Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Fruit Hat or No Fruit Hat? You Decide.

I recently finished reading Anjali Banerjee's Imaginary Men, an "India-Lit" book, for lack of a better term, that was a featured read in Target stores. I met Anjali a few years ago, when I had just sold to Kensington's now-defunct latina romance line, Encanto, and I remember her telling me she wrote romance with Indian characters and wondering whether there would ever be a market for such things.

Happily, there is now a market, as Anjali has sold two India lit books and is working on a third, and she also has a couple of YA novels featuring Indian characters in print.

As for Imaginary Men, it centers around Lina Ray, a San Francisco-based matchmaker whose own lovelife has taken a nosedive since the death of her philandering fiance. Her family, concerned about her being alone "at her age," seems to pin their own happiness and contentment on her finding a husband, so, to get them off her back and perhaps make them happy for a moment, Lina makes up a fiance. Naturally, her lie spins out of control, and she spends the rest of the book untangling herself from the mess she's created. Not to mention that she meets a bona fide prince while in India, who looks like the man of her dreams, but acts like an old-fashioned chauvinist--but maybe it's all a cover for a sensitive guy underneath who really could be "the one."

Anjali's executes a tried-and-true premise beautifully, making it new by weaving in the colors and textures of India and accurately portraying the careful balancing act all of us who are caught between two cultures have to face. The characters are vibrant and the family is a crack-up. It's charming, it's fun, I love it, go read it.

Anyway, I was telling Anjali how much I liked her book, and we started talking about whether having our books labeled "latina lit" or "India lit" helps or hurts. My first instinct in her case was that it helps--the sari-wearing figure on her front cover made the book stand out in the rows and rows of chick lit at the store. But is that a good thing for everyone? she asked. Or does stamping a book with the race or ethnicity of its characters turn off some readers?

Good question.

Don't think I'm calling readers racist. I'm talking about preferences, just like my husband's preference for non-cyberpunk, non-comedic, Very Serious Sci-Fi with Intricate World-Building and Realistic Scientific Details. Maybe some readers just want to get to the heart of the story and don't want a lot of fussy details about another country or the occasional Spanish or Bengali word dropped in to puzzle them. Maybe others don't care for plots where cultural identity plays a big theme, like I don't care for comedic historicals. Maybe some would rather read about a heroine who shares their own cultural background, the way I turn to books witih latinas (and half-latinas) again and again.

So, again, does it help or hurt a book to be labeled ethnic fiction? It certainly hasn't hurt bestselling authors like Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, but I wonder if the publishing houses even know when it applies to newer latina lit (or India lit, or Korea lit, or...) authors without tons of marketing support behind them. My friend and excellent writer Caridad Pineiro (there's a tilda over that N, just in case I can't figure out how to put one there) wrote a chick lit novel with a latina heroine called Tori Got Lucky for Pocket. I loved this catchy, memorable title, but Pocket decided to change it to Sex and the South Beach Chicas (out in September!), to make it more obvious that the book featured latina characters. Would Caridad's book appeal to more people with her first title, or with the second, actual title? Would it be better to make it appeal to a wider audience with a title like Tori Got Lucky, so that a reader who might not look at an obviously latin-themed cover might pick it up and be enticed by the cover blurb/story--and then market it in specialized outlets aimed at reaching latinas (Latina magazine, targeted newspaper and radio ads, etc.)? Or does stamping a book with a certain cultural identity make it look fresh and unique when it's lined up on a Barnes & Noble table with countless other books?

I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. Just something to ponder for the day.


Jen said...

I like this topic. I have to say that for me (total white bread girl) I don't like categorized books that much. If something is labeled "Latino" or "African American" I tend to think I won't have anything in common with the characters. It's not that I'm not interested, but I'm reading romance for entertainment. I probably would have bought the first title and not the second. I wonder if the emphasis is more divisive than inclusive? I'd like to see a lot less focus on the diffences and more on the similiarities. Maybe I'm way off though.

Tracy Montoya said...

I appreciate your honesty, Jen. I think a lot of readers gravitate toward protagonists that are similar to themselves--maybe that's why when I read mainstream and genre fiction, I gravitate toward books by women! You have to wonder which title would do better. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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