But Delux knows whereof she speaks, so here we go.
To clarify, for those readers who don't know me, I'm Pākehā, which in this instance means a New Zealander of predominantly white European descent. I wrote Guardian of the Dead (Out in April, in the US and Oz/NZ). Guardian follows seventeen-year-old Ellie, also Pākehā, who, through her own newly awakened magical abilities, is alerted to the existence of magic and is made aware of the
So I knew very early into the writing process that I wanted to ask people with better claims to representing those traditions to look the book over and tell me where and how I had screwed up.
I think it's important to note that this was one of several things I did to try and get honest and respectful representation; I don't recommend just rocking on up to a member of the group whose stories you used and asking them to read your 80 000 word novel that you wrote about their mythology with all the stuff that you thought would be so awesome without doing any work beforehand. Consulting with people, or possibly asking them to verify your research, probably cool. Asking them to do your research, very not cool. (And of course they are not obligated to read over your work at all. They don't owe you anything.)
In addition to hanging around the internet and learning from the conversations that happen there (sadly, over and over and over) I recommend Writing The Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which I found really helpful in laying out specific and concrete actions. Very broadly, they recommend researching your butt off, asking for advice on your manuscripts (ie, cultural consultants), considering writing from the PoV of someone outside the culture so that discrepancies are less glaring and hurtful, and including an afterword or disclaimer to point out where you might have diverted from the root tradition. They also recommend donating to an organization that contributes towards the maintenance of those traditions, in gratitude and respect.
I did those things – in the case of the afterword, my agent, Barry Goldblatt, also suggested I include one, and my American editor, Alvina Ling, was keen on including a glossary as well, in which I was able to include a link to http://korero.maori.nz, a great Māori language site. (I should say that my editors and agent were completely supportive of my efforts. This is sadly not always true in publishing.) I've also been on the edges of various discussions about ethnicity in sci-fi/fantasy and children's/YA fiction, which have been and continue to be helpful in writing the other-than-me.
There were various pitfalls along the way. The most memorable was probably the point where, checking on my sources for some of the non-Māori myths I was using, I discovered that 1) the Australian Aboriginal story I had verified from three sources was actually various retellings of the same bad source and that 2) the original myth, though still relevant to the thematic thingy I was trying to pull off, was active in the lives of the people whence it came and 3) not in a good way. I dropped it and replaced it with another story. That was during the final substantial edits, and I only found it because I was being (apparently justifiably) paranoid about source-checking. My biggest fear about the book is that something like that is still in there, waiting to hurt someone.
But that fear is less big than it was, because I had cultural consultants. So, that process!
My biggest difficulty with the process of approaching people, and the thing I kick myself about a lot, is that it took much longer than I had anticipated, and I got panicky about the rush.
I knew that publishing was a lot of hurry up and wait, but I didn't really get that until I had to turn around editor's notes fairly fast. Before the edits were complete I had hesitated to approach anyone, because I didn't want to ask them to read a book that was essentially unfinished – that felt like an imposition to me. Asking them to read it before I had a contract or even an agent, seemed like a huge act of hubris, especially since the book changed so much in various drafts that the original is more or less unrecognizable. (Mostly, the characters still have the same names.) So as it turned out I had left myself with very little time to get my ducks in order – find people willing to read it, wait for them to read it, incorporate their feedback, and then send it off again.
Anyway, edits made, I referred to my list of People to Approach – several people who'd written books I'd used in my research, refined with the assistance of the Allen and Unwin commissioning editor in New Zealand. Then I sent off emails. I received a response from Dr Jane McRae (who, I discovered, isn't Māori, but is a specialist) who consented to reading the afterword and the most myth-heavy chapter. She was happy with them, and recommended several other people – unfortunately, by the time I had her responses I was already approaching deadline, and I decided that asking people to read and comment in the time left would be a huge presumption, especially since the only remuneration I could offer was author copies.
However! I had also been pursuing other avenues, namely my mother, who is the principal of an Intermediate School and thus has a lot of contact with Māori educators and those whose profession is outreach and community involvement. She recommended some people, including Lauana Thomas and Olive Roundhill, who were really helpful. Lauana was particularly so – she's a Māori Resource Teacher in Otago, which necessitates not only a lot of experience in the language and culture, but in explicating them and the protocols regarding their use to non-Māori. She read the whole deal, including some revised scenes, and made some really vital suggestions, which I incorporated. I've kept her in touch with Guardian's progression towards publication; she also helped a great deal with the glossary.
Example of the kind of help I got! (SPOILER WARNING; highlight to read) One of the characters is a taniwha. Taniwha can be terrifying people-eating monsters, or they can be kaitiaki (guardians) of land and people. In this case, Ellie is introduced to a taniwha by his grandson, but he didn't prepare her for it at all, and she FREAKS THE HELL OUT and runs away. To Ellie, the taniwha is frightening and ugly, but to many Māori, taniwha are guardians and ancestors, worthy of respect. Lauana suggested I underline this more.
I wanted to preserve Ellie's freakout, because her running away helped the narrative to the next scene, and it worked for her journey, where she gradually begins to accept not only the uncanny, but the non-Western uncanny, from a starting position where it is exotic and frightening. But Ellie and the taniwha's grandson are not the only people at the scene! Iris Tsang is also an unprepared witness, and Iris, though not Māori herself, is a Māori major at university – she speaks the language and has some historical and cultural grasp, (and also she is AWESOME). In consultation, Lauana commented that maybe I could rewrite so that Iris could see the taniwha's beauty.
In the original scene, Iris, who is not inherently magical like the others, doesn't see the taniwha at all – she's just suddenly dragged away from the scene by Ellie, who tells her that it was a taniwha, and really scary. I rewrote so that Iris sees it, and comments that actually she thought it was really beautiful. And on reflection, Ellie agreed that yes, it had beauty even though it scared her. It was a fairly small change - it took no more than half an hour of writing - but it made a huge difference to that scene in terms of how I treated the cultural capital of that tradition. Moreover, it strengthens my thematic approach – Ellie is now demonstrably able to reconsider her first impressions without being unrealistically perfectly accepting on her first encounter.
So that is the kind of thing that got fixed – a lot of little changes that made the whole story stronger.
The thing that I remember most about the process was that I was terrified the whole time. I mean, I already freak out when approaching people that I admire, but on top of that, I was terrified that I was going to get no responses, and my book was going to be published and be glaringly horrendous. I was terrified that the responses I did get were going to say that the manuscript was offensive beyond repair, could never, ever be fixed, and that I would have to choose between my principles or giving back the money and scuttling my nascent career. I was terrified that I should never have done this in the first place; maybe I should have stuck to nice safe invented fantasy worlds instead of messing around with the genuine traditions of my homeland.
Oh, I forgot to mention that while I was waiting for these responses, Race!Fail '09 began. I suddenly lost a lot of respect for a number of writers who were waving skanky race issues all over the place, and I was terrified beyond the reckoning of it that I was going to be one of them.
I don't mean that I was mildly concerned; I mean that I had panic attacks. (Big thanks to Willow, Robyn and Betty for consistently telling me to calm down and breathe into a paper bag.)
The book isn't out yet. I'm still scared – my consultants are awesome, but their views are singular and Māori cultures and viewpoints are varied. It is altogether possible that some people will read the book and see fail. But, having had consultants, I am more confident that I have reduced harm to the culture I used in my story, and the people from that culture and I know more about what to do for next time.
So I'm saying this not to evoke pity for the poor little white woman, but because my fears were, if not entirely groundless, wildly exaggerated, and because no matter how scared I was, I still had to do it; having done all the work I could do myself, I had to ask for these perspectives. I think that if you're writing about traditions not yours, or a culture not your own, you should do this too.
Moroever! Seeking out and then incorporating those suggestions will not only reduce your chances of causing harm, it will possibly substantially improve your work. It certainly improved mine.
Having done this once, I am not an expert. For advice on not failing, you should go to the experts, some of whom I'll be linking in another post. I only recommend that you give yourself lots and lots of time!
* I've called Guardian "Karen's argument for hybrid culture cunningly disguised as a YA fantasy/horror!" except the disguise is not all that cunning. It's actually my argument for conscious awareness of hybrid culture** to white people - because of course Māori (apart from possibly a few very isolated communities) and Chinese New Zealanders and Eritrean-Italian Americans and my other CoC do not have any choice about living in a hybrid culture.
** And also a very exciting story with lots of cool magic and interestingly grisly murders! My little sister likes it!