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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

#RWA2018 and Inclusion

Hi everyone! 

I am YA, and now MG author Barbara Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for adolescents and teens. My tagline tells you what I am about - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them.  My debut middle grade novel, Courage, was recently published by Harper Collins.

Romance circles are going crazy discussing the Romance Writers of America's 2018 conference. Many of the comments centers around the speech on Inclusion given by Suzanne Brockmann as she received a Life Time Achievement Award from RWA. She spoke of things she had kept inside her heart for years under the direction of industry professionals and earlier RWA leadership. That left her torn inside by the internal strife silence had on herself and her conscious.

A lot of people have been saying, Me Too.

So have I.

Racism, classism, homophobia and other isms are rife in the world, and in the romance community. The place where love is expected to conquer all, remains one of the last places in the publishing industry to embrace what "all" should mean. The number of people who walked out while Ms. Brockmann talked about love provides a perfect illustration. Many others refused to applaud at the end of her call to action. Detractors described her words as "out of place" and "political", as if remaining silent in the face of injustice is not in itself a powerful political statement.

A white, bestselling author using her place of privilege to be a true ally and advocate for real inclusion. For an RWA where differences are not just tolerated, they are embraced. For a world where every lover of romance, from any and all walks of life, can find love and romance on the pages of a book.

I first heard of Suzanne Brockmann almost ten years ago when a group of white women readers were talking about their favorite books. Several eagerly informed me and anyone else who would listen, that we absolutely had to read Suzanne’s latest book and the love interest of her gay character.

Say what!?!

Yes, these typical romance readers read about a gay hero finding love, and found that awesome enough to spread the word to anyone who would listen. Meanwhile the author had to deal with industry “professionals” who feared even the mention that her book contained a gay hero would alienate readers.

We are told books with characters outside the mainstream don’t sell. That might have been true in the days when they were shoved in the back corner of a bookstore, a place where most romance readers never ventured. I remember years spend wandering the romance shelves, subconsciously accepting the idea that people of color like myself were unworthy of being written about. I felt forced to either read about heroes exalting heroines with “alabaster skin” or not read romance at all. Eventually I chose the latter.

The industry's decision to segregate romance books by race led me to miss out on many good books. Publishers and bookstores lost a lot of business. Thanks to social media and Amazon, those books are nolonger gathering dust in a dark corner.

Kristan Higgins, the RITA® Award winner in the category Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance, said it well during her acceptance speech.
“The absence of a single African American finalist has shown us more than ever that we have a problem in RWA … Let’s carry the message of inclusivity and openness in our hearts and in our works, because we are Romance Writers, our lives are devoted to imagining a better way and bringing joy to our readers.” 

She added that we can all keep our hearts loving and full of light by reading from a variety of writers of all backgrounds and all experiences. Her words, and the message in Suzanne Brockmann’s speech, is that inclusivity is not about quotas or being “pc”, but about truly representing humanity and reflecting the real-world.

Had a gay or lesbian or author of color made either speech, even more people would have been incensed. I know, because it happened to me recently. I mentioned there was value in including different people who look at the world differently in our stories. That’s a direct quote, (since we conversed via facebook I could go back and check my exact words). Somehow, an author apparently looked at those words and decided I was really saying was that she had to write about repression and segregation. 

Reading fiction is one way people learn empathy. Mirror books let us see and understand ourselves better. Window books give us insight into other people and possibilities, and show us that “the other” is really just like us.

We need BOTH window and mirror books in our to be read piles.

And in our finished piles. Our world is not all white, all cis-gendered, all able-bodied. Neither should the books we read.

Below is a link to a YouTube video of the Awards ceremony. Suzanne's speech starts at the 56 minute mark. To get the hole effect, start at 46 minutes with her son’s introduction.  Kristen Higgins' acceptance speech begins at 1 hour, 56 minutes.  

(I didn’t attend this year's conference, but watching those speeches left me tearing up.)

Bonus: Award winning author Sonali Dev gave the Librarians Day Luncheon Keynote Speech (Click HERE for the audio file) She called for librarians to think about the voices which have been silenced and pledge to help them be heard. Librarians have power when they make decisions about which books to order for their libraries.

Finally, in keeping with the themes of diversity and inclusion, Avon has announced the creation of "The Beverly Jenkins Diverse Voices Sponsorship to cover the costs for an #ownvoice writer to enter the RITA® and/or Golden Heart® Competitions and to attend the RWA conference (registration fee, travel and lodging) in coming years. The application deadline for this sponsorship is February 22, 2019.

PS, I am once again offering my six-week online class on inclusive writing this October. If you are interested, take a look at for more information on class content, and how to sign up.


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Yes! Thanks you for the insightful post, B. A. And I highly recommend your class--hope you get lots of participants!

Judith Ashley said...

Wow, BA!!! Eloquent post. Thanks for the links to the speeches. I applaud the authors who stood up and spoke about inclusion and the many faces of romance, of love. I've wonderful things about your class from people who've attended before. Checking my October calendar to see if I can fit it in this time around.

Maggie Lynch said...

Thank you for bringing this up and sharing the links and audios of the speeches. I was one of those readers who read Brockman's books from the beginning and when her gay character finally found his true love, after several novels, I was ecstatic. I didn't really think anything of it. It all seemed so natural. I wasn't naive about the state of political, religious, and even progressive unrest around the topics of gay love and marriage. But I mistakenly thought it was a small minority of people who were against it and so paid little attention to the problems.

I have heard about the fallout from Suzanne's speech and even some fallout--though it doesn't seem to be as much--from Sonali's speech. What I've learned over the past two years is that there were a lot more people in the U.S. against/afraid of diversity than I ever imagined. The only difference is that now they feel empowered to say it.

I have a question about your course. I do want to write more diverse characters. I do try to include them in my books, but I admit they do not have a staring role because I am uncomfortable with portraying them accurately. A good friend of mine, Canadian and of Chinese descent, has asked me why I don't include other characters. She writes Chinese characters and black characters who live in Canada. I explained that I don't know anyone well enough to feel comfortable representing their experience in the world. I've written diverse characters in my SF because it is futuristic and I can make the world as I like. But in my contemporary romances, my experience is limited. I do truly write what I know.

As a white, cis-gendered, married woman at 64 years of age with little deep interface with people unlike me, I am cautious of all the sensitivities around writing characters that are not like me. Though I have a two gay cousins, a gender fluid niece and an Indian brother in law and a Mexican brother in law, they are all people who live far away from me and I correspond with or hear from maybe 3 or 4 times a year. I love them and support them, but I do not really "know" them in terms of their daily lives and experiences--how they think or feel.

I do know and relate with LGBTQ people in my church. I do know and feel comfortable with people of other races; but I admit to not having any close friends that are unlike me. Not that I don't welcome them, it just hasn't happened. As a person who spends most of her life alone and at a computer, I just don't have a lot of close friends period.

Anyway this is a long way around asking you if your course deals with this dilemma. I don't want to just have token characters for the sake of diversity. I also don't want to portray the life of someone that isn't reflective of their experience. Thus my books reflect my experiences in one way or another.

B. A. Binns said...

Maggie, I make the attempt to cover multiple scenarios. One problem in America is how few of us know people outside our own demographic. As long at that remains true, then authors who insist they can write "anyone" usually end up creating just another stereotype, because that is all they know about members of other groups. I cover the different meaning "research" has when it comes to cultural differences, and try to teach students how to divorce themselves what what they think they know about members of other groups. Part of that includes encouraging them to go out and meet members of the group they want to write about. And I don't mean a "tell me about you people" kind of meeting.

For you I might say you have some connections, use them. Whether you take my course or not, you have the opportunities to deepen your knowledge of other groups all around you. It is hard, even uncomfortable, to make those first moves. Cultural research is so important I use two lessons to cover it. But it does begin with the researcher being willing to step out of his or her comfort zone as the first step.

So if you do take the course, I will be asking you to be uncomfortable in some cases.

Maggie Lynch said...

Thanks B.A. I took a look at the course and the topics are excellent. I've decided to sign up. Thanks for the taking the time to respond with truth and heart.