In March, I attended the 2017 MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop. Although I was disappointed that more adult literary writers did not attend, much of what I learned was helpful to any writer about representing worlds—fantasy, Sci-Fi or real life—accurately.
In order to write accurate representation of the world around us, having actual relationships with people outside your own ethnic/religious/etc. group is helpful. Maybe some of those people will even read your novel and tell you where you’ve gotten their culture right and where you’ve really messed up. And now you can pay someone from a marginalized group, called a Sensitivity Reader, to evaluate your manuscript for offensive, weird or “off” content.
However, sensitivity readers are not a panacea. One recent book that caught the attention of author and social critic Justina Ireland is the Young Adult book American Heart. Set in a time when the U.S. government is detaining Muslim Americans, the narrative, according to its critics, seems designed entirely to support the emotional growth of a white teenage girl as she helps a Muslim university professor escape to Canada. What the professor experiences is beside the point. As someone on the Twitter feed pointed out, American Heart is analogous to a man writing the The Handmaid’s Tale. The author had a Pakistani American read it, but Ireland maintained on her Twitterfeed the author used a sensitivity reader as a stamp of approval, rather than a wish for honest engagement.
For my fourth novel (working title Don’t Call Me Buffy) I have paid three sensitivity readers to take a look at the manuscript in addition to my usual faithful crew of beta readers: a neurodivergent MIT graduate student, a Palestinian Christian, and a Muslim. I am also asking a white evangelical writer to take a look at it, since I have not lived in that culture for some time, and I am actively looking for someone from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to read it.
I felt confident enough to have a young Palestinian woman be one of the three viewpoint characters in my narrative, because of my relationships with Palestinians. I deliberately chose not to write from the viewpoint of a Seneca Nation character, because, I am ashamed to say, I have traveled halfway around the world numerous times to Palestine, but spent very little time on the Seneca reservations near my home in upstate New York. I also chose not to make the novel primarily about the encampment that follows when the Seneca nation takes over a church property on their land—a church pastored by the father of another viewpoint character. Given the profound spiritual importance of the #NODAPL encampment in Standing Rock last year, I knew that the right to fictionalize the encampment experience belongs to an Indigenous writer. Nevertheless I want to have a Haudenosaunee reader look at my novel to correct mistakes of culture, etc. that I assume I will have made. Also I have some concerns that I have created a fictional piece of land, and a fictional treaty abrogation, and fictional medical waste dumping by a fictional western New York University on the actual Allegeny Reservation, when the real life traumas that the Federal government and State of New York have committed against the Seneca Nation are immense. The database of Writers from the Margins does not contain Haudenosaunee readers, so I have taken out classified ads in the local papers, and have contacted the Director of Indigenous students at nearby University to see if any of her students might like to make a little extra income reading it.
If any of you have Haudenosaunee friends who like to read, I’m hiring!