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In July 2019, while serving on the board of Romance Writers of America (RWA), Heidi Bond—who prefers to go by her pen name, Courtney Milan—won an award for promoting diversity within the trade association. Several months later, however, the organization suspended the Front Range author and barred her from holding future RWA leadership positions. Her crime? Calling out another member’s depiction of a half-Chinese character as a “racist mess” on Twitter.
That wasn’t the first time Milan called out a bad actor. Although she grew up in Southern California dreaming of becoming a writer, she went to law school instead, perusing romance novels as a release from academic pressure. In 2007, during a clerkship for Alex Kozinski, Milan says the prominent federal appeals judge subjected her to abusive behavior, such as calling her into his office and asking her opinion about pornographic images on his computer. Milan moved on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor (after her retirement), but in 2017, Milan and more than a dozen other women publicly accused Kozinski of sexual misconduct, forcing the judge’s resignation. While pursuing a career as a law professor, Milan started penning her own romance fiction. “It felt like so much was taken from me,” Milan says. “Writing romance was a way for me to map out a way to return to myself.”
Reaching her destination has proved successful. Publisher’s Weekly praised Milan’s first novel, 2010’s Proof by Seduction, as a “powerhouse debut.” Nearly 30 more have followed, including the first of Milan’s self-published Wedgeford Trials series, The Duke Who Didn’t, one of the very few romance novels to earn a spot on the New York Times’ prestigious 100 Notable Books of 2020 list. Sarah Wendell, who runs Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a romance book review website, says her team fights over who gets to write about Milan’s work: “She’s really good at creating new stories out of familiar tropes.” The second book in the Wedgeford Trials saga—set in an English village populated by immigrants and informed by the experiences of the author’s grandmother, a member of a Chinese ethnic group called the Hakka—is due to be published this summer.
Milan uses her notoriety to support other writers of color. Alyssa Cole, an author of romance novels and thrillers, remembers sending Milan an email in 2014. Milan took time to read Cole’s books and then recommended them to others in the industry. Now a New York Times–bestselling author, Cole worked with Milan on Romancing the Runoff, a fundraising effort for fellow romance writer Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor in Georgia. “[Milan] is a kind nerd who uses her kind nerdiness to change the world,” Cole says.
No wonder, then, that so many people in the romance universe came to Milan’s defense after the RWA clash: Every woman of color on the board quit, and many writers and publishers boycotted the organization. The RWA later reversed its sanctions, but Milan decided not to return. (Both the author and the organization declined to comment about the dispute.) “The fact that she gave up that much time and energy and put up with so much crap,” Wendell says, “is indicative of how much she wanted to make the genre more inclusive.” The obstacles Milan encountered, however, show just how much further her industry has to go before it reaches its happy ever after.