Isn’t It Time Our Genre Reflected Our World?

BollywoodAffairEditor’s Note: Here at The Debutante Ball, we strive to give an insider look at our experiences with the publishing industry. But we also like to contribute to the dialogue on important topics in publishing, which is why this week we’ve decided to focus on diversity— and have each asked a guest author to discuss their experiences in the industry. We know we can’t solve the issues with a few blog posts, but we’re hoping we can add to the conversation and perhaps even spark some new ideas. 

I just finished Sonali Dev’s debut, A BOLLYWOOD AFFAIR. It was everything I love about romance — the slow burn, the swoony hero, the strong heroine — but so much more. It should come as no surprise that I fell madly in love with her mouthwatering descriptions of Indian food (the main character, Mili, and I would have much to discuss), but I also loved the colorful Indian wedding, the dark family histories, and ultimately the resolution (spoiler-free zone here). 

Sonali’s debut novel, A BOLLYWOOD AFFAIR, was on Library Journal’s and NPR’s list of Best Books of 2014, it won the American Library Association’s award for best romance, and is a RITA® finalist, RT Reviewer Choice Award Nominee, and winner of the RT Seal of Excellence. It was recommended by USA Today as a ‘must-read romance’ and hailed by NPR.org as a ‘stunning debut’.

At the end of this post, we’ll be giving away a signed copy of her debut A BOLLYWOOD AFFAIR to one lucky commenter. Please join me in welcoming Sonali Dev to The Ball.

Like so many of you, I inhaled books as a child. And I don’t mean that just in terms of volume but in terms of depth. I didn’t just read the books, I crawled inside them. I burrowed inside the characters like an insidious, hungry thing and flailed out my limbs to don their very essence like one pushes into a greatcoat with a broken zipper and breaks through the arm and neck holes in full ownership. I ate these stories up from the inside out.

My little whitewashed room in our hundred-year old Mumbai apartment took turns transforming into everything from the halls of Pemberly to the turreted common rooms of Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers. I loved Oliver Barrett and Father Ralph de Bricassart long before my love found a flesh and blood boy to inhabit.

In other words, before I was in college, I, a bonafide brown-skinned Indian girl growing up in urban India thinking in English, had been a lot of white people. And then one day I picked up M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavilions. Until then the people I became in books had names like Jane and Maggie. To find a heroine who was called Anjulie, even though she thought of herself mostly as ‘Julie’ was an event so significant, it might have altered the course of my life. Julie was Indian and she was in a book and somewhere in my head, an impossible thing became possible.

Then came Vikram Seth and his Suitable Boy about a regular Indian girl with an overbearing, close-knit family, and she fell for a brown-eyed boy while browsing poetry in a Delhi bookstore (sigh), and the way I had fit into characters before that shifted and became not about traveling to lands far far away but about exploring where I came from and what that made me. The stories that I had spun for as long as I could remember became things that might find their way onto bookshelves. Somehow in finding myself in a book, I found the knowledge that what I had to say might interest someone other than me. It made me matter.

But that’s not the best part. Yes, discovering characters with my skin color empowered me to pick up the pen, but the equally significant fact is that reading books from cultures different from mine let me crawl into bodies and minds that should have seemed foreign but never did. That’s the thing about books, they are the only painless method of stripping away our skin and unifying us at a level where all we are is human.

I just returned from the Romance Writers of America’s National Conference where I was a RITA finalist. The RITAs are universally acknowledged as the Oscars of the Romance genre and it was a great honor to make the final cut. But the best part about being a finalist was being able to contribute toward raising visibility for diverse books. A total of four ‘other’ books were finalists in the RITAs this year and none won. And while seeing diverse books final in an overwhelmingly white genre is progress, the fact that none won is a little disconcerting with respect to the speed of the progress.

In the end, winning in any category is a matter of odds. Each person who was a finalist in my category, which had nine finalists, had a one in nine chance of winning. But for the diverse books, on top of the one to nine odds I feel like there was an extra multiplier for otherness. Because the material simply feels foreign to so many readers, and there’s always a chance that you get some of those readers judging your book. Unfortunately the only way to reduce that multiplier is to make diverse books more prevalent. And no one is going to give us more diverse books unless we buy the diverse books already out there. It’s called supply and demand. The reason there is so little diversity in books is that it is so easy and enjoyable to read within the comfort zone created by the un-diverse books so plentifully available to us. And until we read outside our comfort zone, we will never grow the confines of that comfort zone, and the powers that be will have no market to feed.

So go out and buy a few diverse books, maybe you’ll travel to fantastic and heartbreaking places. Maybe you’ll find that hearts break in much the same way no matter who you are. And just to know that, to feel that, it might be worth it. Plus, it might urge a voice that might’ve forever remained silent to speak up and touch you in ways you never imagined, and this genre we love so much might finally represent the richly diverse world we live in.

GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Monday, August 3 to win a copy of A BOLLYWOOD AFFAIR. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Monday. Good luck!

SonaliSonali Dev’s first literary work was a play about mistaken identities performed at her neighborhood Diwali extravaganza in Mumbai. She was eight years old. Despite this early success, Sonali spent the next few decades getting degrees in architecture and writing, migrating across the globe, and starting a family while writing for magazines and websites. With the advent of her first gray hair her mad love for telling stories returned full force, and she now combines it with her insights into Indian culture to conjure up stories that make a mad tangle with her life as supermom, domestic goddess, and world traveler.

Follow Sonali on Twitter, Facebook, and her Sonali Dev website.


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