The romance genre is a juggernaut that continues unabated.
It's a billion-dollar industry that outperforms all other book genres, and it's remarkably innovative, with a strong tradition of independent and self-publishing.
It's also an industry that's been grappling with a diversity problem. The RITA Award, the top honor for romance writers awarded by the Romance Writers of America, was awarded this week, and the organization acknowledged that in its 36-year history, no black author has ever won the prize. According to the RWA's own research, black authors have written less than half of 1 percent of the total number of books considered as prize finalists.
"It is impossible to deny that this is a serious issue and that it needs to be addressed," said the organization in a statement. "Educating everyone about these statistics is the first step in trying to fix this problem. We know there are no perfect solutions but ignoring the issue is that not acceptable." There's certainly no lack of black readership: A Pew Research survey from 2014 found that the person most likely to read a book of any genre is a college-educated black woman.
Alisha Rai, the south Asian author of the three-part Forbidden Hearts series and nearly a dozen other romance novels, has been reading and writing the genre since she was a teenager. She tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about her own experience with readers, publishers and writing about race.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the statement RWA released
It was something, and when you're used to nothing, something is pretty great. You know, I've been writing and publishing for seven or eight years, and every year when these finalists come out, we all just kind of go, "Oh, not again." And nothing happens, nobody releases a statement; the show just sort of goes on without us. I have not always had a great relationship with RWA — I know that many authors of color have not — we felt excluded in other ways, too.
On systemic issues in the genre
I've heard horror stories from other authors [of color] about, you know, sitting at a table at the RWA national conference and people who are there will get up and walk away from them. In a lot of ways, it's like going to a water cooler and being turned away from that water cooler. And when you're in this industry, it's a very solitary life. We write, and we keep to ourselves in a lot of ways; we're a little bit like hermits. And this is our way to see our colleagues, is to go to these meetings and conferences. When you feel like you're not a part of it, it's very demoralizing.
The organization is composed of so many people, it is hard to get everybody together and moving in the same position, and I understand that progress can be slow. ... This is the first year that I've even joined RWA, because I felt sort of a tentative hope that maybe we are moving forward, maybe I wouldn't feel so left out constantly.
On the Pew Research survey and the importance of serving readers with books that match their lives
Even now, when RWA released the statement saying no black author has ever won the RITA Prize, there were a number of comments [on social media] from non-black, non-authors-of-color, saying "Well, it's possible that maybe black people just don't read romance, or write romance," or whatever. ... It's ridiculous to think that when you have stats like that. ... And honestly, my readership is so vast — it sort of encompasses everyone. It's not a case where I only have south Asian readers, because I'm south Asian. It's not a case where black authors only have black readers. We have everybody ... because romance is romance! Love is love is love is love. ... In any of its permutations, no matter who writes it.
On her own experience with publishers
Getting published was pretty tough. My first book was more sort of on the sexier side, and the heroine was south Asian. ... You sort of fall into an internalized trap, all of my characters [before] were always white, and my heart just wasn't in it. So I felt like, this wasn't a book I hadn't see anywhere, so I want to write it. ... I shopped the book around [with different publishers], and I was told to change the characters' ethnicities. "We can take this if you can edit it." ... It is disheartening to hear, "Well, we can't really connect to her, but we can if you make her white."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Let's talk for a moment about a billion-dollar industry - one that outperforms all other books genres and one that is near and dear to my own heart. It's romance. Despite its massive success, the industry has been grappling with a problem that burst into view this past week. The RITA Award, the top honor for romance writers, is awarded by the very powerful Romance Writers of America association.
And this past week, after yet another slate of finalists for that award with a disappointing lack of diversity, the RWA acknowledged its problem with inclusion with a statement saying that in its nearly 40-year history, no black author has ever won the RITA. The RWA has long struggled to be seen as a home for black authors and authors of color in general. Writers like Alisha Rai. She's the author of the "Forbidden Hearts" series, and she came into the studio to talk about her own experience with the organization over the years.
ALISHA RAI: I have not always had a great relationship with RWA. I know many authors of color have not. You know, we felt excluded in other ways in terms of...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, tell me.
RAI: Well, we have nationals, which is a big conference every year. We also have chapters. I've heard horror stories from other authors about - you know, they've been sitting at a table at the nationals conference, and people who are there will get up and walk away. In a lot of ways, it's kind of like going to a water cooler and then, you know, being turned away from that water cooler. And when you are in this industry, it's very demoralizing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess this is surprising, considering the fact that it's not only that the audience for romance is huge. It's that the audience of color is huge for books generally. A Pew study showed that the most likely person to read a book in any format is a black woman who's been to college. So serving that readership with books that match their lives should be something that these publishers want and the RWA, right?
RAI: Yeah. You know, it's - when that study came out, and all these people were like, wow, I can't believe it - even now when the Romance Writers of America released, you know, this recent statement saying, like, no black author has ever won, there were a number of comments on it that said, you know, from nonblack, you know, nonauthors of color saying, well, it's possible that maybe black people just don't read romance, or they just don't write romance or whatever.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: These are comments, like, sort of...
RAI: You know, on social media.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: On social media.
RAI: And I think there's some blog posts and stuff. But it's ridiculous to think that when you have stats like that, where you're told, no, we read in huge numbers. And honestly, like, my readership is so vast. It sort of encompasses everyone. It's not a case where I only have South Asian readers because I'm South Asian. It's not a case where black authors only have black readers. You know, we have everybody.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: 'Cause romance is romance (laughter).
RAI: 'Cause romance is romance. Yeah. You know, love is love is love is love, you know?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, exactly. In any of its permutations.
RAI: In any of its permutations, no matter who writes it or what their marginalized identity is. You know, that's really important in this world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was your experience trying to get published?
RAI: So it was pretty tough. My first book was more sort of on the sexier side, and the heroine was South Asian. And there aren't, you know, a ton of South Asian romance authors, and there weren't certainly at the time when I started publishing about seven or eight years ago. So I, you know, shopped it around and I was told to you know change the characters' ethnicities, make them all white and...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Flat-out told that?
RAI: Flat-out told that. You know, like, we can't really connect to her. But if you make her white - and at the time, like, the heroine was a chef in an Indian restaurant. So it would have been really awkward.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's like, make her white. And she's just really good at Indian food.
RAI: (Laughter) Like, is this in Brooklyn? Like, where is this?
RAI: So I declined to do that. But like, you know, there were comments like, change your name. That's Something...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That, too.
RAI: Yeah. I got told that my name was too ethnic-sounding. So I was like, no, I don't want to change my name. I don't want to hide, you know, my picture for the rest of my life. So yeah. I went to self... I went to small pubs. I self-published for a while. And then my current editor at Avon actually reached out to me, and she really had to reach out to me and be like, I like your work. Let's do something - because I probably would not have otherwise gone through submitting to publishers and agents and all that again because I was doing fine where I was.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So in that statement that we read, the RWA asked for suggestions. And I'm wondering what yours are.
RAI: I think where it can sort of start is people examining what their own biases are, you know, thinking about deeply - and they don't have to talk to us about it. (Laughter) They don't have to come to us and confess their sins or anything. You know, they can just sort of sit with it and reflect on maybe how they read books, and, what is it about certain books that rubs them the wrong way? Is it the fact that it's a marginalized character who's safe and happy and loved? Is that why you can't connect with them? You know, what is it going on in your own head right now that's keeping you from that? And then when they hear stuff that we've been saying forever about people telling us, you know, well, just make your own award. You don't need this one. Like, if they see something like that, call that out. Like, they're your people, right? Like, collect your people. Talk to your friends and your cousins and your family and your whoever. You know, it is uncomfortable, and it's not fun. But I think that's the only way this is going to work.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alisha Rai - the third novel of her "Forbidden Hearts" series, "Hurts To Love You," is out now. Thanks so much.
RAI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.