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In 2019 a well known romance writer began tweeting about other writers in her community and concerns about racism. It led to a huge reckoning within an organization called the Romance Writers of America, which is still unfolding. And although the online debate seemed to be isolated to a specific community of romance writers and their fans, it was really a microcosm of what’s been happening all over the US. In this episode we learn all about romance novels and how newer writers are changing the norms of the genre, and giving it a political power it’s never had before. And, we talk about what it means for organizations to change as they grapple with questions of race.
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Featuring Music: Making Contact Team
Making Contact Team
Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s making contact,
Romance Readers Club Ambi: because it is hard to find your community. Like, I always say that like, it’s hard to find your people and I don’t know why, but somehow romance is like a great way to find your people.
Elise Staples: My name’s Elise Staples. So this is a meeting of the east bay romance readers. We are a romance book club on meetup.com and this is our monthly get together and chat about one particular book.
Salima Hamirani: We’re going to be talking about romance novels, which once upon a time I used to look down on because I thought they weren’t real literature.
Romance Readers Club Ambi: Yeah. Right the internalized misogyny that somehow, like it’s not okay to like sexy things and be out about it.
Elise Staples: I don’t know why we became obsessed with this idea that love is not worthy of reading about or spending time thinking about it’s okay to think about nuclear war in Russia, in your book or serial killers, which it is all of that is. Okay.
Salima Hamirani: The thing is romance can actually be such a hopeful and political genre full of love and potential. And I’m hoping I can get at least part of our audience to pick up a romance novel after the show.
Romance Readers Club Ambi: They don’t want us to read it and then be like, wait a minute. I could have a guy like that. So concerned about my needs and my pleasure.
Elise Staples: What I like to tell people is that there’s a book on a genre for everybody. And sometimes it’s just finding the one that works for you. And if you haven’t tried romance, because you think, you know what it is, I think you’d be really surprised at what modern romance does and who it’s being written by and who it’s being targeted to. And just like the things that can accomplish from a, like a literary standpoint. And if you’re real lucky, there’s going to be some really great sex in the middle. So,..
Salima Hamirani: Oh yeah. And there’s also a lot of great sex in romance novel. But even the romance novels can be radical and modern. The genre also has some problems.
Romance Readers Club Ambi: Um, I know when the whole RWA thing happened, like we talked about it a little bit. I don’t know if everybody knows what happens in their whole. If you don’t, they got called out pretty heavily for how they, …
Elise Staples: unfortunately, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen the reports. We’ve seen the ripped bodice, doing their research and looking at how many authors of color are being represented.
Who’s getting picked to publish books. Who’s getting picked up and getting these contracts. And it’s not often the people of color. There was this idea. If you have a book about a black person, you put them on the cover. That’s urban fiction that goes in a separate category. There is this idea that the like white heteronormative story is the only one that’s really worth reading. And that’s not true.
Salima Hamirani: We’re going to spend today looking into the question of race in romance novels, and really in the whole publishing industry, because of this huge scandal that erupted within the romance writers of America, which is this isolated corner of the writing world. That actually has a lot to say race in the United States.
Elise Staples: I’m really glad to see that a changing I’m making an active effort in my book club to select books that are more by more diverse authors because they’re out there and they write fantastic stuff and it’s really worth reading. And it’s such an authentic experience. That, the first time I started seeing myself reflected in a book as a black woman, it was just magical.
I was like, oh my gosh, she’s got curly hair. And she puts it up in a scarf at night and I can relate to that. And, you know, seeing myself represented, it’s like indescribably wonderful.
Salima Hamirani: And this story is such a big one that we’re actually going to break it into two parts. So welcome to part one of the agony and the ecstasy race and the future of the love story.
Constance Grady: So this story actually begins in August of 2019. There was this kind of astonishing lead dramatic sort of meltdown that happened in the romance writers of America so much so that it just spilled out of the little romance corner of the internet to sort of anyone who is interested in the media suddenly saw this happening.
Salima Hamirani: That’s Constance grady. She’s the senior culture reporter for Vox, and she’s going to lead us through the meltdown at the RWA or the romance writers of America.
Constance Grady: It concerns Courtney Milan, who is a very beloved romance novelist. She is also a former lawyer and she was placed on the ethics committee of RWA.
Salima Hamirani: Oh, and as a side note, the romance writers of America has been around since 1980 as a professional organization. And it’s really important if you want to become a successful novelist,
Constance Grady: it’s a job is to offer romance writers community support, and advocacy. A lot of people look down on romance novels and think they’re kind of silly and not worth taking seriously. And RWA is a place where people can go and say, okay, This is a legitimate form of art and it is also an extremely big business and we are going to take it seriously. And we’re going to take you seriously for your interest in it.
Salima Hamirani: So Courtney Milan was on the ethics committee for the RWA, and she started making some personal tweets in August of 2019 about other members of the romance community.
Constance Grady: A history of questionable things they had said and done concerning race I’ll note here that Courtney Milan is of Asian descent and the other romance writers she was talking about were all white. One of them had liked multiple tweets that were sort of white supremacists adjacent, you might say. And then one of her colleagues at the small romance press where she works had.
Written a historical romance novel, um, in which Chinese women characters appear. And they are described as I’m going to quote directly here, demure and quiet as our mothers have trained us to be,
Salima Hamirani: of course, Courtney Milan, as an Asian woman, felt personally offended by that description and the kind of racist tropes around Asian women, which that passage is drawing from.
Constance Grady: So she is tweeting out a critique of these figures in the romance community and their role as sort of institutional gatekeepers. You know, one of these figures, head been the romance buyer for borders for years and years when borders was one of the biggest booksellers in the country.
Salima Hamirani: They also run some major presses. So the people Courtney Milan is tweeting about are people who have a lot of influence in terms of whose work is published and sold, which the romance writing world like most of the publishing world is a very white industry.
Constance Grady: And so Courtney Milan is making this sort of structural critique of the romance community as a community were the gatekeepers may have some unexamined racial prejudices and that affects whose stories get told.
Salima Hamirani: So, so far the story isn’t that unusual because for a while now, people have started to use social media to talk about issues like racist sexism, especially within organizations that are listening to them otherwise. But then things get a little Wilder.
Constance Grady: The people she’s talking about do not care for this at all. So Catherine Lynn Davis, who files a complaint against Courtney Milan with RWA. So does Suzanne Tisdale who is running the press under discussion. So does Katherine Lin Davis, they are saying that they have lost work because of these tweets that she is being racist against them as white people.
Suzanne Tisdale says at one point that putting Courtney Milan on the ethics committee is akin to putting a neonazi in charge of a UN human rights committee. This apparently causes a lot of turmoil within RWA.
Salima Hamirani: It also causes a lot of turmoil on the internet, as you can imagine. And the RWA itself, well, it didn’t respond in the best way,
and we’re going to come back to everything that went down to the RWA in a second. But first just what’s up with romance novel. I bet some of you out there are romance fans. Maybe some of you read it in secret. And I bet others have never tried it because of his reputation. Romance was traditionally seen as women’s literature.
It was written by women and it’s all about women finding happiness and anything that serves women primarily is seen as inferior. So a lot of people who read romance feel that they’re looked down upon and they try to hide the covers of their romance novels. You know, the bodies. I holding them within another more traditional book.
So I don’t know that man reading house of leaves on the train might actually be reading bridges, but even though people look down on romance, it might actually have something to teach us about happiness and emotional depth and the power of a love story.
Reagan Jackson: I like fiction that you can read at a clip. That kinda, the story just takes you along pretty quickly. But also I discovered that my mom is a closet romance enthusiast. And so I was kind of perusing her shelves and noticing like shelf after shelf of Judith McNaught and Lisa Clay pass. So I’d ask her for recommendation. I said, well, which one, you know, what do you think I would like? And she handed me a Lisa clay pass, and I was hooked.
Salima Hamirani: So that’s Reagan Jackson. She is herself a writer, and she’s the co-executive director of a nonprofit called young women empowered. And she’s also a huge romance fan.
Reagan Jackson: That is not what I would think of a black feminist reading material, white women in distress in sexually compromising positions that doesn’t, it just kind of, doesn’t really like jive with my worldview.
And yet what I found. Some of the stories were just really interesting and really good. Cause I feel like with romance as a genre, even if it’s, if the story is deep and rich and whatever, there’s still this kind of levity to it. And I think part of it maybe is just the promise of a happy ending that you don’t really get in literature.
Salima Hamirani: Reagan immediately fell in love with romance novels, but then she discovered the world of romance written by people of color, especially romance written by black women.
Reagan Jackson: Oh, it’s just so much more relatable to me. Like, I don’t know. Have I ever tried on a corset? Sure. But that’s not my everyday reality.
It’s like, you know, going from one fabulous estate to the next on the hunt for a husband, like that’s not super relatable to me in my life and where I’m at versus, you know, some of the stories that I’ve read like Vitaliy Hibber is a sequel to, well, not sequel, but it’s a companion book to Chloe Brown gets a life is Danny brown takes a hint and it’s, uh, Danny is Chloe’s sister and she’s a black feminist academic ends up in a relationship with a Pakistani rugby player. I’m trying to think of any book that I’ve read that wasn’t nonfiction where there’s a black feminist woman. That gets to have a romance. I think we get to have a movement.
I think we get to have a protest or contribute to everybody else’s wellbeing and their life, but it is very rare that we are fed and nurtured and nourished.
Salima Hamirani: You know, when I was talking to Reagan, I hadn’t really paid that much attention to how much of popular culture, meaning movies, for example, and television was dedicated to making women and particularly black women suffer.
But it’s kind of incredible. If you think about it, there are a lot of depictions of rape of murder of beatings and injustice and just misery. And that was something, a lot of people I talked to said when I asked them about why they loved romance novels, they said that for them, they were just tired of seeing people suffer and that in this political climate, seeing people fall in love instead and have a happy ending, felt radical it felt fulfilling and life changing
Reagan Jackson: that book, honestly, like in some ways kind of changed my life. Because it gave me permission to feel like I deserve more. I feel like the way that girls have women and especially black women have been socialized is to always put everyone first. If you ever go to any type of event, like community event, and you see that it’s run by black women, you might notice that they’re the last to eat.
They’ve made all the food they’ve made, you know, made provisions for elders, made sure that everyone has a seat at the table and are most likely standing somewhere in a corner in uncomfortable shoes looking fabulous. No, one’s asking them how they are. No one is bringing them a cup of water or bringing them any of the food that they have so lovingly prepared. And I think when you see that enough, that that becomes kind of just an internalized thing, your role as a human being, it feels like you’re there for the purpose of serving others. So to read a narrative, to read a story where that’s actually acknowledged, and this person like spoiler alert, meets a person who can really see how like great and incredible she is, and then offer compassion and care, I needed to see that. I need to read that story over and over again. I need to read nine more stories, just like it because it’s nourishing.
Salima Hamirani: So let’s come back to what was happening with the RWA. After the Twitter explosion in 2019, the RWA decided it was time to take action
Constance Grady: .So it’s unclear exactly what happens behind RWA closed doors, after this point, after these complaints come in, there are a lot of conflicting stories and a lot of rumors.
Salima Hamirani: What we do know is that on December 23rd, right before Christmas, The RWA suspends, Courtney Milan, who was the Asian woman who had posted on Twitter about the racism she had seen in her colleagues work.
Constance Grady: And she has been issued a lifetime ban to prevent her from assuming a leadership role in RWA ever again, it is a very, very strict response and it causes this enormous backlash. What a lot of people end up arguing. Is that this is an attempt by an older, more conservative, whiter wing of romance landia to sort of grab control back of this community now that they are facing a critique from younger, more progressive writers, writers of color, queer writers, and who have managed to gain enough of a foothold in RWA to finally have a little bit of institutional power and make their critique actually land
Salima Hamirani: this lifetime ban and suspension of Courtney Milan causes a dramatic backlash online.
Constance Grady: You get all kinds of people issuing public statements in support of Courtney Milan, including major, major romance authors, romance, literary agents, romance critics, the local chapters of RWA, the international association for the study of popular romance cuts its ties with RWA, so does bookstore romance day. So just one day later, December 24th, Christmas Eve, there’s an emergency board meeting and the board reverses its decision and they reinstate Courtney Milan.
Salima Hamirani: But at this point, the damage has been done and other authors begin posting about their experiences with the RWA.
Constance Grady: So you get things like. Members of color sharing stories about microaggressions they’ve experienced at RWA meetings. There are some people saying that local chapters are paying black speakers less than they pay white speakers. Some people are saying that queer authors aren’t being offered help from RWA after they register professional complaints, which that is the literal reason that this organization exists right to advocate for its members professionally.
Salima Hamirani: And we should spend some time talking about these grievances that people begin to share because although the public eruption around race happened in 2019 authors who weren’t white or straight, had always had difficult experiences with the organization. For example, the RWA had once faced some backlash around queerness.
Constance Grady: This was an issue in 2005. This is at the time that the country is spending a lot of time debating same-sex marriage. RWA creates a poll and asks members, whether they would consider defining the genre as one characterized by love stories between one man and one woman. So queer love stories would not be allowed. Poly love stories would not be allowed
Salima Hamirani: and creature love stories, which is a romance between a woman and a male animal. For example, that probably would have been fine but two women falling in love? No,
Constance Grady: and that was a huge, huge controversy. This definition was never formerly adopted into the bylaws, but the fact that it was even up for debate, kind of became a real sticking point for a lot of the queer community.
Salima Hamirani: And of course the RWA has also had a problem with race for a long time. And one place accusations of racism turn up a lot. Is that the annual awards put on by the RWA called the Rita.
Constance Grady: They’re basically the most prestigious award in the community. And they’re kind of the splashiest thing that RWA is responsible for every year. Like they’re doing other work, they’re doing advocacy and membership support But the thing that everyone remembers is you go to the annual conference, you put on a fancy dress and you go to the reader awards.
Salima Hamirani: It’s like the Oscars for romance novelists. It’s a really big deal. And between 2007 and 2007, Of all of the authors who became finalists for the Rita’s less than 0.5% of them were black
Constance Grady: and no black author had ever won a Rita, until 2019.
Salima Hamirani: But the people who are nominated are just part of the problem. There’s also the content of the books.
Constance Grady: Probably the most controversial example was in 2014. This novel titled for such a time was nominated for two Rita’s. About a romance between a Nazi officer and a concentration camp prisoner who is half Jewish. And in the end, the heroine reforms, the hero, but only after converting to Christianity.
Salima Hamirani: Oh yeah, you’ve heard that. Right. That’s pretty bad. There was a lot of concern from members about how books with such problematic love stories were even getting nominated for awards. And individual authors of color, some of whom did manage to get recognition from the RWA for their work have also had really bad experiences.
Constance Grady: One person I talked to was this novelist, Nina Malone, who described being at her first RWA.
Convention back in 2019, which was the year that for the first time there were authors of color winning Rita’s and she describes being in the reception and overhearing this group of white women talking about the awards. And one of them after two women of color have won awards goes, oh, I didn’t know that we needed two tokens.
That was really hard for her to hear and part of why she chose not to renew her membership with RWA. After that,
Salima Hamirani: in fact, the constant racist aggressions at the awards had already generated an online campaign long before Courtney Milan began tweeting about her complaints.
Constance Grady: And you start seeing this hashtag campaign Rita’s So White kind of patterned after the Oscars so white Twitter campaign and you do start to see RWA respond by seeming to try to become more inclusive and a little less retrograde in its romantic tastes a lot more members of color are getting recruited to the board. And for a lot of people, it seemed like a big victory for the progressive wing of RWA.
When. Courtney Milan during the board in 2015. And they actually, she wins a service award in 2019. And there’s there’s diversity training happening within , the judging committee for RWA in 20 19 3 authors of color win boards. You know, it’s starting to seem like, okay, people are really trying, they’re putting in some effort and then comes this big.
Salima Hamirani: In 2019, and we’re going to get back to the end of the RWA saga in a bit. But before we do, I wanted to look into the history of romance, novels, and issues of race. And for that, I found an academic who studies romance.
Jayashree Kamble: My name is gesture gambling. I’m a professor of English at LaGuardia community college in the city university of New York and my main area of research is popular romance, novels analysis, study romance in other media like Indian cinema and television
Salima Hamirani: Professor Kamblee told me that for a literary genre, romance is kind of young
Jayashree Kamble: it’s oh, just about over a hundred years old. So we trace its history to a publishing firm called mills and boon and the. And then the subsequent spread of it across the globe, initially in the former colonies of the British empire, after a while the north American distributor of the books, which was a small company named Harlequin in Canada is the one that actually steps in and becomes well-known over the world, especially in north America as the romance novel.
So these are typically fairly small books, about 180 pages. And the trajectory of the plot is the initial potential conflict between a man and a woman, cis-man cis-woman and their ability to overcome those conflicts and come together in for most of the life of the genre in holy matrimony.
Salima Hamirani: Some people consider books like Jane Eyre to be early romance novels. And as you can probably figure out because it’s coming from Victorian England and spreading out through the colonies, romance upheld a particular set of cultural beliefs.
Jayashree Kamble: , you know, notions of purity, especially when it comes to sexual behaviors and what then finally allows those things to be anointed into a particular version of couplehood.
And then the propagation of the family
Salima Hamirani: that Christian tradition still has a huge influence over much of the romance industry, but romance novels have shifted a lot. There are romance novels that are pornographic. There are romance novels about trans love, queer love, fat, disabled people falling in love, polyamorous love stories. The genre is really diverse and that’s partially the influence of who’s reading romance novels now.
Jayashree Kamble: The industry is always interested in finding audience. As soon as anybody identifies a consumer demographic, capitalism being what it is would like to fill that niche. Right? So in that sense as much of a Marxist as I am, I imagine, uh, capitalism can have its uses.
Salima Hamirani: And here’s the other super interesting thing about the history of the romance industry. It’s the most democratic of all the literary arts. The industry actually encourages its readers to become authors and to write.
Jayashree Kamble: Romance has, as, as long as I can remember, it had that tradition and a romance publishers very actively cultivated that they, in the backs of the books, especially if you look at mills and boon Harlequin from the sixties, there are inserts and there are things in the back of the book saying, do you think you can write.
Send us your manuscript or the romance writers of America was also founded as a professional organization to help those readers by and large who thought, oh, I love reading this. I also think I have a story in me that I could tell in the same format.
Salima Hamirani: Romance is also one of the few genres that openly accepts and celebrates self publishing or publishing online and in different formats and this openness to new authors and new forms has allowed experimentation and representation to really flourish in the romance industry.
Jayashree Kamble: In fact, um, just recently I was reading what falls into the scifi genre of romance, and it’s a piece by author Ana Aguirre and it’s called strange love and it’s a human meets, other terrestrial. And I was really taken aback and pleased by how.
Well, it managed to use the idea of the extraterrestrial. To explore the notions of queerness and different bodies and what it means to have an erotic connection to someone whose body is, does not fit any of your previous understandings of what your romantic partner and sexual partner could be. So people are doing very interesting things by fusing together, different kinds of genres underneath the major plot of the romance.
Salima Hamirani: That history is so interesting to me. And it explains a lot about the current race debate within the RWA. Because on the one hand, you have this very open democratic art form that says, please join us. You can also write, and we will publish you. And on the other hand, it’s steeped in this white Victorian Christian tradition, which uses love stories to push an idea of womanhood and virtue.
I just don’t think you see that combination in many other. And it might be why the race debate within the RWA is a specially challenging.
So when we left off, the RWA had reinstated Courtney Milan, but
Constance Grady: at this point, half of the board is resigning in protest. There are stories leaking that Courtney Milan suspension was decided in the first place in this kind of secret backroom deal that the rest of the board didn’t actually know about. The RWA precedent, Damon suede is resigning.
He has only been in office for two weeks at this point. And RWA is kind of left a skeleton of itself, right? It has only half a board and no precedent.
Salima Hamirani: And despite the public outrage and the fact that the organization almost fell apart, the RWA decided it wanted to try and rebuild from the ground up.
Constance Grady: So they call off the Ritas. They hire an outside firm that is going to audit their practices and they hire a diversity consultant that can restructure their award system. And then finally in February, what is left of the board resigns, an interim board comes in and they say that in the five months they have left before they get a new permanent board, they are going to try to completely overhaul RWA.
And all of this is going to be happening in the middle of a pandemic.
Salima Hamirani: That was part one of our story, but it’s just the beginning, the second half, which will air next week is about why these allegations of racism within the romance writing world matter to the rest of us.
the making contact team includes Anita Johnson, Jessica Partnow, Sabine Blaizin, and I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to making contact.