A Conversation About Asian-American Erotica Writers -The Toast

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SuleikhaHeadshot2012Solace Ames and Suleikha Snyder are both writers of erotic romance in their thirties. Suleikha is known for her Bollywood romances with Samhain Publishing, and Solace Ames has a series of BDSM erotic romances coming out with Carina Press. They’ve been writing and playing the erotic field for several years.

Solace Ames: Suleikha, how did you come to be a romance insider—that is, actually working in the field?

Suleikha Snyder: A job interview! It really just came out of the natural progression of my work in magazines, moving from TV-based entertainment for women to romance fiction. I’ve always loved soap operas, romance novels, etc. It’s sort of my wheelhouse. So when the opportunity came up, I jumped on it.

Solace Ames: I’m more of an outsider to romance. I read a romance book when I was thirteen (Johanna Lindsay’s The Wolf and the Dove) and it scared the bejeezus out of me, and I never read another one until about three years ago. Then I found there are actually great romances out there that make you sweat and think and aren’t all frilly lord-rape like I thought they were. And now I write it!

Suleikha Snyder: I wrote a frilly lord story when I was 12 or 13, after reading Amanda Quick’s Surrender. I don’t remember if he raped anybody, but I know bosoms heaved. I can confidently say that the story was terrible. Quick’s ’90s historicals, by the way, were not! She revitalized the subgenre for a whole new generation. But I digress…

Solace Ames: What kind of restrictions did you face growing up? I mean this in the absolutely broadest possible sense, in any way you’d care to answer. For many people fiction is a way of escaping and relieving restrictions of the imagination.

Suleikha Snyder: I led a very, very sheltered life. Reading really was my only way to experience larger parts of the world and the human spectrum. It’s definitely how I learned about sex. You don’t get The Talk in an Indian household! So, writing, too, was how I explored the questions I couldn’t ask. I’m pretty sure there are still incredibly smutty stories written by 15-year-old Suleikha moldering in my parents’ garage. I just wish 15-year-old me could’ve pursued writing then, instead of finding the courage to strike out on my own and defy community expectation 20 years later.

solaceames2013Solace Ames: That’s so opposite from my experience because my parents were anarcho-hippies! And my father is a Japanese citizen while my mother was born and raised in the US, so I had two entirely different sets of cultural expectations. I was always skeptical about cultural rules, because there wasn’t even any agreement within my family on them. I had very plain and simple sex-ed information and I’m grateful for that. My main sense of restriction came from outside the family. I got a lot of messages from my (mostly white) peers that my body was freakish and I’d only be desirable in a limited, objectified way. I also lived close to a naval base, and sailors whose sexual impressions of Asian women were formed in the military, in Okinawa and Seoul and so on, would zero in on me. I grew to dread the “I used to be stationed in Okinawa” pickup line, which I started getting when I was about fourteen.

Ugh, that’s depressing. But I want to be honest. It’s really hard to form a positive sexual self-image when you’re either erased or fetishized.

Suleikha Snyder: I hear that. I don’t think I had a sexual self-image at all until my late 20s/early 30s. Before that i always felt…nonexistent. Asexual. Generic. Like the only sexual thing I had to offer was words on a page. Something that existed outside of me. Of course, now I know those words exist inside of me, too.

Solace Ames: How do you feel about sex-positive feminism? I’ve got a pretty complicated relationship to the movement and label, so I’d really love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Suleikha Snyder: Well, I’m sex-positive and a feminist, but beyond that…I don’t really know. I have a really weird relationship with sexuality and sexual expression, having grown up in a community where your body is decidedly not meant to be an erogenous zone. I mean, it’s there to be fed, clothed, pumped full of intellectual content and then married off. And then, of course, to bear children. Thinking of sex, of autonomy, is still almost…alien. Like, I can write about it, watch it, think about other people having it. But I’m a passenger on this debate bus. Does that make sense?

Solace Ames: Yes, that sense of alienation does strike a chord with me. I think whether women are having sex or not having sex, there’s still problems we face in imagining ourselves with sexual autonomy, and if you’re a woman who’s not often represented in sexual narratives, it’s even harder. When we have strong sexual urges it’s easier to imagine ourselves as the people with the maximum agency and autonomy, the heroes of our particular culture… I don’t want to spend this whole time talking about slash fiction and gay romance in relation to women, but it’s so important, because there’s a massive gender and race overlap. If I’m having problems experiencing sexual pleasure in my imagination, well, I can try imagining myself as a man. But what kind of man? Is it somehow healthier for me to imagine myself as a man of my own ethnicity or race? Or to imagine myself as a white woman? These questions are so goddamn complicated I’m tired of thinking about them! Really tired. But I do it anyway—I’m constantly thinking and exploring these barriers of the imagination.

But backing off that tangled topic for a second, I used to identify as a sex-positive feminist up until I started working in the sex industry (I worked in a strip club for a short period of time in my early twenties). I was all gung-ho, “yay porn,” “yay orgasms,” and yes, I still am in a fundamental way…but I noticed that the mainstream of sex-positive feminism actively avoided issues of racial fetishization, and I got tired of feeling betrayed and ignored. And I also felt that sex work is generally pretty awful. I didn’t get traumatized by it, any more than I was traumatized by other jobs I’ve had in the service industry—in fact, I got more racial and sexual harassment as a restaurant waitress—but being in the industry made me cynical and pushed me over into being more “sex-neutral” or “sex-critical.” Not to say I personally don’t love sex and thinking and talking about sex, but I don’t think sex is always a “positive.”

Suleikha Snyder: Did you meet a billionaire who swept you off your feet and took you away from the life? ‘Cause apparently, going by all the erotic romance out now, that’s what happens to strippers. No, seriously. Virgin strippers who need the money to get through med school or cure their dying aunt of cancer.

Solace Ames: Oh. My. God. I can’t start badmouthing that trope in the industry because it’ll come back to bite me in the ass, but rest assured, I hate it!

My experiences weren’t dramatic. I hit my financial goal, I got out, and I didn’t talk about it much after because of the stigma. The majority of women are neither saints nor victims to be rescued, and anyone who’s ever worked in the industry knows that. But I’m still really interested in representing sex work in erotic fiction and also representing the fascination with sex work in erotic fiction.

Suleikha Snyder: We definitely need more of that, and more mature handling of what women find erotic in general. Because I feel like there’s a lot of cut-and-dry, black-and-white judgyness about sexuality and sexual experience. We’re still giving into the ol’ virgin/whore dichotomy, seldom acknowledging that virgins have sex drives and “whores” are a social construct.

Solace Ames: Well, men are typically allowed to have a range while women are dichotomized. And I think our challenge as erotic writers is…do we reject that entirely? Or do we find some kind of compromise with it? In my latest book I have a male sex worker, and male sex workers are actually very popular in romance right now, both in m/m and m/f. Not so with women. Can I actually represent someone like the woman I was as a romantic subject with agency? I don’t know yet. I feel like I’m working there, I’m getting there.

Suleikha Snyder: A lot of people mistakenly assume there’s this monolithic Asian Experience. Of course there isn’t. Me growing up South Asian in Ohio is different from your experience, etc. How would you say that shaped your writing?

Solace Ames: I had a strange and nomadic upbringing. I guess you could call me a third-culture kid, although my parents weren’t ambassadors or missionaries or military: my dad was an academic. I grew up in several different countries, always spoke English as a first language, went to kindergarten in Japan, then moved to the US and went to most of my school in a fairly conservative region in Florida. This was during the height of the anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1980s (Vincent Chin was killed during that time, not that I knew it) and I went through a lot of racial abuse for being Asian. I forgot all my Japanese as a survival strategy, basically, since I was threatened physically a lot. I’ve since learned a little of it back, but my identity as a Japanese-American isn’t tied to language. It’s not about anime and “kawaii” and geisha, either. I feel pretty confident about myself, but I had to go through hell to get where I am.

Suleikha Snyder: Despite your identity not being tied to language, in publishing today, the two things are almost impossible to extricate from one another. Our identity, how we look, what we speak, is part of what makes us “publishable” or “marketable.” Like, if we were more ethnic, writing angsty literary fiction about our immigrant experiences or what-have-you, we’d get more notoriety than we do for being women of color writing naked sexytimes. Personally, I think that’s pretty screwed up, but there you have it.

Solace Ames: That drives me absolutely up the wall. I’m not knocking Amy Tan, but I never want to write like her. I want to write stuff with sex and violence, tits and explosions. But we’re not on a level playing field. We have so many decisions to make, so many difficulties to navigate, external and internal.

Suleikha Snyder: Much to my family’s chagrin, I will never be Jhumpa Lahiri. They keep waiting for me to write the Great Desi-American Novel. It’s not going to happen. That’s not what I want. Those aren’t the stories I have inside me. I have mass-market, crazy, romantic, sexy, messy melodrama just bursting to get out! But we need people to hear us, to see us, to read those words even though we’re “outsiders” in genre fiction. And as long as the industry expects us to stay in our Amy-and-Jhumpa approved categories, we’re never going to get those ears and eyes on us.

Solace Ames: Also, I think a lot of people who are perfectly fine with reading writers of color in literary fiction are scared away from the kind of stuff we write. A hundred years of racist sheikh romance books have conditioned audiences that sexual representation of people of color is always going to be fetish-y. When people see a sexualized person of color on a glossy cover, sometimes the wrong triggers fire in their brains… and I don’t necessarily blame them for that. It makes our marketing harder, though.

Suleikha Snyder: They write it fetish-y, too, though. We—and by “we” I actually mean “big, hunky guys,” because heaven forbid women of color get a POV—are supposed to be the fantasy, not have the fantasy. Biracial, exotic, manly men who will sweep a white woman off her feet. What I want is more stories by women of color for women of color with a healthy expression of sexual desire in a non-fetishizing context. Where’s that glossy cover?

Solace Ames: I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. The main exception in the US is African-American romance, where there’s finally a critical mass of passionate readers and writers to support a small industry. And although Asians and African-Americans have very different experiences in this country I think there’s a sympathy between us and an interest we need to keep working on building. I try to read and rec all kinds of multicultural romance and work with all kinds of IR pairings.

Suleikha Snyder: Speaking of multicultural romance and building interest, your books aren’t just “kinky,” they’re heavy, and really delve into emotional and physical limits. Was that a conscious decision you made or something that just grew out of your writing?

CARINA_1213_9781426897672_DomProject_finalSolace Ames: I think it’s both, really. I’ve always been interested in gender identity and fluid sexuality and extreme pleasure/pain experiences. A lot of that I explored through science fiction, stuff like Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. LeGuin. I don’t identify as a member of the LGBTQ community—I have to be careful not to speak over people who are—but I’ve read a lot of literature and studied queer theory and I’m really into it on a lot of levels. For example, I’ve worked on writing from a woman-desiring-woman or femme POV even though that’s not me in real life. I just finished writing an all-Asian-American MFF BDSM bisexual orgy erotica story, actually. It’s not quite romance, but it has a positive ending where everyone goes home tired but happy and with a good sexual self-image.

And Suleikha, I could say the same about your books. You have lots of different pairings, gay and straight and polyamorous, you’ve explored BDSM… I’d call them more rich than heavy because the language is like biting into a multi-layered cake. I’m incredibly impressed by them.

Suleikha Snyder: Thank you! And now I want cake. It’s funny, but in exploring so many different pairings, I’m actually slowly coming to a more traditional place in my writing. I like to joke that I’m getting less erotic as I go on. More contemporary, with happily-ever-afters and happy-for-nows. My very first short was a male/male football player-and-PR-guy hook-up. Now, my latest story is based on the classic Beauty and the Beast, and while there is a gay subplot, it’s so painfully chaste that it will break your heart. I hope. Because I want to tell all kinds of stories…things that cross the sexual spectrum, the racial spectrum, the religious spectrum, and build on all of those different areas. Come to think of it, that’s like a layer cake, too!

Solace Ames: Oh, that reminds me…I know writers get a lot of advice not to use food metaphors for people. Well, we erotic writers of color are sometimes allowed to break that rule—as long as we don’t abuse the chocolate-and-almonds clichés. It’s hard and we don’t get a lot of respect, but there are perks of the job, too.

Suleikha Snyder: Dude. Don’t break that rule around me. I could rant about that for ages.

Solace Ames: I write too much oral sex to follow that rule religiously!

Suleikha Snyder: This is where I have to use an emoticon, Solace. o_O I’m also taking away your chocolate and your almonds. And crossing my legs.

Solace Ames and Suleikha Snyder are both writers of erotic romance in their thirties. Suleikha is known for her Bollywood romances with Samhain Publishing, and Solace Ames has a series of BDSM erotic romances coming out with Carina Press. They’ve been writing and playing the erotic field for several years.

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