Throughout the day on July 26, Romance Writers of America conference attendees spoke with anticipation and some nerves about that night’s RITA award ceremony. Novelist Bronwen Fleetwood crunched 20 years worth of RITA data and found that in the previous 20 years of the contest, only 10 out of 241 winners were authors of color. Emcee Sarah MacLean reminded the audience in her opening monologue that in the 37 years of the award, no black woman has ever won a RITA.

Until this year. 

Two black women, Kennedy Ryan and M. Malone, earned well-deserved wins in their categories. Nisha Sharma was also the first South Asian author to win a RITA. 

Ryan won in the contemporary long category with Long Shot. The novel is about a woman who finds love after being in a traumatic, abusive first marriage. Readers praised Ryan’s research on the impact of trauma on victims of domestic abuse. M. Malone won for best novella. Bad Blood is a story about a woman who runs away from her own wedding and falls in love with her brother’s best friend. Sharma’s excellent novel, My So-Called Bollywood Life, won in the YA romance category.The story is about a young woman trying to earn a scholarship and figure out which boy is her soul mate. 

Many winners acknowledged what a groundbreaking year it was, but as Kennedy Ryan said, “It’s 37 years, waiting for someone who looked like me to stand here...We won’t stop asking, we won’t stop demanding, we won’t stop agitating until everybody is represented.” Ryan went on to thank “the pioneers, the trailblazers...people who did not have a road map in this industry. People like Brenda Jackson, people like Beverly Jenkins...and they have laid the steps for people like me, women of color, to make sure our stories are told.”

Jen Prokop is the romance correspondent and co-host of the Fated Mates podcast. Find her on Twitter @JenReadsRomance.