Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Working as a sensitivity reader with CILIP and Inclusive Minds for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards 2020 has been an incredibly exciting and enriching experience. Being a published author, I have first-hand experience in and can empathise with the pressure with regards to inclusion, diversity and representation that writers and publishers face during the process of publishing a piece of work.
Sensitivity readers are often hired by independent writers as well as publishing houses to offer their perspective on all of the above areas based on their lived experiences as a part of a minority, disabled, disadvantaged, underrepresented or wrongly represented section of society. These topics and groups may include belonging to a certain race, ethnicity, nationality, caste, class, region, religion, physical deformity/ disability gender/ sexual orientation or even family background/ childhood experiences.
While there are several ways of going about it, following is my checklist of questions for scanning, critiquing and offering feedback on a piece of work (whether published or unpublished) in the capacity of a sensitivity reader:
Is the marginalised group in question accurately and authentically represented (includes fact-checking)?
Is the representation – character-creation, narration and/ or plot setting – perpetuating stereotypes and/ or wrong beliefs or presenting them in a narrow/ reductive light?
Are there strains of subconscious bias apparent in the text? Should those be merely pointed out or should advice regarding reframing also be given?
Is their representation and/ or inclusion organic or does it give the impression of tokenism/ forced diversity?
Are there enough characters throughout the length and breadth of the novel that belong to the marginalised group under focus?
The above points may be helpful to bear in mind if you are planning on working as a sensitivity reader. On the other side, if you are planning on hiring one, it might help to be mindful of the following:
Before hiring them, ask them questions relevant to the kind of critical reading and feedback that you’re seeking, so establish if they’re the right fit for you.
Especially in the given circumstances, when arranging face-to-face meetings is not always a possibility, be sure to keep in touch with your sensitivity/ diversity reader through electronic/ virtual means to iron out any misunderstandings and to better assimilate their feedback into your final draft.
Before dismissing their feedback, be conscious of the fact that they are coming from a place of lived experience and are, therefore, able to see past certain fine details and errors which might be subliminal/ nonexistent to your eye.
Freedom of creative expression should not be misused, especially when you’re dealing with sensitive issues/ groups.
Realise that their role is merely advisory and that you do have the full autonomy to accept/ reject their feedback.
Be wary of the fact that all such feedback is, at least to a certain extent, subjective. But lack of absolute objectivity ought not to discredit their worth.
I hope that the above points prove helpful to you while authoring, editing or publishing sensitive literature. There are several books out there that deal with sensitive issues in non-problematic ways, depicting not only deep awareness and knowledge of the topic but also consciously meticulous drafting. One such example, for which I was a sensitivity reader post-publication, would be The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. So if you’re looking for a beautifully crafted summer-read, give it a flick!
✒︎ Guntaas K Chugh