Asian American authors (and characters) are steaming up the world of
A reader of romance novels since she was 10, Katherine Greyle was making
a name for herself as a writer of humorous romances set during England’s
Regency period when, a year ago, she discovered that the hunger for
romantic comedies had waned. The Champaigne, Ill., native had to find
a new idea and fast.
So, like so many writers, the second daughter of a Chinese mother and
Caucasian father delved into her background and wrote White Tigress,
a mystical romance between a Caucasian woman and an Asian man during
19th-century Shanghai. Sounds natural enough, right?
Sort of. For every Greyle, who was encouraged by her editor and agent
to write a romance using her Chinese background, there is a Sabeeha
Johnson, who has been told her romances are not Indian enough. “What
I wanted to do was bring the focus to Asians living in this country
and show that we are no different from anybody else on the inside,”
says Johnson, who was born in India but now lives in Virginia. “I
wrote a novel about an Indian woman who falls in love with an American
man. Harlequin said no. I was told, ‘you can make a blonde woman
fall in love with an Asian of any kind.’ That was two years ago.”
She continues: “Last year, I wrote a chick lit romance with an
Indian woman who is 35. Her father is Indian; her mother is not. It
went through about four editorial meetings. They all loved the story.
But they said it didn’t have gods in it. ... It’s too much
of a stereotype. I personally don’t have a goddess who I talk
Girl and boy fall in love. Some conflict comes up to drive them apart.
But somehow, love conquers all and the two end up happily together.
That’s the basic structure of a romance. But within this formula,
there are endless variations. There are the paranormal romances, which
can involve creatures like vampires and werewolves or powers like telekinesis.
There are stories with a healthy dollop of mystery and suspense, even
sex so hot that Penthouse could learn a few things. There are romances
that take place in the past or beam readers into the future. There are
tales of love that are inspirational, even Christian in substance. And
thanks to the success of Bridget Jones, there is chick lit for adults
and chick lit for tweens and teens.
Not surprisingly, the romantic genre is big business. According to
two studies commissioned by the Romance Writers of America, a nonprofit
association of romance authors, romances make up one-third of all popular
fiction sales. That is more than literary fiction, more than mystery
What has been slow to change is the inclusion of characters who are
racially and ethnically diverse. In the past five years, African American
romances have established a firm foothold. And given the Latino population
explosion, Latina romantic fiction has been making inroads in the past
The outlook for Asian and Asian American romances, however, is somewhat
bleaker. Some experts argue that it’s because the population numbers
simply do not support a huge number of romances with Asian or Asian
American themes. Others say the crux of the problem is the formula.
“We read romances because we want to feel good about love,”
says Tess Gerritsen, a bestselling author of medical thrillers who began
her career in romances. “So in order to do that, the reader must
identify with the heroine. If she doesn’t identify with an Asian
or African American heroine, she won’t pick up the book.”
Still others say the industry just doesn’t know how to market
to the audience. Sales of Playing with Matches, a 2003 anthology of
modern Asian American romances written by Greyle, Johnson, Cathy Yardley
and Karen Harbaugh, didn’t compare to those with African American
characters, in part because “it was marketed as a cultural window
for non-Asians looking for a glimpse into Asian culture, rather than
being truly marketed towards Asians,” says Yardley.
“The publisher didn’t promote it,” adds Johnson.
“If they had promoted it and announced that two or three more
were coming, that would have helped.”
However, it isn’t all bad news. Like any romance, there is always
hope. The popularity of chick lit has made room for more Asian American
heroines. Sonia Singh concocted Goddess for Hire, a story of a California
chick who is the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. Next up for
the Avon author: Bollywood Confidential.
Yardley, who is of Vietnamese and Irish descent, has written two novels
with “a major Asian character. My next novel, Turning Japanese,
is about a half-Japanese, half-Italian woman who moves to Tokyo to try
to become a manga artist. It’s definitely the most Asian-prevalent
novel I’ve written so far, and it addresses themes I think are
important about race and culture.”
Then there is Monica Pradhan’s The Hindi-Bindi Club and Kim Wong
Keltner’s Dim Sum of All Things. Avon author Keltner will be coming
out with Buddha Baby in September 2005.
Success may be easier in chick lit because the audience, say experts,
tends to live in cities and thus is more comfortable with a multi-cultural
“Traditional romance readers skew older,” says Avon senior
editor Lyssa Keusch, who edits Singh. “Chick lits are more urban.
That’s why [ethnic romances] are landing more in chick lit. And
the focus is different. Romance focuses on romance. Chick lit focuses
more on the female character and has a broader scope. She’s dealing
with work issues, sibling relationships, mother-daughter relationships
— it’s much broader.”
Yardley agrees: “I think that chick lit readers are more urban
and, consequently, more exposed to cultural diversity and interested
in seeing what universal woman’s experience is embedded in the
specific cultural experience. That is, they’re interested in seeing
what an Asian woman’s take on life is, but they also can relate
to the same things that every woman has a problem with, like dating,
relationships, body image, what have you. Straightforward romance fiction
tends to be more homogeneous because people are looking for the love
story, and they want it to be familiar and comfortable. They have strict
expectations, as a general rule, and they want to be able to relate
to it closely, as if it could happen to them.”
But traditional romances are slowly injecting a little color into their
narratives, too. Greyle, who is writing her Asian romances under the
pen name Jade Lee, has been encouraged by the reception so far of White
Tigress. According to her Dorchester editor Chris Keeslar, it had a
respectable printing of 50,000. He hopes the next book, Hungry Tigress,
will do even better.
Erotic historical romance author Susan Johnson, who became fascinated
with samurai culture after reading Cloud of Sparrows, published in 2004
Pure Silk, a romance that takes place in 19th century Japan. She plans
to write a sequel, about the two sons of a Japanese princess and her
American husband, in the future.
Harbaugh, whose mother is Japanese and father is Caucasian, is hard
at work on a paranormal love story set in Japan during the 1600s, while
still writing paranormal historicals that take place in 16th century
France. The Japanese romance is expected to appear in an anthology about
dragons slated for 2006.
Meanwhile, Asian American authors like Greyle, Yardley and Sabeeha
Johnson will continue to try to sell their take on Asian American romances
because, as Johnson says, “we have to look to the future and see
the browning of America.”
Johnson’s belief that America is “browning” is right
on the mark. After all, according to the U.S. Census, the Asian American
population climbed from 6.9 million in 1990 to 11.9 million in 2000,
a jump of 48 to 72 percent, an increase attributable in part to the
fact that the Census allowed respondents for the first time ever in
2000 to identify themselves as part Asian and part another ethnic group.
So publishing companies, take note.