Writing Diversity: Character, Not Caricature

I worked with Mystery Writers of America Midwest’s Secretary, Mia Manansala (photo below), in Chicago to present a workshop/ practicum on how writers can develop characters in their books  that are different from them.  We shared information about avoiding stereotypes (pause to be aware of implicit biases or filters); cultivating inclusion (read #ownvoices); building cultural competence (it’s a course of action not a course of study); avoiding default characters (not everyone is white, middle-class, and straight) and bringing humility to the writing process.  The attendees participated in a few exercises, and attendees walked away with the beginnings of a character profile for their next (or first) diverse character, and a packet of further reading.

MWA-U presentation

Mr. Pilot

This guy is my “default” airline pilot.  Default characters are a no-no


The Unicorn graph can help us understand the LGBTQ gender/identity/expression spectrum.

Thank you! to the MWAMidwest Board for the opportunity.

A Community of Book Lovers: The GCLS Lesfic Con

I recently attended a conference of the Golden Crown Literary Society in Northern Virginia. It was my first time at the Con and I came as an author and a fan. GCLS logo

I credit the outstanding team at Bywater Books, who have published my mystery/P.I. novel, Bury Me When I’m Dead, and my friend, author Renée Bess (Breaking Jaie, Butterfly Moments, Re:Building Sasha) for nudging me to get to the GCLS annual event. They were absolutely right, it’s an amazing four-day gathering.
The first thing I was aware of was the sense of community. The Con overflowed with the good energies of Lesfic writers, and the readers who support the genre, and there’s no arms-length distance between authors, aspiring writers and fans at this ‘Respectfest’. Attendees rubbed elbows in the meeting rooms, the dining tables, the vendor area, the night-time activities (e.g. Karaoke) and the awards presentation. Authors signed autographs with gratitude and grace, and discerning readers provided insights and motivation to the writers whose characters bring them affirmation and joy.

Me, and Jewelle Gomez at the Author's Table.

Me, and Jewelle Gomez at the Author’s Table.

The theme at this year’s GCLS conference was Cultivating Our Diversity. San Francisco speaker and trainer, DeAngela Cooks and I presented to an attentive and engaged audience about the ‘sense and sensibility’ of creating diverse characters in Lesfic. The main goal: to have our books reflect the world we live in and, thus, invite new audiences to our work.

Yet, there was much diversity in the room. I met women from a dozen states and several countries. Those who had been writing professionally for decades and others who were taking the first steps toward getting their works published. Science fiction/Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Mystery and Romance writers read from their works. I discussed politics with a reader from Minneapolis and poetry with an established author from the northeast and shared laughs with attendees from San Francisco.

Did I Say, I’m a Fan? 
I shared Hershey Kisses with fans lined up to meet trailblazer, Jewelle Gomez, and lined up myself for an autograph from Katherine V. Forrest, the 2016 recipient of the Lee Lynch Classic Award for Curious Wine. From my own bookshelf, I brought Ms. Forrest’s second book, science fiction classic, Daughters of A Coral Dawn, and she noted as she wrote her name in a beautiful, cursive that my cover-worn book was a Naiad Press first edition, with cover design by Tee Corinne.     At the con were: Lee Lynch, Marianne K. Martin, Karin Kallmaker, Radclyffe, Georgia Beers, Rachel Spangler, KD MacGregor, Ann McMan, Nell Stark, Lynn Ames, Barbara Clanton, Dillon Watson, Carol Rosenfeld, RJ Samuel and many, many, many others.

That Toddling Town.GCLS 2017 poster
Tip of the hat to the GCLS Board for the success of this conference. Next Year’s Con will be in Chicago. Deep-dish pizza, jazz, improv, Obama-land, Wrigley Field, Magnificent Mile and, in July 2017 Lesbian writers. I’ll be there and I hope you can find a way to be there too.

World War 2 History: Sobibor

Author’s Note:  My first book:  Long Way Home: A World War II Novel has made me an interested researcher about the Great War.   From time to time, I stumble across information about this global event which I will share on this blog.


In October 1943 the prisoners of Sobibor death camp in Poland planned and carried out a revolt against their Nazi captors.  It was the most successful escape from a concentration camp. 



The Times of Israel.  “70 years after revolt, Sobibor Secrets are Yet to be Unearthed.” http://www.timesofisrael.com/70-years-after-revolt-sobibor-secrets-are-yet-to-be-unearthed/

Blatt, Thomas Toivi. From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Caplan, Richelle Budd. “Escape under Fire: The Sobibor Uprising.” 2004. Yad Vashem On-line Magazine. Yad Vashem The Holocaust

Piccirillo, Ryan. “The Sobibor Revolt: ‘Death to the Fascists’. http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/285/the-sobibor-revolt-death-to-the-fascists

Why Do I Still Talk About Slavery?

In a heated but friendly debate about immigration policy among my guests at a 4th of July dinner, the issue of slavery came up.   This is normal.   Slavery was the “immigrant experience” for generations of blacks in eighteenth and nineteenth century America.   

 I had only one white guest on this particular afternoon and it was her first visit to my home.  I should have noticed that she grew quieter as the issue of the Dream Act morphed into a brief discussion of the enslavement of Blacks and then back to the present day issues of U.S. policy toward nearly 12 million illegal immigrants.  

I was a bad host. Instead of offering my guest another beverage, I should have offered her the opportunity to share her feelings about our discussion. What I learned later is this guest was uncomfortable with the comments about slavery telling the person who escorted her to my home: “why can’t black people just get over slavery.”

 I don’t take offense to the question.  Almost 150 years since the abolishment of slavery in America, why is there still conversation about the experience and impact of slavery?   I would have welcomed that question from my guest.  Hopefully, she’ll come again and feel freer to express her opinions.   But, here is how I would answer.

 Slavery, then and now, is an issue causing shame and anger for Black people.  Just Google the images of slavery and they will make you cringe.  Slavery is the lowest point in the history of Blacks in this country and I believe a moral low point in the history of our country.  So much so, that we haven’t talked about it enough.   The national conversation might have been simpler to have (albeit not easier) during and after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution (abolition of slavery) but the national conversation quickly turned to Reconstruction and the political and legal rights of newly freed slaves rather than the neuroses resulting from slavery. 

If we had known of it in the late nineteenth century, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would have been the diagnosis of the nearly four million blacks freed from slave labor.  But instead of the therapeutic value of remembering, discussing and grieving, newly freed slaves were faced with new kinds of subjugation guided by states rights and Jim Crow laws.

 As a country, we never paused to talk about the pain and sacrifice of our Civil War nor the new unity we sought in its wake.   We never talked about a century of dehumanization of a group of people snatched from their lives and forced into a system in which they had no control and no exit except death.   We didn’t even stop to reflect on the resilience, intelligence and courage it took to survive and adapt to a new existence and culture in a foreign land.

Finally in the twentieth century, after another century of segregation and prejudice, Blacks effectively took action to gain power and respect.  There was a movement toward full civil rights; a month-long celebration of the innovation and contributions of Black Americans; and the embrace of Black culture in America.  But, still little conversation about slavery and the slow and painful recovery from its horrors.

 So, if my white guest had asked me:  ‘Why can’t Black people get over slavery?’  My answer would be something like this:  When white Americans talk about immigration history, Ellis Island comes up.  When Black Americans discuss immigration, slavery is going to be invoked.    I would have added one more thing:

“Like any painful human experience, it takes the time it takes to get over it and we need to keep talking  about slavery until we get it out of our system.”  

Words are All That Matter

Yesterday, President Barack Obama’s introduction to 2012 Medal of Freedom winner Jan Karski a leader in the World War II resistance to the Nazi occupation of Poland included a reference to “Polish death camps”.   Most of us understood that Mr. Obama was referring to the horrendous extermination sites established by Nazi Germany.   However, some Poles are, understandably, troubled when these facilities are characterized as Polish camps.    The Polish Foreign Minister has asked for an apology from the Obama Administration for the poorly-worded introduction used in the White House ceremony.

Five days ago, former Washington, DC Mayor (currently a city council member), Marion Barry attended a meeting of Asian American business, civic and community leaders to apologize for his recent public comments which were offensive to that community.  As the meeting ended and attendees were being conciliatory and discussing the undercurrents of racism that continue to plague our country, Mr. Barry’s words turned on him again.  As he listed groups that have been historical victims of discrimination in this country, he included Irish and Jewish emigrants and then, unfortunately, referred to Polish Americans with a term considered derogatory by most.  Barry was chagrined by his error.  He had meant no harm and was, again, apologetic.   His remark prompted a demand for an apology by the Executive Director of the Chicago-based Polish American Association

These two incidents, albeit dissimilar, provide a teaching moment for public officials, and others, to be conscientious about their words that may offend, even when unintentional.   Some might say the calls for apologies come from those who are overly sensitive or that this attention to “political correctness” is getting way out of hand.  I don’t see it that way.

The diversity field is not a static landscape.   Being aware of language as it intersects with values and norms is critical for navigating diversity in our work and our lives.    That’s why it’s good to have staff, speech writers, etc. who have diverse backgrounds and an editor’s eye/ear when it comes to our public messages.

Mending Walls and Jumping Fences

Washington,DC’s race relations can get a bad rap from those who don’t live here, and sometimes from those who do.   However, in one interracial neighborhood in a nearby DC suburb, a group of neighbors exemplify the strength of community that can blur the dividing lines of race.

79-year old James Musser, his wife Donna and their adult son cried out for help when a fire raged out of control in an upstairs bedroom where Musser, who uses a wheel chair, was trapped.   Next door, Gene Ward and his daughter heard the frantic shouts of their neighbors and rushed into action, along with a handful of other residents of this modest working-class street in Temple Hills, Maryland, to rescue the Mussers who have lived in their home fifty years.

Gene Ward is black.  James Musser is white.

The Washington,DC region is one of the most racially polarized areas in the nation.  Fear, economic disparity and tradition have erected strong geographic and social barriers between different races in the region.   But, on the block where Musser and Ward live, neighbors haven’t let their differences become obstacles to knowing each other.

In the television news reports that followed the fire and rescue, Ward called James Musser his friend and mentor.  So when fire broke out on a rainy, Sunday evening last week and Ward heard his friend’s screams he didn’t hesitate.  In fact, he leaped over a fence and kicked down the door of Musser’s house.  

Musser’s wife called 911 and his son suffered lacerations and smoke inhalation trying to save his father but Musser, unable to manage the stairs leading to the first floor of his home, couldn’t escape.   So Gene Ward climbed the stairs, groping the wall to steady himself, and then holding onto Musser’s legs slid him down the staircase step-by-step to safety.   Ward was assisted by another neighbor who also rushed into the burning house.   Outside, more neighbors covered Mrs. Musser and her son in blankets, sheltered them from the rain and administered first aid.

 Robert Frost’s poem Mending Walls notes some of us believe ‘good fences make good neighbors.’  Yet, there are many who believe that building stronger communities and positive race relations requires sometimes jumping over the fence, kicking in the door and pulling down the barriers that separate us.

 As Frost’s poem suggests: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”   


Name Calling: The Washington Redskins’ Controversy

This is not a new issue.   But, it’s appropriate to revisit the controversy over the Washington Redskins’name.

First, let me say I occasionally watch and enjoy football but I am not a rabid (fantasy football devotee, jersey-wearing, Sunday and Monday night football appointment TV viewer) fan.  Therefore, I am much less emotionally entangled in the ups and downs of the play and management of the Washington football franchise, or any other franchise for that matter.    I do, however, monitor diversity issues, am an engaged conversant in the discourse about the impact of sports on culture, and am personally offended by racially-charged language.    So, this isn’t about football. Continue reading