The Sunday edition of the Times of India dated April 21, 2018 carried a feature article on the challenges faced by Indian-American writers of romantic fiction. Among those covered in the discussion was Falguni Kothari, wife of Ajay P. Kothari and daughter of Saroj and Narendra K. Mehta, whose latest novel ‘My Last Love Story’, was recently released in the US and India.
Palanpur Online reproduces the article for the benefit of readers.
Mary to Mili: Love lit now has desi colour
Ketaki Desai | TNN | Apr 22, 2018, 00:15 IST
With heroines who cook a mean dal and heroes who are ready to embrace the big fat khandaan, aunties and all, Indian-American authors are making a dent in the ‘too-white’ romance genre
Can you make one of the protagonists Caucasian?’ The question flummoxed Indian-American romance writer Sonali Dev when she was pitching her debut book, The Bollywood Bride, to one of the Big 5 publishers in 2011. “It didn’t strike me how wrong it was at the time. I thought it’s just par for the course,” says the Chicago-based writer, who has since published four books.
Dev’s story is far from unique to Indian-American authors looking to break into the romance genre with lead couples who aren’t ‘all-white’ . Alisha Rai, a romance novelist known for her bold heroines, has a similar tale. In addition to being asked to change her character’s ethnicity, the author was asked to change her own name to one that would be more “white-passing”.
Getting published is not easy for anyone, but the struggles faced by authors of colour are distinct. The issues range from doubts about whether readers will relate to a protagonist of colour, to cultural nuances that editors and publishers do not get. “Finding publishing houses that are open to Indian authors and Indian stories involves convincing a lot of white people, ‘We’re just like you’,” says Suleikha Snyder, author of four contemporary erotic romance novels and an advocate of diversity in the genre.
Indian-American authors are often pigeon-holed into literary fiction — due to the success of authors such as Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri — and aren’t taken seriously as writers of romance.
Shobhan Batwal, a six-time romance and social drama novelist, recalls her search for publishers in the mid-2000s. “I was not sure if my kind of Bollywood-ish fiction would appeal to American publishers. Typically the American publishing industry and readers expected serious literary fiction
from Indian-American authors,” she says. So getting published was not just a question of staking claim to a genre for oneself but also for one’s entire community.
Dev, who started her romance writing career in 2011, noticed the same phenomenon. “Indian-Americans are all expected to be Jhumpa Lahiris or Arundhati Roys. While I respect them, commercial fiction is really the heart of the masses,” says the Mumbai-born author, whose novels read like Bollywood-style romances. In Dev’s A Bollywood Affair, the heroine Mili Rathod works on her dal to please the man she was promised to as a child. Enter the handsome Samir (who makes a meaner dal), and she swoons.
One would think such scripts would work well at least with desis hooked to Bollywood but you’d be surprised. Mumbai-born fantasy and romance author Falguni Kothari says, “Indian-American readers tend to like literary books. Their tastes are a little elitist. They say, ‘we wouldn’t read romance’.”
While looking to get published, Kothari was told her book and her characters were “too Indian” and niche. Kothari’s My Last Love Story is about Simi Desai, a 30-year-old whose dying husband encourages her to rekindle a romance with an old flame.
She recalls a meeting with a literary agent where a quota system for authors of colour was discussed. “She told me that if Jhumpa Lahiri was pitching a book and she sent my book to the same editor, mine would not get picked.” When she explained how different the writing of the two authors was, she was told there were quotas and that “they filled up the quota of the Indian-American author”.
Dev, too, refers to this system. While she has nothing but positive things to share about Kensington Books and Martin Biro, her editor at the time, she says the fact that she pitched her debut book at the same time another Indian-American author was retired enabled them to publish it.
While the writers acknowledge the strides the publishing industry has made in the last few years, there is a long way to go. Ripped Bodice, a US-based bookstore, collected data from top publishers in the romance fiction genre, and found that a dismal 6.2% are authored by people of colour.
A true reflection of diversity would necessitate radical changes in the industry. First, it requires diverse hires at every level: from editors to upper management. As Kothari says, in order to be published one needs an acquiring editor to champion one’s book, and people don’t champion books they don’t fully understand if they don’t get the cultural nuances.
She says the motivations of an Indian character aren’t completely comprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the culture. “They ask ‘How can she react like that? She’s a strong woman’. Yes, but a strong woman in India can be hesitant about certain matters like love and sex,” she explains.
Secondly, intervention is required when it comes to sales. Rai says the current sales model “is trying to sell something they think won’t sell which is a terrible way to sell anything”. Rai, who has got good reviews for her Forbidden Hearts series, steps away from the formulaic Indian romance with a cast that is as diverse as the world around her. NPR, which described Hate to Want You as “soapy but substantial”, calls her Pakistani-American Sadia a badass heroine.
Dev adds that by not pushing books by authors of colour at popular stores such as Walmart, Target and Barnes & Noble, the industry is keeping itself from creating new markets.
But, just as in a good romance where the couple fights the odds, these writers will continue to battle to ensure diversity in stories of the heart. “I grew up reading white, western love stories because that’s all we had,” says Suleikha Snyder. “I don’t want that for the generations of brown readers after me. I want them to be able to celebrate our dreams and our passions. We deserve love just like anybody else.”
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