Dear Author

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.