Back in the aughts, I had three police procedurals published by Dorchester, two of which were also translated and published by SHUEISHA. The books are still available, via Thomas & Mercer, but I rarely hype them up or try to solicit sales.
I haven’t revisited them in over a decade, but even my mid-life memory is sharp enough to know there are some things in there that will make me cringe. You see, I had three protagonists. Nolan, Hart, & Tain.
And Tain is Indigenous.
Although I grew up in a small town that’s 97% white, I didn’t grow up in a monochromatic world. After white people, Indigenous people represented the largest demographic in my town. I’d also had some subsequent experiences, living beside Penelakut First Nation. I was aware of the Highway of Tears and concerned about issues facing Indigenous persons. I though including an Indigenous protagonist was a great way to shine a light on those issues in Canada.
And I did a lot of homework. At the time, the RCMP used ‘Aboriginal’ so I used the “appropriate” language. I consulted an Indigenous RCMP officer as part of my research. And, as a good friend (who happens to be Indigenous) told me, no individual represents an entire group. Different people have different perspectives.
That’s why, while many Indigenous persons have issues with the police, there are some who work in law enforcement.
However, I certainly know I’ve learned a lot since I wrote those books, and I’m aware that revisiting them would highlight things I’d change. Don’t get me wrong. I love Tain. While Nolan is a fuck up and Hart is a smart cop trying to prove herself, Tain is the anchor. When I think of Tain, I think of a genuine good guy.
Albeit one who carries a lot of pain, highlighted by the death of his daughter at the hands of her white mother.
I’m nervous about how the books would read to me now, but not just because of Indigenous issues. I’m nervous about my view of law enforcement, and how it comes across in those books.
My husband will tell you I’m a law and order gal, that I don’t like breaking rules. While I was certainly aware there were bad cops out there, mine were more inclined to do the right thing.
Why mention all of this? Well, I was talking to my husband, and I told him that some of the commentary about HP that’s popped up since JKR started sharing problematic views made me nervous.
I’ve been trying to move my writing in a direction that’s inclusive without appropriating, and I said, “What if people pick up on some attitudes I don’t even realize I have?”
You see, being anti-racist isn’t a destination you arrive at. Being an ally isn’t a badge you get after you’ve completed a challenge. Being anti-racist, being an ally, are about an ongoing commitment to learn and do better.
Most of us are absolutely going to fuck up at some point. Case in point: I used the wrong pronoun when talking to someone on the phone. What did I do? I automatically acknowledged I’d used the wrong pronoun, apologized, and used the right one.
I’m aware I grew up hearing a lot of racist and homophobic language. When I was a kid, our family often went camping with another family, and their son was my age. One day when eating lunch, I heard him outside. “I am not a little gay boy.” He kept saying it over and over, and was so upset. His family were laughing. To this day, I don’t know what prompted the incident, but the family’s response was to tease him and call him gay.
Yeah, I grew up around all of that. Traveling helped me really open my mind and shed the small-town mentality, but it’s been a journey of decades to get to even this point.
Looking back on my old books, I know I had good intentions. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t potentially produce something that caused harm.
This is why it’s crucial to listen to multiple perspectives on various issues. It’s why I follow people who aren’t writers, but are activists, and talk about Indigenous issues, about racism, about transphobia. Striving to be an ally means committing to your ongoing education. And while it would be great to say we could commit to perfection, it really means being open to correction when you screw up, listening, and doing better.
I never sit down hoping I’ll hurt someone with my words. I want to elicit the emotions the story should elicit, but not just hurt someone for the sake of hurting them. And that’s why I’m open to feedback. I always maintain editors are 95% right, and I rarely disagree with an editor’s request for a change. It’s why I’m open to sensitivity readers, who may pick up on things I overlook.
Because I am white, and being white has privileges. I’ve never worried about my safety when a cop has pulled me over. I’ve never suffered from systemic racism.
On any given day, I have dozens of story ideas floating through my head. Determining what to write doesn’t start with what I think will sell or what’s the most controversial and, therefore, what will get the most potential buzz. The first consideration is whether I should tell the story. I had this amazing idea for a story a couple years ago. All I’m going to say is, I knew it wasn’t my story to write. Technically, I can write anything I want, but should I?
I’m disfigured, disabled, neurodiverse … and the only thing I can say about that is that for decades, masking was essential. Showing yourself to be different was never good. However, that means many of us haven’t written our truths into fiction in a way that represents us. Instead, people write stereotypes that get published and actively promote harmful ideas about others, whether they mean to or not.
Case in point, horror has a rough record when it comes to Indigenous representation, and has historically conveyed harmful representations of other groups as well. A writer can have no intention of making people distrust people of another race, but still produce art that has that end result.
It goes well beyond horror, into other genres. Back in the day, when we still had Spinetingler going, we hosted a controversial discussion about a short story. And recent events reminded me of this discussion, because the writer focused strictly on the story itself and said it employed the conventions of an (ahem, forgive me, I hate this term) “Indian-hater” story. And, as with recent events, some twisted that and read it as saying that the author was an Indian-hater. Rather than engage with a well-researched article and respectfully presented viewpoint, some people automatically twisted it to make it sound like a personal attack.
Which is wasn’t.
It doesn’t matter where you grew up, who you know, who your friends are, or who you’re married to. As an artist, your work will always be subject to criticism and evaluation. And that means that, yes, sometimes you may have to acknowledge that readers have identified something you overlooked.
Criticism is a good thing. You know how you keep reinforcing outdated views? Surround yourself with people who never question anything you do. Successful authors with lots of sales can’t do that, because they’ll reach more readers and reviewers. Every time you put your work out into the world, someone may find fault with it.
I myself was recently accused of having a vendetta against another author, and it’s laughable. I wrote some commentary on their appearance at an event – an appearance widely discussed by multiple people over a number of years. Instead of being viewed as commentary about the performance, some people twisted it and labeled it a personal attack.
The trouble with this mentality is that it intends to censor all analysis of art. And art is meant to be analyzed. It’s meant to be critiqued. People are invited to leave their opinions on retail sites. And you don’t even need any special industry experience, you don’t need a degree, you don’t need any credentials at all. Everyone’s welcome to leave their opinion.
Sometimes, you express an opinion to encourage people to explore something you enjoyed. Sometimes, you discourage people from wasting their time on something that you disliked.
And sometimes, you express concerns about harmful content that may perpetuate negative stereotypes about people based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientiation.
I will try almost anything, including content that contains things that I find triggering. I almost drowned as a child, and when I say almost, I mean I was in a waterfall. I was under for over a minute at one point, and pulled back under repeatedly. I like to be warned before engaging with stories that have drowning or near-drowning scenes. Just so I can prepare myself.
And in the same way, if something’s promoted with racist phrases or terms that convey biases, I’m going to let people know it might be harmful. I don’t need to consume the art to do that. And if an artist/publisher/filmmaker has a history of problematic behavior, it’s valid to ask questions and raise concerns.
You can write anything you want. You can publish anything you want.
But should you?
I have absolutely rejected stories that I had significant concerns about over potential misrepresentation, perpetuating stereotypes, and conveying harmful attitudes. As is my right. It isn’t censorship. It’s simply choosing content that represents our values.
Others are free to publish that same content. And people are welcome to criticize the content or the publisher. But when would-be defenders twist the statements and allege critics said something they didn’t, it shows they don’t have a leg to stand on. They can’t “win” their case without twisting the facts and, in some cases, spreading lies, making themselves guilty of the libel they accuse the critics of.
Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from responsibility. And if you can’t handle open, honest feedback from a global marketplace, then maybe it’s valid to rethink if publishing is for you. But I can only speak for myself when saying this. My intent is not to see anyone stop writing or publishing.
My hope would be people would learn, recognize their shortcomings, and actually try to do better, to make publishing safe for everyone.