Previously: bad sex in romance novels.
In romance novels, it seems easier for a person of colour to get a date with a were-lion than with a non-shifting human being. I guess if a reader is down with leonine loving, then stories featuring sex with Asian people aren’t so scary.
Here’s the crux: As Alyssa Cole notes in the September, 2013, RT Book Reviews, mainstream romance novels featuring non-Caucasian characters generally do not sell well. Editors from larger publishing houses, thus, do not acquire them as often. Imprints catering to African-American readers–Kimani by Harlequin and Dafina from Kensington, for example–do brisk business, but the number of authors and characters of colour who cross over is rare. (An illuminating discussion can be found in the comments section of this Love in the Margins post.)
The lack of crossover, however, often garners absurd results: Take, for example, Harlequin Medical’s NYC Angels series, a multi-authored group of novels set in a Manhattan hospital. There is one protagonist of colour named—unfortunately/hilariously—Alex Rodriguez. I have a lot of sympathy for the poor writer who actually made an effort to include a Latino character, but what a mess. Imagine staffing a large North American hospital without African-Americans, East or South Asians (and no Jews, either). Even with A-Rod on the team, this would never work.
In any case, this is not a space for taunting or bitterness—this is a space of love. So, let’s look at a handful of excellent romance novels set in this world in the present day which feature characters of many colours, by writers of colour.
The Fling, Rebekah Weatherspoon
Rebekah Weatherspoon’s erotic romance, The Fling, opens in the middle of a sexual encounter between preppy, blonde Annie Collins and her towering, tattooed, biracial trainer, Oksana Gorinkov. Annie is engaged, but while her fiancé is in Europe getting in a few last jollies, Annie decides that she’d like to sleep with a woman before settling into heterosexual monogamy.
The half-Russian, half-West African Oksana lives with her grandmother and teenage sister in West Hollywood. She has been burned in the past by a woman sampling lesbianism, so emotional involvement with a privileged white girl from Laguna is the last thing that Oksana wants.
Annie, with a fiancé and an expensive wedding to think of, is also aware of how she seems: “Only pathetic virgins and desperate teen boys fell in love with the person—or in this case, the unearthly angel of beauty and cardiovascular fitness—who’d popped their cherry.”
Both acknowledge the difficult beginning to their relationship. But Oksana and Annie actually, you know, like each other. (I like them! I snort-laughed when Oksana exasperatedly/affectionately gave her sister’s age as, “Fifteen, going on whore.”) When like combines with lust, the result is hot sex:
Their kiss was heated and rough. All tongues and lips and teeth. Annie scrambled across Oksana’s lap, straddling her stomach as Oksana moved them further onto the bed. Annie sat back just long enough to tear off her shirt and Oksana’s tank top before she attacked her mouth with renewed desperation.
Annie and Oksana’s encounters leave little doubt that there is powerful attraction between the two. Weatherspoon, a queer, African-American writer, keeps the characters and situations real and messy, and she doesn’t shy away from examining the ugly, sustained fallout from Annie’s decision to break from her fiancé. Although big ideas about sex, power, race, and class, are present, the narrative wisely swoops in close for intimate moments, and pulls out for readers to see the multi-ethnic Los Angeles that Oksana and Annie live in.
Back to the Good Fortune Diner, Vicki Essex
Tiffany Cheung retreats to her upstate New York hometown in ignominy after losing her apartment and her big city editing job. She finds work tutoring the son of her high-school crush, Chris Jamieson, who nurses his own broken dreams. Chris fathered Simon right after his first year of college and never finished his degree. Chris is also saddled with the ailing family farm. His father, William, has lost his leg to diabetes and is a gigantic, racist asshole.
Vicki Essex, a Canadian writer of Chinese descent, captures what it’s like being a minority in a predominantly white community. Tiffany’s parents and older brother run Everville’s diner, but the Cheungs are both fixtures and alien. Tiffany did not endear herself to peers when she skipped grades. When she does return, she makes friends, but she’s also greeted with this from William Jamieson: “You expecting a gong to announce you or something?”
Despite difficult circumstances, Tiffany and Chris draw closer. Tiffany’s years in New York have left her with chic clothes and shiny hair. Chris is terribly hunky, what with all the hay-bale lifting and the righteous musk of organic farming that clings lovingly to his broad-shouldered frame. But happy as I was to see these beautiful losers get it on, what really stayed with me long after reading were the fights.
Conflict is where Essex really shines. Tiffany gets into altercations with Daniel, her parents, and Chris’ son Simon, and Chris himself. Chris argues with Simon and his dad. All of the parents yell a lot, and the scenes are vicious, realistic, and holy-shit disturbing. But every fight in this book really counts. Witness this moment between Tiffany’s parents, Rose and Tony Cheung:
Daniel watched through the narrow window as [Tony] headed straight for Rose. “You ordered the wrong brand of rice.”
Trepidation ratcheted tightly in his gut as his mom rang in a customer and said blithely over her shoulder, “I didn’t. This one is a better quality.”
… Daniel glanced over at the sack sitting on the table. That brand cost about three dollars more. Were they seriously fighting over three dollars?
“It’s a waste of money.” Tony’s voice rose. “I don’t want to make fried rice for a hundred people with good rice.
“They won’t know the difference.”
“If they don’t know the difference why did you buy the more expensive rice?” The pitch and volume of his father’s voice made the pans in the kitchen vibrate. Daniel shot out of the kitchen door like a bullet.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Mom gum dai seng-ah.”
Don’t make so much noise. Or more accurately, You’re going to drive the customers away with your yelling.
The scene is tense, but Essex gives it more layers by hewing to Daniel’s point of view. Daniel understands the language, but he also sees it from the outsider’s perspective; he knows that the customers have no idea why voices are suddenly raised. The moment offers the reader a microcosm of Daniel and Tiffany’s cultural bifurcation; It mimics the experience of second-generation immigrants having to mediate between their parents’ culture and the outside world. Really well done.
Back to the Good Fortune Diner isn’t perfect. The resolution seems rushed and there is no satisfactory way to defuse the venom of William Jamieson’s racism. But of course, in fiction, as in real life, this is an ongoing project.
Hot Tamara, Mary Castillo
Tamara Contreras wants to pursue a graduate degree. Her mother wants her to marry the patronizing Ruben, or failing that, stay at home in Sweetwater, California and teach. Will Benavides is a Los Angeles firefighter and a talented painter, overcoming a trying childhood. Tamara and Will eyed each other when they attended high school, but haven’t crossed paths in 11 years. The pair share a conversation and a kiss during the wedding reception of mutual friends. After Tamara makes a stand against her mother and moves to LA, they finally get a chance to act on their attraction.
Despite the title, Tamara isn’t muy caliente, or any of those annoying spicy levels that one often finds applied to Latina heroines as if they’re a menu item. But Tamara’s not a pushover either. She doesn’t collapse under the weight of her mother and boyfriend Ruben’s attempts to infantilize her, nor when she is rejected by her graduate school of choice.
She learns that standing up for herself doesn’t come with, as she puts it, “trumpets heralding her breakthroughs… golden shaft[s] of light spotlighting her for bravery.” Despite the forces arrayed against her, she moves out, find herself a job, and do the work of learning to become independent.
Less well done is the depiction of Kirsten, the girl Will goes out with briefly in order to forget Tamara. Will despises Kirsten from the beginning because she’s whiny, a hypocrite, and–here’s the kicker–wants sex. Sure, she’s unpleasant, but the narrative cards are clearly stacked against her. Is it so unconscionable that a woman whom the character is dating should be interested in having sex with him?
So yeah, there’s that.
That said, Castillo, a Mexican-American writer, has her funny moments. She also wrote a spiky, little anti-romance in the collection Names I Call My Sister, which includes romance and chica-lit writers Berta Platas, Sofia Quintero, and Lynda Sandoval. Castillo’s story, Til Death Do Us Part, features another drunken wedding reception, an old flame, a shit-disturbing grandma, and a pair of sisters who don’t have to apologize for their desires.
Veiled Desire, Alisha Rai
Alisha Rai’s linked erotic romances are a set of friends-to-lovers stories. Veiled Desire opens when Leyla Karami finds herself sitting on her patio in Florida, spying on her neighbor, Mason Barrett, as he sheds his clothing. Mason, who has long nursed a crush on Leyla, knows that she’s watching. As a result, he feels confident enough to begin pursuing her. But Mason, Leyla, and her brother Sasha, have been friends since childhood. Leyla is four years older and has been like sister and guardian to him.
Desire means a drastic shift in the dynamics in the relationship between Leyla, Mason, and Leyla’s brother. Moreover, Mason is white. Leyla is of Iranian descent. With age, gender, race, and their personal connection in play, their roles have suddenly become fluid.
Sex is the space in which they try out and re-imagine their new roles. The scenes take on the form of play, and they’re imaginative, titillating, silly, and serious—and there are generous quantities of it. There is some swaggering possessive talk, and a couple of cheesy jokes to leaven the intensity. Throughout, the pair make adjustments, physically and emotionally. It’s all very well done.
Veiled Seduction, Alisha Rai
Near the end of Veiled Desire, Mason and Leyla’s brother Sasha hammer out an agreement for how they will go on as friends now that Mason has decided to date his best friend’s sister. Sasha has some attitudes about Leyla—and women, really–that need schooling. We see those attitudes displayed to comic effect in Rai’s novel Veiled Seduction. Sasha, a cop, lands in the hospital after taking down a school shooter. News of his injury reaches his friend, Dr. Maira Khan, and the realization that life is short spurs her to act on her longtime feelings for him.
Maira is a virgin. Veiled Desire alludes to Leyla’s outward conservatism—modest dress, infrequent relationships—but emphasizes that her background doesn’t stop her from being sexual when she chooses. In Veiled Seduction Maira’s cultural background—she is of Pakistani descent—has made a difference to her in the past:
…part of the reason she’d never had sex was due to her conservative upbringing. She knew for a fact that her sister had been a virgin on her wedding night, and she’d had some hazy thought that she would do the same. Until she’d seen Sasha lying in a hospital bed, that is.
Come decision time, Maira considers her upbringing, and then makes the best decision for herself: she’s ready. It is Sasha’s preconceptions of Maira, his expectations of how a woman of her background should be, that keep them from consummating their relationship–not her culture. He tells her, “I know you think you are [ready]. But let’s face it, honey, this is new territory for you. Look, I just want to make sure we do this right.”
Maira’s reply? “’That sounds…’ she studied his smiling face, smug and confident, ‘incredibly patronizing.’”
I like that Maira.
Maira doesn’t let Sasha make all of the decisions in their relationship, even when he hides under the aegis of cultural expectation. As Maira realizes, background does matter–and then it simply doesn’t. Language, culture, and race, are all significant considerations, but they are also merely information. What makes characters—and people–of any colour real, vital, and important, lies in the choices they make, and what they do with what they have.
Questions for discussion:
Who are your favorite romance writers of colour? Do you know of any First Nations romance writers? Pacific Islanders?
Who are some swoonworthy celebs/models/plebeians of colour? Name some, gif us. Let’s celebrate diversity by treating people like pieces of meat.