Romance novels have recently been applauded as a sort of revolutionary reading experience. Often focusing on women's pleasure and their rich inner lives, it’s one of the only genres written by and for women. But feminist praise for romance novels overlooks the fact that these descriptions aren’t always a boost for all women. Specifically, when it comes to Asians, the industry has for too long now held fast to the damaging trope of the submissive Asian woman, novelists point out.
Romance novels, with their promise to readers of a frenzied passionate love story and a guaranteed happily-ever-after, are a bedrock of the publishing industry, bringing in more than a billion dollars in sales annually. But these alluring stories of affairs of the heart, often set in enchanting far-flung locales, mean readers looking for stories with Asian characters often have to settle for stories that include Orientalism.
There are a number of authors of Asian descent speaking out on the issue and countering it with their own work, including Farah Heron, who released her debut novel “The Chai Factor” earlier this year and is the president of the Toronto chapter of the Romance Writers of America.
“When you see that trope come over and over especially in historicals, that’s lazy storytelling to me,” Heron told NBC News. “Because you are not looking at the person, you are looking at your idea of what the culture is.”
The discussion over how Asian women are depicted on the pages of romance novels comes on the heels of the organization being mired in a controversy about ethics, racism and exotification for much of the last week. For many authors, the dispute — which has rocked the 9,000-member group and resulted in the resignations of several board members — has also opened up a long overdue conversation about how Asian women are portrayed in the genre.
The origins of the current conflict center on the RWA board’s treatment of former member and New York Times bestselling author Courtney Milan, who is Chinese American. This past summer, Milan was one of several authors to tweet about the 1999 book “Somewhere Lies the Moon” by Kathryn Lynn Davis. In several tweets, Milan characterized the book as a “racist mess” because of its depiction of "exotic" Asian women.
After Davis and fellow author Suzan Tisdale filed complaints with the RWA alleging that Milan’s tweets violated the organization’s code of conduct, the organization said it accepted the vote of its ethics committee that Milan had violated the group's code. Several high-profile romance novelists tweeted their outrage over the decision and #IStandWithCourtney became a trending topic on Twitter.
Just a few days later, however, the organization reversed course and rescinded the vote “pending a legal opinion." Neither the RWA nor Milan responded to NBC News’ requests for comment. The Romance Writers of America said Thursday its president, Damon Suede, has stepped down.
Exoticizing the Kama Sutra, Asian eyes and everything in between
For romance authors of Asian descent, the conversation about the stereotyping in Davis’ book pointed to a larger, industrywide issue when it comes to portraying Asian women. Heron notes that many Asian female characters created by non-Asian writers are either written as submissive and quiet or as overly and aggressively bold. “The implication is that [the character] was raised in such a backwards culture that is rebelling against it,” Heron said. “There’s just no nuance put into the characters.”
Older romances in particular often featured Asian characters created by white writers, to mixed reactions from readers. Mary Jo Putney’s “The China Bride,” which features a biracial Chinese heroine living in Canton is considered by many to be a classic of the genre. Other popular books by Putney feature a half-Indian duke and his sister.
More recently, Lisa Kleypas, another legend in the field, revised her 2018 novel “Hello Stranger” to take out a scene describing a nameless Indian mistress who specialized in the sexual arts after a reviewer called out the exotification of South Asian women.
“Obviously I would never want to hurt anyone by perpetuating an offensive stereotype, especially about women from a culture I respect so tremendously, and I feel terrible about it,” Kleypas said in a statement announcing the revisions to “Hello Stranger.”
Several other recent books feature 1800s-era British heroes who are tutored in intimate relations by Indian women or introduce readers to East Asian women who are too timid to look men in the eye.
Even Nora Roberts — who is widely considered the grand dame of the genre — noted in a Dec. 29 blog post that her own catalog may have sections that are “offensive, racist, [or] homophobic.”
Many defenders of older books like “Somewhere Lies the Moon” argue they should not be held to the same standards as a book published today. Critics say that argument does not hold water. “It doesn’t matter if a book is 20 years old or a book is 30 years old or if a book is 10 years old, it is a book that we put our name on,” fellow author Jeannie Lin said. “If you want to tell me in 30 years that my book is groundbreaking and it still stands true today, that means that you can also tell me in 30 years that my book is racist. You can say, ‘you made some big mistakes.’ It goes both ways.”
And many instances of insensitive descriptions are not just in the past. The exotification of Asian people and cultures still occurs in books published today, author Ruby Lang said. “I’ve read books put out by white writers in the last 10 years that contain impassive, inscrutable Asian characters, 'exotic' female characters who know secrets of the Kama Sutra or mysterious Far Eastern techniques,” Lang, the author of several contemporary romances, said in an email. “For that matter, I’ve read several books published fairly recently in which characters have 'Asian eyes' or 'Asian features,' as if all people from a very large continent could somehow look exactly alike.”
Why responsible representation matters in romance novels
“Negative stereotypes of Chinese women have impacted my life, the life of my mother, my sisters, and my friends,” Milan wrote in her response to one of the complaints against her. “They fuel violence and abuse against women like me.”
Lin notes that she grew up loving “stories of swashbuckling adventures set in far-off places” but never thought there was a market for similar books that featured Chinese characters until she began reading books by fellow Asian American author Jade Lee. As she created her characters, she worked to both subvert the common tropes about demure Asian women while also grounding her stories in Chinese culture.
Because of limited representation, every instance of representation matters, author Amara Royce, who is Filipina American, said in an email. “It's so hard to find historical romances, in particular, published in the U.S. that feature any Asian characters. So, when they do appear, it matters,” she said. “While I acknowledge that some things are ‘a product of their time,’ that still doesn't absolve them of the impact they have.”
Western popular culture's depictions of Asian women as submissive and exotic have been entrenched for generations — and not just in romance novels. When Anna May Wong headed to Hollywood to become a star in the 1920s she found herself confined to roles that depicted her as the highly sexualized "Daughter of Shanghai," even though she was born in Los Angeles and spoke with an American accent. The 1980s saw strikingly similar tropes in musicals like "Miss Saigon," a show that is so controversial because of its depiction of Vietnamese women that it is regularly protested when it is staged today. More recently, sexual assault survivors Chanel Miller, who revealed in her memoir that she was the victim "Emily Doe" in the highly publicized Stanford rape case, and Harvey Weinstein's former assistant, Rowena Chiu, have openly talked about how they felt they were both victimized and dismissed because of their Asian identities.
How romance writers of Asian descent subvert the stereotype
A desire to actively subvert harmful tropes was a driving force behind Royce writing her 2014 novel “Always A Stranger,” which features a biracial Japanese woman living in Victorian England. “What I wanted most was to depict Asian women who are self-aware and striving for agency within very constrained circumstances,” Royce said. “Early in that novel, the male main character thinks of the heroine as 'exotic,' and I purposefully used that to reflect negatively on him.”
Lin said she had pop culture’s depictions of Asian women in mind when she released her award-winning debut novel “Butterfly Swords” in 2010. “The main character was a sword-wielding princess, which is very much a stereotype,” noted Lin, who is of Vietnamese descent with Chinese ancestry. “It was done deliberately. I was thinking, ‘What will people recognize, what will get me in the door and then give me that ability to expand that conversation.’”
But it isn’t just writers of historical fiction writers who feel like they have to work against stereotypes about Asian identity. Though Heron’s “The Chai Factor” is set in modern-day Toronto, she often hears from readers who felt her main character Amira was both unrealistic and unlikable.
While many readers shared that they liked the character, “you get that undercurrent of people who just cannot get over her quote unquote ‘bitchiness,’” Heron noted. “I read other contemporaries all the time and she’s not any bitchier than heroines in other books, at least I don’t think so. I think it’s that she’s challenging the internal perception they have of what a South Asian Muslim woman should be.”
Who gets to write Asian characters and how to do it
In addition to being an author, Heron also regularly leads workshops on how writers of all backgrounds can better write ethnic and religious minorities. “I really do want people to write other communities into their books, I want diverse characters because that’s the world we live in,” she said.
But Heron notes that every time she does her workshops, she gets a certain amount of pushback from participants who expect to be granted carte blanche to write diverse characters however they wish. “It’s not my place to give anyone permission, you can write what you want. I’m not telling you you can’t,” she said. “I’ve had people say, ‘Can you tell me how to write this character so that Twitter doesn’t attack me?’ and that’s not my job.”
However, Heron does recommend that all authors take care to educate themselves about the communities they are writing about and ensure they are not unintentionally generalizing.
For her part, Royce advises writers to dive into researching the cultures they want to depict. “There are no shortcuts to depicting characters who aren't caricatures or stereotypes. And, for me, the learning and exploration are among my favorite parts of the writing experience,” she said. “It's not always easy, and it's certainly rough to find out when you've made a mistake, but that's all part of growing as a writer.”
Conversations about racism in romance or any other industry are made especially difficult because of the defensiveness most creators bring to their work, Lin observed. “I don’t feel that someone who has depicted a racist stereotype is (necessarily) a bad person or a bad author,” she said. “I think that if we can recognize the internalized racism (in ourselves) and implicit in our depiction, myself included, we’d go a long way.”