This is a hard blog post to write.
As you can probably decipher from the title, this is a continuation of my post on imposter syndrome, and today I’m delving into the difficulty of writing romance as a woman of colour.* Specifically, as someone who was born in Canada, grew up in Canada, and participated and was raised in mainstream North American culture.
When we began this anthology project, it was the inception of the collective as well: Eighteen-Eleven writing together for the first time. I was incredibly attuned to the fact that our group was special. Special, for one, because when Alicia had the idea for a romance anthology, this group of people was so willing to step out and write about the incredibly universal but also intimate topic of love. I was also aware of the fact that we were “diverse” – a coincidence, but still, somehow, a characteristic of the whole that made us special in another way (special, for example, when applying for grants).
And while the quote-unquote diversity of 1811 is a conversation for another day (or never, because, honestly, that’s what the world is like), I found that it meant something to me that women from different backgrounds were sitting down to write romance. Because, you know what? I never had. I know I’m a woman “of colour” (in a broad, non-historical sense of the phrase), somehow, abstractly, but until I considered myself as part of the whole, this whole, I hadn’t realized I was a writer of colour. And the two most challenging things about this project were writing genre romance and writing with the awareness that we were writing as a group of “diverse women” – and, at least for me, the struggle with both of those concepts were inextricably intertwined.
I love romance. It was The Princess Diaries that sold me. The movie, first. My dad rented it for my sister and I when I was eight; he’d assumed it was about Cinderella, and so I found myself understanding at that young age that this genre, this teen movie love story, was just Disney for teenagers. Teenagers being the coolest possible kind of person on earth. In other words, I was totally sold. And so begins the history of my unhealthy relationship with heteronormative, racially homogenous romance.
… many of the books I was reading, in spite of the bad rap YA often gets, were nuanced, socially conscious, insightful – as well as riotous, engrossing, silly, fun. They were just. all. white.
Before I was even a teenager myself, I’d found my way into the equivalent literary genre: YA lit, where there was even a Princess Diaries BOOK SERIES. Meg Cabot changed and shaped my perspective of what romance was, how it worked, and, most importantly, who got to reap the benefits. Her stories are full of self-aware, hilarious women who managed to suffer the painful embarrassment of puberty and unpopularity and still come out the other side with a boyfriend. All of these women, of course, were white. As was the genre, largely, or at least the portion of it represented at my local library when I was 12 to 16 years old. The hard thing is that many of the books I was reading, in spite of the bad rap YA often gets, were nuanced, socially conscious, insightful – as well as riotous, engrossing, silly, fun. They were just. all. white.
I don’t think I noticed it. If I did, I definitely didn’t care – why would it matter? Even in the past couple of years, when Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians were getting so much positive press for making an effort (regardless of whether inclusion takes “effort”) towards representation in media, I didn’t think it affected me. I believed – I truly, truly believed and supported and was excited about these movies and what they meant, while also secretly, inside myself thinking, “I’m glad I grew up so aware of what the media was doing to my body image” (I did a public speaking assignment about anorexia in seventh grade, which is the qualification I was citing mentally) and “I’m so glad that I grew up in a multicultural neighbourhood with friends from different backgrounds, and that I wasn’t affected by whitewashing in media.” Ha. Are you laughing at me yet?
And then I saw this piece of Harry Potter fanart: a depiction of Hermione as a woman of colour, with some of the most badass hair I’ve seen in my life. And suddenly, this was me: in tears on a public bus, because I’d never felt so cheated in my life. This was the Hermione I needed desperately growing up, the Hermione I wanted to be, the Hermione I dressed up as for the midnight launch of The Order of the Phoenix in grade three. This was the Hermione I was cheated out of.
Okay, I know Black Hermione became canon later. I also know that I’m not Black. But the Hermione in this picture was me. Me as I saw myself when I was growing up reading those books. When I was nerdy, and a know-it-all, and had the worst frizzy hair you can imagine (representation for curly girls!!), and I knew deep down that I was Hermione, and that I could be like her. Over time, though, that changed: it becomes harder to see yourself as a character who is so widely known, especially when there’s a canon pop culture image/actress assigned to her, especially when her hair became glossy… and, suddenly, I didn’t have access to her anymore.
So it was very important to me, as I sat down to write my story for the anthology, that I considered representation. For some other frizzy, non-white Meg Cabot fan who might or might not someday read my story. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, 1811 is a collection of diverse women writers – whether we’d planned that or not (we didn’t) – and it was this group that had provided the opportunity for this very special thing. I wanted that special.
It wasn’t easy. I had never sat down at a keyboard, or with pen and paper, with that specific part of myself, that part that is not only a person and a writer but also of colour. So, back to the anthology: I’ve called this to mind and I’m in my basement at my desk trying to write genre fiction. And I’m stressing about diversity in media and bemoaning my non-frizzy Hermione, hyper-aware of my part in all this, and… cue Realisation #2, not to be underemphasized: every other character I’d written in my life was white.
What? Are you kidding me? I can’t even begin to express the shame I felt when I recognized my own whitewashing. In my own art. Talk about imposter syndrome. I didn’t even qualify to be a character in my own mind. Whitewashing in media was so prevalent that I’d effaced myself, my own identity. Did I identify with whiteness so starkly because my connection to my cultural heritage is tenuous? Maybe. Because I’d been surrounded by white characters for so long that it became my mental, imaginative default setting? Definitely.
I mean, I knew I wasn’t white. Then again, there are bits of this that make so much sense to me: when I first moved away for university, I was rooming with three other women, all of them awesome, all of them white. I studied English and Humanities – and most of my new friends were white. More than once, I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and be surprised at the colour of my own skin. Like, Oh, right, I look like this. And with that recognition of self came doubt, always: do I belong here?
There’s a whole book of essays, or at least a lot of money in therapy, here, but I’m going to move on. (With a shout-out to the patient, wonderful people who listened to me working through those thoughts at that time, and heard me, and didn’t judge.)
I can’t even begin to express the shame I felt when I recognized my own whitewashing. In my own art. Talk about imposter syndrome. I didn’t even qualify to be a character in my own mind.
I just need you to know that I sat down at my laptop with a lot of baggage. It was personal baggage, and it was hurting my writing and hurting myself. That body image I’d thought I was so on top of? Sure, I had a relatively healthy relationship with food – but also thought that, by definition, I could never fulfill society’s standards of beauty/popularity/worth. In the same way that hiding the truth is a lie of omission, I was never told outright that a brown person couldn’t be the main character, the movie star, the center of a story. But I also never saw it happen. Omission, silence, absence are still positions, and ones that quickly become ingrained. Never stated, but accepted – this is worse, actually, because a lie can be contested, but a hidden truth doesn’t have a face to confront.
I was (and am) a short, curly-haired, brown girl. That’s not attractive. That’s not heroine material. (Also, to build the damage, as a straight woman I’ve been socialized with the same standards towards men: beauty is only skin-deep, but that skin should be white.) Obviously, I want to say I’m more evolved than that – and I 100% am – but those values are pervasive, insidious, buried in my subconscious, and they like to attack me when I’m self-conscious. (Now you can relate again, right?)
What it means to me to be a writer of colour: I don’t want to take up space, but it’s imperative that I do.
Maybe you see that baggage on the page, and maybe you don’t. What became important to me was not to write the love story I wanted (to answer Alicia’s blog post), but the only love story I felt I could.
It took some time (and, I’ll say it again, some really fantastic friends) to help me work out what “diversity” meant in my own work. When I was nine, I’d go into detail about what my characters looked like (if you’re curious: usually they had blonde hair and blue eyes, or red hair and green eyes, if they were special, or brown hair and brown eyes, if they were “interesting”). I hope I’m a better writer now, and, perhaps quite obviously, I don’t feel that such description adds to every story. Instead, I made a conscious effort to have characters like me, characters who grew up with my hang-ups, my insecurities, and at least some of my baggage in addition to their own.
So, in my contribution to the anthology (“Point Pelee”) – I won’t say too much about it; you can read and interpret it on your own – it was important to answer the question of how I got lost in the first place: where do I begin and end? Where can I find myself in the shuffle?
And, as a private inside joke to myself, it plays on one of my favourite romance novel tropes, those stories that occur in small towns criss-crossed by networks of kinship: I wrote myself an account of it in the real world, because we are in the real world, in Canada, a place where place matters so much, where setting and nature and landscape often take us over. And place matters to me because I was born somewhere my parents weren’t from. So maybe those small-town kinship wires are more crossed than they seem. And, finally, though you might not read this on the page, my heroine, Maria, looks like me.
The funny thing is, I’ve doubted whether that story should be included in the anthology. After all, it leaves pretty much all of the conventions of romance at the door. But if it isn’t romance, it’s definitely about it. And in trying to justify its inclusion – to an invisible reader – I’ve found a kinship with myself. Writer-reader. Because it is a story I wrote for me; I’m all over it, and every time I try to break it down in my head, I learn something new about myself. For once. I won’t apologize for that.
*We like to define our terms. In the interest of political correctness… “visible minority” is the term that was used most widely in Canada while I was growing up, and I guess currently. “Woman of color” and “person of color” have historically been used solely for African-Americans. More recently, the term has been adapted (or appropriated) by mainstream media for all groups of, well, visible minority.
I dithered over whether to change all the instances of “of colour” in this article for the sake of correctness, but to do so would be to exclude even more options from the vocabulary I can use to talk about myself, to be even more elliptical about expressing the fact that I’m not white. So, that’s what I mean by “of colour.” I mean that I’m not white.