Content note: This letter and the response discuss the fictional depiction of violent deaths of black women.
Hello Story Nurse!
You actually answered one of my questions in late 2016, and it helped me hugely, so now that I’m stuck again, I thought I would come back and solicit more advice. I started writing a small science fiction novella set in the future, and the main plotline is a dysfunctional duo trying to solve a murder. My book is #ownvoices for its mentally ill queer lady characters, and I feel really happy with the representation in it. But as I was writing today, I realised that both my murder victims were black women (they are a mother and her daughter), and suddenly I got really freaked out that I was engaging in some damaging tropes. How should I proceed? Should I finish what I have, and then do a close reading, probably with some sensitivity readers? Or should I stop what I’m doing and reevaluate? I know how hurt I get every time I read a story with a dead or dying queer lady, and I’m really worried I’m perpetrating an equally damaging trope for a community to which I have no personal access.
Thank you for all your good work!
—Space Lesbian (she/her)
Dear Space Lesbian,
It’s lovely to hear from you again! I’m so glad the earlier piece was useful to you. Thanks for writing in with an issue that a lot of writers run into. Our cultural consciousness is being raised very rapidly, and that can collide hard with internalized bigotry. Most of us have spent our lives consuming media that was partly or entirely created to perpetuate a skewed status quo. It’s challenging to have the desire to create works that cause minimal harm, paired with the certain knowledge that our writing incorporates our ignorance and erroneous beliefs.
I recommend starting by reading Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. They write:
Writing is considered speech. It gives you the opportunity to rewrite and revise. It gives you the opportunity to override the reptile brain and the lazy forebrain.
Your reptile brain and lazy forebrain.
And other people’s reptile brains and lazy forebrains.
…Making a racist or other mistake about a [marginalized] characteristic is not permanent. It’s not soulstaining. It’s not death.
So take a moment to forgive yourself for your flawed draft, and to be glad of the opportunity to fix the problem before the work sees publication.
Next, as Rose Lemberg writes, set yourself the goal of not just failing to break the marginalized reader’s heart but actively unbreaking it. Since your story has black characters in it, what does it do to unbreak black readers’ hearts? This element is vital. You may, with great care, be able to to write about solving this murder mystery in a way that black women will find sustaining and healing to read. There are probably also ways to write your story that don’t involve the deaths of black female characters. Or you can decide to write a different story altogether. Those are, I think, your only ethical options.
Some open-ended questions for you to think through:
- Does it matter to the story that the characters are black and female? What would change if they weren’t?
- Are there black girls and women in the story who live vibrant, joyful lives? Are there black girls and women in the story who play significant positive roles in furthering the plot?
- Do the characters’ relatives and community members grieve for them? If so, do you show that? If not, is there a story reason for their isolation?
- What does blackness mean in your setting, and to your characters? What does femaleness mean?
- Are the characters real people, or just plot elements to motivate the protagonists?
- Do you use their deaths or bodies to evoke titillation, sorrow, or horror?
- Are the murders seen as part of a pattern, as a statistic, or as isolated events?
These questions are meant to provoke some soul-searching. Look for the places where you resist not just answering them but asking them, and the places where you don’t have answers. Process through that, taking as much time as you need. Consider different ways to fix the problems you identify. You may realize that nothing changes in the story if you make the victims white men. You may realize that your cast of characters could use some diversifying. You may realize that your futuristic worldbuilding has major flaws and needs to be entirely reworked.
Now’s a good time to check the rest of your story for classic “marginalized people can’t/aren’t/don’t” stereotypes, and to generally make sure that all your characters feel like people, even the ones who are only onscreen briefly. Also watch out for worldbuilding-based excuse-making, which I see a lot in speculative fiction circles. “There aren’t any happy, vibrant black women in my story because it’s a grimdark noir and no one in it is happy or vibrant” may be true, but that could mean it’s time to reconsider your choice to write grimdark noir, or to radically rethink your expectations of the genre, or to research how black authors and critics have approached it. The entire story is under your control. If you catch yourself saying “I can’t do that,” change it to “It will take a lot of work to do that” and seriously consider just how much work you’re willing to do in the service of writing a story that doesn’t rest on stereotypical underpinnings.
It’s important to have a completed draft before you hire a sensitivity reader. They generally charge by the word or page, so you want the length of the work to be fixed before you bring them on; it’s respectful of their time and effort to do as much as possible before enlisting their assistance; and, as with an editor, it’s impossible to accurately evaluate an incomplete work, especially if one is considering what’s not in the work as well as what is. So be brave and complete your draft to the very best of your ability.
Finally, work with one or more sensitivity readers for each marginalization that’s in your story and that you don’t share, and listen carefully and humbly to what they have to say. Pay them as much as you can afford, plus a bit. Sensitivity reading is very difficult and exhausting work. If you’re not sure how to find a sensitivity reader, start with this database created by Writing in the Margins.
Since this letter deals with a sensitive topic, I hired a black woman sensitivity reader, Shannon Havisham, to look over my response. She added these comments:
In general, I would be frustrated to read this story if I knew from the outset that there was a group of black female victims. It can wear me out. I might be interested in a story where I knew from the beginning that the protagonists realized the importance of solving these crimes, and cared about the specific ways black women have experienced violence.
I would suggest that this author let her sensitivity readers check the whole draft. If I was reading it, I would notice if the protagonists investigated other crimes differently than they did crimes involving black women. I would notice if other crime victims and their families were treated differently than the families of black victims. The protagonists’ behavior and compassion toward the victims would contribute to my frustration or enjoyment of the story.
In real life, black women are often skeptical about law enforcement’s motivation to solve crimes against us, and I would expect that skepticism from at least one person in this story. In real life, I have had officers hug me, and officers casually dismiss me. The protagonists’ handling of victims’ families will say a lot about them.
This is exactly the type of firsthand, detailed knowledge that makes hiring a sensitivity reader so valuable. From the “dysfunctional duo” description of the protagonists, I was assuming they were amateur sleuths; it wouldn’t have occurred to me to consider their investigation in the context of law enforcement and how unevenly it’s applied to crimes against black women. But of course that context is very relevant, even if the protagonists aren’t police, because any investigation from outside the community will be regarded with similar concern and skepticism. The advice on how to address the story to readers primed to dismiss it is also really great, because it touches on both craft and marketing and reminds you to think of black women as readers you want to actively reach out to and be welcoming to. Shifting who you think of as your target audience can shift your entire approach to a story for the better.
I know it can be scary to realize you’ve inadvertently written bigotry into your story, but it is absolutely solvable with some deep thought, hard work, and assistance from knowledgeable sources. Don’t let the challenge of ethical writing dissuade you. Just keep plugging away at making yourself a better writer and making your story one that leaves all your readers feeling seen and respected.