Sunday, July 26, 2015

RWA15 in NYC: A Tale of Two Conferences

This year's Romance Writers of America conference in New York City was my first as an author. I've attended three past RWAs around the country as an industry professional — and it was really interesting to attend as someone the programming was ostensibly for rather than as someone just observing for the purposes of coverage. It was also really fascinating to realize that, even with only one hat on, I was basically at two conferences.




The first RWA I was at, in the boisterous and often maddening confines of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, was full of great energy and laughter and lots of people happy to share their experiences in the publishing hustle. I found many of the authors I hang out with on Twitter and our bonds were forged even stronger in person. It was fun and supportive and honest. We shared meals, went to each other's panels, or just sat with each other in exhausted silence. It reminds you that Romance is a sisterhood, a club, a place where people Get You...and a place where you're safe enough to still geek out if you meet Beverly Jenkins or Nalini Singh. “Sure, we're, like, peers and stuff, and they're normal people, but OH MY GOD.”



It was great. A lot of you know that I've had a difficult year. So, for me, RWA wasn't about pitching or networking so much as it was about remembering how to be human again, embracing the community again, and realizing that the relationships I've built online are real. Alisha Rai, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Alyssa Cole, Courtney Milan, Lorelie Brown, Lisa Lin, and 20 other names I want to fill this paragraph with...thank you. Thank you all for the industry straight talk, the hugs, the quiet time, and the smiles. We write for ourselves, but we trust in each other.

And then there was the other RWA I'd found myself in...



The one where publishers still don't quite know what to do with multicultural and queer romance.

The one where self-publishing is something you do because the Big Five haven't yet shined their light upon you.

The one where you feel as though your presence is just barely being tolerated, and these other women are indulging you as long as you stay quiet and don't draw too much attention.

This other conference was a convergence of microaggressions. From being side-eyed in elevators to having us confused for each other — Falguni Kothari and Alisha Rai are not the same person, FYI — to being told that diverse books were not a priority for Pocket/Gallery...there was a thread of something that was almost like resentment. “Why do we have to talk about diversity?” “Why are there so many of you here?” “My God, can't you all be quiet and go away, so we can go back to the way it was before?”

I'm sorry our brownness and our queerness and our hair and our loudness have sullied the decorum and dignity of RWA. Except, wait, I'm really not.

Yes, three male/male romances, Farrah Rochon's Yours Forever, and Sonali Dev's A Bollywood Affair were all RITA finalists. But none of those books won. And they had to share a nomination slate with a Christian romance set in aconcentration camp with a Nazi hero and a Jewish heroine who converts at the end. It finaled in two categories. TWO. And I have no freaking clue how. Was no one Jewish involved in the awards process? Do we really need, in this day and age, to have a Jewish person tell us that concentration camp romance is deeply fucked up? Shouldn't that be, like, COMMON KNOWLEDGE? But I digress... What this boils down to is that the industry is not changing fast enough, and that is why we can't be quiet and just go away.

Representation and inclusion are not just empty buzzwords. We're here, so let us really be here. We don't need to merely be tolerated or be thrown a bone here and there. We want what any other author wants: the assumption that we belong in the industry, and the shelf-space and marketing support that our paler, straighter, colleagues are afforded. We don't need side-eye. We need to be looked at head-on.

Man, that second, concurrent, RWA was tough to attend.

So, I'm going to focus on the first one.

The one where Alyssa Cole, Falguni Kothari, Lena Hart and K.M. Jackson made the best hand-out of all time.

The one where Nisha Sharma, Sonali Dev and I wooed a room full of people with clips from our favorite Hindi movies.

The one where I kept running into Sarah Lyons and Sarah Wendell like we were orbiting planets.

The one where a kick-ass, honest, panel about Writing Through Depression made everyone cry. (I was stuck on the subway during most of it. The MTA sucks.)

The one where I squeezed Tiffany Reisz and stroked her shiny new RITA for Erotic Romance. 

The one where I felt like I was a part of something huge and fantastic and empowering.

photo by Rebekah Weatherspoon


I want to go back to that RWA conference as soon as possible! 

43 comments:

  1. Ack, my previous response to post. I'm glad that you had a great time at RWA, despite the idiots. RWA is like a cross section of society, so I have no illusions or expectations that it's a paradise. However, within this wonderful community, there are people who believe in you, me, and "the others." Remember Tessa Dare's advice: "If you can't find that person who believes in you, send me an email and I'll be that person." To extrapolate on her quote, there is a wonderful safe cocoon of good hearts that make ignoring the troubled souls that much easier. Focus on your readers. They matter.

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    1. You're right! It's the cocoon and the readers that matter most. And that's what I will take away with me amidst the more problematic elements.

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  2. I meant to say *my previous response didn't post."

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  3. It's selfishness, plain and simple. Not simply myopia and privilege, but feeling that publishing making room for diversity will take "their" slot.

    The status quo assures them that they still have a shot at being published, while lying to themselves that the playing field is level for all (your romance with Indian characters hasn't sold to NY because it isn't [insert standard reasons for rejection]; oh honey just keep submitting and trying again, you'll eventually get The Call *head pat*)--a thought process quite similar to anti-Affirmative Action supporters.

    But a few years ago, when I realized how things were, I never thought we'd be at this junction where romance writers put their foot down to say this isn't right. So thank you Suleikha, Alyssa, Piper, Michelle, Beverly, etc etc for your voices. You have made me brave and acknowledge that I am good enough as I am, no matter what I write.

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  4. Someone articulated this same concept this week at RWA -- I can't remember who, since my head is filled with pudding -- and it makes a LOT of sense. It does feel very much like those who slam Affirmative Action and does reek of fear that we're "taking" something that rightfully belongs to them.

    I'm SO glad that there's more and more of us surging over the threshold, though, and that we're not accepting the nonsense.

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  5. Thank you, Suleikah for writing about this topic. This is something I have been mulling about for some time, and this post makes me feel less alone.

    Thanks,
    Steph

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    1. The great thing about the Internet is that we're never truly alone. Hang in there!

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  6. I can hear where you're coming from, being from the self-published side of the industry at the moment, but I can't even imagine the additional bias and ignorance you were subjected to beyond something like that because of a lack of diversity. I think we have a long way to go to true diversity in romance and diversity in publishing.

    For my part I was really excited to meet you, even if only in passing, and also really enjoyed meeting Alisha and Falguni (which reminds me I need to follow her in all the places now) and seeing Lorelie again and meeting Kwana and seeing Farrah (I cheered so hard!) and meeting Heidi (cheered so hard again!) I didn't get to meet Sonali and I JUST read her book last week and was cheering (again, and loudly) for her at the Rita's as well. All of these amazing and wonderful women who are doing these AMAZING and WONDERFUL things for diversity. I'm cheering you all on, and doing what I can.

    I loved the RWA I attended primarily because I searched out the people I wanted to associate with, I went to the panels I thought were important, and I hung out with the people I wanted to and ignored the drama and the judgement and the rest that sometimes comes with attending conferences. Seeing so much more diversity in RWA than ever before is what gives me hope and makes me smile and keeps me coming back.

    Thank you so much for this post because I, for one, want to hear all of these diverse voices and share them with the rest of the world, and I hope I get to meet you again at another RWA, and I hope that RWA has less side-eye and diverse voices are celebrated LOUDLY instead of merely tolerated. That's the RWA I hope to be a member of someday soon. :)

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    1. I kept hearing about you from Alisha! It almost made it all that much funnier that we barely met.

      The fun, diverse, passionate RWA is definitely the one I value and so many of the people you named helped make it so. Isn't Falguni the awesomest? I love her so much.

      I do think the climate is changing and that RWA membership will continue to diversify. I just hope that the organization *and* the industry as a whole does so as well.

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  7. I just wrote a long response and it didn't post either...ack.

    In short: agree. It was only my second RWA but the best part was that I felt there had been a sea change since my first conference in Atlanta. Sure, this year there were the same lectures on creating the formulaic books that publishers want for their lines, but I didn't go to those. I went to the ACTIVIST conference and it was amazing. Right up until the last moments, when Farrah Rochon and Suzanne Brockmann kept me glued in my chair, I felt like this year I'd finally found the community I'd been looking for. "Keeping It Real" was one of the best sessions I've ever attended. The panel of academics who'd received RWA grants convinced me that our work is being treated with the respect it deserves. And nothing was more gratifying than seeing women of all ages lined up for Dr Christine Hyde's goody bags of flavored lube after her no-holds-barred sex therapy Q&A.
    We have a long way to go before anyone thinks of romance as being diverse, inclusive, and feminist. But we have each other. We have the books we keep writing and reading. And we have next year to continue the activist seminars, panels, and conversations that can push RWA and the industry toward further progress.

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    1. also: didn't realize my profile had no info. I'm Sophia Macris, @sophiamacris on twitter.

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    2. I wish the activist conference was the overarching conference, and I do hope we get there in time.

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    3. Thank you for this post. My first RWA national con was also 2013 Atlanta, and I saw a very noticeable shift in diversity and representation here in NYC this year. I loved that there were several panels addressing diversity and I personally attended workshops led by authors of color & LGBT.

      It sucks that the other side of this progress was also out there. I'm so sorry. I hope the sh*tty attitudes of some don't ruin what needs to be changing and happening in the industry. I didn't see anything personally, but I do feel empowered to call people out. I'm sorry anyone had to deal with that in an environment that should be supportive. I write YA so admittedly some of the category romance stuff I will never understand. That change I think will only come with increased pressure on publishers to change.

      So thank you to everyone pushing for that change.

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  8. Totally, one hundred percent agree with your post, Suleikha. It was a great conference, but the undercurrents were strong. I don't think...I hope they won't be ignored or brushed under the Marriott carpet.
    Hugs to you.

    (BTW, if anyone is interested in a PDF version of The Handout, tap me or Lena, Alyssa, Kwana for it.)

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    1. Hugs to you, too. I can only hope that the undercurrents get smaller and smaller each year instead of bigger and more overt.

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    2. Falguni, I would love a copy of the Handout. carlafredd (at ) gmx.com It was wonderful to meet you on Wednesday :)

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  9. I think it will take me weeks to unpack what happened at that conference. I talked to a lot of people, including some authors I love, but I don't feel like part of that sisterhood at all. I wish I could have experienced the first RWA that you did. (Perhaps my social ineptitude is even worse than I thought? I don't know why this is quite so hard for me.)

    And there were so many things that I found discouraging and de-motivating in various ways. I want to give up writing now more than ever. I'd expected the conference to be at least mildly inspiring, but it wasn't. It was the opposite, despite going to some good talks.

    As a result, I had my worst meltdown in a very long time on Friday, and I was surrounded by people I hardly knew and didn't know what to do. It was so scary, and god, I'm relieved to be home.

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    1. I am so sorry you had a meltdown on Friday and that it was such a miserable experience overall. That's not what *any* conference should be. I think it's so important to have at least one other person to be your conference buddy so you don't feel quite so isolated. Going it alone can be brutal, and overwhelming.

      And that's why you cannot give up writing! The situation at the conference got inside your head and made you doubt. Let the fog clear and re-commit to your craft.

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  10. "And they had to share a nomination slate with a Christian romance set in a concentration camp with a Nazi hero and a Jewish heroine who converts at the end."

    I literally stopped chewing my food at this line, because what the *actual* fuck.

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    1. Yeah. "What the actual fuck" is pretty much the reaction to have!

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    2. I had no idea the character converted! I actually checked this book out from the library in an attempt to read up on the finalists lists, but never got to it (over ambitious check out pile) and returned the book without reading. I assumed it was a Jewish heroine story in some kind of WWII scenario, but not... not that.

      *SIIIIGHHHHHHH*

      And I may be biased since Sonali is in my home chapter, but with all the buzz going on about The Bollywood Affair, I thought her book would win.

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    3. I do not have words for how appalling that is! :-O

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  11. I was just trying to write a blog post on diversity in romance (again) and I kept thinking that 4 'other' books finaled in the RITAs this year but none won. And while this is progress, you’re right, it isn't nearly enough progress and man is it slow.
    Funnily enough, when a friend told me she thought I would win, I had said ‘There is no chance in hell, because the chance of 5 judges loving a book as foreign as mine yet again is far too minimal.’ And by that I didn’t mean that my book was better than the rest and the only reason it wouldn’t win is statistical probability. What I meant was that on top of the 1 to 9 odds all the other books in my category shared, my book’s odds got an extra multiplier for its otherness. As did all the other diverse books in the running.
    Unfortunately the only way to reduce that multiplier is to keep doing what we’re doing. Writing more, coming together, being visible despite the side-eye.
    Plus, you’re right, coming together with you all was so much bloody fun in that “no translation necessary” sort of way that’s so hard to explain. Definitely the best part of the conference.

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    1. Normalizing our fiction and our presence is all we can do. I don't know who votes on each RITA category and how it's all tallied, but I hope that, at some point, outliers won't seem SO alien to those readers and they'll just accept the "others" as "one of us."

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    2. And my post didn't go... I just want to say as a reader and a writer, I appreciate and celebrate the otherness that you and all the other talented authors I met this week bring to the table. Write on, my friends, you are heard!

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    3. Blogger is EXTREMELY cranky about posting comments. Thank you for your support, Margaret!

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  12. I am glad that His Road Home won for best novella. It is a great book, and the heroine is Asian and the hero is Latino (plus a double amputee with a brain injury). It was one of the books I read when I spent 2.5 months reading only books with at least one non-white hero or heroine. Also read A Bollywood Affair and was sad that didn't win.

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  13. After 17 romances published, I left RWA because I'd switched to YA. I've thought off and on about returning because I love the support the organization and its members offer, but what you wrote is so disheartening. It really gives me pause about rejoining.

    I'm white, but a huge supporter of diversity (I focus on kidlit). I experienced the same dismissive attitude at a Novelists Inc conference. One (well-known) agent even snarked "My client's book has werewolves in it--isn't that diverse?" I came home with such a bad taste in my mouth after that conference.

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  14. Hugs and yes to all this -- RWA as both a conference and an organization is maddeningly conformist. But I was gleeful to hear Beth de Guzman of Grand Central Publishing's FOREVER imprint get up in their presentation and say hey yes GCP has a diversity committee, Forever is committed to diverse romance, and several of the editors had diversity listed on their slides of "what I'm looking for."

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    1. That *was* VERY good to hear. And I think St. Martin's said they're open to diverse books as well. Now we just have to see them show up on the shelves!

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  15. This morning I looked at the list of Rita and Golden Heart winners, and my heart sank. Only one of the pictures shows an obviously non-WASP writer.

    In 2015.

    Then I read about the supposedly inspirational romance about a Nazi and a Jew, set in a concentration camp.

    WTactualF, indeed.

    And yet, there is hope, because there was that other (shadow) conference, where there were panels on diversity, the conference where people not only dared show up, but they asked questions, and stirred shit up.

    There is hope, because while slow, once change starts, it's nigh unstoppable.

    Just over six years ago, digital publishing (let alone self-publishing) made mainstream RWA wrinkle their collective nose. Now we've had one self-published work with a Rita.

    There is hope.

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  16. I've been a member of RWA for 16 years and during that time I've seen the organization try to push back against the changes in the industry. I once sat in a board meeting and listened to a well-known author spent the entire meeting bashing chick-lit, only to turn around and publish her own chick-lit novel a year later. About 10 years ago, RWA tried to define romance as solely between a man and a woman until the membership as a whole screamed aloud about it. For the longest time, they refused to acknowledge that erotic romance had grown and that a number of members were writing it, same with self-publishing and electronic publishing. They would prefer that those of us who write diverse romance, whether it's multicultural or LGBT or erotic just shut up and wait for our turn at the table. The only thing that we can do is make our voices heard, run for the board of our local chapter as well as for the national board. That is where the real change in attitudes will start.

    As for the RITA's, the judges volunteer same as they do for the Golden Hearts.

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  17. Also how sad is it that one of the few romances that get published with a Jewish heroine is set in a concentration camp?

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    1. She converts to Christianity at the end, too.

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  18. Suleikha, your "other" RWA conference sounded fucking awesome and the one worth attending. Thanks for this great, refreshingly honest post. Am now to share it with everyone I know until they all tell me to STFU. Cheers.

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    1. That other conference was a BLAST. And I think it made me gain ten pounds from all the food I ate. ;)

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  19. Suleikha, it was so great to read your post. It's sad that bringing up diversity or the lack thereof annoys many people to the extent that they want to shut you down. I was recently on a diversity panel at a local conference in Vancouver which is pretty diverse, but I was shocked at the comments of one of the writers on the panel. S I was so angry I couldn't look her in the eye after that and I wished that I had an appropriate retort at the time, but I was really shocked that people still feel this way. As you and many other have mentioned in their comments, it's as if they would prefer if this whole diversity 'nonsense' just disappeared so that things can go back to the way they were. Thank you for saying it like it is.

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    1. Thank you for reading it! I'm unsurprised but saddened that you had a similar experience at a Vancouver con. Resentment and racism run rampant, and we think we live in diverse and liberal pockets, but liberalism is often a *shield* that bigots use to hide how they really feel.

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  20. There seems to be something very paradoxical about the resentment over diversity. On one hand they pretend their isn't a diversity problem. Everyone has the same chance so stop complaining, please go away, you're making a mess and harshing our squee, etc. But then they cling to the status quo, and KNOW it exists because it means like Evangeline said they will always have "their" slot. Apparently there's no problem, but really there is (hurray!) and talking about it means it will change and we can't have that now can we? Very bizzare.

    I think what terrifies them is diverse authors. Oh they throw tantrums over diverse characters but nothing terrifies them more than diverse writers. Because they have to see them and awknowledge their existence - the potential competition is right there in their face which leads to a whole lot of people coming unglued. So they'll try to shout you down, ignore your, toss you crumbs in the hopes that you will just go away.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say Suleikha, thank you for talking about this. I've seen you and a lot of other authors talk about this on Twitter and you guys are like the cool kids table to me haha. You guys make me feel like I can do it too and I don't have to change what I write. You are awesome and I think you are making it easier for a future generation of writers who won't have to deal with the same foolishness you have been put through. And it will be because of your courage and creativity and refusing to shut up or go away.

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    1. Dude, I have never been at the cool kids' table IN MY LIFE. So I am tickled that you think I am. LOL! But you can absolutely do it, too, without changing who you are.

      The reason I am so loud is exactly because I want to make it easier for the next crop of writers.

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  21. I was biting my tongue on Pocket so thank you for saying it. They told me privately they only want US based multicultural romance. Right. Because readers don't care about people in other parts of the world? Oh but wait, if an author breaks out with a novel set elsewhere, they'll consider it. Yah!

    On the happy side, I Loved meeting other "desi" women writing diverse romance. Now I don't feel so lonely (que sad highschool girl carrying lunch tray with nowhere to sit).

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  22. They'd probably care about multicultural romance set abroad if a famous white lady wrote it.

    Welcome to the lunch table!

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