Monday, July 6, 2020

Judged by Its Cover

Over the past several decades, many authors have made a concerted effort to be inclusive of other cultures in their books and with positive representation. That’s why I was very disturbed to read in Publishers’ Weekly that YA author Alexandra Duncan felt it her duty to cancel publication of her manuscript, Ember Days, because of cultural appropriation.

Duncan has been interested in the cultures where she lives in the south. She sought to write about the folk magic traditions of the Gullah Cheechee, and her main character is Naomi, the granddaughter of a powerful Gullah conjure woman.

When Duncan posted the book cover on Facebook, she received backlash from fellow writers, even though apparently none of them had read the manuscript. She fell victim to their comments accusing her of participating in the erasure of this group, saying to Publishers’ Weekly, “I definitely struggled with whether it was okay for me to write about a culture outside my own and especially about the difficult topic of passing, which Naomi does for part of the book while going undercover in an all-white magical society….”

She added that “In my misguided attempt to write a book that was inclusive of all cultures of Charleston and the Low Country,” she hadn’t realized, despite her copious research and conversations about the book, her “limited worldview as a white person” led her to think she could accurately represent this culture.

She finished by saying, “Clearly, the fact that I did not see the signs of the problem with my book’s premise…is evidence that I was not the right person to write this story. I am deeply ashamed….”

I think her critics are sadly mistaken and that Alexandra Duncan should not have been made to feel as though she committed the cultural crime of the century. The late mystery writer Tony Hillerman, a white man, has a whole series of books that take place on the Navajo Nation. The two main characters are Navajo Nation police officers.

Since his death, his daughter, Anne Hillerman, has carried on the series, having written five books to date. She has added a third Navajo main character, the wife of one of the officers, who is a cop with the county sheriff’s department. Neither Tony nor Anne has ever been accused of cultural appropriation. Quite the contrary. This series, which is my favorite, has been on the Bestseller lists, and both Anne and her father have been lauded at book fairs throughout Arizona and New Mexico for their work.

How are authors supposed to include diverse characters in their books if they are not of those ethnicities and risk backlash as a result? Does that mean that a black author can write only about African-Americans? That he or she can’t write a book with a lead character from another race?

What about an author including a person of the same race but from another time period? Almost no one who is alive today is part of any culture from prior to one hundred years ago. Should authors be prevented from writing historical novels because they are not from those time periods?

Should James Michener never have published his blockbuster novels Hawaii, Sayonara, The Bridges of Toko Ri, Poland, or any of the others that take place in different countries?

And consider James Clavell. Should he never have published his bestselling novels Shogun, Tai Pan, Noble House, or King Rat because they were set in Asia? Should Michener’s and Clavell’s books be banned because of “cultural appropriation”?

Another writer colleague of mine, who is Hispanic, wrote a book with a main character who was a little white girl living with her family in Tennessee during the Depression. Should she be “deeply ashamed” because she is not a little white girl from Tennessee during the Depression and therefore “not the right person to write this book”?

These ideas can be taken to extremes.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc., of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Shouldn’t accusations of cultural appropriation go to intent? Writing about a culture to educate and inform is a far cry from a white person showing up in blackface at a Halloween party.

Every author I know who writes about other cultures has people from those cultures who act as advisors and review the manuscripts to ensure accuracy. This is a needed partnership. What’s wrong with the author including an Author’s Note to explain the research, name the advisors, and clarify why he or she is writing about this topic?

Perhaps I am sensitive to this issue because I, too, have Navajo characters in two of my novels. While the protagonists in both are Caucasian, the male lead in one is a Navajo astrobiologist. This character was largely inspired by Fred Begay (aka Clever Fox), the first Navajo nuclear physicist, whom I interviewed decades ago and who gave me the ideas for some of the plot concepts in the book, which I have finally written and is due out next year.

In my middle-grade series, the first book takes place on the Navajo Nation. While, as I mentioned, the protagonist is white, the story has Navajo characters and seeks, as do the Hillerman books, to show the culture in a positive light and that both cultures’ viewpoints of the world are valid.

Why Navajo characters? First, I have a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology. Second, the Navajo culture has proven so resilient. In 1900, because of government and religious interference, there were only 20,000 tribal members. Today, there are over 250,000. They have kept their language, religion, and traditions and even have a junior college on the reservation. That they have overcome their previous oppression and trauma should be shouted from the mountaintops.

The second book in the middle-grade series takes place in Lincoln, England. Lincoln is my ex-husband’s home town and I lived there for a few years. Should I have not written this novel because I am not British?

The third book takes place at Mission San Juan Capistrano. My main character in all three books sees ghosts, and she’s going encounter one who is a Native American girl killed in the 1830 earthquake. Should I not write this book because I wasn’t living at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1830 or a Native American?

My personal view is that Alexandra Duncan’s book was unjustly criticized and it should be published. She shouldn’t have buckled to the criticism. It would be very educational to people like me who are not from the south and have never heard of the Gullah culture or the white magical societies. If the characters were portrayed in a negative light, I could understand the opposition. But they don’t seem to be and now we are going to miss out.

What a tragedy.


PW editors. (2020, June 25). Removed: Upcoming YA novel Ember Days canceled by author. Publishers Weekly.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Surviving the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 Virus pandemic has hit the world hard and many of us have had a taste of quarantine for at least a few weeks. If you have kids at home, you and they are no doubt going stir crazy. No school, no sports, no friends to see in person, and worst of all, for you, possibly no job. 

With your layoff, you may be experiencing a loss of purpose in addition to a loss of income. This can definitely cause great stress and anxiety, both mentally and financially. But this situation is not the new normal. It’s the new temporary. We’re all in this together. Adaptability is important.

For those who work from home or can do so during this quarantine, the stress is reduced. For the kids, however, especially those from warm climates, being confined to the house is a new, different, and unwanted experience. I’m originally from Portland, Oregon, where it rains at least eight months out of the year, if not more. Kids spend practically the entire winter indoors. I’m used to this.

In addition, I spent a year on an oil tanker, where my ex-husband was the chief engineer (like Scotty on Star Trek). We were at sea 36 days at a time, with a 24-hour turnaround when we reached the Persian Gulf. With nowhere to go ashore, we were effectively at sea 72 days before we arrived back in Europe. Talk about an isolated and confined environment!

I had been warned it would be easy to lose one’s mind. They call it “tankeritis.” Since I was a writer, I warded this off by writing a book. That took the entire year. Growing up in a horrible climate and being aboard that tanker were great dry-runs for the circumstances we’re in today.

Know that you are not powerless. You can choose how to navigate and survive COVID-19. Obviously, taking the recommended precautions is in order. But also, focusing on the mindset of looking at the jelly jar half-full rather than half-empty is a strategy that will help you get to the other side of this pandemic unscathed. Easier said than done, you say, but stressing and worrying does no one any good. It only makes the time pass more slowly.

Why not maximize the opportunity. You’ve no doubt binge-watched those shows on TV that you have wanted to catch up on, so seize the day. Get dressed in the morning to set a tone for the day. If you’re self-employed and usually deal with clients face-to-face, think about meeting with them online through a program like Zoom (download for free at or Facetime. If your job can be done remotely in any way, shape, or form, ask your boss for permission to do so.

Some employees have already realized that they want to work from home permanently. They have few interruptions and so are much more productive. The savings on wear and tear on their cars and on commuting time also contributes to what they know will be their future psychological wellbeing. Employers are likely to be more open to this idea as well.

If you’ve “always wanted to write a book,” now’s your chance. Go for it! And professional writers can use this time to increase productivity. Begin a new article or book. Edit material you have in progress. Write posts for your blog or start a podcast. I’m in the process of adding a voiceover to a webinar I just created.

Or take the opportunity to do all the things around your house you’ve been putting off for months or even years because you didn’t have time. Clean out closets, cupboards, drawers, files, and the garage. Read books (you can download free e-books from Get your taxes organized. Catch up on your hobbies. Put photos in albums or boxes or scan them into your computer. Take some free classes online you’ve never thought about. Online resources are more abundant than ever.

Dig out your puzzles and board games. Have tournaments. Expand those activities by having a virtual game night on Zoom so your friends and relatives can play. Here’s a link: for some online games.

If you have kids, help them with their homework. Exercise with them. Take them on Internet tours of famous places related to the topics they are studying. Rather than reading younger kids a bedtime story, tell them one from your childhood. These activities will take your mind off your worries and provide a sense of accomplishment. If you need help, get on the Next Door app and ask.

One mom on Next Door in my neighborhood has a daughter who turned nine last week. She asked the community to organize a car parade to come by her house at an appointed time. Several people decorated their cars with posters and balloons, and I joined in the parade. We honked our horns and yelled happy birthday. Her daughter was thrilled and we had a great time helping her celebrate her special day!

Others have put teddy bears in their windows so that the kids can count them on their walks around the neighborhood, since we are still allowed to do that. Some have put painted rocks around the green belt that runs through our area and in their yards. This is a great activity to keep kids occupied, both with painting the rocks and with finding them. And others are leaving chalk art on sidewalks.

Another great idea is to carry out “Formal Friday.” It’s like date night, only with your family or someone on Zoom or Facetime. Eat meals on good china. Have a picnic in your living room or outside if the weather allows. Try new recipes, maybe even some more complex ones that you might not normally have time to make.

Using something called Morning Pages to clear your mind, improve creativity and productivity, and for self-reflection (see can help to alleviate stress.

Establish an evening ritual of sharing at least one “high” and one “low” of the day with your partner or as a family. This opens up communication and allows exploration of how you are handling the events of the day. It’s important that parents participate to set an example and to allow their children a better understanding that adults do have challenges. Communicating them in a supportive environment is helpful.

Of course, adults should be cautious not to burden their children with worries over “lows” related to major problems. Those who live alone can accomplish this communication with a family member or friend via Zoom, e-mail, Facetime, etc.

Remember, this situation is only temporary and not the new normal. It may last a few months, but eventually, we’ll get back to our old schedules. By making good use of this pause on life we have now, when you do get back to work, your free time will really be your own. And, if you turn this catastrophe into an opportunity to try new things, some of these activities might stick around and enhance your life long after COVID-19 has passed.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Don't Let the Naysayers Get You Down

If you’re a serious writer, you no doubt not only love to write but you also love to read. I know I do. Has anyone criticized you for either? And if you’re a professional writer and have a home office, has anyone assumed that you “aren’t working”?

Regarding the former, when I was growing up, we had many books in our house. My mother bought them for us for various occasions and also just because.

       As an adult, I started my home library with books from childhood, college, and grad school, and have kept accumulating them ever since. Enough shelf space was a must in the three houses I have owned.

 It took me a month to pack my approximately three thousand tomes when I moved from my previous residence to my current one. Many of these and the hundreds I’ve acquired since are signed by the authors.

My library is my pride and joy. Fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, science, social science, and childhood treasures fill the main one, located across the hall from my living room. Writing, publishing, and marketing categories are in my office. Texts and other academic materials are in a spare bedroom upstairs. Those written by friends and colleagues occupy hallowed shelves in my master bedroom. One cabinet in the upstairs hall houses my beloved Nancy Drew collection.

So imagine my surprise when a psychologist friend visited me and said upon seeing the books in my main library, “Why don’t you get rid of them?”

What?? I thought. Who would suggest such a thing?

And what would she say if she saw all the others?

By her own admission, she doesn’t read. Yes, a non-reader suggested I get rid of my most precious gems!

Then I remembered that this is the same person who said, “You don’t have a job.” This despite my having published over 200 articles in national publications and twenty-nine (soon to be thirty) books, eleven traditionally and the rest through my own small press.

Never mind that I market my work and do speaking engagements, both of which provide good income. And never mind also that I publish other people’s work and coach subject-matter experts in writing books based on their expertise. She certainly has heard my 30-second pitch often enough on the latter at our networking group.

“Writing, publishing, and coaching ARE my jobs,” I told her. And no, I have no intention of getting rid of any of my prized possessions—except marketing and grammar ones that are out-of-date¾and these I replace with new editions.

Regarding working from home, we’ve all heard of actors and musicians being accused by family members and others of not having “real jobs,” but I never expected this comment from someone in my networking group—all of whom are self-employed, including the person in question. The difference is that she goes to an office every day. But because I have a home office and don’t go to another building to work, I “don’t have a job.”

We have to accept that some people just don’t understand us. So what to do about them?
I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. Most are business owners, but many are artists, musicians, and writers. Some are doctors and lawyers in private practice. Mine is definitely an artsy family rather than a science-oriented one. Never have any of my relatives accused me or anyone else who is self-employed of “not having a job.” So I let comments like those of my acquaintance roll off my back.

We’re writers because it’s in our blood. It’s the essence of who we are. It’s our passion. We can’t not write.

If only people like my colleague knew how much time and energy producing an article or chapter takes, not to mention the time and energy involved in marketing for sales and/or new clients. And good writers must be readers.

We work for ourselves because it provides us the freedom to run our own lives and the ability to have unlimited income potential. If you find people criticizing you, ignore them. Don’t let the naysayers get you down.

Heed not only my words but also those of Kimanzi Constable:

You have to be your biggest cheerleader…. [Don’t] depend on someone else for…for validation from people who don’t understand. …Real strength …starts with you. Don't depend on anyone else for emotional, mental, or entrepreneurial strength” (

So ignore those who don’t understand you. Keep on reading. Build your own library. Continue your writing career.

And believe in yourself. No matter what.

Friday, February 28, 2020


Hi, everyone,

I haven't posted for awhile, and that's because I've decided to change the focus of this blog slightly.

I started it while I was the editor of The Datagram, the newsletter for the IEEE-Orange County Section's Cybersecurity special-interest group (SIG). (The IEEE is the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers.) That meant I was privy to terrific information going on in the cybersecurity world.

Since the SIG no longer exists, I'm going to concentrate on writing, publishing, and writing as a business. I hope you'll continue to subscribe. There is a lot of great information to come!