Over the past three or so months, I’ve become increasingly aware of the lack of ethnic diversity in the romance/chick-lit world, as well as in many other genres. In one of my periods of yearning for India (where I spent a year teaching in 2013), I started to search out novels set there. And when I say search, I mean search. Because, while there are some out there, they're often not very well publicised. I’m also sad to say that some of them (particularly the historicals) seem to be written by people who have never been closer to the Subcontinent than their local Indian take-away.
But happily, the search for non-Orientalist Indian romance and chick-lit novels brought me to the ‘Multicultural’ category of Amazon’s romance section. I progressed through huh, it’s so weird that they have a multicultural romance section through hey, a lot of this stuff is really good…why isn’t better known? to why the blooming heck have I never realised the racial bias in what I read? Around the same time, I also started to notice that there was a real backlash about the whitewashing of covers in YA fiction, and so I got angry about that too. (I know, covers are my catnip, but they're such a intensely visual example of ingrained privilege and prejudice).
This increased consciousness was made concrete two days ago when I read this post, wherein a Guardian journalist reflects of her experience of only reading books by Authors of Colour throughout 2014. This, in turn, lead me to the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) movement. They have an initiative called WNDBResolution, which encourages people to pledge to read a certain number of books with diverse characters in the next year. So, here's my pledge:
I'll review them on here and take part in the hashtag #WNDBResolution on Twitter to keep in the loop. I encourage whoever is reading this to give it a go as well; you have nothing to lose, and a whole lot of new perspectives and awesome reads to gain. To get you started, I've put down some of my recent favourites featuring non-white leads:
Set in Victorian London with flashbacks to the hero and heroine's first meeting in Chinese Turkestan several years before, My Beautiful Enemy is the story of Ying-Ying-slash-Catherine and Captain Leighton Atwood. It's a poignant story with an engaging plot that gave me an appreciation for the complex cultural mixing pot that is Central Asia.
In the chick-lit category is No Sex in the City, about Turkish-Australian Esma, who's trying to balance her faith and the expectations of her parents with the cosmopolitan Sydney life. It's witty and relatable, with a great cast of supporting characters and a cute ending. Really gave me a new appreciation for the ways in which white Australians can be thoughtless towards their 'ethnic' counterparts.
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is not your average romance. It's the 1920s, and as a Malayan-Chinese career girl, Jade Yeo is a fish out of water, to say the least. Her desire to live independently and the casual way she treats sex makes for a refreshing change from the bulk of the genre. Short and sweet, it nonetheless deals deftly with the ripple effects of British colonialism. As Jade says so eloquently, "It is as if I were a piece of chess in a game played by people who never looked down at their fingers".
At four years old, Mili was married in a mass ceremony. Now, she's at university in the US, biding her time until her absent husband comes to claim her. Instead, her husband's brother, Sam, is the one who shows up on her doorstep and sweeps her off her feet. Dev writes beautifully and sensitively about the clash of modern, globalised India with age-old Rajasthani traditions, fleshing out her characters and developing a unique plot in the process. One of the best books I've read in a long time.
Being a black, female mathematician in Victorian England isn't exactly a walk in the park, as Rose Sweetly well knows. She does her best to keep her head down, but her neighbour, renowned columnist Stephen Shaughnessy, isn't making it easy. Rose's wariness about the world brings home the forms of discrimination and oppression that WOC have faced, and continue to do so. Like all of Milan's offerings, Talk Sweetly To Me is different, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining.
Set in Tang Dynasty China, The Lotus Palace is about Yue-Ying, a maidservant to a famous courtesan. When another prominent courtesan from a rival house is found dead, Yue-Ying is caught up in a sea of intrigues that bring her into contact with Bai Huang, an aristocratic scholar and well-known playboy. The relationship between the hero and heroine was really wonderfully done, and the idea that this novel is set at the same time as Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages blew my mind and opened my eyes to my ignorance about Han Chinese civilisation and history.
If you have any recommendations, feel free to write me a comment or - even better - post on Twitter with the hashtag #WNDBResolution so everyone can benefit. Catch you on the other side of my first diverse read for my resolution, Indigo by Beverly Jenkins!