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POC romance and the authenticity question

Over the years we’ve had a lot of spirited debates here at Dear Author about questions of authenticity and authority. Who gets to tell the stories of the disadvantaged and the historically silenced? As women, many of us are keenly aware of what it means to have someone more powerful, more connected, and more privileged tell our stories, and we don’t want that power relationship reproduced in our genre fiction, even if we’re “only” reading for fun or relaxation. We’ve mostly had to agree to disagree or stop talking to each other, since there is no one resolution that suits us all. Some readers are happy to read books about POC characters that are written by non-POC authors, others think that POC books by POC authors are the way to go, and still others argue that the most important goal is for more POC authors to be able to write whatever they want, whether they write traditional Regencies or multicultural contemporary.

I’m not going to rehash that debate here. What I want to do is have us think seriously about what it is we’re asking for when we ask for POC books. What experiences are we seeking to read about? What do we consider “authentic” in a book about historically disadvantaged or marginalized groups? And what makes an author the “right” person to write about these groups?

I’m approaching these questions as a reader, not an author. I’m interested in how readers can navigate the increasing numbers of books we come across that are written by POC authors and feature POC characters. To make things easier, I’m going to use examples from books I’ve read and have reviewed (or have reviews in the pipeline for). For the most part, these are books I really enjoyed and strongly recommend.

Example 1: Jeannie Lin’s The Sword Dancer and The Lotus Palace. Jayne reviewed the former, which I enjoyed even more than she did, and she and I jointly reviewed the latter, which is one of my favorite books of the year. I think that Lin does a superb job placing the reader in Tang Dynasty China. I and others have remarked how well she conveys the customs, social relationships, and language of the time, even though the book is indisputably a genre romance novel. The books feel authentic, which is my holy grail in historicals.

Lin satisfies the strongest condition, that of a POC author writing about POC characters, in an under-represented setting. But does it matter whether or not she’s actually Chinese? If she’s East Asian, is that sufficiently close? And if it is, why? Do we think the differences between different East Asian cultures are so insignificant that if you know one, you know them all? I certainly hope that’s not the case. There’s no doubt in my mind that Lin’s familiarity with Chinese culture enhances her ability to tell her story, but so does her research, her imagination, and her natural talent.

Example 2: Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. I love this book and want everyone to buy it and read it. It’s a terrific novella about a young Malaysian Chinese woman in 1920s London. One of the potential love interests is an Indian Tamil man, Ravi, also living in London. We rarely see multicultural historicals, let alone a multi-cultural historical where the non-white heroine rejects the handsome, rich, charming white option, so on that basis alone you have to love the setup. And Cho does a superb job both of locating her characters in the time and of conveying the pricks and slights of what it means to be a nonwhite colonial in the imperial capital. There’s a great scene where Jade is at a party; she is handed an empty glass by someone who thinks she must be the help, and she wishes she could talk to the Indian servant rather than the English guests.

Cho makes the reader understand what it’s like to be an outsider in London (even though as a colonial, Ravi is as much a subject of the Crown as the English Hardies). But what the average reader might not pick up on is that while Ravi and Jade are outsiders in London, Ravi in particular is the product of immense privilege. He chooses to come to London and we can assume from the storyline that he rejects some of the casteism of his particular Indian Brahmin community. But he has clearly benefited from the dominance of Tamil Brahmins, who were not unlike the 1% we talk about today. They comprised about 5 percent of the population where they lived and exerted extreme social, political, and economic dominance over everyone around them except the British. One of the most important Indian social movements for equality was called the non-Brahmin movement and was directed at lessening this dominance. So Ravi is a pretty complex character. He’s open-minded, sensitive, and generous, but he’s also the embodiment of a specific type of male, caste privilege.  And of course both Jade and Ravi, by virtue of being able to attend college in England in the 1910s, are members of elites in their home countries.

Example 3: Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel. I’m in the process of reading and reviewing this book, about which I have very mixed feelings. It is a historical novel with romantic elements that is set in 1940s India, and it is written by an Indian-American author whose family are from the area she is writing about. Her family were also part of what social scientists sometimes call the comprador class: they were indigenous elites who benefited directly from colonialism by gaining employment in British businesses. The narrator, Layla, marries Manik Deb and goes off to live on a tea plantation in Assam. The evocation of the countryside and the British managers, as well as the feel of small-town Indian life, are very well done. But the story also reproduces unpleasant stereotypes about some Indian regional and caste groups, and the narrator seems to sympathize much more with the British at the plantation than with the Indian workers (who are mostly represented as childlike and happy to be led by their superiors). The book definitely captures aspects of this world very well, but I’m not entirely comfortable reading about people for whom independence from colonialism was at best a mixed blessing, and whose prejudices about their fellow Indians go unchallenged. It’s realistic, though, so should I really object, just because these were the type of people who made the job of fighting for independence more difficult (or at least more complex)? I’m honestly not sure. It’s definitely Patel’s story, and she has the right to tell it. But it isn’t what I signed up to read POC books about.

Example 4: The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye. I haven’t read this book. I’ve tried multiple times and failed every time, even back in the 70s/80s when I would read pretty much anything that had romance in it. It’s just too White-People’s-Raj for me, and I don’t find Indian princes and princesses interesting. But the biggest problem I have is that every time I hit the point when Ash is saved by his ayah because she stains his skin brown and he passes for an Indian child, I flinch. That requires too great a suspension of disbelief. But I am in a minority on this book. It is beloved, and not just by non-Indian readers. Kaye’s books are widely available in India at bookshops and lending libraries, so Indians are clearly reading them.

By POC-author rules, Kaye fails because she was British. BUT … she was raised in India. She had more immediate familiarity with India than she did with the country of her ancestry. Wasn’t the story she was telling partly her story? Do you only get to claim authenticity if you are ethnically similar; does lived experience not count? Imperialism and colonialism (and migration more generally) created generations of people who had intimate familiarity with countries whose ethnic heritage they did not share. Jade, the Malaysian Chinese character in Cho’s book, is both Chinese and Malaysian (or more correctly for the time, Malayan). An Indian like my grandfather spent more than half his life as a subject of the Queen-Empress/King-Emperor, studied English common law in law school, and was governed by British law until independence. We don’t deny him his British-Indian status, so can we deny Kaye hers? Can we say that her lived experience isn’t enough to allow her the legitimacy to write a book set in the country in which she spent her childhood and part of her adulthood?

I’m an academic, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t know where to draw the boundaries for legitimate authority when it comes to reading about disadvantaged people and underrepresented places. For myself, I try to read and talk about books written by these groups, even when they’re not really written FOR readers in these groups. And I can’t help but notice that even when we’re reading POC books, we’re all too often reading about characters who are part of the social and economic elite.

But I ultimately evaluate the text, not the intentions of the authors or the publishers. So I seek out books by POC authors like Zen Cho and Jeannie Lin, but I also read Guy Gavriel Kay. When I have trouble with depictions of POC characters and contexts, as I do with the Patel book, I try to explain why. I tend to cast my net widely rather than narrowly. That’s how I’ve come to terms with some of the complexities; I’d love to hear how you negotiate these waters.

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Jordan Castillo Price, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley.

70 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 08:38:25

    Fascinating topic for discussion, as always!
    I really dislike sidelining and putting books into different categories, just because there is something “different” about the characters, whether it’s an ethnic difference, sexual orientation or sexual practice. While I think it’s a good idea at first, especially with a new genre like mm was a few years ago, and that the “difference” should be explained in the blurb, so that readers can make an informed choice, every time I see a “different” character in a mainstream line like Harlequin Presents, especially when the “difference” isn’t the focal point of the story, I rejoice.
    I’m an outsider in many ways, and always have been. I was brought up in a multicultural society (Christian, Hindu, Janeist, Moslem and Sikh for the most part) so I looked on it as normal. My best friend’s mother got up at 5 am and refused to learn English, but she was a lovely lady and she taught me how to wrap a sari and make patties. But you can’t tell from looking at me what my origins are. I look white, middle-class, pretty unremarkable really. I’ve never made a big thing of it, but then, I don’t have to. I’m very lucky in that respect.
    But when I read a romance, it’s because I want to read a romance. Not a book about something else. Obviously the difference, whatever it is, will feed in to the main story, but I’d love to read more positive stories about it, like the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” A celebration of it.
    I write paranormal romance because I’m interested in being an outsider, and I want to discuss the issue without being preachy or hurting anyone’s feelings. So having “ordinary” people call my vampires “bloodsuckers” and calling shape-shifters “monsters” and “deviants” is a way of doing it without picking on a particular group. Just a hint, to think about what it means, without making it the story’s central focus. I’ve spoken to other writers of paranormal romance who also use their stories in the same way.
    As for writing about experiences – there are no typical experiences. Nobody is typical and we’re all outsiders in one way or another.
    I think one of the most powerful tools a writer can have is research, but it has to be done properly and thoroughly, just as research into history and geography should be. I’d hate to think that because I’m not a 12th century resident of Beijing, I wouldn’t be allowed to write about it if I wanted to.

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  2. wikkidsexycool
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 08:57:21

    As a reader and POC I’m looking for non-whitewashed, fully fleshed characters and a decent storyline. I read in a variety of genres, and most nights my TV is either on PBS or the history or military channel. I love research but loathe caricature. And Sunita, I adore the book you recommended, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. The writer was skillful enough to put me inside the character’s head. There were things I could relate to as a woman (regarding the dynamics of female relationships) but also the cultural aspects didn’t overwhelm me. I got a sense of the character’s personality but also a good story was told.

    On the other hand I’m very vocal about books that don’t see any beauty in, for example the African American culture. And I’m not talking about giving a character green eyes or having them be the caste, noble minority. I want to know why the characters fall in love and not just because someone (the POC) has a characteristic more closer to white (like green or blue eyes that somehow makes them stand out as more worthy to be loved by a non-minority lead protag) or the leads have grown up together and they’re magically delicious together, with no mention of their cultural differences. If they can have an argument over something silly, then why wouldn’t they discuss their ethnicity?

    It’s not hard to tell when an author hasn’t done their research, but what’s even worse imho is when I read stereotypical dialogue or descriptions that take me right out of the story, as if the author doesn’t realize their readers come from diverse backgrounds. I don’t segregation my reading habits, as I’ve read some cringe-worthy books from minority writers which have stereotypes in addition to non-minority authors.

    And I also have to say, now that I’ve decided to jump into self-publishing that its not easy. There’s a delicate balance between telling a good story, having characters grow throughout a novel, and bringing in the cultural aspects of a character of color.

    Some readers like nuance. Others just want to be entertained. A good book to me, is when I get most of what I want in the storyline and a hero/heroine I can relate to, whether the character is a POC or not.

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  3. Suleikha Snyder
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 09:06:35

    First things first: HI, SUNITA! So glad to see you back! ::waves wildly::

    Second things second, I love that you brought up Teatime for the Firefly, because despite her being the daughter of tea planters, the voice in Patel’s story didn’t really work for me. I couldn’t relate it to the context or the time period and ended up having to put the book down. The narrator felt too modern and breezy to me, and some of the Bengali characterization and religious detail was iffy, which threw me out of the story.

    So, being from the background that your story takes place in doesn’t always guarantee “rightness” or a kinship with readers. I feel like it also depends on the audience and the intent. Are you writing for people who know the culture or not? Also, I’ll give genre fic more leeway with world building than I will historical fiction.

    It’s definitely hard to navigate the waters, and I find more and more that I just assess every book on a case by case level.

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  4. JeannieLin
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 09:17:23

    Thank you for the mention!

    I do want to divulge — and it’s not too much of a secret — that I’m ethnically Vietnamese with Chinese heritage. I know that may not make much of a difference to anyone, especially in America where we celebrate hybrid heritages (which I find awesome), but among Vietnamese and Chinese people, I would not be identified as a bit Chinese–despite my paternal great-grandmother being Chinese and also having some Chinese roots on my mother’s side. I’m culturally 100% Viet — language and upbringing. My love of Chinese culture comes from shared cultural elements and is really akin to an American being an anglophile. I study up on Chinese history and customs the same way an American author would study Regency England. *phew* Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. :)

    I started to post some thoughts I’ve had on this subject but it became a long-ass essay, so I guess I’ll post the reply on my blog and link it here not to bore people.

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  5. wikkidsexycool
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 09:25:21

    @JeannieLin:

    No, please do express your thoughts. Love your work also, but since Sunita had already mentioned you I decided to mention Yen Cho’s book “The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo” however I neglected to put the author’s name in my previous post.

    What you speak of is far too common in many ethnicities, regarding who is or isn’t and I’ve decided to address that in a few of my own works. Your “long-ass essay” would be welcomed reading!

    ETA: The writer in me agonized over the passive use of “welcomed” in my last sentence or if I should change it to “welcome” but then I realized I had the word “would” in there. Now I want to re-write the whole dang sentence :)

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  6. Laila Blake
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 09:27:09

    Firstly, not being American, I take certain issue with this use of the word POC. As far as I am aware, the abbrevation came out of the need to find a common basis of (at the time especially women) of different ethnicities in America to pool their power and fight back against suppression.
    In this way, a story about a chinese woman in China, doesn’t feel POC to me. It’s just cultural and national diversity. And I definitely think that a lot of this comes out of a certain lack of translated works in American mainstream culture.

    I grew up in Germany and before I learned English well enough to read in it, about 80% of all books I read were translated. Some from English, sure, but also from anywhere else in the world. One of my favourite writers of all time is Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer who works in Japan, writes in Japanese and fills his books with Japanese characters. To somehow say he stands for an underrepresented group etc. feels very american-centric. In his own country he’s not, and he isn’t in many other countries.

    I have to admit I prefer reading books about different places from people who live there or have lived there – it just feels more realistic. One of my favourite writers is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and she did a brilliant talk about this here: http://youtu.be/D9Ihs241zeg

    On the other hand, when we are actually talking about “POC characters” — that is fictional people in America or, say, Great Britian etc. in which they are in an ethnic minority, I feel like with research and sensitivity, it’s important for all of us to try. There is a risk of course, there always will be people who find something wrong with it — and that’s okay. I’m a feminist and I can find little things that may hot closely home for me personally about women that none of my feminist friends found problematic. Sometimes it’s personal… but I hate reading books or watching shows where everybody is white and straight, mostly male and perfect in health (or of course, when the only minority characters serve as cardboard stereotypes to prop up how much better the white people are).

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  7. Jeannie Lin
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 09:27:52

    For anyone interested in hearing a long-ass reply with Jeannie’s personal theory about writing cultural stories for the mass market, here it is: http://www.jeannielin.com/?p=5800

    In short, a few readers in mass market romance like Sunita seek out authenticity and I’m glad, but authenticity is not necessarily the key to success or adoption in the mass market.

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  8. JeannieLin
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 09:38:42

    Oh yeah, and I realized it might have sounded like I meant white America when I said an “American being an anglophile”. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m an anglophile as well as a sinophile.

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  9. Ann
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 10:26:33

    What does “POC” stand for, please?

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  10. Tina
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 10:28:57

    I think it is important to de-couple the question of writing persons of color versus writing in different cultures. The culture thing doesn’t necessarily have to be cross-racial to feel inauthentic. I think very recently this site reviewed a book by an author who clearly did not understand the culture surrounding college football, especially in the South.

    I think it is incredibly easy to misfire on cultural stuff especially if you do not know some of the nuances of the culture. Parsing authenticity around racial differences, especially intra-cultural racial differences, is a little trickier.

    Sure, there are always going to be differences in backgrounds between two persons of different races even if they grew up in the same town. For instance, a person of color will always have to possibly contend with simple old-fashioned institutionalized racism where a white person wouldn’t.

    Speaking strictly about POC within a same-culture context where race seems to be the difference rather than strictly speaking culture, I think you get the sense when reading if the author is writing the person or if they are writing the race.

    If they are writing the ‘person’ then the main things that shine through are the humanist traits about the character. What is this person like? what do they want? How did they come to be like this or want these things? And why should we care?

    If they are writing the race then, then as you are reading race feels like ‘the’ thing about the person. It is intrusive, looms larger than the person herself . In other words, it feels like they are ‘othering’ the character.

    Like I said, it can be a bit tricky to parse this. But I remember reading a book where the author had the non-white character ruminating about her race. It hadn’t been prompted by anything, the character just was info-dumping her racial ponderings as she was getting ready to go to work or something. I don’t know about other people, but I don’t ponder my blackness as I am putting on my clothes in the mornng. All it said to me was that this white author must think that non-whites dwell on their non-whiteness all the time.

    Usually it is the little things that signal difference, not the big things and that to me conveys authenticity. For instance, there was this one episode of ‘Scandal’ where Olivia Pope walks into the home of a potential client and she is accompanied by Abby, her white employee. The potential client, another white woman, heads toward Abby with her hand out to shake and says ‘You must be Olivia Pope.’ Olivia smoothly moves in and introduces herself and for a milisecond there is an awkward pause as the client realizes the message her her assumption gives but Olivia just continues on…because it has happened before. It is such a small, small thing but every single person got what that did.

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  11. Lexie C.
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 10:32:25

    This is a topic that often comes up in my (online) book group. I always want to read more books about non-American characters–romance or otherwise–and its an upwards battle since the ladies all want to read books they can “escape” into. Our group read Jeannie Lin’s books only because I threw a bit of a hissy fit (I refused, utterly REFUSED to read EL James. I told them the only way I would agree to it was if we read BUTTERFLY SWORDS and they all hated it. They thought it was open and shut, but ha! They all loved it and wanted to read more and forgot all about EL James)

    Even as a kid, searching through my grandmother’s stacks of 70′s/80′s Harlequins I wanted the ones that were set in different locales. Granted I can’t say that they were terribly accurate or positive in their portrayals of those places/people/cultures (THAI SILK, so looking at you), but I was so desperate to read something set in something other then America or England. I have :ahem: improved my reading choices since then.

    I think as long as the author–whether they are a POC or White or an Alien from Mars–represents the culture/people/country unprejudicedly, it shouldn’t matter what they are born as. Certainly a writer born in Japan, writing about Japan would have an edge over someone born in Kansas writing about Japan–but that doesn’t mean the edge is a POSITIVE one. How many American authors manage to butcher what its like to live in small town America? Or heck even City Life America?

    As long as research, care and consideration is put into the writing let authors write whatever they feel compelled to and readers should at least give a chance to non-white hero/heroine books. There’s more then one way to “escape” into a book after all.

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  12. Alyssa Cole
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 10:45:08

    @Ann, POC stands for people of color.

    This is a great topic, and I think you raise a valid point. For example, I’ve read books by black authors in which black characters were depicted in ways that made me cringe and put the book down. I’ve read books by non-POC that had extremely well-rounded and realistic POC characters. As a reader, I don’t have problems with author “authenticity” so much as with bad writing, which can come in any shade.

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  13. leftcoaster
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 11:50:25

    This post has great timing, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. And I’m still thinking. Before I put my 2 cents in, can I say it took me a while to figure out what POC meant? I kept looking for the definition…maybe not enough tea yet or something.

    I’m Caucasian and I’ve been partnered to an ethnic Chinese from SE Asia for 20 years (goddamn that makes me feel old). We’ve had a child together and questions about race have come up more frequently at our house than they used to because 4 year olds are at baseline infinitely curious and we encourage curiosity.

    I don’t think you need to come from the same cultural or racial background as a character you write about to get it right. However, I do think it improves the odds, and I think it’s pretty obvious when someone is writing about something (almost anything) where their position has never been exposed to different positions on the same topic. Or to put it baldly, they’re writing about a person with certain traits when it’s clear they’ve never even had any sort of non-superficial interaction with the sort of person they’re writing about. The idea that it is a good thing to expose your positions with their underlying assumptions to a wider cultural context is a main part of why I find it astonishing that peer review not 100% positive is frowned upon by many in romance writing.

    Personally, I go out of my way to read as many romances with “different” characters as I can. I’ve read some dreadful ones, and I’ve read some awesome ones, but where I get stuck is when I’ve read something where they haven’t screwed up the racial or cultural part of it (in my view of course) but what I’m looking for in a romance isn’t there. I suspect that it’s due to the scarcity of choice.

    For examples that stick with Asian characters, I love what Ms. Lin is doing. It gives me such a thrill just to even look at her covers and think about how excited my spouse and I used to get to see an Asian in a commercial on tv 15 years ago. But I have trouble getting what I want out of a romance when I read them. I’ve been thinking a lot about why…I think that I get a little bored with all the sword fighting and historical plot (which is odd because I love a good 90s HK sword fighting movie) and find the relationship between the protagonists too simplistic to be engaging to me. I’m left with a neutral feeling. OTOH, I loved the depiction of a classic (er, ok, stereotypical) Cantonese immigrant family in “Back to the Good Fortune Diner” but I really hated the romance part of the book and was pretty close to angry when I finished it. In spite of its brevity, I really enjoyed both the depiction of the family and the relationship in Coleen Kwan’s “Short Soup” and wish she would write something longer in the same vein.

    I’m looking forward to reading the Zen Cho book, and I want to say thank you to the community here for letting me know about these books, it’s the main reason I hang out here (that and because I’m cheap and love a bargain!).

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  14. Christina
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 11:51:18

    The idea that authors should only be allowed to depict characters with whom they share a racial or cultural background seems completely unrealistic to me as this would result in fully racially/culturally segregated novels. While there are places in the world where you can set a book like that, other parts of the world are more varied. If only a person of a specific culture could write about people from that culture no one would be able to set books in these culturally diverse regions at all.

    For me the question of who should be “allowed” to depict whom really comes down to respect. Does the author’s depiction of the culture show respect or does it show contempt. When cultural and/or racial background is handled respectfully the cultural or racial background of the person doing the handling does not matter to me at all.

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  15. Liz Mc2
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 12:37:34

    Like you, I have more questions about “authenticity” than answers. I’ve been thinking a lot about how context and history matter. For instance, Ha Jin writing about China from America, for a largely American audience, vs. Mo Yan writing in China–they are both “insiders,” but in different ways that are likely to affect their ideas about authenticity and the way they write about Chinese culture and characters. I don’t think there’s one right way to be authentic.

    I just finished teaching Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and my (college) class also read an article about questions of authenticity and who can best tell certain stories. During class, a couple of students briefly got the impression that Alexie is not himself Native American, and said that suddenly made them hate the book. We had a great discussion about why it might feel OK for an insider to write about certain things, but not an outsider–for instance, would Alexie’s frankness about the amount of alcohol abuse on the reservation feel like a negative stereotype coming from a white writer, even if no less true? Is (part of) the difference between laughing at yourself and being laughed at?

    I think that if you belong to a group that has historically oppressed, suppressed, appropriated another culture, you have to be extra careful about how you write about that culture so you’re not just repeating those moves. We might wish that historical baggage didn’t exist, but if we pretend it doesn’t or think we can just ignore it, we’re going to keep hauling it around with us. This might be even harder when writing genre fiction, because a lot of historical baggage is deeply embedded in the tropes of genre stories. I don’t think outsiders are not “allowed” to write about a culture, but when they think imagination is all that’s needed, it shows.

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  16. Sunita
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:02:41

    What wonderful comments, thank you DA community. This is a subject I’ve thought long and hard about and it’s difficult to express my many contradictory thoughts.

    I apologize for not defining POC (People of Color). We’ve used the term here at DA before, but that’s no excuse. It’s not my favorite term, but it captures the range of characters and cultural settings better than ethnic or racial or regional, I think.

    Everyone should go read Jeannie Lin’s post now, because as usual she is right on target. If a book is going to reflect its cultural context, there’s a good chance it will depart from the tropes and rhythms we’re used to in the genre. It may be slower paced, or it may express emotions and emotive actions differently, or it may foreground different characters and relationships. All those choices, to the extent they diverge from the norm, have the potential to make us wonder if the book is really what we want. For me, that divergence is part of the pleasure, but I have to consciously think about it and remind myself that if I want something different, I can’t always specify exactly what that difference is going to look like, and I need to have patience and maybe do some learning while reading.

    Hi Suleikha! *waves back* Oh, I can’t wait to talk to you about Firefly. That book made me so outraged, even as I could appreciate parts of it. I DNF’d it temporarily and then decided I had to give it another shot. I’ll say more in the review and look forward to your comments.

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  17. Piper
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:05:00

    Thanks for the recommends, Sunita. I appreciate it. As a writer who is African American and who writes about African American historical characters, I’ve found it hard going to communicate to people about the way AAs think about color in an historical context. Oh well. I think it is a worthy project and I intend to keep trying to get it right.

    The CIMRWA (Cultural, Interracial and Multicultural) chapter of RWA developed some new definitions, but they haven’t caught on. I kind of wish they would, because they the definitions are more nuanced than the ubiquitous POC label that is a catchall and no one knows what is being discussed.

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  18. Sunita
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:16:47

    One of the big reasons I don’t have hard-and-fast rules about who should write POC characters, or about writing about cultures you aren’t obviously part of, is that I don’t want to essentialize ancestral lines over lived experience. Sometimes (many times) they converge. But sometimes, as in the case of MM Kaye, they don’t. The fact that *I* don’t want to read The Far Pavilions doesn’t mean I don’t think anyone else should read and enjoy it. Heck, Wilbur Smith is also in all the Indian bookstores and airport stalls and I can’t read him either.

    Moreover, with each passing day we have more and more individuals who straddle cultures, whether through their own life experiences, or through their relationships, or some other way. So knowing what someone looks like or what their name is doesn’t tell you what kind of cultural capital they possess.

    That said, I think Liz makes an important point about the insider-outsider difference. Another example: I was struck at some of the negative characterizations of gays and the gay community in Renault’s The Charioteer (review is upcoming), and I kept thinking about whether she was making it as an insider (lesbian) or outsider (woman). I don’t know. But I know I can’t think of it in quite the same way as I would if the scenes and characters had been written by a gay man in the same era.

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  19. Ridley
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:28:47

    I prefer to read multicultural books written by authors of color for the same reason that I prefer to read m/m written by LGBT authors. While there’s no guarantee against messaging borne of internalized oppression, at least the novel won’t be reinforcing oppression from a position of privilege.

    Also, I like to slant my reading this way. So much of USian media is dominated by white, straight voices. Selecting a higher ratio of books by authors of color/LGBT authors is the only way to balance that shit out.

    As for who should write what, I’m not here to tell people what to do. What I’d like to see, though, are more good books featuring realistic portrayals of marginalized people. Not only would that make reading more fun, it would also mean authors have done the work in their own heads to see people and race and what-have-you without then filtering it through a bunch of stereotypes. That’d be posh.

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  20. reader
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:52:16

    @Ridley “What I’d like to see, though, are more good books featuring realistic portrayals of marginalized people.”

    Which you’ll only read if they’re written by the marginalized people?

    And as far as GLBT, you mean then that you only read GLBT by writers who’ve been willing to make their sexual identity public? And you feel safe in assuming a writer married to someone of the opposite sex is straight?

    Do you assume that a white writer married to someone of the opposite sex is someone who’s never experienced marginalization in any form? Or that she may not be capable of extrapolating from specific incidents of marginalization the experience of dealing with marginalization every day?

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  21. Anu
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:55:12

    I don’t know where to draw the boundaries for legitimate authority when it comes to reading about disadvantaged people and underrepresented places.

    What does it mean to have “legitimate authority”? Why does fiction require legitimate authority?

    What I want to do is have us think seriously about what it is we’re asking for when we ask for POC books. What experiences are we seeking to read about? What do we consider “authentic” in a book about historically disadvantaged or marginalized groups? And what makes an author the “right” person to write about these groups?

    I’m not sure I accept the questions as posed.

    With respect to the four examples: I don’t question Kaye’s claims to authenticity; I question why her white, Western voice is the only one we hear telling Raj-set romances. I don’t question whether Cho’s characters are disadvantaged enough; I question why POC characters should be measured only in terms of their disadvantage/oppression. I don’t question whether Patel’s story is the right kind of POC story (and I agree with Sunita’s critique of the book); I question the idea of signing up to read a specific type of POC story at all.

    The questions in the post strike me as gatekeeping, restricting both white and POC authors from telling the stories they want to tell. Shouldn’t the objective be to let a thousand flowers bloom and all that? Isn’t the problem right now that there is too much gatekeeping as it is, with only a few people able to write the stories they want to write?

    In particular, when it comes to POC stories or writers, I don’t think of it as seeking “stories of the disadvantaged and the historically silenced.” That’s defining POC only in relation to power structures. I look for stories about POC that take that particular group and those specific characters on their own terms, that acknowledge brown and black people as human with our own desires and loves and prejudices and hierarchies. Colonialism and imperialism inform and pervade all of these, but they don’t define them.

    No one voice or type of voice – regardless the level of oppression experienced, regardless of insider/outsider status – has a monopoly on authority. To me, the question is not where legitimate authority resides; it’s why we continue to choose to recognize only the *right* of white, Western authors to tell the stories they want to tell.

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  22. Ros
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:23:36

    @reader: “Or that she may not be capable of extrapolating from specific incidents of marginalization the experience of dealing with marginalization every day?”

    I would be extremely wary of making that extrapolation.

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  23. leftcoaster
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:32:55

    @Anu, yes, I want my thousand flowers to choose from, and I don’t want gate keeping. I want non-white wholly formed people with their own loves, prejudices and hierarchies in my stories. I want them to look more like my friends and lovers and less like some rigidly defined idea of a specific race or gender or orientation, because that’s not what I see in my world.

    @Ridley, I totally get wanting to financially support the less dominant voices. I do the same. I have trouble believing you really mean what you wrote here though

    “While there’s no guarantee against messaging borne of internalized oppression, at least the novel won’t be reinforcing oppression from a position of privilege”

    You seriously think that a person who isn’t white isn’t going to be writing from any positions that reinforce oppression from a position of privilege? ‘Cause I’m not seeing that as a realistic thing in my world. See: having both Tamal Brahmin and Gujarati Muslim friends that I can’t invite to the same party without some tension, or the reaction of my ethnic Chinese friend when he gets mistaken for Filipino in an Asian grocery store, etc.

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  24. Suleikha Snyder
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:49:06

    @Ridley:

    By sheer virtue of calling all non-white/non-cis/non-hetero people “marginalized,” you’re showing your own privilege, because that ignores the hierarchy WITHIN a given minority group…and ignores the fact that they may not be a minority in their country of origin. As leftcoaster points out, there are positions of privilege and structures of oppression all over the world, not just in western white society vs. everyone else. As a Bengali Brahmin, my perspective and heritage are vastly different than someone of a different caste, a different religion, etc. It informs my economic and social privilege. And I was raised here in the US, so that adds another layer to everything and changes how I write versus someone raised in India.

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  25. wikkidsexycool
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:56:16

    “Which you’ll only read if they’re written by the marginalized people?”

    I didn’t get that from what Ridley stated. One of Sunita’s questions was “What experiences are we seeking to read about?”

    I can only speak and write from my own experience as a person of color who comes from a multicultural family. My life experience will be different, even from those who identify with the same race that I do. But we may and I stress may, have experiences that we both can identify with, such as the light/dark issue, good/bad hair (I don’t use this term, but its still out there), phrases/slang we say and understand the usage of before it hits the mainstream, for example.

    Now, once I put my work out there, its up to the reader to decide whether the character and their story hits home, whether my character is of color or not. I enjoy creating multicultural works, where no one is simply a sidekick.

    But the mine field that any author faces is whether a nuanced approach works, or whether its warranted to put as much truth in a portrayal, to the best of the author’s ability if there’s going to be a character who is either someone of color, or LGBT.

    I decided to start one my books with a scene where a POC ends up at a party where everyone she’d thought were friends are in costumes that mock her culture. But it’s an opening that may not be for everyone, even though its a romance. Since I already write in a niche market, I can’t worry about who will or won’t get it because if I dwell on it, I may chicken out and come up with a whole different opening. But I believe I can honestly write how isolated she now feels because of it, and how she proceeds from there, and not white-washing it. Because no matter what one’s color or social-economic circumstance, when you get knocked down, you try to get back up. There are times I’ve felt marginalized, but also acutely aware of my own position of privilege. That would be what I’d hope to accurately portray in the scene referenced above.

    Another writer might handle it differently, but I welcome the reactions, whether pro or con. I’ll end with a line by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

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  26. Ridley
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 17:29:23

    @leftcoaster:

    You seriously think that a person who isn’t white isn’t going to be writing from any positions that reinforce oppression from a position of privilege?

    No, I don’t mean that, you’re right. Because of course having one axis of oppression doesn’t negate any other privilege a person has.

    I guess what I meant is that whatever oppression is present, at least it won’t be more outside looking in/down from a Western, white POV.

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  27. P. J.
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 17:50:59

    @wikkidsexycool: I agree with your points. POC characters may be dealing with conditions that a non-POC reader may not be able to relate to because they “can’t imagine that happening in real life.” I have heard this. I have read this sort of comment in reviews of multicultural books. Talk about “not getting out much.” The thing is conditions exist that not all have been a part of or not all have experienced. If you pick up a non-traditional romance book (one that is not a historical set in England or Scotland, full of spunky, dainty damsels and roguish, titled men), be open to the experience. With the widening of the romance writing field, the lives of different types of characters are going to be explored. Their experiences should ring true. Also, their stories should be interesting, entertaining and open a door to a reader who simply desires to read something they haven’t tried before.

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  28. Sunita
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 17:55:32

    @Anu: By legitimate authority I mean the authority authors assert when they put their writing out in the public and communicate to readers about what it is. I don’t mean to say there’s an impersonal standard that can be achieved, but more that every reader has their own standard by which she grants authority to the author to sweep her up in that story. We all have boundaries about what we’re willing to be lied to about (for want of a better term) and what is beyond that boundary. I agree that no voice has a monopoly on authority; I think that the assertion and granting is personal and idiosyncratic.

    I didn’t mean to say that POC voices can only reflect oppression and marginalization; you are quite right to call me out on that. I do think that POC voices, and those of women, have historically been marginalized and silenced. But that doesn’t mean that I think their stories have to focus on that. But the extent to which we have historically had access to those voices has been shaped by those processes, so I compensate in the present by looking for them more assiduously.

    I think we agree on quite a bit. I think it’s enormously important that POC authors be not just allowed, but encouraged and have their right asserted, to tell whatever story they want to tell.

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  29. leftcoaster
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 18:03:02

    @Sunita- I really love the idea of cultural capital a lot. And of course the admonition that you can’t tell who has it based on appearance or name. But yeah, on outsider vs. insider, and who can use what words when, it can be a tricky game.

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  30. Sunita
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 18:13:45

    @wikkidsexycool: Yes, thanks, that is exactly what I was asking. I think we understand each other better when we know where we are coming from in terms of individual preferences and behaviors. That doesn’t mean we are going to agree, but we can figure out the points of difference more precisely.

    @Ridley: I think that what hits your hot button depends on who you are and where you’re coming from. For you, getting away from the dominant white-privilege mindset is critical. For me, the white-privilege mindset doesn’t set me off in the same way. I don’t like it, it may make my head explode, but it’s not unexpected, and it’s not about my community.

    By contrast, when I’m reading a book written by an Indian, about Indians, and I come across a passage in which a member of the merchant caste is described as oily and looking like a rodent, I feel kicked in the gut. I don’t expect it there (although I should), because instinctively I think of such books as potential safe spaces. That’s wrong of me, because there’s plenty of prejudice to be found in my community; authors should write what they want to write, and I have to decide where my boundaries are. But it does mean that for me, POC books that are related to my experience and background aren’t a necessarily a break from the issues of privilege.

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  31. Sunita
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 18:31:54

    @Anu: I wanted to add something on your MM Kaye point about how her voice is privileged; it’s even worse than that if you stop and think about Rebecca Ryman. Ryman was an Indian who wrote Raj romances that (to me at least) were entirely in the MM Kaye mode. I DNF’d Olivia and Jai because it had that Raj feel. Maybe Ryman was writing what she wanted to. But maybe she didn’t want to have to have a European-American name, and write about Europeans and mixed-race Indians. But that’s what the environment encouraged, either way.

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  32. Sunita
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 18:40:18

    @leftcoaster: Isn’t it a great concept? Sometimes, contrary to all expectations, we academics have useful insights (it’s not mine, I’m just passing it on).

    When I was writing this post I kept thinking about Tessa Dare. I had a stereotyped, although not entirely inaccurate, conception of her as this gorgeous, blonde, white author who writes romances set in (her term) the “Recency.” They’re not my preferred type of historical, so I don’t read them. But then the typhoon hit the Philippines, and I was reading her Twitter feed all day and obsessively following her reports on her husband’s family, which is HER family. Who am I to say that she doesn’t have the intuition or knowledge to write a multicultural romance? She may not want to, but I’d be 100 kinds of idiot to assume she doesn’t have the expertise and right to do it.

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  33. Sunny
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 20:13:50

    There are so many good comments here, and folks who have phrased things better than I think I could.

    One thing that really bothers me (and I don’t know if it’s reflective of the romances/authors I read or what) is that be they contemporary or historical, the characters are all white unless they have a very specific (and often tokenized or stereotyped) reason not to be. Maybe it’s because of where I live — last weekend, visiting relatives elsewhere my husband and I both kind of boggled that every place we stopped, EVERYONE was white. This really isn’t the case where I live and work, and I’m used to people coming from many different backgrounds even within the city/area/country itself. You can be a third-generation Torontonian and still have a totally different worldview, culture and language from another third-gen Torontonian.

    Maybe, because people want to connect with the characters in the book, white is just used as shorthand for “Everyperson, USA” and a shared set of perspectives, experiences, and culture. Just like girls are expected to find commonality with boy protagonists (because being a boy is the default setting apparently) but not vice-versa (please note the kids have way fewer objections to this than the adults do!), I feel like it’s “easy” for authors who are white to write in white characters, as non-white characters would require extra thought and research or else would just be white-with-dark-skin (which on a good day I’ll accept but geez). Insert any privileged class for white and that’s what I mean.

    I don’t want to see people tokenized for their culture, heritage or even skin colour, but at the same time I don’t want them whitewashed either — I want authentic, but authentic in contemporary can mean a whole lot of experiences! Same as historical. I want characters to be people, and if “My father died of a broken heart so I shall never foolishly love as he did” can be a valid background and characterization, then damnit, so can a black woman in London 1801 be one. And SHE can decide to never foolishly fall in love for non-racialized reasons, too, but you’d better believe they’d be a lot more on her mind in Whitey McWhitetown. Does that make any sense? Things don’t have to be all about race, or class, or religion, or sexuality — but it’s going to be there in one way or another, and even not mentioning it is actually acknowledging it, even if unconsciously.

    Give me the world, in all its ways, not just the dominant perspective being written as the ONLY experience. And if it’s not your experience then do your research, talk to people, and try instead of shrugging and saying that’s too hard. If people only wrote what they knew, there’d be almost nothing but sorta boring contemporaries involving a lot of fights over the TV remote, whose turn it is to do the dishes, and Simpsons re-runs.

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  34. wikkidsexycool
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 20:44:49

    ” I want characters to be people, and if “My father died of a broken heart so I shall never foolishly love as he did” can be a valid background and characterization, then damnit,a black woman in London 1801 be one.”

    Hi Sunny,

    The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a young mixed race woman who lived and loved in England during the late 1700s will be released as a major motion picture in 2014.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2404181/

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  35. Sunny
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 20:54:37

    @wikkidsexycool: That’s fantastic! And exactly what I want more of, so I will definitely see it in theatres.

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  36. Anna Richland
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 01:45:47

    My life this decade is fairly uneventful, so I write fiction. This discussion, and previous ones started — I think here — by a blog post from Ridley about main characters with physical differences give me a lot of complex thoughts. And a huge case of nerves. I’m a white, middle-aged, graduate level-educated woman. And I’ve written books with characters who are completely different from me, up to and including a Hispanic soldier with a GED for a hero. I didn’t set out to write about that hero in my second book – he’s just the guy who was living in my head and who came out.

    I honestly don’t think straight white ladies who write M/M or any other non-dominant cultural story sit around cackling about taking over the alternative culture and coopting it. I certainly don’t. I think to a very large extent it’s just the story that bubbles up. For instance, I’m struggling to figure out a specific character’s significant other in prepping the short summary for the final book in a series. This particular guy is rejecting every heroine I dredge up. Just no chemistry. So I’m sort of wondering whether he’s trying to tell me something. Do I keep throwing white women at him b/c that’s who I am and know, or do I try someone else?

    Since I’m opening up a vein here on the page, let me say by typing that I just realized I’ve only been throwing white women at this guy in my imagination … geez, that was dumb. And the men I was thinking of were all white too. I think it’s a total failure of my imagination that I thought maybe my hero was gay before I thought that he would click with a woman of color. But this discussion has caused me to rethink and broaden, and next time I’m mulling over that particular story (which is a while away), I have more to think about. Thank you!

    I think it’s the author’s first and most important duty to write a good story. That doesn’t always mean accurate or perfect, and it absolutely can’t mean satisfying everyone. Witness every SBTB/Dear Author podcast in which Jane tries to recommend a book to Sarah Wendell.

    I also think it is 100% fair to criticize an author who didn’t TRY to get things right, who uses lazy shorthand, who thinks poor grammar or cheap slang is a substitute for cultural accuracy, or who doesn’t upend or challenge stereotypes. All I can say is that when I write about things that are far from my own knowledge base, I look for experts to help, and that also is true for characters who have radically different life experiences or backgrounds. I think that is a minimum required.

    BUT is it fair to say that if an author gets 85% of the way there, or 90%, and still makes what the reader perceives to be 10% error in depicting someone who is different from the author, that is wrong and the writer should never have tried to write that story? (In that case Ann Rule would be the only writer of serial killer stories b/c I don’t think other writers have met one).

    And is the reader 100% sure that the parts she’s disagreeing with in the author’s depiction aren’t true for someone of color, even if not for that particular reader?

    When I have my Korean-American heroine go to a karaoke bar in Seattle with her sister, b/c the sister likes to sing karaoke (and yes, they’re still popular here – there’s one I drive past regularly) – but my heroine doesn’t like it and is just there to hang out w/her sister … is there something in that scene that is a stereotype? For which woman? For me, it’s just two sisters who have different tastes.

    Would we feel as tied in knots if the part that felt off was merely 10% error about a setting? How wrong was the Alabama football stuff in that Crimson Tide thread? (Graduate students joining a sorority? I think it’s past 10% error). How do we respond to 10% inaccuracy in a Regency? How do we respond to 10% inaccuracy in Friends – we didn’t expect them to live in the apartments they could really afford, did we? We love parts, we ignore other parts.

    So essentially then this boils down to race is different. We can ignore authorial errors about all kinds of other things, on some sliding scale depending on how much we like the rest of the story or the rest of the author’s works, but readers shouldn’t ignore errors about race/ethnicity?

    I guess what I’m saying is that I hope and believe most authors are like me. I’ve tried really hard to be accurate – about everything from car engines to music and certainly about race and ethnicity and socio-economic background –but of course I’ve failed in places. I just don’t know all of them YET because readers haven’t started telling me (I have about 6 more weeks of grace, and then you can ALL tell me every thing I get wrong when my debut releases – PLEASE! – but in the first book the H/h are both white and only secondary characters in the Special Forces team are Hawaiian and Hispanic so you’ll have to dissect my settings or medical info or Beowulf translations instead).

    Do we want fewer stories with non-white characters? I think the answer is no, we want more stories with non-white characters, even is there are mistakes.

    My POC in book two have a whole lot of things going on, some of them based on their educational differences … he has a GED, she has a PhD. He wants to go back to school, but he’s nervous about doing it as an older veteran, a valid concern for many returning soldiers, and worried about whether he can succeed after the things that have happened to him. She’s tired of being “the smart girl”. I didn’t think those conflicts had to do with race when I first wrote the story – I thought they had to do with education, b/c that’s the filter I happen to apply to a lot of things.

    A beta reader pointed out that I had set up a good immigrant/bad immigrant contrast at one point with the H/h’s two families. I hadn’t seen it that way at all … but I had to reread and There It Was. Damn. I was trying to write a story that showed education shouldn’t separate people – and smarts isn’t limited to people w/PhDs – blah blah – and instead I wrote something that could validly be seen by others as Asians = smart/good immigrant and Hispanics = contrast.

    Different readers. Different filters. Some writers are certainly skilled enough, and have skillful beta readers and editors, and get all this worked out. What errors and how many can we overlook in a book if most of the book adeptly handles race/culture/religion/sexuality?

    Clearly that’s an individual choice – as it should be. But should we invalidate the ones we don’t agree with? I don’t think so.

    Sorry this post went on so long. But I’m REALLY glad I have time to edit my second book still, because I clearly need more beta readers.

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  37. Aly
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 07:29:41

    I spent a long time wondering what POC meant. LOL

    I don’t think authors need to belong to a certain culture to write about it… but they should definitely do their homework about it. It’s not the same as writing regency novels. You’re embarking on a whole different country, language, culture, etc… and you may piss people off if you don’t get it right.

    On another note… I read Jannie Lynn’s “Butterfly Swords” because it got a great review here and I thought it was an awful book. So I didn’t want to check out any other of her novels. (Sorry)

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  38. Sonali Dev
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 08:05:10

    Hi Sunita,
    I loved this post. And I loved the comments even more. To answer your question, what I personally as a reader am looking for in any book *is* authenticity. And that’s certainly not restricted to POC books (being a POC I still had to look that up on Urban Dictionary). I was incredulous/heartbroken when I found out Julia Quinn isn’t British (I mean how can that even be?). But it’s perceived authenticity (therefore the Julia Quinn example). As someone who’s Indian and very involved in the Romance Writing community, you’ll be surprised at how many Indian stories written by non-Indian writers I get asked to ‘check for authenticity’ and I have to say most of these books read really authentic.
    Take for example Jennifer Stevenson’s Dancing with Cupid, which is the story of Kama and Rathi (the Indian god and goddess of love) reincarnated into this century. Stevenson’s knowledge of Indian Mythology is pretty impressive and Rathi and Kama are perfectly believable modern day urban Indians and I don’t believe she’s even been to India. On the other hand there are Indian authors in India writing romance (several available at airports), who of course are authentic, but the voice is so indigenous (for lack of a better term) that to a mainstream western reader like me, it’s almost disorienting (not that you don’t get used to it if the story is great and well written).
    To Jeannie Lin’s point about stereotypes being easier to digest for the mainstream reader, I think stylistic familiarity is just as important– or something recognizable or relatable to hook the reader to the world. So, as a romance reader I want foreign stories that I can still place myself within.
    Oh and I have to say that Far Pavilions was one of my favorite books growing up. It was one of the very few love stories (actually the only one) with an Indian character set in India and it had to be the root of my belief that I could tell Indian love stories that people might want to read. So, yes, definitely I’m in the get as many POC books out as you can camp. And I suspect once there are enough books out there the POC rules might change. Maybe they’ll even go away?

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  39. Anu
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 09:16:08

    I ignored Olivia and Jai until I learned that Rebecca Ryman was the pen name for Asha Bhanjdeo. I always wondered whether the name led to the book or book to the name.

    Thinking further about privilege, I would like to see more stories about working-class NRIs. I’m from an educated, professional family, and most of them are either middle- or upper-middle class. But my immediate family is lower middle class. Growing up, I felt deeply alienated from the Jhumpa Lahiri-like Indian community we socialized with – not that they were all Bengalis, just that there was a similarity in class assumptions.

    We drove to the nicer parts of town for the Indian parties, but lived in immigrant and working class apartment complexes for most of my childhood; and that’s still the kind of place I’m most comfortable in. So even though I’m part of the professional class, I’m conscious of the difference in our privileges – the annual trips to India and other locales, the materialism, the status competition – I just can’t relate to any of it – we never had the means! I still can’t bring myself to watch The Mindy Kaling Show (her spoiled entitled character is a bit too familiar to me).

    It’s only in the last few years that I began to learn of other Indian-American experiences – and knowing that has brought me a bit closer to my Indian identity than when I was a kid. I’d like to see more of these kinds of stories.

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  40. Isobel Carr
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 09:18:19

    We all have boundaries about what we’re willing to be lied to about

    THIS IS MY FAVORTIE NEW QUOTE! It applies to so many aspects of being a reader.

    I just had a looooong conversation on Twitter about casting in Hollywood (kicked off by the addition of Kai [half Japanese character] to 47 Ronin and the casting of an actor whose Asian heritage is Chinese and Hawaiian). This seems very similar to the discussion here about authenticity of voice. Hollywood is almost always using one group to portray another. Whether it’s Michelle Yeoh as a Japanese Geisha, Adam Beach and Wes Studi as ANY Native American you need, Daniel Sunjata as the generic “brown guy”, or even the extremely Irish looking Jason O’Mara as an Italian American (I just could NOT go there). I’m not sure where the line is between authenticity and appropriation, but it certainly has something to do with what we’re willing to be lied to about.

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  41. Anu
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 09:23:58

    I just tried to post a comment, and I have no idea what happened to it. Can anybody tell me if you got it on the back end?

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  42. Sunita
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 09:26:16

    @Anu: Sorry, it went straight to spam. Thanks for the heads-up, I fished it out.

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  43. Ros
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 09:29:44

    @Sonali Dev: As someone who is British, I can assure you that it’s VERY obvious that Julia Quinn isn’t. I find her utterly unreadable as a result.

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  44. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 10:06:48

    I’m with Ros here. It’s very obvious to a Brit that Julia Quinn is American. It’s not just the choice of vocabulary and the lack of historical research (cottages weren’t quaint little houses with separate rooms!) it’s the cultural attitude. Personal desire is victorious over duty and family concerns, that kind of thing.
    However, if I put all that aside and read her as a reader of fantasy, I enjoy them very much! Most of the most recent crop of historical romance writers I can’t read at all, and it’s not for the want of trying.
    And while I’m on the subject, can I please point out to cover artists that Regency ladies did not wear flowing gowns in vivid colours with no sleeves and zippers up the back? Nor was the present Houses of Parliament there in Regency times. (The Houses of Parliament that were there in the Regency period were burned to ashes in 1834. The Regency was over by 1819. The difference between the two builds was huge). What next? Lord and Lady Muck celebrating the victory at Waterloo by taking a ride on the London Eye?

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  45. Sunita
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 10:07:55

    @Sunny: I tend to think of it as the “default” category, rather than “white,” because white is pretty diverse, and if you wrote certain types of white characters and settings, they would feel unfamiliar to many readers.

    @Anna Richland: I don’t think it’s about the quantity of errors but the type. Most writing involves appropriation of some kind (most creative work does), so what matters is the shape it takes. If it feels disrespectful even if the intention was to respect, that’s going to set off hot buttons for some readers. But not all readers; as you say, there are varied experiences within every community.

    @Aly: No apology needed! No reader is required to like any particular author; I hate when authors are used as taste/quality yardsticks, i.e., if you don’t like X that’s a failing on your part.

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  46. Sunita
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 10:30:08

    @Sonali Dev: I think the most “authentic” book I’ve read set in India, about Indians, is the one Jayne and I reviewed by Vidhya Samson. But the ways in which it was authentic somewhat undermined the pure romance effectiveness. So there are definitely tradeoffs.

    @Anu: I hear you. I didn’t even know there were Indian farmers in the Sacramento Valley in the early 20thC until I went to college, and I had been living in the Bay Area. I’m not holding my breath for them to turn up as characters in a western historical, but I’d love to see it.

    @Isobel Carr: It’s all yours, as long as you fix the tortured syntax before you spread it around! Yeah, I find that frustrating as well, and I feel as if Lin gets “Asian authenticity” points from at least some people who aren’t really thinking about the ways in which Asian (as an umbrella term) obscures differences. I mean, we don’t expect someone who’s Hungarian to automatically be able to write about Serbia because of ethnic connectedness, by contrast.

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  47. Jeannie Lin
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 10:43:58

    The casting issues that Isobel mentioned I think are an interesting parallel to the post. Is it a bad idea to cast a Chinese as Japanese? Very similar to can a non-Chinese author write an authentic Chinese viewpoint? (or insert any other word for Chinese)

    When the movie Memoirs of a Geisha came out, my sister was wary of seeing it because Chinese actors were cast as Japanese. I don’t agree with this viewpoint. Think of all the British actors acting as Americans and vice versa. They’re artists who can give a convincing performance and are reasonably convincing in appearance.

    (This is different from white-casting a movie like Akira. This is also way different from yellow facing. These are two other huge issues entirely! )

    Some Chinese fans were enraged that Zhang Ziyi was acting as a Japanese woman and kissing Japanese actor Ken Watanabe in Memoirs. Perhaps this goes back to more deep-seated Chinese v Japan animosity. That’s not a message we want to perpetuate either — that Japanese and Chinese people shouldn’t mix. Her agent’s response was that it was unreasonable to limit her to only Chinese roles when she had the opportunity to expand her career as a Japanese character.

    And consider there are Malaysian, Japanese and Korean actors who act in Chinese films as Chinese characters. Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers) is ethnically Japanese and Taiwanese–his name is even Japanese, but most accept him as a Chinese actor. (Zhang Ziyi gets to kiss him, no problem. *g* )

    Now in the case of Kai — Keanu — they wrote a half-Caucasian character into the role. You may not like that they tried to alter a very well-known legend (Why call it 47 Ronin? Just say it’s a fantasy based on the 47 Ronin!!!!) but they didn’t yellow-face a Caucasian actor in there. He fits the role that they’re trying to portray.

    For reference – In Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, they wrote in a Moor played by Morgan Freeman. I don’t remember a Black character in the original Robin Hood tales, but I thought that was a great role.

    In any case, for acting and for writing, I’m on the side of giving anyone a chance who wants to try to portray a different culture. Maybe…because you have to study and work at it if it’s not your native culture…you might bring more to the table, a different perspective, that might even be overlooked by someone who is from that culture. Maybe what you brought didn’t quite sit right with some people, maybe what you brought broadened the depictions of that culture. Just more, is what I’m saying. Give me more and more so the unfamiliar isn’t so alien anymore.

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  48. Anna Richland
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 11:10:23

    Jeannie Lin’s post on casting actors captures exactly my thoughts from Isobel Carr’s post, too. I wouldn’t want to block Michelle Yeoh out of every opportunity she chooses to seek – she’s a working actress. It’s her right to pursue her profession and apply for every role she wants, whether it’s an Asian character or Lady MacBeth or whoever. If casting directors don’t search deeper into the Asian actress talent pool, or if her agent has more juice than someone else’s, that’s not her problem – she’s not a philanthropy, she’s a professional making a living, and it’s not her job to say “don’t cast me b/c I’m not Japanese.” We all want a good actress in a movie, just like we want a good story on the page – a dud with authenticity is still a dud.

    The flip side of the argument is that some excellent Shakespearean plays have been cast with actors of color playing parts traditionally viewed as white, just b/c that actor had the acting chops. It is racist to say an African-American thespian can’t play MacBeth. I look up African-Americans acting in Shakespeare, and accurate or not, here’s an answer I found:

    The first one to play major roles that we know of was Ira Aldridge who first appeared as Othello in London (although he was American he was not permitted to act in the United States and had to leave for Europe) in 1825. Facing a certain amount of racism in Britain he went to the continent where he was very successful, not only as Othello, but also as Lear, Shylock and Macbeth. He then returned and continued his career in England.
    There may have been other black actors who appeared in Shakespeare earlier, particularly in amateur productions, but no record has come down to us.

    So it’s probably easier for a member of a community to get that community right on the page, just as it’s probably easier for a Brit to do a British accent, but an outsider with a good story to tell isn’t less of a story-teller … they have to work harder.

    In the big picture, I think more equal focus from the media on the stories that do feature lead characters who differ from mainstream publishing’s “vision” would shift a lot of this discussion – and frankly, I think demographic changes in the US will make most of this conversation obsolete in twenty years, don’t you think? Actually, probably 5 or 10.

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  49. Sonali Dev
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 11:22:15

    @Ross @ Lynne Connolly that is so great to hear, because it just proves how subjective and perceived authenticity is.
    I’ve actually been told that I’ve “Americanized” a character because my Indian characters bantered and were funny. So a lot of whether or not a reader will find a writer authentic has to do with their own lens of experience.
    @Jeannie Lin, I agree. In movies as in books I’m all for anyone playing/writing a different race from themselves. It’s more about how it’s done (and how it fits the audience’s lens). Clearly a huge number of people thought Rene Z did well as Bridgette Jones, I found her unwatchably inauthentic. But I think in today’s day and age, I draw the line at having a Caucasian actor wearing dark makeup to play a POC. The Far Pavilions miniseries had Amy Irving play Anjuli. It kinda sorta worked because Anjuli is half Caucasian. The Dark makeup not withstanding I think she did a good enough job.

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  50. wikkidsexycool
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 12:58:25

    @Anna Richland:

    Hi Anna,

    I’d like to follow up on your post. When the new show Dracula premiered on NBC, there were posters on the internet who questioned the “authenticity” of casting a black actor in the role of Renfield. Seems it wasn’t a stretch to think that a vampire could reside in England, but a black manservant during that time period was going too far.

    As you mentioned there was Ira Aldridge, an American who performed quite extensively. I’d mentioned Dido Elizabeth Belle in an earlier post, whose true story has inspired a major motion picture, set to be released in the spring. Another fascinating figure was the mayor of Battersea, John Archer.

    “When he was elected Mayor of Battersea 50 years later, John replied to press speculation about where he might have come from with the remark that he had been born – “in a little obscure village in England probably never heard of until now – the city of Liverpool”. He went on to declare – “I am a Lancastrian bred and born”

    http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/blackeuro/archerbackground.html

    So Archer’s authenticity was questioned and answered brilliantly, much to the chagrin of his detractors.

    Going back to the conversation on casting, there was a bit of discontent when Denzel Washington was cast as Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing. That was back in 1993, and Kenneth Branagh was the director. Keanu Reeves was also cast as Don Jon and Michael Keaton as Dogberry oh, and Robert Shawn Leonard as Claudio. Fast forward to just a few years ago when the first Thor was cast and again Kenneth Branagh is at the center of controversy, because he cast Idris Elba to play Heimdall, which set the fanboys off because the comic book character was white. The furor died down once the film was released. And there was even more furor over the young cast of The Hunger Games, when some fans of the book didn’t appear to realize that the character of Rue was indeed described as having brown skin in the novel. So when a bi-racial young actress won the role, some very hateful and ill-informed comments had to be neutralized by pointing out the passage in the novel.

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  51. Ridley
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 13:58:42

    @Anna Richland:

    This discussion, and previous ones started — I think here — by a blog post from Ridley about main characters with physical differences give me a lot of complex thoughts.

    That post was on Love in the Margins, the group blog I’m a quarter of. I just visit here for the Tuesday opinions.

    BUT is it fair to say that if an author gets 85% of the way there, or 90%, and still makes what the reader perceives to be 10% error in depicting someone who is different from the author, that is wrong and the writer should never have tried to write that story?

    I don’t think anyone has tried to prescribe who can and can’t write something. But, to answer your question, close enough only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. If you try hard and make a good faith effort yet still offend people, well, you’ve still offended people. All you can do is learn from it and do better the next time.

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  52. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 14:41:30

    There were a lot of people from other nations, including African, who traded through Britain’s ports. The ones who stayed were “absorbed” into the population, ie they married.

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  53. Jennifer Stevenson
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 14:55:09

    @Sunita: ” We all have boundaries about what we’re willing to be lied to about (for want of a better term) and what is beyond that boundary. ” I love this!
    @Anna Richland also hits it, “Would we feel as tied in knots if the part that felt off was merely 10% error about a setting?”
    @Sonali, thank you–you helped, you know. I hope your Indian/American romances get the attention they deserve.

    When I read comments here about MM Kaye, I remember that my mother was a Wobbly–a member Workers of the World, a very “pinko” group–before she married my abusive neoNazi father and shut her mouth about her politics. She would read Kipling to me and my brother before we were old enough to understand more than two words in five.

    *Her reading* of Kipling was not that his viewpoint was pro-British or pro-Empire, but that he was constantly and subtly mocking and undercutting the British in India, even while he wrote stories of their heroic and puzzling adventures there. For example, where the official academic reading said that Character A was a stereotypical crawlingly subservient Indian undercaste person, she read that character as tomming the Englishman and mocking him to his face even while he tommed him. I heard irony and subtext there. I grew up looking for that subversion in his work, and in everyone’s.

    Was she wrong? If two readers experience Kipling’s work as subversive and everyone else reads it as Empire-positive, what is correct?

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  54. Anna Richland
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 16:24:19

    Ridley – I knew it was Love in the Margins, but I just can’t remember if it was a discussion here or at SBTB that prompted me to find your group blog.

    And absolutely, we all just want to do better next time! Discussions like this one can certainly push all of the writers here to do better. Like I said in my first post, just reading these thoughts pulls me far enough out of myself to have new things occur, and makes me question my own (limited) imagination, and I’m willing to bet that for every one of us who posts there are what, 10? 30? who read and think and hopefully grow a little too.

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  55. Isobel Carr
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 17:42:22

    there were posters on the internet who questioned the “authenticity” of casting a black actor in the role of Renfield. Seems it wasn’t a stretch to think that a vampire could reside in England, but a black manservant during that time period was going too far.

    Seriously? By the Edwardian era (the setting of Dracula from what I can tell by the tech), there had been free blacks in England for HUNDREDS of years (many of them in service) and in America, post Civil War, black servants were also not unusual. This kind of historical ignorance makes me nutty. Or maybe I’m so defensive because Renfield is about the only part of that show I actually like, LOL!

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  56. wikkidsexycool
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 17:45:12

    While I was doing research for a new book, I came upon this article. It details the history of Sikh men taking Mexican women for their brides, during the early 1900s. I thought readers here may find it as interesting and creatively inspiring as I have:

    http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-08-12/news/33154079_1_beards-and-turbans-sikh-man-hindus

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  57. wikkidsexycool
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 17:52:39

    @Isobel Carr:

    Unfortunately, there were individuals who thought this was the part of the show that strained credibility. Thankfully there were posters who chimed in, as this wasn’t simply a case of the show being politically correct.

    Here’s the link:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2296682/board/thread/214779413?p=1

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  58. Ridley
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 18:00:08

    @Anna Richland: Yeah, you’re right. I had a “If You Like…” post here a while ago with my favorite books w/ disabled characters, and I got into a nasty firefight here over a soldier who’s a triple amputee. Good times.

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  59. Ridley
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 18:08:44

    FYI – Everyone still in this thread who isn’t following the tumblr medievalPOC absolutely should be.

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  60. etv13
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 05:00:50

    Culturally, we’d be a lot poorer if Shakespeare had never written Othello or Gershwin had never written Porgy and Bess. And is it a bigger stretch for a Vietnamese person to write Chinese characters than for a woman to write men? For Shakespeare to have created Othello than Desdemona? Doesn’t it really all boil down to imagination and empathy? And, yes, if you’re writing about a culture different from your own, and that includes any twenty-first century writer, even an English woman (I would not have put a space there, but the auto correct would not let me do it the way I wanted to), writing about the regency, you need to do your research, but research is really pretty meaningless without imagination and empathy.

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  61. Sunita
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 08:47:15

    @Jennifer Stevenson: If you’re talking about an interpretation of the text, I would have trouble saying the interpretation is *wrong* unless it’s way out in left field (which your mother’s was not). If you’re ascribing that intention to Kipling, then there could be empirical material from Kipling’s life and other writings that could provide evidence in one direction or another, so assessments of intention can more often be evaluated as accurate or inaccurate.

    But even if that was what Kipling was intending to do in the text, it still winds up being a text that is primarily about British characters’ motivations, designed to send a message to British readers, which uses unpleasant depictions of Indian characters. I get that the Indian characters are more nuanced than their surface portrayal suggests, but I still have to read about forelock-tugging, obsequious Indians, all in the service of educating British people. I can appreciate the effort and find it laudable, but I’m not reading it if I can help it. I don’t need the lesson.

    @etv13: You’re absolutely right that research is meaningless (or at least beside the point) in the absence of imagination and empathy. But the reverse is not OK either. If I pick up a book that depicts someone in the 1860s doing things and holding attitudes that didn’t appear until the 20thC, or speaking a language that didn’t exist in the region the character is living in, that makes me wonder what else is wrong with the story. It’s not enough to mean well, and an imagination that is drawing on incorrect material is not, in the end, going to succeed in communicating what the author wants to communicate to people who have knowledge of the material.

    As for the gender v. ethnicity question, it’s not a great comparison because women do grow up in close proximity to men and learn a lot about them if they choose to, whereas someone writing about a different culture or context may have very little first-hand knowledge of that culture.

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  62. Sunita
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 08:52:26

    @wikkidsexycool: Thanks for the link!

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  63. Jennifer Stevenson
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 11:00:58

    Good points, Sunil; it’s not necessarily how Kipling felt when he wrote it but how it is read. And it was read very much as pro-colonial.

    There is evidence from his autobiography and biographies that he had a nuanced agenda. I’d call it a thoroughly scrambled agenda, since he spoke Urdu before he spoke English, was transplanted to England at age six and lived there unwillingly and sometimes miserably until he left what we would call high school, then returned to India for a few years–he was a lot like any immigrant kid, raised in several cultures and comfortable in none, desperate to look more assimilated than he was.

    In his time, Independence was long way away. He was very carefully not writing to shock or revolutionize the English audience; he was seducing them. He would never have written (to give a slightly more modern American example) a story featuring Angela Davis and Malcom X as freedom fighters; that might have surprised readers if it was published at all, but it would have killed his career too. If you read “On the City Wall” for example you might see the agenda I’m speaking of. He also wrote stories without any English characters, or only as peripheral figures.

    I’m not much of a Kipling apologist. I was exposed before age six, by which age the Jesuits say they can have a kid brainwashed for life. I just know how it felt to be taught to read for revolution … even where it might not exist.

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  64. cleo
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 14:25:44

    I’ve been thinking about this for a couple days now. As a reader, I want to read something that feels emotionally real or authentic. But, when I’m reading about characters from a culture or era that I’m not familiar with, it can be hard for me to judge that – because my feeling of what’s emotionally real is based on my context and not necessarily the book’s context. Which I think is what Jeannie Lin and wikkidsexycool (and P. J.) touch on – particularly that feeling that “those things don’t happen in real life”. I remember reading a review of a m/m romance with a trans* MC – the cis gendered reviewer said that a particular scene didn’t ring emotionally true to her, that she couldn’t image it happening in real life, but the trans* author posted in the comments that it was based on experiences that he and people he knew had had.

    I personally read books about POC characters written by POC and nonPOC authors. I want to support POC authors and other non-dominant voices, but I don’t always know about the author’s background when choosing a book. I’ve read and loved Tony Hillerman’s Navajo detective mystery series – I don’t think I knew much about Hillerman when I started the series but I know now that he’s not Navajo and I take his books with a grain of salt, but I enjoy them. I think if I read a really scathing critique of them written by a Navajo, I’d change my mind – or at least move them out the mental “mostly harmless” category to the “guilty pleasure” category.

    ETA – I think the other problem with judging the authenticity of something I don’t know much about is that if a story conflicts with my small set of facts, I may reject it as being inauthentic, when actually, it may based on something real that I just don’t know about.

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  65. Sunita
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 07:14:44

    @cleo:

    my feeling of what’s emotionally real is based on my context and not necessarily the book’s context.

    and

    I think the other problem with judging the authenticity of something I don’t know much about is that if a story conflicts with my small set of facts, I may reject it as being inauthentic, when actually, it may based on something real that I just don’t know about.

    Beautifully put, thank you. This is why I try to be really careful even when I do know something about the background or the topic. Unless something is highly, highly unlikely, or clearly ported from a different era, I don’t call it out. That goes doubly true with character motivations, because my experience is not the default experience either.

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  66. cleo
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 09:32:32

    @Sunita – thanks! I really enjoyed your post and the whole conversation. Glad I finally had a chance to write down my thoughts.

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  67. etv13
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 14:15:25

    @Sunita: I’ve been sharing a bed with a tall blond for almost thirty years, and I can generally predict his reactions and opinions pretty accurately, but when it comes down to it, I don’t really know how it feels to be him, any more than I know how it feels to be African-American, or Jewish, or a Latina, or ninety. I don’t think we can ever really know anybody else in that sense. Yet I think a thoughtful, well-informed (that’s where the research comes in) writer can create convincing characters who aren’t just fictionalized versions of various aspects of herself, and even characters who don’t share her gender, social class, nationality and so on. Indeed, writers of historical romances do it, with varying degrees of success, all the time. Of course, there aren’t any nineteenth-century English aristocrats alive today to be hurt or offended by anything anybody writes in a romance novel, and a middle-class white woman who wants to write about, say, contemporary working-class Latinos has an extra reason to do her homework that maybe goes beyond simply wanting to create the best book she can, but I certainly wouldn’t favor precluding anyone from creating a wide range of characters of all ages, genders and ethnicities. Which president was it who wanted a cabinet that “looked like America”? I think it would be great if romance novels, as a genre, looked like the world, and the best way of getting there is not to limit who can write about whom, even if that means we risk getting some African-American equivalent of the Bridgertons. Okay, actually I sometimes enjoy Julia Quinn, and I know many other people do as well, so maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

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  68. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 14:52:11

    Ah, but there are descendants of nineteenth century aristocrats who take umbrage! Or loftily ignore it as below them!

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  69. etv13
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 15:27:55

    @Lynne Connelly: Yes, but the past is another country, of which nobody alive today is a native.

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  70. The latest on diversity in genre fiction and other mixed links | Cora Buhlert
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 23:18:14

    […] Switching genres, at Dear Author Sunita offers her take on Asian historical romance and the question of authenticity. […]

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