When was the last time you read a romance novel with Asian main characters? And had you known the book was about an Asian romance hero or heroine when you picked it up?
If you’re a romance reader in the Western world, you may not come across Asian heroes or heroines very often.
I have read romance fiction for decades but I haven’t found many stories with Asian main characters. I wasn’t aware that, until recently, North American publishing houses chose not to “publish a novel with an Asian American as the central character” because they were concerned about angering their core audience.
Although United States residents with Asian heritage make up 5.6% of the country’s population, stories published in the U.S. with Asian main characters fall far below that number. In my own research (and I admit that math and methodology are not my strengths), I looked at an “all-American” romance category line published in the United States. Out of almost 3,000 titles spanning 30 years, there were only 8 characters with possible Asian ancestry.
In the April 2019 article from The Guardian entitled “Fifty Shades of White: The Long Fight Against Racism in Romance Novels”, Jayashree Kamblé, the vice-president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, believed that, “most romance novels simply erase people of colour, resulting in all-white fantasy worlds that include only stereotyped supporting characters, or simply no people of colour at all.”
Kamblé also said that one could track “women’s desires and fears at different moments in history” through romance fiction. These novels—by women, for women and about women—are supposed to reflect a woman’s life.
But how can the romance fiction industry continue to make that claim if it doesn’t acknowledge all women? The genre is failing to deliver its promise because readers are not seeing themselves in the stories.
Why read romance with Asian heroes and heroines?
Romance readers enjoy tropes or popular plot scenarios. However, those tropes can either strain credibility or become too convoluted. Reading a story in which the character’s cultural background has an impact on his or her actions gives a refreshing take on a familiar storyline.
For example, in Jayci Lee’s Temporary Wife Temptation, Garrett Song is navigating between family duty and his personal ambitions. Raised in a traditional Korean family, he can’t outright refuse the bride his grandmother has chosen for him. Instead of showing disobedience, he claims he’s secretly engaged. Garrett insists he can’t go back on his word with his fiancée. It’s a matter of honor. Now he has to go find a temporary wife.
Throughout this Harlequin Desire romance, the author shows how duty and respect to one’s family is very important in Korean culture. The reader accepts why Garrett, a modern and successful businessman who has lived all his privileged life in California, would take drastic measures to avoid an arranged marriage.
The hero’s culture gives a twist to the classic fake marriage trope readers love while also giving them a man who holds family sacred. We get to see a main character demonstrating inner strength and a strategic mind as he struggles with duty and desire.
A character’s heritage might also influence how they see themselves or the world around them. In Faker, a sexy contemporary romance by Sarah Smith, Emmie Echavarre knows how to fake confidence and toughness. She had to when she was the only Filipina American at school, and she has to do it now as one of the only women in her office. Emmie’s back story not only explains why she’s guarded, but also why Tate’s interest in her culture is important to her.
There is a turning event in the story that has Emmie question whether Tate is attracted to her or whether he fetishizes women in her ancestry group. While this concern is rarely discussed in romantic fiction, it is a common problem for Asian women. Readers don’t have to share the heroine’s heritage to empathize. They have followed Emmie throughout the story and know her fears and vulnerabilities. They instantly understand her reaction to this possibility and it is an emotional punch.
Why is the representation of Asian characters in romance important?
In the November 2019 Bustle article “Immigrant Stories In Romance Novels Are Revolutionary. We Need More of Them”, it states, “With each story featuring protagonists from diverse backgrounds the center of romance shifts and the image of who deserves a happy ending evolves. This also has an impact on the definition of beauty and even desirability in the genre.”
This discrimination has pervaded in the West and the East on the desirability of Asian men. A survey for the OKCupid dating site discovered that Asian men were ranked less attractive than average by women of different races. This idea can even be found in China, where “there is a perception that non-Asian men are more masculine.”
Meanwhile, Asian women often fight against the stereotype of being hypersexual and submissive. In the January 2020 article from NBC News, “Romance Novels Have Long Clung to the Submissive Asian Women Trope. These Authors are Changing That.”, Courtney Milan, a Chinese American author, stated, “Negative stereotypes of Chinese women have impacted my life, the life of my mother, my sisters, and my friends. They fuel violence and abuse against women like me.”
After Milan called out racism in another romance author’s work, it sparked a discussion within the romance community about Orientalism and the need for responsible representation in romance novels. Will readers and industry professionals require more sensitive depictions in their stories after this controversy?
At minimum, a good romance novel featuring Asian main characters should follow the same rules and genre expectations that readers demand from every romance book. The story must show that Asian heroes and heroines are complex characters with agency, they’re worthy of the spotlight, they’re desirable, and they deserve a happily-ever-after.
How can I find romance novels with responsible representation of Asian characters?
Join a read-a-thon
Lacey from Book Lovers for Life, and Lisa from Remarkably Lisa plan to host a read-a-thon every Lunar New Year. The two book bloggers have Asian heritage and the focus of the event is reading romances written by Asian authors and/or romances with Asian main characters. The offer a suggested book list to help readers get started. You can find it here.
browse the women’s fiction section of the bookstore
Some novels with romantic elements are not shelved with other romance books. Of course, there is a question on whether these books, chosen and edited by New York publishers, would appeal to audiences in Asian countries. In the Newsweek article “Creating Chick Lit for Asian Audiences”, first published in June 2009, the publishing industry acknowledged the different reader expectations between the West and the East.
“Western chick lit is about aspirations and relationships—and largely having it all,” Marysia Juszczakiewicz, the head of a literary agency in Hong Kong explained in the article. “Chinese women’s fiction is more about identity, and often set against a social and historical backdrop.”
visit romancelandia for recs
However, the books discussed in the romance book online community, aka “Romancelandia”, are aimed toward Western audiences. Romance readers living in Asian countries may not see their inner life represented in these books. The still falls short of the goal the romance genre has of reflecting the desires, fears and hopes of all women.
But I believe it’s important to have mainstream romances from the Western world showing Asian main characters drive the story, find fulfillment and fall in love. We need stories about Asian heroes and heroines who are desired, valued and loved.
As we enter a new decade, publishers shouldn’t target only Asian Americans for romance novels featuring Asian main characters. Readers don’t need Asian ancestry to invest in these stories and celebrate happily-ever-afters of Asian heroes and heroines.
We all want a good romance story.
Recommended Reading List
In addition to the books mentioned above, get these sexy contemporary romances featuring Asian heroes and/or heroines:
- The Bride Test by Helen Hoang: The hero and heroine struggle to overcome long-held beliefs they have about themselves in this steamy romance.
- It Takes Two by Jenny Holiday: Such a fun and sexy romance! You’ll enjoy every minute of the bold heroine sparring with the overprotective hero.
- Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren: A breezy romantic comedy about unconditional love and acceptance. Expect many laugh-out-loud moments!
- The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: A woman hires a male escort to become better at intimacy. The soul-baring sex is profound in this outstanding romance.
- Rebel Hard by Nalini Singh: An arranged engagement between a hero with traditional perspective and a heroine who needs to rebel. It’s sweet and sensual!
- Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai: Filled with family drama, hot sex and dark secrets, this story has it all.