There’s a new concept emerging in the writing community that wasn’t on my radar a decade ago, and that is the notion of a sensitivity reader. Different from a beta reader–someone you find to read your work-in-progress for free, purely as a reader and not as an editor–a sensitivity reader looks at how your MS represents groups who are socially marginalized, have suffered oppression or silencing, or are too often treated as the Other to mainstream culture. It’s essentially a tool for making a person writing from a place of privilege aware of their privilege and aware of the places they’re perpetuating stereotypes or simply being insulting.
I see this as a good thing. Most of the agents I research these days make a special point of seeking works that are #OwnVoices, LGBTQ+ friendly, and are diverse and colorful. This is important, because fiction is such a powerful too for creating empathy and helping us understand our own experience. Remember that book you read as a kid that you felt was written just for you, it represented you to yourself so perfectly? (For me, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.) It’s important that kids read books where they can see themselves and their own experience represented.
It’s also key to creating empathy that we understand the experiences of those unlike us. I credit J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings for first cluing me in that while cultures can stereotype and disagree with one another, sometimes violently, each culture feels right from its own perspective. I still remember how Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body blew my mind open in college, and not just because that book, so eloquent about the experience of grief, found me at a time when I too was deeply grieving; its main character helped me understand how gender and sexuality are not hard-wired to your chromosomes, a tutelage I needed at the time. Sure, the experiences of cultural stereotyping, racism, and queer sexualities were visible around me–I observed them in my friends and the larger world–but the books helped me think these things through. It made me, I hope, more empathetic.
Writing fiction is, or can be, an extraordinary exercise in empathy because it requires you to get in the mind of someone else. The traditional advice, “Write what you know,” is useful for beginning writers who, not knowing where to begin, will unconsciously channel the voice and style of whomever they’ve read most recently. At a certain point in the apprenticeship, the advice becomes “Write what you want to know; write to find out,” and that is what yields our best books of memoir, nonfiction reporting, and fiction.
I went through this in my own writing career. My earliest, earliest stories were pure fan fiction; they involved Indiana Jones, and I wish to God I still had these little gems around for when I need a hysterical laugh. My first college stories were efforts to come to terms with my own experience, or escape it entirely. Two people talking in a cemetery after they’ve buried a friend who committed suicide. The break-up story. The crystal ball story. The transported-to-a-different-world-where-you-are-suddenly-queen story. (Wish I still had that one, too.) I started writing “A Lesson in Manners” a few years after my sister died. How else does a writer make sense of such devastation but through writing?
At some point in my MA program at Florida State University, I started writing fewer “what it was like” stories and more “what might it be like” stories. In my MFA at Cornell, almost all my stories were “what might it be like” stories. What might it be like if you’re a mother watching your child die of pediatric cancer (“The Keeping of the Counts”). What might it be like if you’re a struggling artist and you want to have a baby (“The Memoirs of Sam Wesson”). How does it feel if you’re working a job in the sex industry and you want to move into clean, wholesome family entertainment while feeling so distant and alienated from that world and its simple faith (“Welcome to the Holy Land”). I had to know these characters inside out to write these stories, and since their experience wasn’t my experience, I had to look around me at other peoples’ experiences and watch, listen, and steal (this is known on a larger scale as cultural appropriation). What I couldn’t glean from observation, I had to imagine.
I had some classic failures. A colleague in my MFA program hated “Bay City” and felt its characters where wholesale stereotypes, from Simon, the gay man, to Rebel, the Cherokee ex-lover. (“I don’t like your Indian,” he declared, which he had a right to do, since he is native himself.) I went back to the drawing board with Rebel, taking this as a sign that my character (created from the observing-and-stealing fashion) wasn’t developed enough.
In other stories, the prejudices were crude and unwitting. In “Married, Living in Italy” (yet unpublished), my narrator made a joke about an Italian-American character being connected to the Mafia. It was embarrassing, and I cut it. In “Day of the Beheaded Barbie,” I made a reference to “bums.” A social worker friend gently informed me how callous that term is; “homeless” or “temporarily unhoused” is more compassionate. (I didn’t tell her I was a bum one year for Halloween. Let’s hope there is no photographic evidence of that, or my hopes of a future career in public office are sunk.)
And what must a writer be, if not compassionate? Our characters might be terrible, and behave badly toward one another–stories need conflict, after all–but the writer must contain multitudes; we must see the good in all of them. That’s an intense exercise in imagination.
The times readers have told me they really connected to a story or experience–that I passed, that is to say, the “sensitivity” read–I still feel pleased about. I wrote “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County” about Dacey, the pregnant girl, trying to leave her husband before I’d ever been pregnant. A friend and colleague, the biological mother of two, was amazed at how well I’d described pregnancy. How could I? Because I’d been around people who were pregnant, and I soaked up everything they said about it.
You can call that cannibalization, sure. You can call it appropriation. Or you can call it an appropriate exercise of imagination.
The murky ethical area enters when the writer is in a place of privilege but writing about characters who aren’t. I see this often in my new position as a reviews editor for the Historical Novel Society. I’d *love* to see more historical books with characters of color, either as main characters or as narrators. But all too often I run into white authors (male or female) writing black characters with the most obvious and painful of stereotypes at play. I decline to offer those books for review; I won’t take inclusivity at the cost of perpetuating stereotypes. I wish these authors had thought to hire a sensitivity reader. Whatever stigma or scorn attaches to being sensitive in your use of language and your treatment of the experience of others–call it “political correctness” as a pejorative, “SJW,” or “snowflake”–literature isn’t doing its work on us or for us if we can’t enlarge our imaginations to include the experiences of those different from us. To see them as subjects, as fully human, and as, in their own world and from their own perspective, in the right.
My latest story, “The Far Shore,” published in Sweet Tree Review, is my biggest empathy stretch to date. I’d never tried to write a child narrator (and haven’t since) but Mireya is in fifth grade. It’s the first story where I experimented with magical realism. Mireya imagines that she is turning into a mermaid, so she can escape a painful reality and be close again to her older brother, who was drifting away from her even before an incapacitating accident.
The biggest leap in the story, however, is that Mireya’s family are Orthodox Jews. It wasn’t originally part of the story, and I couldn’t figure out why the first drafts weren’t working. Then–in that weird thing that happens to writers when a character suddenly reveals themselves–I realized the family were strict practicing Jews. Suddenly I understood Mireya’s tolerance of majesty, mystery, and punishment. Suddenly I understood the family dynamic. And their culture gave me the last piece of terrible logic that the conflict of the story required: the taboo against artificial support of life. So while Mireya is fighting, in her own mind, to rescue her brother, she knows what is coming not as a medical possibility but as the only conclusion her faith, and her family, can allow. Suddenly her story had so much more weight, and crushing inevitability, and power for me.
Am I an Orthodox Jew? Nope. Did that stop me? Nope again. Did I steal everything I could from my Jewish friends, research Orthodox faith, read other stories by and about Orthodox Jews? Yep. Is this cultural appropriation? Maybe. And did I succeed in a sensitive portrayal? That’s for my readers to decide.
I know that I, as a writer, would be terribly diminished if I could only stick to writing about things I know. I hope I will always have the poetic license to try to transport myself into other experiences, other minds, other worlds. I hope I will cross borders sensitively, expansively, generously, with great care and carefulness as I travel through places where other people actually live. I perceive the burden and the arrogance of presuming I, an outsider, can understand, much less represent the experience of someone very different.
But I believe in the empathy-building powers of fiction for us as writers, as readers, and as citizens of the world. If we cannot imagine, comprehend, put ourselves inside of another’s skin, there is no hope that we will ever share this planet and its resources in peace. We can’t just stick to what we know. We have to try, every day, to stretch the boundaries of what we know, and listen carefully and deeply and well to those who have wisdom to teach us and who have other, far different stories to share.