Guest Post: The Diversity Thorn – Ethnic Identity, History, and Historical Romance

Sarah: I had a long conversation via email with Asha Ganesan that culminated in her writing this guest post that addresses her desire for more inclusive representation in historical romance and supports her argument with data and external sources. I just heard you perk up in your chairs, didn’t it? Oh, yes, data!

Welcome, Asha, and thank you for being part of our community.

This thoughtful guest post comes from Asha Ganesan. Asha is a social psychology Ph.D student in Sydney by way of Iowa (born and raised in Malaysia), currently working on research related to stereotypes of ethnicity and gender, and how cultures evolve. She’s relatively new to romance, in comparison to many seasoned readers of the genre. She says that the genre itself feels more like a movement with its extensive online presence. As she’s someone who works in understanding people in everyday situations, Asha also became interested in what motivates romance readers and women in general and what their views are on gender roles. Also, she thinks readers have the power to ask for changes that are inclusive, which in turn helps us empathize more with experiences of people who are different from us. Finally, she says, “Diversity is not just a buzzword, it was a part of history and it is the reality that we live in now.”

Historical romance (HR) has a major diversity and accuracy problem. The problem stems from assumptions that have been passed down through the lineage of HR (though these assumptions are not exclusive to this genre). The assumption is that branding a story “historical romance” includes some representation of “historical accuracy.” It does not.

I have noticed on threads and on Goodreads, commenters often respond to concerns about racism and sexism in HR as being accurately reflective of that particular era. From my perspective, this is major cherry-picking and a deeply flawed argument, because the lack of diverse characters (including diversity of ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, but I am focusing on people of color – POC – for this discussion) is also often assumed to be (and defended as!) representative of that particular era.

In reality, HR represents some made up notions of what POCs were like in that era, which are (not surprisingly) actually pretty close to the stereotypes that most people have about POCs today.

In 2014, The Atlantic discussed how the difference within book reader demographics between White and Black readers was not statistically significant. In other words, by population size, readers were and are not more represented by one group over the other.

The quantifiable reality is that writers are now catering to a more diverse audience. But within HR, the characters remain steadfastly and almost exclusively White, even though the population of that time period was not.

Let’s make this quantifiable (I refrained from using sources that would be behind a paywall like academic journals or books, but some of these sources have links to them). Here is the minority population breakdown based on England’s migration data in the 1800s (note that census at the time is considered unreliable for migration data):

  • Americans in Britain (1881-1889): 16,000 – 19,000
  • Africans in Britain (~1800): 14,000 – 20,000
  • Indians in Britain (~1850): 40,000

Sources: Wikipedia; BBC; Migration Watch UK

So, Indian immigrants outnumbered American immigrants by more than a 2:1 margin, while Africans immigrants have comparable numbers to Americans. And yet, if HRs were truly “historically accurate,” why do we have proportionately more stories with Americans characters (usually heiresses), but not Indians? Not only have Indians historically served as seamen, diplomats, businessmen, and officials (the first non-White MP was elected in 1892), but they are also better represented in the population.

In other words, it’s disingenuous and deceitful to defend a character who is racist or sexist as “historically accurate,” while at the same time defending stories populated entirely by White people as “accurate” as well.

It’s hard for me to examine population numbers and HR and not think the discrepancy has something to do with writing and reading what’s comfortable for the general Western population. And I am certainly not the first to point this out. For a more powerful condemnation, read Zora Neale Hurston’s What White Publishers Won’t Print, which begins:

I have been amazed by the Anglo-Saxon’s lack of curiosity about the internal lives and emotions of the Negroes, and for that matter, any non-Anglo-Saxon peoples within our borders, above the class of unskilled labor.

This lack of interest is much more important than it seems at first glance. It is even more important at this time than it was in the past. The internal affairs of the nation have bearings on the international stress and strain, and this gap in the national literature now has tremendous weight in world affairs. National coherence and solidarity is implicit in a thorough understanding of the various groups within a nation, and this lack of knowledge about the internal emotions and behavior of the minorities cannot fail to bar out understanding. Man, like all the other animals, fears and is repelled by that which he does not understand, and mere difference is apt to connote something malign.

Because I am a romance reader, I am speaking of romance, specifically HR. There is a whole population of us (whether in the West or East) who want more from HR. And that more is very possible, and in fact probable.

There is historical evidence to show that there were British men who had Indian wives, and White women married and had children with Indian men. In one example, Sake Dean Mahomed (who opened London’s first Indian restaurant and introduced shampooing to English baths) converted to Anglicanism to marry his wife, Jane Daly, because the law at the time forbade Protestant and non-Protestant marriages.

So why is it so unbelievable in a HR? If we are capable of suspending reality when it comes to our handsome rake alpha not being even slightly physically affected by his debauchery and we are willing to overlook the deus ex machina in many of our favourite books (twin-swapping? Windfall? He wasn’t a commoner after all?), is it really too much to ask to make one of the MC’s lover an African woman? To make his wife Asian? To have a character be a cunning Indian businessman – villain or hero?

Personally, I have no issues if POCs were shown in the capacity reflective of that time (i.e., lower status), but right now, for the most part we have a barren wasteland where these characters have been completely erased from most HR, as if they weren’t a part of society at all.

If HR is really meant to be accurate, then there should be more diversity in its stories as that is accurately representative of the England’s population of that time. Moreover, if HR is meant to be fantasy/fiction, including diversity shouldn’t bother anyone nor should it become a chore.

Some may ask, “Why do we need diversity? These are stories about people, not race-based social commentary.” The sad part is that the lack of diversity itself is race-based social commentary.

I’m using Indians in England again as an example to illustrate my point. There are thousands of HR books with White characters, more books than the average person can read in their lifetime. Regency/Victorian HR books with POCs as central characters? I’m pretty sure I have read all of them because they amount to less than 20.

TV shows with Indians are central characters in the last 5 years: around 5. This doesn’t even address whether the central characters had depth and were not exotified or other areas like video games and comics, sci-fi & fantasy books.

The Heiress Effect
A | BN | K | AB
For me as a reader looking for any representation outside of White characters, I was almost in tears reading Courtney Milan’s Anjan Bhattacharya in The Heiress Effect having his own chapters, where he wasn’t always shown through other characters’ perspectives. I was also gleefully watching Aziz Ansari’s Master of None episode where there was a flashback to his father’s childhood in India. Neither character was treated as a social commentary exhibit or an exotic device, but as a human story.

I admit, it is likely a struggle to write about a group of people one doesn’t know. I am not a writer, but I am a researcher. So I know this problem is not just for fiction writers. But citing “lack of resources” or “I didn’t know” is not an adequate excuse for me anymore because it took me all of 10 minutes to look up the research and statistics for this write-up. At its core, diversity is about listening, reading, and understanding diverse stories. Love, lust, affection, and intimacy are not exclusive rights belonging to a particular group, even in a historical context. They do not have to be entrenched with social commentary.

To assume English historical love stories should focus solely on the upper-class, White aristocracy is myopic, limiting, and for me, rather uninteresting. The fact that there are individuals out there who make unsubstantiated assertions about an all-White Regency/Victorian England, as reflected in HR writings, is evidence enough as to why diverse characters are needed.

these emotions and experiences have not included me quoteThe default assumption about the Whiteness of England sits uncomfortably with a lot of POCs in part because historically, records and stories are written by individuals in positions of power. The truth is often only known through close examination of unbiased records taken by few individuals and interestingly enough, military records, during that time. Yes, England was a White-majority country, but that doesn’t mean interracial marriages, relationships, and births did not happen. Because, yes, interracial relationships were frowned upon and illegal, they likely went without substantial documentation – but they happened. Here is a brief example with Black British immigrants.

As a similar example, the documentation during colonial times can also be tricky, due differences in language and naming conventions across different countries. (To see an example of how tricky it is, watch the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Persuasion’s Rupert Penry-Jones discovering his Anglo-Indian heritage from the 19th century). This intermingling of ancestry between the English and POCs from their colonies is a well-known matter to geneticists and historians as well.

The point here is this: we readers want to see ourselves in characters we read in Historical Romance.

At one point, I did feel like I saw myself. But the more HRs I read, the more I started feeling like an outsider. I no longer experienced the dizzying highs because I realized these emotions and experiences have not included me and will likely not include me whether I am in Regency England or in real life.

In Regency England, someone like me would have no place in aristocracy (unless I’m passing for White or from the British Raj) and most HRs still focus on the aristocracy. In present day life, Indian women (and many Asian, South American, and African women as well) are often stereotyped as being repressed, submissive, or speaking with heavily-accented English. Isn’t it ironic that all the POC women I’ve read about in HRs and contemporaries stick pretty close to these stereotypes? Either I’m not present in the story at all, or, if a character attempts to resemble me even a little, it’s a limited, prejudiced representation that is so far from reality it isn’t me, either. I remain invisible. It also makes the character hard for anyone else to empathize with because it’s just a caricature.

I don’t want to be a special snowflake. In books, I want see POCs as people, heroes, villains, lovers, con-artists, or children, not as a social issue that needs to be addressed. Yes, I belong to minority groups, but beyond that, I am an individual and I would like to see characters that are supposed to “represent” me being treated as a whole individual, with strengths and flaws.

So, to summarize: historical romance was likely never meant to be historical fact, given how selective the “accuracy” of these stories has been. Let’s not mislead ourselves into thinking so and using that as a reason to exclude diverse stories. We were present in Regency England. We are present now. And we want to be included.

Comments are Closed

  1. KJ Charles says:

    This is a great piece and I couldn’t agree more. As a white Brit I find it enraging to see my country’s history presented as all white and mostly upper class; it’s just not right. London in particular has records of POC here as far back as we have records, and a ton of work is currently being done to bring those stories to light.

    And we are missing out on so many interesting stories. Bill Richmond, the boxer, started life enslaved, became first a free small businessman then the first black sporting megastar with a huge following and fights attended by thousands. He had a very happy marriage, and was in the guard of honour for the Prince Regent at his coronation. Imagine that as a romance!

    Just one crit, which actually supports your argument further: you mention mixed race relationships being illegal. In fact these have never been against the law in Britain. There was of course social pressure and racism (more in the higher strata; there are a ton of records of lower class mixed marriages including Richmond’s) but no law.

  2. Shan says:

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. Really challenges a lot of assumptions that I had and are prevalent in not only romance novels but so many genres.

  3. Hazel says:

    Well said, Asha. And thank you for those links. I’m reminded of comments on articles in British newspapers, where some of us complain that there are too many non-white faces in television period drama. ‘Political correctness’ is the cry. As you demonstrate, even a brief look at history shows us that we have not been an entirely white society for a long time. Perhaps some of us would like to think that we’re entirely white, but that’s just not true. I agree with KJCharles. I am also not aware that mixed-race marriages were illegal, but then I am woefully ignorant of history. (By the way, KJCharles’ A Queer Trade is a brilliant story with a black British character.)

    I’ve said on another thread that I read historical fiction in part because of an interest in history. It seems to me that there must be some basis in historical fact, otherwise our historical romance genre is merely another form of fantasy.

    Thank so much for this post.

  4. Sarah L. says:

    Thank you for this! As an American who grew up reading historical fiction that had been segregated for the comfort of the white reader, I still sometimes have trouble realizing that whiteness is not the default. Thank you for reminding me that I need to do better.

  5. Lindsay says:

    Ever since reading the Anja character in that Courtney Milan book I *have* wondered about this- Indians are SO entrenched in British culture and so many white heroes travel to India as a plot device it seems silly that we see so few of them. Ditto after seeing the movie Belle (and learning the full story which has connections to my hometown:

    While I enjoy stories set in the aristocracy I agree that they can be lazy (judgment and social custom functioning as the primary plot device) but half the time the aristocrat ends up with a commoner so why not have one or both of them have a non-white heritage? As a white person I do not lack so much imagination as to not relate to characters of color! I think publishers don’t give their readers enough credit. I do recall also Courtney Milan saying that the reason “Trade Me” featured the (white) hero on the cover instead of the heroine was because apparently no one “read” an asian woman on the book cover as a romance. WOW. We gotta do better!

    (any chance of linking to those 20 books? I would buy them!)

  6. Jill Q. says:

    I’m a white reader and I would love to see more diverse historical romances. It’s definitely something I was blind to for a long time.

    I do try to buy the diverse works I see out already and I appreciate that romance review websites and Twitter are starting to promote diverse books and diverse authors.

    Thank you for the essays.

  7. Jennifer says:

    As I recall, the Pink Carnation series had some half-British, half-Indian characters, one of whom eventually got his own romance. So that did come up there later on.

  8. Mara says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful write up– I feel personally challenged by it and it’s encouraging to see more & more light brought to the baked-in assumptions that publishers have when deciding what kinds of stories romance readers want.
    Your comments remind me that one of the biggest assumptions about romance readers is that there needs to be some kind of class or wealth based fantasy or aspirational element for readers to connect with. This is true in historical or contemporary romance (see billionaire trope), but especially in historical. The implicit logic seems to be, “Readers want high status/wealth MCs. We assume POCs were not often high status/wealth in ye old past. Ergo, we can’t have many POC MCs in historicals.” You demonstrated that accuracy is not the reality of historical romances (you mean there weren’t 100,000 single, handsome dukes flitting around the British Isles during the Regency??), but the genre does aspire to some level of historical verisimilitude & some readers are very vocal about not having anything interrupt their PERCEPTION of what is or is not historically accurate.
    With those protestations in mind, one type of “sideways” avenue to help promote more diversity is to support authors who DON’T always default to the aristocracy or uber rich for their pool of characters. You mentioned Courtney Milan, who does a better job than most of having characters from a variety of walks of life, cultural & ethnic backgrounds, etc. It’s something Americans are particularly leery to talk about, since we have a national narrative that America not a class based society, but race is usually a proxy for class or status. This is the elephant in the room whenever the racial majority sees their privileges eroded. It seems to me that fostering a more diverse romance ecosystem has to address both specific issues about racial diversity, as well as underlying structural assumptions with respect to wealth distribution.

  9. Jacqueline says:

    *Claps so hard my palms bleed!*


    I genuinely just want to headbang on the share button and make every human that ever humaned read this, BECAUSE THIS SHIT IS SO IMPORTANT! *restrains self from adding an essay-long rant about the state of publishing pertaining to diversity and instead just fist pumps the air!*

  10. Great post (and discussion)! Isn’t it interesting that we tend to gravitate to those fabulously wealthy Regency heroes but shy away from addressing the ethical issues surrounding the likely source of their fortunes (imperialism, slavery, etc.)? “Fantasy” is all well and good, but there’s an immense amount of privilege involved in being able to erase parts of human history to be able to focus on the “fantasies.” I’ve included some tough issues and diverse characters in my own Georgian-set books, but I heard “this will never sell” an awful lot along the road to publication.

  11. Hopefulpuffin says:

    I agree with all of the previous posts.

    Carla Kelly has written a short story (Christmas) with a half-Egyptian heroine, Let Nothing You Dismay, found in her Season’s Regency Greetings (red cover) that brings me to tears every time I read it. She also has a number of interracial romances in her Western novels and short stories – Break A Leg (short story with African American heroine) and Softly Falling (heroine has a British father and mother from Barbados). I wouldn’t classify Softly Falling as a romance novel though.

    Has anyone mentioned Milan’s Talk Sweetly To Me?

    I hope more people post with suggestions.

  12. P. J. Dean says:

    If readers are interested, go check out WOC in Romance. The website showers all who enter with every kind of diverse romance possible. It’s been mentioned before here. The historical section is stupendous! Go do yourself a favor and look at least. Hell, I’d blow my own horn but I’m not that crass.

  13. Vivian Sadow says:

    I think part of the problem is that there are not enough writers who are POC. I love Courtney Milan and Rose Lerner (who is Jewish and includes Jewish characters in her work, and there is another invisible group in HR), but they can only do so much. I believe many white writers are nervous about creating POC characters because they worry they will not “get it right.” There are a small but growing number of African American writers of HR, but clearly there needs to be more encouragement from publishers and the reading public for new voices to be heard (and read!). POC writers need to be telling their own HEAs; don’t wait for white writers to catch up.

  14. SonomaLass says:

    I agree that we need to be pushing for “own voices”; writers of color can and should be telling these stories. There is racism inherent in romance publishing that includes who gets published, as well as what.

    But white writers can and should be more inclusive. Especially in historical romance — if they are willing to do the research to try to get historical details like clothing right, then why not this too?

    Of course some writers aren’t that interested in accuracy — there are a lot of HR novels set in “Romancelandia” or “the Recency” or even “AuchLassieLand” (credit to Maili!) that are using the bare bones of a historical setting so that they can have pretty dresses, rakish dukes, and heroines who can be forced into marriage. But those writers have even less excuse not to be inclusive — if they’re not bothering with historical accuracy in the food their characters eat or the number of dukes in the English aristocracy, they why are they using only white faces for their characters? Not out of a concern for historical accuracy, which this essay has shown is bullshit anyway, so why? Because white is the default for white people, including authors, publishers, and readers. I believe we all need to work to change that, for all the reasons Asha articulates here.

  15. JAM says:

    A wag once warbled, “Hail Britannia, Britannia waives the rules”. And didn’t they just. As the author of this insightful and welcome piece points out, non-stereotypical, complex diverse characters in leading roles are pretty much missing from HR, thus illustrating the rules are still being waived. But simply dropping such characters into the plot is insufficient. Like the refugees today that everyone is so exercised about, there are concrete, easily discernible reasons for the phenomenon. And yet it is practically taboo to discuss why there are refugees. Or why there were diverse populations, even more numerous than American heiresses, residing in England historically. England had a very long and, yes, extremely ruthless and bloody tenure as the premier world imperial power, rather like our own dear country today. But if this reality remains in the room, in the plot, elephant-like, then nobody will ever learn a damn thing.

  16. Hera says:

    I remember reading Mary Jo Putney’s The China Bride as a teen and it blew my mind to have a heroine who wasn’t white. It’s getting more common (Sherry Thomas and Elizabeth Hoyt have not completely white characters, and I think Loretta Chase may have one from way back), but they’re all part white (which I guess serves the plot point of getting the character to England) and they’re almost always the heroine, which makes me feel a little bit like authors are worried that being people of color will undermine their heroes’ masculinity.

    Guys, we should get on Twitter and start requesting this of authors. If white writers don’t feel comfortable having their main characters be PoC because they’re not sure they can portray them respectfully, that’s one thing, but I think this post doesn’t only make the case for main characters but for background ones. We should start requesting that, maybe sharing this post with popular authors.

  17. Molly says:

    I’m bookmarking this and keeping it forever. Thank you! The romance I read is almost exclusively historicals and I LOOOVE them but do feel weird that I’m reading JUST about white people most of the time. I am also a (unpublished) writer, working on a historical romance, of course, and trying to make sure there is a strong POC character in there that makes sense. I made him half of the secondary romance in the book and he has an important part in building the mystery side of the plot. He’s best friend to my hero, which bugs me a little though because it seems like a stereotype that the only POC of color in the book/movie/tvshow is the best friend. :-/

  18. Katsuro Ricksand says:

    I’m usually a huge nitpicker, but here I won’t be, because I see nothing at all to disagree with.

    It’s very true that fiction shapes how we see the real world. If we read and watch a hundred different stories set in Victorian England, and we don’t see any people of color, then we assume that that’s how Victorian England looks. That’s hoe humans work. We don’t assume that all the writers of the stories decided to be factually wrong in the exact same way–even though that does happen.

  19. M & M says:

    The original poster mentioned Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’ (a Netflix original show), a really funny and insightful comedy show that features a really diverse cast. I really enjoyed the episode ‘Indians on TV’. This episode dealt with the lack of diversity on mainstream media, specifically American TV, so deftly. The whole series is very good. And I also enjoyed the flashback episode (the op mentioned) with the two dads.

    Someone up above mentioned Rose Lerner, and I remember reading a book of hers that had a secondary character who was Indian (I believe). She was the cook and she had a bit of a storyline of her own. I always wondered if Ms Lerner planned to feature her in a future book as the main heroine. Perhaps she did and I missed it?
    I will have to double-check goodreads…

  20. P. J. Dean says:

    @Vivian Sadow I had to come back for a second bite of this apple because of so much of what you stated and because it is dear to me as a romance writer who is black. It is NOT like HR with PoC main characters, written by white or non-white authors is not out there. I keep beating this dead horse but it needs resuscitation. There is a desire for the books but I’ve noticed when ones written by non-whites are reviewed or read, they get scrutinized out the wazoo and are met with sighs of “I can’t believe this happened back then.” Seems any story that is not typical, or should I say, stereotypical, is viewed as implausible. Sad. I know of black authors who have stepped outside the “mammy,slave, jezebel, Sapphire, Steppin Fetchit box” and have had their books savaged because a reader or reviewer just couldn’t believe a black person existed in past eras who was NOT any of the aforementioned, comfy stereotypes. Also, that black folk lived in lands other than USA under slavery. That is why writers who are writing HR with PoC are self-publishing. Try getting a manuscript with a PoC main character past a traditional gatekeeper who is NOT a slave, an ex-slave, a runaway slave, a concubine or the classic “tragic mulattress.” Ha! Just try. It would be easier to find hen’s teeth. I also know of black writers who pen HR and have stopped it do to the very real lack of interest on readers’ parts. Sales tell a story. If no one is buying, writers stop writing what they love and go back to writing yet another firefighter, BDSM romance. No offence.

    Yanno, either HR with PoC is desired or it isn’t. There is no in between. So, I am here to say, “THE BOOKS ARE OUT THERE! NO BEGGING NEEDED FOR SOMEONE TO WRITE THEM!” To cop a line from the X-Files. If you want them you have to look beyond the ton.

  21. Asha, I feel your pain. It is disheartening to see historical fiction/romance as whitewashed history. The narrative shouldn’t be that traces of color existing in the BC time of the Pharaohs and then reappear in the AD at the Civil War. I am a fan of Jenkins, Milan, Huguley, Alexander, Hart, and Cole who show romance and peoples of color in all the seasons of historical life, pre and post 1865.

    Regency England is my happy place. It was unique in have over 10,000 free blacks, mulattoes, and Blackamoores living in London during that time. They lived full lives, began accumulating means, married in race or interracially–which equals rich HEAs. Where Traditional Publishers have chosen to go with more mainstream stories, Indie Publishing, has begun to fill the gap, perhaps even leading in telling those other stories.

    Please feel free to reach out (Vanessa Riley – vanessa I’d love to gift you one of my award winning Regency romances or keep you in formed about my upcoming series of Blackamoore Heiresses being published with Entangled.

  22. I really appreciate this discussion. I have long thought that historical romance needed more diverse historical romances. I believed in this idea so much, that I began to write them myself, based in the history of the time period of my scholarly field and I used true historical incidents as a back drop for these romances. So, now that I’m coming to the end of my “experiment” as I call it, I’ve discovered a few things as an author I’ll just discuss three here:

    1. Romancelandia is a conservative world. This is not a negative, but I just say this because there is a tenancy to cling to what is known. Given the rise of indie publishing, the conservative bent has increased. Publishers don’t want to give new authors a chance, and neither do readers. There has been an increase of #ownvoices who are writing historical romance, but they aren’t given much opportunity to be visible in a crowded market. For instance, in terms of Regency England, Vanessa Riley has been writing this kind of Interracial Regency romance for a few years now. Her books are historical romance, but get less visibility because they are inspirational. I find it interesting that no one here has mentioned her work as of yet. She is working on a sweet series for Entangled that will be out toward the end of this year/beginning of next year.

    2. There is a great deal of resistance in the population to a more complete narrative of history. I found it’s not necessary to go too far afield from the actual historical record to write truthful historical romance. However, getting readers to believe in these more complete histories is another matter. When a work is published by an #ownvoices author, the need to “prove” the history overwhelms everything else. Thus, there is the problem with wrangling with “historical accuracy” as Mara mentioned.” For instance, fans are appreciative of the legendary Beverly Jenkins and the bibliographies at the end of her excellent work, but no one asks about why she had to publish those in the first place.

    3. Money. Heroes in HR have to be wealthy. Successful is not good enough. This was an issue for me across several of my works and I believe the occupations of my African American heroes, while outstanding in the African American community, are not seen as reflecting the versions of the ideal alpha male hero that romance readers seek. So the “escape factor” readers are seeking isn’t met, and this means fewer sales so that newer writers struggle to continue writing more historical romance. Also, historical romance is still in a bit of an economic downturn. It takes time and money to bring an author’s knowledge to the level needed to write these stories. Unless you are one of the big names mentioned it’s hard for new authors to stay in the game long enough to see the rewards. Writers know they can bring their skill set to more profitable romance genres and the financial benefits sooner.
    I’ve gone on long enough and I will actually bring my conclusions together in a published form at some later point, but these are real issues. These issues mean that including more POC in historical romances will probably be a long-term project, rather than a short-term one.

  23. Ren Benton says:

    The fear of “getting it wrong” is real. I’ve taken a few workshops trying to learn the “correct” way to write diversity. Often the fear expressed there is blatantly about the criticism that will follow an imperfect effort, but there’s also a fair amount of genuine concern about unintentionally doing harm with the portrayal.

    It just occurred to me as wrote this that some of that could be alleviated by not having one token “other.” In a book full of white/straight/young/able-bodied/etc. people, there’s no burden on any one of them to represent that entire demographic. When there’s a solitary POC/LGBTQ/amputee/etc., there’s no range of representation, and that isolated character becomes a caricature rather than a whole person. Whether in an overtly harmful way (villainizing, stereotyping) or a well-meaning cop-out (relentlessly positive characterization desperately trying to avoid causing offense), tokenism falls short of the goal of creating a diverse world. Where are the rest of the underrepresented people? Don’t make them invisible, even if they don’t play big roles. Acknowledge they EXIST so the minority character (minority in your cast, at least) doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

    That tiny personal breakthrough aside, it’s a much larger issue. Just when you think you’re making some progress, Leigh Bardugo says, “When you create queer characters only for the purpose of showing the tolerance of the straight protagonist, you have a problem,” and you have to question motivations — not just your protagonist’s but your own. If you’re writing something only to get a diversity cookie, you have some work to do. You have to start somewhere, but we all have work to do.

    We definitely need more diverse voices in writing and in publishing so those writers get published. Until and after that comes to pass, writers in a privileged position need to step out of the comfort zone. You will get it wrong. You will be criticized. Listen, learn, and do better next time.

  24. Morgan Grantwood says:

    I think part of the very real erasure of POC in HR that the author so beautifully pointed out partially has to do with what spawned it. And that is 19th Century (primarily British) literature.

    You have a bunch of white genteel women who have mostly only been a few miles away from their homes writing the classics that every HR after them is to some extent having a conversation with, if not outright copying the tropes of. Think about Austen – who at least mentioned women’s finances (in one week in England in 2008 I was literally able to go to every place she ever went in her lifetime, it’s like three square inches of the world. Narrow, narrow viewpoint). Think about the Brontes stuck in a craphole in Yorkshire for their entire lives. Think about Elizabeth Gaskell, who at least got some fairly critical stuff about class in there. But their experiences were all white people in provincial England in a very, very narrow society. And that was the model.

    And, though there were writers who broke out of this narrow view, like Aphra Behn, who wrote about a slave revolt in Surinam. Their work was suppressed by men.

    Then came the HR writers and they copied that model they had seen. And we wound up with HR so white.

    What this really is, is an opportunity to take what we love about HR. History and romance, and turn the spotlight on all the stuff we’ve been missing. All these great stories about fascinating people.

    We can’t be afraid of offending. We need to go out and do it, write stories with great POC characters and leads in them, and then make sure we get our friends to critically read things before we go to publishers.

    OMG I want to read about the Indian Restaurant guy right now so badly. Where is THAT novel?

  25. Vivian Sadow says:

    @P. J. Dean: Whoa, Nelly!

    I never meant to imply that there are no authors of color, only that waiting for publishers and white authors to get their shit together is a long, frustrating road to travel. Indie publishing can be a boon both to readers and authors, although it certainly has its pitfalls. I am relatively new to the romance genre, but I have always read a great deal of history and many historical novels.

    I do not think I have ever encountered a genre with do many tropes and parameters and sub-genres; nor have I seen so many vituperative responses when those are breached. In many ways, HRs are fantastical daydreams, and many readers do not want their daydreams messed with. (I especially loathe the rake who is redeemed by the love of good woman, said woman never having to change a hair on her smug little head.) I look forward to reading more authors with varying points of view and varied characters, stories not reliant on stereotypes and tropes, but complex people of all stripes.

    I read one HR that took place in 1840s Mississippi (can’t remember the name). The rakish hero owned a plantation in or near Natchez, and even met with his overseer on at least one occasion. Slavery is never mentioned, even in passing.
    His “servants” are not described in any way. It is Disneyland/Gone with the Wind territory, minus any people of color whatsoever. The author was trying to play up the “romanticism” of the antebellum South without any of the attendant ugliness. It was a peculiar and unpleasant read (and not helped by the author’s clunky style). It received very good reviews on Amazon (except for mine). Thus are many readers entrenched in their own wish fulfillment.

    I hope that authors willing to storm the barricades with new faces and new stories to tell will persevere; we will be waiting and eager.

  26. Robin says:

    This is an excellent and important thread–both on the historical romance sub-genre and on the romance read in general. More food for thought please.

  27. tee says:

    As someone who teared up reading Courtney Milan’s Anjan Bhattacharya character in The Heiress Effect as well (and became a LIFE LONG FAN, let me tell you), this is a really good piece to read, and I am so hopeful that more writers will get real about being historically accurate!!

  28. Tina says:

    Must add to the shout-out to Master of None. Very diverse cast. Also the crowd scenes are incredibly diverse. How NYC is seen through the eyes of a POC and it is liberating to see that on tv.

    Have to mention Alyssa Cole who has managed to not only include diverse characters in her books, but also a diversity of time and place setting. Her novella Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight takes place in medieval Scotland and features a black heroine. Her book ‘Let It Shine’ takes place in the 60s during the Civil Rights movements and has a back heroine & Jewish hero and manages to include both cultures beautifully. And I am biting my nails waiting for her forthcoming An Extraordinary Union mainly because it is such the heroine is an ex-slave spy during the Civil War.

  29. Jacqueline says:

    @Tee I’ve read several of Milan’s books (but have only reviewed/fangirl failed over The Countess Conspiracy on my YouTube channel)…And yet, The Heiress Effect is still on my TBR!

    You just got me even more pumped to read it because CRYING OVER FICTIONAL PEEPS IS THE BEST ENDORSEMENT EVER!*

    *HEA being necessary. Obvi LOL.

  30. @Morgan Grantwood: I both agree and disagree with the assessment of Austen, Bronte, etc. I place the blame on cinema and television adaptations of novels for the whitewashing of historical romance. By and large, the gateway for a majority of historical romance readers and writers are period dramas.

    You can’t mention Regency romance and Jane Austen without oohs and ahhs over Colin Firth’s (completely fictionalized!) swimming scene in the 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Scholars of Austen in particular have discussed the place her novels held in the abolitionist movement of late Georgian England–but do the film/TV adaptations show this? Even the adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, erased her abolitionist politics and the presence of black people in Britain of the period. Cross the “pond” and you have a long legacy of Western films and TV shows creating and reaffirming stereotypes about the American West. And let’s not talk about how influential The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind are on how the public views the antebellum South and Civil War.

    Furthermore, the attempt to insert “diversity” into period dramas erases POC from their contexts because they’re only there to enhance the story of the white characters (see, Jack, the black jazz musician on Downton Abbey, who appeared to romance Rose, and then was whisked away after he served his purpose for her storyline). It’s rare for POC in period dramas to drive the story, not be subordinate or peripheral to the plot of the white characters–which is why non-POC writers often write half-white protagonists or place them in a relationship with a white character…which then perpetuates the “tragic mulatto” stereotype, which is essentially the lack of proximity to whiteness being the ultimate tragedy or obstacle to happiness.

    All of this is to say that addressing diversity in historical romance requires an overhaul and reassessment of everything that brings readers/writers to the genre. Which is difficult, if not downright impossible. History may seem like a benign subject, but people consciously and unconsciously imbue it with deeply personal meanings, as seen in Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic. The way history is encountered is also crucial–ethnic histories are frequently taught as supplemental to the dominant narrative, or worse, as an elective narrative to the dominant. When you look around your city or town or community, you see the dominant narrative as the only narrative, and you have to want to go out of your way–to archives, the library, a museum, on a walking tour–to find a more inclusive story.

    Combine this un/conscious value of history with why many readers seek historical romance, and you have your answer as to why a particular narrative of history is repeated, recycled, and rewritten in every book. The solution is a radical reimagining of the past on a deliberately consistent basis, but that requires many people, from agents to editors to authors to readers, to want to put in the work of this reimagination. And how many are willing to do this? The fact that this has to be an Op-Ed, that we’re still having this conversation I’ve seen in Romancelandia for about ten years, rather proves that Romancelandia feels it’s fine as-is.

  31. Julie says:

    I think we need to recognize that the publishing industry, readers, and writers all bear responsibility in the lack of diversity in what we publish, write and read. As Piper Huguley mentions, the publishing world is conservative and the readers? “… getting readers to believe in these more complete histories is another matter. When a work is published by an #ownvoices author, the need to “prove” the history overwhelms everything else.”

    I had always been an eclectic reader, a lover of diverse histories when I started reading historical romance. I finally started figuring out I needed to look other places for those rare gems that made it through the regular publishing channels. I followed different hashtags on twitter to find authors who were writing those diverse reads because they weren’t getting the press in traditional places.

    And as much as there is white guilt out there about “not getting it right” when writing, have you noticed that it is far easier to be white and write a diverse historical and get applauded for it than it is for the publishing world to let in new POC voices (even with the data that suggests today’s readers are looking for something more, something different, something that reflects themselves, their friends and the world.)

    That more than anything bugs me, that white readers and writers still think they must do the writing or buy white writers to “support” diverse historical fiction when authors like Huguley, Jenkins and Riley are waiting to be read. Can we please stand up and say we want the historical fiction world to be inclusive from start to finish with POC writers and stories that everyone wants to read? Somehow a lot of us talk the talk but forget to walk the walk and buy the books, seek out the authors, recommend these books to friends.

  32. P. J. Dean says:

    @Vivian Sadow Sorry to come off like a shrew but this type of discussion pops up in Romancelandia ad infinitum and it is extremely annoying that we are STILL having it. My remarks were not directed at you personally. Your observations were thoughtful.

    @Julie “PREACH!”

  33. Amanda says:

    I really appreciate this post and the subsequent comments. I’ve seen too many of these types of discussions on places like Twitter or GoodReads devolve into white authors and readers becoming super defensive (ye olde “well you want more diversity but when we write it we are criticized?!” like you can’t ask that there be more own voices while also expecting white authors to include diversity because it belongs there, not because someone is asking them to do something special) /small rant over

    Courtney Milan to me is exemplary at including diversity in HR, and I think she’s probably my favorite HR writer. Authors like Jenkins of course write diverse HR but since this post focuses more on British HR, I wasn’t really thinking of her when trying to go back and compile a mental list of POC as either the main or very strong secondary characters in HR.

    It’s amazing that setting HR in places like Egypt and India became so trendy (I don’t say this to be critical, I enjoy many of them) and yet there is so rarely any attempt to make a main character a POC? As for whoever mentioned that the heroines tend to be the ones who are biracial rather than the heroes, Duran’s The Duke of Shadows stood out to me for this reason; the hero is half-Indian and treated poorly by his peers because of this.

    I echo the plug for WOC in Romance–when I started actively trying to include more diverse books (both own voices and inclusivity in predominantly white romancelandia), this has been an amazing resource for discovering new authors and new books. Note: this website promotes books written by WOC, so it does include books with white characters if they are written by WOC. I saw someone argue with one of the creators about this on Twitter once…sigh.

  34. Maggie Worth says:

    I’m working on a master’s thesis related to ethno-racial diversity in modern popular romance and I’m thrilled to see this post. Obviously, accurate representation is a huge problem, not only in HR but in… pretty much every genre and subgenre. As a reader, I’m primarily a cozy mystery fan, and diversity is stunningly absent. The thing is, not only is willful absence of diversity a social statement, it’s also harmful, not only to the people being marginalized, but to the general population. It perpetuates myths of otherness, which, in turn, creates division that makes us all susceptible to manipulation. I know some post-colonial scholars have begun examining the negative effects of colonization on the colonizers, but I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to grasping how detrimental false history — and by extension, false historical fiction — has been to society as a whole. I don’t understand why people are so resistant to the idea. The results of the Stanford prison experiment were pretty clear.

  35. Glee Cady says:

    Mary Jo Putney’s Lost Lords series several Anglo-Indian characters.

  36. Vivian Sadow says:

    @P.J. Dean: I appreciate your passion and impatience with a dialogue/monologue that must at times seem like a serpent devouring its tail. As I mentioned, I am only a couple of years into the romance genre and am attempting to play catch-up every which way. My introduction was actually a Regency fantasy short story by Jo Beverley in a cross-genre anthology edited by George R. R. Martin. It contained nothing more controversial or socially aware than the existence of faeries. Issues concerning class, ethnicity, and race in HRs pose questions worth asking and solutions worth seeking. What Julie pointed out (perhaps more cogently than I) about not waiting for white writers to include POCs in some form in their own tales but then to be lavishly praised for their efforts (even when those efforts are well done and heartfelt), while writers of color have a more difficult time finding publishers and readers and are being held to a higher standard of historical nit-pickery and every other damned thing (I’ve run out of breath here)–well, what she said (and what I tried to say, too, I think).

    Sweetie, ☮️ peace out.

  37. Vivian Sadow says:

    I do want to mention two tales, both by white writers. The first is Once Upon a Moonlit Night, a novella by Elizabeth Hoyt. It is kind of a “then-what-happened,” following her novel The Duke of Sin, part of her Maiden Lane series. It concerns Hippolyta Royale, an Anglo-Indian heiress who is being blackmailed because it is believed that the revelation that her (deceased) mother was Indian will destroy her chances for a “good” English marriage and acceptance into society. The ending is fierce and heartwarming at once. The second book is Delilah Marvelle’s Mr. Ridley, the first in a three-novel series, The Whipping Society. The heroine–all three books follow the same hero and heroine–is a genius botanist from India. It appears, from the first novel at any rate, that Ms. Marvelle has done some homework. Jemdanee Kumar is witty, inquisitive, and pretty much unstoppable. Although there is no specific bondage in the first novel, I think it is coming. Both these writers are known for their steamy scenes, so be warned. Both are very good reads with sympathetic, lively heroines.

  38. Asha Ganesan says:

    Wow, this is a pleasant surprise indeed! It’s fantastic to hear all your thoughts on what I wrote, and it’s also great to see people getting in on each other’s ideas (thanks for fact-checking mine as well on interracial marriages being illegal in England.. They were not!). A lot of the commenters here (and Sarah) have made me feel less like a whiner and more energized to follow-through this write-up with actions (perhaps research-oriented ones) 🙂

    One thought about biracial characters is that they sometimes become placeholders for POCs overall. My aim with this write up was to be inclusive of all POCs and minorities, and not just be satisfied with the representation given through biracial characters or a token POC. In fact, biracial individuals probably have their own unique experiences with “fitting in but not really”, one that can’t necessarily be generalized to non-biracial individuals.

    Without drawing hard lines, that kind of minimal, placeholder-like representation is not enough. Writing about a character having half-Anglo ancestry, then dancing away from the fact that the historical England/Egypt/India etc were diverse places is not enough.

    Many of you have brought up many, many examples of the absurd lack of representation or instances of racism (don’t get me started on Sheikh romances or Egypt-based British scholar HRs – that would be another post altogether :P), and to me that speaks to a need for diversity at all-levels, not just writers.

    My question for authors is, what can readers do to play our part in pushing for more diverse voices in romance aside from purchasing your books (and writing op-eds)? Can we send letters to publishers? Will they take it seriously?

  39. Jes$ica says:

    This is such a refreshing discussion and only one of the many reasons why this is one of my favorite sites. I tend to avoid Civil War era American romances because of the abundance of Confederate heroes or “War of Northern Aggression” tones. It is jarring to me as a reader and even turned me off of an long-standing autobuy. I am looking forward to Alyssa Cole’s next book, but would love to read more diverse HR. Great post and comments!

  40. Maggie Worth says:

    I think it’s extremely important to support #ownvoices authors. I’m hearing a lot about white authors being asked to write characters of color while AOC are being told there’s no room for their stories. That concerns me as both a reader and a writer

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