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Jackie Khalilieh: on SOMETHING MORE, and being viewed as less (Bias)




Books written by authors of colour and other marginalized groups are judged more harshly than books written by abled white authors.


That’s a strong statement for me to begin with.


It’s a statement I’d seen varying versions of on X (formally known as Twitter) when I was a

querying author, and then an author on submission, and then an author awaiting publication.

I saw this sentiment repeated many times, mostly by authors of colour, and it wasn’t until the

reviews started to come in for my young adult book, Something More, about an autistic,

Palestinian-Canadian girl, that the message behind this very strong statement became more than just a fact—it became my truth.


The thing is, it’s not always overt and I didn’t see it at first. But it’s there. The micro aggressions become easier to spot as time goes on. I speak often about the challenges behind even just getting people to make the decision to read my book because of the unconscious bias that exists within all of us. Humans often seek out content where we can see ourselves, and there’s a very small percentage of people who can see themselves, at least in a superficial, stereotypical kind of way, in a Palestinian-Canadian autistic teenaged girl.

So many people decide not to read books like mine because of the relatability factor. As a result, sales suffer. And then when it comes time for an editor to present the book they fell in love with to the sales and marketing team at a publisher’s acquisitions meeting, they’re either told no, because books like that don’t sell well or the author receives a very low advance.


Intersectional representation, while so important and very reflective of our world today, comes

with even more intense criticism. While readers may be able to relate to part of a person’s

identity, in some way, the more complex and intersectional the rep becomes, the harder it is for a reader to “understand” the main character. And thus, sets off a series of criticism.


My main character, Jessie Kassis, has an “invisible” disability: autism. And herein lies a big challenge: most people who read books are not used to experiencing an autistic person’s way of thinking in the narrative voice. However, our books are judged as if they were written for a neurotypical audience. This isn’t a case of an unreliable narrator. This isn’t a case of someone who is meant to be unsavoury. This is a case of someone who makes decisions and goes through life thinking, taking in and processing information in a different way than neurotypical readers do. A person whose brain literally functions differently than neurotypical brains. Add in the extra nuances of being a person of colour, and you have a character who most readers will have a harder time seeing themselves in.


But readers often don’t make the connection that their criticism stems from their own

unconscious biases, systemic racism, or ableism. Instead, they believe it’s a flaw of the book or

the writing.


This character is frustrating.

There is too much repetition in the story.

This character is in their head too much.

This character repeatedly makes the same mistakes.

This character acts young for her age.


Welcome to an autistic person’s mind. Or at least, one autistic person’s mind (reminder: we are

not a monolith). However, for many of us, repetition, redundancy, rumination, are things many

autistic people experience in their day to day.


As an author, I show this on the page. I don’t explain to readers that the reason behind Jessie

giving people extra chances, the reason why she ruminates over something that seems so simple to you, the reason why she needs to experience something repeatedly for it to penetrate in her brain, is because of her autism.


It’s not bad writing.

It’s not a weak plot.

It’s not an “annoying” character.

It’s her autism.


As an author who writes characters with intersectional representation and publishes novels

traditionally, my goal is to appeal to a large aka often white and/or neurotypical audience’s way of thinking. But it often feels like a one-way street.

Why is it readers are able to suspend enough belief to read about magic systems and dragons but find it unrealistic when an Arab, autistic girl ends up in a love triangle with two “hot” white

guys? Why is it so difficult for readers, who know they’re reading about an autistic girl, to give grace to a main character who seems oblivious to things the rest of the world sees as obvious?

Why can readers show more empathy to a disabled white girl than to a disabled Arab girl who is sometimes messy and makes decisions you don’t agree with? The white disabled girl is often infantilized. The Arab girl “should know better.”


Why do readers who pick up books with marginalized or BIPOC characters expect to walk away from the novel having learned something? Why does it feel like we have to earn our presence on the shelf by representing not only our identities, but everyone’s?


All books receive criticism.

All books have one-star ratings and five-star ratings.

But not all reviews are written equally.

Books written by authors of colour and other marginalized groups are judged more harshly than books written by abled white authors.


 


JACKIE KHALILIEH is a Palestinian-Canadian writer with a love of nineties pop culture, Dad jokes, and warm and fuzzy romance. Like many autistic females, she received her diagnosis as an adult. She is passionate about positive representation within her writing. She currently resides just outside Toronto, Canada with her husband and two daughters, complaining nightly about having to cook dinner. Something More is her debut YA novel.



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