Introduction with Saba Sulaiman
In case you missed our first part, this is a Roundtable Discussion with:
Agents: DongWon Song at Howard Morhaim Literary and Amy Bishop at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC.
Editors: Tiffany Shelton at St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan and Rachel Stark at Sky Pony Press.
We were talking about intersectionality in the context of publishing, and in this post, we’ll be discussing what steps (if any) we can take to promote better intersectional representation.
Q3: Is intersectionality something that can be taught? How do you edit for it? How can we, as publishing professionals, ensure we see more intersectional characters in the books we support?
Amy: I’m not sure that intersectionality can be “taught,” per se, because I think this is something borne out of experience and genuine understanding of what an intersectional character might look like. Certainly, increasing awareness and encouraging intersectional stories to come to the table sets a good example and reminds authors, agents, and editors alike to be looking to increase the breadth and depth of their characters and experiences. I think as publishing professionals, we all hope for well-rounded characters (in all senses of the word), and so editing for it may be seeking to deepen what we mean by “well-rounded.” Discussions like these, I think, are a great way to show that we’re open to intersectionality, are hungry for it, and actively searching for stories that provide this kind of experience. Hopefully as we continue to look for and champion books with intersectional characters, we’ll begin to see more of them. And, talking about the books we love that do have intersectional characters (and buying them) can also make a difference, I think.
Tiffany: I completely agree, Amy. Intersectionality in writing is not something that can necessarily be taught—that it comes out of experience and an awareness/understanding of it.
As for editing for intersectionality or making sure we are producing more stories with intersectional characters, Amy is right that editing for it will deepen our meaning of a “well-rounded” character but we also want it to feel inherent to the character and not just a plot device or ploy, and that goes not only for MCs but also supporting characters.
Rachel: I think it’s pretty hard to teach character creation, in general—we have lots of tricks for making characters more likable, for knowing our characters better, for creating secondary characters that challenge our protagonists, but there is still something that seems almost magical to me in the ability of an author to create a person who feels real to readers using nothing but their mind and their words. Creating a character who lives at the intersections of different cultures or identities is much the same, I think, as creating a character who doesn’t. The difference, in my opinion, is mostly about who has access to publishing, and the people who fill authors’ lives and, whether they know it or not, inspire their characters. I think writers tend to write what they know, and editors tend to edit what we know, whether we realize it or not. And if you aren’t surrounded by and intimately familiar with all kinds of really different people, it’s hard to accurately portray really nuanced, well-explored, intersectional characters.
When I first moved to New York City for publishing, I remember being pretty bitter that I had to go to an expensive, often impersonal place to do a job I loved. But nowI’m really glad that publishing uprooted me, in large part because I’ve met so many people here whose identities and backgrounds are nothing like my own. I think it informs my work as an editor. In terms of editing for intersectionality, I think I tend to incorporate it in the questions I ask my authors when we’re in the early stages of revisions and when I’m trying to understand their characters. So often when I’m working with an author, a lot of their characters’ personalities have been filled in, but authors could still stand to learn a lot more about their characters. Asking good questions about those characters, or recognizing behaviors that might suggest something about their background, identity, or the way the world reacts to them that could help flesh them out, and can bring out the intersectionality in their characters more fully.
DongWon: I do think it’s possible to teach, but as with anything in this area it requires a lot of hard work and careful attention to detail. It also requires being willing to listen to your readers and to your peers in a way that is very challenging for most of us. Intersectional issues often lurk in blind spots where we think we know best. Writers and editors addressing their lived experience can miss ways in which another identity shifts the meaning or the impact of an interaction. It’s hard work, is what I’m saying, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth addressing or trying to improve.
I think as publishing professionals we have an obligation to read widely and consider multiple points of view. Sensitivity readers are a stopgap solution, but they’re still important to make sure we’re not missing things that one perspective can’t cover. The only way this is fixed over the long term, though, is if we learn to include more perspectives in the decision making and editing process. We need a wider range of experience working at agencies and at publishers to catch stuff before publication or at the time of acquisition. There’s no perfect solution, but we can be doing a lot better than we are as an industry. As Rachel points out, part of what we need to make sure we’re doing, structurally, is immersing ourselves in an environment that shifts our biases and makes us aware of our blind spots.
Q4: How can writers fully integrate intersectionality into their work? Do you have any tips or recommendations?
Rachel: Really, my biggest advice for writers who want to incorporate intersectionality into their work is to make sure they’re immersed, as DongWon says, in those environments that challenge and change us. There’s no substitute for living a life, and reading about lives, that challenge your viewpoint and allow you the empathize with a diverse range of experiences. Of course, publishing needs to step up to the plate to provide more intersectional stories, too. I think we should all be asking ourselves who’s missing from the books we’re writing, editing, and publishing—and learning to recognize that when we ask that question, we need to be able to answer with multiple people who fit any given identity, in order to allow for people who exist at the intersections.
Amy: I fully agree with Rachel that writers should try to be immersed in these different environments—but I also think listening and observation is important. If writing intersectional characters doesn’t come naturally for you, or you’ve never thought about it, paying attention to writers/books that are doing it successfully and opening your eyes to the world around you/the environments you’re surrounded by can certainly help. And, of course, we in publishing can help by fostering more books and writers who are approaching their work from an intersectional angle.
Rachel: Amy, you’re so right about the need to listen and absorb thoughtfully and actively. One thing I look for that I think a lot of writers and editors can struggle to grasp is a complex understanding of power in a society—who has power in any given interaction, how does it change if you change one element of that interaction or of that character’s identity, how does context inform it, etc. We so often talk about power in terms of blanket groups who often experience being structurally disempowered—people of color, women, LGBTQAI people, disabled people—without really acknowledging the vast differences in how power plays out for each group and each person within that group, and how it changes in context, and how it affects the way people interact with and interpret the world around them. But power is an inherent part of world building, and writers should thoroughly understand power and its nuances whether they’re creating their own world or trying to accurately portray the one we live in.
I think a lot of writers are aware that power imbalances exist, but without a really complex understanding, they have a limited and often stereotyped conception of how their characters’ might experience that in their actual lives. I see a lot of writers think that intersectionality equates to, in very basic terms, just a GREATER lack of power—one oppressed identity plus another must equal doubly oppressed, right? But really there’s a lot more nuance than that in how power shifts around different identities and in different groups. Even if you’re not writing specifically about oppression, I think understanding the world your characters are navigating will help make their voice richer and their experiences ring more true, and it can start with a really deep understanding of power in our society and in other societies globally.
DongWon: I think that was really well put, Rachel. The biggest errors I see are often following the impulse to oversimplify or be reductive. In kid lit especially I sometimes feel like someone has decided that simplicity makes it easier for younger readers to read, but I don’t think we’re doing anyone any favors by condescending to teens and kids. I think writing is fundamentally an empathetic act. If you can portray a person’s situation, with all the nuance and complexity of what they’re dealing with then, of course you’re going to end up with an intersectional portrayal. Because we’re all more than one thing! We all exist in a mesh of power structures that push and pull us in different directions at once. The challenge of the writer is to find a way to make that legible and comprehensible to the reader, but you can’t do that at the cost of showing what that character would actually be contending with.
Empathy is essential and we usually take that to mean empathy for the character and what they’re going through. But it’s also important to remember to be empathetic to your reader. What are they going to feel when reading this scene? What will they think to see someone who looks like them portrayed in this way? It’s a lot to consider, but the alternative is writing harmful stories or ignoring a lot of your own readers.
Thank you so much for this incredibly enlightening discussion, panelists! This concludes the roundtable for #DVpit. Thank you for inviting me to host, Beth!
If you didn’t catch Part One, make sure to read it!
See below for more information on the next stops in #DVpit’s blog hop!
About the Panelists
DONGWONG SONG is an agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency representing science fiction and fantasy for adults, young adult, and middle grade readers as well as select non-fiction. He was formerly an editor at Orbit and a product manager for the ebook startup, Zola Books and has taught as an adjunct instructor in the publishing program at Portland State University. You can find him on his website or on Twitter.
AMY ELIZABETH BISHOP joined Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in 2015 after interning for them in 2014. In addition to her own client list at DG&B, Amy assists the president, Jane Dystel, and oversees the office and the interns. She reads widely, but her main interests at this time include upmarket women’s fiction, fiction from diverse authors, voice-driven historical fiction from different perspectives, and stories with a Victorian Gothic flair. In terms of nonfiction, she’s eagerly on the hunt for narrative nonfiction that addresses issues of politics, social justice, feminism or targets a millennial audience. She also loves historical narrative nonfiction that dives into untold stories. You can find her on Twitter.
TIFFANY SHELTON is an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press and she recently acquired her first young adult suspense novel for their Wednesday Books imprint. She’s interested in acquiring young adult novels across all genres especially if they feature diverse characters, cultures, or a diverse author. She’s also looking in the adult space for her next favorite romantic comedy, the thriller that will keep her up at night, or the next historical that will transport her back in time. When she’s not rewatching Belle or swooning over Taylor Kitsch in Friday Night Lights, she’s dreaming of the day she’ll have a normal sized kitchen to bake to her heart’s desire. You can learn more about Tiffany on her website or follow her ramblings on Twitter.
After five years in children’s book marketing, including stints at Simon & Schuster and Bloomsbury, RACHEL STARK joined Sky Pony Press as an editor in 2015. She edits literary fiction, graphic novels, and licensed books for the middle grade and young adult markets. Some books she’s worked on include The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara, Cookie Cutters & Sled Runnersby Natalie Rompella, and Crossing the Line by Bibi Belford. Twitter: @syntactics
SABA SULAIMAN is an agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She holds a BA from Wellesley College and an MA from the University of Chicago, where she studied modern Persian literature. She is looking primarily to build her Middle Grade and Young Adult lists, and is particularly interested in contemporary realistic stories. She’s also open to category romance (all sub-genres except paranormal), literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction, tightly plotted, character-driven psychological thrillers, cozy mysteries à la Agatha Christie, and memoir. Being a first generation immigrant who is constantly negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” she is committed to highlighting more diverse voices with compelling stories to tell; stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world, and address urgent and often underexplored issues in both fiction and non-fiction with veracity and heart. You can learn more about Saba on her website or follow her on Twitter.