I don’t even know how to start with this subject. I am wrapped up in it because I am a member of Romance Writers of America and PAN (Published Author Network) so I am getting information about the situation whether I want to or not. Let me say that Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance novelist, is highly successful and would never attack a person about their writing. She might, however, attack their writing.
Ms. Milan has served as chair of the RWA Ethics Committee. She stepped down when asked to. The point of the conflict seems to be that a few decades ago, a writer had a character of Chinese heritage with “exotic” eyes of a light color. Not only is that pretty unlikely genetically, but it also’s stupid and a slap at Asians. They aren’t good enough with brown eyes.
I know this book was written long enough ago that RWA hadn’t figured out there were readers of romances that were not white. Using the worn phrase “Exotic” for eyes or any such jaded terms to show any differences in skin tone, hair texture, cultural leanings, was not a problem. I think Ms. Milan simply wanted to point out what not to do for current and future readers.
Imagine you read a book about the Scottish Highland Lord who came to supper at his castle with guests present smelling of the sheep he had been working with all day. Now, this is different from dinner, which is later and more formal, but still. You wouldn’t like a stereotypical Highlander to neglect simple hygiene. Or an Irish Lord who stayed drunk and picked fights regularly. The London debutantes or governesses or widows who were stranded with this lout would not stay around him long.
My point is, I think, that writers need to be very sensitive to the way they present characters of any cultural background. As a Californian, I dislike being represented as a hippie who lives by growing and selling marijuana. As a former Catholic, I used to dislike being shown as not studying the Bible. There are so many assumptions we make about each other and we need to stop.
The RWA Ethics Committee ruled that Courtney Milan was out of line and should “be suspended from RWA for a year, and be banned from holding any leadership positions on the national or chapter level”. The RWA Board adopted the decision and sent the decision out to the universe. Many, many people who really know Ms. Milan dropped out of the organization in protest and were considering other actions as drastic as returning their RITA awards. Other published authors wanted to know if they were in line for the same treatment if they continued to argue passionately against racism. Comments were being deleted off of the PAN message group. If this is the new atmosphere in the organization, one author had essays to submit. If not, why was Courtney Milan singled out?
Fortunately, the board reconsidered and rescinded its vote to accept the findings and has backtracked on the penalties pending legal input. A longer statement will be released soon. I see a board made out of Grinches whose hearts have just grown 3 times their original size. Again, Courtney Milan never attacked the writer as a person. She posted pages of writing and stated the part that impacted her as a Chinese-American. This is completely within her rights as a member of RWA and a hard-working officer in several capacities.
The bottom line, racism is evil and the more we become aware of what we are doing, the better our writing will be. What if that author had said, “Wow, I never looked at it like that. I will be more careful in the future and if I get the chance to redo these, I will”. Advice given, lesson learned, all is well. That’s the world filled with love that I envision.
Thanks for reading, I’ll be back on Sunday.