Transcript: An Interview with Diana Pho

This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Diana Pho for the Grammar Girl podcast. Listen here.

Mignon: Hi. So thank you for being here with me today.

Diana: Hi, Mignon. It's a great pleasure to be here as well. I'm really excited to chat with you.

Mignon: Yeah, me too. So can you tell the listeners, can you say your name and then what you do at the publishing house?

Diana: Okay. My name is Diana Pho. I'm an editor at Tor Books. I've been at Tor for about eight years working in editorial. But I've also been in publishing for 12 years working at other positions at other houses as well.

Mignon: Wonderful. I love Tor. So many good books.

Diana: Thank you. I like to think so myself, but that's a purely biased opinion.

Mignon: I really love science fiction and fantasy. So I've known Tor a long time. So we're here today because a few weeks ago I talked with Kat Brzozoswki, who works for Swoon Reads and focuses on YA. And some things came up like sensitivity readers and writing marginalized characters, and I wanted to know more about that. And she thought that you would be the person to help me. So I'm hoping we can sort of dig into some questions today that I've been struggling with, and I imagine other writers struggle with. And also just some new ideas.

Mignon: So one of the first things...she talked about the book publishing process and how now often they'll bring in a sensitivity reader. And I imagine that a lot of my listeners have never heard of such a thing. And to me it's even new within the last probably five years that I've been hearing about it being sort of more involved in publishing. So can you just explain what a sensitivity reader is and how that works?

Diana: Sure thing. So you're right, the term "sensitivity reader" is a relative new concept in the publishing industry. But I think that writers themselves have used them for much, much longer. They just didn't use that specific term. I would like to think about a sensitivity reader as a cultural consultant. You know? And you heard of that term perhaps when working with other media properties for film and television, especially. Oftentimes you get consultants on various topics, whether it's the writers room has a medical show and they just want some doctors at hand to make sure that all their medical knowledge is accurate.

Diana: A sensitivity reader works pretty much the same way. They are a person with expert knowledge in a certain culture or a community, specifically because they have lived experienced in it. They're part of the community, they identify with them, and they bring that knowledge to help consult a writer who is writing outside of their experience involving aspects of that community. And I definitely also want to point out that sensitivity readers, as I mentioned before, have been around for a very long time. But I think the current conversation has now coined this term specifically because there is more and more discussion about how to one, portray different communities outside of the writer's own in a respectful and accurate way. But also the larger conversation about what does it mean to have representation in the book industry?

Diana: And having sensitivity readers involved in the editorial process is just one of the many ways that we can help ensure accurate and authentic stories are being told and the right people are being fairly acknowledged in participating in that process.

Mignon: Yeah, that's great. I mean, I can imagine, you're right: I think authors have been doing it themselves and not even really thinking about it that way. Because if I were writing about a character who uses a Southern dialect or a Caribbean dialect, I definitely might go to someone who lives in the South or lives in the Caribbean and say like, "Did I get this even close to right and can you help me if I didn't?" So do you have any idea sort of what brought the process more into publishing as part of the formal process as opposed to something that writers were kind of doing scattershot by themselves?

Diana: I think in general there's more of an awareness in the publishing industry as well as in writers communities about what does it mean to have fair, respectful and accurate representation. Because I know historically there is something that has to be acknowledged when it comes to "writing the other." And that is basically how oftentimes this conversation, while it comes up from a place of respect and good intentions, the execution isn't always as strong. It doesn't really follow through.

Diana: For example, historically, we have published people that identify as part of the US majority in several aspects, whether it's because they're most identified as male or white or straight or cisgender or Christian. All these aspects have created a certain level of power dynamics about who gets published in the first place. And oftentimes when people try to write outside of this larger cultural dynamic, that is the assumption of that is the reader, that is the writer. Then if they write about other communities or people different from them themselves, statistically they would get published more often even if they don't identify as part of the community they're writing about. And that has resulted in some damaging consequences.

Diana: One of the damaging consequences is that they would get it incorrect. They are portrayed insensitively. They would involve damaging stereotypes that they don't even know they were doing, because they're not part of the community. They didn't have that knowledge or background. They thought, "Oh, if I did enough research I would know. I would be able to have that knowledge and incorporate into my writing respectful way." But if you're not part of the community that you're writing about, there's always things that you miss. There's always things that you might not even know the questions, were questions to ask when writing about it, which results in those damaging representations.

Diana: Another aspect is also, it's another question that has been coming up in the discussion is, not only how do you participate in fair representation, but also how do we acknowledge the power dynamics of statistically if you are a writer of a certain background you will be more likely to be published than a writer from that community you are writing about. That is just historically, by the numbers the case. That is still the case today. And I think that working with sensitivity readers in projects like this, is just one of the many ways a writer can try to balance out that power dynamic more so people are being fairly acknowledged and compensated for the work that they're doing. But also re-establishing certain relationships that perhaps has never existed before. Perhaps have had a rocky history because of the treatment of these communities. In order to have writers and creatives from those backgrounds also get the connections they need for themselves be published and their voices heard as well.

Diana: This is how I like to think about the use of sensitivity readers as a two pronged technique. It's both "a bandaid solution," it can seem a little bit superficial just to ask an outsider to cover a community, but then have that community involved in a onetime event. But also hopefully in a longterm advantage, you know, build those connections to incorporate people who are writers, who are experts from marginalized communities into the publishing process to help boost their own creatives and voices as well. So that is how ideally I would like to see sensitivity readers being used.

Mignon: Yeah, that sounds great. And I definitely want to get to writing characters, but I want to finish up a few more questions about sensitivity readers. Because it sounds like such an interesting job too. And so I'm wondering one, how you find people, how you find the people to do this? And then two, sort of, at what point does it happen in the process? Is it before the copy edit? Is it during the developmental stage? When do you bring someone in?

Diana: First of all, with a grain of salt, this is purely my opinion and technique. And I know different houses and different editors have certain standards and even in the conversation between authors and agents before the manuscript even shopped around, the question of sensitivity readers comes up. So basically there are a lot of different points where a sensitivity reader can come into the creative process. But I think what's most important is for a writer, even before starting a project, is acknowledging where their gaps of knowledge lie. And if they want to tell a story in the best way that they possibly could, know that they will eventually have to enlist a sensitivity reader to be part of the creative process. And what does that mean?

Diana: I've definitely worked with authors and agents who've told me up front that the author did a ton of legwork themselves and hired sensitivity readers before they even show the manuscript around because they felt it was their ethical responsibility to do so, which is fabulous. I definitely encourage that. I myself have also hired sensitivity readers after I acquired a manuscript and after the developmental process is finished. So that I can, if I myself am acknowledging certain gaps in my editorial expertise, and I would like another sensitivity reader to pitch in, that's when I would involve them in the process. I know other houses do it differently. I know other editors do it differently. But that's particularly where I come in.

Mignon: And is it just sort of word of mouth, how you find people that can do this work for you?

Diana: Sometimes it's word of mouth. I know one of the difficulties I get all the time when people are looking to find these sensitivity readers is where? Where can I find them? Because basically there are services that offer a centralized database of readers. There was one, Writing in the Margins, that had shut down because the person who started it just didn't want to maintain it and was getting a lot of challenges that they didn't expect when they opened up the database, which is also perfectly fine and legitimate. For me, when I'm looking at sensitivity readers, first of all, it's a conversation with the author. And being very upfront and honest. I mean like, "All right, this is where I have a knowledge gap, you have a knowledge gap. I think we need to get a consultant on this project to fulfill those gaps."

Diana: You know, I would always make sure that the author's on the page before I even hire one myself to know that this is part of the process. This is how I do things. And just to help set expectations. And then depending on what kind of reader I'm looking for, I would go to different places. I've developed my own personal network of people that I go to for certain areas of knowledge. Especially because since it's science fiction and fantasy, I want to also make sure that sensitivity readers I work with have a knowledge of science fiction and fantasy, so they know how certain writing tools are used. So they have understanding of certain tropes for genres. Because that also helps with the feedback that they give.

Mignon: Yeah.

Diana: You know? And then also obviously you look for expertise, not only because they're a community member. I wouldn't just ask anyone because, "Oh, you're a part of X community. Obviously you must be the ultimate expert. I should only ask you to be my sensitivity reader." So I definitely want to find people who want to do it, who want to actively do it. Because it's also an unfair expectation to just make assumptions that because you identify as something that of course you want to do a sensitivity read for a project.

Diana: So I would look for people who advertise that they offer those services. If it's something that requires a certain level of historical background expertise, I would go to community centers or organizations that work with community outreach. I would go to universities and graduate student programs, actually. Because oftentimes they would have very specific knowledge bases on something. Whether it has to do with any sort of racial or ethnic oriented studies programs or historical programs. And they can get very specific in ways that I wouldn't even anticipate. So I would definitely go to university grad student programs and reach out to professors in case there's any interested students that would have that knowledge base.

Diana: And I would also just do things like do outreach on my social media platforms. Just because I'm already connected with a lot of organizations through that, that would boost on their end as well. So it can be a wide range of ways that you can find sensitivity readers. I think the most important part is to really think about what kind of expertise you're looking for, first of all. Second of all, knowing that going into the search, that you have to have more than one sensitivity reader for a project.

Mignon: Yeah. That's what I was just thinking. It's a lot to ask of just one person, to ask one person to represent an entire community. I mean it's better than nothing, and they're going to catch you if you do something really stupid. But it also seems like ... I mean--and at some point you can't have 10 sensitivity readers--but it's a lot to ask of one person.

Diana: Right. It's a lot to ask of one person. It's also, for me one of the concerns I personally have when people use sensitivity readers is the idea that the author will suddenly use them as a stamp of approval, as opposed to take their critical editorial feedback as what it is, critical editorial feedback. With both its benefits and drawbacks, including the understanding that one person can't represent the whole of a community in all of its nuances. And that the project itself is still the author's responsibility. If the author uses a sensitivity reader for their project and still gets critiqued from that community, they can't say that, "Oh, but why are you blaming me? I used sensitivity readers." I think having that understanding of what sensitivity readers do kind of avoids a personal artistic responsibility that the author has, no matter what they write for the projects that they write, period.

Diana: And like with all stories, it's a creative work from the author's ahead to the page. And in order to effectively engage in writing across cultures, I think authors just in general should have an understanding about their ethical responsibilities making art. And what does that mean? And being able to use sensitivity readers in a way that treats them respectfully and also keeps in mind the author's own responsibilities towards the work is part of that.

Mignon: Great. Yeah, this is so helpful. So I want to take a quick break for our sponsor. And when we come back, I want to talk more about writing, writing marginalized characters or characters who aren't like you. So we'll be right back.

Mignon: Okay. We're back. So I'm, thinking ... And I should stipulate, I don't write fiction, but I think about writing fiction a lot. I've dabbled, but I've never even finished a manuscript. But I think about it a lot. And I go to conferences where people talk about it. And so I imagine myself writing. And when I think about, like sometimes I struggle with the idea of just writing a man, right? Because I'm not a man. And then I think as a white, middle class, middle aged woman, how can I not only write a man, but write maybe a gay, Asian, teenage boy? You know? And then I start getting overwhelmed and thinking, "Should I even try?" Right? But I love books that have diverse cast of characters. They're more like the real world and they're more interesting.

Mignon: And if I wrote a book, I would want to include a whole bunch of different characters like that. But then I just, I think about it and I get all stressed. And so I was wondering, and I know Kat said the publishers are actively looking for books with characters like this. So what advice do you have for writers like me who ... Should we not even try if we're not comfortable with it? Or is there a way to get more comfortable with it? What should I do in my imaginary writing life?

Diana: Yeah. You know, I definitely have encountered a lot of writers of all backgrounds who share the same concerns that you have. Because there's a couple things that I want to clarify when it comes to "writing the other," that I think people get stumped about. First of all, unless the writer is writing an autobiography or a memoir, then any form of writing that they're doing is writing the other.

Mignon: Yeah, true. True.

Diana: As you said, sometimes you struggle with how to write a man. It's because for you, writing a man is writing the other. And I think that people tend to frame that term as coming from a white perspective and making the assumption that writing the other is automatically meaning it is person from the majority writing about a marginalized identity. And writing the other can range from for example, if I write about white people, I'd be writing about the other from my perspective too. There's of course a difference in power dynamics. And that's the key here, is that a lot of marginalized communities know how the majority thinks. Specifically because they have to have navigated their entire lives knowing they are part of a minority group being treated as such. What does that mean in order to adapt and survive and thrive?

Diana: Oftentimes you'd have to learn the language of the people in power. And that is what people imply by the term writing the other. If you are a marginalized person writing about someone or a group that is part of the majority, that has part of the dominant culture. And that is the big difference I think between writing the other from a marginalized perspective and someone from the dominant culture writing about marginalized communities, is one thing.

Diana: And that leads to another thing I want to clarify, is that I don't tend to use "writing the other" as a term, even though I know it's super common. Specifically because it doesn't acknowledge that power dynamic. The different power dynamics that come from when you are a writer, writing from a certain set of experiences that you know is your own personal baseline and how to reach out across to another community that has a different set of baselines and norms and understandings, all that stuff. That's why I tend to use "writing across difference."

Diana: Because I think it is a more accurate description of what a writer is doing. And I also think it acknowledges that to write this way is a form of cross cultural communication that is a two way street. The writer isn't just going out and taking stuff from a community, but it is a community gracious and generous enough to give back to the writer. And the writer establishing a certain sense of ethical expectations because they are given these gifts that they didn't have to have, or they didn't have to ask for. And so what does that mean when you have a cross cultural exchange? How do you keep that within certain bounds and understandings?

Diana: So those are the big two things I wanted to clarify. And so when it comes to writing across difference, first of all, it's totally possible, with the understandings of points one and two I just said. And also this is the big secret I think people might be surprised to think about, but writing across difference is a craft skill. It is not something anyone is born with. It is not something that people magically have because of who they are. It doesn't dictate that because you're a part of a certain community, you are the expert in writing it or portraying it in an accurate or respectful way. And it also means if writing across difference is a craft skill, people can develop it, it is possible to do so. It's just that a lot of people do it very badly.

Mignon: Yeah, I don't recall that I've ever seen ... Are there good books you recommend or webinars or workshops or something? I don't know that I've ever seen anything along those lines. But I also, I don't think I've looked really hard, either.

Diana: You know the thing, the resource I recommend the most is literally called "Writing the Other." It is a book written by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward that is a very great starting guide of what it means. It explains a lot of the concepts I just relayed to you, plus much more. And it's also connected to a series of online classes and webinars that people can sign up for to learn specific knowledge bases from people of marginalized communities. So it's literally WritingTheOther.com. And you can go there, you can sign up for a webinar. They're taught by experts in various marginalized communities. They also offer a lot of additional resources to reach out and explore certain aspects. That's basically my number one resource I always recommend.

Diana: But also to keep in mind the use of sensitivity readers, having a proper and respectful relationship with them. Also reaching out to community organizations and getting them involved too as part of the sensitivity reading process on top of doing your own research. All that just forms the foundation, I think, to help give writers a good start of what they're looking for.

Mignon: That's great. One of the things you said earlier resonated with me. You said, people aren't even sure what questions to ask sometimes. And I definitely feel that way. So is there something I haven't asked you that you feel is important to talk about that we haven't covered yet?

Diana: Well, one of the concerns I think a lot of people from marginalized communities have at this point in the sensitivity conversation, is whether ... Because you have writers from the dominant culture writing about marginalized communities, whether the marginalized communities are still at the expense when it comes to access to publishing.

Mignon: Yeah, I worry about that.

Diana: Right. And so I think it's still really important that of course when you write across difference, you do it in a way that is ethically beneficial to yourself and to the people that you're working with. It also has to be done with acknowledgement of the writer's place in society that gives them that advantage to do that. Whether it's because the writer is white or because they have financial resources or because they have time to work on a book in a way that the person that is your sensitivity reader can't. Because they are in different financial situation or because of different family obligations or cultural obligations that have to take priority. You know?

Diana: So I think that we have to always remember in line with this sensitivity reader conversation, we still have to look at ways where we can boost marginalized voices and perspectives that come from their community. And the most effective relationships I have seen authors do, usually sometimes they stem from the readers that they work with. Sometimes they stem just from being in constant contact with the community that they're writing about, is to signal boost their resources, their voices. I've had authors invite authors from that community to guest blog. I've seen them being asked to share, author events with them. I've seen critique groups form where people exchange manuscripts with each other. Now they're equals as writers. So they're helping each other write and publish stories as well.

Diana: And so I just want to make sure that when a writer decides to write across difference, they know it's not just a one time thing. They know it's not a one shot. It is establishing a relationship, very much possibly a fruitful relationship or a productive one. But that's what it is. It's a relationship. And it should not be taken advantage of, solely to benefit the writer.

Mignon: Yeah. And those are great practical ideas of what you can do, too. I love that. Thank you. This has been so helpful. I've asked questions like this at conferences sometimes, and I get the one minute answer. And I never felt like I really understood. And I feel like being able to spend some time with you today, I have such a better understanding of how to think about this. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Diana: Yes. And I'm really glad that you could have me on the show.

Mignon: Yeah. And so if people want to find you, where are you online (or do you want to be found)? What's the best way?

Diana: Yes. So I am on Twitter. And my Twitter handle is WriterSyndrome, one word. And I'm also available on Instagram under Diana.M.Pho.

Mignon: And that was P-H-O, right?

Diana: Yep, correct.

Mignon: Okay. Excellent. Thank you so much again. Have a great day.

Diana: Great. You too. Take care.

Mignon: Okay, bye.