Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday Talk-Time- Romance Sans Frontières

The Pink Heart Society is delighted to welcome Shoma Narayanan - the first Indian Mills & Boon author to be published overseas - who shares her perspective on diversity in category/series romance. 

Hi, I’m Shoma, and I write romances for Harlequin/ Mills & Boon – I’ve just finished my sixth book for them (yaaayy!).  My books are set in India, and except for one book which has a half-British hero, they all have Indian characters. 

So – romance in different cultures.  It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the last three years, ever since I started writing.  My first book was also the first Indian romance to be published overseas, and I’m so thankful my editor, Anna, didn’t tell me that the book was going out of India – if she had, I’d have botched it up completely, trying to ‘explain’ India between love scenes. 

Anna’s British, very patient, and a complete sweetheart to work with – she read through pages and pages of notes where I’d tried to give context to things like why my super-hot, alpha male hero would consider an arranged marriage.  Then she gently explained how the story could work without bringing in the parents, neighbours and the whole extended family plus dog.   

(Note: As anyone who’s ever watched a Bollywood movie would know, all super-hot, alpha male Indian men have scarily perfect moms, who choose well-behaved, obedient wives for them.  The pretty heroine always has a gun-toting dad and both of them have several wicked aunts and uncles).

As it was, it was a bit of a fluke, my getting into romance writing, because I initially trained as an engineer, and then ended up doing an MBA and becoming a banker.  The broader implications of being the first Indian writing for Harlequin globally hadn’t really occurred to me.  It was only when I spotted my name coming up in blogs as an example of a POC writing mainstream romance that I realised there was this whole debate going on about  the lack of cultural diversity in romance writing. 

It took me some Google-time to figure out that POC meant ‘person of colour’ – I’ve lived my whole life in a country where everyone is some shade of brown, and it wasn’t a term I was familiar with.  But when I read some of the posts by South Asian readers who’d grown up in the UK/ US, I realised that they’d felt alienated growing up, because there were no books/ movies / TV series starring South Asian characters.

Rather surprisingly, this particular aspect hadn’t struck me before.  When I was growing up in small-town India, there weren’t too many Indian authors who wrote light fiction in English, and we were used to reading books about English and American characters.  To us, the blue-eyed British heroines were quite as exotic as the Greek, Spanish and Italian heroes.  I remember finding the books with Arab sheikhs a little puzzling – my dad was a college teacher, and at that time, had a lot of Arab and African students.   I was used to all these tall Arab boys wandering in and out of our home – they bore absolutely no resemblance to the sheikhs in the books! 

Many years later, when I’d just started working, the penny dropped.  I was in London on training, and a perfectly charming young man called Tim Something-or-the-other beamed at me and an Argentinian trainee and said, ‘It must be so exciting for you guys, living in exotic countries!’  And there me and Diego were, so happy to be out of boring India/ Argentina, and in lovely, exciting, slightly-damp-and-drizzly England…..

I guess what I’m trying to say is that part of the lure of romance novels was that the characters were so different from the people we were used to.  I guess that works the other way round as well – a lot of my non-Indian readers have written in to me saying how much they like getting a glimpse of normal life and romance in a different culture. 

India’s a pretty complex place, and for a country that produced the extremely explicit Kamasutra some two thousand years ago, it can be alarmingly conservative.  So while most women I know between the ages of sixteen and sixty read romances, they’re a bit secretive about the whole thing. 

When I was in school and college, most of the books I read were bought second-hand/ borrowed – romances weren’t published in India, and the imported books were hideously expensive.  When I think about it now, I feel terrible about all the royalties the poor authors lost – every Mills and Boon book that India imported was read by at least twenty six people!   Now that the books are published in India, they’re more affordable, and I think a lot more people actually buy them firsthand.  The secrecy continues though, and I’m regularly asked if I ‘write under my own name’, and ‘aren’t romance novels all soft-porn?’  (Yes, I do, and, no, they’re not!)

Why are so many people anti-romance-writing anyway?  Partly, I think because romance novels are written for women – so men diss them as a matter of policy, and women are a bit embarrassed to admit they read romance.  Then of course, they’re escapist fiction, and make people uncomfortable because they’re ‘unrealistic’, and ‘a bad influence’, especially for young readers. 

So maybe they’re unrealistic, and a bit formulaic.  But so are thrillers, and detective fiction, and vampire novels…..  And the main objections against romance novels – that they’re regressive – is no longer true.  Romance writing has evolved a lot, and the best-written ones have very strong female characters.  My response to people who diss romances is to ask them when they last read one – and then recommend a list of books to read!

What I’d love to read is more mainstream romance set in different cultures.  And cross-cultural romance – that’s a huge untapped area with a lot of scope - people from different countries meeting online or even when they travel on work… Perhaps slightly challenging, because of the potential minefields, but would make for very entertaining reading!

What aspects of diversity would you like to see more of in category/series romance?  Do you have a favourite cross-cultural romance?  #JointheDiscussion and let us know in the comments!

Shoma Narayanan's latest book, Twelve Hours of Temptation, is available to buy right now:

The best mistake of his life?

Being chained to her desk is not how copywriter Melissa D'Cruz envisaged spending the night before her first major awards ceremony. No Cinderella moment for this award nominee--instead she's facing a night of deadlines! But Melissa is determined to get to the event...she just has to work out how....

New boss Samir Razdan catches Melissa burning the midnight oil and offers to drive her to the event himself. But the minute they set off Samir knows he's in trouble--because being this close to Melissa is already driving him crazy, and they've got twelve torturous hours of temptation ahead...!

To find out more about Shoma and her books, you can visit her website or follow her on Facebook


  1. Lovely post, Shoma! I think it's wonderful that authors like you are bringing more diversity into our romance novels - we need it!

    I personally enjoy getting a glimpse into other cultures when I read, I suppose being from Australia (specifically Melbourne which is probably the most multi-cultural city in the country) I've grown up being surrounded by people with different nationalities, religions, cultures and languages. I love seeing that diversity reflected in my reading material.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a great post. I am one of those South Asian heritage people who grew up in the U.S. My parents came here in the late 1950s. I was born in Maine in 1964. My siblings and I were one of the few, this was well before the influx of Indians seen now.

    We definitely need more diversity in our entertainment. My children are bi-racial but the South Indian genes are dominant in both of them. Unlike my sister's kids who you wouldn't know are half south asian and get a lot of gruff for their names, my sister used to be mistaken for their nanny, that didn't go over well! ;^)

    The US is "browning", not to mention more and more bi-racial people are populating the landscape. The entertainment industry is going to have to adapt if they want to stay relevant for the changing market.

    Thanks for the great post Shoma.