I received this email from Jan Oda, who is looking for a particular type of romance. Her request gave me a lot to think about.
“I was going through my old HP's, and I bumped into Sun Lord's Woman by Violet Winspear. It's an HP from the 80s, but I quite like it because of its subject. It starts out as a typical Sheik romance, but the conflict is very original. Linda's mother was Jewish*, and when Karim finds out he's distraught that they married, because of his position as an Arab leader and the everlasting conflict. In the end, love conquers all however, and they live happily ever after, no matter their ancestry.
I was really surprised that an HP could touch on a subject so sensitive, and not screw it up completely (it's not very nuanced nor deeply explored, but it's there). So I got thinking, I want to read more books like this. Where characters are prejudiced and discriminating, but where love overcomes those feelings. I think I'd prefer it if it were the hero and heroine themselves who were prejudiced, but I'm interested in books where it's the supporting cast and surroundings as well.”
“I'm not a religious person myself, so I'm not only interested in stories featuring religious based conflicts. Interracial and multicultural relationships seem like a very good ground for this kind of conflict as well, because unfortunately racism is still everywhere.
And I read basically everything, so it can be paranormal as well, with animal shifters bigoted against other animal kinds; or sci-fi with different species of aliens… Anything goes, from historical to contemporary to time-travel and alternative universes.
As long as the basic/main conflict of the story is built around the prejudice the H/h feel when they first meet, or realize their difference, and how they overcome those feelings, I'm interested.
I think it's the perfect time of the year to read about tolerance and love, so I was hoping you (or the Bitches in general) could help me with this.”
[*Many Jewish denominations focus on matrilinieal descent: if your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish, the theory being that one always knows who the mother is, while the father could be a mystery. The idea of the heroine's mother being Jewish means the heroine is also Jewish. These customs were obviously born before DNA testing, though they continue today. Additional data if you're curious: Some denominations, including some Reform and Reconstructionist congragations, recognize patrilineal descent and do not require children with a Jewish father to formally convert. However, some groups don't always recognize or honor the practices of another.]
Back to Jan Oda's query. I really wonder if it is possible to bring a character back into a higher level of esteem in the reader's eyes if that character is prejudiced or discriminating. This goes deeper than “I was wounded by a woman so all women are bad,” and way past, “I have blanket shallow assumptions about you and your culture that are easily corrected because I don't actually hate you or anything.”
I recently read Sarah Anderson's A Man of His Word, a romance wherein the heroine was Native American, and the hero was from far outside the local community near the reservation. He wasn't prejudiced at all, just blind to some of the consequences of going out with her. In one scene, he takes her to a bar in a rural town outside her reservation. People were openly hostile to her, and cruel. The hero didn't see it until they were already in their seats and he noticed that everyone was staring at her. Then he felt badly. He wasn't intentionally ignorant or trying to be cruel, but the end result was the same for the heroine, who was humiliated (and later in danger) (because what book isn't improved by a fight scene, right?) and pretty sure she should never leave the reservation again (which is exactly what the localholes wanted). Yet that anti-Native American prejudice isn't revisited really by the end of the book, except that the heroine has options. She could leave and go home with the hero, for example, but it stayed in the back of my mind that her family would still face those hateful people if they left the reservation. It was both a welcome and troublesome introduction of prejudice as a reality: there isn't a solution for it, really, for anyone. Boneheads will be boneheads until they die out and their prejudice is replaced with another bonehead prejudice in another generation.
Clearly I am feeling all kinds of optimism today, huh?
Similarly, Pamela Clare's The Naked Edge features a Native American heroine and some very scary scenes of the cruelty she and her family face from locals who just plain hate them for being Native American. Yet I don't know if I can recall a novel that presents (hur hur) an Arab hero and a heroine who is Jewish, or vice versa.
Jan agreed as we corresponded on the topic:
I agree that it's a hard theme to pull of well, because racism and prejudice are such very distressing topics, and not something we want to see in our hero or heroine. At the other hand, Romancelandia is filled with redeemed villains and asshole alpha's who turn into lovable men thanks to the heroine, so in theory it should be possible with bad traits like this as well. There's been Romances focused on prejudice against working females (you know, the alpha tycoon who doesn't believe the heroine is capable, just because she's female). Sexism is a prejudice like any other, and we encounter heroes who see the light in this area and redeem themselves. So again, in theory, I do believe other kind of prejudices could be addressed as well (and if they aren't yet, they totally should).
I do think there might be a scale difference when it comes to racism and prejudice however. Maybe active and passive? I don't think a member of the KKK or a Nazi could ever be redeemed, because they truly felt that way and acted on it (and did horrible things). Someone who has been brought up in a climate of prejudice however without encountering different points of view is basically doomed to be prejudiced until he/she encounters that different POV, and then he/she should be judged on how he/she acts from that moment on.
Since today everybody can technically be immersed in all different POVS, this might not be a believable scenario for contemporary romance, but it definitely is for historical romances or speculative romance.
(Shelly Laurenston touches on this with her Pride series, where hybrids are terribly discriminated against by pure shifters of any breed, and in Beast Behaving Badly a bunch of them are actually put down, because there's nobody to stand up for them. Unfortunately that wasn't the main focus of the story, because I thought it was something really worth exploring).
I think it could be a really powerful plot line, and a source for such a huge amount of character developement and growth (which I always like in my romance) I really hope there are books like this out there.
Me, too. I'm curious to see if there are any recommendations for books that are brave and different, and take on a really ugly perspectives, perhaps held by the protagonists, and change them. That's tricky, especially since the reader has to ultimately believe that within the space of the story enough has changed in that character's world view that their feelings will consistently overcome their existing prejudice now and in the future after the story ends. That's a little different than learning to see things differently after one's ignorance has been corrected.
It's almost a question of optimism: can someone change their entire world view, even if everyone they know and love does not? I think in romance we'd like to believe that it's possible, particularly when real life demonstrates otherwise, but it takes some real skill on the part of the writer to pull it off – especially in the limited word count confines of a category!
So, anyone have any recommendations for books that feature characters overcoming deep and potentially explosive prejudices based on culture or heritage that are overcome by love and the happily ever after?