Chances are that by now, you’ve seen a picture of me. (No? Check out the About Me page.) You’ve probably also seen the covers for my upcoming book, A Marriage Worth Saving. I love them. There are a few reasons for that, but the main is because the cover models look like me. More importantly, the characters in the book look like me. It took me a long time to get to that point, and I’d like to share the story of how I did in this post.
When I started writing romance, I was relatively young. I’m also South African and I’m not white. All of this made me a minority. I dealt with that in different ways. First, I kept my age to myself. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity because I was, as I’d heard much too often in my life, too young. Second, I wrote a book set in South Africa. The publishing industry in SA is small, and publishers tend to focus on publishing romances written in Afrikaans (one of SA’s official languages). Romance is quite popular here, but romances in English, another of our official languages, tend to come from overseas. As an English romance reader then, I didn’t read many books set in places I knew. It seemed natural for me to fill that gap, and I happily did so in my books.
I didn’t approach writing about race in that way though. In the first two books I wrote, I purposefully obscured the race of my characters. Or so I thought. I remember sending the books to my friends and them responding with “why don’t the characters look like you?” I hadn’t even realised that the descriptions I had used were associated with white characters.
But why wouldn’t they be?
The only books I’d read with characters who looked like me were specifically about race, and that wasn’t what I wanted to write. I wanted to write romance, and I’d read very few romances with characters who weren’t white. When I did, they were African-American. I’d never read a romance with a mixed-race heroine or hero. Never. (I’ve read thousands of romances from different sources, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t reading the right books. They just aren’t as prevalent in mainstream romance.) So when I started writing, I didn’t know how to write mixed-race characters in this genre.
This was problematic for me because – surprise! – mixed-race characters are the same as any other characters.
Their romances are the same, too. I know this because I am mixed. I’ve had a “mixed-race romance”. But because I hadn’t been exposed to this in the books I’d read, it somehow made me believe that writing a romance with mixed-race characters would be different and more difficult. Moreover, I didn’t think a publisher would want it, so I didn’t really refer to skin colour in my first book with Harlequin.
Needless to say, the cover of The Tycoon’s Reluctant Cinderella used white models.
There was nothing wrong with that, of course. And I wasn’t surprised or disappointed by it, though I did feel a slight unease in my stomach. I thought about young me and what it would have meant to see someone who looked like me on the cover of a romance novel. I thought about what it would have meant to read about someone who looked like me in a romance.
And I think I was a little disappointed in myself for not stepping up for young me.
Especially because, despite my feelings about it, I still hesitated to write a book with characters who looked like me. I only really considered it when my publisher called for more diverse romances. It was the permission I seemed to have been waiting for. And so, for A Marriage Worth Saving, I wrote mixed-race characters. And it felt really good. I could finally relate (the hero wouldn’t be pushing his hands through the heroine’s hair because curly hair = stuck fingers = not very romantic ? ). I thought about the young mixed-race people who might read this book and hoped that they could finally relate, too.
And when I saw the covers of A Marriage Worth Saving, that uneasy feeling in my stomach settled. There was a heroine on the cover of my US version who had curly hair like me. There was an attractive man of colour on the cover of my UK version who looked like the men in my life. Sure, these covers do still look like my characters are in an interracial relationship, which they aren’t. But I still see it as a massive step forward. My publisher supported me enough to create covers which reflect diversity as far as possible with the resources they have.
It also represented a personal victory.
I’d recognised the need for more mixed-race characters in romance, and was in the position to, in my small way, contribute to addressing that need. Many others are, too, and I hope that with these efforts, someday, reading a book with people of colour as main characters – and seeing the cover of a romance novel with people of colour on it – won’t be so strange anymore.