As I work on WIP #3 (new adult sci-fi) I find myself doing a ton of research. Not just the typical Sci-Fi research to make sure my fiction novel still has some realistic element of science in it, but mass amounts of research about my characters.
I have taken on a lot in this endeavor: I have five POV’s to contend with, none of which are suburban-born middle-class white women (aka me). Because I am taking on a cast of people that are not born of my experiences, I’ve turned to research to help make sure these individuals are accurate and well-represented.
One character (my favorite even though you’re not supposed to have favorite children) in particular is proving to be particularly research-heavy: Hana Tilki, a 21-year old Turkish-born Muslim woman who’s spent the 4 years prior to the start of the novel living in the United States.
To state the obvious: I am not Turkish. I am not Muslim. So I find myself researching everything I possibly can. About Turkey’s history and culture (and found the best show it’s called Zemhri) and people. About Islam, about what’s expected, about the daily prayers, and about how Muslims feel about their religion and how they feel about how others see their religion. I could go on for ages but I’ll digress. My point is: I’m going to need sensitivity readers for my Hana, because I know no amount of internet research can make me a Turkish Muslim woman trying to live either in the US or on another planet (as she’ll be doing in my novel).
Onto the topic: sensitivity readers.
So first off, I think it was a mistake calling them “sensitivity readers”. Right away you’re giving people who consider the younger generation’s concern with cultural awareness/appropriation as “being too sensitive” the opening to mock these kinds of readers who are in fact, very useful and very necessary. I have also seen articles and people ragging on these readers as potential censorship.
These readers aren’t intended to censor a writer, but to help them. If one of these readers says to an author “this is a misrepresentation, [this person] would not act this way.” it is not censorship, but a learning opportunity.
Let’s say I wanted to write a black character in a contemporary novel. How would I do that in a way that doesn’t insult members of the black community who have been going through so much controversy and struggle in the past years? As an author, I would struggle because I want to include these characters in my story but my white upbringing does not translate to a black child’s upbringing, and I cannot accurately write like it does.
Not all writers realize that. I didn’t, for a long time.
Sensitivity readers are an opportunity to get a glimpse into another person’s world, another person’s experiences and upbringing and values. As writers, we shouldn’t see that as censorship, we should celebrate this as a recent and exciting development that allows us to write beyond “what you know”. I see authors complain often that they’re not “supposed to” write certain characters. A white writer shouldn’t write POC characters. A Christian author shouldn’t write about Muslim characters. Straight writers shouldn’t write LGBTQ, on and on and on. Sensitivity readers give you MORE freedom, not less, to write these diverse characters and reach audiences in a good, well-represented way **.
Frankly, if you see someone helping you not publish inaccurate representation as censorship, you should think hard about why you’re so resistant to writing a character accurately and wanting so badly to write this character in a way you think they should be.
Stay tuned for the next subject: Cancel Culture in the Twitter Lit World
* This is not to say I’m unaware that there are devoted Muslim women who choose not to wear Hijab, I am and I could have gone that way but it felt unauthentic for this particular character.
** Please be aware that controversial stories should be left to those involved in the controversy. Do not think I’m saying a white author should write an MC black character involved in the BLM protests, or that an American writer should write the POV of a Syrian refugee. I’m not. I’m saying authors are being given the opportunity to include diversity in a way that doesn’t insult those we’re trying to include in our stories.