We Look the Same on the Inside: A Guest Post by Audra North

Today I have the privilege of welcoming back “friend of Wonk” Audra North back with a personal essay on race, reading, writing, and romance. Take it away, Audra!


I’m a mixed-race kid. A hapa, born in the late ‘70s, back when kids like me weren’t really a “thing.” Whatever that means.

My best friend and I are too busy having fun to care that we come from completely different backgrounds

My best friend and I are too busy having fun to care that we come from completely different backgrounds

I got mistaken for pretty much everything, except what I was. Like…adopted. Or Puerto Rican. Or Korean, because, you know, we all look alike.[1] But it was all kind of fine, because I just assumed that everyone had all these cool different traditions in their family, just like I did, and it didn’t matter whether they gave hong bao on Chinese New Year and ate Grandma’s famous fried chicken on the Fourth of July, or if they opened presents on Christmas Eve with one side of the family but opened them on Christmas Day with another.

I thought everyone realized that there were these differences, and that they were cool. That there were these differences, but that the stuff that really matters—the stuff inside—is the same.

My first serious boyfriend was African-American, the son of Kenyan Muslim immigrants. It didn’t occur to me that this was a “Problem.” Because you know what? It wasn’t. To us, to the people who were in it, it wasn’t a problem. For so long (until I was in college, really), I didn’t really think of myself as being Chinese, or being German. I just thought of myself as me, and equal, and capable of the same depth and degree of love as everyone else.

It doesn’t matter your color. Love looks the same. It doesn’t matter your culture. Love feels the same. It doesn’t matter your religion. Love—real love—is the same.

Having said that…lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what I read and write, and how single-culture so much of mainstream romance is.  I should clarify that I am not saying that multicultural romance doesn’t exist.  It does, and there are excellent works out there. Just not in the same proportion to the number of mixed relationships I see around me.

The funny thing is, I didn’t actually notice this imbalance for a long time, precisely because I never thought that much about what people looked like. The underlying love always looked the same to me, no matter what its outer packaging. So when I finally realized that I the demography of my life wasn’t actually represented in corresponding rates in mass-market romance, it was a surprise.[2]

And then I started wondering, why don’t more of these stories exist in the mainstream, when love supposedly looks the same inside of everyone? Had I been wrong about it looking the same? Or was it impossible to believe that “Other” romances didn’t belong, despite the melting-pot American culture that we were taught in middle school history to revere and uphold as the ideal Society?

Buddhist monks in the 9th century rocking multiculturalism

Buddhist monks in the 9th century rocking multiculturalism

In the end, after I started reading with a new awareness, I felt like what was missing, for me, was romance about everyday multiculturalism. The kind that lets an Indian woman give love advice to her Venezuelan best friend over coffee. The kind that lets a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman find the best kind of comfort at the end of a hard day at work in the arms of her Black husband. The kind in which no one is a billionaire (or even a mere millionaire), but works as a dental hygienist or an automotive engineer.

The kind that a reader can finish and think, That love looks like the love I give and receive. Those characters deserve all the happiness in the world for the good that they bring to it.

Of course, everyday multiculturalism is not just about race. Yes, often it is represented through skin color.  But in reality, it is about the diversity of all our lives, whether bringing together Black and white, or Irish and French, or a Kenyan-Muslim-American and a hapa in the rural South. It is about romance that reflects the entirety of our lives, which cannot be separated into individual parts.

SIDE NOTE: I get that culture, skin color, sexual orientation, and religion will inform the romantic choices that the characters make, and in that the story—the journey to love—will be different for every character. And readers might not like those choices. That’s okay. Not everyone has to like the same thing—this isn’t what I’m saying. But to deem it invalid…to cast every story featuring a lesbian or a Thai man or a devout Jew into the Bucket of Irrelevance borders on the insane.[3]

Also, here’s a tip: Don’t read the one-star reviews of biracial romances. Just don’t.[4]

I am sure there will be people who read this and think, Oh, she’s hallucinating.  Overreacting.  There’s nothing wrong. There will be others who think, She’s not radical enough!  How dare she not blow things up the way they deserve to be blown up or cover every single possible objection in this one blog post?  And I know that there are so many others who will say this better than I ever could.  Who already have said it better. But my point is that we don’t all have to agree. I’m also not saying I’ve never experienced racism, that I didn’t feel excluded from certain things because of my looks, or that I was cast into a particular mold by others because my dad is a Scary Foreigner.[5] But what I am getting at is that we don’t all have to like the same thing. It is that we should not invalidate, dismiss, or shoot down and stomp on The Other.

Okay. End side note. Where was I? Oh, yeah. The entirety of our lives, and what really matters.

When I was nine years old, I fell in love with a boy named Fidencio when he defended me against fellow fifth-graders who were making fun of me for being younger and smaller than everyone else.  Fidencio was twelve years old, then, and understood what it meant to be the “wrong” age.  And then, I fell out of love with him three years later, when he said something sexual to me that destroyed my view of him as a savior, because I was twelve in the eighth grade and so self-conscious about still being a child amongst my adolescent peers and he was about to turn fifteen in the eighth grade and so self-conscious about being a man amongst his adolescent peers.  But the point is that I didn’t fall in love with him because of his accent or his lovely dark skin or his migrant worker parents. I fell in love with him because he made me feel like I mattered, and it was when he made me stop feeling that way that I fell out of that love.

I want the number of stories like this to grow to representative numbers in the mainstream (well, maybe not the falling out of love part, but the part about someone seeing you as a person who can give and receive love just like everyone else) about the kind of people I know.  The kind of people I am. I want more stories that reach beyond the stereotypes and show the internal workings of the clocks that measure our lives. That show that underneath everything else, our love looks the same.

If you’re interested in reading more examples “everyday multicultural” romance works, check out the following authors: Cecilia Tan, Serena Bell, Alisha Rai, Robin Covington, Heidi Belleau. This is just a short list off the top of my head, and I’d welcome other names and titles in the comments section—for everyone’s benefit!

Audra North fell in love with romance at age thirteen and spent the next twenty years reading as many romance novels as she could.  Even now, after having read over one thousand romance novels, Audra still can’t resist the lure of a happily ever after, and her collection continues to grow.  She lives near Boston with her husband, three young children, and a lot of books.  Her debut contemporary novella, STRANDED IN SANTIAGO, releases in Autumn 2013 from Entangled Publishing.  Visit her website at audranorth.com or find her (way too frequently) on Twitter @AudraNorth.

[1] I’ve heard that some people actually believe this.

[2] And by “surprise,” I mean “disappointment.” But also actually a surprise.

[3] I’m no longer sure whether I’m talking about romance novels or real life. Hmm…

[4] Unless you have a strong stomach and/or are trying to practice your skills of forgiveness.

[5] My dad is one of the least scary people, ever.

This entry was posted in Guest Post, Writing Wonkomance. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to We Look the Same on the Inside: A Guest Post by Audra North

  1. Amber says:

    Hah, good call about the one star reviews.

    The thing is, being mixed like you, any relationship I could be in would be interracial. So when I’ve heard interracial relationships discussed as “is this a thing that is okay?” it’s like, this is not a choice for me. It’s my right to love and be loved and even exist that’s being thrown up for casual debate. Not cool.

    Anyway, I have complicated thoughts about race in romance, but being represented more would be a good thing.

    • Audra North says:

      I was just saying on Twitter to Jill Sorenson that I really struggled with this because, like you, I have complicated thoughts about race in romance. But for me, it’s both that I don’t think there’s any one way to approach it as well as that every time I say something, I have to resist the urge to disqualify it as not a complete representation of The Other. Of course it will never be. I don’t know why I feel the urge to justify my words by diminishing myself.

      I don’t know if you saw this super informal survey on my blog, but what I got out of the results were that it isn’t just the readers’ world that isn’t being proportionately represented in romance. It’s the authors’, too. I’m going to speak only about myself and cop to something that I’ve started questioning–which is that, yes, I am a romance reader, but I’ve moved into the additional space of content creation and am not always creating works that reflect my view on wanting more multiculturalism in romance. That’s on me and that’s not okay, but it seems as though one part of my brain took a while to catch up with the other.

      • Cate Ellink says:

        Thanks for a thought provoking post, Audra.
        As a boring Aussie with nothing but Aussie for generations, married to the same, I don’t have any experience to write anything but a boring Aussie-Aussie story! Even having dated other people gives me no real clue as to their side of life.
        But I love reading about other people and other cultures and other lives. I love trying to understand life. I love seeing life through another’s eyes.
        I’ve read Elizabeth Dunk’s Arranged to Love, with an Aussie guy and a girl of Indian heritage.
        Write more of these stories, please. I’d love to read them!
        Cate xo

        • Audra North says:

          Thanks, Cate!

          “A boring Aussie with nothing but Aussie for generations, married to the same.”

          First, I highly doubt that you are boring, if for no other reason than that you are reading Wonkomance. :)

          Like I was commenting to Amber, I always feel I have to apologize for saying things about how it feels to be a mixed-race person and to try to have conversations about race. I’m always trying to somehow justify my viewpoint by lowering its importance.

          Half of my family is American and Caucasian, who have married only American, Caucasian people. These are family members whom I really love and who love me back, who have deep, rich lives that are meaningful and generous. The way their lives has turned out is due in part to the circumstances of their upbringing and in part to personal choice, but the “at-first-glance homogeneity” of them really does not invalidate them as people, nor does it make them boring.

          All of which to say that I’m not at all chastising you for saying you’re boring; rather, I’m trying to say that I am worried about sending (and don’t want to send) the message that not-multicultural is boring or wrong. Not at all.

          On the other hand, I am boring just because I don’t do that many cool things, but not because of my race or nationality… :)

          • Cate Ellink says:

            Thanks Audra. I used ‘boring’ when I should have used some other word, like ‘sameness’ or something. But thanks for addressing that.

            This post has had me thinking for days now. Maybe I should get out of my comfort zone and write different stories too. It’s been a great topic, thank you.

            I love the Wonk posts for opening my brain and blowing on the dust and cobwebs :)

            Cate xo

  2. AJ Cousins says:

    This was a terrific post, Audra, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty on the ball with gender issues (four years at a women’s college will start you in the right direction) and I assumed that my race/diversity (not the same thing, I know) savvy was pretty good too. Then I started reading more intentionally on the subject & learned how much I didn’t know. A blogger named MaryAnne Mohanraj has consistently been my source for clear thinking and links to further reading and I can’t emphasize how much her essays and blog posts and speeches have educated me. Now, starting writing again after a long gap, I’m much more aware of wanting the books I read and the books I write to reflect the everyday multiculturalism in my life.

    I think a lot of my favorite authors are very consciously working to increase the diversity in their books/the genre as a whole. Some of them are Caucasian, writing characters outside of their own personal background (I remember the first time I read Suzanne Brockmann books where the hero and/or heroine were black or Latino or gay) and some are writing their own experience. It took me months to realize that although I loved reading what Suleikha Snyder said about diversity on Twitter, I hadn’t actually read any of her books. Now I’m having fun with Bollywood stories, which fits perfectly with my love for Indian literary authors.

    So I’ve been getting better at expanding my reading to reflect the diversity in my life, but my brain still defaulted to white when I started writing. Strike the past tense. I default still, now. But I am aware of it and trying to fix that. I talked about this with my 9yo kid the other day, how without any specific description, most Americans imaginations default to white when reading about a character. And I mean people of any race will default to white…it’s scary how our culture imprints this so strongly on us. I just read a blog post by a teacher whose black students dress up nearly exclusively as white people for Halloween and when asked to write a story, they all write about white people unless he specifically instructs them to “write about people who could be in your family”. And yes, when I start writing a story, I almost always find myself writing about white people. And not even white people who reflect my frigging experience! My people are Polish/Scottish, ex-Catholic, middle to upper middle (depending on the year) class suburban youth, urban adulthood white people. Instead, I end up with these generic white people of no particular cultural or ethnic background, bland as paste. And I don’t want to do this anymore.

    But it’s scary, I freely admit, to venture into new waters. First, I wrote a m/m NA book, because I had a story I really wanted to tell and addressing QUILTBAG issues is more in my comfort zone. But when I looked up, I was still writing about white people. In the two ms. I’m working on now, I have Latino and Asian American characters. Main characters, not secondary ones, which is where I had always let my diversity show in the past. And I know I’m going to screw something up, or write something that will not resonate with someone. I am researching my ass off and will ask my friends who can speak to these experiences personally to read for me and call me out where I get it wrong, but I know that I will still fuck up. And when that happens, I will need to listen and learn. I’m also aware of and uncomfortable with the privilege of being a white person writing other races, whether that eases my path with publishers or readers, as does happen. I hope I can balance this by referencing the authors whose books opened my eyes to the possibilities.

    You are absolutely right that what I want to see in books is the everyday multiculturalism that exists in my life. I want to read characters who are Catholic/Protestant/Jewish/Muslim/Hindu/agnostic/atheist, who are gay/straight/bi/queer, who are African American or Nigerian or Creole, who are Indian American growing up in the suburbs or Pakistani-born expats living in Hong Kong going to British schools or Korean American Baptists living in Salt Lake City, who are Nicaraguans living in their country’s capital or a Panamanian married to a Spaniard living in Chicago or an undocumented immigrant college professor of dentistry from Mexico working in a restaurant while learning English or a Puerto Rican whose family has been here for a hundred years longer than mine, or even white people who aren’t whitewashed. Yes, this is the kind of everyday multiculturalism I want to seeing more in the books I read and the books I write. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Apologies for the horrendously long comment!

    (I blew right by the class/money issues, because it’s time for me to shut up now, but YES, THAT TOO.)

    • Audra North says:

      I love you, AJ. Also, I do have a lot to say in response, so for now this is kind of like a placeholder because I am still thinking…. :)

    • Audra North says:

      Okay, so…okay. I just dropped the kids off at daycare and was about to go for a run, but I was thinking about something in the car and then got even more thinky about your comments and so here I am.

      The owner of the daycare, which is actually her house where she takes care of a few kids, is Chinese Indonesian. And I kid you not, my daughter looks at the family photos that the owner has on her wall in the house, points to the owner and says, “That’s Mommy!”

      Which…before you think I’m supporting the idea that we all look alike, I’ll explain. :) I’ve gotten to know E (we’ll call my daughter this) over the course of her two years of life, and I’ve realized that, despite how much we like to be out in the world, her caretakers have been primarily of Asian descent. And what I believe is that, when she says things like, “That’s Mommy,” what she means is that she has come to associate the way that I look and the way that the owner looks with a certain role in her life, which is “Mommy”-esque. (Please know that I recognize that I am probably doing some insane projecting, here, for whatever that’s worth.) Anyway. It really struck me to see in a way that hit very close to home, just how early these categorizations are formed, and how difficult it must be for all of us to break away from preconceived notions as we get older.

      Which is then to say that, along the lines of what you mentioned–that you are making a conscious, active choice to expand your point of view, is both respectable and not easy.

      Why do I say that? Because it’s not. I agree with you that there is white privilege in the world and that we should not ignore it. But I also want to say that changing something so deeply-rooted in society and in self is not easy. And I say it because I appreciate that people out there are willing to do it. Being non-white doesn’t excuse me from learning more about others and becoming more aware, just as it doesn’t excuse white people. But it’s not easy. So, yeah. I respect anyone who takes those steps toward a bigger view.

      Speaking of…thanks for the great MaryAnne Mohanraj link!

      And that also reminds me of the Heidi Belleau piece on Wonkomance a few months ago about writing outside your comfort zone.

      I like living in this time. It’s a time of opportunity and a time of potential. I’m fairly certain that could be said about a lot of times in history, as well, but I like that I, as a non-white person, can not only say what I think in a public forum amongst incredible, successful, generous women and fellow writers, but that I can say what I think despite that it is not always in support of the status quo.

      But, I digress. There is still much work to be done. I love the idea of everyday multiculturalism. It’s relevant. It’s a choice and it’s not easy, but it’s also exciting and rewarding and beautiful in the way of so many other difficult choices.

      • Audra North says:

        P.S. “generic white people of no particular cultural or ethnic background, bland as paste.” Okay. Um, sorry, but I have to say no to this. Not saying “no, you shouldn’t write other races and cultures,” but that we shouldn’t associate not writing other races and cultures other than white as bland. Writing can be bland, absolutely, and it might happen in a story about white people, but I get worried when I hear any race being associated with a quality that diminishes the individuals that represent such a broad label. Any race. The goal here is not to make anyone hate or disparage themselves. I, myself, have already admitted to trying to break my way out of that particular negative habit.

        P.P.S.I’m going for that run now.

        • AJ Cousins says:

          Oh, I totally agree with you. Just didn’t express it well! What I meant was something either Natalie Goldberg or Anne Lamott (I think) described in one of their books which was that even when you write “white people” it SHOULDN’T be generic, it shouldn’t be bland. Because there’s huge difference between a Catholic girl from Queens whose father was a lawyer and a lapsed Lutheran from Chicago whose father was a carpet-layer (my parents!). But when I’m starting a story, before I get my head out of my ass and really THINK about the characters whose stories I’m telling, I find myself writing about these generic white placeholders who are indeed bland as paste because they’re not real people at all yet. So, I guess the moral of the story for me is that I should maybe do a little more thinking before I start writing… :)

          • Audra North says:

            Ha ha! Well, for what it’s worth, I love your writing. And, oh, religion and religious background and religious differences…I have a feeling this might be my next post topic. :)


  3. Fiona McGier says:

    I write romances about characters. When I’m beginning their stories I focus on the relationship first…the color/nationality of the heroine/hero second. I’m very proud to write stories about people who are “real”…not a billionaire among them. And they have real-life problems which they have to solve before their HEA. I was immensely flattered to have one of my books up for an Angie Award, for multi-cultural and inter-racial romance books. I didn’t win, but here’s the link to the winners’ page:

    There are some familiar names here, authors like Delaney Diamond who works tirelessly to promote inter-racial romances. Hopefully if we all keep doing this, it will cease to be an issue. But it is one now, so we have work to do. Opening minds isn’t impossible, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Making people aware they have choices is the first step.

    • Audra North says:

      Fiona, congratulations on your nomination! And thank you for sharing this. I do encourage everyone to follow the link and buy some of these authors’ books, if you haven’t already.

      “Making people aware they have choices is the first step.”

      I completely agree with this. I think the key word is choices, too. Like AJ was saying, when people default to white, it’s almost an unthinking reaction. Bringing thought back into the process, making it a choice, is something that the discussions going on all around the web and in the romance community are encouraging. At least, this is what I believe. The more we know, the more choices we have, and that’s so powerful.

  4. sofia says:

    Thanks for your post. I think that the more romance stays away from everyday realities the greater disservice it is doing to it’s readers especially the young ones. By creating a seperation between reality and romance we are building walls which shouldn’t be there. If we got a message to share why should we find it wrapped in make believe (wealth, class, special circumstances) which serve only to separate us further from the original message.