Race and the Real Paris

I try not to look at reviews of my books too often. They’re not written for me. But it’s difficult around the release of a new book, because I’m excited and I want to share in the joy of the readers who like the book. I have got better at avoiding the negative reviews (which are doubly not intended for me to read), but with Twenty-One Nights in Paris, there was one in particular, early on, which influenced a lot of other reviews and I struggled to move past it.

What made this review different? I’m not going to link to it or in any way reduce that reader’s right to their analysis. But the review suggested my handling of the issue of race in Twenty-One Nights in Paris revealed latent white-woman racism on my part. This was something I felt a duty to examine myself. I was shocked and upset, when I read it – very upset. And I had to examine the influences behind the characters afresh.

Just as that person’s review was not intended for me to read, also this response is not intended for that reviewer to read, and it has taken me this long to decide to post anything at all. But, now that I’ve examined what went on behind the scenes of Twenty-One Nights in Paris, I feel it’s important to share with the small audience of my blog.

When I set out to write a book about Paris, one of the only things that was clear to me from the beginning was that the hero was not going to be called Jacques Dubois – i.e. the hero was not going to be a white Frenchman. Paris has been a melting-pot of cultures for centuries; many of the greatest developments and the golden ages of Paris have happened because of the richness of cultural exchange and on the back of colonialism. I could not write Paris without acknowledging this.

So, my first point is that I didn’t engage with this topic by accident. I set out to react against the assumption that French people are white and to highlight the richness of multicultural Paris.

I am in reality a white woman, as the reviewer suspected. Although I am an immigrant, I am well aware that my experience is vastly different from the experience a non-white immigrant and I would never write a book exploring the hard truths of racism in society, particularly not French society. I’m also not an heiress, like the female main character in Twenty-One Nights in Paris. What I do is write romance, where characters overcome a variety of obstacles in life and themselves, to find a way for love to win.

Working under the assumption that most readers understand the racist behaviour of the antagonists in the story is clearly unfair and bigoted, the main criticism which landed with me, was the suggestion that Sacha was racist towards himself. This struck me deeply, because that would seriously undermine everything I was purposefully trying to communicate with this story. It took me a long time to gain perspective on this issue, because it upset me so much.

With the distance of about six weeks, I’ve thought about it again (I’ve thought about it A LOT in the intervening time), and reminded myself of every time in the book where Sacha celebrates, respects and values his upbringing. As I was researching and writing, I made an effort to let poetry and stories, music and history from the Middle East influence my writing and Sacha’s thoughts.

I read and loved Amin Maalouf’s novel Samarkand and I know some of the whimsical philosophy, the mythical nature of history and knowledge and the attempted expression of unknowable mysteries crept into Twenty-One Nights in Paris.

Sacha doesn’t value brands and appearances, aristocratic history or political power. He values books and people and each individual’s history, and I believe this is what most readers recognise, given the Amazon reviews coming in are overwhelmingly positive (2/3 are five stars at the moment). Perhaps this one reader thought Sacha believed he was unworthy of Ren, because he is unwilling to become a part of her life and cause trouble for both of them. If that is why the reviewer wrote what she wrote, then perhaps I was naive in my writing, or too subtle. But I know what I was trying to do. Sacha understands his own worth, but he’s a realist and cares deeply for others.

Yes, he is a character of colour written by a white person. But I’m still glad Sacha is called Sacha Mourad and not Jacques Dubois. And I’m especially glad that he gets his happily-ever-after on his own terms, that he is my sexy Parisian romance hero.

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