María T. Ramos-García (South Dakota State University)
Session 12.2: Love in Other Worlds
There is currently a very heated debate in progress regarding diversity in the romance novel in the USA, both in terms of the characters represented and the authors published and promoted. In this context, the paranormal subgenre is an especially rich site of analysis due to the dual nature of its representations of diversity and otherness. On the one hand, characters are identified as other due to their supernatural characteristics (they may be a different species, or have been transformed by scientific or magical means, or just be humans with special abilities). On the other hand, such narratives cannot escape the racialized context in which they are written, and characters are consciously or unconsciously identified in racial and ethnic terms regardless of their supernatural characteristics or lack thereof.
This paper will analyze the representations of racial and ethnic diversity in two mainstream paranormal romance series: J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood and Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling. Both authors show clear attempts to portray a racially diverse world, however both are problematic. In Ward’s novels, the main race, the vampires (they actually call themselves “the race”, while insisting they are a separate species) is clearly identified as white. There are other more marginally represented species: The shadows, who only appear later on in the series, are identified as looking black, but not actually being black, and the sympaths, androgynous in their appearance, are seen in an extremely negative light. Even more disturbingly, humans are depicted in increasingly negative terms as the series progresses, as when they are described as “rats without tails”. Finally, there is another species, the doggen. None of the characters in that species is ever the hero or heroine in any novel. They are servants to the vampires and seem to enjoy their subservient position, a situation that is always celebrated, never problematized in the series.
If class and race appear to be clearly delineated and hierarchized in Ward’s series, economic doctrines are at the heart of Singh’s social values. While Ward is a white American, Singh is a New Zealander of South East Asian descent. However, her novels are set in a globalized world in which the United States of America is clearly the center of power. Her characters are post-racial, especially the Psy, a subspecies of humans with a variety of psychic powers who have, for generations mixed individuals from across the globe in order to bring to the world offspring with the best genetic combinations to potentiate their powers. But even in the other human groups the multiracial appearance and background of the characters is constantly emphasized and celebrated, as Jayashree Kamble has indicated. Furthermore, the series is constantly creating hybrid couples within the fictional world. However, this post-racial world is also a post-cultural world, and while there are different cultures depending on the subspecies, actual world cultures have been erased. The resistance to the utopic universalism promoted by the series is blamed on the unwillingness of some groups to compete in an open market. The struggles for power are ultimately struggles for economic hegemony in terms very similar to those studied by Amira Jarmakani in the Sheikh romance novel. She illustrates how the values of humanist liberalism become intertwined in post-9/11 sheikh novels with neoliberal economic values. These authors offer very different examples of the dual nature of diversity in paranormal romance, and how their interactions reveal unresolved tensions and contradictions.
The (racial) ‘other” in paranormal has two forms:
- Metaphorical – the ‘other’ within (eg a shifter)
- Literal – the ‘other’ outside (racial diversity)
- Different worlds and representations of diversity in different authors
- Complexity of the monsters
- Opposition between ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’ authors and texts reductive and insufficient
One of the most glaring and intriguing aspects of vampire romance novels is their consistence whitewashing. Just where are all the undead vampires of colour? – Amanda Hobson
Different species in Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood:
Vampires are a separate species to humans. They are obscenely rich, don’t drink human blood. This series includes problematic explorations of race relations:
- Vampires are white, but use black vernacular and music (hip hop) – this is essentially a literary form of black face
- Portrayed with hyper masculinity
- Only identifable black characers are twins (male). They get a shared book.
- Species called ‘sympaths’ – troubling Asian/orientalism stereotypes
- Species called Doggen – servant class of vampires, none are featured/ main characters
- While there are clear differences between species, white characters are clearly preferenced in a highly stratified society
- Notable: one books in the series has the first same sex couple in paranormal romance. Story includes a wedding
Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series:
- Other humans
Hobson has criticised Singh for not describing any characters as black or African American, just as having mixed race skin tone. However this is a very US-centric view, as Singh is Indian heritage living in NZ, and doesn’t describe race, just skin tones.
Representation of human diversity:
- humans disappear after the first few books
- all vampires are white after this
- all three groups (Psy, Changeling, Human) have lots of interbreeding
- all shades of skin tones are represented and detailed throughout the series
- names of characters are ethnically diverse
- the characters in the start of the series are whiter, and more mixed as she became more established as an author.