Defeating the “White Savior” Narrative
by Robert Winter
It’s a truism that we don’t know what we don’t know. In my case, I didn’t know I was blind to my own privilege until the editing process for Asylum exposed it.
When I wrote September, I expected that Colin Felton would be the main character in its sequel. I also had a story I wanted to tell, of an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador dealing with the realities of life in the United States. I planted the seeds of their pairing in September by making Colin a lobbyist who works with a nonprofit organization focused on the issues facing immigrants.
I originally wrote Colin as a Prince Charming type, bestowing gifts and safety with no expectation—or need—for Hernán to do anything for him. It’s certainly a common trope in romance, as evidenced by all the books out there with “billionaire” in the title, or that are derived from fairy tales like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast.
My developmental editor, however, quickly pointed out that I was leaving myself open to a charge of the “white savior” narrative. I had to look that up, and what I read shook me badly. Simplistically, the term refers to a story where a white character rescues people of color from their plight. The common examples are movies like The Help, wherein the African-American maids “need” the activism of the wealthy white girl to find the strength to expose their employers’ racism, or The Blind Side, where the white woman “teaches” the young black man how to become a football star.
As soon as my editor pointed out what I’d done, I knew she was right. In the early drafts of Asylum, I focused much more on what the white Colin accomplishes for the Latino Hernán. I had produced a soft, feel-good story about a white man using his wealth to woo. For example, originally I wrote a scene where Colin takes Hernán to New York for a weekend, dazzling him with an expensive hotel and dinner. I liked the scene for its wish-fulfillment aspects, but I’d focused on the least interesting aspects of my own characters.
My first major rewrite, then, reconceived the book to focus on Hernán’s journey, experiences and growth. While Colin provides him with support and love (as do Rudy and eventually several other characters like Juan and Sofia who appear in later chapters), Hernán is the one who does the major work to repair his life. He makes all the leaps of faith, and ultimately deals with his troubled past.
The shift allowed me to see I had written about what Colin could do for Hernán, rather than what he might need from Hernán. I knew Colin was shy and regretted never having made a move on Brandon in September, but I began to wonder why. That gave me the opportunity to understand his weaknesses and the reason behind them, which in turn let me explore how Hernán could help. The book always began with Colin’s rescue after falling into a harbor. Now I could explore the other ways in which Hernán rescues him over and over.
The lesson I take away from this rewriting experience is that following old tropes like Cinderella without re-examination means that I have been lazy and have probably missed richer storytelling potential with my own characters. I hope you’ll give Asylum a try to see if I was successful in finding the deeper romance between Hernán and Colin.
You can find out more about Asylum on my website by clicking here.
Death threats drove him from his country. Can he ever find asylum from his past?
Hernán had family, college, and a future in El Salvador. Until a vicious gang targeted him as gay. Threatened with murder, he braved a nightmare journey toward a new life. Now, haunted by his trek, he hides from immigration trouble as well as his enemies. He prays to pass in Provincetown unnoticed.
But a handsome man with a secret like Hernán’s is vulnerable to predators.
Colin is in town for a wedding when he falls into the harbor. The man who rescues him is dark-haired, dark eyed and gorgeous. He’s also a target because of his immigration status. Colin owes a debt, and wants to repay it by helping his savior escape the monsters who would exploit him.
Hernán yearns to trust the kind man who offers him sanctuary. Will his demons destroy his chance at a future with Colin?
Asylum is a standalone gay romance novel but contains spoilers for the prior novel, September. Trigger warnings for brief references to off-page sexual abuse of a child and adult.
Available at: Amazon
An Excerpt from Asylum
Brandon noticed as well and turned to follow Rudy’s gaze. He sighed. “Gerald. Of course. David ’n I managed to avoid him all summer. Guess my luck ran out.”
The newcomer was not as tall as David, but probably broke six feet. His silvering hair swept back dramatically, and he wore a fisherman’s sweater and jeans that looked too tight. His face was a bit jowly; Colin would place him around fifty-five or so. He had presence, though. He surveyed the restaurant like he owned the place, spotted Rudy, and walked over.
“I assume he’s working today,” Gerald said to Rudy, oblivious to the presence of customers.
Rudy flushed. “Yes, working. As in busy. Just like every time you come in here.”
Gerald looked down his nose at Colin, and then did a double-take when he focused on Brandon. “Oh. We’ve met.” His gray eyes narrowed in concentration. “Bradley, wasn’t it?”
Rudy said, “It’s Brandon. He came to the party you had last year, with David Something-or-other.” A glint of malice twinkled in Rudy’s eye as he added, “I remember how often you talked about David after that. Too bad he’s off the market. He and Brandon just got married yesterday.”
Gerald’s eyebrow twitched. “Married?” A flash of regret, confusion and longing crossed his face. Blankness covered it all quickly as Gerald turned to sneer at Rudy. “Well, I guess Brandon here knew how to play the game better than you.”
Rudy flushed and Brandon turned red. Colin saw he was about to do something rash. He picked up his fork and said loudly without looking at the asshole, “Thank you for stopping by, but we’re just about to eat. Rudy, could I get another tea?”
Gerald was clearly unused to being dismissed. Before he could say anything, Colin focused on Brandon. “So, David is off sailing with your sisters?” Rudy tittered and disappeared, and Brandon’s color returned to normal. Gerald stood there a few seconds longer before stomping off to a table in the corner of the restaurant.
“Nicely done,” Brandon said. “I almost lost it, but you kept cool.”
“Hey, I learned how to cut from the best hostess in Bergen County, New Jersey. You should see my mother working the room at a charity event. Icicles trail in her wake if anyone displeases her.”
“Charity events?” Brandon asked curiously. Colin realized his slip. He usually tried very hard not to mention his parents or anything about his family, so it was no wonder Brandon would take the opportunity to ask.
“Sometimes. Anyway, sailing?”
Brandon waited a moment, but then nodded. “David rented a boat to take Jo-Lynn, Suzanne and Matt out on the bay. I think Terry was goin’ with ’em too.” He chuckled. “Joe says the Lord may have walked on water but he prefers dry land.”
As they chatted, Colin noticed Gerald wave Rudy over to him. Rudy looked around the restaurant, but apparently could find no way to refuse without Gerald causing a scene. The restaurant was quiet enough he heard Gerald order Rudy in a peremptory tone, “Tell him to come out and talk to me.”
Rudy shook his head. “He’s working. He can’t take a break.”
Gerald snorted and gazed over the menu. “I could always have a chat with Claude. You know Claude, don’t you, Rudy? The owner of this restaurant? I think he might be shocked to find out what’s going on in his kitchen.”
Rudy flushed and pursed his lips. He looked around nervously, and then disappeared to the interior of the restaurant. A few moments later, he returned, accompanied by another man. He was slightly shorter than Rudy, and looked a few years younger, but the family resemblance between the two was strong.
That was why Rudy had looked familiar to Colin—he was clearly related to the man he led out. The man who had saved Colin the previous night.
The angel of his imagination.
About Robert Winter
Robert Winter is a Rainbow Award-winning author who lives and writes in Provincetown. He is a recovering lawyer who prefers writing about hot men in love much more than drafting a legal brief. He left behind the (allegedly) glamorous world of an international law firm to sit in his home office and dream up ways to torment his characters until they realize they are perfect for each other. When he isn’t writing, Robert likes to cook Indian food and explore new restaurants. He splits his attention between Andy, his partner of seventeen years, and Ling the Adventure Cat, who likes to fly in airplanes and explore the backyard jungle as long as the temperature and humidity are just right.
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