Content Warning: This post deals with racism and genocide against indigenous peoples

As with much of the controversy in the book world, the first time I heard about it was in a subtweet that I didn’t understand. After a minute of scrolling, the matter was clear: On Saturday evening, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) announced that Karen Witemeyer’s At Love’s Command had won the VIVIAN award for “Romance with religious or spiritual elements”. In the prologue, which you can read in the Amazon preview, the romantic “hero” of the book is a captain who, after thirteen years of “Indian fighting”, takes part in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Wounded Knee was a massacre of nearly 300 mostly unarmed Lakota people – including women, children, and the elderly – in 1890.

In this prologue, Matt mentions that he was motivated to enter the profession after “finding his parents and little sister murdered by a Comanche war party,” leading to a comment that suggests what is happening is justified by the actions of indigenous people. He preferred it when they were “docile”. The other soldiers who were involved in the forcible displacement of indigenous people who had lived in the country for millennia, he described as “good men”. (He also calls women the “weaker sex,” but this post isn’t about that.)

Matt is concerned that the “medicine man chant” is fueling defiance, mocking his men, and inciting the Lakota “warriors”. He then asks another soldier for a Bible verse to ground him by contrasting his own religion with the religious practices of the local people and calling the latter “exactly what they didn’t need.” At this point I would like to point out a longstanding criticism of the category “romance with religious or spiritual elements”: that no other religion or spiritual practice except Christianity had hope of victory.

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When filming began, he said he could “not let the women and children escape, but he could take them into custody”. When he tries to get one of the older women to follow him out of hand-to-hand combat, she is portrayed as “blaming him and his kind” and he says, “She would rather die with her people than one white man to follow in safety “. “Which means that she didn’t trust him just because he was white, not because people wearing the same uniform as him were literally shooting cannons at their families.

At the end of the prologue, Matt is upset about what happened, calling it a massacre, but also says, “This should be a simple weapon confiscation. An escort to the reserve. ”There is no recognition that this, too, the expulsion of the indigenous population at gunpoint and the disempowerment of their powers, is reprehensible.

And that’s our award-winning love hero. After the prologue, he leaves the army to work with a group of mercenaries who “defend the innocent.” He may have done some self-reflection and tried to atone for his sins, but the fact is, this novel paints a soldier who is considered to have been involved in 13 years of “Indian hunting”, a genocidal massacre and the forcible removal of an entire population from their ancestral homelands romantic figure.

Many of the online commentaries equated this story with Nazi romances, one of which was also recently awarded the RWA’s RITA Prize. It’s also worth noting that several people raised issues with this book when it was announced as a finalist in April. To add insult to injury, this book won an award named after a black woman, symbolizing the organization’s commitment to solving the problems of race recognition. This award, bestowed so soon after hundreds of unmarked graves of indigenous children in compulsory boarding schools run by religious authorities, were discovered, turns the knife even further.

This is far from being RWA’s first misstep. In December 2019, there was a major controversy in which the Sino-American novelist and former Romance Writers of America (RWA) board member and Chair of the Ethics Committee Courtney Milan was sanctioned by the RWA for publicly calling for racist representations in a book. Years earlier, the RITAs were criticized at their annual awards, among other things, for the lack of various finalists. There was also a time when RWA tried to define romance as “between a man and a woman”.

In May 2020 RWA announced that they were withdrawing the RITAs, revising their awards and launching the Vivian Awards, named after RWA founder Vivian Stephens. RWA has created new assessment guidelines and new assessment guidelines. I spoke to two judges who participated in Round 1 and Round 2 of the evaluation; They said there was no room for comments on the assessment, despite the fact that in a training session the team asked the judges to email them if triggers or warnings came up in any text. No steps were taken on what the jury should do if they came across a book that should not be considered for an award due to its harmful content. They also pointed out that all judges had to watch a 45-minute video that discussed diversity, implicit bias, and cultural literacy. They were disgusted with winning this book and weren’t rated for that category either, but they said the new process felt like an improvement over the previous one. However, with only one non-white winner and (as far as I can tell) no LGBTQIA + stories going to end, many wonder if these improvements had any impact.

After the big upheaval in late 2019, a new diversified board was elected with promises to turn things around. I know, or know several of these people personally, and they are really great people with the best of intentions. They gave me and many others hope for the future of RWA, but many members and former members see this award as a sign that the same old problems persist. There are still many members of the organization who do not want change and even some who are actively undermining all attempts to move forward. How much can these directors do with such a large contingent of their own organization fighting against diversity and inclusion efforts?

The Vivian Awards should be a fresh start for RWA, but bestowing the highest honor in the romance genre on a book that romanticizes a tragedy that the US Congress apologized for in 1990 seems more like the same old stuff.

Editor’s note: A second comment from an RWA judge has been added to this article since its publication.