Sep 12 2013 12:00pm

Author Sugar Jamison on Romance Novels and a Post-Racial America

Dangerous Curves Ahead by Sugar JamisonToday we welcome author Sugar Jamison to H&H—Sugar's Dangerous Curves Ahead is about a curvy girl finding a whole lot of love. It's funny, romantic, and sexy—and yes, the heroine Ellis has a bit of sass. As a romance reader and author, Sugar has read a lot of romance, and has some very good points about what people think when they hear she's a black author. Thanks, Sugar!

A post-racial America. That term has been thrown around a lot since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. Post-racial means a society devoid of prejudice, preference, and discrimination. That all men are finally created equal.

But as Americans are we really there yet? Are we really judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin?

In my opinion, we’re not post-racial. I don’t think we ever will be. Because the first thing a person sees when they look at somebody is their skin color, then their sex, then their clothing. And with those things humans make snap judgments of how they think a person is going to be.

I could go deeply into the sociological, economical, and historical aspects of why America will never truly be post-racial, but I won't. I’m going to talk about romance novels because that’s what I know.

I’m a single twenty-something. I’m college educated. In my real life I teach elementary school in a nice town in Connecticut. My favorite authors are Elizabeth Hoyt, Mary Balogh, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I love going to Maine and have a serious addiction to Project Runway.

Are you starting to form a picture of me in your mind?

Now what if I told you I was black, or African American, for the politically correct? Would your picture of me change? Good for you if it doesn’t. But for a lot of people it does. Especially when people find out I’m a writer. One of the first things my good friend, a white male, said to me when he found out I was being published was, “I can’t wait to read all your sassy black lady books.”

I didn’t respond to his comment because I didn’t want to explain that the heroines in my books are sassy, but they aren’t all black ladies. My books aren’t just for black readers.

When my brother saw the cover of my second book he said, “Why aren’t these people black?”

I looked over to his red-haired, fair-skinned, longtime girlfriend, whom I adore, then back to him and said, “Your girlfriend’s not black either. You don’t see me questioning you about that!”

And then I got an e-mail from a reader who told how much she loved my first book but wished that my heroine was black. She asked me if I planned to write African American romances or interracial romances. That one made me feel guilty. I scrambled to answer that in my third book in that series the heroine is a woman of color and that I do write interracial romances for another publisher.

It almost felt like my blackness was being questioned: ”You’re black. Why don’t you write about black people?“

The simple answer to that is I do. The complicated answer to that is when I sit down to write my books I don’t plan on writing black or white characters. I write the story of the person who is making the most noise in my head at the moment.

Does Sherry Thomas get those questions? “You’re Asian. Why don’t you write about Asian people?” She writes historicals. Not a person of color in them. Are people questioning her?

I don’t think so.

I never went out seeking romance novels. They found me when I was a teenager working in a rest stop on a highway. There was a little stand with maybe ten books on it. Catherine Coulter’s Night Fire was the first one I picked up. Then Jude Deveraux’s The Summer House. Then Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s This Heart of Mine. I never thought about the characters being white or black. I never felt shafted because the heroine didn’t look like me. I wanted a good story. I wanted to get lost in a world that wasn’t my own.

When I decided I wanted to become a writer, I knew I had romantic comedy in my blood. It was authors such as Jennifer Crusie, Kristan Higgins, and Susan Donovan from whom I studied and learned. I haven’t come upon an African American author who specializes in romantic comedies yet. Brenda Jackson and Rochelle Alers were my first role models. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about the great Francis Ray. And while their books are hot and moving and thought-provoking, they aren’t really funny. That makes me wonder—why aren’t more African American writers writing rom-com?

And why don’t we see more white writers crossing the lines and writing more main characters of color? Is that because white readers don’t read books about minorities?

Why can’t I name any Hispanic romance writers off the top of my head?

Why aren’t more ethnic and multicultural books rushing to the top of the best seller charts?

America is changing.

Shouldn’t the color of the authors we see at the top be changing too?

If we were really as post-racial as we’d like to think we are, then it wouldn’t matter who wrote what. We would see all kinds of beautiful mixing and matching in romance novels. Nothing would get in the way of wanting a good story.

Am I wrong? Enlighten me. What are some of your favorite multicultural books?


Sugar Jamison is a Southern belle trapped in a New Yorker’s body. With a love of big hair and high heeled shoes, she spends her day at her very normal day job and night dreaming up sweet and sassy romances.

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K.M. Jackson
1. kwanawrites
Fantastic post. Thanks so much Sugar. I could not agree more. I can't wait to read Dangerous Curves. You are at the top spot on my TBR list now. So glad I already have it. Yay! We do need more interracial, multi-cultural and AA rom-com. Why must the black author always have to write the sassy heroine or be so deep and heavy? Can't we also be the girl next door?
Shelly Ellis
2. Shelly Ellis
Thanks so much for your honesty, Sugar. In the early days, when I wrote books about non-black protagonists, I was asked by an agent once, "Why isn't she black? I thought you were a black author?" It frustrated me and made me wonder why I was being painted into such a strict box as a writer. After awhile, instead of being frustrated, I embraced it. Black fictional characters can be sexy, funny, insightful, and wry. But I hadn't seen too many examples of that in my favorite works and therefore thought I had to have a non-black lead to have that type of character. If the industry was going to place these rules on me, then I would find a way to bend these restrictions. Fine! I'll make her black! But she's an every woman who could be just about any color.

I wonder though if you would speak about the commercial reality of being a black writer who writes romance about black characters versus one who choses a wider racial cast of characters. That being that you definitely open yourself up to a wider audience when, as a black author, you chose to write about nonblack protagonists. The same for Asian authors and so on. There ARE black authors who write romantic comedies with black protagonists but their sales are limited and they're often relegated to self publishing because the industry doesn't believe that there is a market for it. How do we change hearts and minds so that IF you decided to do a black heroine in your curves series, it wouldn't be seen as "Ooooh, that's so groundbreaking! I wonder if people will buy it"?
Anna Bowling
3. AnnaBowling
Great post, Sugar, and I wholly concur with writing the story of whichever voice in one's head is making the most noise at the moment. People are people and stories are stories.

Let's Get It On by Dyanne Davis has wonderful sparks between Pakistani doctor, Hamid, and African-American nurse, Heaven.
Shelly Ellis
4. Ridley
I'll admit to wishing POC authors wrote more POC romance. I don't think anyone should feel obligated to do it, but there's such a dearth of romance featuring POC couples and I don't have a ton of faith in your average white author's ability to examine her privilege and move beyond stereotypes.

In a perfect world, we'd stop excusing white authors when they resist writing POC characters and wring their hands about doing it right and tell them to figure it out. After all, if you're worried about causing offense, you must be worried you're unwittingly racist. Wouldn't you want to fix that about yourself? I know I do.
Heather Waters
5. HeatherWaters
Thanks for sharing this, Sugar. I know it gives me a lot to think about. I'm not a writer, so I'd never thought about the pressures of writing specific types of characters. I do know that I would feel the same as you: Why shouldn't I be able to write whatever characters I want to write, when I want to, without feeling bad?
Jennifer Proffitt
6. JenniferProffitt
I think you're right that you write the character that is speaking the loudest in your head and you tell their story. Not dictate that you are a black woman and therefore have to write a black character. That being said, romance, in particular, is very white-washed and so including more diversity is always good thing IMO.

For the most part I feel that white writers might shy away from writing a person of color because of a fear of offending those very same people that they are trying to represent in their book, as @Ridley said. I think the best way of evening the playing field and adding more people of color into everyday romance is to not make a big deal about the fact that they are a person of color—a heroine who is Asian without the issue of the book being that she's Asian, etc. Any time someone says "I'm going to add in " then that's when it becomes an "issue book," when at the end of the day it would be better to add in a character that just happens to be . Issue books have their time and their place and are necessary to opening up a dialogue about these topics, but I don't think it's necessary that every black author write black characters, but nor should they shy away from them just because those books won't sell as well. At the end of the day, regardless of the color of the skin of the characters or authors, readers want a truly human experience and story, and that's what will sell books and that's what will endure.

Also, why must a black heroine (or even just secondary character) also be sassy (as your friend said) when a white heroine can be anything? This post reminds me a lot of the discussions that happened when Rue was revealed in The Hunger Games film. Suzanne Collins never strictly specified that Rue was black, white, or something else, but there was a huge outcry when they cast a POC in the role.

Finally, Sugar, I loved your book (read it in one sitting) and I am so looking forward to reading the rest of the gang's stories!
Sugar Jamison
7. SugarJamison
@Jennifer Thanks!
I do get really annoyed with the sassy black side kick. Why can't she be nerdy or shy or just plain regular old friend? I wish writers didn't shy away from including more people of color in their books even if they are secondary or very minor characters. I think children's book authors have it right. When I read to my class the pictures in the books have kids of every nationality and there are kids in wheelchairs and in casts because thats what the world is really like. That's what my classroom is like.
@Shelly I'm sure there are black authors who do romantic comedy but I don't know of any. I asked around. Nobody could lead me to one. I think that was my point. I didn't see any AA romantic comedies published by major publishers. I hope one day we we'll see some more.
@Ridley I think white authors wouldn't have to worry so much about offending people if they just write POC like any other person. As a black person my cultural backgroud and history may be different BUT I am a person just like them. All of us are just people.
Shelly Ellis
8. Belle Calhoune
Wonderful, thought provoking essay, Sugar. I agree with you on so many points. I too grew up reading romance novels and I never felt cheated that there weren't a lot of people who looked like me. For me it was all about the romance. Thankfully, writers like Brenda Jackson, Sandra Kitt and Rochelle Alers turned the genre on its head and started writing novels that reflected the diverse world in which we live. Having published two books featuring African American heroines I've ventured out as an author for Harlequin Love Inspired and just published a book featuring a white hero and heroine. For me, it wasn't any big deal. I come from a racially mixed background, and although I consider myself a person of color, I also feel I can write all shades of romance. Sadly, I have heard that a lot of white readers don't care to read books featuring black characters. My next Love Inspired has an African American coast guard as the hero and his love interest is a woman of color as well. I am praying that readers embrace it, because I do believe that the story and the characters are what truly matter.
Shelly Ellis
9. Seressia Glass
Well, I can tell you why I haven't written a rom-com: I'm not a rom-com person. I prefer to read stories with angst and snark, and that's what I write.

I've spent the last four years writing UF and paranormal romance with Egyptian characters in diverse hues. People picked up the UF series because my heroine is black (African, British, and something paranormal.) I knew my jackal shifters would also present as diffferent hues but I did get emails asking if the characters (particularly the heroines) would be black. Some are, some aren't and so far that seems to be well-received.

I've just sold a contemporary series to Berkley and I passionately hope that no one cares that the first book has a white heroine with a Japanese-Scots hero. Or that the second book has a blonde haired, blue-eyed burlesque dancer heroine. Or that the third has a black goody-two-shoes heroine with a naughty streak. I just hope people will buy and enjoy the stories.
Shelly Ellis
10. Corrina Lawson
Sugar, thank you for this wonderful and heartfelt post that raises issued that need to be raised in romance. I'm so sorry there's this extra expectation that happens because an author is African-American or Hispanic or Asian-American.

In 2004, I had a long conversation with the lovely Karen Harbaugh, who is Japanese-American, about there being no Asian heroines in romance. I said what Jennifer said above, that maybe white writers (as I am) were reluctant to write them for fear of getting it wrong, and she pointed out that we write men, yes?

She was right.

So when I sat down to write my next book and sketched out my characters, I asked myself why I went to the default "she's white," and I had no good answer. That character turned into Beth Nakamora, for Phoenix Rising, which is my best selling book to date. It was a matter of doing research as I did for any other character.

And, more, it was a matter of adjusting my closed mindset. I'd grown up in a time when women weren't allowed to do certain things and rail at the lack of good female characters in movies and yet I'd unconsciously had a setting in my brain which turned all my characters white. Not right.

We're not in a post-racial world but hopefully people speaking out, as you have and as Karen did to me, helps bring about change.
Patricia Wilkerson
11. Proofreaderpat
Thanks for the great post! Shelly Laurenston has written several of my favorite multicultural books-Go Fetch,Beast Behaving Badly,The Beast in Him,and Hunting Season. I can honestly say I don't know what race Ms.Laurenston is,and I don't care. She just writes very funny paranormal romances. Suzanne Brockmann (who is caucasian) wrote one of my other favorite novels Harvard's Education,which has a black hero/heroine.
Shelly Ellis
12. Jamie Wesley
First of all, post-racial America doesn't exist.

I come at the issue of what I, an African-American writer, should be writing, differently than Sugar. It is very much a conscious decision on my part to write black characters because black characters are so underrepresented in the genre. How do I expect things to change if I don't do my part?

So far I only have one book contracted, so it is possible my perspective may change if or when the publishing world tells me no one wants to read my black characters. But knowing how stubborn I am, I'm not expecting that to happen any time soon.

I'm certainly not going to tell someone what to write, but I have wondered why non-white authors, Sherry Thomas included, aren't writing about people who look like them. :) But ultimately I let it go because I don't want to tell people what to write, nor do I want anyone telling me what to write. It's your book, not mine. Do you.

I agree that I don't give a flying flip what characters look like when I'm reading books. SEP is my hero. But I also feel like that part of the reason I feel this way is that I didn't have much choice but to feel this way. As movies, TV shows, and books have shown us since they were they invented, white is the default and it is up to me, as an African American, to relate to the characters. The reverse is not true. For the most part, white people have no reason to relate to black people/characters if they have no desire to because we aren't represented.

And I fear I've written a tome, so I'll stop.
Megan Mulry
13. MeganMulry
Loved this:

"The complicated answer to that is when I sit down to write my books I don’t plan on writing black or white characters. I write the story of the person who is making the most noise in my head at the moment."

My sentiments exactly: they're so noisy! I'm writing an interracial couple now because...they were secondary characters who started to fall in love in my previous book and now they just won't shut up until they get their own story.

Thanks for a great post.
Shelly Ellis
14. Donnarb60
Fantastic dialogue!!! I take hits because I don't read "urban" lit. I love SEP and Suzanne Brockmann and Diana Gabaldon, who all write some of the richest characterizations of people of color!! I do read Beverly Jenkins, Sandra Kitt, & the occasional Brenda Jackson. Their characters talk like me! And their struggles are realistic, not the urban thuggery that so many are drawn to.
Shannon Johnson-Trimm
16. shaytrimm
I can't wait to read your book, and I thank you for sharing all this! I also started reading romance as a teenager, with primarily white heroines. When I first started playing around with writing, I wrote black couples because I was imagining myself with my dream guy. Perhaps this is what people expect, that the couple in a book will reflect the author's desires somehow.
Emily Peros
17. bluish383
I write sometimes and often agonize over what my main character should be (to the point that I usually stop writing) will people be mad if I write this character as a white male? Am I messing up if i make this person of mixed heritage, do I need to explicate the ways in which they are not white? Should I give this character more diversity becuase we need more diversity in our fiction...
As a reader i often imagine characters looking different from their descriptions and in fact i prefer books that don't spend too much time outlining every physical characteristic of their characters so that I can create them how i want them to be...
Its a struggle certainly, and definitely a converstation that is happening throughout publishing in general
Ellen Hutchings
18. shadowmaster13
I am a special kind of colour-blind when I read. I picture all the heroines looking like a brunette and heroes as tall dark and muscular. I only notice skin colour as not being white when the author explicitly says so, usually far enough into the book that I feel silly for not "getting" it sooner. That said once or twice is enough. It seems forced if the description is repeated, just like if the author tells me repeatedly that the heroine is gorgeous.
Shelly Ellis
19. Wendy W Durden
I bought your book because the blurb interested me. I read it. I LOVED it! And it didn't mean a thing that a black writer wrote a white heroine. (I didn't know you were black when I bought it, and it wouldn't have impacted the purchase either way) It mattered that a WRITER created a character that I enjoyed and could really understand. Her skin color (author or heroine) was irrelevant. Her personality and growth did! So, Sugar, you wrote a great story and I have wishlisted the next 2 because your writing spoke to me. Too bad everything is analyzed as color related.
I never cared if the characters were black, white, asian, orange, beast, whatever. I cared that their story spoke to me, and I cared about what happened t0 them. That is what a good writer does. Makes you care. Makes you laugh, cry, commiserate, get mad, and most importantly makes you think. Of course, the laughing part really gets to me, hence my unnatural addiction to Shelly Laurenston/G. A. Aiken's stories. Because she just cracks me up! And her characters are all over the place. White, black, hispanic, shifter, urban, country, the lot of them are hilarious and I wallow in that.
A good writer makes the character and plot matter more than any description of the physical aspects of them. In your case, Dangerous Curves' heroine has a physical aspect that defines her character and so a description was essential. But skin color wasn't it, it was the heroine's self image and how others perceived her physical image. In this current "image" climate, weight is more impactful than skin color, at least IMHO. You nailed it.
I am not a writer, so I can't speak to that, but every author blog/interview I have ever seen or heard echoes what was said above: you write down the characters who are shouting the loudest in your head. And I am pretty sure they are talking about their stories, not their skin color. Each author brings to life those characters in a way that seems true to them, and who are we to say because you are a black woman in America, you have to force those characters to mirror you? You, as the author, can only bring them to life as true to the voice you hear. If they happen to be black, so be it. If they are male, so be it. If they are gay white girls, so be it. It's their voice you hear, so you know best who they are. And all I can say is so far, your voices are fun and heartwarming and I like them. Please continue as you have begun, writing great stories with well-rounded (no pun, really) characters.
Shelly Ellis
20. slfoster01
Shelley Laurentson's shifter stories- they're all rom-coms with thrills and chills and other serious going on: Blayne is a reccuring character who had her own story in Beast Behaving Badly and ends up with a big, blond polar bear (shifter)! Then there's Miki, a full human genius, with a penchant for all things combustable, who's love is a viking, wolf shifter. And Angelina Santiago, another full human Texas girly girl, who falls in love with a unabashed hillbilly tiger shifter from NC. You want interracial/interspecies romance? read anything by Shelly Laurenston! After awhile, you forget about race/color/creed/ethnicity and the like because, well, just because they are good rolicking, stories.
Jennifer Proffitt
21. JenniferProffitt
Just recently found this article on Buzzfeed about writing "The Other" (whether that's male writing females, white writing a person of color, or anything else), and I thought it would be a good supplement to what we talked about here.
Shelly Ellis
23. ami granada
When I was in my teens, I have read Western stuff, all heroes and heroines white. Perhaps I have gotten used to that so it didn't matter to me. Now that there is more culturally diverse choices, I get to read them all. It's good that you can write anything you want to write.
I write romances (NA) and steamy also. My characters are Filipino but I hope to write ASian heroes and multi cultural romance. Great topic.
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