Blog | Thoughts on #ownvoices and diversity in literature

#DaReadAThon just ended and #DiverseAThon is coming up shortly, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Since I’ve started blogging actually, and before that when I only read books and discussed them with friends. But this is something very important, to me as well as the online book communities I’m starting to be a part of, so thank you for reading.

This is not meant to be taken in any way as a rebuff against the very necessary need for diversity in literature. I want you to read diverse books, will beg you to read diverse books. Go read books about people who are different from you, the people you take the bus with, the people you go to school or work with, the people you pass on the street, people in your country, people in other countries that you may or may not have been to before, people at various different points of history and human imagination. This makes us better, more empathetic human beings as we understand the strength in the diversity and variation of the stories of our world.

When I first came across the term #ownvoices I reluctantly loved it. It asks us as readers to consider something very simple, who is being portrayed in a story and who wrote the book. There is a long, long history of people from all types of marginalized groups being prevented from telling their stories. From the prevention of education, bigotry in the publishing world, women, people of colour, Indigenous people, queer and trans people have been prevented from writing and telling their own stories. And often when marginalized stories are told they are coopted by the dominant group. A man writes a novel about a woman’s midlife crisis that’s labeled as breathtaking, a white person writes a book that reduces people of colour to tragedy porn and is called stunning, a straight cis person writes a story about a trans or queer character and is described as a literary force. This happens over and over again and again.

We need to hear diverse stories. They are integral to the human experiences as two sides of a mirror. One cannot learn to be empathetic to those who are different if you never see marginalized groups in a positive light. And it is difficult to learn to love yourself when you can never recognize yourself on a page. I would be a very different person, quite possibly a less content, happy, self-confident person if I hadn’t grown up reading books about young girls like me who saved the world. And it wasn’t just one book, I read multiple books like this over and over again, all through my childhood and through till now.

This is something that everyone needs and deserves and I will fight for people to be able to see themselves in the books they read at home and in school. For even though I read all those books at home about girls and women, I rarely read books like that in school. Promoting and demanding attention to diverse literature and books is the first step. We need these books yesterday, years ago, decades ago. So it is important that we continue to read and support them.

But back to the term #ownvoices.

I often see #ownvoices pared with the term authenticity. As someone who comes from an academic and philosophical background that’s grounded in intersectional feminist and queer discourse, I have been raised to be wary of ideas of authenticity. The idea that there is an authentic way to be a person of a particular group troubles me. There is no one way to be a woman, or trans, or Indigenous, or Black, disabled, or an immigrant, etc. Even within communities there’s a multiplicity of human experience that cannot be always easily summed up in one #ownvoices book.

The second problem I have with the term #ownvoices is the discipline of regulation it demands. This post on tumblr sums it up pretty well but I’ll elaborate a bit more. To me #ownvoices demands that we regulate authors’ identities. I don’t want to spend any of my time digging through an authors old livejournal posts to figure out whether they identity as a lesbian or bisexual so I can classify their book as #ownvoices. Authors are just regular people who do not owe anyone the intricacies of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race or ethnic identity, just as they are not beholden to writing only #ownvoices based on their experiences. Life may inform art, but it’s not always necessary that you bleed yourself dry all over the page for the consumption of the masses.

This also doesn’t allow for the fluidity of identities, particularly queer and trans identities. Is She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya no longer an #ownvoices book because she wrote it before she began transitioning? Is a book featuring a lesbian protagonist written by an author who once identified as a lesbian but now prefers the term queer no longer #ownvoices?

I feel that often when we talk about the need to remember our allies who are producing diverse work, we’re talking about white authors, cis authors, straight authors, authors who are within the dominant discourse of identity. But marginalized authors also write diverse books that are not #ownvoices. Diverse books by authors who care, do research, hire sensitivity and beta readers, listen when criticized, make edits and fix mistakes, are not bad books.

And lastly, the academic and librarian in me has trouble defining #ownvoices. How do we classify whether a book is #ownvoices or not? On paper it seems simple, a book about a marginalized group by an author who is part of that same group. But definitions get tricky so easily. Must the protagonist have be part of every same identity group the author is?

In that case, A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar does not meet that definition, even though this is a book I’ve seen recommended as #ownvoices. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee does not meet that definition even though it is a wonderfully diverse book that is very obviously influenced by Lee’s identity as Korean-American and as a trans man. But this is a military space opera in a future world where Earth or Korea are never mentioned, and the main characters are not trans. And although Lee has talked about how his identity as trans shaped two characters’ relationship, under the previous definition this book is still technically not considered #ownvoices.

But also our understanding of an author’s identity also shapes whether we classify a book as #ownvoices. Up until recently most people would have classified Joseph Boyden’s books as #ownvoices, despite the fact that all of them are about Indigenous communities he is not a part of. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor is a wonderful, diverse book that gets classified as #ownvoices. But Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American of Igbo descent and Binti is Himba, who are an Indigenous peoples who live in the region of Northern Nambia. We cannot merely conflate multiple communities of a larger marginalized identity together.

Perhaps this is all just nitpicking. But it’s something I think about often and struggle with as I begin to blog and review more. Read books that are created by an author’s lived experiences and identities. But don’t just limit yourself or stop there. Read wider, read more, and keep reading. One #ownvoices book is not nearly enough to encompass a whole group or communities’ experiences. Do not stop limit yourself or spend time placing books in boxes or categories. Be clear about what books you’re reading but don’t just stop at #ownvoices. For it’s merely the beginning.



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