Monday 8 November 2021

Confessions of a sensitivity reader. By Keren David

 One thing I've been doing more and more of recently is sensitivity/authenticity reading. Writers and publishers have asked me to read their work and comment on the Jewish content in it. 

At first I was a little nervous about doing this. What are my qualifications for this role?  I am a journalist on a Jewish newspaper, but I am not especially expert in Jewish history, religion or the politics of antisemitism. But I do know how to do research. And I do understand Jewish sensitivities. Somewhat to my surprise I have found the job rather easier than I had feared. There is almost always quite a bit to say. 

Sometimes the writers asking for my help are Jewish themselves. They sometimes feel the need to almost ask for permission. Are they 'Jewish enough' to tackle topics of Jewish interest? Are they going to get something wrong and expose their ignorance or upset their grandma? They usually ask for help at a reasonably early stage, when I can advise on character and plot development, talk about any issues involved, help to come up with creative solutions for any problems they are facing in their representation of Jewish people.

But sometimes I am called in to help just before publication, or -  in one case -  after publication. Then it's a matter of suggesting changes in as few words as possible -  often while wishing I'd had a chance to talk thing through with an author at an earlier stage. This tends to be the case with non-Jewish writers, who perhaps don't realise the complexity of avoiding antisemitic stereotyping or inaccurate renditions of a culture. 

If you are thinking of writing a book with a Jewish character, please spend some time acquainting yourself with antisemitic stereotypes -  which, sadly, are many and varied. This is a good place to start. 

If your Jewish character is historical (say, refugees from the Nazis) spend some time researching the actual history of people in their position. 

If  -  this is where it gets complicated -  your story has a character who personifies an antisemitic trope (an evil rich person who abuses power in a conspiratorial way, for example), think about the name you give them. The row this weekend about a play at the Royal Court theatre (read about it here ) was excused as a 'mistake' and 'unconscious bias' by the theatre, which made every Jewish person I've spoken to about it this weekend horrified and angry. And asking, why did no one notice this? Why no sensitivity read? Why no protests from the actors or directors? 

If you are thinking of writing anything at all about a Jewish religious ritual -  a wedding, say, or a batmitzvah -  check it out with a Jewish person. Do not assume (as I have seen) that Jews say 'I do' at their weddings. Portraying Jews as almost-Christians is a form of erasure that is especially insulting. 

In writing sensitivity reports, I've realised that I should have been commissioning them as well. My books are multi-cultural, and I'm happy about that, but the level of knowledge and nuance needed to make my characters really fully formed was lacking. I hope my errors weren't too awful. I'm very sorry if they were. 

So in asking you, please do better, I'm also committing to try and do better myself. 

No comments: