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Trailblazing Romance Writer Remembered

Some people sneer at paperback romance novels, but they're the most prolific, profitable arm of the publishing industry — even despite the recession. And before 1980, all the damsels being clasped to hard male chests had been white.

Lots of passion, zilch diversity.

Then, under the pen name Rosalind Welles, journalist Elsie Washington published Entwined Destinies. The book is widely considered the first contemporary black romance, inspiring a new generation of ethnic novelists. Washington died at age 66 in New York City on May 5.

Entwined Destinies is the story of a magazine writer sent to London to cover an oil conference. She meets an African-American man who is part of a multinational oil conglomerate.

Sparks fly in short order, but for the first time, they are flying between people of color and means.

Novel Encourages Colleagues

Author Janice Sims had been trying to publish her own black romance back then with no luck.

"Nobody was interested in my books," said Sims. "I couldn't find anyone who was publishing stories with African-American heroes and heroines, people who were upwardly mobile ... not from the ghetto."

Washington's work, populated with well-educated, well-traveled and worldly blacks, was a delight for black readers and aspiring writers.

At last weekend's Book Expo America, the largest book convention in North America, Rochelle Alers could still recall her elation at discovering the trailblazing book.

"It's almost like how people felt when Barack Obama was elected president. They said, 'We Can Do This!' And that's what I felt when I saw Elsie's book," said Alers, who now has sold almost 2 million books of her own.

When she saw the book, Alers remembers thinking, "Oh my God — the people on the cover look like me."

That was a definite difference. Guided by Vivian Stephens, the first black romance editor, Washington spun a tale with all the traditional romance elements — attraction, longing, obstacles to overcome and, ultimately, commitment — against a glamorous, international backdrop. Suddenly, black wasn't only poor or pathological. It wasn't just victims.

"The important thing about Elsie's work is it established the romance novels that followed in the next 20 years as books about the African-American middle class," said Gwendolyn Osborne, a contributor to The Romance Reader, a popular Web site for online reviews.

Entwined Destinies was Washington's first and only novel. It's now out of print, but its effects are still being felt by the current crop of successful black romance novelists like Alers and Sims.

Sims says Washington's work inspired her to expand her own boundaries. "She really opened that up for me, and I know she did the same thing for many other African-American romance novelists," Sims said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.