Critiquing, Diversity

What does a sensitivity reader do?

I first heard of sensitivity readers a couple of years ago. Like many writers, the concept of someone examining my depiction of other cultures and genders intrigued and alarmed me at the same time. In theory, I liked the idea, but what if I failed to measure up? What if I was unintentionally racist or sexist? Then I had the chance to play a sensitivity reader myself, and saw what a difference a sensitivity reader could make.

The writer I agreed to help was writing Lone Ranger fan-fiction. Her goal was to update the Lone Ranger for modern times — deliberately ignoring the disastrous Johnny Depp movie — and she had already added a few scenes in support of her goal. For example, at one point, the story has a scene in which Tonto explains to the Lone Ranger that the law is not on the sides of non-whites. However, she was not sure she had done enough to realize her goal, so she asked for help.

From the first, I was painfully aware of how unprepared I was for the role. I am of Cornish and English descent, and my knowledge of First Nations is specifically centered on the tribes of British Columbia, from whom I buy art and whom I support with a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest art. From the first, I made clear that I had no experience of the Apache or Comanches, the tribes mentioned in the story.

All the same I brought two qualifications to the reading. First, I knew that research is one of the keys to depicting other cultures as human. Second, while the local cultures have no cultural relation to the Apache and Comanches, most First Nations share a common history of oppression by the dominant European-based culture in North America, a history full of broken faith and lies on the settlers’ side, and suspicion and of mistrust on the First Nations side. Only the details differ.

Doing the reading

After doing some research, I was able to make a few concrete suggestions. To start with, while acknowledging the violence of Apache raids, I suggested that it should also be mentioned that settlers committed their own share of atrocities against the Apaches.

However, most of my suggestions centered on Tonto. “Comanche” is not what members of his nation called themselves — that would be “Numinu” or something spelled similarly. More importantly, based on the ethnology of Tonto’s tribe, I could suggest some possible traits and habit that go beyond the stolid “faithful Indian companion” of TV and film. For example, he might tend to give older man respect, because the old men governed his tribe. He would almost certainly have knowledge and interest in the buffalo, whom his people relied upon. Probably, he would use a travois to carry his goods. All these are simple points, but even they start to flesh out the character.

What really matters, though, is that the mythos makes Tonto an orphan. Could that mean that he had never gone through the standard initiation for Comanche men, killing a buffalo on his own and going on a vision-quest? If so, that would explain his position as an outsider. He could be expected to feel himself lacking, and a stranger to the culture of his birth. Such feelings would also find their counterparts in the Lone Ranger, which would explain their friendships. Both would feel themselves exiled from their own cultures, and strangers in each other’s. Basically, they would be mirror images of each other.

The Revision

I sent these comments to the author, emphasizing that these comments were basic and she should do more research herself. Several months passed before I saw the revised story.

Unfortunately, she did not seem to have done the additional research I suggested, which I am sure would have improved her story still further. But she had listened to most of my comments, and I found the results interesting.

The simple mention of settler atrocities made mention of Apache raids more ambiguous. Even more interestingly, when added to her habit of giving Tonto more of a voice, my comments had helped to transform Tonto from a supporting character to something of a shared lead. In places, he schooled the Lone Ranger, even correcting his views. He came across clearly as a lonely man, rather than a figure of stoicism. For the first time, he became interesting. Much more than I would have imagined possible, he had become a character in his own right, no longer simply part of the background to the Lone Ranger’s story.

Could I have said more? Undoubtedly. But I was new to sensitivity reading, and working for free. All the same, it was gratifying to see the results of my comments. From the story as well the author’s comments, I had played a part in helping her goals.

Sensitivity reading, like any critique, is probably what you make it. Still, judging from this experience, I am convinced that it can be a useful exercise so long as a writer is willing to listen. Although I think I avoided any major mistakes, I believe that, the next time I attempt to do a sensitivity reading, I can do a better job.

Diversity

The Dangers of Cultural Fundamentalism

Academics – especially junior ones – who concern themselves with the portrayal of other cultures are often fundamentalists. Under no circumstances, many insist, do you have any right to depict any culture other than your own. You are being disrespectful, the argument goes, and denying a member of that culture the chance to tell their own story, as though there is only one story, and, once it has been told, the story can never be told again. None of this is up for debate among these intellectual fundamentalists, and any questioning of the official line forever brands you as a colonialist exploiter. I suspect, though, in the effort to avoid the mistakes of the past, other mistakes are being made.

I understand the reasons behind this position. To a large degree, I sympathize with it. In the past, attempts to depict other cultures have been full of racism and inaccuracy that no caring person would care to perpetuate.

Yet, at the same time, the position seems to me anti-literature. Not in the sense that literature is above criticism, or in Ayn Rand’s position that the rights of the artist are more important than anything else. Rather, my reservation lies in the fact that literature – especially the novel – is all about attempts to understand others. At its best, writing is an empathic leap into the mind-set of others. Deny that basic function and you remove one of the main purposes of writing, generally leaving only polemic.

Rather than decry every attempt to portray other cultures, I prefer to advocate for responsible portrayals, based on a solid knowledge of the culture depicted, and in consultation with members of the culture. If nobody from the culture is making the same points, you might be doing the service of a good ally and using your privilege to bring general attention to important issues.

My position has solidified since I wrote a blog in early August 2019. It was a reporting of a conversation on Facebook between First Nations artists about Emily Carr, one of Canada’s greatest painters. Since Carr often depicted First Nations villages and sculpture, and even sold tourist wares, I had expected her to be denounced. Instead, while the words “cultural appropriation” hovered in the background, the artists who commented showed considerable respect for her work. Carr had made herself accepted in the villages where she stayed, and her work, if not traditional First Nations style, was credited with helping the modern revival of the art. She was seen as an ally, and remembered fondly.

That in itself was a revelation. Yet equally enlightening was the response I received from culturally Woke people. I was attacked as just another interfering white person – despite the fact that I was reporting First Nations opinions. Unsurprisingly, the conclusions that came from my reporting were rejected out of hand. Theory said that such opinions did not exist, so the evidence must be wrong. Or possibly, I was  imagined to be tacking my conclusions onto the comments I reported, although the relation between the comments and my conclusions could hardly be missed.

Yet in contrast, I received no negative comments whatsoever from those I quoted. I took that to mean that I had reported accurately and that responsible ventures into other cultures could, in fact, be acceptable under the right conditions – tricky, but acceptable.

Recently, this opinion was reinforced by a blog by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin was talking about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about how an Afro-American woman became the source of one of the most famous lines of cancer cells in medical research. Skloot, a white woman, carefully documented the complexity of the story, which Le Guin described as full of “thefts, discoveries, mistakes, deceits, coverups, exploitations, and reparations.” Skloots was also able to gain the trust of the Lacks family:

“These were people who had good reason to feel that they would be endangered or betrayed if they trust any white person. It took her literally years to win their confidence. Evidently she showed them that she deserved it by her patient willingness to listen and learn, her rigorous honesty, and her compassionate awareness of who and what was and is truly at risk.”

Le Guin’s review echoes the story of Carr. It shows that entry into another culture is slow and difficult, and requires the utmost integrity to succeed. If approval is lacking, it may even need to be abandoned. Yet despite what the academic fundamentalist say, it can be done to the satisfaction of those depicted. Instead of, “How dare they write that?” the questions that should be asked are, “Is the portrayal accurate? Is it honest? Is it is accepted by those depicted?”

So excuse me if I pay less attention to theory and more to those depicted. Their opinion matters far more than that of those who claim to speak for them without the trouble of first receiving permission.

Characters, Diversity

Writing Other Cultures

Depicting other cultures is one of the hardest tasks in writing fantasy. Done properly, it requires experience and research. Moreover, the standards have never been higher. Many say that it should not be done at all out of sensitivity to the oppressed, although the commonly suggested alternative –inventing a culture — frequently results in a patchwork that risks being even more offensive.

Besides, writers will try to depict other cultures anyway. The effort is too much a part of the empathic impulse that lies at the heart of writing. John Le Carré said that a good writer should be able to watch a house cat cross the street and know what if feels like to be pounced on by a Bengal tiger. In the same way, a writer should be able to experience and observe a culture and convey to readers what it feels to belong to it.

So how do you write another culture and minimize the chances of offending or getting everything wrong? Some risk will always remain, but here are seven guidelines I have found useful:

  1. Do your research: A quick crib is not enough. Anthropology has a long history, but its studies are uneven in quality. Even Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology, sometimes marred his work by relying on a single informant, or by throwing out raw data as irrelevant. Unless you know the range of observation and interpretation, you can easily fall prey to skewed opinions. For instance, Wikipedia’s entry for the potlatch of the Pacific Coast is based on late versions of Kwakwaka’wakw practices, which are vastly different from the northern potlatches. The most reliable studies are usually those done by academics hired by members of the culture.
  2. Experience the culture: Being a tourist gives you limited exposure. Visit a culture you are depicting as often as possible. Make friends with members of the culture, and, if you can, live among them. Don’t be surprised, though, if members of the culture often have better things to do than answer your questions.
  3. Discard all stereotypes: They are not only hostile, but inaccurate. Only mention them when — as often happens — members of the culture make fun of them. Tolkien got away cultures that were entirely good or evil, but modern writers cannot. Barbarians who talk like they are brain-damaged are equally outdated.
  4. Remember that even positive stereotypes are racist: A friend of mine who is a Haisla artist tells me that buyers often lecture him on how spiritual and in touch with nature he must be as a status Indian. He is more amused than the angry, but the point is that these assumptions are as inaccurate and offensive than the negative pictures of the First Nations as drunk and uneducated. Treat your characters from other cultures as people, and throw out the Noble Savage and the Mystic.
  5. Do not treat any character as a representative of their culture: No, not even a chieftain or king. Be particularly cautious about ethnic villains– if you must have them at all, make sure that their culture is not the reason for their opposition or evil. Show a variety of different characters from the same culture to remove even a hint of stereotyping.
  6. Never show your main character being immediately accepted by another culture: Nor should your character immediately gain status in another culture or impress everyone with magic, technology, or tricks. H. Rider Habbard’s characters might gain acceptance by claiming to control an eclipse, but those imperialist days are long gone (unless, as S. P. Somtow’s characters once did, yours make the mistake of trying to impress the Maya with their advanced knowledge of astronomy). An outsider generally gains acceptance slowly, and with the help of allies. Go down to the neighborhood pub and start treating the regulars as old friends, and the resulting startled looks will help you quickly understand this basic guideline.
  7. Remember that cultures change how they are expressed over time: Often, the change comes from interaction with other cultures. For example, European contact, and access to steel tools and bright new paints and dyes propelled the art of the Pacific Coast to new heights — a process that continues today in interaction with mainstream art. Similarly, contrary to stereotypes,most of the First Nation people on the coast in the early Twentieth Century were raised Christian. However, the old ways did not disappear: the feast for the birth of a child became a celebration of baptism, with traditions continued under the eyes of unsuspecting missionaries. Today, older spiritualism has been revived by some, and most are as agnostic as the dominant culture.

Of course, even if you follow all these suggestions, you can still expect some hostility. Some commenters are too dogmatic to accept any depiction of a culture unless you have the correct ethnic origin. Sometimes, too, a history of oppression and misunderstanding will cause people to reject your depiction — sometimes without having read it. However, in my experience, depicting another culture is like trying to speak another language when you travel: If you have done your best to learn and are obviously trying, most people will be pleased that you are at least making an effort, even if you don’t get everything right.

And, yes, a lot of effort is required. But how can you portray what you do not understand? And anyway, who said that writing was supposed to be easy?