I am hopelessly in love with romance books, but unfortunately the feeling isn’t mutual. The majority of main characters in romance novels are white. As an Asian-American, the lack of characters of color in romance novels is both discouraging and disappointing. For Asian-Americans in particular, the lack of diverse representation is especially jarring given the stereotypes surrounding both genders. Asian-American females in the media are portrayed as exotic, or even submissive, while the men are often perceived as less masculine than their white counterparts. To have characters of minority groups in prominent roles in romance books would not only break down harmful stereotypes, but also give all readers someone they can relate to as well. Luckily, some books do feature strong female protagonists of color, while others have an extensive array of diverse characters that make up the entire cast.
One of my favorite authors ever, who I just discovered for myself earlier this year, is Mariana Zapata. Slow-burn romances The Wall of Winnipeg and Me and Kulti both have fiercely strong and independent Latina heroines. Vanessa Mazur and Sal Casillas, of Winnie and Kulti, respectively, are each incredibly complex characters who aren’t afraid to fight for what they believe in. In Kulti, Sal’s Hispanic heritage shines through in interactions with her family—especially her hilarious father—and the banter between her and Kulti. The fact that Sal speaks in Spanish with her father at times, rather than English, may not seem like a big deal. But in fact, it’s another facet of individuals of color’s experiences not usually represented in the media, much less romance novels. Many of my own friends speak to their parents in either Chinese, Korean and so on. Whether it’s easier to convey what they want to say by speaking their family’s native tongue, or to have some semblance of privacy in the company of others, being bilingual is a crucial part of minority groups’ experiences.
Novels in the young adult genre have the some of the best representations of diverse characters. Rainbow Rowell’s young adult romance Eleanor and Park tells a brave love story between two high schoolers working to overcome their individual obstacles. One of the aspects I loved most about this book was Park’s internal battle with his Asian identity. Half-Korean and half-white, Park isn’t the most accepting of his Asian heritage. Park’s struggle to embrace his Korean identity is one all too familiar for myself, and something I was incredibly happy to read about in a romance book. Learning to be proud of my Vietnamese culture is something I continue to struggle with today. In a world where the dominant story is one that centers around a white protagonist makes it hard at times to believe that individuals of color’s lives are just as valuable experiences.
Fortunately, authors today are writing and creating amazing worlds with more intricate and ethnically-diverse characters than ever before. Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles series and Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows span countries and galaxies. The characters truly represent the world they live in. From France to New Beijing to Ravka, the impact their cultures, upbringings, and heritage are clearly evident in their personalities and relationships with others.
In Meyer’s fantastic series, her characters are a range of ethnicities. Not only is Cinder half Caucasian and half-Asian, her love interest Prince Kai is Asian as well. Furthermore, Princess Winter is black and of Lunar descent. All three are extremely well-developed and complex characters, with strengths and weaknesses that balance one another out to ultimately triumph over evil. The villain Queen Levana is white, and with powers unique only to Lunar, holds only utter disdain for anyone Earthen. She views herself as the epitome of beauty and perfection, thus perceiving anyone else—especially cyborgs and mutants—as burdens on her ideal utopian society.
Embracing and exploring one’s own and others’ cultures makes for incredibly unique and fascinating love stories as well. Seeing how two individuals from completely different backgrounds fall in love is one I will never tire of. Love is universal, and should be conveyed as such in the stories published in today’s diverse and ever-changing world. Romance isn’t limited to only white individuals, and it’s time the publishing industry represent the love stories of all people of all colors.
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