Love is the stuff of fairytales — but what if you're a fan who never sees yourself in romance novels? For Black women, that question isn't hypothetical. In fact, according to The Ripped Bodice bookstore's annual "State of Racial Diversity In Romance Publishing" report, "for every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2017, only 6.2 were written by people of color." (The study did not specify how many were written by Black authors.) The data is grim — but many authors have made it their mission to write Black love in all its beauty and complexity.
"One of the reasons that I wanted to write romances with Black women at the center was because I didn’t grow up reading books where I could see myself experiencing joy," romance author Jasmine Guillory tells Bustle. "So many of the books I read as a kid and teen about other Black girls and women were about struggle, and I wanted books about Black girls having fun and falling in love, just like the books about white girls I read."
Bustle asked two writers — romance novelist Jasmine Guillory and young adult author Nicola Yoon — about why it's so important to write Black women who are happy, loved, and in love. Guillory released two romance novels in 2018 — The Wedding Date and The Proposal, which was recently selected by Reese Witherspoon as the Hello Sunshine book club pick for February. In 2019, she plans to release The Wedding Party, her third romance novel with a Black woman at the center. (You can read an excerpt at Bustle!) Yoon has published two young adult novels with major romantic plots — Everything, Everything and The Sun Is Also A Star, both of which have been adapted into films. (The Sun Is Also A Star hits theaters in May, but you can watch a trailer now.) In the conversation below, Guillory and Yoon discuss Black love, Black books, and Black joy.
Jasmine Guillory: Hi Nicola! You’ve written two fantastic young adult books — Everything Everything and The Sun is also a Star, both of which have been turned into movies! Why are you drawn to write young adult books, and why love stories?
Nicola Yoon: Thanks, Jasmine! I’m such a fan of both The Wedding Date and The Proposal and I can’t wait for The Wedding Party.
I love writing YA because young adults are naturally philosophical people. By virtue of their age, they’re experiencing most things — kisses, love, etc. — for the first time. They’re questioning the world around them and their place in it. They’re asking big questions: What’s the meaning of life? Who am I and who do I want to be? How do I do good in the world? It’s such an exciting and definitive time. As someone who is also very philosophical, I love being a part of a conversation with an audience asking big, important questions about the world around them.
Jasmine, one of the (many, many) things I love about your books is that they’re diverse. Can you talk to me about the importance of seeing Black girls and women in leading roles in romance?
"I love writing YA because young adults are naturally philosophical people. By virtue of their age, they’re experiencing most things — kisses, love, etc. — for the first time."
Guillory: Thank you so much, Nicola! One of the reasons that I wanted to write romances with Black women at the center was because I didn’t grow up reading books where I could see myself experiencing joy. So many of the books I read as a kid and teen about other Black girls and women were about struggle, and I wanted books about Black girls having fun and falling in love, just like the books about white girls I read. Did you have a similar experience?
Yoon: Yeah, I did have a very similar experience. When I was growing up I hardly ever saw girls that looked like me any book, let alone romance. If there was a Black girl in a romantic comedy, she was usually the best friend sidekick or the cautionary tale. Even now in 2019, Black women and girls are not often portrayed as smart or soft or vulnerable or beautiful or joyous. We don’t usually get to see them being philosophical about life and love. We don’t often get to see them being the hero of the story and have their Happily Ever After. It’s important to me that my readers know that Black and brown girls are worthy of loving and being loved because so often that space has been denied to us.
"One of the reasons that I wanted to write romances with Black women at the center was because I didn’t grow up reading books where I could see myself experiencing joy."
Guillory: Yes the sassy best friend sidekick! I got so tired of her, even though I always loved those characters. I always wanted them to have their own starring role!
What has surprised you, and hasn’t surprised you, about the reception for your books?
Yoon: I get letters on an almost daily basis from Black and brown girls who tell me that my books are the first time they’ve ever seen someone who looks like them in a love story. It surprises and doesn’t at the same time. I’m so happy they’ve found their way to my books and that it’s meant something to them. At the same time, I’m frustrated that it’s 2019 and there is still such a gap in representation.
Guillory: I know that I wish I had your books when I was a teenager!
So, this is the month of Valentine’s Day, and we both write romances, so I have to ask: Do you believe in true love? What about soulmates?
"I get letters on an almost daily basis from Black and brown girls who tell me that my books are the first time they’ve ever seen someone who looks like them in a love story."
Yoon: Yes, yes, yes to true love! As for soulmates, I really believe that if you’re very lucky and remain open to the world, you can find the person you were meant to be with. I believe it because I found mine.
Guillory: I definitely believe in true love, I don’t think I could write these stories if I didn’t! As for soulmates, I think I believe more in the concept of kindred spirits (thanks, Anne Shirley!) Because I think some people are just drawn to one another, whether romantically or platonically, and I’m happy for all the love there is out there in the world!
Switching topics a little, how do you write? I think I saw on your Instagram that you write by hand first, is that right?
Do you have a concept of the story before you write, or do you just dive in?
Yoon: Yes, I do write by hand. Most days I’m up at 4:00 AM and write into Moleskine notebooks. For me, early morning longhand allows me to turn off my internal editor and write all the weird stuff that occurs to me. In terms of where I begin a story, I usually hear the character in my head and have a general idea of my theme. I outline a very loose three act structure before I begin.
I’d love to hear more about your process, Jasmine? Do you outline before you begin? Plot or characters first?
Guillory: I usually start with a situation: for The Wedding Date, it was “What would happen if a woman and a man got stuck in an elevator together and ended up as wedding dates?” For The Proposal it was “What would happen if someone got proposed to over a Jumbotron and said no?” And then from there I think of characters who would make the situation the most fun and interesting to write about. I always outline, though my outlines are often sketchy when I start out, and I keep filling them and rounding them out as I write. I invariably divert from my outline as I discover more about my characters and figure out what they would and wouldn’t do so I tend to check back in with my outline periodically. I write pretty messy first drafts, but by the time I’m done with my first draft I usually understand how to fix a lot of the mess. And when I’m working on a first draft, I try to write every day, even for a little while, because it keeps the characters and their problems and their worries in my head.
What are you working on right now?
Yoon: I’m working on my third young adult novel. I can’t say what it’s about yet because my editor will murder me if I do.
Jasmine, will there be many, many more romance books written by you for me to devour in my future?
"And when I’m working on a first draft, I try to write every day, even for a little while, because it keeps the characters and their problems and their worries in my head."
Guillory: I hope so! Book three, The Wedding Party, all about two of Alexa’s best friends from The Wedding Date and their secret fling, comes out in July! I’m currently working on Book four, the title of which is a secret, but you’ll hopefully find out a lot more about soon!
What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring authors?
Yoon: Be kind to yourself and persevere. If you’re struggling with a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, an act, an entire book, don’t beat yourself up about it. Please know that published authors are struggling right alongside you and we’re cheering for you. Keep going. Keep going.
Guillory: My advice is to read as much as you can, and ignore anyone who tries to judge what you’re reading. Read what interests you, read books other people recommend to see if you like them, read books other people say are bad to see if you like those! The more you read, the more you learn about how to write and how to craft a story. And don’t let rejection get you down; it happens to all of us! Take breaks if you need to, read craft books to improve your writing if they help you (they don’t help everyone!), but keep writing, keep submitting your work, keep trying. It took me years to get published, and I almost gave up more than once in that time, and I’m so glad I didn’t.