Alyssa Cole standing against a backdrop of leaves.
Alyssa Cole at her home in Martinique. Nicolas D. Cole
Wide Angle

One Romance Novelist’s Fight for Diverse Love Stories

After helping to spark an explosive debate about racism in her genre, Alyssa Cole is trying something new.

In August of last year, a romance novelist named Courtney Milan tweeted a series of screenshots from a 1999 romance novel called Somewhere Lies the Moon. In those passages, Kathryn Lynn Davis, the book’s white author, describes her Chinese characters’ “slanted almond eyes” and “bronze faces, turned slightly yellow by the London climate.” Milan wrote: “As a half-Chinese person with brown eyes, seriously fuck this piece of shit.”

Soon after, Milan got an email informing her that two formal ethics complaints had been filed against her with the Romance Writers of America, an organization whose members include some 9,000 published and aspiring romance authors. One came from Davis, who was accusing Milan of “cyberbullying” and alleging that her tweets had cost Davis a publishing contract; the other came from Suzan Tisdale, a white romance writer who runs a small publishing company where Davis worked as an editor. Months passed with no word. Milan told only a few people the details of the ongoing investigation. One of those was another romance novelist: her friend Alyssa Cole.

Cole is intimately familiar with the ways the romance community’s largely white gatekeepers have resisted making the genre more inclusive. Her 2017 historical romance An Extraordinary Union, about a former slave modeled on an actual Black Civil War spy, was one of the most popular romance novels that year, even garnering praise from mainstream critics—a rare feat for a genre that tends to be siloed into the realm of guilty pleasure. But An Extraordinary Union wasn’t even nominated for one of the RWA’s own annual awards. All the finalists in the historical romance category that year were white women, all but one of whom had written books where the swoony male heroes were 19th-century British aristocrats. At the time, no Black author had ever won, in any category, since the organization started giving awards in 1982. Cole’s snub prompted its own blowback—first a flood of tweets from romance writers of color about the diversity issues they’d faced in the industry and then what felt like a hollow pledge from the RWA board to do better.

Cole was one of the first people to know when, two days before Christmas in 2019, the RWA judgment on Courtney Milan came in. Milan was found guilty of violating the “association’s express purpose of creating a ‘safe and respectful environment’ for its community of writers.” Despite the RWA’s own code of ethics outlining that “non-RWA-operated social media posts” and “honest discussions of books and similar writing” were not valid grounds for complaints, Milan had been formally censured; her membership was suspended for one year, and she was banned from holding leadership positions in the future. Cole felt she couldn’t stay silent. “I just left my body with rage,” she said. She didn’t want her friend to have to shoulder the burden of speaking out alone. So, with Milan’s permission, she leaked the judgment from the RWA’s ethics committee on Twitter. What followed was an explosive reckoning over racism in the world of romance writing, one that threatened to tear the community apart. For Cole, whose romances often deal with white backlash to racial progress, the blowup was nothing less than “America in miniature.”

Roosters crow in the background as Cole and I sip coffee together in our respective homes, some 2,000 miles apart. Cole and her husband have lived in Martinique since 2014; they moved into their current house on a rural part of the island three years ago, and the chickens have been around ever since.

Cole followed her husband, who is French, to the Caribbean after a meet cute worthy of a romance novel: They met at a mutual friend’s brunch in 2012, two weeks after Cole was dumped by someone else, and she assumed he didn’t like her because he wasn’t talking much. (In reality, it was because he couldn’t understand her fast-paced English.) “She’s sort of like the awkward romance heroine who has chickens running through her yard and trips over things,” said Milan. It’s in this house, surrounded by chickens, where Cole wrote her new book When No One Is Watching—her debut thriller and her first official foray outside of romance.

When No One Is Watching, released earlier this month, is being marketed as Rear Window meets Get Out; it’s a story about sinister forces behind the gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood. Cole has long been interested in the intersection of dreamy romance and real-world drama. Her first series of full-length novels, 2015’s Off the Grid, was a trilogy of post-apocalyptic romances that follows a multiracial group fighting to survive after the electrical power goes out. Since then, Cole’s romances have been set during the civil rights movement and the Revolutionary War, in medieval Scotland and 1917 Harlem, all dramatic backdrops for her heroines—mostly Black women—who retain and assert their agency, even if they exist in a time period where all the forces around them are designed to deprive them of it. In 2018, she published the first book in her Reluctant Royals series, a string of delicious contemporary romps through international palaces, all starring Black heroines. It landed on the New York Times’ list of 100 notable books that year.

Growing up in the Bronx and Jersey City, Cole’s early literary favorites included Anne Rice and Stephen King. She found herself most fixated on how relationships formed on page and on screen, especially in stories that had happy endings—even if they didn’t include people who looked like her.

Alyssa Cole in a yellow headwrap and holding a rooster.
Cole and her husband moved into their current house in a rural part of Martinique three years ago. Nicolas D. Cole

Her parents worked to make sure she was also surrounded by books that reflected the reality of the neighborhoods where she grew up—books by authors like Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison, and fairy tales that featured illustrations of people who looked like her. But even as books written by diverse authors were scattered around the house, the romances Cole’s mother owned mostly featured white characters written by white authors. As a kid, Cole would buy tabloid romances at supermarkets and use Wite-Out to alter the descriptions of ivory or pale skin, changing them to brown. “My career on some level is making sure people don’t have to do that,” she said. She was 11 when she read her first romance novel, Sandra Kitt’s The Color of Love, starring a Black graphic designer. For Cole, who also aspired to be a comic book artist at the time, it was a lightning rod moment, the first time she didn’t have to mentally or literally sub out the author’s descriptions in order to see herself.

Cole’s love of romance persisted into adulthood, when, while working as a production editor of a science journal in Brooklyn, she started reading Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a website founded in 2005 that’s dedicated to dissecting romance novels, and realized there was a wider community that shared her tastes. Suddenly, Cole felt inspired to try writing romance herself. “I like reading these kinds of books. There are other people who like reading these kinds of books,” she remembers thinking. “If I sit down and write a whole book, maybe someone will want to read it.”

But romance bloggers weren’t her only source of inspiration. Cole found the seeds of several of her historical romances in a more unlikely place: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, which she began following around 2008, when he was writing on comic books. As Coates began to write more about history—including the Freedom Riders and Black Civil War spies—Cole found herself asking two questions: 1) Why don’t more people know about this? and 2) What if there were kissing involved?

The cover of How To Catch A Queen by Alyssa Cole.

Black historical fiction usually evokes one of two emotions in readers: pathos or pity. There is little room for the full range of emotion Black people experienced, no matter the time period. Even in the most horrific circumstances, of course Black people fell in love. And Cole felt sure that those stories deserved to be told—not to romanticize the past but to tell the full truth of how we built lives despite this country’s best efforts to take them from us.

Not long after Cole began reading Coates’ blog, she started publishing in various small presses. Then, in 2015, her sci-fi romance trilogy Off the Grid was picked up through a Twitter pitch contest run through Carina, the digital arm of Harlequin. In 2016, Cole found an agent with the manuscript of An Extraordinary Union, which eventually landed on the desk of Esi Sogah, a senior editor at Kensington. According to the annual State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing report published by the Ripped Bodice, the West Coast’s sole romance-only bookstore, Kensington was one of two publishers whose publication list included more than 20 percent authors of color in 2019.* (Carina is the other.) “I don’t think [An Extraordinary Union] would have been published if there was not a Black editor at Kensington at that time who was willing to—I don’t want to say ‘take a risk,’ because the book was good,” Cole tells me. “I’m not trying to be egotistical. A lot of times when it comes to talking about books by Black authors, it’s like, ‘This person took a chance on me.’ Well, they take a chance with every book, but only people from marginalized groups are supposed to act all grateful and as if we’re not making money for the publisher. Esi liked it. She advocated for it. They decided to publish it.”

For many years, the only entry points into the romance industry for Black authors were specific imprints targeted at Black audiences, like Harlequin’s Kimani, which announced in 2017 that it was ceasing publication. According to novelist Beverly Jenkins, the grande dame of Black romance, it wasn’t until Black authors began publishing their books through independent presses or selling their e-books on Amazon that the industry sat up and took notice of the money it was leaving on the table. “The [women who published independently], I think, made a real difference in how Black writers and Black readers were perceived,” Jenkins said. “[That helped change] publishing’s minds that maybe they need to start doing business differently.” For the majority of Jenkins’ 30-year career, she was the only novelist writing Black historical romances with a major publisher—not because others didn’t want to but because, she says, editors were convinced that Black women didn’t read.

Now, major publishing houses regularly release books by Black romance writers, though the numbers remain very low—less than 10 percent of romance novels released by a leading publisher in 2019 were written by an author of color. (Cole has been published by HarperCollins since 2018’s A Princess in Theory.) The industry seems to very slowly be coming to terms with the fact that the person most likely to read a book in any format is a college-educated Black woman, a statistic that both Cole and Jenkins cited to me with the weary ease of someone long used to having to do so. The runaway success of authors like Jasmine Guillory, whose 2018 romance The Proposal was a New York Times bestseller, will hopefully turn the tide even faster.

Though the genre’s image in mainstream culture still evokes housewives furtively thumbing through mass-market paperbacks with Fabio on the cover and euphemisms for genitalia within, those stereotypes bear little resemblance to the $1 billion powerhouse industry as it exists today. Cole’s ascendance as a star is just one example of how romance—which accounts for 23 percent of the U.S. fiction market—has progressed past the lily-white days of yore. But the implosion of Romance Writers of America shows just how far the industry still has to go.

Shortly after Cole tweeted about Courtney Milan’s reprimand from the RWA ethics committee, #IStandWithCourtney started trending on Twitter. Heavyweights of the genre threw their support behind Milan, including bestselling romance novelist Nora Roberts. The judgment against Milan was reversed and the organization canceled its annual awards ceremony, the Rita awards, after hundreds of authors pulled out in protest and threatened not to renew their memberships. A petition seeking the resignation of the RWA’s then-president, Damon Suede, began circulating online. (In response to a request for comment, Suede said in part: “I have no feelings about Alyssa Cole leaking the documents she did. I am well aware that many people have identified me as a convenient target because I present as a white cis male. … I fully support all honest reportage, but I am weary of carrying blame for events enacted by other people.”)

In the spring, a new board of directors issued an apology to Milan and announced that they would be renaming the Rita awards in honor of the organization’s founder Vivian Stephens, a Black woman. (The writer whose book Milan tweeted about, Kathryn Lynn Davis, did not respond to a request for comment. But she told the New York Times in December that she would not have filed a complaint if Milan had been more “professional.”) To Cole, the cultural and media response to the controversy has misunderstood its stakes. “I think people try to make it into just about Courtney,” she said. “It wasn’t just RWA versus Courtney. It was RWA versus the idea of Courtney and what Courtney represented, which was a pledge for diversity.”

In many ways, the RWA scandal was an early harbinger—one of the first sparks of the racial reckoning that spread like wildfire across so many industries in the wake of this summer’s protests. But to many within the romance community, the changes prompted by this blowup feel long overdue. Vivian Stephens, who co-founded the organization in 1980, explained in a recent Texas Monthly interview that she left when it became clear that her white RWA colleagues were more interested in creating a social club that hosted lavish parties than in actually changing the face of the publishing industry. She offered to act as an adviser when it became clear that the organization’s leadership had little idea how to—or will to—engage with the frustrations of their increasingly diverse membership. No one took her up on it.

Cole has long found that white readers displace their discomfort with her books by nitpicking for grammar errors or suggesting that her stories are unrealistic—while the billionth story by a white author of a duke marrying a maid does not receive the same scrutiny. And some readers are very clear that historical romance about slavery is not the kind of fantasy they’re looking for.It was so uncomfortable for me … that I know I’ll never be able to reread it, and that’s my criteria for a five star review,” said one Goodreads commenter about Cole’s A Hope Divided, which is set during the Civil War. But when Cole and writers like her include racism in their romances, it’s not to make white readers uncomfortable or to ruin the escapism associated with a genre that, by definition, must end happily. Leaving the realities of life as a Black woman on the cutting room floor isn’t escapism to those who experience them—it is erasure. “People just want to write love stories,” Cole told me, her voice breaking with frustration. And yet in the face of so many structural challenges, she’s found that the very act of writing about Black romance inevitably feels political. “You literally have to become an activist to write a story about two people meeting and falling in love,” she said. She’s fighting, in her words, the “ingrained resistance to the idea of a Black woman in a stable relationship that is indicative of love—not of sex, of love.”

Cole hasn’t abandoned romance for good. The first book in her new Runaway Royals series comes out in December, and sparks fly between the two main characters in When No One Is Watching. But her temporary departure from the genre was certainly inspired in part by the frustrations of working within it. She recalls the anger that built as she approached the end of An Unconditional Freedom and realized that, as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t actually kill off Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. Alongside the bone-deep rage that comes with knowing the sheer horrors Black people have faced in America was her knowledge that one act wouldn’t change the past. Assassinating Davis would just feel like a cheap, superficial swipe at historical revisionism when the real evils were far bigger than one bad man.

The cover of An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole.

And so Cole’s new thriller When No One Is Watching deals with the cycles of racism that define American history—cycles that directly contradict the idea that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. There’s a moment early on in the book when the protagonist, a Black Brooklyn native, finds herself on a tour of her own gentrifying neighborhood. Her exchanges with the white tour guide are tense, especially when she interrupts to supplement the details of “the lives of rich white people who lived there a hundred years ago” with details about the lives of Black people who lived there more recently—and were pushed out to make room for a new set of rich white people, all part of the cycle of white flight and redlining, disinvestment and gentrification. As the tour guide waves the group onward, the protagonist laughs to herself that “annoying people with history they don’t want to acknowledge is kind of fun.” That line might as well be describing Cole’s whole career. “I try not to be the characters that I write, but that’s basically my artist statement,” Cole laughs.

Cole’s decision to leak the RWA documents can also be read as part of her general commitment to “annoying” people with history they might not want to acknowledge. It’s a commitment that seems to bond together a new generation of Black romance writers, from Cole to Vanessa Riley to Jasmine Guillory to Piper Huguley, who are writing Black women who don’t have to be inhumanly strong in order to be loved. That new generation, Jenkins told me, allows her to no longer be “worried about the state of African American romance going forward. I consider them all my nieces. My life would be a lot poorer without them.”

To Cole, writing thrillers and romance novels is not as different as it might seem. When you’re telling a love story, “you still have to create a tension and suspense,” she says. “You really have to make the readers think that the couple is not going to get together at the end, even though they picked up the book because the couple is going to get together at the end.” And while When No One Is Watching doesn’t end with the dismantling of systemic oppression, it still—without giving away any details—gets as close to one of her beloved happy endings as it can. “Sometimes, you just want some catharsis,” she laughs. “I just want the kind of media white [readers] have been getting for their entire lives.”

Correction, Sept. 25, 2020: This piece originally misstated that the Ripped Bodice is the U.S.’s sole romance-only bookstore. It is the sole romance-only bookstore on the West Coast.