I often, tongue in cheek, tell people I’ve never felt really Black until I became a Black writer. For me to properly explain my statement, please take a little trip back in time with me,, back to when hope was still just a word and not a mission and hashtags were just a button on your push-button house phone…
My late grandmother, Mrs. Josephine Minatee—but lovingly called Nana by me and a good chunk of the village of Harlem—did not have a college degree or even a high school diploma, but she was an avid reader. If it was the printed word, she was reading it and by far her favorite genre was romance.
Soon after I was born, Nana left her job working at a factory on Long Island to become a full-time, at-home child caregiver. After a long day of watching children, she never failed to reach to the bookshelf my grandfather hand-built for her, pick up a novel, and wind down with a few pages before bed. Those books gave her, I believe, more peaceful thoughts to drift off to than the problems of the everyday world. Reading romance was that little time just for her, a sacred bit of self-care after the mad crush of caring for everyone else.
By my preteens, I had adopted Nana’s love of the genre. I couldn’t get enough of the sweeping stories of love and hope, the gut-wrenching highs and lows, and the ultimately triumphant spirit of the stories. But I couldn’t help but notice that women like my Nana—or any of the hard-working women whose children she lovingly cared for—were not reflected in these books. Nor was my own mother, an adventurous woman who, during those days, owned a bar and co-ran her own livery cab business—pre-Uber, no less. And no matter how many times I draped a T-shirt over my short curly fro, I was never going to resemble the heroines of these novels, who for the most part seemed to have ivory skin, flaxen locks, and cornflower blue eyes.
Fast-forward a few years. When I ventured into writing, it was with the hope of making a living writing the types of books that I enjoyed—light, poignant, funny, maybe a bit outlandish, in the vein of Jennifer Weiner, Helen Fielding, or Sophie Kinsella, with enough sexiness to keep the pages warm. The only difference was my vision happened to feature African American women and a truly multi-cultural cast of characters. In my dreams I fancied myself as Terry McMillian with a rom-com twist. But then the business of writing hit me in my creative dreamer noggin, tripping up the Carefree Black Girl in me.
I knew I was in for years of rejections, and though each rejection hurt, I was okay with it—somewhat. After querying my heart out, I got a bite from an agent, an older Caucasian gentleman who had been in the industry for years. At my first face-to-face coffee meeting with him, I was nervous but smiled a lot, squeezing my knees together under the table to keep them from shaking. The agent was complimentary and said he loved my voice (hey, who knew I had voice? Go me!), and he thought he could sell my work—if I could fix a few problems. The idea of my stories out on shelves was a heady one so I eagerly asked what those few problems were.
He asked if I could “write blacker.”
Bubble burst, record scratched. Re-wind that?
Born and raised in Harlem and Washington Heights, I’m no stranger to race or racial issues. I’ve been confronted with my race plenty of times: in a department store as I perused cashmere, or in a swanky neighborhood that happened to be the one I lived in. Hell, I’ve confronted it in my own mirror as I decided how to style my hair for the day depending on what meeting I had scheduled. But this moment with the agent shocked me. I didn’t think I would need anything more than a good emotional love story with a satisfying happily ever after to be a romance novelist. Little did I know.
As a romance reader, the narrative I saw for people of color was mostly one of oppression and, if lucky, triumph. It confounded me how black women could share the same feelings, the same emotional heights and dips, but not get our time on the pages of mainstream romance novels. As readers, we had no problem relating to the stories of Caucasian protagonists. Which in my opinion came from the fact that from an early age we were brought up on what had been deemed the literary classics, the bulk of which had Caucasian main characters. And if there was a heralded story from a writer of color or with a main character of color, that character was usually seen as overcoming terrible circumstances. The whirlwind love and happily-ever-after story seemed to not be for us. When it came to people of color, it had to be all about “realism” in the romance.
Women of color were reading and enjoying romance by and featuring Caucasian characters—the opposite didn’t seem to apply. Even my own Nana’s favorite romance authors were mostly white (she treasured her signed Nora Roberts books most of all and we can agree that Nora is phenomenal). With some due diligence over the years she’d been able to add some Black romance authors to her list, like Beverly Jenkins, Brenda Jackson, Sandra Kitt, and Rochelle Alers, but it took work. During those days at chain bookstores, African American romance was mostly herded over to the African American interest section, as if people of color falling in and out of love was something to be studied, something of special “interest” instead of just a part of everyday life. While romance between two white protagonists was labeled just plain old “romance.” Even after I’d embarked on my own writing career, I was naively shocked to see how little had changed in the publishing landscape.
The color lines in the publishing industry are as firmly drawn today as they were when I first fell in love with romance novels. A little over two years ago at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, an editor was asked during a Q&A if her publishing house was open to diverse submissions. Her answer was that those submissions would be passed on to another imprint, which could handle the “different” marketing and publicity such a submission would require. Really? Love between Black characters or Latino or Asian characters is still thought to be different?
Publishing is a tough industry for anyone, and authors of color face additional issues of unequal representation fighting with the need for discoverability which in turn leads to a wide range in the economic earnings gap. African American romance is no longer pushed into its own section of the store but without that section, fewer and fewer African American romance authors are getting any space on the shelves at all. People read what they can find and often in this digital age what gets in front of eyeballs are on lists. So how do you label your book to hit lists when you are an author of color and your protagonist is Black? If you label it African American romance, you hopefully get the attention of one set of readers—but you lose a much wider readership who might also enjoy your book. If you tag your book just plain romance, you then risk being lost in a sea of competitors where readers are likely to gloss over you due to years of market separation— that is, if they find you at all, because if you’re self-published (which now nowadays is a big likelihood), you’re also pushing against powerful publishing houses with bigger names and marketing budgets.
There are reasons the bestsellers look the way they do week after week, year after year—a roster of more of the same, lacking any form of diversity.
For myself, I had hoped to simply release my book under a general romance category and, with a bit of a marketing push and good word-of-mouth, it would be picked up by a wider audience. I think the dream of that for any author of color is still a long and uphill battle that won’t come without compromise from writers, publishers, retailers, and open-minded readers. After years of being subtly trained to read and shop for books in one way, this takes a mindset shift that will take serious cooperation to work.
In my opinion, it would take the phasing-out of categories by race—and, let’s face it, the only race that is being segregated in the case of romance is African American. If publishers want to give readers a choice, that means authors of all races must be truly equal—and sit side-by-side on the shelf both digitally and in print. The lines must be truly diverse, and not just tokenly diverse, with only one or two authors of color in any given sales season. While contemporary, historical, romance, mystery, horror, and paranormal are all subgenres, African American is not a genre, or an interest, or a fad.
Which brings us to another long-talked-about problem in the industry: the lack of people of color in the decision-making positions in the publishing industry. Fixing this would more than likely go far in fixing the inequality we see on the shelves. How can #OwnVoices be represented when those voices are not invited to the table? One would hope that staffing in the industry should at least match up to the levels of the reading community. According to the Lee & Low 2015 publishing industry survey, the industry is 79 percent white and 4 percent African American. The Pew Research reader survey, meanwhile, puts the reading population at 77 percent white and 13 percent African American. Oh, and the most likely person to read a book? A college-educated black woman.
We need to be in the room where the decisions are happening (Blatant Hamilton reference here) to get equal representation on the bookshelves and a fair share of marketing dollars in order to have any shot at making bestseller lists. You don’t expect a runner to win a race starting fifty steps behind. It just doesn’t make sense. That said, for far too long this has been the way of the industry.
Getting back to my own race, after that first agent and I parted ways (come on, you knew that was coming), I regrouped and went on to write other stories. After some reflection, I dusted off one of the old stories and self-published it with the title Bounce, and surprised myself by winning a Golden Leaf award for best novel with strong romantic elements from the New Jersey chapter of Romance Writers of America for it. Along the way I saw some agents come and go, and I’m happy to now be with an agent who champions my work for what it is, without looking for stereotypical racial selling points that he can point out as being the easy hook of my books. I am also thrilled to be published by Dafina, an imprint of Kensington Books that features writers of color and to be with an editor who loves my sexy, quirky romantic comedy voice and is excited about my series of Unconventional Brides and the men who love them.
Heartbreakingly, though, it was only a few days after I won the award for Bounce that my Nana passed away. The weekend before, she, being her usual caregiver self, had come to my house to look after my son while I was at the conference where I learned I’d won. No one was happier than she was when I came home with my award. I started tweeting the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseRomance almost daily after her death as a way to honor my grandmother and to deal with grieving her loss. #WeNeedDiverseRomance for sure is not a hashtag that says nearly enough for all that the genre needs. When I see the hashtag pop up on someone else’s timeline or see it re-tweeted, I’m reminded of the reason I write and the reason Nana loved the genre so much. Picking up a romance novel was a special moment just for her. It was a time that uplifted her and spoke to her heart. She, as well as all types of women and men, has a right to see themselves represented both on and off the page.
Representation matters. Diversity matters. Love matters. Always.
“Originally published at HeroesandHeartbreakers.com - Here.
A native New Yorker, K.M. spent her formative years on the ‘A’ train where she had two dreams: 1) to be a fashion designer and 2) to be a writer. After spending over ten years designing women’s sportswear for various fashion houses, this self-proclaimed former fashionista took the leap of faith and decided to pursue her other dream of being a writer.
An award-winning contemporary romance writer, K.M.’s self-published novel Bounce won the Golden Leaf for best novel with strong romance elements from the New Jersey chapter of Romance Writers of America. She was also named Author of the Year by the New York Chapter of Romance Writers of America. Her novel Insert Groom Here is out now from Kensington Books.
K.M. currently lives in a suburb of New York with her husband, twins, and a precocious terrier named Jack that keeps her on her toes. When not writing she can be found on Twitter @kwanawrites and on her website at www.kmjackson.com.