I’ll admit, I was a fresh-faced MFA candidate when the first exodus from Romance Writers of America took place in January 2020. I was in the middle of my second in-person residency and too focused on improving my writing skills to care about RITA award finalists pulling their submissions or board members resigning. Or Twitter rants. I was busy Saving The Cat and coddling my “darlings,” and committing other newbie missteps. My ears perked up only after a rising sixth-year resident asked published Latinx romance author, Priscilla Oliveras, whether or not it was a good idea to submit a manuscript to RWA for an upcoming contest. Avon and Harlequin had publicly withdrawn from attending the national conference. I raced online to educate myself on the situation. It seemed the romance industry that I desperately wanted to be a part of was imploding.
The controversy seemed to surround historical novelist Courtney Milan and her social media comments that alleged Glenfinnan Publishing House blocked books by authors of color. On Twitter, Milan called out Kathryn Lynn Davis and her use of racist stereotypes in her 1999 novel, Somewhere Lies the Moon. Davis and fellow Glenfinnan publisher, Suzan Tisdale, complained that Milan’s comments caused them to lose money. Milan was subsequently suspended from Romance Writers of America despite her argument that she had a right to voice criticism. (Vox)
Romance Writers of America once again made headlines with another racist scandal in July 2021. Karen Witemeyer won a Vivian award, the Oscar of romance awards. Her novel, At Love’s Command, opens with the male protagonist taking part in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Karen Witemeyer talked about her experiences during the fallout on a blog for Christian writers, Inspired By Life... And Fiction. She asserts her book does not romanticize genocide because the hero and three other members of the 7th calvary leave the army and become advocates and activists for justice. Witemeyer maintains she doesn’t believe she did anything wrong and was happy that her publisher, fellow inspirational writers, and fans stood beside her.
I haven’t read At Love’s Command or any books by Witemeyer. I prefer open-door romance. I understand the outrage, however. While I enjoy a good redemption story, I would have a hard time embracing a hero who participated in the 1921 Tulsa Massacre where Black men, women, and children were murdered. It seems some people are more willing to accept brutality against minority groups, calling for forgiveness of white perpetrators. It is unacceptable to dilute history. Good intentions or naivety do not absolve individuals of wrongdoing. Witemeyer may not have intended to commit harm or known that her book would offend people, but she still acted recklessly. Therein lies the problem. A reasonable person would know that readers would likely be hurt; her presentation of events and focus on white guilt is indifferent to the experiences of native people. This is not to say that Witemeyer and other non-minority writers should never write about people and experiences with which they have no ancestral ties. Rather, it is imperative to write realistic narratives on what it means to be “other” in the United States, especially for non-marginalized individuals looking in from the outside. The fact that RWA defended and then rescinded the award proves not much has changed since 2019. Thankfully, with the rise and progress of the #MeToo movement and the insistence for more minority voices in print media as well as television and film, it’s apparent Black feminism, Native feminism, and Latinx feminism are here to stay. Cortera (229) explains (...) by acting as agents in their own stories, they [women of color] contradict accepted patriarchal and colonial narratives, thus challenging the status quo.
The Vivian Awards are postponed for 2022 so that a task force can analyze the previous year's inaugural contest. I hope Romance Writers of America is able to adapt to a more inclusive and diverse writing landscape and I am interested to see what new voices are awakened in inspirational romance as well or whether more writers will walk away from RWA.