Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
February 7th, 2016

On Black Art, Beyonce, and Diversity in Publishing

Beyoncé Formation

I’m forming a knee-jerk reaction against the word “diversity.” At this point it’s like saying Beetlejuice three times, and then a serious debate/rant/conversation will materialize, and then die down until the word is chanted in the mirror again. And the word/conversation keeps being framed as though ~diverse~ authors, editors, agents, other industry professionals, and readers only came into existence once mainstream audiences and media began to discuss the issue.

(But, if you want to read the latest pithy and amazing testimonies, I point you to Piper Huguley, Christina C. Jones, India Valentin, and the hashtag #WritersofColor)

Which brings me to the topic of this post.

One of the academic points I love love love to read about and discuss is African-American performance and identity via the arts. Two “soundbites” from Du Bois converge here: the concept of Double Consciousness and his criteria for Negro art.

When I opened my Instagram app and saw a post from Beyoncé’s account, I mosied on over to Tidal to see what she was up to. A caveat: I’m not a member of the Beyhive (cue gasps of shock), but I respect her longevity, work ethic, and the way she can put on one helluva show. But as I watched Formation, I was speechless in shock and awe. The melody is kind of throwaway, but the lyrics and accompanying music video leapt out to me as completely fulfilling Du Bois’s criteria. The Veil was ripped off.

I closed the Tidal app after watching the video twice and bemusedly anticipated the onslaught of yaaas, slay, and queen to fill social media and my favorite pop culture sites, as well as a gazillion thinkpieces on every single media website in existence. So my eyebrows rose considerably when so many other people got it and called for the thinkpieces to be written by black women.

Later on, as I began to formulate this post, I mused over Beyoncé dropping this overtly black female political music video into the mainstream. Granted, Beyonce hasn’t ever not celebrated her black womanhood or the black womanhood of her audience, and videos like Bootylicious, or Déjà Vu have head-nodded to black icons—yet, they’ve never as blatantly talking to the black community only as the lyrics and video for Formation.

I’ve been having lots of thoughts about “diversity in publishing,” but they didn’t snap until this video. In a nutshell, I feel the topic is flattening and compressing into an eventually generic conversation the more it spirals into mainstream circles.

The conversation assumes that black (or other POC) art should be fully accessible to the mainstream to be ~marketable~ and enjoyable.

(I find this is probably where the pearl-clutching over “quality” comes into play–the book reads “poor” because it’s not written for you; it’s not written in the same voice and vernacular to which you’ve grown accustomed after years of reading canonical literature and A-List genre fiction writers).

It assumes that diverse voices must be packaged exactly like mainstream work to succesfully reach mainstream readers.

It assumes that diverse voices need mainstream attention to pull them into the spotlight–that the diverse writer’s core audience isn’t enough to declare said writer successful.

Last year, British writer and Man Booker winner Marlon James caused an uproar when he stated that “writers of colour pander to the white woman.” Somewhat around the same time, an older Pew Report about college-educated black women being the most likely to read a book popped back up. And then there’s the Lee & Low survey, which clearly shows that the gatekeepers in publishing are mostly white women.

But all of this is to say that the push to normalize diversity risks erasing the nuances. It chances pushing the intra-community dialogue between the writer and his/her readers out of focus. It may do the opposite of what the campaign intends, which is to nurture and nourish diverse voices.

Space needs to be made for all, but if the book is fulfilling Du Bois’s criteria, it should still have the same shot at similar shelf placement, advance, and marketing dollars as a more mainstream novel (and POC authors ought to have the ability to shift back and forth between audiences—like Beyonce).

August 12th, 2015

Where Do We Go From Here?


Much has been said about For Such a Time by Kate Breslin. I haven’t read the book, nor do I plan to, so I will direct you to the thoughtful, sometimes painful responses to the book from Katherine Locke, Rose Lerner, Sarah Wendell, K.K. Hendin, Abigail Nussbaum, Kelly at Instalove, Jackie Barbosa, Janine & Sunita at Dear Author, Ros Clarke, Laura Curtis, Emily Jane Hubbard, Joanne Renaud, and…I’m sure I’ve probably missed more. The Twitter conversations are vital as well.

My thoughts have circled around “What next?”.

The book and the responses to it have gone fairly international, with many mainstream news outlets picking up the ~controversy~ and its ~tearing apart~ the romance community. Wendy the Super Librarian and Sunita have focused on the romance community’s complicity in the existence of FSaT because of the popularity of romances with consent issues and wonky power dynamics, as well as the love for “extreme heroes.” Other conversations have made the regulations of the RITA Awards a focal point. Both are valid conversations to have with regards to FSaT. A number of people have asked why now? Why not when the book was initially published? Why not when SBTB posted their review in June?

As I posted on Wendy’s blog:

This dialogue has come to encompass many overlapping topics, of which consent, power dynamics, and other problematic elements are one. However, the genesis of the conversation mostly–if not entirely–derives from the microaggressions and sometimes hostility experienced at RWA in the context of diversity in the genre and its strong presence in the form of authors in NYC.

My response is threefold:

This book hurt people. This book violated the safe space the romance community purports to represent for women authors. And lastly, this book should make the romance community take a closer look at itself for how it marginalizes and silences the voices of certain women.

It’s quite possible that no one spoke up before now because they know and have experienced the artificial reception to saying, “hey, this is hurtful/wrong/problematic” within the community.

We’ve marched so fervently under the banner of “yay women’s fantasies, pleasures, and personal kinks” that we have built a community that decimates any critique of the content.

We’ve marched so fervently under the banner of “romance is feminist/for women” that we denigrate anyone who asks “which women? whose feminism?”.

We’ve created a community that prefers to doggy paddle in the shallow end of the pool, even as we present ourselves as Olympic divers to naysayers.

I sat on my response to Sunita’s post because it felt unformed, and it wasn’t until I happened to discover an article about “ethnic romance” in the December 1982 issue of Black Enterprise that my thoughts fully coalesced.

There’s a popular saying that “History is Written by the Victors” (ironically, no one knows to whom to attribute the quote!). This is used as a generic, catch-all excuse during debates over history and historical accuracy in any field in which history is vital.

I will go further and say that history is written by the privileged, for the benefit of privileged audiences, who internalize them and, if they are a writer, regurgitate them all over again for the privileged readership. And it impresses upon the marginalized audiences that they are not the norm–and that to be the norm means to believe in and to perform those privileged narratives.

The Black Enterprise article, written at the height of the romance boom of the early 1980s, was astonishing and painful to read for many reasons, the most outrageous being the deliberate throttling of a diverse romance industry.

Without this article, the old chestnut that Terry MacMillan’s Waiting to Exhale is the genesis of African-American popular fiction, which then trickled down to the romance genre, could remain unchallenged. Without this article, you could continue believing there were little to no romance writers of any ethnic background trying to break into the genre before 1995–and that the publishing industry was absolutely shocked that African-American women read romance. You probably wouldn’t even be aware of the powerful, influential African-American romance editors who not only shaped general romance industry trends, but went to bat for diverse romance.

When I decided to write a romance novel, I didn’t know anything about publishing, the RWA, other authors, writing communities, etc. I had read a boatload of Regency romances and felt the urge to write one of my own. As is usual with young writers, my first novel was complete self-insertion: a mixed race American girl travels to Regency England to claim her inheritance and is swept away by an earl (don’t ask to see it! It’s on an old hard drive). At the time, I was heavily involved in the fanfiction community, so I was certain there existed a romance writing community online, and there was! I joined a few forums and loops and settled in to have fun.

Gradually, I realized that non-white romance writers did not exist to the mainstream romance community. And that to succeed on an equal playing field meant suppressing part of my heritage. Oh, it wasn’t a conscious effort to “pass”–I genuinely love Edwardian England, and I’ve always been a bit of a square peg in general, so I never go into any community expecting to fit in 100% (I never do *sad trombone*). But the realization that writing romance with characters of my ethnic background meant I too would no longer exist to people I admired and whose books I loved was a bit traumatic.

Call me naive and sheltered at best, or stupid at worst, but as a kid who was often ushered into gifted programs, encouraged by teachers to explore my talents, and happily chosen for a number of extracurricular activities–I have never entered a situation where my existence would be automatically marginalized and where my talent would be automatically second-guessed, until I became involved in the publishing industry.

Thankfully, my rather (racially/ethnically) sheltered upbringing keeps me more optimistic than I would assume, but when presented with the opportunity to present my work on a mainstream platform, I took the plunge and wrote myself back into the story.

One of the major selling points for the romance genre, when combating negativity from naysayers is to cite romance’s billion dollar market. In 1982, the money to be made in romance was distinctly marveled over by the Black Enterprise reporter: “With advances on the typical romance averaging $5000, against royalties of about $20,000 for each book…it is not at all unusual for prolific full-time romance writers to make $100,000 or more yearly.”

Economic freedom and empowerment of women is what this emphasis on sales revenue promotes, particularly post-2010 (KDP’s inauguration).

Last year, Sunita initiated a great conversation about “id reading,” with particular emphasis on historical romance. Her post about Nazi heroes in romance fits into this “id reading.”

I’ve had a great opportunity to think about my Christian privilege throughout the conversation surrounding FSaT, and the book’s existence is both the result of id reading and the cultural privilege of (generic) Protestant Christianity in American society. This goes beyond the Christian/Evangelical/Inspirational Fiction community vs Secular. This is about how American society easily co-opts the Holocaust because it has little to do with our everyday lives. Because Christianity, in whatever form, is the default. Because Americans like to believe we’re the heroes of the world, based on our superiority through Christianity. “Redeeming” a Nazi, whether it be in inspy fiction, m/m fiction, etc, thus falls under the umbrella of American=hero=Christian=saving=superior.

And this is all up in the most popular romance tropes of the good, moral heroine saving the dark, evil, amoral, troubled vampire/Navy SEAL/duke/BDSM billionaire/MMA fighter millionaire college freshman by the redemptive power of love.

Circling back to historical romance specifically, the genre co-opts a lot of popular narratives from novels and film and turns them into tropes (e.g. Tarzan, The Sheikh, etc), with little unpacking of the troublesome baggage attached to them. And popular narratives also contribute to the erasure of diverse peoples in the past because their points of origin go unquestioned (hello Production Code, which deliberately ironed out the real lives of the past [1930s-1960s]) and passed this down as how life was Back Then [wholesome, all white, good, upstanding, and moral]).

Combine all of these elements, shake em up, and you get why FSaT can be conceived, written, published, read, and feted without anyone in the line of production bringing it to a screeching halt.

I have a little bit of a radical streak at times, so I’ll be frank: the calls for diversity and inclusiveness can often seem a little like the story of the little boy with his finger in the dam. And to use a little Biblical allegory–you don’t put new wine into old wineskins.

The posts on SC Write and Buzzfeed give voice to this.

To ironically quote Gwyneth Paltrow, we need to consciously uncouple from the structures that have historically marginalized certain voices.

Historical romance in particular needs to be decolonized.

So, now I ask, where do we go from here?

April 7th, 2015

On Diversity in Historical Romance

NYT Best-selling historical romance author Sarah Maclean tweeted a link to a Tumblr conversation about the historical accuracy excuse in regards to period dramas erasing people of color from its cast of characters and its general landscape. It is a powerful indictment against lazy history and the laziness when it comes to building a diverse cast in our media. Yet, it also made me sigh.

There was a discussion about diversity on the Romance Divas forum a few weeks ago, and I believe #WeNeedDiverseBooks took off where #WeNeedDiverseRomance fizzled because diversity is treated as a “lesson.” We want our children to learn and accept everyone in order to become “good” people (this fostering of tolerance and acceptance also keeps order in the classroom and on the playground).

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).

With 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.

Even though I am a black woman and an historian, I am not exempt from this difficulty in scooping the inners lives of POC from the fog of time. I can easily turn to a biography or a book of letters when I want to craft a white British character. It takes more work to build a solid understanding of who my POC in my books are because the written record is often missing, it is often coded–for the consumption of white audiences–, and it is often scattered in bits and pieces across a variety of mediums.

For example, I’ve been researching black women in WWI and the Spanish Flu in the US. I have been flipping back and forth between primary and secondary sources, obscure books, and general histories to get a proper picture of what they did. The primary sources are chock full of patriotism and keep-your-chin-up. The emotional ups and downs, the political reaction to war, etc seen in contemporary works by white women can be muted or absent absent from black writing. We don’t have books of letters written by a black mother to her son overseas, or memoirs of black women war workers.

This shaky historical foundation can often make it difficult to go “What If…?” (that old writer’s block standby) because you fall back on assumptions–“my heroine can’t do XYZ, it was racist back then!” Or, when desirous of including POC, you only frame them in the context of race and racism.

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.

And then go read historical romance written by AOC about POC.