{sensitivity, cultural portrayal, and revisions}

A morning near the end of the last gasp of my revision:

It’s been an interesting process to me with my newest work in progress to use a sensitivity reader in conjunction with a publishing company. While I have used one before – a previous manuscript included me hiring someone from The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) to check out a black character with albinism – I’ve never had one paid for by someone other than me, nor have I ever dipped into trying to portray a culture wholly other than my own. My other character was black – I can write a black person of at least similar class and education as my own. Writing someone from an Asian culture with which I thought I was familiar has been a revelation. My reader was positive – I hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but I hadn’t been more than not disappointing.

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Cultural representation is …tricky.

What we may think of as just… tchotchkes in someone’s house, for instance, might be a representation of cultural pride. What we might assume is just a stereotype of ‘everyone from this place eats this food,’ may be, in fact, another touchstone that connects a people to a place of importance to them, their parents, their grandparents, and generations back. Shoes left outside? That’s what people do. Also what I found out? What I thought was going to be a slam dunk… isn’t.

I’m grateful for my reader’s direct words. She was straightforward and helpful – but I find I’m smarting a bit that I’m not as smart about this as I thought I’d be. I’ve never served as a sensitivity reader – the potential for emotional labor and the recoil from a bad rep and a tone deaf author is REAL – but someone bravely and graciously stepped up to the plate for me, and I’m so grateful to this person I want to send them flowers. Reading for cultural representation is a difficult job.

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Because what is cultural representation, really, but a collection of… little details that are nearly imperceptible to outsiders? It’s hard to put a finger on, hard to define, hard to say “THIS” is cultural rep done right, and “THIS” is not… because everyone’s personal culture, expectations, educational levels, class and aspirational class is wildly variant. For instance: I grew up in a home with the Ten Commandments on the wall – and a framed copy of “Amazing Grace,” while other black Americans grew up with photographs on the wall of Martin Luther King, Jr., “black Jesus,” the Lord’s Prayer, and during the holidays, “black Santa.” We were vegetarian in the 80’s when few people were, and my parents were vegan off and on in our lives – so while I’ve never had fried chicken, have no particular opinions on potato salad, baked mac and cheese and dislike bbq sauce, I’ve had tofu and vegetarian gumbo my whole life. We were discouraged from using slang or swearing, but had a family… shorthand dialect of things probably only we said. I have some family members who can fall into African American Vernacular English with ease, and some who have no intuitive understanding of its rules.

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I know that some people – and I’ve seen sweeping statements like this routinely on social media – don’t believe that a black character can be correctly portrayed if they do not eat the “right” foods, use AAVE, and have none of the “right” pictures. And yet… not only were those images not in my house, they were absent in the home of my maternal grandmother as well. (My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, had… hundreds of porcelain roosters, a prayer card Jesus looking kind of emaciated, and sad clowns on velvet in the bathroom… her cultural aesthetic being another blog post ENTIRELY.)

Writing a cultural representation which would feel “normal” to me would have walls crammed with bad family photos and a couple of religious touchstones, but nothing representative of “black America,” exactly, except… a washboard. My great-grandmother’s washboard, which she still used well into the time when people had washers, hangs as a reminder of the extreme poverty of the past, but the assurance that one can manage. At least, that’s what I take it to be – a reminder that Miss Emily made do with her own two hands. Is that properly “black?” Is that Americana? Cultural representation is personal – and specific. And honestly? There is no way to get it right for everyone. NONE. There is nothing that will protect the writer from criticism and disappointing someone.

That is quite a thing to sit with, friends.

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So, we sit with it.

And then, we take the word of the lived experiences of others and spoon in generous helpings of their good sense, and … leap alone into the ether from there.

Now all of my own nitpicky little revisions have been laid to rest, and today I embark on the most difficult ones of all… And yet? Looking more closely and trying to see through a cultural lens just provides opportunity to lean in… and open my eyes wider. I am grateful to my reader for another chance to get it (closer to, in the neighborhood of, adjacent to) right.

{saying something}

“The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time — even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends’ mouths — can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?”

– Nicole Chung, The Toast

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When I read The Toast managing editor Nicole Chung’s hoilday-dinner-racism piece What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism last week, I was especially struck by how well she articulated what seems to have been the central tenet of my childhood instructions: Be Nice, Make Nice, Don’t Rock The Boat, Ever. I concluded this past summer that these concepts were at the core of why my father was so hard on us growing up. Nicole wrote of her humiliated non-response to the situation in a way that resonated strongly with me, as she spoke about the tremendous residue this leaves, the immense pressure to keep things light, pleasant, and inoffensive for others who might be upset by our defending ourselves, or pointing out offensiveness. However, many readers were troubled by her response.

This morning when NPR’s Leah Donnella mentioned Chung’s piece in a CodeSwitch report on housing segregation and the legacy of everyday racial history in the U.S., she added her own experiences:

Reading Chung’s piece reminded me of a potluck I was at in Philadelphia last summer with my then-boyfriend, who is white, and his crew of white friends. I had gotten back from the beach a few days earlier and was several shades darker than usual. Everyone was busy gossiping about their summer adventures when one guy turned to me and asked, “So, did he realize you were black when he started dating you?”

In that moment, my instinct was to say something snarky (“Did he realize you were a doofus when he became your friend?”). But like Chung, I didn’t want to ruin a good time. So I laughed, poured myself a drink, and let everyone move on.

– Leah Donnella, NPR “CodeSwitch”

Because Tech Boy is white, and I am not, we frequently have discussions about this type of thing. When I shared the CodeSwitch piece with him, he said, “You know, this business of not making people uncomfortable? White people need to pick up the baton on that one. White people need to use their privilege to smack down the idiots, they’re too busy being ashamed, in those moments, of their whiteness. They need to do something.”

I agreed, of course, until he added, “Just a casual ‘Racist much?’ ought to do it.”

Them’s are fightin’ words. Calling someone a racist in a social situation, even as the person with privilege, aims a loaded, evocative, defense-triggering word at a half-open conversational door… and slams it, locks it, and nails boards across it. At that point, the conversation is over.

I’ve seen it happen on social media, in conversations, around books and lately in kidlit publishing: the minute someone starts swinging the word “racist” is the moment the issue is obfuscated. Like a squid spewing ink so no one sees it disappear into a crack, telling a person in company that they’re a racist leaves the issue unclear. It’s like throwing up a bucket of ashes — everyone is stained, everyone is blinded, and everyone is shouting and flailing at cross-purposes for a bottle of eyewash. You might think you’re schooling someone, to coolly call them out, that you’re standing up proudly and throwing down as an ally. But if you have any hope of actually creating a teachable moment, of changing a perception or behavior and empowering change and not just counting up verbal blows – I would try another way.

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I discussed this with friends who suggested questions as a good method of creating an opening. “The reporter could have said, ‘Do you think my boyfriend’s a racist, that my ethnicity would matter to him?’ or something like that,” one suggested. I might have even asked a more personal question, that if seeing the woman darker made the asker feel uncomfortable. That’s getting kind of messy, but then, I’m all about the deal-with-your-here-and-now Gestalt therapy approach when I’m defending someone.

“You know what,” another said, “if you were to write up a script & publish it out there, that would be nice. Just, Dear White Friends, When you hear some idiot being racist, please pick up the conversation and deal with it, because you’re operating from privilege whereas we of color cannot challenge because of x, y, and z. And then give a few examples of how to respond or to engage with people who’ve swallowed their feet. I think that would be a good contribution to the conversation.”

I kind of laughed, mainly because there’s already a Dear White People thing (website? book? movie?) which purports to inform people of how to behave toward people of color, and to my mind, those sorts of things only work conceptually. In reality, I am not the arbiter of race relations. Unlike Gee Dubya, I am not “The Decider” and should not be the one to set the narrative on interracial incidents. However, Teaching Tolerance has a lot of wisdom on the topic, and when I need to, I often check in with them.

Dr. Frances E. Kendall, author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race wrote a little piece called How To Be An Ally If You Are A Person With Privilege which others might find helpful.

Finally, Alternet has “11 Things White People Can Do To Be Real Anti-Racist Allies.”

The thing is, somebody needs to say something, but most of the time, none of us knows the right thing to say, and we’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we sit in shame – and say nothing at all. Which, especially if we’re a person of privilege, is just not ideal. Nobody has all the answers – and certainly no one person of any underrepresented group speaks for everybody – but we each of us has the responsibility – and the honor – not to swoop in and save the day, but to speak up, in good faith, for someone when they cannot speak up and be heard for themselves. In doing so, we will each try to look at the world through the lens of our privilege and of an idealized equality, and bring about more truly the dream of a just world. WE WILL SCREW UP, probably publicly. If we are wise, we will own it, apologize, listen better, and learn. And couldn’t we all benefit from that.

{eliminating the “only” : another note to my writing group}

(I curate these here, so that I will remember what I’ve said. These notes are an attempt to articulate, not necessarily to instruct, and you can bet they kick off discussion. ☺)

Unless you have the type of filters which allow you to utterly avoid pop culture entirely, you may have heard about the NYT tv critic’s misstep this past week in talking about television producer Shonda Rhimes.

Aside from all of the hoopla about using a stereotype to allegedly describe Rhimes and her career in glowing terms (“getting away with” being damned with faint praise), I found this NPR piece interesting because it talked about how she writes – and how she avoids Only One syndrome.

People often talk, when we talk about diversity, or writing diversity, about how fake it is to have a UN list of characters in a novel. “A black.” “A Jew.” “A Latino/a.” “An Asian.” People have bandied around the term “writing a novel like a Benetton ad.” [NB: I don’t mean people in my writing group.] Well, thing is, nobody asked you to do that.

At the very end, I read her an audience question that said something like, “How do you think your shows have changed the position of African-Americans on television?” After a little pause, she said one of the things she’d learned was that on shows with Only One (only one woman, only one black character, only one Asian person, only one gay character), that’s when the Only One is required to be about nothing except that characteristic. She said her hope was in part that just by having more than Only One on her shows, she gave those characters room to develop and to have other things about them be important. She hopes that — and here’s the rub — by consciously increasing diversity overall she makes the race of each character less limiting, less defining. – “The Only One” from NPR’s “Monkey See” with Linda Holmes, 22 September 2014

When we have a character who is an “only one,” in our work, we make them do the work of relating the entire “other” experience. It’s like growing up the only African American kid in your class… and then having a new kid come who happens to be black, and having your teacher lead that kid to you and say, “Lindsay here will show you around, and I’m just positive you two will be soon be best friends.” Um… based on what? A single element, like skin color, isn’t enough to bridge gaps of culture, class, gender, or even mutual interest. (The new-best-friend thing has happened to me and plenty other minority kids in classes full of majority kids, like, twentymillionhundred times. Some teachers in my past have been clueless. This is also not to say that a shared color is not enough to create association, but that’s the equivalent of nodding to another woman at the sink in a public restroom – yeah, you’re both washing your hands after using the bathroom. Well done both. You’re still not friends..) Just as that teacher’s expectation is ridiculous — and limiting — so is the “only one” school of writing.

Additionally, the problem with “only one” is that “only” bearing the burden of “the gay/black/Latino/poor/trans/rich” experience in a more literal way. Like we’ve discussed with the Bechdel Test, where a rule of thumb for a fully fleshed out female character is if a.) there’s more than one, b.) and, they talk to other females about c.) something about something other than the male characters — writers must realize that diverse people don’t sit around, thinking how they’re so diverse – so cheering for people who “don’t talk about race,” or mention it with their characters is a little silly. (And, I’m speaking for/to myself here; I’ve told you I’ve had people upset with HAPPY FAMILIES because they didn’t realize the twins were African American, when, to my mind, their concern that their father might be choosing a different gender made their race a little less relevant that week.) Relevance is important, but our “only one” can’t stand in for all the gay/disabled/black/German/Polish/left-handed/able-bodied/Jewish/fat/anorexic/Latinos in the world. They just can’t.

It is often in the imagination we do or do not apply to the lives of others that we screw up, no matter what conscious judgments we do or do not apply to what we imagine. It’s usually not your up or down vote that matters, but the entire way you frame other people’s lives. (You can see the same thing when people praise women as gentler, softer, morally superior versions of men. It’s nice that it’s meant as praise; it’s still stereotyping and limiting.) –“The Only One” from NPR’s “Monkey See” with Linda Holmes, 22 September 2014

We’ve talked a lot about the Bechdel Test, and as a matter of reference, it’s a good rule of thumb to apply to diversity as well. If we have “only one” gay character, concerned with and busy being gay – or “only one” African American character, busily holding up the standard of the “black experience,” we have, at best, limited not only our imaginations, but the imaginations of our readers to that one point of view, and at worst have contented ourselves with dealing in shallow caricature and stereotype. If we cannot imagine that our “only one” cannot be a fully realized character through sketchy, single-dimensional characterization, then we’re failing our characters… and ourselves. We never become better writers while standing safely within our comfort zones.

I encourage every one of us to think in terms of diversity – of all kinds – in our novels. That is all.

{remembering READING THE WORLD}

We have been vewwwy, vewwy quiet in this house lately, because it’s Paper Grading Time for the first paper of the summer semester, and Tech Boy, in his disguise as Dr. Tech Boy, is experiencing his first bout of grading for a class he’s teaching. There’s a lot of muttering. It is Not Good. So, we sidle down to our office in the basement and stay there, while he mutters and writes acerbic margin copy and pretty much makes me glad I’m not his TA…

Have you had a chance to hear what went on at BookExpo America (BEA) this year? This morning I listened to a podcast of the diversity panel at BEA made up of Ellen Oh (PROPHECY Series), Aisha Saeed (Written in the Stars, 2015), Marieke Nijkamp, founder of DiversifYA, Lamar Giles (Fake ID) and Mike Jung (Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities). Special Guests included acclaimed Authors Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon), Matt de la Peña (The Living) and Jacqueline Woodson (Beneath a Meth Moon).

The panel was moderated by I.W. Gregorio (None of the Above, 2015). Each of the authors got a chance to talk about the first diverse book they’d read that had changed how they thought of books (IF IT HADN’T BEEN FOR YOON JUN, by Marie G. Lee, published in 1995 was mine), and they reiterated, for those who didn’t notice, that Lee & Low/TU Books has re-announced their NEW VISIONS AWARD:

“The NEW VISIONS AWARD will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash grant of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash grant of $500.”


This panel was full of great, brilliant people with plenty to say, and really good questions… but it was way, way, way too short. This was my objection to it at the start – BookExpo, America, peopled an entire thousands-of-people NYC conference with only Caucasian presenters, in an effort to represent “America,” and then had a single, hour-long panel on diversity. Granted, it was vital and necessary conversation, but a single, hour-long panel in a tiny corner of BEA – filled to standing room only, with people turned away at the door for fire safety reasons – was simply not enough time to really get into the topic of children’s literature, diversity, or anything. One thing that was said which stood out to me, however, was that there’d be a Diverse Books Festival sometime in 2016, in Washington D.C. Yay, right? It is to be “the first of its kind.”

*needle scratches on record*

Wait, what?

Anybody else remember the University of San Francisco’s Department of Education putting on Reading The World?

What you may not know is that USF chose to get involved in this after a similar Cal State Hayward (CSUH) conference had ended after a nine year run. Beverley Hock, who had started the one day conference as a graduate student, finished it as a doctoral candidate, and her time in the area had ended. Disappointed that there was no other venue to talk about diverse children’s books, from 1998-2009, under the skilled direction of Dr. Alma Flor Ada and her education graduate students, USF started READING THE WORLD.

This two-day event brought education students, librarians, authors, teachers, and the community together to interact with an impressive list of authors including Ashley Bryan, Nikki Giovanni, Yuyi Morales, Peter Sis, Rosemary Wells, Lady Jane Yolen, Arnold Adoff, Virginia Hamilton, Joseph Bruchac, Naomi Shihab Nye, Rita Williams Garcia, Jack Zipes — the list of luminaries goes on and on. READING THE WORLD was utterly fantastic — it was a thrill to attend, and to rub shoulders with all of these amazing authors who were Out There, Doing This Amazing Thing. Especially as there are only one or two children’s literature conferences west of the Mississippi, these gatherings were a little taste of heaven for those who were apprehensive about “multicultural books” as diverse books were called at that time, and how they would work in their classrooms and libraries, how they would sell and be accepted by the community, and what they needed to be. There were presentations on all kinds of things, including cultural identity, folklore, gender identity, social justice, storytelling, and more. It was brilliant, and even without social media, people knew about it and attended and came away with SO MUCH. I wish they could have gone on hosting it forever.

I just want to give props to Dr. Alma Flor Ada, all of those graduate students over the years, and all of the people who threw their backs into this. Before Twitter hashtags made information sharing quick and easy. Before Facebook — in the days of MySpace. Before iPhones. Before social media was a “thing.” THANK YOU, READING THE WORLD. You were amazing.

Time moves on, funding gets cut, faculty and students move on. Dr. Alma Flor is a professor emeritus now; the torch has been passed. Though hardly the first to dip a toe in serious celebrations of diversity, #WeNeedDiverseBooks is nevertheless taking the challenge East of the Mississippi. But, things are awfully quiet around these parts. Maybe the West Coast doesn’t think we need to really talk about diversity – because we’re pretty diverse out here, and more comfortable with it? Not gonna lie: there’s a need still, and I’m disappointed that my graduate school hasn’t taken my – a JCity, Aquafortis and a few others’ good advice – and get a program going at Mills College. But, there’s still time. And, there’s considerable excitement surrounding the KidlitCon’s plan to have diversity be our central theme this October. I think we’ve got plenty to talk about, and a little more time in which to do so. Hope to see you there.