Do you need a sensitivity reader?

A friend who read a draft of my new novel, Winter’s Rage, suggested I ask someone experienced in transgender issues to read the manuscript. It hadn’t occurred to me that I needed this. While one of my characters in the novel has sex change surgery, I considered it a minor point in the story. But I knew instantly this was sound advice, given current awareness of LGBTQ+ concerns. 


My friend offered to look for a sensitivity reader if I couldn’t find one on my own. As it happened, several years earlier another friend had told me his sister had recently transitioned. I contacted my friend and asked if he could put me in touch with her. He gladly gave me her email address, although he didn’t think she read mystery novels or fiction in general. 


His sister replied right away. She thanked me for making this effort with my book because she was constantly annoyed by people’s thoughtless and cruel remarks and misused pronouns. I gave her the choice of reading the full manuscript of Winter’s Rage or the relevant sections. When she chose the latter, I emailed her five pages with all the pertinent scenes. She came back with comments I wouldn’t have thought of myself. In addition to these being useful for the book, I found it interesting to hear her perspectives. 


On the positive side, she liked that I’d had my protagonist observe my trans person’s physique as not typical for her gender. My reader finds her height can be a problem–she’s 6’3″ in high heels–but she knows other transgender women who have it harder, with barrel shaped chests and very masculine facial features. She found it realistic that my trans character would be depressed and alcohol dependent before discovering who she was. It also sadly rang true for her that my character would experience abuse on social media and from unsympathetic relatives.    
But she questioned my trans character’s close friend saying that she’d miss her as a man. My sensitivity reader had heard that type of remark too often. 


“Tough shit,” she told the obtuse friend. “This isn’t about you.” 


I’d also had my trans character say she’d miss her former self. My sensitivity reader said most trans people she knows can’t wait to shed their old selves. “We love them for getting us this far, but their job is done, and we’re excited to move forward.” I had thought, in that situation, I’d feel nostalgia for a large part of my life I was leaving behind, but bowed to her experience and tweaked my trans character’s sentiments. In addition, my reader thought I’d made the process of changing ID and other documents too simple. I added an explanation that didn’t impact the plot.   

  
My sensitivity reader found no fault with my use of pronouns, but later, during the proof read of the manuscript, it struck me that I might have used ‘he’ incorrectly in one instance. I asked my proof reader for her opinion. She replied that, in her view, ‘he’ was correct in the context. It can be tricky to get it totally right. We also shouldn’t assume all transgender people think alike any more than all women think alike. There might be some who disagree with my decision to leave ‘he’ in that sentence.  


By definition, we fiction writers create characters and situations that go beyond our personal experience. The more feedback we get from readers who fill the gaps in our knowledge, the more true-to-life our stories will be. When we don’t belong to a misunderstood and oppressed group, we’re often unaware of its particular issues. A first step in deciding whether or not to seek out a sensitivity reader is knowing when you need one. 

My Sensitivity Reader

Today, on the BWL website, https://bwlauthors.blogspot.com/ I write about how a sensitivity reader helped make my novel, Winter’s Rage, more authentic.

Calgary Herald Bestsellers List

Happy to see Winter’s Rage on today’s Calgary Herald Fiction Bestsellers List, in some very good company. Thanks to those who purchased my new novel from our local independent bookstores, Owl’s Nest and Shelf Life Books.

CALGARY BESTSELLERS * Calgary Herald * 2 Oct 2021

FICTION 1. Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney. Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young — but life is catching up with them.

2. Five Little Indians

Michelle Good. Told from the alternating points of view of five former residential school survivors.

3. Winter’s Rage

Susan Calder. Insurance investigator Paula Savard is pulled into another mystery.

4. Harlem Shuffle. Colson Whitehead. A family saga masquerading as a crime novel and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

5. Fight Night. Miriam Toews. Fight Night unspools the pain, love, laughter, and above all, will to live a good life across three generations of women.

6. The Winter Wives. Linden Mac in ty re. psychological drama weaves threads of crime, disability and dementia together into a tale of unrequited love and delusion.

7. Bewilderment. Richard Powers. With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, tantalizing visions of life beyond and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Powers’ most moving novel.

8. The Midnight Library. Matt Haig. The books in the Midnight Library enable Nora to live as if she had done things differently.

9. Where the Crawdads Sing. Delia Owens. An exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder.

10. Hamnet. Maggie O’farrell. A portrait of a marriage and a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss.

Why doesn’t our governor general speak French?

When reporters asked Mary Simon, Canada’s newly appointed governor general, why she doesn’t speak French, she replied that she was denied the chance to learn French at her residential day school. This prompted me to Google Simon’s biography. According to Wikipedia, she attended Kuujjuaq Federal Day School, then Fort Carson High School in Colorado and completed high school by correspondence. I would guess her US school didn’t offer French language instruction either.

Like Mary Simon, I grew up in Quebec. I entered English elementary school a few years after her. From grade two onwards, French was part of my daily instruction. But this was in Montreal. I’m sure the reason Simon’s day school didn’t teach French was due to its remote location. It would be hard enough to attract an English speaking teacher to the far north, never mind an additional French specialist or a teacher qualified to teach both official languages.

My understanding is that French isn’t a required subject in many Canadian schools. Most students in English schools don’t emerge bilingual. Even those who take French Immersion usually need to maintain some French in their personal lives or work to be comfortable speaking the language. My French language skills greatly improved after I finished school and worked in an office with mostly francophone colleagues. I lived in a Montreal neighourhood that was predominantly francophone and spoke French on a daily basis. After I moved to Calgary in 1996, my skills dropped off because I didn’t need to speak French anymore.

Evidently Mary Simon didn’t need to know French for her previous lifestyle and jobs as a broadcaster and diplomat. Otherwise she’d have taken courses, like numerous Anglo Canadians who aspire to particular positions. I doubt Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh left their elementary schools equipped to lead federal political parties. O’Toole has said he learned French in the military. Wikipedia says that Singh, like Simon, attended high school in the US.

Simon’s answer to reporters about why she doesn’t speak French was convenient for deflecting questions, but it wasn’t accurate.

Canada’s WWII Internment Camps

Last week I watched The Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s podcast with Adriana Davies about her new book From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History. Her discussion of Italian interment during WWII reminded me of my friend’s father’s story about his internment at two camps in eastern Canada.

Joachim “Jim” was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1922. At age 16, he was sent to England through the Kindertransport program that rescued Jewish children from Hitler’s Nazi regime. Initially, Jim worked on an English farm. When war broke out, German youths living in the countryside were declared enemy aliens. The UK boarded them onto boats with German POWs and shipped them to internment camps in Canada or Australia.

Jim landed in a New Brunswick camp, where his main job was cutting wood. He didn’t mind the work and could borrow books from the McGill University lending library. An older internee taught him math. He found the camp food great thanks to an Austrian cook who had been a famous chef in Vienna. The internees who bothered him most were wealthy Austrians who were right-wing but hated upstart Hitler for taking over their country.

Even though he was generally happy at the camp, one day Jim and a friend decided to escape to the United States. After the others had left their woodcutting site, the two youths headed south. The snow and cold made them turn back. When they returned to the camp, the guard just looked at them angrily and said they needed haircuts. They learned they’d been walking in the wrong direction, toward the Bay of Fundy.

Jim’s math studies inspired his desire to attend McGill University. After two years in New Brunswick, he was transferred to the internment camp on St. Helen’s island near Montreal. St. Helen’s Island later became part of the Expo 67 site and is now a city park. Many of the internees at this camp were Italians. Some were fascists. He thinks they were POWs sent from Europe. Jim’s main memory of his short stay was a birthday celebration for Benito Mussolini, the fascist prime minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He recalled a cake with the lettering ‘Viva El Duce.’ Jim ate the piece with the ‘V.’

Jim left the camp when a Jewish family in Montreal sponsored his studies at McGill. At the university he met his wife, also a Jewish refugee. They married and had three sons. Jim became a McGill math professor. He died in 2014, a year after he told me his story.

Author Adriana Davies was born in Italy and grew up in Edmonton. In 2010 she received the Order of Canada for her work promoting and preserving Alberta’s cultural heritage. In her WGA online interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6I4_6xvvxYM she talks about the large number of people who left Italy in the early twentieth century. Many came to Alberta to work in the coal mines. They maintained links to the old country and sent money back to their families.

When Mussolini came to power, he realized the Italians living in Allied countries might be helpful to his cause. He recruited the granddaughter of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italy’s unification, to drum up support. She went to Alberta, ostensibly to set up agricultural programs, and was lionized by the Edmonton and Calgary press. Fascist cells formed in both cities. This created tensions in the Italian community, between fascists and anti-fascists. Neighbours spied on each other. As war loomed, the RCMP couldn’t always tell who was on which side when they rounded up Italians for internment camps.

Adriana asked, Could the Italian fascists in Alberta have helped Mussolini’s war effort? Possibly, she said, by sabotaging the coal mines or railroads.

I found Adriana’s and Jim’s stories refreshing perspectives on history; a change from the simple view of good and bad. You can watch the podcast with Adriana on the WGA Youtube channel. Writers’ Guild of Alberta – YouTube On the channel, you’ll also find a podcast with me hosting an interview with N.L. Blandford, author of The Perilous Road to Her, a thriller novel dealing with a current issue — human trafficking.

Hosting Tonight

Join me tonight online as I host the next Writers’ Guild of Alberta Reading Series. New author, N. L. Blandford will answer questions and read from her first novel, The Perilous Road to Her. Wed, July 14, 7:00-7:45 pm. Mountain Time. youtube.com/watch?v=3xxPMAk1_qo&ab

When Words Collide!

Today, on the BWL Author Blog, I write about next month’s When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. This year it’s full steam online and free for all. https://bwlauthors.blogspot.com/

Sir John A Macdonald: hero or villain?

Last summer I took out a library book about Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, because I wanted to know if modern historians have changed their view of him since my high school history class in the 1960s. Back then we learned Macdonald was flawed and made mistakes, but Canada would be considerably less without him.

Macdonald’s government established the residential schools that caused a century of suffering to indigenous children. The effects continue today. To protest the history and present situation, people have vandalized statues of Macdonald across the country. Cities have responded by removing the statues and looking into renaming buildings and other structures bearing Macdonald’s name. As one journalist wrote, ‘Would you want your child to attend Adolph Hitler High School?’

In the Calgary Public Library, I found a book that sounded like what I wanted: Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies, edited by Patrice Dutil & Roger Hall (Dundurn Press, 2014). This collection of 15 essays by historians, other academics, and journalists promised a fresh look at Macdonald on the 200th anniversary of his birth in January 2015. I began by looking up ‘residential schools’ in the book’s index, figuring I’d read those sections first. The schools weren’t listed in the index. Already this six-year-old book felt dated. I can’t imagine a current book about Macdonald not giving prominence to the subject. Only two of the fifteen essays mentioned the residential schools, one peripherally.

In contrast, a number of the essays discussed Macdonald’s treatment of women, a more popular issue for readers in 2014. The consensus was that Macdonald’s view of women was enlightened for his era. For instance, when he was first elected prime minister in 1867, only non-indigenous men who owned property were allowed to vote. Years before the suffragette movement, Macdonald proposed extending the franchise to female property owners. The opposition party voted this down, but Macdonald succeeded in getting the vote for indigenous men who owned property, while allowing them to retain their full Indian status benefits. This took considerable persuading. After Macdonald’s death, the opposition came into power and repealed the law. Status Indians didn’t regain the right to vote until 1960.

The one essay that examined the residential schools confirmed the protesters’ main message: part of Macdonald’s goal for the schools was to speed up the assimilation of indigenous peoples by removing children from their culture. For that reason, he insisted girls attend as well as boys, in the belief women had more influence in home life and ‘uneducated’ girls would drag their children back to the old ways. While protesters would disagree, education was another goal for the schools, to give indigenous people the skills to become self-sufficient after the loss of the bison hunt. Most of the treaties specified that Canada must provide a European education and the chiefs initially wanted this for their people until they saw how the system worked. As we sadly know now, this attempt at forced assimilation was wrong. But how many non-indigenous Canadians realized this at the time? Aren’t the governments that followed Macdonald’s equally guilty for continuing the residential school system with no significant changes until 1948, when they made attendance at residential schools non-compulsory.

Why is Macdonald singled out for attack? I will take a leap and say it’s because, of all our prime ministers, he most represents Canada. He was the leader of the Fathers of Confederation at the Charlottetown conference in 1864. He was our first prime minister and the second-longest serving (18 years, 359 days; six majority governments). His push to build the railroad to the Pacific coast probably prevented the west from joining the United States. According to Macdonald at 200, souvenirs with his image are more popular with Ottawa tourists than those of any other prime minister. Macdonald is interesting. In high school, we learned he was a drunk who famously quipped that voters would prefer Macdonald drunk to his opponent sober. Macdonald at 200 rehabilitates him by claiming he was binge drinker, but eventually overcame his problem and should be admired for this.

One of the last essays in the book discusses how Macdonald is remembered through statues and naming. The author observes that Canadians tend to revere their political leaders far less than Americans. Macdonald’s US counterpart, George Washington (a slaveowner) has the country’s capital city district and a state named for him, among hundreds of other things. The essay also notes that the way historical figures are honoured (or not) says less about them than it does about the people doing the remembering. Macdonald’s political opponents were the first group in charge of his legacy and were inclined to diminish his accomplishments. We have every right today to diminish Macdonald further to uphold our current values.

Overall, I’d say the book’s message didn’t significantly change my former view of Macdonald. He was flawed, he made mistakes, he accomplished great things if you believe Canada is a worthy country. From their biographies, none of the fifteen essay authors identify as indigenous. After investing years of research on Macdonald, they’d be predisposed to come down on his side. One author concluded indigenous people would probably have been worse off without him. Another called for a full study of Macdonald’s relationship with indigenous people. Both politically and personally, Macdonald’s involvement with indigenous Canadians was the most extensive of our prime ministers. I would read a book about that.

Pre-Release. Yahoo!

Smashwords is the first website to pre-release my new novel, Winter’s Rage. You can purchase the e-book here: Smashwordshttps://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/BWLCalder. My three earlier novels are also 50 % off on Smashwords until the end of July. Winter’s Rage will officially release in August.

Happy Canada Day

Canada Day 2021 will be subdued or cancelled in most Canadian cities due to COVID-19 and the investigations of graveyards at former indigenous residential schools. My small effort at reconciliation has been to re-read my friend Joan Crate’s novel, Black Apple (Simon and Schuster Canada, 2016) about a Blackfoot girl taken from her family on the reserve to a residential school in southern Alberta in the late 1940s. Black Apple deals with all the horrors we’ve heard about the residential schools — children separated from their families and culture and given Christian names; subjected to brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and infectious illnesses that ripped through the institutions. Black Apple is fiction, but I found the story characters and situations gave me a depth I miss from current media reports.

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