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TOP: Author Kim Wong Keltner BOTTOM
LEFT: Sonia Singh BOTTOM RIGHT: Katherine Greyle.




Katherine Greyle/aka Jade Lee photo and White Tigress photo courtesy of Katherine Greyle.

STORY Lan N. Nguyen


The Color of Romance

Asian American authors (and characters) are steaming up the world of romance novels.

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 to.”

***

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 thrillers.

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 two years.

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 world.

“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.


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