It has been very hard to watch the news this week, but also impossible to look away from it. I find it heartbreaking and enraging that Black people all over the world have been abused and killed by law enforcement for years – the people who we should, in a truly just system, trust to protect us all. It’s infuriating that we seem stuck having the same conversations again and again, instead of moving forward in any meaningful way. I hope deeply that George Floyd’s murder does change something, but I know that I’ve hoped that before. I also know that we all have a duty to work towards change by being actively anti-racist, and I wanted to talk a bit today about how working on my books has begun to teach me how to be better at listening and acknowledging when I’m wrong.
These days I use what are called sensitivity readers for all of my books. This is a clunky and odd-sounding term for a really necessary part of the editing process: a sensitivity reader is a person who shares a background or an experience with characters in your story, usually (but not always) a background or experience that you as the author do not have.
I bring in sensitivity readers at several different stages of my writing process. I begin by doing research into the background or experience I want to write (so in terms of Death Sets Sail, I researched Egypt in the 1930s). Then I hold interviews with people who share that background or experience (for example people with an Egyptian background for my character Amina), to take my understanding from theoretical to personal. I take into account everything they’ve told me while I write the first draft of my book. Then I have it edited by my editor and agent to check plot issues, and once I’ve worked on their notes and finished the second draft of my book, I also send it out to several more sensitivity readers.
And here’s where I think this becomes relevant to the current conversation: no matter how many books I’ve read, or people I’ve spoken to, or hours I’ve spent trying to understand my characters, I always discover I’ve got something wrong at this stage. Sometimes it’s a big thing, usually it’s a few small things, but I’ve never yet (and I never expect I will) get an email back from a reader saying ‘this is perfect!’
I’ve been using sensitivity readers since Mistletoe and Murder (and I wish I’d done it sooner), so that’s almost four years by now, and reading a sensitivity reader’s email pointing out my errors still makes me feel sick to my stomach. It is horrifying to know you failed at perfect empathy, horrifying to realise that your good intentions don’t actually count for anything when you’ve put the wrong words on the page.
And at the moment I read my sensitivity readers’ comments, I have a choice. I can either shout ‘this person is being MEAN to me! They don’t UNDERSTAND that I TRIED! I’m IGNORING THIS!’ … or I can give myself a mental kick, take a breath, know I’m being an idiot, thank them politely and do the hard work to fix the problem they’ve identified. So far, I’ve always chosen the second option, and I hope I always do, because I know that those changes will make my books better. They make them more realistic and more useful. They allow my characters to properly connect with readers who share their background – and those readers, I know, are more important than my momentarily hurt feelings.
Again, I’m not trying to say that the final book is absolutely perfect. I don’t think it could ever be, because as its writer I am not perfect. I’m just a person, and people make mistakes. But I think it’s deeply worth spending time trying to correct all the mistakes I can, and trying to learn not to make those particular mistakes again.
I think that this process I’ve just described is very similar to the choices we all have when we are told that we’re responding to race and racism in problematic ways. It feels hideous to be wrong, especially when you know you were trying with all your might be to right. But facts are facts, and your only real choice is in how you decide to respond to those facts.
It might sound nice to say things like ‘I don’t see colour!’ or ‘all lives matter!’ but the truth is that we all do see colour, and it is Black lives that are in most danger every day. I don’t want to tell you that it’s OK to say those things, because it’s not. If you have said them, you need to learn not to say them any more, and learn why you shouldn’t. But what I am saying is that it’s OK to feel embarrassed and ashamed when someone calls you out for saying those things. Shame is an important feeling. Embrace it, and use it to make your next response better. And you should be aiming to be better and better, more and more thoughtful, not just not racist but actively anti-racist.
By the way, if you want to use sensitivity readers, please remember to compensate them for the work they’re doing for you. These days I always pay my sensitivity readers and I think all adult authors should, but if you’re not able to do that you need to find another way to make sure they feel genuinely valued. The answer to all of this is not demanding your friends spend emotional and physical time working on you or your writing without giving them something meaningful in return – remember that before you reach out to someone asking them to help you, you need to do all the research and work you can yourself, and once you have reached out you need to be properly thoughtful and grateful.
I hope you’ve found this useful, and I hope you’ve found it a little uncomfortable. If we are going to move forward in any meaningful way, we do need to be uncomfortable, and humble, and constantly aware of our imperfections. I’m really proud of you all and the work you’re doing.