Workplace bias is theme of prof’s winning story in ABA Journal's 2023 Ross Writing Contest
A college professor with a passion for labor and employment law is the winner of the 2023 ABA Journal/Ross Writing Contest for Legal Short Fiction.
Kiren Dosanjh Zucker won the $5,000 prize for her short story, “Memory of a Braid.”
The protagonist is an insurance-company claims adjuster, Padma, who is told that her braid violates a workplace appearance policy. Padma’s braid is in keeping with her ethnic tradition and the hairstyle she has worn since she was a child in India.
Padma seeks legal advice from her neighbors, who are aware of a California law that protects against natural hair discrimination. Known as the Crown Act, the law was first adopted in California but several states have enacted similar protections, Dosanjh Zucker tells the ABA Journal.
Dosanjh Zucker is a 1989 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School who was a law professor before she joined California State University at Northridge. She currently teaches ethics in the accounting department and has also taught accounting communications.
But she previously taught business law, labor and employment law, and legal writing. And she is currently working on updates and revisions for portions of two McGraw Hill textbooks, including work on chapters dealing with racial discrimination and with labor and employment.
Dosanjh Zucker researched the Crown Act for the updates. She wondered if the law would apply to a situation like Padma’s and thought about incorporating the issue in a story.
Dosanjh Zucker drew on other inspiration as well. Like Padma’s neighbor Asha, Dosanjh Zucker was a former legal writing instructor. And like Asha’s husband, Dosanjh Zucker’s lawyer husband “has a really big heart” and is happy to help neighbors—including Indian immigrants—with legal and other problems. And like Padma and Asha, Dosanjh Zucker has experienced microaggressions stemming from her own East Indian heritage.
The short story also partly used the title from Dosanjh Zucker’s first-person narrative about the immigrant experience called “Lost in a Place Called Home.” A Los Angeles theater—which is now called the Braid—used the narrative to produce a Zoom production during the pandemic.
“So it all threaded together, so to speak, pardon the pun about braiding,” Dosanjh Zucker says.
Among the themes of her story, Dosanjh Zucker says, are the need for protections provided by equal-employment opportunity laws and the limits to their reach. “They don’t reach microaggressions, they have almost purposely been skewed up, the bar has been continually raised,” she says.
Yet the laws do play a broader role because they may give people pause before making biased comments or assumptions that constitute microaggressions.
Dosanjh Zucker also commented on attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion that imply compliance with current laws are sufficient to protect workers. “I think these DEI efforts are really important, and by taking them away I think there’s a message being sent that could be really damaging,” she says.
The ABA Journal Board of Editors selected the writing contest winner from finalists picked by ABA Journal editors and writers. The contest sought original fictional stories of no more than 5,000 words that illuminate the role of the law or lawyers in modern society. Entries were judged on creativity, plot exposition, legal insight and character development.
Dosanjh Zucker also uses creative writing as part of her teaching. She wrote a series of vignettes about accounting students facing ethical quandaries. Although she has written a couple other short stories, none was published.
“It is just so very meaningful to have this story chosen, to have this story being published,” Dosanjh Zucker told the ABA Journal. “It means a lot—it means so much.”
“The Braid” will be posted on the ABA Journal website during the week of Thanksgiving.