Racism dispute roils romance writers group
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Racism dispute roils romance writers group
The dispute arose over the group’s treatment of Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee who last summer criticized Kathryn Lynn Davis’ novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon” on Twitter as a “racist mess.”

by Concepción de León

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- A dispute over a racism accusation and how it was handled have upended the romance writers’ community, with bestselling novelists speaking out against the Romance Writers of America and most of the powerful, 9,000-member trade organization’s board resigning in the last days of the year.

The RWA on Monday said it was hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.” The dispute arose over the group’s treatment of Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee who last summer criticized Kathryn Lynn Davis’ novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon” on Twitter as a “racist mess.”

Milan, who is Chinese American, took issue with the depiction of 19th-century Chinese women in the book, including a description of “slanted almond eyes” and a quote from a character describing them as “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be.” “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women,” Milan wrote on Twitter.

Davis, who is an honorary RWA member, disagreed with Milan’s assessment, saying her book was historically accurate and based on years of research. She filed an ethics complaint with the RWA, saying that Milan’s comments were “cyberbullying” and cost her a publishing contract.

“I would not have filed a complaint if she had been more professional,” Davis said of Milan.

In her response to the complaint, Milan said that the RWA’s ethics code does not cover discussions on social media accounts it doesn’t operate, and said of her criticism: “I am emotional about these issues. Negative stereotypes of Chinese women have impacted my life, the life of my mother, my sisters, and my friends.”

As a result of that complaint and one from another writer, Suzan Tisdale, who employs Davis at a publishing imprint and said she had lost potential authors as a result of the controversy, the RWA told Milan earlier last week that her membership was suspended and she was banned for life from holding leadership positions within the organization.

Milan called the judgment “a form of betrayal” and shared the documents associated with the complaint with her friend and fellow romance writer Alyssa Cole, who posted them to Twitter.

“If it was now RWA’s policy that talking about a book and specifically saying negative things about a book as a marginalized author was going to get you banned from the organization,” Milan said, “I felt that other marginalized people in the organization needed to know that.”

Once the documents were on social media, other writers, including bestselling romance novelists like Nora Roberts and Cynthia Eden, voiced their support for Milan. The RWA quickly reversed course on its judgment, but eight board members resigned as well as former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of Damon Suede, the RWA’s new president, began circulating online.

Some of the backlash was from writers and members who felt that the dispute wasn’t handled with enough transparency. The RWA formed a separate group to address the complaints, for example, and didn’t inform the ethics committee, which Milan previously led, about them.

The RWA, in addition to announcing it would hire an outside firm Monday, criticized members who it said “inappropriately shared personal and/or private information which has legal consequences and has resulted in members feeling threatened, exposed, and unsafe. This is unacceptable behavior. As writers we know more than most, words have consequences.”

Previously, in the message to its members, it called the incidents of the past weeks a “turning point.” “We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that,” it said, while reiterating its commitment to “the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do.”

The genre for years has grappled with calls for greater diversity. Romance writers and the characters they create are overwhelmingly white, even as romance publishers have said they want to release more books by writers of color.

Davis, who filed one of the complaints, said she was “stunned” by the RWA’s judgment against Milan and said the penalty “far exceeded the substance of the complaint.” “We asked for an apology. That was what we wanted,” she said.

HelenKay Dimon, who was president of RWA until her term ended in late August, said that she thought there had been a series of breakdowns in the process and is calling for a full audit.

“People care enough to get that upset,” she said. Now, the organization needs to “step up and take responsibility and have a plan.”

“I think the organization and the membership and the people who drove this decision are not the same things,” Milan said. “The response of the membership should be heartening to anyone who cares about diversity in RWA and romance.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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