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Credit: Photo courtesy of Andrea Pangilinan

Looking for diverse happily ever after stories? Turn to 'Radical Romance'

Andrea Pangilinan says she’s always gravitated towards love stories.

“I remember when I was younger, you kind of think that they’re dumb, or you don’t want to be cliché. And then sometime in my early 20s, I started being a little unapologetic about it.”

Pangilinan became so immersed in the world of romance, that she now works at the Seward Park branch of Third Place Books, and specializes in the romance section.

Along with carrying a love for the genre itself, Pangilinan carries a deep respect for the romance community, including her fellow readers.

In recent years, those readers have publicly pushed the American romance publishing industry to make the genre look more like reality.

“There’s a hashtag called #RadicalRomance, where people were really challenging authors and readers to search for romance with representation," she said. "And whenever I’m recommending romance, and people are trying to find it, that’s what I’m looking for."

Romance fiction has not always done a great job of handing out those happy endings to everyone, especially to characters who don’t match the image of the harlequin heroine you might have seen on your grandma’s bookshelf: blonde, willowy, white, straight, and cis-gender.

That inspired Pangilinan to launch the “Radical Romance” book group, which aims to highlight and celebrate romance fiction featuring characters of all races, orientations, beliefs, sizes, and abilities.

“A lot of romance that’s out there is very Hollywood-esque, where it is beautiful white straight people falling in love and most of us are not all of those three things,” Pangilinan said. “And we also get a sanitized version of the world when those are the only heroes and heroines that you’re reading.”

Recently, large romance publishers have been doing a better job of selecting stories with diverse representation for their readers, according to Pangilinan.

“The whole point of it is to portray these parts of life and relationships in a way that is enriching, in a way that's joyful, in a way that's representative,” Pangilinan said. “And now you're getting the intersection of queer stories — we have a lot more men [and] non-binary, everyone jumping into the genre, and exploring those stories joyfully."

The Radical Romance book group meets on the second Monday of every month. Their March selection is An Extraordinary Union: An Epic Love Story of the Civil War by Alyssa Cole. You can find out more information about Radical Romance on Third Place’s website.

Local authors share their thoughts on radical romance

Soundside host Libby Denkmann also spoke to two local romance authors about the radical romances they've published.

Olivia Waite is the author of The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics, the inaugural selection for the Radical Romance book group. When it comes to bringing more diversity to romance, Waite says people also need to understand that there have been trailblazers radicalizing the genre for decades.

"There's this sense, in romance and outside of it, that every woman trying to do something is either the first or the only," Waite said. "And that's almost never actually true."

Take Beverly Jenkins for example — an award winning romance author who published her first romance novel Night Song in 1994. Several of Jenkins' books focus on African American heroines and heroes.

"One of the most important things is asking — when you say romance is getting more diverse — what window are you using?" Waite said. "And so if you're talking about traditional publishing in the United States, it does feel like there's more happening now...the fact that I can name multiple traditional publishers with queer and people of color writing romance is very different than even 10 years ago. But that's not the whole story, either."

Diana Ma is the author of two young adult romance books, Heiress Apparently and Her Rebel Highness.

Just like Third Place bookseller Andrea Pangilinan, Ma grew up reading. She loved young adult series like the Sweet Valley High series.

As a kid, Ma struggled to find interesting and complex Chinese American characters in the books she enjoyed. It wasn't until years later that she remembered that there actually was a Chinese American character in the Sweet Valley High series, but her character development fell flat.

"I don't remember Jade Wu. But then I read this description of her and she was described as a timid Chinese American Girl, terrified of her traditional father. And she sounded like such a stereotype of this model minority Asian, terrified of her controlling Tiger parents," Ma said. "And I thought, it not only doesn't sound authentic, it's so not memorable that I, a Chinese American girl seeking representation, have no memory of her of her story."

So Ma set out to create the characters she wished had existed when she was a young girl. In Heiress Apparently, heroine Gemma Huang decides to abandon her plans to attend college and pursue her passion for acting. Along the way, she gets swept up in the adventure of a lifetime as she sets out to film a movie in Beijing.

Ma and Waite are just two authors in an ever-growing community of diverse authors in the romance industry. On one hand, Ma said it's exciting to see the "explosion" of more diverse books.

"But it only seems like an explosion because there was so little. And I think a lot of people think, 'Oh, look at all this diversity, our work is done.'" Ma said. "Even now — in terms of gender identity, in terms of race, in terms of sexual orientation, in terms of disabilities — we still do not have nearly enough of [the] representation that we need."