Manuscript Notes (& More Art!)

Since the start of 2018, I’ve not had many opportunities to share updates with you about my writing projects and process, but a lot has been going on behind the scenes. After completing my Japanese Cinderella manuscript Hai in late 2017, I moved on to a new manuscript tentatively called The Twelve Dancing Monks of Little Todai Temple, about a prankster sumo wrestler whose shenanigans lead to being exiled to a remote Buddhist temple during the peak of Buddhist persecution in the mid-19th century, when Japan was just beginning to open up to the West.

The whimsical bit of artwork shared with this blog post was drawn by my sister Rebecca inspired by Twelve Dancing Monks. It captures a sweet moment later in the story, which I will leave to your imaginations!

Amazingly, after just five months, the drafting phase of this novel is now also complete, and while I wait for feedback on the manuscript from a handful of early readers, I’ve been able to start a third as-yet-untitled manuscript set in 1840s Edinburgh, Scotland, inspired by the life and poetry of Christina Rossetti. I can’t say much about this new one yet, but unlike the others it will be an adult novel instead of young adult. I’m drawing inspiration from an eclectic mix of novels for this one, ranging from Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, China Mieville’s The City & The City, V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I think it’s likely to have a darker tone and cast than the others, but still with opportunities for the comic relief I enjoy so much.

I’m also expecting to publish a smattering of poetry, essays, and possibly (my first ever!) short story soon, so watch for those announcements in coming months!

The last year has been a whirlwind of change for me in terms of my writing career, and I’m forever grateful to all of you for your support and interest in my work. I’ve been able to connect with a wonderful writing community online via Twitter (@CassaCassaCassa) and continue to attend The Cabin workshops regularly here in Idaho for much-needed support in person. It’s humbling how much there is still to learn and understand about my craft, but retrospectively I can see how much I’ve grown. And it’s a delight to be able to do what you love surrounded by equally passionate friends!

Foxes & Sumo Wrestlers: Novel Artwork

My twin sister Rebecca has been spoiling me lately with beautiful drawings inspired by my two novel manuscripts, one of which you’ll notice has changed the look of my website — because I loved it so much I made it my new header!

The foxes with the steam train come from my Japanese Cinderella novel, which is set in 1900 Tokyo during the narrow window of time when Japan allowed private companies to build and maintain railways before taking back national control (a decision they would later reverse after the war years). Anyone who has been to Japan knows the trains are now iconic to the landscape; at the time, though, Tokyo was known as the “Venice of the East” because the waterways dominated the rhythms of the city. Gradually, trains came to displace rivers and canals as the primary means of transport, giving birth to a very different kind of city.

Rebecca also drew an image of sumo wrestlers during a training session. This one is inspired by a new manuscript I’m working on, a very loose Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling set in an isolated Buddhist temple in rural Japan of the 1870s. The main character is a sumo wrestler who, because of a prank-gone-wrong, becomes an acolyte at the temple at the worst possible moment: the peak of Buddhist persecution in Meiji Japan.

mokurai-vs-hiryu-sumo.jpg

Didn’t she do a fantastic job with these? I love them so much! They’ve given me all sorts of inspiration through the long, slow process of editing and revisions.

Intercultural Sensitivity for Writers

One of my greatest frustrations with attempts to support diversity in writing and publishing is the assumption that if diverse people are hired or diverse writers’ books are accepted, automatically publishing itself will become more diverse. Writing across difference is not simply an instinct, a talent, or an innate skill. It has to be learned and practiced. Writers need support with this.

Intercultural Sensitivity in Writing (ISW) Goals

  1. Diversity in writing will be seen as a skill that can be LEARNED and IMPROVED by ALL WRITERS.
  2. Writers who identify as #ownvoices will not bear the full burden of responsibility for “diversifying” the rest of publishing.
  3. We will develop and embrace an ethic of diversity in our writing akin to the medical Hippocratic Oath that we can share no matter our own background and identities.

I hope that writers will develop a helping culture in which we can share actual skills that can be implemented in our writing, no matter who we are or how we identify.

Why I Hope You’ll Let Me Help

I want to break down the experience of difference specifically for writers and show how it can help us understand our characters, plots, and overall stories better than we do without this awareness.

What can I contribute? I have six years of editorial experience and I also spent 10+ years with on-the-ground mentorship and training with Milton Bennett’s fantastic Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). I’ve honed my knowledge of this intercultural sensitivity model in multiple contexts: international schools, foster care & adoption programs, study abroad, work abroad, daily life, interpersonal relationships, and more. I also have training and hands-on experience with models for ethics, including biomedical ethics. I have practiced non-violent communication and peace-building skills such as those advocated by Thich Nhat Hahn and Marshall Rosenberg.

I have seen from firsthand observation and experience that you can’t just pounce on a person who is “different” and expect them to solve a community’s problems. It’s unnerving at best to discover you have been brought into a space to be the token figure of diversity, like an exotic doll. When you try to change something or raise a real issue, there will always be a “good reason” to leave things as they are, often in the name of “efficiency” and “tradition” and “common sense.”

I want to introduce two approaches to diversity, both valuable but for different reasons. Then I’ll continue this ISW series with a post each the six experiences of difference, following Bennett’s model. I will apply these experiences specifically to writers and writing.

  1. Denial of difference
  2. Defense against difference
  3. Minimization of difference
  4. Acceptance of difference
  5. Adaptation to difference
  6. Integration of difference

Each one of these experiences of difference comes with moral dilemmas that individual people have to address on their own terms. I’ll share examples of those dilemmas and offer tips/techniques for resolving them.

Real-World Experience of Diversity

Diverse writers have “street smarts” in dealing with diversity issues: they have developed coping & survival mechanisms to handle conflict. They know from day-in, day-out experience what it’s like to be different from the majority culture around them. That’s massively important. This on-the-ground experience gives diverse writers the power to:

  • Help people discover themselves in and relate with characters, perhaps even for the first time
  • Offer fresh insight into an experience that has been otherwise stereotyped or become a “tired trope” or possibly is invisible
  • Encourage empathy in the majority of readers who wouldn’t normally identify with someone different from them
  • Validate their experiences and the experiences of others as real

At the same time, these on-the-ground experiences can also lead to some negative or harmful impacts/dilemmas in the writing process:

  • All the onus of sensitivity in the writing and publishing process can end up being placed on the writer rather than on the team of editorial, production, and marketing. They are treated like the “expert” when in reality they represent only one possible experience of difference.
  • The writer may not be emotionally ready to share some of their struggles and even traumas on the page.
  • The person who has the on-the-ground experience may not be in a position to tell their own story. For example, they may need to protect themselves from threats. They may have too much to lose to risk exposure.
  • The story may be foreign to too many readers’ immediate experience, making it difficult to form the empathetic bridge between reader and character. This issue is complicated, so I promise I will unpack it in later blog posts.

Professional Training in Intercultural Sensitivity

By comparison, someone with professional training in intercultural sensitivity can help people understand each other and communicate with each other across their differences no matter how they personally identify. Professional training in intercultural sensitivity gives the power to:

  • Notice your own biases and the biases of others.
  • Resolve conflicts and misunderstandings in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.
  • Help other people move from unhealthy attitudes toward difference toward healthy ones.
  • Find the words to address problems that result from difference even if you personally are not affected by it.
  • Write diverse characters with more awareness of how your own current experience of difference can shape the way you conceive of them and what kinds of conflicts you introduce in their lives on the page.
  • Notice more quickly and intervene more effectively when editorial or production or marketing recommendations will have an impact on how diversity in your writing is experienced by readers.

I believe that the on-the-ground experience of diverse and #ownvoices writers needs to be actively supplemented and supported by professional intercultural training and skills for ALL writers of ALL identifications. More anon, and thanks for any suggestions, ideas, and questions you may have about this new project!