In the last few years, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks “movement” spawned many a think piece and blog post across the publishing world, and still does. One post titled “On Diversity In Historical Romance” written by author Evangeline Holland last year has stayed with me.
At the beginning of her post she states:
When it comes to the romance genre, it is built on the premise of escaping from life’s burdens. The hyperinflation of the fantasy is another pervasive aspect of the genre. Fantasy and escape does not include elements that discomfort and discomfit, nor does it include elements you don’t consider a personal fantasy (hence why some readers will never tire of billionaires or Navy SEALs or rakish dukes).
Within the romance world there are some people who disagree regarding whether the romance genre is pure escapism and whether readers of the genre prefer to read stories where they can see themselves within the characters. Ignoring this argument for a moment and recognizing that despite the dueling theories, there are times when we all read for escapism, I found Holland’s insight interesting as she continued with the following:
In regards to historical romance, it is hit with the double whammy of fantasy and escapism, which is deeply entwined with what readers think they know about the past. The average American mostly encounters people of color in history through lessons about Native American extermination, slavery and Jim Crow, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, etc. We are taught history from the outside in, from the top down–by and about oppressors, in literal oppression–which completely erases the inner lives of POC. Since romance is hinged on the inner lives of its characters, it is very difficult to see POC in the past. We only see what “they” said happened to them in the past.
As a Haitian-American, my view of race, racism and bigotry in the United States has always been skewed by my personal experiences growing up in a country that labeled me not only as “other” but a “foreign other”. I spent most of my childhood in South Florida. I saw my parents struggle against bigotry from both White Americans and African-Americans. I had to explain to some truly ignorant bullies in high-school that HIV and cocaine were not my birth-right or legacy (true fucking story). I had to explain to people that while Haiti often has political strife, it has a rich history that includes being the first free black republic in the new world. Over 200 years of independence earned by brave men and women willing to fight for freedom over oppression and slavery.
It all taught me that racism leaves a personal mark. How it impacts you is personal and unique to you. All people of color have their own experiences with it. It isn’t something that can ever be accurately captured in a history book or reference text. In a post #Formation world, I can appreciate Beyonce’s narrative, Beyonce’s experiences, Beyonce’s view without expecting them to align and overlap with my own.
To truly be able to write historical fiction, the voices and narrative of real experiences need to be captured. Holland understands that and put forth a great call to action:
But this is where I tell you–and remind myself–to dig deep. Read the words of POC. Look at your setting and find works written by POC in that time period–plays, novels, poetry, autobiographies. Don’t be intimidated by academic dissertations and texts. Email professors specializing in a particular cultural group’s history. Read broad histories of these people. Seek photographs and paintings of these people. The same way you’ll eagerly seek information for the weather in London of August 1834.
I am waiting for more authors to do this. I’m starving for it.
As I scoured Goodreads this weekend and asked friends for book recommendations, I was both happy and sad at my selection of Historical Romance featuring people of color. Thanks to authors such as Piper Huguley and Beverly Jenkins, there are more romances with men and women of color as main characters than there have been in the past. However, the stock is still woefully small in comparison to mainstream historical fiction with white characters. If I include the qualifier of including characters that are LGBT, the selection is slim to non-existent.
Holland made some pretty interesting points, and now almost a full year later, I pose the question: When it comes to historical romance, has anything really changed?
Within the contemporary and paranormal genres, it is much easier for me to find books with heroes and heroines of color in comparison to a few years ago, but historical romance seems to be lagging in the back of the queue. Am I wrong? Are there more historical romances with POC out there than I’ve found?