Friday, July 27, 2018

My impressions of the 2018 RWA Rita Awards' Ceremony

Disclaimer: There’s a lot of talk happening on Twitter and elsewhere about the Rita Awards’ ceremony and particularly about Suzanne Brockmann’s lifetime achievement award acceptance speech - most of it by authors way more qualified to give their opinions than I am. I didn’t attend the actual event and only watched it via live stream, and I live in South Africa rather than the US, so you might well wonder why you should read my opinions on the event. My answer is that I’m an RWA member and a romance writer, and that’s all the reason I need to add my voice to the din.

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A week ago, at the RWA’s national conference in Denver, Colorado, the 2018 Rita Awards’ ceremony was held. I set an alarm for 3am local time to watch the event live on the RWA’s website in support of my friend Natasha Anders who was nominated for her contemporary romance The Wingman.

Natasha’s category was the second of the night, and I was sorely tempted to power down my laptop and go back to sleep after the winner of her category was announced (sadly, Natasha didn’t win, but I hope she knows just how awesome she is for having been nominated!). I’m glad I didn’t, though, because the rest of the show was well worth watching.


There were three things that stood out for me at this year’s awards ceremony:
  1. Acceptance Speeches: I called this ceremony a ‘show’ and since I was watching it at home on a screen, it felt very much a TV show. Like any awards ceremony, all those “I’d like to thank my editor, my agent, my parents, my kids and my fans” speeches can get a little dull, important as they are. Same for the little video inserts of writers talking about their writing friends, which all got a bit ‘samey’ after a while and didn’t really add value for me as a viewer. The moments that stood were those where the authors got personal: the winners who shared the trials and hardships of their journey, and who used their speeches to motivate other writers, like when Helen Kay Dimon said that “writing is a solitary business, but surviving it isn’t”. But I think my personal favorite was Stephanie Rowe’s speech, as read by Trish Millburn, about fighting through the tough times in our lives, which felt as if it was directed right at me!
  2. Suzanne Brockmann: So much has been said about Suzanne’s acceptance speech for the Nora Roberts’ Lifetime Achievement Award. I won’t re-hash it all here, except to say that she rocks. Her speech was passionate, honest, challenging and brave, and I admire her so much for standing up for what she believes in. She urged the audience to choose right over nice, to be brave. It inspired me, made me feel stronger, more determined and more courageous. You can watch it here - it's roughly at the middle of the video. 
  3. Kristan Higgins: Suzanne’s speech came in the middle of the ceremony, and afterwards the program returned to more awards being given out and more acceptance speeches. Watching from my bed in South Africa, unable to experience the mood of the room, it seemed as if everyone was vehemently trying to ‘carry on as normal’ and ignore the elephant that had been released into the room by her speech. I was disappointed. Was everyone going to ignore her stirring words and pretend it hadn’t happened? Did they not know what to say? Did they disagree? Were they too afraid to comment? Sure, some of the winners weren’t American and maybe felt that it was not their place to address the issue, but as members of the human race, and as members of RWA, I’d say this is an issue that affects us all. Then Kristan Higgins won the award for best mainstream novel with romantic elements. She was the only winner other than Suzanne Brockmann to use her platform to make a difference, and to speak out for marginalized authors. I was already a Kristan Higgins fan before her acceptance speech, but now I’m an even bigger fan.

Watching online it was impossible to tell how these speeches were received by the audience, but I gather from friends who were there that the response was mostly very supportive, though I gather there were some sour faces and a few walk outs. (Really - romance writers who took offense at the idea that everyone is worthy of love?!)

Suzanne Brockmann at the 2018 Rita Awards

Clearly, I only follow authors on Twitter who share my views, because I haven’t seen any negativity following the ceremony, but I gather that a great many RWA members have spoken out against Suzanne and Kristan getting ‘political’ at the awards ceremony. Should anyone be reading this post and agreeing that politics and romance should be kept separate, I’d like to say three things:
  • Romance novels are about relationships between people. That’s not political. That’s part of being human. So authors talking about the relationships between people, about the way that other authors are treated, about the way that our characters are treated, is not politics. It’s part of what we do and what we are. Our books do not exist in isolation. They are a reflection of the wider world, and we should be concerned with how we reflect the world in our books. Again, that’s not politics, that’s part of being a romance writer and a decent human being.
  • On the other hand, everything we do is political. The choice to people our books only with white, straight characters, or to include a diverse range of characters, is a political decision. The choice to frame people who are different from us as friends, allies and superiors, or as foreign, subservient or villainous, is a political decision. Even when we think we’re not being political, we are.
  • Neither Suzanne Brockmann nor Kristan Higgins advocated voting for a specific party or candidate. They therefore did not ‘get political’, in my opinion. They called on their audience to vote for what they believe in. That’s a call to action, and one I ferociously defend. I live in a country where people died for the right to vote, where people were exiled and imprisoned for fighting for the right to vote. It is a basic human right that is still denied in many parts of the world, and it saddens me that too many people in democratic countries take that right for granted and do not exercise it. I support every person, whether they’re a politician, an author, a school kid, or the person I pass by on the street, who promotes this call to action.

I whole-heartedly endorse the RWA’s push to be more inclusive and to repair the mistakes of the past. I encourage them to ignore the naysayers and to stand by their convictions, and I would further encourage them to re-affirm their support of outspoken members like Suzanne Brockmann by inviting her back to speak again at the RWA national conference in the near future.

The RWA (and other organizations like it) have so much more to gain by being inclusive, by standing up for the right of all its members to be treated with equal respect and fairness, and by embracing diversity, than by appeasing those who resist change.

Sure, they may lose members who find it offensive to give equal opportunities and respect to people of color or members of the LGBTQ community or other religions, but personally I don’t count that as a loss. Besides, that loss would be offset by the gain of large numbers of new members who previously felt marginalized and excluded.

If the RWA gives in to pressure from members who want to keep the organization white, straight and Christian, and returns to that ‘safer’ time when they avoided anything that might be divisive or cause offence, they have so much more to lose: loss of members who believe in basic human rights such as equality and dignity (me included), loss of their role as representatives of and advocates for the wider writing community, and loss of respect in the global writing community. They will lose their relevance as well as the majority of their financial support.

However, if they stand by authors like Suzanne Brockmann, Kristan Higgins, and all those many, many marginalized LGBTQ and non-white authors, the RWA has so much more to gain: international respect, the ability to claim that they represent the entire romance writing community, and a much wider financial base.

As an RWA member, and someone who has faith in what this organization stands for, and what it can achieve, I hope they choose the latter course.

#LoveIsLoveIsLoveIsLove

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