Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sensitive: The Awkwardness of Writing Outside Your Lane

There’s an amazing push for diverse, authentic representation in the past few years. With it comes a rocky road, both for marginalized folks and the authors who want to help--and of course, the intersection between those two. Twitter blew up last week with the controversy around a white trans-woman who wrote a South Asian trans-woman character. I won’t detail it here, but it was messy and poorly handled by the author. After all: it wasn’t her story to tell. 

So in this complex world of hot takes, cancel culture, and 100% legitimate rage, where do we fall as authors who want to help represent the world in an authentic and respectful way? 

 There are several steps to writing an experience not your own, and each has its pitfalls. My first suggestion is to be honest with yourself--why are you telling that story? I strongly urge you, when it comes to POV characters, to stay in your lane. This doesn’t mean white/straight/able/cis wash your book, it just means your POV character shouldn’t be too far outside your own experience. 

Writing fantasy and science fiction is a gray area here--but not a Get-Out-Of-Bigot-Jail-Free card. Much of the controversy surrounding the aforementioned situation comes from the author using an existing, colonized culture to tell her story of transness. There are thousands of South Asian trans women who are better equipped to tell their stories, and many feel the author should rework the plot to center the experience she’s familiar with--white transness. When writing epic fantasy, we aren’t using actual cultures and existing landmarks, but there are still experiences we might not be familiar with. 

If you’ve decided to go ahead with your character, you have a lot of work to do. Listen to members of that marginalized community before you even start drafting. And I don’t mean badger them. Follow folks on Twitter, check out blogs, pick up some books written about those experiences. Just sit down and listen. Knowing how people navigate in our world will help you plan their experience in yours. 

If they’re disabled, work their disability into the plot as you write. Have them notice when the stairs are too steep for their pain, or the market is too loud and overwhelming. 

As you think about your plot, imagine how the story would look if you swapped out your character’s gender, ability, race, or sexuality. If the story barely changes, you’ve got a problem. What we’ve experienced is intrinsic to how we navigate the world--even if the world has magic and dragons and entirely different continents than Earth. Once your draft is polished, now is the time to look for a sensitivity reader. I cannot stress enough that this is someone you should pay. Many authors confuse sensitivity reading with beta reading, but they’re quite different. Sensitivity reading is analogous to content editing, simply more focused. If you’re not sure your work needs it, ask around in your author community, specifically in groups that welcome whatever marginalization you’re writing. When in doubt, err on the side of caution! 

I’ve never had a hard time finding sensitivity readers--I post on social media with appropriate hashtags, like #disability or #deafcommunity with a few words about my project, including genre, age, and word count. Be sure to include that you’re looking to hire someone, so they know you’re not expecting them to work for free. Know someone who’s written a book with a similar character, #ownvoices or otherwise? Ask them who their reader was, or offer to hire them if they’re available. 

When writing Rih’s POV in Madness and Gods and Blood and Mercy, I sought out a reader to check Rih’s experience as a deaf woman who can lip-read and sign. It was the most valuable investment I made! Another key point: most sensitivity readers prefer if you keep their names private, as far as your readership goes. Since people often experience the same disability (or race, or gender, etc.) differently from one another, calling out your reader doesn’t always mean you’ve created a one-size-fits-all character. Using their name as a stamp of approval--even if you never took a word of their advice--comes across as virtue signaling and tacky. 

Many of us work under tight deadlines, so be sure you allow enough time to do a thorough re-write after receiving your sensitivity reader’s feedback. I re-wrote and added several lines in most of Rih’s scenes, and changed the dialogue punctuation to traditional quotes for her signed conversations, which took a few weeks. 

You might disagree with their feedback or feel attacked by what they say. Please, for the love of Dog, remember: they understand their experience best, your intention doesn’t matter, they are your colleague. That being said, if you truly feel something is being misunderstood, ask how you might reframe it so it’s more clear, or hire another reader to see if it is something subjective. If you ultimately choose not to change anything (I highly recommend that you listen to their suggestions), be prepared for backlash. 

Though it can be a messy and uncomfortable experience, as humans, we need to perfect our skills at apologizing and moving on to do better. 

I work as a sensitivity reader for queer-femme experiences, f/f, anxiety, connective-tissue disorders, depression, and PTSD. I'll also consult to make sure your archaeology is accurate! 

Do you offer sensitivity reading? Let us know in the comments!

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