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.

April 9th, 2012

The Danger of Superficial History in Fiction

My Google Alert for Downton Abbey led me to a Daily Mail article, where the journalist questions Hugh Bonneville’s explanation for the phenomenal success of the show. While I do think his reply was worded diplomatically, it nonetheless paints a rose-colored view of Edwardian society. However, one comment in particular shocked me (truly): “Some of us enjoyed “Downton Abbey” because it featured characters who were beautifully dressed, well-spoken and had good manners. It featured no screaming babies, unmarried mothers on benefits, druggies, yobs,”students”, British citizens who were members of ethnic minorities and above all no pop music. Nor was there any evidence of so-called popular culture. For those of us who hate what this country has become, it was required viewing.”

Everyone knows I am a massive fan of the Edwardian era (or Turn of the Century, Belle Epoque, Gilded Age–whatever you want to call it), and while the zeitgeist of historical romance (and in fact, most fiction) focuses on the privileged class, I’ve made an effort to dig up the hidden stories concerning people of color because most people automatically assume life was one long tragedy until the 1960s and 1970s, not just in America, but in Britain. While I don’t sugarcoat or marginalize the presence racism, segregation, and prejudice played in the lives of ethnic minorities, I celebrate the fact that things were not as black and white in the early twentieth century. When I read statements such as the one quoted above, it makes me angry not at the person, but at the reasons why such statements are prevalent in society when discussing the past.

In my own experience, I didn’t know anything about the history of US and international race relations, Colonization in Africa and India, and African-American history until I took a few classes to fulfill my college graduation requirements. Independent studies related to Edwardian Promenade unearthed such people as Li Hongzhang, the Princesses Sophia, Bamba & Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh, Meta Vaux Warrick, Dadabhai Naoroji, John Archer, James Reese Europe, and so on. This is not to say that every book must include people of color (the resentment towards this form of “political correctness” irritates me as well!), but the more we weavers of fiction fail to push beyond the superficial boundaries of history, the more likely it is for viewers to assume people of color were nothing, for women of color who love Jane Austen or Downton Abbey to feel uncomfortable with this love because “they” were just slaves or sharecroppers or were being exploited in Africa, China, or India back in the day, and for people to accuse writers of being “PC” when characters of color are introduced into a storyline (or an actor of color is cast in a period piece).

If we can create dozens of Dukes when we know there have always only been a handful, or turn (virginal) courtesans into the toasts of polite society, or have our heroines befriend and care about the welfare of all lower-class people, why should knowledge of racism stop you from including a wealthy black Liverpool family? Or a Japanese society hostess? Or the German-Japanese daughter of a diplomat who marries a German prince? Perhaps even an English lord who converts to Islam?