Historical Heroes: I’m a teacher not a fighter – UPDATED

UPDATE: After my initial offer, a few other authors have offered critiques.

Alisha Rai, contemporary erotic romance author, is offering to critique for anyone with an Indian hero. She may not write historicals, but she knows about bringing the hotness.

Tea Cooper, historical and contemporary romance author, is offering to critique anyone writing an Australian hero.

Sonali Dev, author of the upcoming A Bollywood Affair, has offered to critique for anyone writing an Indian hero or actually any POC (person of color).

Kaia Danielle is offering to critique for anyone with an African American hero. She gives the caveat that she can’t guarantee she’ll get the critique back on time, but I’d certainly take her up on the offer for an extra set of eyes.

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So given my busy schedule, I’m rarely moved to blog these days, but I guess I couldn’t stay away from this one.

This Monday, Harlequin Mills & Boon announced the details of their Historical Hero writing contest. First, yay! I love historicals. I love historical heroes for their honor and chivalry and manners and general sexiness and all. I’ve blogged about Asian heroes before and how they don’t get portrayed as the hotties they deserve to be.

But I was taken aback by the description the M&B site.

HistoricalHeroes Okay, I get it. Regency dukes sell. Most of your entries are going to be Regencies. Most of what you buy are Regencies. But seriously, this read to me like this:

“Heroes wanted: British gentlemen and lords preferred and we’ll consider a few of you warrior savages from those other countries and time periods.”

Of course, when I tweeted an eyebrow-raised comment about that, the editors replied back in the gist of “Oh no! Those are just our guidelines. We’ll take any sort of hot hero you have. Really!”

“Heroes wanted: British gentlemen and lords preferred. Everyone else, we’ll take your application too because we have to.”

Obviously anyone reading these “guidelines” don’t know about these exceptions and know exactly what M&B  is looking for. Which is fine.

But really. Can we just do better? Please? British gentlemen and noble warriors?

Harlequin and Mills and Boon gave me my start in publishing. They’ve been very supportive of my books. And I do believe that if you’re writing in a niche genre, publishing with a name like HMB can really boost your career and your visibility. Plus Harlequin Historical really does have some of the more diverse and varied historical storylines out there – even if you don’t count the Tang Dynasty!

I want aspiring authors to consider this contest. I really do — I think the M&B editorial I’ve received is absolutely stellar.

But I really believe no one there saw any problem with these categories when they came up with them. They just plainly do not see a problem. Do most aspiring authors and readers see no issue as well? Someone who has always wanted to write a historical romance will read these guidelines and look at the covers of everything out there and just never think there could be anything more.

It’s not that people won’t read a non-English hero. It’s that they simply do not exist.

But I’m a teacher and not a fighter, so rather than stay mad, I followed up my first snarky tweet with an offer:

If you have a historical romance with an Asian hero you want to enter in this contest — I don’t care which culture he’s from or if he’s mixed race or if the setting is in good ol’ England — I will critique your pages for you.

Author Alisha Rai has also offered to critique anyone who’s interested in submitting with an Indian hero. I think if other authors would like to offer to critique, that would be awesome. And I don’t think you have to be an author of color or writing characters of color, or even writing what you’re willing to critique. I think a bunch of settings like the American West, Ancient Rome, France and…pretty much everywhere but England, Scottish Highlanders and Vikings are pretty much edged out by the job description.

I’ve already read a lovely entry set in the Ming Dynasty that sounds right up my alley as a reader. I learned something really cool about Chinese history that I didn’t know much about. And the hero…he’s niiiiice. Very, very nice. 🙂 I feel better about the universe already.

(P.S. Teachers are fighters. Some of the scrappiest fighters I know.)

The Asian Hero: Objectification or Equality?

Let me begin this post with a shout out to my current favorite Asian hero:

Glenn from The Walking Dead. *little floaty hearts* He’s smart, thoughtful, cool-headed and conscientious. His heroism is understated, but he always takes care of business. The other alpha males go stomping around puffing their chests out, but Glenn is a badass without all that bluster.

Most importantly, he gets to have sex with girls!

Yeah, I said it. Glenn is depicted as not just a useful guy to have around. Not just a sidekick. (Though he does dress similar to Short Round in Temple of Doom) No, Glenn gets to be a desirable and attractive man. A romantic hero.

It’s about time.

I remember when Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat were first breaking into mainstream American cinema. As a fan of their Hong Kong films, I went to see their American movies avidly. The two that come to mind are Kiss of the Dragon with Jet Li and The Replacement Killers with Chow Yun-Fat. In both of these films, the two Asian actors played opposite two pretty leading ladies: Bridget Fonda in Kiss and Mira Sorvino in Killers. But unlike any other action film where the leading man and woman are thrown together, there is absolutely no chemistry between the “couples”. I put couples in quotes because the pairs were never written to have any sexual tension or chemistry. Not a single kiss between them.

The lack of any romantic or sexual tension stood out for me. I started trying to take note of this in mainstream American film and it seemed only one Asian actor ever got to kiss a girl and that was Jackie Chan. I wondered why. Was Jackie viewed as non-threatening because of his comic roles? And though he occasionally gets to kiss a lady, he never plays the romantic hero.

At the same time, Caucasian heroes who adopt Asian skills and philosophies always get the girl. Let me ramble off a bit here — I’m not saying these are all quality movies, just examples — Bloodsport, Big Trouble in Little China, The Bodyguard (Kevin Kostner was all into samurai culture and katanas), The Last Samurai…I’m sure I can dig out a whole bunch more in the white ninja/white samurai category.

These references are old ones, but I don’t believe they are outdated. You still don’t often see Asian men in leading roles and when they are, they are allowed to be kung-fu masters, technical wizards or comic relief, but rarely are they sexy, romantic heroes.

The latest whitewashing debacle – the casting for the upcoming Akira movie without a single Asian male lead – seems to continue this trend. Asian males are being denied their hero status.

One of my secret fears when Butterfly Swords was published was that I was playing into this de-sexing of the Asian male by pairing my Chinese heroine with a Caucasian hero. I honestly expected backlash from that–and any that was received was deserved, for I made that choice fully aware of the implications. At the same time, I didn’t want to cast the only strong Chinese man as a villain while the white guy got the girl. For this reason, the depictions of Ai Li’s father and brothers as honorable people, not just flat, small-minded characters intent on marrying her off, were important to me. It was also edifying that many readers recognized that the “villain”, Li Tao, was truly not meant to be despised.

This was one of my issues with Captive Bride by Bonnie Dee, which featured an otherwise believable interracial romance. There were no depictions of good Chinese men, or women for that matter, to counter the pimps and smugglers. This seemed to fall into the generic Fu Manchu villain versus the good Caucasian hero stereotype for me — but I have hero issues, as you can see.

Now this leads into some thoughts I’ve been having about my covers. Three of my covers have featured Asian heroes. Part of me sees that as a triumph…but the other part also has doubts.

In the world of mass market romance, there aren’t many Asian heroes let alone Asian men depicted on the covers. The exceptions being Jade Lee’s The Concubine whose cover models got a replay on cover for The Taming of Mei Lin.

Then Li Tao in The Dragon and the Pearl:

Who gets more of a face in the UK version:

And the latest My Fair Concubine cover showing nobleman Chang Fei Long in armor…complete with Fabio-esque long hair:

The sexuality of my covers has been, for the most part, understated. There are no oil-slicked man-titties. The Taming of Mei Lin has the classic clinch pose with some man chest exposed, but even so it’s done tastefully. The release of The Dragon and the Pearl did prompt a so-called “man candy” post that featured Asian hotties at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

It’s easy to say this is a celebration of Asian masculinity and sexuality. It’s about time.

But then I also wondered, is this a desired outcome? Would Asian men feel they are getting some equal treatment in mainstream media now that they’re starting to be depicted as attractive romantic heroes who actually get the girl?

So my quandary is this: since the Asian male has been repeatedly de-sexed and unmanned in mainstream media, is it considered a favorable representation to be presented as a sex object?

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