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The Other Side of #OwnVoices: Is the term being twisted into something harmful?

The Other Side of #OwnVoices: Is the term being twisted into something harmful?


*as Twitter is a public platform, I’ve inserted tweets here that are readily available to the public. But if you see your tweet here and do not want it in the post, please contact me at liselle@ltlibrarian.com, and I will remove it

Recently, there’s been a conversation going on about the #ownvoices term that you may or may not have seen on Twitter (where I live btw).

But first, let’s start at the beginning. #Ownvoices was originally coined by wonderful author Corinne Duyvis (*cough* Otherbound is amazing *cough*) as a way to make it easier to recommend kidlit that featured diverse characters written by someone from the same diverse group. This meant that if you wanted to read a story with a disabled MC, written by someone with the same disability, you could use that term to find it.

The power of this was that it boosts the work of people telling their own stories. That way you can support those marginalized creators instead of say a white cis-het abled person who has never experienced marginalization but profits from it by writing the story.

I love this term and it often helps me find the sorts of stories that I want to read. I seek out diverse titles but admit that I’m not jumping to read another white abled cis-het person’s hot take on someone else’s story. I think it’s important for ALL writers to include diversity into their works. But I am not hugely comfortable about someone writing a book about slavery and the black experience while being white. Those are instances where I want to read from someone who’s black. And that’s where #ownvoices becomes a great tool.

Okay, so what’s wrong exactly?

[GIF of Amandla Stenberg saying 'so...]

[GIF of Amandla Stenberg saying ‘so…]

Recently, there’s been some people discussing issues that have cropped up with the use of the term that may be harmful to those that are marginalized. I’ll first direct you to the great points made by others on Twitter below.

To summarize, there are a couple issues that have cropped up that don’t honor the original intent and purpose of the term, but rather have twisted it into something else. Firstly, it’s become a term used less as a descriptor and more as a way of selling the book, likely in response to agents specifically requesting novels of this kind. The term and the book’s sellability based solely on the fact that its #ownvoices is pushed instead of the content of the book. Which makes it into something that feels like a marketing ploy or trend.

And secondly, it has created pressure on marginalized people to 1) feel that they MUST write #ownvoices and 2) to struggle with whether they are enough of that ethnicity to consider their work #ownvoices.

The part where you’re treated to my hot take

[GIF of Kerry Washington pouring a large glass of wine]

[GIF of Kerry Washington pouring a large glass of wine]

I’ll be candid here, and this is something I actively avoided talking about on social media because I feared I would be seen as an unpublished author whinging and blaming the system for my mediocrity. While I was querying my second novel about a boy who falls into a world where magic is the hottest drug on the market, I was regularly discouraged. That’s the name of the game. When you query, you face rejection around every corner.

But the more I saw agents requesting #ownvoices works and publishers snatching them up, I felt two things. For one, I was glad that there were going to be so many books by marginalized people telling their own stories. But the second darker side was I looked at my disabled male afro-latinx MC who physically is nothing like me. Our marginalizations don’t match. I’m black, but not afro-latinx, and I’m female and able-bodied. The book is about him becoming a witch and not an issue book, so I at least felt I wasn’t telling a story that wasn’t mine to tell. I was doing my research and making my best effort to do a great representation.

And yet, the thought kept nagging at me: are people not going to care about my work unless the MC is black in the same way I’m black? Am I going to be passed over if I can’t slap #ownvoices on my work?

I ignored the feeling and pushed on. Eventually, I decided to shelve that book because I had reached a stagnant point where I couldn’t decide how to take it further. I don’t blame not having a black MC on why that book didn’t work out.

But when November for #NaNoWriMo came, I wrote an #ownvoices book about a family of black witches set in Toronto where I grew up, with a huge blended family like what I grew up with, with tons of Trinidadian culture influences like my cultural background. Now, don’t get things twisted. I LOVE my book. I enjoyed writing it, and I admit that it’s turned out better because writing what I know helps my writing. But I won’t ignore that I felt a distinct pressure to write it. I felt that to get my foot in the door in publishing, I needed to write something with that label.

Those pressures are real. I felt them. And I was too afraid of judgment to even say I felt that way.

Final Thoughts

I think #ownvoices has done great things in the community, and I hope it continues to be used the way it was intended as a way to find diverse book recs. Not as a marketing ploy or a way to put marginalized writers into a box that says “this is what you can write.” Marginalized writers are not here to write ONLY about their own experiences or ONLY issue books while the industry continues to praise white abled cis-het writers for ‘trying’ to include diversity, even when they fail and refuse to try and do better. And further, no one should be forced to decide if they are ‘enough’ of a marginalized group and be pressured to confirm their identity or held to a higher standard of representation.

What has been your experience, positive AND negative, with #ownvoices? Please comment below so we can chat!

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