The romance genre is a billion-dollar industry known for its lack of diversity with typical narratives that focus on Caucasian characters and a serious void of Black, Asian and minority ethnic writer. Haitian-American author Nadine Gonzalez discusses her role in challenging the status quo by adding legitimacy to a literary genre lacking in diverse voices while revealing her writing process and how she has strayed from convention to bring readers stories of female sexuality and empowerment with a focus on culture and race.
Lis Mesa (LM): Born and raised in New York City, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, your personal essay Gonaïves describes time spent in a medical residency in Haiti. You now live and write in Miami and consider the city to be your ‘muse.’ What keeps you attracted to life in the Magic City?
Nadine Gonzalez (NG): Miami is a stressful paradise. Traffic, crime, the threat of hurricanes, overwhelming humidity – not everyone finds utopia here. However, at its core Miami is a welcoming city. And when I moved here in the early 2000s, I sought to break from my past and start living on my own terms. I wasn’t alone. People from all over the world settle here for a chance to start over. The mix of cultures and languages keep the city exciting and fresh. In that way, it truly is the Magic City.
I wasn’t alone. People from all over the world settle here for a chance to start over.
LM: A lawyer, amateur illustrator, wife, and mother but also a self-proclaimed fashionista, political junkie, and art lover. When and where do you make the space to write?
NG: This is a daily struggle. I carve out one hour here and there during the day. I try to write before my son wakes up or after he goes to bed. This requires some sacrifice of Netflix time. But if a day or two goes by and I haven’t done much writing, I get nervous.
LM: You’ve stated that the romance genre felt like a ‘natural fit for you.’ You’ve also said that ‘learning to write a solid manuscript in the romance genre was a long drawn out struggle.’ Can you tell us about your writing process? What were the style elements you wanted to perfect while writing your first book?
NG: The easiest way to stand out in any genre is to develop a unique voice. Pacing is crucial too. The story cannot lag at any point. I wanted to write a page-turner that gripped the reader from the very first sentence. That is still my goal.
LM: Which are the books, within any genre, that have helped you hit those goals? What can we find lining your bookshelves?
NG: Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri are important creative influences. They were winning awards and earning accolades at a time when I was very much looking for young authors of color telling stories in authentic voices. To add a third: Zadie Smith.
For social satire and commentary, I turned to the novels of Diane Johnson.
For a better understanding of the genre, I devoured contemporary romance novels by Brenda Jackson and Julie James.
LM: Exclusively Yours (March 2018), your debut novel, was featured in the April 2018 issue of Kirkus Review, ‘The Woman Issue’ alongside ‘books by and about powerful women.’ Your protagonist Leila Amis is a young, ambitious Miami Realtor ‘trying to create the life of her dreams.’ How do you think she measures up against America’s definition of success? Is she a ‘powerful’ woman?
NG: I attempt to fuse North American and Caribbean ideals of success. Money, power, and fame are wonderful pursuits, but very American. Caribbean ideals center around family, personal happiness and comfort. These concepts can co-exist. Success alone cannot bring joy, and a degree of ambition keeps life challenging. It’s not necessary to sacrifice one for the other. That’s the lesson Leila must learn. Further, Leila is powerful because she charted her own path and committed to it. She is not college educated – a choice I made early on. I’m a strong advocate for education, but I stayed in college forever hoping it would guarantee lifelong success. I admire people who turn away from conventional paths.
Caribbean ideals center around family, personal happiness and comfort.
LM: I’m a fan of the unconventional. I think there is a great amount of risk involved in straying from society’s expectations and charting your own course. Do you believe this trait adds to Leila’s appeal as a character?
NG: I believe so. Most people can point to a time when they struck out on instinct alone. It is thrilling and terrifying – and a great jumping point for a story. Also, Leila’s refusal to take the expected path made her a more complicated character even at the risk of losing ‘likeability’ points.
LM: Speaking of the unconventional, you’ve discussed having a ‘mixed salad approach to diversity’ in Exclusively Yours. How important is the subject of race and culture within the novel and how did you decide on which communities to feature?
NG: Diversity is one of the building blocks of strong storytelling. It is important to show our cities and towns as they are. Like most underrepresented minorities, I grew tired of Caribbean women showing up in mainstream narratives as amusing props with exaggerated accents. My coworkers and friends are young, smart, ambitious women from all over the US, Latin America and the Caribbean. I’ve decided not to edit anyone out. The ‘mixed salad’ approach really should apply to characters and settings. Romantic love is not limited to North American and European cities.
I grew tired of Caribbean women showing up in mainstream narratives as amusing props with exaggerated accents.
LM: How have the readers welcomed these diverse characters?
NG: The feedback was very positive. Most importantly, local readers were happy to see Miami depicted in a realistic way. There is no way to set a story in Miami without diversity.
LM: The novel covers female sexuality and empowerment, race and culture, and women who defy power structures in a competitive workplace. How would you respond to the ongoing debate which continues to ask if romance novels should be considered ‘legitimate’ literature?
NG: Romance should be given the same critical weight as any genre. Falling in love is part of the human experience. And to avoid writing about it because of a misguided stigma is ridiculous.
LM: In Why Can’t Romance Novels Get Any Love? an interview for Smithsonian Magazine, filmmaker Laurie Kahn says: ‘The stereotype has been overweight women eating bonbons in bed, reading alone … the truth is that people from every conceivable socioeconomic background are reading this fiction. And the authors are surgeons, lawyers, professors.’ Do her words resonate with you?
NG: Absolutely! So many professional women read, review, and follow the careers of romance writers. It provides a great escape from the pressures of work life. Also, writing within a specific genre is often more manageable for working professionals.
So many professional women read, review, and follow the careers of romance writers.
LM: What advice would you give fans of the genre, who would want to write their own romance novels?
NG: So much about writing romance is ironing out a scintillating plot. A couple is placed in an impossible situation with exaggerated external conflict and big-time drama. I would advise new writers to also focus on the inner turmoil. Falling in love involves taking a risk, trusting yourself and the other, and learning to negotiate the terms of a relationship.
LM: Your second novel Unconditionally Mine was recently published by Harlequin Kimani Romance (US) and Mills and Boon (UK). What can we expect out of the second installment in the Miami Dreams series?
NG: Like my debut, Unconditionally Mine features real estate. This novel focuses on the buyer’s experience. Jon Gunther is a single professional in the market for a new home. Sofia Silva is temporarily homeless, having moved out of the condo she shared with her ex-fiancé. Essentially, it’s the story of a new couple discovering the joys of nesting! That doesn’t sound very glamorous or sexy, but I promise it is.