Guest Author: Vanessa Riley on Gatekeepers and Who Gets to Decide

Hi friends! Please welcome Vanessa Riley to ALBTALBS!! I first began emailing with her back in early January. We were hoping for February, but she was swamped with deadlines, she sent me the post in May (APAHM!) so … here we are now! Yay!

Who Gets to Decide?

The Bittersweet Bride by Vanessa Riley Book CoverI’ve been a romance reader all my life. It’s been my refuge, my happy place. When I wanted to try my hand at putting the stories running rampant in my head on paper, I went to a Romance Writers of America conference. I saw Kristan Higgins up on stage. I was close enough to see the tremor in her cheek on the big screen when she described her readers, the love affair she has with them and how they tell her how one of her books touched their lives. The woman made me cry, right atop my half-eaten salad and rubbery chicken. I remember thinking I want to do that, write romances that matter. I’m one of those lives, one of those women who has needed romance novels to make it through the night.

You see, to keep my sanity, I’ve read romance between calculus finals. To block out the sounds of my parent’s marriage disintegrating, I read Beverly Jenkin’s stories of people, people like me, finding love, building towns and fighting to keep their unions strong. While dear hubby was deployed, I read tales of peace. When good old Dr. Fine told me to sit down and do nothing, for your health and that of your babe, I poured myself into women’s journeys who were active and kept moving, like Heyer’s who fell out of windows or dozens of others wonderful author’s like Eakes, Milan, MacLean, and Klassen who kept me swirling in ballgowns. Even in a hospice room listening to a clock tick away, my eyes drifted to my kindle app to escape.

So, yes, I am unashamedly a romance reader.

And now I write stories, and I hope that my words might offer comfort or encouragement to someone going through rough patches. I decided to do this. The journey hasn’t been no crystal stairs. Gatekeepers pop up with sledge hammers to shatter treads and tell you to go home. Gatekeepers like the status quo. They want you to believe that different narratives don’t sell. They make some fight and go to crazy lengths to stop competing stories from being published. Light must be shined to expose darkness. I decided to name these gatekeepers.

Gatekeeper #1 – The DNA Minders –Get those blood tests before you write.

There are some who believe that if you don’t share the bloodlines of the character you wish to write, you are disqualified. I disagree. If you do the homework, do all you can to inhabit the skin of your hero or heroine, then write, write like the wind. And for the record, I’m a mutt. Due to enslavement and migration and luck, I’m Irish, Hindu, African, and Afro-Caribbean. Lucky me. So, I can write anything, you gatekeepers. Side note: Does being born again mean I get to write paranormal? Just wondering.

Gatekeeper #2 – A more established writer should do it. Diversity is a trend you know, like a secret baby.

If more established writers want to write diverse stories, they will. And those who heart the journey of a person of color as opposed to the pressure of a vague publishing mandate or checklist, will do a great job. But their stories aren’t mine. There is room for more narratives.

But take heed. No one gets cookies or pats on the back for accidently marginalizing or maligning any group. Forgetting to do homework, relying on stereotyping, otherizing, or just taking a Caucasian character and giving them a tan to create a person of color might not work for today’s reader. It could offend. In fact, it could rally the righteous brigade to announce their displeasure, loudly, everywhere. I’ll pray for peace and make popcorn and watch another teachable moment being created. I have four degrees. How much more book learning does one need? Save space in my brain. Write responsibly.

Gatekeeper #3 – Lack of Knowledge –Vanessa, everyone knows that the history was not diverse. You’ll were just slaves, right?

Then, there is the follow-on logic: Why would you want to right about slavery in anyway? That’s so two hundred years ago. Sigh. Unfortunately, many get their view of history based on what’s been published or what they see on television. Prior Gatekeepers have been successful in showing history in ways that brings comfort to some masses, but often overlook the truth. And when you show something different, some will offer opinions that I call RDD, “Rebecca Disdain Disorder.” RDD is where a person of perceived authority questions the portrayal of history, admits to disdaining the presentation of the history, then admits later to not knowing the history which was the bases for his or her “not ringing true” commentary. I cringed when I read this review of Alyssa Cole’s Extraordinary Union.

Caption: AAR Review of Alyssa Cole’s Extraordinary Union.

Caption: AAR Review of Alyssa Cole’s Extraordinary Union.

It is okay not to like something. Just own your personal biases and leave room for the possibility that you might be wrong. Don’t succumb to RDD. Note: Ambien does not cause RDD.

Attention Gatekeepers. The wild west, Roman and medieval times, Colonial America, Europe, The West and East Indies—all were diverse. Relationships and inclusion varied.

I particularly love the Regency because of its inclusivity of persons of color. The Regency was diverse in race, class, and wealth, but Gatekeepers like to package it with a big white bow, bleaching it of color, sanitizing history. History Gatekeepers allow you to see:

  • The heroism of the crusades, not the slaughter of innocents.
  • The good mistress churching her slaves but obscures the nature of enslavement–the torture, the killing, the intimidation.
  • The valiant ship captains rescuing enslaved women, but never showing the enforcement of concubines to the victors.
  • The genteel duchess using her money for charities, with no hint that the family loot originated from the enslaved labor of the sugar plantations.

The Bashful Bride by Vanessa RileyYou get to decide what you wish to believe, the truth or blind and/or lying eyes, but I will scream at the top of my lungs of the 10,000 free blacks living in London at the time of the Regency, the Moors, the Blacks in the royal courts of Russia and Portugal. Peoples of color have been so much more than kings and queens of Egypt (BC), then missing until slavery in the Americas (AD).

Skeptics can now go to Google, ask for my homework, see my website, and or request copies of my Ph.D. Now granted my Stanford doctorate is in metallurgy, but the majority of my electives were in Western Civilization. Does knowing the martensitic structure of laser heated steels discount my historical research?

Now you may side with me about the history thing since black folks didn’t disappear for centuries then reappear to pick master’s cotton, but the Regency. No, I saw the AE movie. For kicks, Google the diaries of Right Hon. William Windham or the accounts of Professor Silliman of Yale, Lady Jan Ellenborough, Wilberforce, Prince William Henry (later known as King William IV). All of these are people of upper society who interacted with persons of color. Not convinced. I am going to pull the trump card. Jane Austen.

What?

No. Austen wasn’t black, I don’t think, but dear Miss Austen, the patron saint of the Regency, wrote of Miss Lambe, a wealthy mulatto, the wealthiest woman in her novel, Sanditon. Austen silences of the sceptics.

Silence. Basically, I call the effect, the Silence of the Lambe.

Whether this makes me Hannibal Lector or Clarisse, I don’t know. But if this gives someone a pause to reconsider their limiting views of history and maybe make a Gatekeeper more open, I’ll eat the fava beans.

Gatekeeper #4 – You and Me.

With indie publishing and woke publishers like Entangled, Kensington, and Avon, the door to diverse, inclusive stories are open. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide to take a chance on different characters and different takes on love. You might find luscious narratives of people finding the miracle of love and be blown away in their fight to holding tight to love.

They may not look like you.

They may not be a wise-cracking black grandmother, the down best friend or the first characters to die in horror movies. They won’t have their acts perfectly together. They get to be flawed and not be the model of their race, womanhood, manhood, or personhood. Yet, expect them to love hard and maybe, just maybe bring unexpected comfort when you most need it.

Final Thoughts

Romance reading has changed and will continue to change. Every reader and author are deciders-in-chief, deciding what to read and what to write, but the choice of who gets a happy-ever-after is settled. Everyone does, regardless of race, class, creed, religion, orientation, gender, or historical time period. Nonetheless, it’s your personal decision on how open is your reading gate. You get to decide. Choose well and may it be a comfort on dark nights.

About Vanessa Riley: Vanessa Riley writes Regency and Historical Romances of dazzling multi-culture communities with powerful persons of color. Vanessa writes for historical romance readers who admire and acquire books that showcase women who find joy in sweeping kisses and strong sisterhoods. Even in the darkness, she promises to give you laughs and to show you how light always prevails and how love always, always wins. 

Vanessa juggles mothering a teen, cooking for her military-man husband, and speaking at women’s and STEM events. She’s known for her sweeping romances and humorous delivery of poignant truths. You can catch her writing from the comfort of her southern porch with a cup of Earl Grey tea. Places to find Vanessa: FacebookWebsite; Twitter.

Make sure you check out The Bittersweet Bride, and The Bashful Bride  of The Advertisement for Love Series. (And The Butterfly Bride is up for pre-order!) 

It’s … so there’s a lot, so I hope the formatting works! (I did a copy/paste job of the file Vanessa sent me.) If not we’ll fix as we go, and please let me know – also asking for some patience. But! The main issue is the post, so I hope you enjoyed it! I definitely think there’s a lot to consider here, and a big thank you to Vanessa for bringing up these points!

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