Shortly after its release of the anthology Who's Loving You, The Floor had a virtual chat with contributing writer and creator of said anthology Sareeta Domingo to talk about how the book came about, being a writer of colour writing romance, and how other forms of art to inform her writing.
The Floor: How did Who’s Loving You come about?
Sareeta Domingo: I had a couple of other books published that were categorised as romance and the idea just came to me to put together a collection of stories that were all romance. But it was important to me that it didn't feel like they had to adhere to a particular idea of what a romance fiction story should be like, I just wanted them to write a love story. So I had a meeting with someone from Trapeze and I said that I had been thinking about this anthology and she loved it and they acquired the project and it all progressed from there. So I kind of made a list of people who I wanted to approach, it wasn't really that long a list, and pretty much everyone who is in the book now are people who I really admire and wanted to be part of the project, and I was just really grateful that they agreed to be in it. I work as an editor in my day job so I was able to project manage this with that kind of experience and give editorial feedback to the authors.
You said your books were categorized as romance, is that not what you would categorize them as? (Trigger Warning: mention of suicide in this response)
Well to be honest, for my debut novel The Nearness of You, I didn't think about what genre I wanted it to be at all, I just kind of wrote it. Obviously there is a strong thread of romance in the story but there is other stuff going on. There are some dark themes, the protagonist finds a suicide at the beginning of the story and her mother committed suicide so she is dealing with all of that coming back up. Not that I didn’t think it was a romantic story but it didn’t immediately make me think of traditional romance. And I don’t feel like it found its audience in the way I would have wanted it to because it was marketed as though it would be a traditional romance and I don't think thats what people would have found when they started reading it.
That's interesting because I felt the same reading some of the stories on Who's Loving You, a lot of them don’t feel traditional. Was that deliberate?
Honestly all I asked each of the writers to do was to write a love story. I didn’t say don’t make it a particular way. But I guess because of the type of people I approached, and I do think it stems a bit from us all being women of color. It’s easy to write to a formula when you kind of already know what that formula would be but we don’t really get to see ourselves in traditional romance often. So it’s not like there was a blueprint that you'd be ‘oh I know I can just wrIte a typical romance trope filled kind of story.’ I just stressed that each author should feel free to write whatever they wanted, as long as it had a general theme of love.
I completely see how the fact that everyone was a woman of color would organically make for different stories, but I’m wondering if that’s something that you feel pressured to do more actively?
Not really pressure, no. I think maybe a little bit in my own writing, like in my second novel I was much more conscious of deliberately writing romance and maybe even thinking more about what you would expect from a romantic story. I didn't consider the pressure of 'what should a love story be' for this anthology at all, I certainly didn't feel like I needed to steer the authors in a particular direction that would be considered more obviously romantic or more like a love story and I think it’s worked out. I like the tone of the stories, I like the fact that they are not what you might necessarily expect.
What was getting your start in erotic fiction like?
At the time I was working at my first sort of job in publishing, and the company that I worked for won the publishing rights for Agent Provocateur, the lingerie brand. They were doing anthologies of short erotic fiction and I thought let me put my hat in the ring and see if they would be interested in me being one of these writers. They really liked my writing and commissioned me to write a few stories and a novella, which was fun to write, can’t deny that! But at the time I wasn't really consciously thinking about representation in that genre, I was just thinking “omg someone wants to publish a story I’m writing.” I think the further in I’ve gotten in my writing career, the more aware I’ve been and I think that’s true of being a writer in general, at least in my experience. You are kind of freer when you first start because there is less awareness of what the industry expects, what readers expect, what you are supposed to do as a black writer. And I think it’s good and bad that now I’m becoming more aware- and I think writers in general are becoming more aware of it.
In what ways has social media shaped that awareness as well?
I think social media in particular has made the feedback loop so much more immediate, which again is good and bad. Even places like Goodreads, there are far more platforms for people to give their opinions on what they consume. I think overall that’s probably made me and other people more aware of how they are perceived as artists, and how what they put out into the atmosphere is perceived. Obviously you don’t have to take that on board but I think if you engage with social media in any way at all it’s hard to avoid. I think it would have influenced it a bit. But also, it’s cyclical, like what happened with George Floyd last year made people much more aware of what art can contribute to that kind of conversation. And it’s not only events like that, I just think it just goes in cycles that people think “oh yeah, black people exist.” But I think the media and social media in particular has had a big influence.
Do you read romance?
I don’t read it as much as I used to. I think when I was first starting out I was much more interested in it but I became frustrated I have to say. I think romance in particular is a genre where you are constantly seeking the exact type of thing you want to read so it can be a more disappointing genre, rather than just choosing any book and being like “oh that sounds interesting.” I wanted romance stories that were well written, and reflected my experiences in some way shape or form. I started to feel like I couldn’t find that kind of thing, which is in a way why I started writing it and my second book was the type of romance book that I would have wanted to read. I did recently read Beach Read by Emily Henry. Even though the characters are white, that was much more along the lines of what I’m looking for from a romantic story. Good dialogue, palpable chemistry, all those kinds of things. But yeah it’s not a genre I really turn to that much at the moment I have to say.
On looking for specific experiences, how much of yourself do you think you include in your writing?
I don’t do that at all. I mean maybe some of the core themes. Like If I Don’t Have You, it was very important for me to have a Black woman who was ambitious, and ambitious in an artistic sense, almost to the point where even the romantic storyline was not as important to her as achieving her goals. That was something that was influenced by my own desires. But in terms of the actual storylines or romance or any of that, it’s all completely from my head.
Which is really cool, romance is really fantastical in that way.
Yeah exactly, like the story from Who’s Loving You was inspired by a photograph that I saw in the guardian at least ten years ago. I tore it out and I actually have it framed in a photo back there. But a migrant woman had washed up on the shore and a soldier was cradling her and I just thought the picture itself looked so romantic. It has nothing to do with anything I have ever experienced and I don’t know anything about surfing but I needed a reason for him to be on the beach. But yeah it’s largely just from imagination.
Yeah speaking of the surfer, there's quite a few 6ft dreaded men in the anthology.
Oh yeah [laughs]
What other kind of forms of art that you don't necessarily practice do you tap into to inspire your writing?
Music definitely. I always have music playing, I use music to adjust my mood when I’m writing. That’s probably my biggest influence, all my books have been named after songs. But also, I think because writing and working in publishing are sort of things that I know, I think a lot of the time my characters tend to be artistic in some way just because I can tap into that more easily, so even if it’s not a medium that I work in, like in If I Don’t Have You, the the guy is a filmmaker and the girl is a visual artist and journalist and those aren’t things that I practise myself. I think all the arts influence me in a way.
I want to go back to publishing. It doesn’t go unnoticed that this anthology introduces readers to a lot more women of color writers that might have not have gotten the chance to be published. What’s it like being a WoC trying to publish romantic fiction?
Challenging. I mean I think that’s such a big reason why we can't really call to mind lots of British writers other than Talia Hibbert who you could immediately think of as a romance writer, particularly in the UK. I think the challenges with being a writer of color writing romance are the same struggles that you would have in general as a writer of color, but even more so because romance is like another level of ghettoisation or whatever. I think people assume that you would probably be engaging directly with the idea of race. Whereas if you are writing a love story, that could come into it, but really you are just living your life and you fall in love and blah blah blah. So I think part of it is the expectation of what you are supposed to write, part of it is that people are not as receptive to romance and particularly if you write like I do, where you don’t really adhere to some of the obvious tropes. A lot of the time people tell me that my writing falls between two stools, it’s kind of literary and it's kind of romance, that’s harder for people to market.
A thing that romance receives criticism a lot for in general is being unrealistic, the criticism is often shrouded with cynicism. What do you think about that?
I think the danger with people who don’t read romance is that they think it is trying to give people false expectations of what reality would be, but actually as a genre I think it's much more about escape, about fantasy. It’s rare that people discuss their feelings the way they might in a romantic story, or even focus on their feelings in the way they would. It’s not supposed to be a realistic depiction and I think romance readers are generally aware of that. I think some people who are cynical about romantic fiction are looking down on both the people who write it and the people who read it. they kind of think that they're deluded but honestly, they're missing out.