SermonsDon’t Call Me Buffy

Writing Cross-Culturally

In March, I attended the 2017 MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop. Although I was disappointed that more adult literary writers did not attend, much of what I learned was helpful to any writer about representing worlds—fantasy, Sci-Fi or real life—accurately.

In order to write accurate representation of the world around us, having actual relationships with people outside your own ethnic/religious/etc. group is helpful. Maybe some of those people will even read your novel and tell you where you’ve gotten their culture right and where you’ve really messed up. And now you can pay someone from a marginalized group, called a Sensitivity Reader, to evaluate your manuscript for offensive, weird or “off” content.

The photo comes from an interview with Ireland in Locus Online. Her upcoming novel Dread Nation, about a zombie apocalypse during the civil war is on the top of my list of audiobooks to download when it comes out in 2018. Also for sure follow her on Twitter: @justinaireland.

However, sensitivity readers are not a panacea. One recent book that caught the attention of author and social critic Justina Ireland is the Young Adult book American Heart. Set in a time when the U.S. government is detaining Muslim Americans, the narrative, according to its critics, seems designed entirely to support the emotional growth of a white teenage girl as she helps a Muslim university professor escape to Canada. What the professor experiences is beside the point. As someone on the Twitter feed pointed out, American Heart is analogous to a man writing the The Handmaid’s Tale. The author had a Pakistani American read it, but Ireland maintained on her Twitterfeed the author used a sensitivity reader as a stamp of approval, rather than a wish for honest engagement.

For my fourth novel (working title Don’t Call Me Buffy) I have paid three sensitivity readers to take a look at the manuscript in addition to my usual faithful crew of beta readers: a neurodivergent MIT graduate student, a Palestinian Christian, and a Muslim. I am also asking a white evangelical writer to take a look at it, since I have not lived in that culture for some time, and I am actively looking for someone from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to read it.

I felt confident enough to have a young Palestinian woman be one of the three viewpoint characters in my narrative, because of my relationships with Palestinians. I deliberately chose not to write from the viewpoint of a Seneca Nation character, because, I am ashamed to say, I have traveled halfway around the world numerous times to Palestine, but spent very little time on the Seneca reservations near my home in upstate New York.   I also chose not to make the novel primarily about the encampment that follows when the Seneca nation takes over a church property on their land—a church pastored by the father of another viewpoint character.  Given the profound spiritual importance of the #NODAPL encampment in Standing Rock last year, I knew that the right to fictionalize the encampment experience belongs to an Indigenous writer. Nevertheless I want to have a Haudenosaunee reader look at my novel to correct mistakes of culture, etc. that I assume I will have made.   Also I have some concerns that I have created a fictional piece of land, and a fictional treaty abrogation, and fictional medical waste dumping by a fictional western New York University on the actual Allegeny Reservation, when the real life traumas that the Federal government and State of New York have committed against the Seneca Nation are immense. The database of Writers from the Margins does not contain Haudenosaunee readers, so I have taken out classified ads in the local papers, and have contacted the Director of Indigenous students at nearby University to see if any of her students might like to make a little extra income reading it.

If any of you have Haudenosaunee friends who like to read, I’m hiring!


What I’ve been doing for the last nine months

Yeah, my synopsis is pretty much crap

I took a leave of absence from Christian Peacemaker Teams beginning in January 2017, having a long list of goals to accomplish in mind. I knew from the experience of my sabbatical four years ago that I would not accomplish all or most of these goals. Still, despite the fact I have played way too much Plants vs. Zombies and have been dealing (gladly) with unexpected health crises of elderly relatives, here are some things I have accomplished:


I wanted to finish my novel, working title Don’t Call Me Buffy, and I did. I don’t have the perfect pitch yet, but here’s a summary:


Jubilee McVey, brought up in an evangelical purity culture, deals with the shames heaped on her by her family and church by brutally restricting calories and indulging in mutilation fantasies. Then Rania Khalidi, an energetic social justice activist and Lior Artzi—who views the world through the lens of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, approach her one day to tell her that she has been called by the Council of Huldah to convince her father to stop building his dream church on land belonging to the Seneca Indian Nation. She assumes that what they are asking her to do is impossible, but the encounter pulls her into a world where she discovers abilities she had not imagined.


What Rania, Jubilee and Lior do not know is that the Prophet Huldah, briefly mentioned in the book of II Kings, is alive and grumpy and teaching Biochemistry in western NY. She has little interest in God or prophecy. Mostly, she wants to support her talented student Jayce, a member of the Seneca Nation who is investigating medical waste dumping on the Allegeny reservation. But as she sees a prophetic movement beginning to emerge in Western NY the way it did in Israel and Judah, and as Jubilee flees to Jerusalem to escape her prophetic obligations, Huldah wonders if the land belonging to the Keepers of the Western Door has been chosen to change history.


Currently, my beta readers say it reads very fast, so that’s always good news.


I also cleaned out boxes that had been sitting in the upstairs alcove of our house pretty much since we had moved in, as well as some that came my way after Mom moved into the nursing home. I found recycling my mother’s stuff emotionally wrenching as well as other keepsakes, so I dealt with it by posting about it on Twitter:


Today I recycled my mother’s proofreading notes on my second novel.

Today I recycled a handwritten coupon good for “1 hour of sewing help from Sylvia D. Klassen exp. 12/25/04” @SylviaDHook  

Today I recycled my 1984 college commencement program and dozens of Christmas letters from people I love.


A more amorphous “success” for the year was that I generally said “yes” to my husband Michael when he suggested an activity for the evening or weekend instead of telling him I was too tired or had too much work to do and that felt good.


When I think of what I did not achieve around the house and yard, well, it’s a pretty long list, and I won’t go into it; besides, I’ve still got two months, right? Probably of most concern was not just my neglect of spiritual growth, but my inability to focus on spiritual growth.   I found sustained attention on prayer, meditation, or anything remotely spiritual almost impossible. Coming along with this acknowledgement of my deficit is that I realized I have for some time been dealing with low-grade PTSD, and I’m not sure what to do about it. After serving in Palestine since 1995, and seeing small victories, friendships built all get swept away, seeing the relentless cruelty of occupation get more and more entrenched—I think it has broken something in me. And I am reluctant to use the word “trauma” in relationship to myself when I’ve been coming over just once a year, because the people of the Old City are living with this brutality every day. It seems like whining, or attention-seeking behavior.

But this year, for the first time I had to walk out of a movie at the Palestine Film festival after eight minutes. I had already seen those faces at home demolitions. I had seen those terrified children being dragged away by soldiers. I didn’t need to watch them on the screen. And I had to stop watching a documentary about Israeli women soldiers on our local public television station for the same reason. I acknowledged it was a good thing they were coming clean about their abuses of Palestinians, but I kept seeing the faces of those Palestinians they had abused.


So I probably won’t be going back to Hebron when I return to work in January. Perhaps I will work on another team, or perhaps I will just take a year off to work with Christian Peacemaker Teams’ new Communications Director. And maybe I’ll figure out how to classify my stupid trauma. Maybe I just did.


And so it descends


A few weeks ago, I finally said aloud in church what I had been resisting admitting to others and myself. I have entered another cycle of depression. In April, I was feeling a lot of stress about finishing some CPT-related projects and kept focusing on some indeterminate future time when they would be over, and I would catch up. But the calendar kept filling up, and my stress level did not drop. I continued to feel as though I were constantly on the verge of tears.

I began missing writing deadlines and meetings. Still, when I went to see my doctor about having a mouth so full of canker sores that I could not speak clearly (yes, also a symptom of stress) and he asked about my depression, I told him that my mood was fine.

I don’t remember now what triggered the, “Duh, of course you’re depressed,” epiphany. I only know that when I shared it in church, I felt a lot better; it took some of the power from this nebulous stress-creating force away. Knowing that people are praying for you always helps. And then, well, it’s like living with any kind of chronic pain. My husband can call and ask how I am and I can say, casually, “Oh you know, consumed by dread and anxiety,” and he can say, “Oh, the usual,” and I can say, “Yeah.”

Unlike chronic pain, this depression will go away eventually. Knowing it’s temporary is also helpful. When I am working in the garden, for some reason, the internal pain is less and I feel closer to God. This week, when I was with friends at my spiritual formation group, they pointed out that my depression generally coincides with periods when I am not writing, so I am trying to institute a discipline of writing one page a day on my new novel—working title, “Don’t Call Me Buffy”—before I run e-mail. I’m finding the results are a little disjointed. It’s a two volume novel and I know exactly how I want both books to end and I have a strong general story arc, but I’ve been unclear on the very beginning, so stopping abruptly after I have finished  250 words isn’t doing much for flow or a generally zippy opening. I’m hoping that once things start clicking I can go back and a better beginning will suggest itself.

Unfortunately, a symptom of depression is that it makes focus and concentration difficult, which affects my writing and editing, my work for Christian Peacemaker Teams and my general life skills here at home. (Yesterday my husband asked me to follow up with my doctor about a wellness screening form I was supposed to have mailed in more than a week ago, and I hadn’t mailed it in yet. Guess I’ll do that today.)

Most days, I triumph over inertia. Most days, I triumph over blind panic. If d4b5602ef0fa695a47fe87b27950e37fyou met me for the first time, you would not know I am struggling. But just maintaining a safe distance from the magnetic pull of the abyss takes all my energy.

Yesterday was a bad day. We learned our friend Jalil Muntaqim had been denied parole for the eighth time, and we knew that for the first time he had had one sympathetic person on the parole board, so she evidently had failed to convince one other person to vote with her. All day, I couldn’t stop imagining what it must have felt like for him to have his hopes raised after more than four decades in prison and then…

Everything else seemed so pointless, you know?