Yasmin is a talented editor, writer and English teacher who recently won the Sisters in Crime Eleanor Taylor Bland award for her unpublished novel. One of her areas of expertise is sensitivity reading, a field of growing importance as authors become more aware of their responsibilities when they develop minority characters. Join us for a discussion about appropriation, agency and author intent.
Can you please tell us a bit about your work life?
I’ve been a writer and a voracious reader all my life. When I was young, I didn’t know anything about the publishing world, I just thought books magically appeared. After I found out more, I figured if I can’t be an author, I’ll teach English. I now have a degree in English, a minor in Education, and a Masters in Literacy and Technology.
For the first seven years, I taught grades six to twelve English in the classroom. For the last three years, I’ve coached teachers for courses students take remotely. I love working with teachers to help them engage their students.
How did you get into editing?
I was writing a novel and became intrigued with the publishing world and wanted to learn what it entailed besides authoring. Through experience as a beta reader, I realized how much I enjoy working with other people on their material. I could see things about their manuscripts that I couldn’t see in my own.
I decided to do editing professionally and joined a Tessera Editorial mentorship program. They walked us step-by-step through the publishing process including webinars with experienced industry professionals. They also run a pool of editors to cover a broad range of sensitivity fields. When I finished the program, I was invited to come on staff.
I now also run my own editing business. All my nights are spent writing and editing.
What is a sensitivity reader?
A sensitivity field relates to a minority or specific group of people. It doesn’t have to be about race or sexual preference, it could be about military life, religion, or any area studied or worked in.
A sensitivity reader is knowledgeable about and has lived experiences in a particular field and can attest for the most part to how realistic the writing is. They can highlight to the author any scenes that might offend someone and pose the questions: What is the purpose of this scene? Who does it serve? Who might it hurt? If it’s not serving a strong purpose, it can be edited, fixed or removed.
For example, say you were writing historical fiction set in 1850 when they used words that are now considered racial slurs. If you use those words today, you can offend your readers and lose your whole story. Ask yourself, what is the purpose of putting the words in there? If it’s a love story, these words are not necessary, but if the story has to do with racism, they could be purposeful. Still, there are ways to go about saying things. You might use the term once, but not repeatedly, or don’t use it overtly, but show the character’s reaction to it.
What fields do you read for?
I can use my lived experience as an African American woman, a single mother, a teacher, and as I’ve dealt extensively with middle/high school students, I can give feedback on that. I haven’t experienced everything about these fields, for example, I haven’t shared every black American’s experience, but I do have a good sense of what might be triggering for us.
Can a professional sensitivity reader work outside their field, for example, could you read for a character of a different race?
Someone with the specific experience will have deeper insight. I can read about being about being a person of colour in general, but I can’t speak to, say, Mexican culture, because their experience will be different from mine. My family is from Ghana, so I could do that, but I couldn’t speak for other cultures. I can speak to being a minority, but I can’t give detail about specific sexual preferences.
Do you need writing experience to be a sensitivity reader?
Anyone can be a sensitivity reader if they have lived experience in the field. I wouldn’t say they have to be a writer, but they have to be versed in posing the right questions as described above. Right now, I’m writing a scene about men in a fraternity and I need to know how men might talk among themselves in this situation. I’m not in a fraternity, but my husband is, so I could ask him, “How does this sound?”
What’s the difference between a subject matter expert and a sensitivity reader?
Experts look at procedures, so they assess how realistic something is from a technical standpoint, but they don’t examine each scene to ask who it serves, or to assess the emotional impact of the writing.
What are some typical sensitivity issues your clients need to address?
The majority of authors overlook agency. They give their protagonist a sidekick from a minority group, but don’t give that character their own purpose.
What does it mean for a character to have agency?
To have agency, a character needs to have their own purpose. They must figure things out and be active, rather than reactionary. The character loses agency if everything is done for them or things happen to them. You have to juggle agency for the protagonist versus their sidekick. The sidekick must resolve her own problems, to figure things out and save herself. This gives her agency.
You can write a character that is just a foil for the protagonist, but then don’t make that character from a different culture, or you risk that character falling into a stereotype. If the protagonist and sidekick are both white men, that’s fine, like Sherlock and Watson. But when you make Watson an Asian woman, like Lucy Lui in Elementary, you have to give her more agency.
In a sensitivity read, I’m checking that the characters of colour are not just sidekicks designed to make the protagonist look good, but are built up to tell their own story. They don’t have to go and have their own adventure, but they’ve got to have something that makes them unique and separate from the protagonist. eg The Lone Ranger has Tonto, who is native American. What was Tonto’s story?
How would you explain appropriation?
For me, it’s when people take on things from another culture and put it out as if it’s their own without acknowledging where it comes from. For example, the Kardashians are not black, but they use black culture. People don’t like that because it’s not authentic and they aren’t acknowledging its source.
How do you feel about an author writing from the point of view of a character outside the their lived experience?
This depends on a case-by-case basis, so I can’t give a global answer. And my own thoughts on it fluctuate … again because it depends on what was written, why it was written, and by whom. You’re always going to have some characters with experiences outside the author’s lived experience. Ask what is the purpose for this character and why am I writing from their point of view? Is it the main character or a minor character? Write with a lot of reverence and give credit. Make sure you are realistic.
How does this apply to authors living in and writing about a culture outside their own?
Expats can write about themselves or a character experiencing that culture, showing what they learn. But who is your audience? If it’s for people in that culture, it could be problematic. Writing for readers from your culture to tell them about this other culture might work better.
Has representation in publishing improved since #blacklivesmatters?
They say the standards have changes, but I’m not sure. Certain stories are told more, such as black pain stories, Latino pain stories. They are important and need to be told, but they aren’t the only stories that matter. We want broader representation in comedy, fantasy, horror, the full gambit. I’d like to see underrepresented groups seen as the norm in these genres.
Has #blacklivesmatters created a higher demand for sensitivity readers?
We have received more requests for sensitivity reads from self-published authors, but sometimes the author is just looking for a stamp of approval. When I speak to an author, I gauge how invested they are in taking feedback. If they just want to check it’s all good, or they get defensive, I can’t help. If they give specifics, eg they have an African American character and they want to know how they speak, or other cultural details, then I will take them on.
Do you have any tips for authors writing about minority groups?
First, ask yourself what is your purpose of writing about who or what you’re writing about. Who does it serve? If you do decide to write in a culture outside of your own, ensure you give agency to those characters and cultures from underrepresented groups. Clarify the purpose of any controversial scenes or characters and ask yourself who might it harm, who might it help? Do you really need it?
Is it okay to ask someone I know to do a sensitivity read for no payment?
Sensitivity reads take time and commitment, and can be mentally and emotionally taxing. So even if the person you’re asking isn’t a professional reader, a writer should expect to pay some sort of honorarium for the service to show the writer values the reader’s work. So yes, pay your sensitivity readers!
Congratulations on winning the Sisters in Crime Eleanor Taylor Bland award for emerging writers of colour. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Sisters in Crime is a hugely supportive organisation founded to promote the ongoing advancement, recognition, and professional development of women crime writers. Eleanor Taylor Bland was an African American author who wrote strong female characters doing badass things. I love her and her writing and because she writes crime fiction, which is a predominantly male genre.
My current novel is a thriller about an elite female Ghanaian assassin set on a mission of revenge when the man who killed her family suddenly re-emerges.
I entered my partial manuscript in the competition back in May, but I never thought anything would come of it. It’s super-hard to break into this field, to get an agent, to get published. A lot of times writing can be such a solitary thing. My friends tell me I’m really a good writer, but I’d started to wonder is this a pipe dream? So winning gave me validation. If Sisters in Crime said I was pretty alright, then I guess I’m.
I began working with my agent, Melissa Edwards from Stonesong Press, LLC about a month before I received the award. Now I’m working on my next novel as this current one is going through the submission process to publishers.
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Next time: Patti Miller on the Art of Life Writing