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