STORYTELLING WITH MEANINGFUL REPRESENTATION, PART VII: CONSULTING AND COMPENSATING EXPERTS

 

 

At one point (or, more likely, at multiple points) during your creative process you will need to consult experts. Experts are people from the same marginalized community (or communities) as your character(s). You can find them in-person and online – on social media, in blogs, in writing communities, through writing magazines.

 

* Please offer to compensate the experts whose expertise you need. If they decline financial compensation, offer to sensitivity or beta read their work if they are in the same field or offer some other type of trade (gift cards, Amazon wish list fulfillment, etc. *

 

Here are some situations when you might seek counsel from an expert:

 

• When needing the answer to a relatively (and, possibly, deceptively) simple question.

 

Example: What is the Indian word for flatbread?

 

(This is one of those deceptively simple questions because – like the sub-hoagie-hero-grinder regional names and variations of a type of American sandwich – Indian flatbreads also have regional names and variations. Think chapati-poli-roti-paratha … Don’t despair, though! The complexity of the answer will lead to a more authentic character! To answer the question, you’ll need to consider what part of India your character is from, what language your character speaks, and maybe even what religion your character practices). 

 

• When wondering whether a characteristic or action can be deemed as harmful to the community.

 

Example: Is is okay to say my Black character has an afro?


• When you are finished with your story and you want sensitivity readers to review specific sections for accuracy and potential harm (to be clear, this harm would be an unintentional author-insert; I am certainly not suggesting that characters themselves can’t have biases/hate/phobia). If your character is intersectionally marginalized, try to hire readers who are similarly marginalized! You can, of course, hire a variety of readers, too, but intersectional experiences tend to be specific to that intersection.    

 

Example: My character is Thai-American, bisexual, and dyslexic. Have I represented their perspective and their interactions with the world (and the world’s interactions with them) accurately? 

Case Study: Josie Totah, Saved by the Bell [SPOILERS] 

 

Josie Totah is an actress who plays Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio, a popular cheerleader on the revival of Saved by the Bell. Both Totah and Hadda-DeFabrizio are transgender. Per this interview by Variety, Totah describes the importance of representation on both sides of the camera and how she provides that as producer and actress on the show:

 

… the more we got to talking about the character and her storyline, specifically her gender identity, it became clear to me that if I was going to do the show, I needed to have more stake in it. if we were going to explore her gender identity, there had to be going representation behind the camera or in our writers’ room or on the producing team. I was so grateful that Universal and [showrunner] Tracey Wigfield really championed me and allowed me to be a producer on this project because I didn’t feel comfortable doing a show that explored my character’s gender identity if representation didn’t exist. I didn’t feel it was right, I didn’t feel like the story would be told authentically, and I would have had to have stakes in my character’s story in order to do it.

 

As producer, Totah helps guide and vet (sensitivity read) her character’s development and storylines. She also supports other marginalized actors on the show, per the above interview:

 

The first thing I did in that role [producer] was making sure our hair department reflected our cast and that we had representation in that sense because Alycia, she’s a Black woman and had never had a Black artist do her hair. So on aspects like that it was super, super humbling and just a privilege to be a part of.  

 

The significance of this representation is best illustrated during season 2’s exploration of transphobia (S2 E5, From Curse to Worse). Because Totah helped write the episode, the storyline avoids tokenizing the character of Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio. Also, rather than focusing on the stereotypical “tragedy” narrative that is too-often associated with marginalized characters (and the trans community specifically), this episode humorously and poignantly follows Haddad-DeFabrizio’s journey as she decides whether and how to best advocate for her community. Watch this video of Totah as she describes how happiness is a form of resilience and resistance. 

 

 

Next Section:  Hiring and Supporting Diverse Creators

 

 

 

It is one thing to strive for perfection and another to expect it. When we expect perfection, we don’t give ourselves the space to learn and grow from our mistakes – to acknowledge, to listen, to do better next time … to go on this very human journey.

~ Kalpita Pathak

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>