Monday, May 2, 2016

A Whole Lotta Words on Doing Things By Halves

Romance author and Washington Post columnist Sarah MacLean put out a call on Twitter earlier today, asking for India-set historicals featuring heroes and heroines of color. Maybe it's because I kind of understand Sarah-speak by now, or because I have a lot of hope, but I automatically assumed she was asking about stories by authors of South Asian origin writing about South Asian people. The answers that came back were all recs for books by white women...and at least four white authors volunteered that they're writing stories with half-Indian characters.

Sophia Duleep Singh, actual biracial person and
 suffragette, in 1910
White authors are writing historical romances with half-Indian characters, and all I can ask is "Why?" Because you care about the biracial and marginalized experience at the time or because you think it's sexy and the right touch of angst? If it's the latter...I thought we were past that two decades ago, aside from a few authors here and there who still love to drop in a half-Indian peer. If you claim it's the me the receipts. I would love to see a fictionalized take on Sophia Duleep Singh. Or Merle Oberon (yes, I know Michael Korda already did that). But I know that the reality of romance writing is much different. What we're told and what we actually get are often seas apart.

And, let's be honest, why isn't the character 100 percent Indian? Is there something wrong with that? Will it completely change your story? Or is the half-Indianness just a tool, an easy source of conflict? A dash of spice? Biracial people, whether they're on the page or picking up the book, deserve FAR better than that.

With diversity and inclusivity very much part of the romance publishing conversation, I really question intent. Is this about being cool and trendy? Are you trying to jump on a bandwagon? Because I've talked about that. So MANY of us have talked about that. We're not this hot new thing. And we're not demanding diverse characters from everybody. You seriously don't have to include POC...especially if you're going to half-ass it. Because another part of the conversation we're having is about harm. Is your portrayal going to cause someone pain?

Jhansi ki Rani bit it in 1858.
She died so dead.
It's 2016. I'm over the half-Indian duke and the exoticizing of my parents' homeland in the service of a white girl's orgasm. I'm over the poor research, the microaggressions, the arousing titillation of the forbidden Other. I'm over people mixing up Islam and Hinduism. I'm over people not realizing that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of distinct cultures on that subcontinent. I'm over people ignoring caste and purdah. And I'm over people ignoring that colonization is an act of racism and an act of war. The British Raj was not exotic wallpaper, not a curry-laced convenience that spawned some interesting colors and cultural appropriation.

Hundreds of thousands of people DIED because the British came to India. And how many died to get them to LEAVE? They were not welcome there. There was a revolution. And independence.

How do you ignore THAT history while crafting your ball gowns and witty repartee?

It's certainly hard for those of us of South Asian origin. I think that's why you don't see us writing in that time period because, well, it's extremely complicated and largely un-fun. Most of the stories I know about the Raj are about revolutionaries who died for the cause. Chandrashekhar Azad. Bhagat Singh. The Rani of Jhansi — she was 29 years old when she succumbed to wounds from a skirmish with the British. And I'm not about to suggest someone write that definitively non-HEA "romance"!

Bhagat Singh was superhot...
and superhanged to
death in 1931.
Sure, there is a desire among desi romance writers to tackle India's pre-colonial history. We have thousands of years of gorgeousness to mine...but we also have to work through a couple of hundred years of being told our own stories don't matter.

So, yeah, when I see a white author of historical romance blithely going, "I have a half-Indian character," I just go back to, "Why?"

What is this character's throughline?

Does his or her background actually mean something?

What do you hope to gain?

Is this going to hurt?

'Cause, goddamn, I am so tired of hurting.


  1. Thank you for addressing this. I did see Sarah MacLean's tweet this morning, and pondered suggestions for a good 10 minutes before realizing I had NONE. I was embarrassed to say the least, but also, eager for information, so I kept going back to her page to see if there were any recommendations, and yes, automatically assumed that Sarah would be asking for recs of Indian romances written by Indians. Made me sad that there were none ( not that I have any right to comment on it at this point because I couldn't come up with a rec myself), but it got me thinking about how even as POC I needed to keep pushing to read and talk about books by POC in ALL of the genres- because I'm sure they exist. Fuck, it is exhausting that we have to work 10 times as hard for ANY visibility. Diversity as a trend is frustrating.

    1. It really is aggravating, especially when we're all hungry to see our contributions and experiences in every romantic subgenre. I kept hoping against hope that someone would pipe up with a "I've got this." But maybe next year? Maybe the year after?

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I've been a reader of romance, primarily historical romance, for over 8 years. As a (second generation) Indian American, I've been really put off and alienated by the "blue eyed slightly-exotic-but-not-completely-foreign half European-half Indian duke/marquess hero" that's fetishized all over historical romance.

    At first I couldn't quite put my finger on what bothered me so much about the trope. But as you explained here, it's not true representation of diversity or even biracial people, but rather a way of exoticizing and fetishizing the people, culture, and setting of India, while still centering white peoples' stories. They use India merely as an exotic backdrop so that white readers get the excitement of being a "tourist" there without being made too uncomfortable by having full Indian characters, centering their stories and conflict, and thus being forced to, you know, actually consider them as people. Ones with their own stories and perspectives that may not be the same as those in white people's history books.

    For example, several years back there was a highly regarded debut by an HR author set during the 1857 Indian War of Independence (yes, I'm calling it a war of independence like many Indians rather than "Sepoy Mutiny" or "Rebellion". Funny how one's ethnic background and perspective changes the words one uses to describe colonialism and historical oppression). Rather than centering the story and conflict on the struggles of the Indians to win independence from their racist oppressors, the book centers on the half-Indian duke hero risking his life to "protect" the white heroine from the violence and brutality of his fellow countrymen and whisk her out of his dangerous and barbaric country. Ugh.

    I don't even feel comfortable reading historicals having more than a passing mention to India/the British Raj at this point, let alone one set in India or having an Indian/half Indian character, I've been burned so often and badly. Each time it's isolating and alienating and infuriating, when I read romance to relax and enjoy.

    Of course I understand why Indian writers are reluctant to write about this period because of the cultural baggage, but at the same time I feel like only if we have more of our own voices telling those stories, our stories and perspectives will be heard. Now white people are the only ones telling those stories, centering white characters and shoving POC's to the sidelines, and it's hurtful and damaging. I don't know what the solution is, but the status quo is untenable.


    1. It's absolutely untenable. Thanks for the long and thoughtful perspective, Aparna.

      I do think that more Indian writers are needed in this realm, and I think we're finally starting to become comfortable telling our own stories...but it'll be a few years yet until we see the fruits of that labor.

    2. Thanks for letting me vent a bit. The only friends I know who read romance/historical romance are non-Indian, so they don't quite *get* it even when I complain. The frustration has been building for some time, so when I stumbled across your post that hit on a lot of what's been bothering me in historical romance for several years, I had to pitch in.

      I'm glad that we're starting to feel comfortable telling our own stories. I hope as more of them get told, our own voices and stories are highlighted above the harmful depictions by other authors.