is a large area from which to increase one’s understanding. And really, I need to get over myself and get past the idea of racial understanding and conquering racial differences when all I’m looking for is a hot love story. Luuuuuurve certainly crosses race boundaries.

    I don’t have an answer as to why minority authors are underrepresented in romance and genre fiction in general. It’s not like I limit myself to white authors only. But it is interesting that only recently have black publishing imprints gained a larger market share – and a greater portion of their publishing houses’ budgets. the fact that there are publishing imprints devoted solely to black romance, however, is an excellent thing. Perhaps in a few years we, the readership, will have been exposed to more black romance authors.

  6. 6
    Sarah says:

    And my apologies for the bad formatting!

  7. 7
    Candy says:

    Oh, and Ankah: The library has the L.A. Banks books! HELL YEAH.

    Ohhh, my TBR is spinning out of control. Not that I’ve had control of it since 1999, but still.

  8. 8
    Candy says:

    My theory: it’s not about identification; it’s about fantasy.

    Beth: you’re on to something.

  9. 9
    Jade Lee says:

    Hello Ladies.  Just wanted to mention that I am, unfortunately, the only Chinese romance author I know that writes CHINESE characters.  (Both Marjorie Liu and Genita Low write white characters).

    Jade Lee is my name and I write historical romance set in Shanghai, 1898.  I’ve got a Tigress series, but the only book that is out so far is White Tigress (Jan 2005) and hallellujah, people are loving it.

    And guess what, lots of people are talking about “wow, where are all the Asian characters?  Ru Shan (my hero) was really sexy.”  In fact, I actually got interviewed by Audrey magazine (think Vogue for Asian Americans) on this very topic.

    So the answer?  1) PUBLISHERS don’t think Asian characters will sell.  (Guess I’m proving them wrong—thank you Leisure Books)  And 2) “Asian” covers a lot of ground.  Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, even Hawaiian.  And if you think the above includes a unified culture, you’re wrong.

    At least with African American (AA)romance, there is a huge network of AA readers who want to support their sisters.  Same with Latino romance.  But the Chinese, for example, often won’t buy Japanese and the reverse (lots of bad blood between the two countries).  Speaking of which, there’s a Japanese woman who writes for St. Martins and is doing mysteries set in feudal Japan.  What was her name?  I don’t know because my mother would beat me with her cane if she found out I was buying Japanese.  (I borrowed from a friend).  And yes, that’s made getting electronic components difficult.

    Anyway, I’m just popping in to say…great blog, and I write Chinese romances.  Have to have a white hero or heroine (east meets west, my editor kept saying), but at least one of them gets to be Chinese.  And the setting is VERY Chinese.

    Jade

  10. 10
    Jade Lee says:

    BTW, if one of you would like to review White Tigress, let me know.  I’ll send you a copy and then wait with breath held for the answer.  Can you identify with a Chinese hero?

    Jade

  11. 11
    Marg says:

    I think the Japanese author you are talking about may be Laura Joh Rowland. She has written a whole series of mystery novels around her central character called Sano Ichiro, and they are set in 1600s Japan.

  12. 12
    Jade Lee says:

    That’s the one!  Laura Rowland.  Thank you!

    jade

  13. 13
    Candy says:

    Jade: Thanks for piping up. Very cool, I’ll have to check out your book. 1898 Shanghai. Hot damn.

    I had no idea Genita Low was Chinese. It looks like she writes about Navy SEALs, which aren’t really my cuppa.

    My parents don’t care too much about the Japanese thing. Actually, they don’t care about what I read, really. The only interracial thing that would freak them out would be if I dated a Malay man and converted to Islam ;-) and since I married a white dude, I’m at least safe from THAT (even if he’s not the nice Chinese doctor/lawyer/businessman/engineer they were hoping for).

  14. 14
    Candy says:

    Jade: I’m Chinese, AND HELL YEAH WE WOULD LOVE TO REVIEW YOUR BOOK. Sorry to get all shouty, but I’m really excited. Shanghai! 1898! Gimme gimme gimme!

    Drop me a line, and I’ll give you my address.

  15. 15
    Ankah says:

    Jade, I’m Interlibrary loaning White Tigress right now. Can’t wait to get my little mitts on it!

  16. 16
    Sarah says:

    I’m not Chinese! But Candy is! And did she mention she was BORN in 1898?

    hee- just kidding Candy.

  17. 17
    Ankah says:

    uh oh. Jade, you don’t mind if I get it from the ‘brary, do you? I promise I will spread the word to my non-library-using (gasp! gasp gasp!) romance buff friends.

  18. 18
    Nicole says:

    Gennita Low has some great characters.  Doesn’t Mia Zachary, a Blaze author, write black characters in her books?  I’ve enjoyed her books and characters. 

    Jade Lee…your book looks quite interesting.

    I’ve read one of LA Banks’ stories in an anthology and didn’t really like it, so I didn’t pick up her series. 

    Hmm…interesting post.  Makes me want to expand my reading tastes even more.

  19. 19
    Jade Lee says:

    Of course I don’t mind if you get it from the library.  Please do!  That way the library will buy more of my books too!

    Jade

  20. 20
    Tara says:

    I am always curious as to why so many people think they cannot or should not read a book because they are not the main character or author’s background. People should take look at that as a great way to learn about something new via a familiar medium, romance. Black women (as well as other ethnic groups) have been reading romance novels for years, despite the fact that the majority of the romance novel writers and characters are white. If non-white women can find something to identify with in romance novels with white characters, surely it works both ways. There is more ways to identity with a character than what they look like.  I am a biracial woman and have been reading romance since I was 12.  I have found that love, sex, friendship, etc is a pretty universal.

  21. 21
    Ankah says:

    Oh goodie. I’ll have to put in a request that we buy it for our collection, as well. Oh, the power the Librarian has!

  22. 22
    Megan says:

    I was waving my hand in the air about to shout out Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinton, but someone beat me to it. I love Butler (my biracial cousin wrote her senior thesis on one of her books, which I recommended to her). I would love to read more multicultural books, I liked a couple of Bebe Moore Campbell’s books, and disliked one intensely. I know Barbara Gale has had a few category romances featuring a black hero, and Alison Kent has had non-white characters. I like the ‘romance is a fantasy’ theory Beth (?) cited above. Since I read primarily historical romance, finding non-white characters is a challenge. In genre, Walter Mosley is awesome, I cannot think of another mystery author…maybe Chester Hinds, although I didn’t care for his writing all that much. George Pelecanos, although Greek-American, writes black characters who take equal time in the action as the white characters do. I’m psyched to get some recommendations from others, too.

  23. 23
    Jorie says:

    Let me second Octavia Butler.  She’s one of the few authors I reread.  Wild Seed (fantasy) is amazing and her Xenogenesis trilogy (sf) is also very good, especially the second one. 

    Meljean, I’d love to see you blog about Butler.

  24. 24
    Candy says:

    I have put Dawn: Xenogenesis on hold at the library.

    I almost feel like yelling STOP WITH THE RECOMMENDATIONS ALREADY I’M DYING HERE and then remembered I asked for them in the first place. Why hello, petard, you look ready to hoist me.

  25. 25
    Kate says:

    What I find depressing is no one has ever asked me how I could write from the point of view of a murderer (hero of the ebook) but at least three people have questioned why I think I could identify with a Black woman. (The heroine of my second book is mixed race.)

    I couldn’t tell if the three times I’ve been asked were actually guff or honest questions. Or both.

  26. 26

    whoops, nothing to do with the question you were asking.

  27. 27
    Candy says:

    Nonono, Kate, what you’ve just said illustrates my point: people tend think race is this HUGE stumbling block when it comes to character identification/empathy/POV when I can think of about a million other things that would interfere more than race—psychopathy and sociopathy being two of them. Gender would be another one. I’d find it harder in a lot of ways to understand/empathize with what men go through, even men of my race, than what another woman has to go through of ANY race. But maybe that’s just me. And hey, it doesn’t prevent me from reading and enjoying books by, about and oftentimes largely targeted for men.

  28. 28
    Monica says:

    Wow, 25+ comments!  My theory on why white folks don’t read black romance basically goes along with the fantasy thing.  Not may whites can/want to fantasize with being a black women or having hot sex with a black guy (now that’s a loaded topic), while historical, native Americans and even cold dead vampires are fairly safe.

    How I would like to see black romance treated like any other romance.  Instead of looking solely at the race of the characters, look at the story and plot, look at the author style and reputation. 

    If you like vampires, check out LA Banks.  If you like paranormal and a few demons, scary moments and magic turn you on, try out my book (and my next) for chrissakes.  For romantic comedy try Reon Delaudat—romantic suspense Lynn Emery—at least give us the 15 page test!

    Freaking white review sites and readers try a black book or two.  Be fair and unbiased, and at least keep reviewing them until you find something you like! 

    There is an unfair perception that black romance is substandard and I think that contributes to the problem a great deal. 
    This sort of goes along with some Americans conviction that black stuff across-the-board is substandard, period. 

    When I browse white readers blogs or sites, it’s as if the large amounts of black romances released every month simply don’t exist.

  29. 29

    They’re mysteries, not romance—though there is a touch of romance in them—but Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January books are amazing. She can do atmosphere like no one else (1800s New Orleans is a whole character in her books). Plus January is a hero to die for.

  30. 30
    Monica says:

    Barbara Hambly’s period mysteries are fantastic, as is Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley (mystery), Tananarive Due (horror). 

    This brings me to another observation—do you notice how some black authors, even though few, have risen in other genres, but it’s NOT the case in romance?  I think it’s the fantasy/identification thing again.  People can enjoy Jame Patterson’s black detective, but that smae detective in a steamy love scene bonin’ some heroine that you identify with as yourself—oooh, that’s a whole new variety of worm bait.

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