April 24, 2014

Guest Post: Writing in Color by Jill Sorenson


Open book with a pen in the middle. The words "Guest Author" on top of the image.
Credit: Jain Basil
ETA: There was some wonky formatting that made it look like the last paragraph was Jill's, when in reality it was part of the Jeannie Lin quote. I apologize for the confusion it might have caused.  

Jill Sorenson, one of my favorite Romantic Suspense authors, is here today to talk about her experience writing multicultural romances and about what we can do, whether we are authors or readers, to put our money where our mouth is and help to no only make the genre more diverse, but to bring attention to the diversity that already exists. 

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As a long-time regular in Romanceland, I’ve participated in many discussions about race. Whenever the subject comes up, I see the same types of comments. Readers call for more diversity but seem unaware of the multicultural romances already published. White authors of multicultural romance are praised and mentioned more often than authors of color. White authors who don’t include characters of color express concerns about getting the details wrong.

The fear of being criticized for racism or cultural appropriation is strong—and it’s not unwarranted. Portrayals of non-white characters are scrutinized on a different level because stereotypes of minorities are incredibly common and damaging.

If you don’t understand this, consider the way women are treated in books and film. Picture female comic book heroines and their sexy outfits. Offensive portrayals draw criticism for good reason. Rarely does anyone complain about a stereotypical male character or a poor depiction of white culture, because those are dominant groups. White males are in no danger of being limited to narrow roles. Can the same be said for women and people of color? When you watch TV, do you see the same range for female characters as male? Which group gets objectified more?

There is a lack of diversity in mainstream romance, and in publishing at large. According to conventional wisdom, books with white characters sell better. Most romance readers are white, and white people buy a lot of white books. People of color also read white books, but it’s not as common for white readers to pick up multicultural stories. It’s harder to get those books sold and published, so it’s harder to find them.

How can we break this cycle? I would advise white readers to broaden their horizons. I think this shift is already happening, but it takes generations. There are more mixed couples and multiracial children every year in America. I believe the landscape of publishing will change with the times. Until then, why not read more authors and characters of color?

My advice for white authors is to do the same. Support diversity however you can. Cross-promote with authors of color. Consider including some multicultural selections in your anthology. Read outside of your comfort zone. Be the change you want to see in the world. But also be aware that you aren’t central to this issue, just as men are peripheral in the feminist movement.

Writing non-stereotypical characters of color can’t hurt. More diversity = more familiarity = more readers embracing multicultural romance = unicorns ejaculating rainbows!

Maybe you’re ready to taste the rainbow, but don’t know how to go about it. There are some lucky genius authors who can write any subject or type of person with aplomb. There are chauvinists who write lovely women, and other terrible people who create wonderful things. I thought Mel Gibson’s Apocaylpto was pretty good, for example. On the other side of the coin, there are sensitive, well-meaning people who perpetuate harmful stereotypes. And not everyone agrees about what bad representations look like. It’s a conundrum.

The lucky geniuses aren’t reading this. They don’t need to. Forget them. Terrible people aren’t reading this, either. It’s just us here: the well-meaning, unlucky people. If you want the secret to writing successful multicultural romance, I can’t really help you. I can only tell you what I’ve done and what little I know.

I’ve always been interested in multicultural fiction. My favorite book growing up was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. Part of the appeal of reading for me is getting to inhabit an exciting new world, different from my own. I’ve never wanted to read or write about people who are exactly like me.

When I started writing, I don’t remember making a conscious choice to include Latino characters in my books. I think it just came to me naturally. I’m inspired by my surroundings. I set most of my books in San Diego and it’s a vibrant, diverse place, full of interesting people. I wanted my books to reflect that.

I’ve also drawn from my personal experiences. My husband is half Mexican and we’ve done a lot of traveling throughout Mexico. I minored in Spanish in college, so I took courses in Latin-American Studies and Spanish Literature. I have a bilingual teaching credential (though I’m not fluent) and I taught English Language Development for a short time. Before I graduated, I ran an afterschool program for at-risk youth. The kids were about 80% Latino, 10% black and 10% Pacific Islander. One of the boys was black and Latino, from Panama. I thought of him and his unusual accent while creating a secondary character for WILD, the book I just finished.

Despite studying the language and being around native speakers daily, I still need help with the Spanish in my books. I double-check words and phrases with my husband all the time. Without him, I’d make a ton of mistakes. He can’t read or write Spanish, but he knows what sounds right. A few years of study is no match for a lifetime of speaking it.

The same is true for race issues. I’ve learned a lot by interacting with people of color, in person and on the internet. I’ve read hundreds of conversations, articles and blog posts. I’ve listened and asked questions. But I’m still a white person, ignorant in many respects. What I know about race will always be limited by that perspective. It’s like a man who is well-versed in feminism and women’s studies. He doesn’t know how it feels to be a woman, to walk across a dark parking lot or through a crowd of men. He cannot know. He can only imagine.

I wrote this blog post because I think a lot of white authors struggle with how to represent people of color. Should we even try? Authors who don’t are rarely criticized. Romaticized or fetishized depictions are popular. Sheikh fantasies are fun and “exotic.” Real-life race issues make readers uncomfortable. So why go there? To sell fewer books?

Why not let people of color write their own stories, for that matter? Am I standing in someone else’s way? Fulfilling my publisher’s multicultural quota? (Hard to believe, as more than half of my characters are white) Hogging the mic? Those are all legitimate questions, and I can’t answer them. What I know is this: I want to read and write about a variety of people. I want to explore other worlds and learn new things.

If, after weighing the pros and cons, authors decide to write diverse characters, is it better to be “colorblind” or “color-aware”? I prefer the second by a long shot. Race doesn’t have to be an obstacle or a source of conflict, but it’s a part of who we all are. I don’t think a black person is going to react the same way as a white person in every situation. A woman isn’t going to react the same way as a man in every situation. Failing to recognize that is a problem.

I’d be skeptical if a man said “I don’t see male or female. I don’t see gender.” I have the same reaction to “I don’t see color.”

I do see color. There’s nothing wrong with seeing color or being aware of race issues. Awareness is a good thing! I don’t need special treatment, as a woman, but I’m proud of my femininity. It’s part of my identity, not a minor detail to be overlooked or erased. The same goes for race and ethnicity. Acknowledging differences is a show of respect, not an insult, and learning about other cultures can help bridge the gaps between us.

There is an excellent series by author Lisa Bradley about Writing Latin@ Characters. It’s one of the most comprehensive resources on the subject I’ve ever seen, and helpful for writing characters of any background.

This is from Part 2: Where are you from?

“Please don't drop a Latin@ into a role previously assigned to a white character with no other alterations. No matter where we are, we have our traditions, our comfort foods, special holidays…a culture, and that culture should seep into the story, if not permeate it.”

I’ll close with a great comment from author Jeannie Lin:

“My thoughts on interracial romance depictions – there are stories where race plays a huge role in the romance and conflict. But there’s room for stories where race is present, but the romance isn’t focused on it. There’s room for the whole gamut, but first it has to start appearing more frequently so each example won’t be taken as representative of the entire sub-genre.
Here’s some food for thought as to how race is or isn’t a part of an IR romance. Hubby and I are what you would consider an interracial couple. Hubby thinks race doesn’t figure into our relationship at all. I think it most certainly does. A POC can never forget his/her race and the issues (and pleasures too–it’s not all “issues”) that come with it, big or small. Is it in my face every moment of every day? Of course not. But it’s always in my skin, so to speak.”

Thank you for reading! Questions and comments welcome.

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Black and white picture of Jill Sorenson.
Jill Sorenson writes sexy romantic suspense for Harlequin and Bantam Dell. Two of her novels, Crash Into Me and Set the Dark on Fire, have been excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine.

After earning a degree in literature and a bilingual teaching credential from California State University, Jill decided teaching wasn’t her cup of tea. She started writing one day while her firstborn was taking a nap and hasn’t stopped since. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two young daughters.

Her next novel, Backwoods, releases in June.

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Connect with Jill:


3 comments:

  1. Quick comment to link to this post written by author Malinda Lo about whether white authors should write about POC or not. It was first tweeted by Suleikha Snyder (who wrote another great post today) and retweeted by Heidi Belleau, so hat tip to them.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Brie! Those are both great posts.

    ReplyDelete

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