Sensitivity readers used in the publishing of multicultural books have been in the social media conversation recently. A sensitivity reader, sometimes called a cultural consultant, reads a manuscript from a standpoint of membership in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or spiritual community and evaluates the story for authenticity and makes revision recommendations.
It’s all very Captain Obvious that writers should be checking their cultural research and using a member of that culture to do so. But it’s easy to overlook the deeper value of a sensitivity reader when we employ them only at the end of the process, and only when we are writing outside our racial or religious culture. I have used cultural consultants to help me understand the culture of military families and maritime professions. And I have used cultural consultants to help me more fully understand characters who share my own ethnicity and religion. Membership in the race, ethnicity, or religion of your characters doesn’t automatically
make you an authority on your characters particular situation. There are a multitude of life experiences and ways to live within every racial or ethnic group. Don’t short change yourself in the research just because you are writing from a home culture.
Here are three benefits to consulting a sensitivity reader early in the process of writing a book.
Gain access to research materials
The best thing you can ask at the beginning of a book research process is “what should I read, see, hear, taste, study, and visit in order to fully understand this aspect of the culture.” A good consultant will know. For example an early consultant for The Turn of the Tide suggested, since a trip to Japan was out of my budget and my questions were ecosystem specific, that I talk to the horticulturalist at the Japanese garden about the flora in my Japanese setting. I could have just read a field guide but seeing and hearing and smelling the trees made all the difference. I’ve made valuable personal connections through research consultants and I’ve gained access to unpublished research and off-display museum materials which did much to round out my understanding of a culture. And because I used a consultant early in the process, I could efficiently make the necessary changes.
Embrace the need for substantial change in your story
Sooner or later you will come across a topic in your research that stymies you. Written resources don’t mention the information you are looking for. People you interview give vague or wildly disparate information. Suggested contacts don’t return your queries. And sometimes a sensitivity reader will recommend explicitly that you leave an entire topic alone.
Listen. Seriously. Listen.
And change your story accordingly. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about a culture, but there are things within a culture that simply do not belong in your story. And your reader is not making this suggestion to make you fail. She is actually hoping you will succeed and trying her best to help you do so. It can feel like a defeat but really it’s an opportunity to reimagine your story in a way that will make it more respectful and also more robust in its narrative structure.
Open your heart to a change in your world view.
The joy and challenge of writing fiction is the opportunity to submerge yourself in another person’s experience. If you enter into that work wholeheartedly it can change you. If you have the assistance of a good consultant it can change you for the better. I had a real gem of a consultant for The Turn of The Tide. She is a Japanese language teacher and initially I just asked her to check the Japanese words to make sure I was using them correctly. But we ended up having a much longer conversation because my main character is biracial & she is raising biracial children. And she is from an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She had much to say about the contemporary experience of Japanese American students and the impact of the tsunami not just on the land but upon the broader Japanese culture. I was truly touched by her words and have thought differently about Japanese culture and many global issues, particularly the impact of rising oceans on indigenous peoples in the Pacific, ever since. As for the story, I went back to the beginning with my biracial character and reexamined every bit of internal and external dialogue to make it more reflective of what I’d learned about the grief particular to a tsunami survivor. I didn’t need to change any major plot points but I did uncover the soul of the character in a way I hadn’t before.
So after all that work do I have a bullet proof story?
And if you think using a sensitivity reader will exempt you from criticism for the cultural representation in your story, you are going to be disappointed. Because there is no single correct representation of a culture. If I had consulted with a different Japanese person I would have gained a different perspective and made different edits. In my opinion a writer is better served by letting go of the goal that nobody will ever be critical or offended by your story in favor of the goal of deeper, and more specific cultural understanding in order to write your characters and story bravely and whole heartedly.
Rosanne Parry is the author of a 4 MG novels and the forthcoming A WOLF CALLED WANDER and LAST OF THE NAME. She is a bookseller at Annie Blooms and teaches in the Masters in Book Publishing program at Portland State. She writes in a treehouse in her back yard.
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