Category Archives: Uncategorized

What I’ve learned as a Sensitivity Reader and a Diversity Editor.

I’ve been a Sensitivity Reader and Diversity Editor for my full career as a writer.  I’ve been diligent in my creation of characters and story and have constantly checked my own biases. Being Mixed Blood, Indigenous and Black, I write from my worldview but even then, for the sake of the story, I check myself. And have others check me. Sometimes it’s taken other people to see what what I can’t.

I was often asked by other writers to do the same for their projects, so making this service a job made sense. Makes sense. I have to admit, I began thinking there would be element of teaching in this job and I wondered how I would do that in a manner that was understanding to the struggle writers face if their goal was authenticity. What I didn’t expect to happen was that I would learn so much about my clients and therefore I would get to celebrate the growth of a stronger writers’ community.

This is just a short list of what I’ve learned about my clients, these writers:

  • Writers are trying. They want to be respectful and they’re aware of the possibility they won’t be because they just don’t know some things.
  • Writers believe in inclusivity, even when they don’t know for sure if what they’re doing is enough. Or correct. They believe in it even if the definition of what’s correct shifts on them over time. 
  • Writers have the courage to ask for help. And they strive to understand.
  • Writers may hesitate to develop the character or describe them or give them full dialogue, but it’s from a fear of insulting them. 
  • Writers appreciate the assistance.

They want their words and stories to be seen, read, heard and felt. If whatever the project is gets shut down before it lives its full possible life, then doesn’t that work against the reason to write it in the first place?

I’ve had the joy of working for individuals and publishing firms on beautiful children’s books, YA novels, literary novels, memoirs, nonfiction books, textbooks, website content, inclusivity statements, columns, plays, essays, screenplays and TV shows. I’ve been asked to read specifically for one character, while other times the request is for the full world. There are some incredibly talented writers out there that I can’t wait for everyone to know.

I love this job. I love being of service in this company of writers. And I love all that I’m learning in a time of much needed stories and art.

So if you’re in need of a Sensitivity/Authenticity Reader or Diversity Editor, or a Story Consultant, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

Write on.

Be safe.

To White People: You’re gonna have to smile first

I know. I know. That changes things quite a bit. This is not how we usually roll past each other. It’s not how we do things. How we function.

It’s on me to make sure cashiers see me and my big smile when I enter a store, regardless of what emotion I’m feeling, whether it’s a shit day or I’m really wishing to not be seen but I need to pick up my prescription.

It’s on me to show them very quickly that I’m harmless. That I’m not a thief nor am I going to blow up, go off or get uppity. I need them to believe I’m one of the good ones.

It’s on me to move aside and apologize if you bump into me with your cart. I’m in the space you want to enter.

It’s on me to not make any quick moves. And keep my hands out of my pockets.

It’s on me to lower my voice.

It’s on me to calm down and shush my laughter.

It’s on me to make sure you’re comfortable.

Yes, I’m wearing my No Justice No Peace t-shirt with a Black Lives Matter mask, and all my blessed turquoise, which is confusing for you. Maybe. I’m not exactly Black Black, but I’m Brown and if you need to stare at my hair, I have to be okay with that. I wore it out so what can I expect.

O Wait. We’re wearing masks. I can’t see if your lips are tight, if you’re sneering with disgust, ready to spit, or if you would actually smile.

I don’t know what to do now. How do I navigate the space we share?

See- If you’d had enough, if you think you’ve been quiet around all the Black and Brown people you had to encounter today, yesterday, this year or the last and today is the day of “I gotta say something about these people and all this shit,” I could easily be on the receiving end of that. I think about this every time I go out. With every white person I pass. Is this going to be that moment?

Lovecraft Country gave me the cry I needed

Yesterday I woke to news about Mr. Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who stopped to break up a domestic situation, and ended up being shot in the back eight times. In front of his children. I’m going to type that again. IN FRONT OF HIS CHILDREN IN THE CAR. And then I came across the video. It was embedded in a news article.

I hesitated to watch it. Did I need to see it? Will I just add it to the gut wrenching, horrific images I still have and will never forget of Mr. Floyd being murdered by police? What will viewing this video do to me?

That felt like a selfish or self-serving question. And in no way was I thinking this was all about me and yet, it is also about me. I’m Mixed Blood. Indigenous and Black. I’m the Black and Brown folks are talking about. I live in Minneapolis. I have family and friends, a tribe, a community and they are strong, loving people. Black Lives Matter. And they are wounded by the pain of racial strife (wow, that’s such a timid word…I apologize. I’m continuously struggling with words to describe my feelings about my life, our country, and our world).

So I watched it. Just once.

People were screaming. Shocked by what they were seeing unfolding before their eyes. And then Mr. Blake tried to get in his car. The cop grabbed the back of shirt with one hand and fired on Mr. Blake with the other.

Then the car horn. From Mr. Blake falling against his steering wheel. In front of his children.

A woman in the street shrieked with hysteria.

This is more trauma. More. More. More.

I had a full day scheduled with work deadlines. I’m a Sensitivity Reader and Diversity Editor. I’m a Beta Reader and a writer. I have a novel manuscript to revise about a Mixed Race cop who takes on a white supremacist who starts a race war in Minneapolis. She’s assisted by her ancestors.

I have a TV project about a half-Native, half -Vietnamese adoptee of a wealthy white Minnesota family who returns home when her father is dying and is met with the secrets and trauma that made her run away in the first place. I had a development meeting with my co-creator and co-producer, Elizabeth Frances, on the calendar.

I was scheduled to show up yesterday. But I couldn’t get there. I felt the hard lump stuck in my chest slowly making it’s way up to lodge itself in my throat. My daughter, Lanee Bird and I texted about the world, and I cried because I can’t get on a plane to go see her in NYC. I reached out to my super smart Twin Cities girlfriends and they, like me, were feeling the rage. I went to Facebook to check in my friends, to share this overwhelming flood of emotional pain and angst of everything that is happening in our lives. Covid. RNC. Race relations. Hurricanes and astroids.

Then my meeting began and I asked Liz to hold space for me because I needed to cry. Which I did a bit but I think rage was still the power emotion in charge. We ranted. We laughed. We made plans to rule the world. Or at least the airwaves with a podcast called “Calm the Fuck Down” and I felt better. Not clear. Not healed but better.

I kept busy after that with busy work, cleaning the bathroom, and taking moments to breathe. And then I sat down to watch Sunday’s latest episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Oh…damn. The brilliance. The poignant brilliance.

There are a few shows that require me to get ready to view. Ones where I have to gather my blanket, hot tea and Kleenex, put down my phone and close my computer. And plan to not do much afterwards because I need the head and heart space to process. Handmaid’s Tale is like that. And more recently, I May Destroy You. And now, Lovecraft Country.

I won’t spoil anything about this show because I want you to see it.

Just know that at then end of Episode 2…in my “O, Damn!” exclamation was the directive for my dam to break. I wept. The tears weren’t just about the show. They came from someplace deeper in me. They came from me holding my brown face in my brown hands and feeling the righteous rage of my ancestors, Black and Brown, captured, denigrated. And killed.

Sometimes, too many times, it’s so difficult being Black and Brown in this country.

#BlackLivesMatter

#IndigenousLivesMatter

We matter. We always have. And we will make the world know this.

Be safe.

The race war was my nightmare…and novel

After the world watched Mr. Floyd being murdered by the brutal force of racist cops in my city, and BIPOC took it to the street, the white supremacists raced out to clash with them. This was an opportunity for them. They got the go ahead from their leaders, including the loudest in the white house.

I shook and shuttered with fear. I wept with my family and with the spirits of my ancestors. Because for years, I’ve had nightmares of running feet. Black feet. Brown feet. That’s where the story began that led me the story of STANDS ALONE. A Mixed Blood, half-Native, half-Black detective with the help of her ancestors takes on a white supremacist who starts a race war…

In Minneapolis. Yeah. I know Lake Street. And 38th and Chicago. South Minneapolis.

I’m still reeling. I’m still hurting. And this is the revolution.

BE safe.

What Leap Year did to my grief

This morning I felt that hard intake of breath again. Then felt it shift form to a hard rock, first in my stomach, then pushing and lodging itself into my bowels. This is the same breath that has been crashing into me each day for a week now. And will continue until after the 3rd.

But yesterday, I didn’t have it quite as hard. And I know now that’s because it was Leap Year. February 29th. I was given a day to… not rest…I didn’t rest, compared to last year. I felt like I was in a holding pattern, circling around, just waiting it out for today, tomorrow and the 3rd.

See, my mom died on February 27, 2016. It was a Saturday morning. I have this running calendar in my head of the end of her life. When I flew home from California that last time, telling myself it wasn’t the last time. When she went into the hospital. When we were told it was time. When she told us she had to go. When we met with the palliative care team. When we moved her to hospice. When I spent the night. When I got violently ill the next. And when I sat by her bedside, looking at my dear little brother on the other side, as each long breath labored to leave her. Then, we had the day of tortured sleep, bone deep exhaustion, and a heart break I still can’t begin to describe. And then we had the 29th.

We had that day to go  back to her hometown and prepare for her funeral two days later.

What I’m realizing is that every year since then, without the 29th, I’ve been crashing through these days. Stumbling and tripping trying to find my way through. I’m forced through them. And maybe it’s because we don’t have the one day. We haven’t had the extra day.

This is confusing because in 2016, it didn’t feel like an extra day. We had nothing yet to compare it to. We had her home and each other. We had plans to make and my God, I couldn’t breathe. So it wasn’t an extra day. I didn’t think in 2016, “oh, in the future years, this is gonna feel rushed until the Leap Year.” I couldn’t think beyond my shattered heart and my aching soul. I could only reach out and grasp my daughter, my niece. Hang on tight to my husband, my sister and my brother. I was blinded so I had no rational thought about the future years beyond frantically thinking how I was going to get through them without mom.

In the three years afterwards, it never crossed my mind that we were missing a day. I wanted to write down what happened each day in 2016 in long winding prose. Not to find a breath but because I keep thinking if I could just write it out, then I could get some of the heavy grief out of me. I could release some of this choking pain.  But I’ve yet to do that. I may never. I may have just this calendar now, with a line or two for each day, because I can’t spell out the details. It hurts to be in the details.

Yet, I am a storyteller so I live in the details. In subtext. Nuance. I relish the layers we all have, digging deep for understanding. But this is my hardest story. My mother dying is the hardest.

So, maybe, just knowing what the Leap Year has done to my grief is enough for now.

We all have a voice. Can you hear it?

For awhile now, I’ve been bristling when I hear people, writers, artists, celebrities, and politicians say they are the “voice for the voiceless”. Or they’re giving voice to the voiceless.

In so many respects, I would be considered a “voiceless”.  I’m Mixed Blood, Indigenous and Black. I’m over 50. I’m a woman. I was born into poverty and raised by a single mother in a small white town in Minnesota where I could count the families of color on one hand.  Statistically, I probably wasn’t supposed to make it out. I definitely shouldn’t have the education and degrees I have or the healthy family and relationships, a strong career, and a sense of self value.

I get that I beat the odds. Am beating the odds. And that it’s a privilege to be a storyteller. And a greater one to be able to do this job everyday, honoring this creative life I have.  And yet, to be clear, even though I write about women of color, pain, violence, healing and survival, I don’t believe I am giving voice to the voiceless because…they…we are not without voice.  My job is to create and hold a loving space for them.

Our voices have been oppressed. stamped out.  We’ve been silenced by racist and misogynistic systems and institutions designed to keep us quiet. We’ve been beaten, our voices strangled. It’s been forcefully driven into us that our voices don’t matter so we should shut up. We must shut up. Be quiet or else.

But all that doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice. We did. We do. And it scares the shit out of some folks. That’s why they work so hard, so violently, to shut it up. Shut us up.

We have been whispering in the dark and singing into the winds. Preaching and laughing, crying and screaming.  But have you been listening?

We are not without voice. We just might not have been heard. Yet.

Is it okay to pray for Trump to be removed from the White House?

Seriously.

This is a question that has been heavy on my mind. Stops me in my morning prayers when I get to the part about the concentration camps, the broken families at the border who are enduring an atrocity that so many privileged white people of this country have no fear of EVER trying to survive through.

I pray for the children to have strength to survive. Survive more. These kids came many  many miles running from violence and death already and are now living in cages, in cells, in hell. I ask the Great Spirit to be with them and bless them with strength. And yes, I do feel how weak that is.  I question how much my prayers are really worth.  Like when we send “thoughts and prayers” to victims as if that’s a means to help mend and heal, to create change. But in my defense, in my state of tearful prayers every morning, that’s all I can do in that moment.

Then I pray from them and their families, for them to survive this wound that has been caused by the heinous bigotry of Trump, his minions and those who march in line with his hateful beliefs about immigrants, about brown and black folk.

I counter my state of soulful sadness, my deep burning anger with a call to action, praying for those in power to make the changes to stop this. For those with ANY power to to stop this. From the voter, the protester, the advocate, the lawyers, those who can afford to donate, those who put their lives on the line going to border; I pray for those who are creating and igniting political careers to make change. I pray for each of us to do what we can to stop this. To end this genocide (because you know, this country has committed too many of them in our history and our grounds are soaked with so much blood I fear we won’t survive the lifetimes it’s going to take to heal).

I am not optimistic in my prayers and am grateful that the Great Spirit brings me a little comfort in my state of sadness and desperation.

At this point in my prayers is where I stop. Where my next thought is to pray for his removal from the White House. I hesitate because I want to leave it wide open to what that means. Impeachment. Losing in 2020. But then my mind goes farther and I get choked up.  Is it okay for me to pray for this removal? For the images of storming the White House, figuratively and…dare I say literally to pop up in my mind in the midst of a prayer? I don’t pray for his physical harm but…  I admit there’s a but here that makes me ask this question; Is it okay to pray like this?

I believe in forgiveness and compassion. I want to be kinder. But… men like him don’t deserve my efforts. The evil he possesses along with the power that he has…(HOW COULD ANYONE VOTE FOR THIS?? HOW?) his rally cry for hate, for bigotry, for an eradication of brown people which is the grand plan…add that all up and THAT makes it okay for me to pray for his removal! Right?

I have a novel I’m working on called Stands Alone about a Mixed Blood cop who with the help of her ancestors takes on a white supremacist who starts a race war.  The bad guy, Father Raimond, has an eradication plan that means he sends his ‘family’ members out into the city to kill brown folk.  He calls himself “The Chosen”  (yeah, I’ve been working on this for a couple years so image the chill from the news last week of Trump calling himself “chosen”)  My cop, Tanner Stands Alone, is half Indigenous and half Black, and the warrior women who live in her blood are fierce AF! And the battles are strong.  The cost and the devastation is immense.  Sadly, true to life.

I’m sure that this story along with other ones I got brewing are influencing my prayers or is it the other way around?

Stands Alone is gritty and violent. It’s a war.

What is happening in our country is gritty. And violent.  It’s a war, too.

So, it must be okay for me to pray what I do? Right?

Hell, yeah.

The Vulnerability of Being Brown – Part 1

I wrote this essay months ago. After the words and thoughts got too loud rolling around in my head.  I think I’ve been waiting to see if things change, if my thoughts shift.  But I’m in a process of working on my novel, Stands Alone. Doing another line by line revision.  (This is to cut 16,000 words to get my debut novel under 100,000, which is another post or more for later).

This morning, though, I’ve decided that there is so much to unpack about vulnerability of being brown, I need to open up this up.  And where else can I do that?  In addition to therapy. Lol.

Maybe it’s the incredible work of current books and TV shows and movies that are prompting me to share my thoughts.  (GO TO NETFLIX AND WATCH WHEN THEY SEE US- NOW!) Maybe this is just time. My time.

I will continue to write more on the subject. But I’m also hoping to hear from others who get this. Who understand what this feels like. Who want to change things for people of color which…get this… is good for all people. See how that works?

Here we go. Part 1:

The Vulnerability of Being Brown – Part 1

I never contemplated vulnerability until Brene Brown’s research and books turned me on to the topic. I remember feeling alive and empowered when I understood more about what it meant to live a whole-hearted life. To be my best authentic self.

Whenever I think about vulnerability I think about resiliency, too. They’re not opposites but I think you may need one to have the other. I learned of resiliency years ago and it shook me wide open. I was in school for my BA in Liberal Studies. My emphasis was on families. I was a child advocate. While studying about how some children ‘make it’ and for others, their struggles overcome them, which I know is a very simple way of breaking this down and in no way is it simple for children born in or living with adversity, the term popped up right off the page. My thoughts didn’t travel to future children’s programs I hoped to create but to myself. My siblings. Our childhood and what we had in our lives that made us resilient. Made us survive.

Coming to an understanding about vulnerability was the same way. I went from reading ‘women’ as a whole to focus on myself. Of course, we all do this. We encounter new concepts that turn on and turn up lights bringing understanding to something about ourselves that we might not even know needed the light. I embraced the term vulnerability just like I did with resiliency. Collected these terms and my understanding of them like weapons and set out on my way.

Lately, though, I can’t get past how difficult it is to be authentic because I am always vulnerable. I don’t get to determine how much. I don’t get a break from it unless I’m home, with the news off and away from social media.

I’m a brown woman living in this country. I’m Mixed. Indigenous and Black. And I can’t hide it. And I don’t want to but yet; I am so damn tired from the weight of the target that being brown carries.

I live in a world where random acts of violence against people of color are no longer so random, where brown men, women and children are targeted, or hunted. However it happens, the man in the white house who bullies, taunts and spews hateful racism, and applauds the minions who carry out his work, sanctions these crimes. He seems so very comfortable in his power to rein havoc, pain and even death on people of color. Sure, he’s at a distance and protected right now but the white person fueled by his words and actions, who is living in fear of losing something, anything, everything to a person of color, will attack. Has attacked.

Being a woman who looks like me is to live in a state of constant vulnerability. I am confused, sad and pissed because I want to be my full ‘give zero F*#ks’ all natural fierce AF badass brown woman. I want to always be okay in my skin with these curls and this body. I want to walk with pride and purpose. And yet, I’m the woman who makes ‘kind eyes’ at people in the stores. I’m the one who makes sure I make no sudden moves around white shoppers and say ‘sorry’ when they bump me. I’m the one who is vigilant about giving space to white people and making sure they’re comfortable with me. I do all that to create armor around my vulnerability. Which also feels futile because I can’t hide my brownness. Or pretend I’m something other than what they see. And that’s what makes me a target.

Too many times, because once was too much, brown women, men, and children are attacked and killed for no other reason than being brown and perceived to be a threat, because of that brownness. And instead of dealing with their misplaced fear, those with power and privilege to harm use it to do so. To kill.

And yes, there are efforts and activists doing incredibly hard work but will that keep me safe today?

I think about these women like me when I venture from my home. My thoughts run a bit wild, wondering who’s scared, who’s running, who’s being attacked right now, and just what am I going to do if it’s me in the next moments. I know, though, that if I let myself stay in those fearful thoughts, I wouldn’t leave my home at all. Ever. So there is a part of me that overcomes this. For bits of time. That’s how I make to Target, the grocery story or the post office. That’s how I get to the movies. Or out for lunch.

But it’s exhausting. To be hyper vigilant. To carry the pain of other brown women, my sisters, my aunties and grandmothers. It’s often crushing to be in this battle. To just exist. And yet, I do.

Stacey Parshall Jensen is a Mandan, Hidatsa and African-American writer, storyteller and filmmaker in Los Angeles by way of Minnesota.

 

Hitting send on the query…

It’s hard to believe that what started as an image I couldn’t shake would become this novel years later. Become STANDS ALONE.

They were feet. What I saw. What I felt were feet running. It was night and the ground was a tough terrain but these feet knew how to move over it. Through it. With it. They were women’s feet. Black women’s feet.

I didn’t who they belonged to, where they were running to or who they were running from, but they were running swiftly.

Then I had an image of tall prairie grasses that sway and dance in the wind. Walking through them, tenderly touching the wild flowers was a woman. Then she ran. She had long black hair flying out behind her.

These images stuck with me until I discovered my main character. Tanner Stands Alone. A Minneapolis detective. Half Black, half Native with warrior women for ancestors. And they rise from her body to fight a white supremacist who starts a race war.

As more images and scenes filled in the blanks, ya know the ones, in-between present and somewhere out there, where my imagination brews, I felt something stronger with this story. Something larger.

I sketched out a pilot for it and wrote it summer of 2017. It was okay. Just barely okay. But the story was big.  I hired the brilliant Jessica Blank to read it to help with some development. As we discussed it, she asked if I ever thought of writing the novel. This question made me look at the story in a different way. An even larger but glorious way. At the same time, I was itching to write a novel. I had some chapters of a different story. I had begun to work that prose writing muscle again but whenN November arrived, I did NaNoWriMo and started with a blank page, writing STANDS ALONE the novel.

So many drafts later, I’m here now. I have the query letter, the synopsis and the database.

I woke at 4 am with visions in my head of typing up the emails, of cutting and pasting in the pages, of hitting send. I got up and got ready. Which means I spent some time on Facebook. I played with a different TV project. I cleaned the bathrooms. I pulled weeds in my front lawn. I baked bread. I showered and made myself presentable…for…my computer??  I put on my power Parshall, N.D. t-shirt. (Yes, I’m related to the Parshalls the small town on the Rez is named after). I put on my power turquoise and some 80’s music (Blondie, The Cars, Madonna), lit some sage and a candle for my mom because I really want to call her and tell her what I’m doing with this story. With this novel. And I want to hear her voice tell me how excited she is for me. I want hear her wish me luck. So I’m gonna take a couple quiet minutes to hear her spirit say that. And then…here we go.

Before the search begins…agents

Can I tell from looking at their photo on the literary agency website if they’re going to be my agent?  Is there something there that can give me the extra know, that wink to my future?

I know. I can’t. But yet my thoughts go there. I look at their smiles and wonder what they’re voices are like. What it will sound like when they call and talk about Stands Alone? Is that a voice I can listen to for many calls? For great meetings? For maybe, not so great meetings?

I don’t know for sure what they’ll be saying, since this is will be my first agent. For my first novel. But I’m hoping for a lovely voiced woman who laughs at my jokes and finds me fascinating for writing such a tough hard crime suspense novel about being Mixed, history, warrior women and rape. For writing about fighting and winning.

Can I tell that from just looking at her photo? I sure as hell wish I could.

I’m building my agent database right now. I’ve been searching Publishers Marketplace, Query Tracker, and researching other writers who are in the vein of Stands Alone to find their agents. I’m doing Google searches and reading interviews and Twitter accounts.

I have a couple more super smart people in line to review my query letter and synopsis and then, I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready.

I’m anxious.

And feel super vulnerable. But driven and dare I say…believe in my own craft even though I still have so much more to learn and am working and writing every day. I’m creating story and birthing characters that I throw into pits of fire of pain, grief and oppression or dump in the middle of dark wildernesses created by their own fears or by some way their parents fucked them up and then hope that the trail becomes clear to get them out of there. Never unscathed but at least out to where the sun lives.

I feel like I’ve come into my own. And my voice is clear. And I hope to find an agent who sees that. Gets that. And wants to join me for that often blind rushing run through the wilderness.