This month, a lifelong dream will come true: I’m going to be a traditionally published author. My contemporary fantasy middle grade novel, Freddie vs. the Family Curse (Clarion), follows Freddie, a Filipino American kid, born and raised in the United States, just like I was. So why did I seek out a Filipino sensitivity reader for this manuscript? Surely I know enough about my heritage and history to write a faultless representation of Freddie and his elders?
In writing this book, I drew inspiration from my own family and upbringing. Many of the superstitions and sayings woven into the book—Don’t sweep at night! Look with your eyes, not with your mouth!—are ones repeated to me by well-meaning relatives. Including these in my story was a lovely way to connect bits and pieces of my childhood with the larger fabric of who my family is and where we’re from. But the more I wrote, the more it became clear to me that there was so much I didn’t know. I also began to worry that my attempts at maintaining a light, humorous tone throughout may inadvertently poke fun or demean the very things I hold dear.
Hiring a Filipino sensitivity reader for this book simply made sense.
But you’re Filipino American. Wouldn’t you know this stuff yourself?
First, Filipinos and Filipino Americans may hold very different perspectives, and this is true of so many homeland and diaspora communities. What may be considered merely annoying in a Filipino American household—like talking back to an elder—may be a more serious social offense in a Filipino household. It’s often not a matter of who is right and who is wrong either. The societies in which we move every day constantly shape our views and behaviors, and sometimes, this may separate us from who we and our families used to be. There may even be information gaps that create distance. For instance, I learned more about the Philippine-American War as an adult listening to a podcast than I did in any classroom in my youth.
I share much of the same upbringing as Freddie, like growing up in Southern California and living in a multi-generational household, but I also have characters who spent most of their lives in the Philippines, which I did not. I’ve visited relatives in the Philippines a handful of times, not nearly enough for me to consider myself a definitive expert on all nuanced things Filipino. Having a Filipino sensitivity reader therefore helped me make sure that those Philippines-based characters acted more in line with the customs and historical perspectives of that culture.
You have Filipino friends and family. Couldn’t they have just read it for you and pointed out all the problems?
I am so fortunate to have friends and family who hold the shared experiences with my characters and would have been happy to read and lend their wisdom. However, I saw this as a reason to hire an independent sensitivity reader. Sensitivity readers are professionals. They will read your words with a critical eye and may spot and highlight for you issues that go deeper than your manuscript—they may challenge views that you, the writer, have long held.
Will a friend or family member do that for you? Generally, yes, but I’m sure you can recall times when someone let you walk out of the house with a not-so-flattering outfit or held up your kindergarten artwork with an admiring yet vague “Oh, what a beautiful… horse? Rocket ship?”
Even if you are surrounded by wonderfully forthright people, their sheer proximity to you may mean you share similar perspectives, another point of possible vulnerability. As an exaggerated example, say you live in a sardine-loving household and your signature ginisang sardinas is much beloved and sought after at home. Then you take it to a sardine-dish potluck party full of strangers. What are the chances someone will find your ginisang sardinas too salty? Too sweet? Too spicy? Not spicy enough?
“But we all love sardines!” you say.
Yes, but everyone’s approaches to the food or even the same dish may differ. Not to say that you must cater to every taste out there; that might only dilute your dish. But understanding the difference between “that’s the way we do it at home” vs. “that’s the way everyone does it” is crucial, especially when trying to write cultural points accurately.
What’s it like working with a sensitivity reader?
With all this in mind, I reached out to my editor, Amy Cloud, with my concerns and specifically requested a Philippines-based sensitivity reader for the Filipino folklore and family references. She was more than happy to facilitate the sensitivity read; she sent the manuscript to the reader, arranged for payment, and relayed the reader’s broad comments and in-line notes to me.
I opened up the reader’s documents and braced myself to learn what I didn’t know or hadn’t even thought of. I found the feedback so helpful, not only for this manuscript, but in approaching Filipino culture in future works as well. Based on this positive experience, I also plan on hiring a Filipino sensitivity reader for my next contemporary fantasy middle grade, which centers on Filipino folk healing. I know there are holes in my knowledge for this manuscript, and it’s better that I find and address them now, when there is still time for me in the publishing process to tweak and adjust, than to have glaring errors and misrepresentations forever memorialized in print.
Will a sensitivity reader fix all the potential problems in my book?
No. Nothing will make your work immune from criticism, warranted or not, once the book is out in the world. A sensitivity read is a targeted critique, not a shield.
Do I need to get a sensitivity reader, as a diaspora writer or a writer of a different background or culture than the one I’m portraying?
No. Many writers choose not to; they may consider their own experiences and knowledge sufficient background for their book. You know your story best. And like with the previous sardine example, you don’t have to portray every possible permutation of a characteristic or culture: you know what is authentic to you. It’s unrealistic to expect any one work of fiction to be a perfect representation of a whole community’s experiences, but note that this doesn’t absolve writers from the potential of doing harm with inaccurate or inappropriately broad strokes.
In my case, I knew that even after all my research and pestering friends and family for their views and stories, I still had questions for which search engines couldn’t easily yield answers. So hiring a Filipino sensitivity reader for my Filipino American book about a Filipino American boy in the United States was the right decision for me.
I know that I did what I could to respectfully portray parts of a culture that I don’t feel wholly well-versed in. Should readers take issue with something in my story, I hope that they’d trust me enough to have the kinds of conversations that will help me learn and improve; taking meaningful steps like engaging sensitivity readers to more appropriately and accurately approach cultural differences is part of building that trust.