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
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.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.
The 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.