I’M NO LONGER FUNNY, I WANT BETTER REP (Okay, I’m a little funny)
Hi, my name is Priyanka Taslim. I’m the author of the upcoming young adult romantic comedy novel, THE LOVE MATCH, releasing from Simon & Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint on May 3rd 2022 in the U.S. and the U.K. It’s my absolute pleasure to write this post about humor, #comedy, and #romcoms for BIPOC Bookshelf.
For a very long time, some of the few acceptable roles for characters of color have been those providing comic relief. The funny BFF, the snarky side character, the butts of rude (often racist) jokes, the class clown. For South Asians in particular, even protagonists of what rare series we lead are often comedians. There’s Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj with his hilarious but incisive commentary, Kal Penn who was one of the two Asian heroes in the often-cringey Harold and Kumar (because it leveled crude, racist jokes at its protagonists). When you branch out to side characters and ensemble casts, there’s also Kunal Nayyar, Hannah Simone, Tiya Sircar, etc., etc., etc.
The list goes...well, not on and on, because there’s still a dearth of South Asians, and other BIPOC, in Hollywood and publishing (and I’m sure many other fields). According to a comprehensive study of more than 1300 films between 2007 and 2019, from USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, “Asian and Pacific Islanders accounted for less than 6 percent of speaking roles and less than 4 percent of leads and co-leads in Hollywood films.” Meanwhile, in the overall industry of publishing, only 7% self-reported to Lee & Low as being Asian for its 2019 diversity baseline survey released in early 2020.
For a piece about humor, that’s pretty sad, huh?
Still, I can see why BIPOC are often pigeon-holed into comedic roles, even when you remove white #gatekeepers from the equation. In my own life, I often relied on humor, being the funny kid, as a way to stave off darker emotions that stemmed from the bigotry I faced. In essence, I laughed so I wouldn’t cry, laughed along with my bullies because it felt marginally better to laugh with, than be laughed at. (Growing up in post-9/11 America as an anxious brown Muslim girl whose parents were from a country most people hadn’t even heard of was Not Fun.)
But now that I’m an adult who works with kids like the lonely teen I once was, and more importantly, writes for them, I can safely say that’s no longer enough.
Joy is an act of resistance, and young children of color, all BIPOC, deserve three dimensional representation with humor that punches up rather than down and portrays us as the layered human beings we are.
So that’s why I’m here to give you a few tips on how to write #humor, specifically in the arena of romantic comedy. Like with all advice doled out in publishing, however, remember that your mileage may vary and that things that work for me may not work for you. That’s okay!
In 2014, the We Need Diverse Books movement took off, changing the game for authors of color and other marginalized writers in publishing. But despite the best efforts of the pioneers involved, the aforementioned Lee & Low diversity survey reveals there’s ample work left to do, with the overall #publishing industry continuing to be nearly 80% white.
This means all stories by authors of color continue to be important, whether they are about joy or pain. BIPOC certainly experience the entire spectrum of human emotions in our lives. In fact, all too often, we experience disproportionate pain because of the systems of oppression and white supremacy built to exploit and exclude us.
That’s why, as a writer of color, you might feel like you have to explore these realities. What’s worse, white gatekeepers who prioritize and profit off narratives of pain may encourage you to do so. While I believe you should only write what you want (and that these gatekeepers suck), if you do choose to touch on more somber topics, one way to do that is by punching up.
To punch up means that the targets of your humor are not vulnerable people, but systems of oppression and the privileged people who benefit from them. Rather than leaning into the racist humor that we’ve experienced in the past, you can make bigots the butts of your jokes.
Although THE LOVE MATCH is primarily a tropey romantic #comedy, I have jokes throughout the book critiquing colonizers, gentrifiers, and other privileged people whom my characters happen to encounter and comment on throughout the plot (though I purposefully chose to have an all-BIPOC main cast). I also level critique at some of the sexism, homophobia, and other biases within my own community, but always strive to do so without falling into “brown people are so backwards” stereotypes that fail to address how none of us are a monolith, the responsibility of imperialism in creating many these biases, and how every human being is nuanced.
In addition to that, I chose to lovingly poke fun at some of the lighter aspects of my upbringing as a Bangladeshi-American Muslim. While, as mentioned above, no two of us have the same exact experience, my hope is that reading about Zahra’s amma and nanu recycling random cookie/candy tins and jars to keep other things inside rather than ever throwing them away, or the WhatsApp groups aunties of a certain age tend to frequent, and other experiences common to me, will speak to readers and make them smile. These jokes do not rely on cruel or harmful Not Like Other Desis, I’m A Cool Desi messages, but just happen to be a part of my reality.
And They Were Roommates!
While your characters do not necessarily need to be roommates (though that could be fun!), forced proximity is often a great way to introduce humor into your plot, particularly if you have characters with strong personalities who butt heads.
In romantic comedies, and romances in general, it’s important to give your protagonist and the romantic lead(s) plenty of time to get to know each other and develop feelings, as well as to allow readers to get attached to and root for them. If you want to be humorous with that, try to think of silly (but believable) ways that you can do that. Stretch the suspension of disbelief your readers afford you to its limits to take them on a whirlwind adventure that they can still buy (literally and metaphorically).
While the above point discusses realism, I think it’s important that BIPOC get the ridiculous, straight-out-of-the-movies stories that white characters so often do.
For example, I’m currently reading ACT YOUR AGE, EVE BROWN, the final novel in Talia Hibbert’s BROWN SISTERS series. In this book, Eve first encounters the hero after her parents demand she get a job, when she randomly walks into the interviews he’s hosting to hire a new chef at his B&B. Of course, because the two of them are as opposite as oil and water, this doesn’t pan out at first, until Eve later (literally) bumps into Jacob (with her car) and is forced to be his live-in chef at the B&B while he recuperates.
This works for a number of reasons that I’ll try to break down:
A bed and breakfast setting is idyllic, romantic, and classic. It will provide a charming escape for readers and offer lots of opportunities for situational comedy and romance, since Eve and Jacob are living in close quarters. There’s also the added element of a gingerbread festival (and isn’t that just adorable?) the inn is participating in, providing yet more scenarios filled with shenanigans to take advantage of.
Eve is a free spirit who has to learn to, as the title says, act her age. Jacob, meanwhile, is incredibly persnickety and likes everything to be a certain way. Both characters are autistic. Having them lean into the opposites attract trope means that they play off each other hilariously. They banter and verbally spar, and what they say doesn’t always match what they’re thinking, giving the author a chance to explore complicated characters through the silly situations they stumble into. Giving both characters such strong personalities helps with their voices, too. Jacob often homes in on miniscule details about Eve that both frustrate and endear him (such as, her orange lipstick does not match her lavender braids, so why is she still so ‘hideously pretty’ to him?). Similarly, Eve is a delightful disaster who might randomly release a bunch of doves meant to fly over the wedding she’s planning because she doesn’t think they’re being treated right. Both their back-and-forth and their own independent character arcs keep readers on their toes, constantly wondering what will they do next?
In THE LOVE MATCH, I do something similar. My debut YA stars smart, spitfire eighteen year old Zahra Khan, who may daydream about love one day, but is practical enough to turn her attentions to a full time job during the summer before she’s meant to go to college, in order to help her financially struggling family and pay for her education. But Zahra’s mom has other ideas in mind.
The book starts with Zahra’s amma dragging her off to a wedding to try to find a suitable match for her, which leads to her scheming with another meddling mother to matchmake their kids. By chapter three, Zahra is meeting the first of her two #loveinterests, the stoic Harun, during a date neither knows is a date. In chapter five, meanwhile, she learns a cute new boy (her second love interest, the dreamy dreamer Nayim) has been hired at the tea shop where she works. In both situations, Zahra is thrown together with these other characters and forced to adapt.
Check Your Shelf, Before You Wreck Your Shelf!
My last bit of advice is a classic, but with good reason! The best way to learn humorous and romantic beats is to read lots of romances, comedies, and of course, romantic comedies.
Below, I’m going to list a few of my recent favorite reads (all by stellar BIPOC authors) that put a stitch in my side!
These will be books from various categories and genres, including middle grade, because while MG doesn’t always have a romantic subplot, MG authors really know a thing or two about humor.
TOKYO EVER AFTER by Emiko Jean
THE BROWN SISTERS by Talia Hibbert
THE DIMPLE ‘VERSE by Sandhya Menon
PERFECTLY PARVIN by Olivia Abtahi
DIAL A FOR AUNTIES by Jesse Q. Sutano
SUNNY SONG WILL NEVER BE FAMOUS by Suzanne Park
THE HENNA WARS and HANI & ISHU’S GUIDE TO FAKE DATING by Adiba Jaigirdar
A TASTE FOR LOVE by Jennifer Yen
THE TRISTAN STRONG series by Kwame Mbalia
KIRANMALA AND THE KINGDOM BEYOND by Sayantani Dasgupta
And, of course, I hope you find THE LOVE MATCH swoony and hilarious when it releases next summer!
Priyanka Taslim (she/her)
Priyanka Taslim is a writer, teacher, and lifelong New Jersey resident.
Having grown up in a bustling Bangladeshi diaspora community, surrounded by her mother’s entire clan and many aunties of no relation, her writing often features families, communities, and all the drama therein.
Currently, Priyanka teaches English by day and tells all kinds of stories about Bangladeshi characters by night. Her writing usually stars spunky Bangladeshi heroines finding their place in the world...and a little swoony romance, too.
Please follow her on social media to receive more updates about her debut, THE LOVE MATCH, out May 3rd, 2022 from Simon & Schuster U.S. and U.K.
Link Tree: https://linktr.ee/priyankataslim
ADD THE LOVE MATCH ON GOODREADS: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56035697
Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study of inequality in film: https://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-inequality_1300_popular_films_09-08-2020.pdf
Lee & Low diversity in publishing baseline survey: https://blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/