Scary Tara. Be afraid!
Tara Quan came to me last month and said, “Could I write a guest post?” I thought about it and said, “Make me an offer, and I’ll consider it.” She replied, “My firstborn?” I didn’t understand what she meant and asked, “Wait, what?” Her reply: “Well, it will take a few years for him or her to cook.”
Yes, ladies and gentleman, welcome to Tara Quan. You probably recognize her from Spank or Treat 2014. She creates adorable comics for her books, and she’s a genius at getting people to remember her. She’s also a kindred spirit. After we teased Kate Richards endlessly about the Evil Mistress Kate routine for the Spank or Treat online roleplay, Tara returned her latest manuscript with the note, “Yes, Evil Mistress Kate” (okay, that wasn’t exactly it, but close enough!). And thus a movement was born: we create trouble and give each other credit for it.
One topic close to my heart is diversity in fiction. “Diversity” is a catchword that can mean nothing, and yet we hear acquisitions editors asking why they don’t receive enough ethnic diversity in the submissions they receive. I’ve asked before why the heroines of spanking fiction are always white (or, in the few occasions otherwise, that they are fetishized). A year later, I supported the petition to include a doll with disability into the American Girl line. I championed Jean Little’s Mine for Keeps, a lovely children’s book about a girl with cerebral palsy.
And yet, I still hear about the need for diversity. I don’t mean a two-bit player, an African American receptionist who makes dentist appointments for our white heroine, but an honest to goodness protagonist is portrayed in his or her own right. Where skin color is not a shorthand for chocolate references, and “Asian” is not characterized with the single line, “They were Asian, which was different.” (True story. Read the review here.) I write book reviews for the various HarperCollins subsidiaries, and the quickest way to invoke my censure is to throw in a token bit of diversity without doing it justice.
When I meet authors of color, I’m always interested to see whether they write characters of color. Some do; some don’t. Sometimes the risks of characters being objectified are all the more fraught when the author risks objectification, too. I’ve watched Tara’s career with interest, partly because I love her sense of humor (and respect her genius at marketing), but partly because she navigates a diplomatic interspace between taking a stand and erasing herself as an author of color. I hope you’ll enjoy Tara’s article as much as I did. She’ll be around all day to answer your questions and comments. Behave!
Why it took me so long to write an Asian heroine
When Ana suggested this topic for my contribution to her Advent Calendar, I warned her that, unlike her example post “Why are all the spanking fiction heroines white,” my public persona has a tendency to take a rather diplomatic approach to all controversial issues. Lack of diversity in romances has been a hot-button topic on the blogosphere of late, which is why I’m going to sidestep the subject just a bit.
I can neither speak for all romance writers nor all romance readers, so the scope of this post is limited to my journey—the personal experiences, motivations, and reservations that led to the sequence of books I published over the past two years. This isn’t a commentary on the publishing industry, but rather, an introspective recounting of why it took me so long to write an Asian heroine.
I contracted my first manuscript in October 2012. I will have ten titles to my name by the end of 2014. It wasn’t until my sixth book that I wrote a heroine who wasn’t Caucasian.
Why am I bringing this up? I’m a naturalized Asian American. I grew up in Thailand, and most of my schoolmates there had been Thai, Indian, Taiwanese, or Korean. I went to university in Massachusetts, which is known for it’s diverse student population. My group of friends in college included a Pakistani American, a half-Taiwanese-half-Indian American, a Vietnamese American, an Indian, a Filipina, and the token white guy (as he occasionally described himself).
Though I eventually moved out of the multicultural bubble that is Boston’s collegiate community, my social circle is still ethnically diverse. Do you remember the 2014 Coca-Cola Big Game Commercial: America Is Beautiful? That’s an apt reflection of how I view my adopted country.
If my writing were a reflection of my perception of the world, then, from the get-go, I should have written interracial couples, as well as heroes and heroines who belonged to ethnic minorities and/or countries other than America. But five releases went by, and the idea of writing a non-white heroine still hadn’t occurred to me. Why not?
My writing is heavily influenced by my reading. I’m romance junkie. My favorite authors are Judith McNaught, Linda Howard, Suzanne Enoch, Julia Quinn, Kresley Cole, and Nalini Singh. Aside from Ms. Singh’s characters, the heroines in the romances I’ve read are, for the most part, white women in their late twenties to early thirties. This is an observation, not a criticism. I adore all of the listed authors. I wouldn’t have become a writer without their influence, and I can always be counted upon to buy their new releases.
I, of all people, understand that writers are very much influenced by their own environment. In the 1950s, ethnic minorities made up about 13% of the population in America. By 2000, this number increased to around 28%, and Asians made up less than 4% of that slice. Putting aside whether or not the New York-driven publishing environment resulted in an underrepresentation of ethnic minorities within the pool of published authors, it was probabilistically far less likely to find an Asian, Hispanic, African, or Native American author than it was a Caucasian one. Those published authors, regardless of background, would have also come into contact with ethnic minorities far less frequently than a typical author would today (as of 2010, ethnic minorities made up 36% of the U.S. population, with projections predicting a 50-50 split before 2050).
As someone who grew up reading romances from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, it’s not surprising that I didn’t stumble upon an author who wrote about interracial or multicultural relationships until the last five years or so. Since I’m far more firmly grounded in the fictional world than I am the real one, I followed in the footsteps of my favorite authors with respect to casting (without really thinking about it, to be honest).
When I did decide to deviate from my conception of the romance novel mold, I remember being paralyzed by an irrational fear of offending people. I modeled the heroine in my sixth release after my roommate in college, and Operation Owl’s Maya Jain fits the stereotype of a nerdy South Asian college student to perfection. (By the way, the real-life version holds a doctorate from MIT.) And while my character has traditional parents, she wasn’t bound by the doctrines of any particular culture and, well, goes on to have sex with my equally nerdy hero.
So I was faced with several potential issues. I feared some readers might think I’m perpetuating the stereotype of the “the Indian geek,” which had become somewhat prevalent in TV shows and movies. And then there were those who might take offense over me writing a “desi girl” who doesn’t put much stock in tradition. And then there’s the issue of her hooking up with a “white boy” out of wedlock.
The list of possible offenses goes on. I admit—I almost sidestepped these (perhaps imagined) problems by making my main character white.
Then I took a deep breath and asked myself this question: Had I first imagined my heroine as a Caucasian woman, would I have gone out of my way to make her a different ethnicity?
The resounding “no” following that question opened a creative doorway. All the heroines I’ve written and intend to write will break a few rules and decide for themselves what is right. They won’t meekly bow down to outside forces, or wait around for Prince Charming to sweep them off their feet. They’ll set out to bring the world to heel, to fight for their dreams even if it means opposing societal and cultural mores. I would write them that way regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, physical location, or age.
As for stereotypes—they exist. My way of combatting them is to write well-rounded characters, ones who are far more than the caricatures painted by popular culture. But I refuse to ignore realities of population dynamics, or pretend that culture and ethnicity don’t play a role in shaping a person’s social circle, choice of employment, speech pattern, and worldview. I’m a geeky Asian woman (who watches anime and Chinese dramas, plays video games, and has spent many stints as the de facto IT person). I’m friends with nerdy Indian, Caucasian, Hispanic, and African Americans, as well as members of countless other nationalities, all of whom enjoy video games, know their way around computers, and watch Japanese animations (I’ve yet to find someone who shares my Chinese drama addiction).
Since I wrote Operation Owl’s geeky Indian heroine, I’ve gone on to write Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic American heroines. I am currently in the process of writing an African American heroine. The settings I describe are inspired by the places I’ve visited. The stories I tell, and the characters that bring them to life, are a product of who I am, the people I’ve met, and the way I think. The real world isn’t monochromatic. My friends are accepting, but not colorblind.
Tomorrow, I turn thirty years old, and I’m proud to say I’m no longer bound by my perception of what a romance should be, nor am I concerned about who I might offend. It has taken me two years to reach this stage as a writer, and it’s been a fun and fulfilling journey.
About Tara Quan
Globetrotter, lover of languages, and romance author, Tara Quan has an addiction for crafting tales with a pinch of spice and a smidgen of kink. Inspired by her travels, Tara enjoys tossing her kick-ass heroines and alpha males into exotic contemporary locales, paranormal worlds, and post-apocalyptic futures. Her characters, armed with magical powers or conventional weapons, are guaranteed a suspenseful and sensual ride, as well as their own happily ever after. Learn more at www.taraquan.com
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