Writing a New Chapter for Romance
When I was watching the finale of “The Bachelor” in January, it occurred to me that there were not a lot of mainstream stories about Asian Americans falling in love. Many stereotypes have been challenged in the past few years on film and in music, but it seems that Asian Americans are rarely the protagonists of American love stories set in the real world.
Filmmakers seem to have noticed this lack of diversity in rom-coms as well. This year, rom-coms featuring Asian American characters were released, including “Always Be My Maybe” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” The characters in these films expanded the kind of role Asian Americans played — they were funny, flawed and ordinary. At the same time, there are Asian American authors writing novels that prove the romance genre is more than diversity rom-coms. Romance stories have elements of grief, belief, family and career as well. There is room for Asian Americans in entertainment to be both serious and funny, to fall in love and be challenged.
Mochi magazine had the opportunity to interview Farah Heron, Maurene Goo and Roselle Lim, three authors who write about romance.
Farah Heron, the Toronto-based author of “The Chai Factor,” shared her thoughts on writing romance. Heron’s debut novel is about Amira, an engineer who lives with, but can’t stand, Duncan, a baritone singer.
Maurene Goo has been writing contemporary young adult books for years and released her fourth book in June. “Somewhere Only We Know” is the story of Lucky, the biggest K-pop star, and Jack, a tabloid journalist, who meet in Hong Kong.
Roselle Lim is a new author whose book “Natalie Tan’s Book of Love and Fortune” features food and, of course, love. Natalie inherits her grandmother’s restaurant and finds unexpected help in the community she left.
YS: What misconceptions do people have about romance novels?
MG: Oof, where do I start: that they are trashy, “guilty pleasures,” poorly written, only read by horny spinsters, formulaic, etc. The list goes on and on. Romance novels have been denigrated since forever. Coincidence that, historically, they’ve been written by women for women? Probably not. “Romance” is such a huge category that to try and make overreaching statements about all of it is reductive and lazy. Like any other form of art, there’s a spectrum of quality and purposes. I will also argue that writing romance that hooks you as a reader, that makes you care and root for that happy ending — is a very difficult skill and not everyone can do it well.
FH: A common misconception that drives me a little batty is the assumption that all romance is fluffy and light-hearted. My novel, “The Chai Factor,” deals with some heavy topics like Islamophobia, homophobia, workplace sexism and intergenerational family struggles. It’s far from fluff. The swoony love story does not lower the impact of the weighty content.
RL: That romance novels are without value. That a medium tailored and geared to women is meaningless. It is not true, but it is consistent with a narrative that devalues women’s work. Romance novels got me through depressive episodes in high school. During a tumultuous time of darkness, they provided an escape and a hope that everything can turn up happily-ever-after. While “Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” classifies as women’s fiction (since the love story is not the primary focus of the book), I felt it was important to include a romantic element. Everyone deserves the opportunity for love, for their happily-ever-after, if that’s what they want in their life.
YS: Have you ever dealt with not being taken seriously because you choose to write romance rather than another genre?
MG: I haven’t! My first book with romance as a central theme was “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” and I felt like it came out when people were craving more rom-coms. And now we’re having this rom-com resurgence, alongside feminist dialogue about romance as a genre, and I feel like the the stars have aligned for my books to have the best chance at finding their readers. In a world that can be so uncertain and bleak, everyone’s looking for a good love story.
FH: Not yet — but I fully expect to. Sometimes I wonder if my book would have had more publicity or attention if it was a genre other than rom-com, but I have been so incredibly happy with the attention it has received, so I can’t really complain. I write romance, and I don’t see that changing for a long time. I know that my genre has lots of value, so if people think less of me as a writer for it, it’s on them, not me.
RL: Although “Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” is more of a women’s fiction novel than a traditional romance, more than one male writer laughed when I told them what genre I wrote. I choose to write what I relate to, what I believe is important, and what I want to read. Yes, I’m a writer, but I’m a reader first, and this is what guides me when working on my books.
YS: How do your parents feel about your career choice?
MG: They are very supportive and proud. I read so much as a kid, I think they find it gratifying that all those years of holing up in my room really paid off, haha. They’ve always encouraged me to do what I want to do, even when it worried them. (Graduate school for what? Publishing? Okaaaay…) Four books in, I think they are resting a little easier now.
FH: I’ve changed careers so many times that I think my parents are used to me flitting from one thing to another! They are very proud of my accomplishments and are supportive of every thing I do. I am very lucky to have them in my life.
RL: It’s not the path expected of an immigrant and the daughter of Chinese parents! I have sympathy for them; I was an unusual child to raise. I hated organ lessons. They worked at banks while I labored in math as I had zero interest in numbers. Instead, I wrote stories and drew pictures. I think they’re proud of me, but they don’t understand my career — it’s too foreign to their experiences.
YS: Can you tell us about writing, finding immediate success (or not) and meeting expectations?
MG: Writing is a trip. You have to really love it to keep going because it is truly a marathon for most of us. There are a lucky few who are a success right out of the gate, but most of us have to endure a lot of failures and disappointments before making this a viable career. And even when you reach a certain milestone, the goalpost is constantly moving. For me, the journey has been long and I am still in it — finding my readers, honing my writing skills and expanding my dreams. I will say that writing as a career is so special because it is constantly challenging you, and it’s always different from book to book. I can’t imagine ever getting bored by it.
FH: Asian ambition has been drilled into me my whole life, but maybe thanks to my background in counseling, I am actually pretty good at detaching myself from unhealthy thought patterns. There is too much in publishing that is out of an author’s control, so the only expectations I set for myself was for things I could control, like improving my skills and writing the best book I could.
RL: Writing isn’t easy or natural for me. I struggle to express my ideas in English, my third language. But our stories need to be told and I want the next generation to see themselves in the books they read.
Being an author is a solitary career. I believe it's important to cultivate a sense of community with other writers. We are all struggling, but we can ease the burden by struggling together. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved success. The experience has been similar to taking a final exam in college. I wrote the assignments, studied everything required, took the test, and now I’m waiting for my grade to know whether I passed. This might not be the right model, but it’s what my brain has latched onto.
Managing expectations for my debut has been a challenge. I gravitate towards catastrophizing everything. Therapy has taught me I should have hope, but it goes counter to my natural inclination.
YS: Recommend a romance book or movie to us!
MG: I will recommend some recent reads! Like everyone else, I loved, loved, loved “Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston. It’s about the first son of America falling in love with a prince of England. Yup. I laughed so hard and underlined half the lines in the book. Not only is it funny and swoony, it’s incredibly empathetic in its discussions of grief and identity. I loved every bit of it. (Also there’s an amazing BTS shout-out that killed me dead). For a romantic YA, check out “Tell Me How You Really Feel” by Aminah Mae Safi. It’s the Rory-Paris romance you didn’t know you needed (yes, from “Gilmore Girls”). Deeply romantic and smart, it’s about two ambitious girls who go from enemies to lovers. I mean!
FH: I watch rom-com movies for inspiration and to unwind, and I am so happy that we are experiencing a little renaissance of sorts, with lots of diversity too! I loved “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Always Be My Maybe.” And I recently rewatched “Bride and Prejudice,” which is an utter delight. I’m also a huge fan of the movie, “Austenland,” which appeals to my absurdist sense of humor. For a less romantic but still funny and heart-wrenching story, I recommend the Bollywood movie “Dear Zindagi,” which explores themes of mental health awareness in a traditional Asian culture. I think this movie explores the clash between modern sensibilities and struggles, and traditionally held biases so well. And the scenery in it is absolutely breathtaking!
RL: I loved Helen Hoang’s “The Kiss Quotient” and couldn’t wait to see Khai and Esme’s story in her follow-up, “The Bride Test.” Hoang delivered with a beautiful look at the immigrant experience, the unexpected ways we find love, and what happens when we allow ourselves to accept what we need. Quan’s story is up next, and I’m thrilled. My go-to romantic movie, which I often rewatch, is “Austenland” with Keri Russell and JJ Feild. It’s such a quirky, hilarious movie set in an immersive recreation of the Regency period. The romance makes my heart flutter every time.
YS: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
MG: Read a lot and don’t give up.
FH: Keep writing! Ideas and inspiration are easy to come by, but the real work is finishing and revising the book. And don’t expect that first book to be a masterpiece; learn from the experience and move on to the next book. Also, find your community of like-minded writers for advice, support and commiseration.
RL: Revising is an integral part of the process, embrace it! Resisting edits and thinking the first draft is good enough is more a hindrance than a blessing. It takes me multiple rounds of revisions to get a story to where it should be. Feedback isn’t meant to shame you for failing the story; it’s meant to expose potential places for improvement. Critiques give you a map to help hunt down flaws in your manuscript.
Mochi is giving away “Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” to one reader! To be eligible to win, you must follow Mochi magazine on Instagram and leave a comment below with your Instagram handle and your favorite romance book or movie.
The giveaway will end on Monday, September 23.
Cover photo credit: Roman Synkevych//Unsplash