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Controversy hits Romance Writers of America over 'exotic' Asian women with 'slanted' eyes descriptions

A Chinese American board member called out the racist text and was originally suspended from her ethics position. The decision has since been reversed.
Image; Courtney Milan
Romance writer Courtney Milan.Jovanka Novakovic / via AP

NEW YORK — There's not a lot of love at the Romance Writers of America this holiday season. Lots of passion, but not too much love.

The organization, which bills itself as the voice of romance writers and cites 9,000 members, has been upended over the way it has treated one of its authors, Courtney Milan, a Chinese American writer and a former chair of its Ethics Committee.

The Texas-based trade association initially accepted the vote of its Ethics Committee that Milan had violated the group's code with negative online comments about other writers and their work. Then, just before Christmas, it reversed course, rescinding its vote ”pending a legal opinion." Now its entire leadership has changed.

The controversy was sparked this summer when Milan in a tweet called Kathryn Lynn Davis' 1999 book “Somewhere Lies the Moon” an “(expletive) racist mess.” Davis and fellow writer Suzan Tisdale filed complaints. Milan was suspended Monday, sparking an outcry from fellow Romance Writers of America members and making #IStandWithCourtney trend.

Author Felicia Grossman announced on Twitter that she had resigned her position at the association, saying it had “proven itself inconsistent with my values.” Author Alyssa Day called the decision to punish Milan “appallingly and profoundly wrongheaded.” Added writer Racheline Maltese: “Speaking out against racism is not an ethics violation."

A letter from 28 organization leaders in various regional positions on Thursday asked for the resignation of the Romance Writers of America's president, the president-elect and the executive director, calling “the handling of this situation is shameful.” The dissenting writers said a so-called ”failure of leadership" made them “wonder if there is anywhere to go from here.”

The outreach group Bookstore Romance Day parted ways with the Romance Writers of America and best-selling author Deanna Raybourn returned the 2008 trophy she won from the organization for penning the Best Novel With Strong Romantic Elements, saying “I want no honors from them.”

The organization admitted in an open letter Thursday that the last several days left it at a “turning point.” President Carolyn Jewel, as well as board members Denny S. Bryce, Pintip Dunn, Seressia Glass, Tracey Livesay, Adrienne Mishel, Priscilla Oliveras, Erica Ridley and Farrah Rochon all resigned their positions.

“We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that,” the organization said in a statement. “We will strive to uphold the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do.” Damon Suede, who had been named president-elect, was made president.

The tumult spiraled when Milan said she had been outraged by several sections of Davis' book, including depictions of "exotic" Asian women (with "slanted almond eyes") and a passage spoken by the fictional Chinese elder Madam Chin that “we are demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be. We walk with our eyes lowered politely, and may not look higher than a man's breast.”

Milan blasted back: “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against Asian women,” Milan wrote. “It is hard not to be upset about something that has done me and my loved ones real harm.”

Davis is white but she “immersed herself in Chinese culture for six years before writing the novel,” according to a statement by Tisdale. “Keep in mind, this book was written and published in the 1990’s,” she wrote.

Tisdale further alleged that Davis had lost a book deal over the online attacks and compared having Milan on the Romance Writers of America's ethics committee to having a ”neo-Nazi in charge of a UN human rights committee."

In a twist, the Romance Writers of America this winter watched as another wholesome organization — The Hallmark Channel — found itself in controversy. The Hallmark Channel reversed itself and decided to reinstate commercials featuring same-sex couples that it had pulled following a complaint from a conservative group. The Romance Writers of America cheered the reversal, saying it hoped Hallmark “will choose the path of celebrating diversity and inclusivity.”

At least one romance author was looking toward a brighter new year. “The future of the organization may be shaky but our commitment to our beloved genre is not,” wrote Beverly Jenkins, whose next book is “On the Corner of Hope and Main."

Mark Kennedy is at