#OwnVoices was created by the author Corinne Duyvis – who is fabulous, and who you should be following on social media if you aren’t already – last September. Why am I writing about it now? Well, because A) I was looking through my drafts folder for an older post idea to polish and publish, and B) my blogging friend Jennifer Austin has been looking for a post about this hashtag, so I thought why not finally finish writing this post?
While there were definitely recommendations concerning books that are not categorized as YA, most of the recommendations were for YA novels. LOTS AND LOTS OF RECOMMENDATIONS. I love finding new diverse books, or diverse books that I just didn’t know about before because they’re not mentioned nearly as often as they should be.
Now I want to discuss why #OwnVoices is important – not just why it’s important to me, but why it’s important for everyone. I’m sure most of us in the reading / writing / book blogging communities have heard about campaigns such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks and know diversity is important but why, specifically, is it important to read books written by authors who belong to the same diverse group as their characters?
The answer is, quite simply, that they know what they’re talking about. That is not to say that authors who do not belong to that diverse group cannot also know what they are talking about, but some definitely don’t. And all of them definitely don’t know nearly as much about what they’re talking about as those who belong to that group, EVEN IF they’ve done a bunch of research.
You may have noticed that I use the term “lived experience” a lot here, and that’s because I think it’s important. It means, essentially, a first-hand account of what it means to be a member of a particular group.
This is SUPER important when it comes to media depictions of diverse groups, whether that media is a book or a TV show or a movie or a play or even a song. It makes a huge difference because if you, the author, have lived the life of one of your characters – which is to say that you belong to the same diverse group that they do – then you have an intimate knowledge of what it is like to be a member of that group. You have expertise.
I believe that books like this, books that were recommended through the #OwnVoices hashtag, are inherently better than diverse books written by people who do not belong to that same diverse group. I believe that they are more worthy of our time as readers.
I sense that this will be a controversial statement, and I’m going to address the two likely objections that people will make – one related to the reading of those books, and the other to the writing of them – because it honestly makes me sad and a little mad to think about people arguing against #OwnVoices. But they do.
The first objection I foresee is, “But my favorite diverse book was written by someone who didn’t belong to the same diverse group as their character! And it’s SO GOOD! How can you say that I shouldn’t read it?!”
Well, if you reread the above paragraphs, you’ll realize that that’s not actually what I said. I said that #OwnVoices books are more worthy of our time. (From now on I’m going to refer to “books written by authors who belong to the same diverse group as their characters” as “#OwnVoices books” to save me the time of typing that phrase over and over again.)
We should read diverse books no matter who they are written by, but we should prioritize #OwnVoices books.
If you have never read a book about a particular diverse group before, you should, ideally, choose one written by someone who is a member of that group. (And before you say that you don’t know of any: They are out there. There may not be very many of them, but they are out there and you can find them if only you look hard enough. Ask around.)
We should promote #OwnVoices books on social media, not just on Twitter but on Facebook and tumblr and Instagram and any other sites you use.
We should favor reviewing #OwnVoices books over diverse books that do not belong to this category in the reviews that we post on our book blogs.
We should support #OwnVoices authors by buying their books.
We should make it easier for others to have access to these books by asking our libraries to buy a copy or two so that other patrons who maybe didn’t know about these books before can find them.
We should prioritize #OwnVoices books.
#OwnVoices books – and movies and TV shows and so on and so forth, but I’m using books as my example since that’s what the hashtag was originally intended to be about – come from a more authentic place. They tell it like it is, and not as we would like it to be. THEY ARE NOT SANITIZED. I find that many of the diverse books that can’t be classified as #OwnVoices struggle to portray things as accurately as #OwnVoices books because, like I said, there’s that whole lived experience thing.
And so very often, #OwnVoices books do not get the recognition they deserve. Again and again, I have seen diverse books written by authors who are not like their characters receive more acclaim, more awards. It happens all the damn time. These past few years, I’ve watched countless cis straight authors win Lambda Literary Awards and Stonewall Book Awards while #OwnVoices books were passed up, passed over, forgotten.
I think it has something to do with the sanitized factor I mentioned earlier. #OwnVoices books deal with deeper themes and more complex topics than other diverse books, but I guess some people just can’t handle that. And so the lives of diverse individuals are condensed and neatly packaged into more sanitized versions of themselves.
I have a lot of experience with LGBTQ+ books like this, because I am LGBTQ+ and read widely within that genre, and I think this effect is particularly present in books about gay men.
Almost all of the most popular YA LGBTQ+ books are about gay men – which is unfortunate to begin with, not because there’s anything wrong with gay guys but because even among the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, there is a perception that the lives of gay men are more deserving of attention than those of others – and they are, more specifically, books about gay men written by straight women. (I could write an entire post about the straight female obsession with gay men…)
Eight of the top twenty most popular YA LGBTQ+ books on Goodreads are A) about gay guys and B) not written by gay guys. Some of them were actually written by straight men (and one in conjunction with a gay guy), but that doesn’t render my point invalid because they’re still not #OwnVoices books: All I said is that the most popular books featuring gay male protagonists tend to be written by straight women.
There is a MASSIVE demand for books like these. All too often, #OwnVoices books are metaphorically trampled, crushed underfoot in the stampede for other diverse books – books that shake things up, books that challenge the status quo.
I’m not sure why The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, who is a lesbian and whose books is about a young lesbian who is subjected to conversion therapy, is #19 on that Goodreads list. I’m not sure why City of Bones by Cassandra Clare is ranked above – far, far above – Adaptation and Inheritance by Malinda Lo, two wonderfully genre-expanding books that question our most deeply held ideas about attraction, gender, and relationship structures. (HELL YES POLYAMORY.)
City of Bones doesn’t push any boundaries with its representation of LGBTQ+ characters, but it is exactly the kind of book that is eagerly snapped up by readers – both cis straight readers and LGBTQ+ who have been taught that these books, not #OwnVoices books, are the ones that truly matter. This isn’t even a dig at City of Bones – it’s not meant to put it down specifically – but rather a criticism of all the LGBTQ+ books like this. There are other, better LGBTQ+ than these, books with deeper themes and more complex (and authentic) queer characters because they are written by people who belong to this group. And yet they aren’t valued as much, because they tell it like it is, not as allies w
The second objection I predict comes from writers: “Who are you to tell me that I can’t write diverse books?” Again, that’s not what I’m saying. In fact, I am absolutely NOT saying that you shouldn’t write diverse books if you don’t belong to the same diverse group as your characters. Telling people they can’t write about those who are different from them drives us apart, but another factor driving us apart is the refusal to prioritize first-hand accounts. Listening only, or even mostly, to other allies is fruitless. Listening to other allies and not to the voices of marginalized groups is like being inside an echo chamber, where all you hear are your very own views reflected back at you. You won’t learn anything new, and you won’t be challenged in the ways that you need to be.
On the contrary, I believe that we should all try creating characters who are different from us, writing about people who are different from us. I simply believe that doing so requires a bit of tact: If you begin to think that any diverse story you could ever tell is better than an #OwnVoices story, then you need to reexamine your ideas about what it means to be an ally to a marginalized group. You need to be careful not to start thinking that you know more about a trans person’s experience or a black person’s experience or a disabled person’s experience than actual trans or black or disabled people do.
You need to not whine about this. You need to do your thing – which is writing your diverse books, because diverse books are awesome and you love writing them and it also pays the rent, which is always nice – while simultaneously promoting #OwnVoices authors and saying, “These are the people you should pay close attention to,” and most of all listening when someone tells you that you think too highly of your own depictions of a people with whom you are not intimately familiar.
(The job of an ally – to any group – is to listen, and knowing when to sit down and shut up because this is not your area of expertise is a major part of this job. One of the best ways to do this is by prioritizing stories about how members of a particular diverse group view themselves and their experiences over stories about that group written by people who don’t belong to it! Who knew?! Listen to people talk about themselves, or read about it if you choose. You’ll learn wayyyy more about that group, and will learn more accurate information, than if you as an ally rely on another ally to explain it for you.)
There are very different outcomes when an #OwnVoices author writes a diverse book as opposed to when a… for lack of a better term, non-#OwnVoices author writes a diverse book. Let’s use LGBTQ+ stories as an example, since I’m very familiar with them.
Positive LGBTQ+ books are… well, they’re always a good thing, because we have too many tragic books about LGBTQ+ characters. I do think there’s such a thing as a better thing, though? Like, a lot of LGBTQ+ books written by cis straight people come across as very simplistic – very preachy and often patronizing. Their messages are “it’s OK to be gay” and “love yourself” and it’s just like – no freaking duh, we know that already. I find myself not being able to take these books seriously because they have that after-school special feeling. You know what I mean: They’re preaching to the choir, and not really stretching anyone’s minds.
Positive LGBTQ+ books written by actual LGBTQ+ people, on the other hand, bring something entirely different to the table. People who write this stuff don’t get to this point without a lot of time and effort and probably tears. (I didn’t get to the point where I could write about this stuff until I starting loving this part of my identity, loving myself as a queer individual.) LGBTQ+ books that are wholly positive – filled with fluffy, friendship-filled adventures where no one dies or gets their heart irreparably broken – signal a triumph. They are a celebration of what it means to be LGBTQ+.
Tragic LGBTQ+ books are… well, in the hands of cis straight writers, they can have unfortunate connotations. There is a HUGE problem surrounding straight guys who write stories with lesbians or bisexual women, because they tend to kill them off. In case you think I’m exaggerating, let me tell you that it happened LITERALLY JUST THIS WEEK on a science fiction show aired by a major TV network. (That link is hella spoilery, so don’t click if you’re worried about that.)
I think the majority of cis straight writers do have good intentions when it comes to writing tragic LGBTQ+ stories – although some definitely don’t – but it doesn’t always come across that way. Sometimes it comes across as rubbing our noses in it, as wallowing in our misery, even as wanting our characters to suffer through endless heartbreak and violent homophobia or transphobia and even death so that we can “learn a lesson.”
Sorry, but we already know that lesson. We live that lesson, and we’ve seen it in countless books and movies and TV shows designed to show us that people like us can never be happy.
You think I’m joking, that I’m stretching the truth here, but I’m not: In the thirties and forties and fifties, stories with LGBTQ+ characters would not be published unless they were found to have a “moral,” which is to say that they ended with the protagonist (or their love interest, or both) either dead or heartbroken, to show that “that lifestyle” was “not a good choice” and would always lead to moral decay.
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (recently adapted into the movie Carol) was the first story to subvert that by giving its lesbian main characters a happy ending, and it was written by – you guessed it – a queer woman. Although it was recently nominated for six Academy Awards, it won none, and many in the LGBTQ+ community have theorized that it was because it is unabashedly positive.
It won many other major film awards, and movies about lesbians have certainly won Oscars before, but the difference is that they were about dead lesbians. Or heartbroken lesbians. Or lesbians who dated and/or had sex with men.
There is a very real sense that if we as LGBTQ+ writers step outside the boundaries by giving our queer characters the best possible endings, only LGBTQ+ people will care. Straight people will continue to reward other straight people who write tragic stories about doomed lovers and queer people who hate themselves – in other words, pity porn. They love stories where we are oppressed, not stories where we rise above it.
So tragic LGBTQ+ stories written by cis straight people are nothing new.
Tragic LGBTQ+ stories by LGBTQ+ people, however, represent a kind of triumph. This triumph is different from the one that goes hand in hand with positive LGBTQ+ stories, but it is a triumph nonetheless.
It’s hard to write books about our darkest moments. It’s hard to write about things like conversion therapy and suicide and violent hate crimes but when we are finally ready to deal with these things – or to start dealing with these things, because writing is one of the best ways to sort out your problems – writing is there for us. Sometimes writing is the only way we know of for dealing with a situation like this. We write darkly comic books because it hurts so much that the only way we can get through this, get over this is if we laugh at our problems and make light of them.
This is what I want you to keep in mind when you write diverse characters if you yourself do not belong to the same diverse group as your characters, because this is honestly applicable to all diverse groups, not just LGBTQ+ people. All groups have pity porn – or in the case of disabled people, inspiration porn – created about them by people who are outsiders to that group, and the outsiders just eat it up.
And all groups have ways of combating that through the stories they write, filled with authentic characters, with lived experience practically dripping off the pages, but they’re often ignored or at least not prioritized because they’re not what the outsider group wants to hear and see and read – they don’t fit the other group’s sanitized view of them.
I’m currently reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates, and it is probably one of the best books I could possibly be in the middle of reading as I write this post. The entire thing is one long, long letter from a black father to his son – from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his fifteen-year-old son Samori.
And that’s what makes it work. I’m about halfway through the book right now, and I keep thinking that it is just so much MORE than any book about black people by a white author. Coates talks about what it’s like to be afraid every day – for his own life and his son’s and that of many others – what it’s like to feel betrayed by the police that are supposed to protect you but beat and murder you instead, what it’s like to be told that for people like you school isn’t a place of higher learning but instead merely a way to divert you from prison.
The subject matter of Coates’s book simply would not work in the hands of a white author. Oh, they could try, and ONCE AGAIN, I’m definitely not saying that we should only write about people who are exactly like us in every way, but there is a depth of understanding #OwnVoices that just can’t quite be captured in other books.
There are black characters in the stories I write, but I would never say that I understand how to write better books about black people than an actual black author – that not only can I somehow understand that reality better than they can, but that I can represent it more accurately as well – because that’s just not true.
I’ve read books about black people written by black authors before, but reading the lists of names of black authors whose complete works Ta-Nehisi Coates has read makes me realize that haven’t read nearly as many as I would like, or as I should. I need to prioritize books like these. I prioritize LGBTQ+ books like these, that are written by people who have the same or similar experiences as their characters, but I need to work on prioritizing other types of #OwnVoices books.
We all need to. We can all do more.
P.S. I had originally intended to include a list of my favorite #OwnVoices books at the end of this post, but this post is getting ridiculously long now. It’s currently hovering at around 3000 words – I guess I had more to say about this subject than I thought I did! Anyway, I’ll save my recommendations for a different post, which will hopefully be published sometime in the near future!