The Challenge of Writing Interracial Romance

by Evan Yeong

Something you probably didn’t know about me is that I used to regularly run a blog largely focused on diversity in media. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that same emphasis here at Harlequin! It’s been an ongoing conversation within the SYTYCW team in particular, and one that gained renewed energy due to one of the Historical Writing Challenges many of you participated in last month.

In the second challenge, appropriately titled “Culture Clash”, I tasked you with writing a couple from two distinct worlds, while also “[encouraging] writers to think beyond the concept of race for this prompt!” That said, it was inevitable that of the many entrants some had to feature interracial relationships, which in turn inspired our team to address the difficulties in writing interracial relationships, and beyond that writing outside your own personal experience in general.

Context is Everything

To start things off, a number of you wrote romantic scenes between a Native American (or First Nations) person and a white person.

I want to be upfront and state that this post is by no means an attack on, or reprimand of, anyone who did this. There are no accusations here, and I like to think the editorial feedback given supports me in this. I also want to acknowledge the research and sensitivity that went into so many of these submissions.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about how crucial context is when writing Historical Romance. One amazing benefit to the genre is that not only can writers research and plumb the depths of a particular era, but they can see what came both before and after it; we know how past events inevitably led to our present day. Hindsight truly is 20/20.

Many of us know about the violent clashes between Native Americans and European settlers, but less so about the diseases that culled up to 90% of the indigenous population that preceded them, or the cultural genocide enacted by residential schools that followed after. All of that is in addition to how American fiction has romanticized the multitude of different distinct tribes. The now defunct Romantic Times outlines Native American Romance, stating that it depicts Native Americans “as exotic figures, untamed and possessing a freedom to be admired and envied.”

This isn’t to say that true, genuine love never blossomed between First Nations people and colonists, or that these stories are off-limits to romance writers. Instead this is a reminder to consider the implications of a couple where their differences carry with them such a distinct balance of power. Admittedly that’s not always as easily recognizable as 2015 RITA nominee For Such a Time, a Historical Romance between a Jewish woman and the Nazi commander of a concentration camp.

When we write any relationship, we do ourselves (and the people groups in question) a service by being aware of not only the couple’s context within their own time and place, but also the one we currently live in. Consider how modern romance readers value agency, diversity, and authenticity in addition to the sizzling chemistry they’ve always been drawn to.

Who Are You? (Who? Who?)

Okay, so I’ve written about the context of the story itself, but what about our own? Every one of us takes up a particular space in the society and culture we exist in, and that has an immense impact not only on how our writing is perceived, but how we in turn perceive the subjects of our writing.

One bit of editorial feedback that was given last challenge referred to writing from the “dominant culture,” which for many of us (I can’t speak to where we all live) is English-speaking, white, and (Protestant) Christian. When so much of our lives caters to that specific demographic, those who belong to it can find it difficult to notice the inequalities that others may face. This may be as simple as not having to worry about explaining Christmas, whereas Ramadan might require further clarification. When writing interracial relationships this often means strongly identifying with one half but making broad guesses with the other.

Does this mean you should take to heart that endlessly repeated bit of writing advice: Write what you know? I certainly don’t think so. While it’s important for publishing to represent a diverse range of voices that speak from myriad life experiences (see: our Romance Includes You mentorship), there are countless authors from every walk of life that write characters they could never fully relate to. The key factor is that the truly successful do their research.

With the rise of #OwnVoices, finding and reading books that have authors and characters from the same marginalized group is easier than ever (though the publishing industry has lots more work to do!). An excellent first step in learning about others is by tapping into their work. I do want to caution you about not asking people who aren’t a part of the dominant culture for “permission” to write their stories. Engage in real, authentic relationships and how they think and feel will make themselves readily apparent to you.

To cap off this section, it’s worth asking yourself why you want to write the particular romance you have in mind. Furthermore, why (assuming it gets published) you’re the right person to bring it to the public. With a few major exceptions, I would never tell anyone not to write anything, but I will always advocate for being better informed and searching your own intentions.

Do Your Best (And Try Not to Worry!)

It’s safe to say that all writers, romance or otherwise, want to do good (or better yet, great) work. There’s a desire to craft sizzling chemistry, of course, but also a need for accuracy that paralyzed a 10th Grade me when faced with the daunting challenge of portraying the life of a regular North American teen (I lived in Thailand at the time). In addition, I don’t believe that most people want to offend or hurt others with their writing. For romance especially the intention is to play to positive emotions, to lead readers through twists and turns but ultimately a happily ever after.

The thing is, you know what they say about good intentions…

Luckily for published authors, the road from manuscript to paperback has multiple pit stops along the way to account for everything from comma splices to misspelled brand names to whether or not an interracial relationship might need a little more refining. Your story will be given a line edit, copy edit, and proofread, and each person responsible is hard at work to account for the blind spots of those ahead of them.

Some books are even assigned sensitivity readers who are explicitly tasked with giving feedback based on their own lived experiences.

Whether you’re fortunate enough to have access to all of these resources, are freelancing a single copy edit, or are asking a friend to please read your work, my most important piece of advice is be humble. Or in other words, be open to criticism, changing parts of your work, and being wrong.

Writing is already such an emotional process to start with, and the fear of being framed as not politically correct (to put it gently), or generally unaware, is immense. Just remember that these people are here to support you. No one who is working on your book is doing so as a secret ploy to expose your deficiencies. To quote mob accountant Otto Berman, it’s “Nothing personal.” Try not to take it that way!

I’m going to end by flatly ignoring my college professors’ writing advice on how to wrap up an essay, ironically leaving you all with a little writing advice of my own: In summary, when writing interracial relationships and other experiences outside of our own it’s important to do research when possible, query our own biases, and be open to accepting criticism. As a final important reminder, don’t be afraid to ask for help! This is a topic we’re going to keep discussing on SYTYCW, so if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to let us know-

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this post which has made me wince a little (in a good way) about assumptions I have made about other cultures by lazily reading books/watching movies without questioning whose perspective I was seeing them through: my own included. A really interesting piece.

  2. Marcie

    I recently participated in a webinar with successful author Donna Hill. I asked her advice for white authors like myself who want to write diverse couples, as diversity reflects the world in which we live. Her insights, balanced with yours in this article, have been very helpful. Thank you!

  3. Emmeline

    Thank you! Your post clarified and went deeper into some of the things I felt while reading some of the last challenges’s submissions — examining power and interrogating stereotype (vs humanization) always makes a story stronger. Really enjoying your posts!

  4. Chrissie

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and knowledge on this subject. It’s very helpful. My entry was one of the American Indian entries and I am fully aware of all the travesties put on the people whose country all our ancestors took from them. I’ve always loved the stories and histories of the American Indian, sad though a lot of it may be. If I were to complete the story I would be sure to include as much history on both sides as possible. And I am fully open to criticism and help to get it right and perfect my writing. Thank you. 🙂

  5. Teresa Fowler

    Interesting post. I am mixed race so feel I am uniquely placed to be able to see things from three sides (B/W/mine). I do believe it is impossible for people to write authentically about something they have no lived experience of BUT, as you are writing for an audience who (mostly) have no lived experience either of what it feels like to be a PoC, then it’s fine. If Black people want to read stories they can truly relate to, then there are loads of black voices out there. I agree that we should just relax about it and write something we’d want to read.

    • Evan Yeong

      Hi Teresa! Thank you for your personal insights on this topic. I wanted to address the idea that romance writers, or at least I’m assuming that’s who you were referring to, are “writing for an audience who (mostly) have no lived experience of what it feels like to be POC.”

      While some surveys have revealed the average romance reader to be white (up to 73% by some estimates), that still leaves a segment that aren’t. It’s true that #OwnVoices books will always offer the most genuine representations of different lived experiences, but I don’t believe they should be the only source of well-done diversity in romance. If a POC romance reader picks up a book where one or both characters are POC, it should be as close to accurate as possible, regardless of the author’s actual background. The same should be said for readers with disabilities or who are LGBTQ+.

      As someone who works on romance, I also hope to see the demographics of romance readers become more diverse over time. It’s an incredible genre, and I think it’s limited by the belief that it’s white authors writing for white readers, instead of diverse authors writing for everyone.

    • This is an interesting and thought-provoking article.
      In an ideal world POC readers would be able to read an accurate representation of themselves regardless of the author. Unfortunately Harlequin is not good at providing this representation from non-POC authors. As Teresa says, they are intended mainly for an audience who have no lived experience. This means they tend to perpetuate the stereotypes non-POC expect to read; a recent Presents book is a case in point.

    • Evan Yeong

      Hi Dee! I can say as someone who started in proofreading and is currently in editorial, this is something we know we’re far from perfecting, but we are working on it. I’ve flagged plenty of potential issues over the past few years and I’m not stopping anytime soon. It’s a process and all we can do is continue trying and acknowledging we still have a ways to go.

  6. Maurine

    I can’t help but believe as the books become more diverse, the readership will also. I believe authors as a whole do not want to offend readers, but sometimes it’s hard to know what someone will find offensive. Out of curiosity, I asked people I knew what they wanted to be called. Some said “African American,” some “Black” and some “of African descent.” No one said “Person of Color.” In an interview with Tony Hillerman, who writes NavajoTribal Police mysteries, he said what you refer to as First Nations people want to be called by their tribal name (Souix, Blackfeet, Navajo, etc.) or American Indian. They found “Native American” to be wrong as anyone born in America is a Native American. In light of all this, I’m curious to know who decides what the “politically correct” terms should be? Chosen by majority vote? I don’t want to be a trouble maker here, just don’t want to offend anyone.

  7. I get so frustrated at the ableism of editors and authors who think that nothing is wrong with writing a character with a disability from the able-bodied person’s perspective. So many stereotypes and harmful tropes about disabled people have been passed along this way I feel ill with every book with a disabled character I see. Just because you went to school with, see someone at work every day, have read a book about them, you have no clue about life with a disability without acres of research. In historical, did you know that blind people were considered uneducable until the 1830s and even into the 20th century, blind people were put into mental institutions? Yet writers put them at balls as though it’s no big deal. Did you know 75% of persons with disabilities are unemployed? Did you know you can have happily ever after without being miraculously heale4d at the end of the book? Did you know you can be blind and end up with a great looking guy, not someone who’s ugly? Did you know that one doesn’t pick out one’s own guide (service) dog because it’s just not practical? Apparently people don’t, as they write this incorrectly again and again despite the quantity of information and videos online. (Legitimate service dogs, not fake ones and not support dogs, which are not the same thing and not protected by the law.) Ownvoices applies to people with disabilities too. I’ve started calling out authors who write of disabled people and use horrid language like wheelchair bound or deaf and dumb. And what about using blind. in a pejorative way? Of course I knew that. I’m not blind (stupid). I wouldn’t write a character of color or someone who is LBGTQ+ without having a paid professional in that group check me for inaccuracy and insensitivity, yet people do it to disabled people all the time. Yes, I use disabled people, not people with disabilities. That is my choice, and yes, I have a right to refer to myself as I like. I’m blind. I can’t see. I am NOT differently able. No person with a disability would use differently able. That emphasizes the differentness, the exclusionary language. And if you say you don’t even notice the disability, it’s like saying you don’t see color. OK, discussions li9ke this get my hackles up.

    • Evan Yeong

      Hi Alice, thank you so much for providing insight on such a personal topic. I want to be upfront and fully admit that this is an area that we have not focused on in the past, and where we can absolutely improve.

      During my time as a proofreader I found myself constantly flagging such lines as “Well, that’s lame” due to their inherent ableism. I confess that I likely did not catch everything that I should have. While I’m not at liberty to disclose everything that Harlequin is doing, please know that there has been a conscious push towards increased sensitivity at every level of editing, including proofreading. I will see what I can do and who I can talk to about emphasizing our need for more education when it comes to writing (and editing) disabled characters.

      Thank you again for your comment. It’s not always easy to take the time and energy to share something that can be so emotional, but in this case it made a difference.

  8. Eilidh K. Lawrence

    I just did a sensitivity read for another romance writer, although for mental health conditions. I think we both got a lot out of it! It was really great to work with the author, who took on board pretty much everything I said but also came back to me explaining why she had done certain things. It was very much a dialogue rather than me criticising her and handing out instructions. I would definitely look to use a sensitivity reader if I were writing outside my own experience, for example writing an interracial romance. Thanks for this great post Evan!

    • Evan Yeong

      I never saw this comment, Eilidh, but reading it now I’m glad you had such a positive experience as a sensitivity reader! It sounds like the ideal picture of how that process should go.