by Amy Winters-Voss
Last time, we chatted about how to recognize issues and how we can be more sensitive when writing about people in a group we aren’t a part of, whether it be avoiding cultural appropriation, hurtful stereotypes, or misrepresentation. Man, that article was hard to write! In part because I felt I had to triple check my upcoming book, but it also made me look hard at my own biases. Everyone has them. But facing them can feel like a brick to the forehead until they’re dealt with.
This month’s article should be gentler as we talk about how to avoid such issues.
Showing cultural diversity or inclusion is more than just throwing a character in from a collection of cultures or under-represented groups.
In his stream on the World Anvil Twitch channel, Using other Cultures in Worldbuilding , Chris Lontok talked about how representing groups and cultures has changed over time. I highly recommend checking out the video.
Chris mentioned when he was younger, he was super excited to see Asian representation in the D&D Oriental Adventures book. Back then, Filipino representation was nonexistent. Today, everything’s different. I love this quote from him.
“We were happy to be included. But the time for tokenism is done now.”
Let’s review one of the definitions from last month’s article via the Florida Seminole Tourism site.
“Cultural appropriation is commonly used to identify when the imagery, fashion, practices, music, or artifacts of a culture are removed from their original context. The significance is ignored and they are taken and used by someone else.”
Using traditional dress as a costume for Halloween in your writing would likely be appropriation. Do an internet search and ask people from the culture group for their perspective. Native Americans have often spoken about how they feel it’s disrespectful. Some groups are more lenient.
Here’s a few more examples. Let’s say your character travels to South America and is inspired by the textiles there to make a fashion line. Did they give credit and perhaps work with the people who created the originals, or did they just copy the traditional designs to make a quick buck?
Are you pulling just one small piece of a culture’s folklore or mythology such as the Thunderbird from the Lakota, Algonquin or Haida people and running wild with it? This could turn the Thunderbird into something the culture it came from never meant it to be. Or have you taken say samurai and katana use and thrown it into your world and called it Japan, when those are the only two recognizable Japanese cultural aspects? It’s better to share the culture as a whole.
Always verify before using traditions, myths, and folklore. Where does this lead us?
Let the learning required be an excuse to dig into and enjoy researching. Take your time to investigate and chat with people of that heritage or group. When you approach someone, do it respectfully by asking if they are ok with questions and if they have time.
Consider learning the language. It’s a window into the culture’s thoughts and values. (I won't tell you how long I've been trying to learn Japanese, because I wish I could speak it better than I do. I find it particularly difficult because the sentence order throws me even after years of trying. But with every word and phrase, I learn a bit more and get hints into the hearts and minds of the Japanese people. I won't give up!)
Research the hurtful and harmful stereotypes and tropes so you can avoid them. TvTropes.org and Google are places to start. Ensure underrepresented people don't feel helpless or unvalued. One group these issues often hit are the physically disabled and mentally ill. Yet, they can lead good, productive lives just like everyone else.
Above, I mentioned chatting with people from the group you’re writing about. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend. Ask about everything - meanings, symbols, cultural dress, celebrations, dos and don’ts, values, beliefs, important sayings, the food, challenges, stereotypes, you name it. And always remember to thank the person for their time. Consider bringing a gift or treating them to a meal to show your gratitude.
Food is always a great way to share about a culture, whether in your writing or in person. It’s an excellent excuse to entice a reader into wanting to learn more! With food, come the customs associated with cuisine, eating, drinking, and sharing a meal.
Think about questions you might have.
Also, check out what a country thinks of tourists visiting for big clues into their values. For non-racial groups, what assumptions bother them?
Let’s look at Japan, since I’m more familiar with it and just got back from a trip this spring.
Things Japanese people complain about tourists doing include:
Much of this comes down to “mimic what others are doing.” Even if you’re not in the country or region, you can get a gist from documentaries and vloggers who live in the area. (Try to pick film creators or vloggers from the culture.)
What do I need to be careful about when writing for my own novels? Several people have told me to ensure I get Japanese history correct.
Remember to take care in your descriptions of people. “Almond eyes” for East Asians isn’t acceptable anymore. How about using the phrase “hooded eyes” instead? And I’ve seen so many people of color complaining about their skin pigment being compared to foods. If you’re writing a bedroom scene, this may be applicable for the characters. Otherwise, a food comparison may give unwanted connotations for your character. Colors and other natural materials such as copper, ebony, etc. are generally welcomed.
I’ve chatted quite a bit about regional cultures because it’s the most common one for my books. But what about other under-represented groups? Again, we can learn.
If your character is legally blind, remember it doesn’t necessarily mean they see nothing. Find out how a blind person might navigate a cell phone. If your character is poor, is it obvious? It may not be. For trans characters, being called by their deadname (the old name they had before deciding on one that suits them now) can be a constant source of hurt and frustration.
“But I talked with someone from that group and they’re thrilled to see representation!” Great. Don’t let them down. A friend in Japan feels that we Americans may be entirely too picky about this. Perhaps we are sometimes. But I also know America hasn’t been good to minorities over the centuries—Japanese-American citizens being forced into internment camps and losing their rights and property, the forced relocation of native peoples under horrible conditions, brutal slavery and segregation of people just because they had black skin, to name a few injustices.
Ensure you’ve done your due diligence when it comes to research. Use solid sources. Anime, Wikipedia, and movies are usually not. They can, however, help you figure out questions to look into more deeply. I’ll recommend documentaries, biographies, interviews, scholarly papers, and again talk to those of the culture or group. Good research will help you and your editors.
They are some of the most important editors you can hire when writing about a demographic you are not a part of.
“A sensitivity reader is someone who reads for offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, bias, lack of understanding, etc. They create a report for an author and/or publisher outlining the problems that they find in a piece of work and offer solutions in how to fix them. By doing this, the literary quality of a work is substantially improved.” from the University of Alberta
Sometimes it's hard to vet their expertise. They don’t list books they’ve worked on. Reviews will be your big key here. On the minus side, evidently some contracts won’t let you mention the sensitivity reader without their permission. It can be tricky to find readers for some groups too.
Please understand, sensitivity reading can be painful. As a reader, they have to face the hurtful and heavy topics such as "an autistic girl who spent her time hating herself and being a burden to her family”. They truly are often the brave, unsung heroes in the publishing world. Go through your work again if a sensitivity reader rejects it. They might not have wanted to touch the manuscript because a specific topic hurts too much.
I think so. There was an absurd example about acne at the end of the article “Why the use of sensitivity readers is causing such a stir in the publishing world.” Also, we need to recognize where we are as a modern culture and that views have changed drastically when investigating works from previous decades and centuries.
A good sensitivity reader will share their view on issues and give you guidance on how to better represent a group. But you make the final call. So, take a deep breath and be open to the report you receive—prepared to make changes and adapt. It’s better to deal with issues early in the manuscript process, instead of after publication.
We will from time to time. Be humble, even when it hurts to hear your work was offensive or had cultural mistakes in it. Acknowledge the issues and correct them. Granted, there will always be someone who won’t accept the apology, but you will have done what you can to make it right.
Just before the release of my first book, I had to scramble to correct a few cultural mistakes and I lost a reader I respected. Talk about panic! Though, she was kind and looked over a chapter for me after corrections. The changes improved my story, so it was worth the effort!
As authors and creators, we’re pushed to get work out there. But taking your time to research, thinking it through, and getting it checked by multiple people can help you avoid hurting or offending the demographics you’re writing about. Respect is king. The diversity of people in our world is amazing. Let me challenge you to bring a little peace into the world and build bridges with your work.
So, what’s your favorite source for learning about demographics and cultures?
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Amy is the author of the Liminal Chronicles series, a mythological/urban fantasy set in small town Japan that focuses on social redemption and found family.
She runs the vssCollab very short story challenge on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumbler and publishes the best of the entries in the online zine--'In Threads'. Additionally, she founded the Anvilite Streamers Corps and streams her writing and crafts on Twitch.
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