Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
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.

May 19th, 2012

Thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey…among other things

I’m reading Beatriz Williams’s Overseas and at a little over 100 pages, when the relatively inexperienced heroine is swept off her feet by the gorgeous, fabulously wealthy, and powerful hero, it suddenly hit me why these types of scenarios are so attractive.

As women, we are bombarded with images every day: how to be beautiful, how to be sexy, how to be intelligent and witty, how to be strong/independent, how to be…everything we’re supposed to be in order to have a fabulous life. And yet, at the same time, we’re told that we’ll never measure up to Angelina Jolie or Halle Berry or Gisele Bundchen, or any other female celebrity held as the epitome of beauty, grace, intelligence, etc etc, and by “measure up” they mean to attract men and to be loved.

The other message is that we have to be outrageously sexy like a Victoria’s Secret model and make men salivate at the thought of having us in bed, and Glamour and Cosmo sell in spades by promising to teach us how to drive men wild in bed so they won’t get bored and move on to a more adventurous woman. There’s no room for the average woman in these types of images no matter how many Dove campaigns they place in between ads full of exotic models in Vogue or during commercial break while watching Desperate Housewives.

In a nutshell, if you cannot live up to those images, you will be alone, unloved, and worthless to society.

Yet, in books like TwilightFifty Shades of GreyOverseas, historical romances full of virginal misses and rakish heroes, and Harlequin Presents titles, the unremarkable woman–the one who may be super intelligent but awkward and clumsy, the one who needs to lose a couple pounds from her hips and thighs, the one who struggles to put food on the table while working at Wal-Mart, the one who has never had many friends, the one who doesn’t have much sexual experience, etc etc–she’s the one who attracts the handsome, wealthy, and powerful man. And this man accepts her for who she is, finds her worthy of attention and affection, and does not hold conditions for his love (you must weight this much, you must have this college degree, you must look put together at all times, etc). Plus, his act of sweeping you off your feet doesn’t have any strings attached–he wants to take care of you and help you because he loves you and thinks you deserve it, not because he only wants to bed you.

This scenario rejects the images and messages that bombard women every day–and is also why the villainness tends to embody those very images and messages–and gives women a safe space to feel vulnerable and insecure and awkward, yet know that the hero of the book will never hurt or humiliate them (there’s a reason most are written in first person POV). It’s actually a bit empowering when you look at those books in that context, and that is why I will never feel comfortable judging their popularity–or their readership.