Cultural rep in Romance: Every (un-hurtful) take is valid and important
Disclaimer: These are solely my opinions and I am not speaking for any particular identity as an authority. I am mostly sticking to desi references. A dialog is welcome.
Romance is about hope. It's about happiness, about possibilities, and all about dreams.
You see how up close and personal it is, right? Every individual has different dreams, different hopes, different ideas about happiness, but everyone in the world relates with that emotion. When each of that individual becomes a unique character and meets another in a romance book, it becomes their story. Not of the entire group they represent necessarily, but their own individual story.
This vibrantly personal nature of everyone's lived reality is why every (un-hurtful) take on cultural rep in the books, especially the happy ending romances, is valid.
And extremely important.
Here is my example. I come from a middle class Indian family. I rarely wear saree and apply a bindi. But on festivals such as Ganesh Puja or Diwali I love to do my religious rituals, dress up and eat delicious food. When I first read a romance where I read a desi character like me, I was ecstatic.
I can imagine the same is true for someone who wears a saree daily and sees that in the books. Needless to say, there are many Indians who don't do either. Everyone is from the same ethnicity and seeing their version on the pages is deeply satisfying. It gives us readers a place to belong to.
This will be difficult to achieve though if (1) they never see themselves in books (or TV) at all AND (2) if they only see stereotypes or monolithic group representation.
There are thousands of types of sarees. There are thousands of types of hijabs. I'd like to see them. There are desis who never eat Biryani (in my own house, yes, thank you). There are desis who never eat a speck of spice. There are various degrees of food tolerance across cultures. Do I even get started on color? You have milk white skin tones through every shade of black and brown.
I'd like to see them.
There is art and music, experienced in different ways by every individual in the same community. There are traditions and modified customs. Someone would have grand prayer temples in the houses, others won't. Someone would rejoice in mehendi in all occasions, others won't. Someone lives on their own, others with a joint family.
And even then I realized, not many books in my favorite genre mentioned my routine, my thoughts, my cultural heritage. So when I picked up the pen myself, I was fortunate to be able to write about some of my life experiences.
Every single scenario is valid. It's a real person's lived experience, after all.
And seeing that in a happy romance book gives me hope. Hope that it's possible for everyone to be themselves. If the next-door desi character in the book can be different and happy, then I can be too. It gives me hope that we can break prejudices. Overcome fears.
So give it a chance and read culturally diverse romances with an open mind. Let’s enrich our minds. Various individual's dreams with a happy ending is the perfect recipe that the world needs. Nothing grand like a romance book to serve it with!
I grew up studying British rule on India and the struggle for freedom in schools. I learned that as many oppressive and cruel individuals existed causing the centuries of misery, there were also a few allies. And collateral damages from both ends. We have Bollywood movies portraying some stories like this. Lagaan, Krishna, if I may name a few.
The hero, who has an English title but Indian parentage right in the middle of the revolution going in India, was immediately relatable to me. Without going into details (a complicated topic in itself) the author portrayed a vivid picture of places in India, very similar to what I grew up to, respectful mentions of the religious items, palace and kings, the subtle hint at the politics within. Mostly, more than half of the novel takes place in India. The romance is angsty and heartwarming both.
The book and the series are my favorite for many reasons such as the peacock! But this book specifically gave me joy. Parth is the name of my favorite Mahabharat character, the archer Arjun. So I was delighted to read a whole book with the hero called Parth. But she also made him a power house, sensitive and well, yes, rich in the established world of regency. I hadn't seen it much before.
If you are anything like me, you have already devoured the lady Sherlock series by Sherry Thomas. I secretly online-stalk her :-D But this book is special to me. Right in the stakes there is Maharani of Ajmer. The singular idea in the west that royals in India are rolling in gold and nothing much else was neatly handled and countered here. Not only Maharani of Ajmer is a single mother, a widow, but is also a queen who takes care of their people. She has to be diplomatic, cautious and skilful with her resources. And like a normal person she also loves. No spoilers, but I loved seeing this piece in the book!
This could be surprising for readers who already read it. Yes, there are no desi characters in the book. And that's why it is a great example of how even the smallest detail of cultural rep could be important and valid. The heroine here is determined to translate Kamasutra, which is in Sanskrut. (I know, I know, but separate topic.) I studied Sanskrut in my my middle and high school for 4 years. I have a great affinity with Sanskrut and anything related to translation. This book inspired me. If that heroine can do it… I can too, right?
In my own book, the heroine, is translating Sanskrut Mahabharat manuscripts. Each chapter starts with a slice of that story translation. Without Lenora Bell writing this book, I'd not have seen myself doing it.
Of course I could keep going on, but I will refrain myself now. Here are a few more of my already-read or TBR books which I hope to read soon. If I may, mentioned my own book as well.
What are your favorite romance books in which you saw a slice of your cultural life and it brought you joy?