Why I’m Uncomfortable with #OwnVoices

Is labelling books as #OwnVoices an effective way to promote diversity, inclusion, and representation in literature?

The #OwnVoices movement says yes. #OwnVoices is described by the Orange County Library system as a term that “refers to books about characters from underrepresented/marginalized groups in which the author shares the same identity”.

It emerged as a hashtag by author Corrine Duvyis in September 2015, meant to be used on Twitter to recommend books. However, it’s increasingly been used by publishers as a label to describe books and to promote the work of authors from underrepresented and marginalized groups.

Personally, while I think there is a lot of value in promoting diversity, inclusion, and representation in literature, I don’t know if the #Ownvoices label is the best way to do this.

Our identities are complex

In particular, I think of the concept of intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to acknowledge how everyone faces discrimination and privilege differently based on how factors like gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, religion, and more intersect. For example, as a Chinese woman living in Canada, my experiences with sexism may be different than a woman living in another country and may be different than what non-Chinese women face.

I might be considered an #OwnVoices author if I wrote a book with Chinese protagonists in it because I’m Chinese. But would my book still ‘count’ as #OwnVoices if I wrote a book set in mainland China considering I’ve never lived there? Would my book still ‘count’ as #OwnVoices if I wrote a religious protagonist when I’m not?

Who gets to decide who is part of #OwnVoices and who isn’t?

I think the #OwnVoices designation can be somewhat reductive because the label typically centres around one or a few parts of someone’s identity (eg. their ethnicity or sexuality) without considering how complex people are. Our voice is made up of multiple components but that isn’t well-reflected in the #OwnVoices label as it’s used at the moment.

The issue of deciding whether an author is ‘enough’ to fit under the #OwnVoices category leads me to my next point:

The #OwnVoices label may pressure authors to disclose information about themselves

To be part of #OwnVoices, an author must disclose personal information about themselves. They must disclose that they belong to an underrepresented or marginalized group.

s.e. smith talks a lot about this issue in this article for Bitch Media. Part of smith’s argument is that authors are feeling increasingly pressured to disclose personal information, even if they don’t want to and even if this disclosure could be dangerous for them. And authors who do publish under the #OwnVoices label may be scrutinized and policed by readers to determine if they ‘count’ under that label.

Bringing forth the example of disabled authors, smith points out that authors may face further discrimination if they share their disability. It’s illegal in many places, but it’s still possible that a future employer could pass on hiring an author because they disclosed they had a disability by publicly releasing their works under #OwnVoices. It’s unfortunately possible that the author could face harassment or even physical violence because of their disclosure.

All this is to say, an author disclosing part of their personal background can be dangerous… but it’s also expected for #OwnVoices authors. Which can put the authors the label claims to help in a difficult position.

What does it mean to highlight #OwnVoices as its own category?

I think it may contribute to the assumption that #OwnVoices authors ought to write in a certain way because they’re labelled as #OwnVoices.

For example, if I’m labelled #OwnVoices because I’m Chinese, there may be an extra expectation of me to somehow be ‘knowledgeable’ about all issues Chinese people face, or to write in a way that represents the billion plus Chinese people in the world, or to continue writing about Chinese protagonists in the future. The #OwnVoices author is expected to be well, a voice for one or more communities, and this is a burden that authors outside of the label won’t necessarily face. And not all authors want to shoulder this kind of burden.

Sarah Raughley touches in this more on her article for Quill and Quire if you’re interested in reading more. I think her thoughts on how publishers expect #OwnVoices authors to write are very insightful.

While I think it’s great to highlight the works of underrepresented and marginalized authors, I don’t know if separating their works into a separate label is really the way to go. It might imply that #OwnVoices and the diversity, inclusion, and representation it advocates for is somehow separate from ‘regular’ literature, and that the burden falls on #OwnVoices authors and not on the bookish community as a whole.


What do you think about #OwnVoices? Is it a useful label? Do you think it can be an effective way of promoting diversity, inclusion, and representation in literature or the bookish community at large?

Personally, if I was an author and I could choose whether I wanted my works to be under the #OwnVoices label, I wouldn’t use it. I really appreciate that parts of the bookish community are looking to diversify the stories told in books and the people they’re being told by and I think that #OwnVoices started with good intentions to do that, but I also think it comes with a number of harms.

16 thoughts on “Why I’m Uncomfortable with #OwnVoices

  1. Celeste May 23, 2022 / 3:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing our thoughts on this, Mint. I think you make very valid points, especially with respect to an author being “enough” of a particular marginalized group and potentially feeling pressure to reveal personal information about themselves to justify that they belong to said group. This ties in a lot with cancel culture, in my opinion–the constant need to prove yourself to the anonymous internet masses, but even that doesn’t please everyone. I think the movement serves a broadly good purpose, but you’re right–I can see how that might result in some monolith-type think when trying to represent these groups. I wish we could all just agree that no one person in any one group is going to have the exact same experiences, which you touched on in your hypothetical scenarios about yourself. It’s definitely messy, but the good intent is there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint May 23, 2022 / 10:25 pm

      I think the people behind #OwnVoices definitely had good intentions and it’s addressing a real problem of diversity (or the lack thereof) within publishing, but I don’t know if they thought about the impacts #OwnVoices would have on the authors they’re trying to help. Messy is better than nothing I guess, but in this case messy can also be dangerous – in which case nothing might be better.

      (And thank you for sharing this post on Twitter!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carla May 23, 2022 / 4:17 pm

    This is a very interesting and enlightening post. I have not really thought about this issue. I can see why #ownvoices came about, but it does have some issues for sure. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mint.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Davida Chazan May 24, 2022 / 3:39 am

    Hm… never thought of it that way. Maybe because when I see #OwnVoices it seems to me that the books are fictionalized stories that incorporate their personal experiences of being someone of a certain background/culture. But you’re right, just because the author and the protagonist share certain things, doesn’t make a book an #OwnVoices novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Line @First Line Reader May 24, 2022 / 11:25 am

    I’ve never seen a post about this topic so this was so interesting, especially because I’ve noticed some of these problems with #OwnVoices as well. The intersectionality you talk about is really important to remember because I think some people expect to relate to a book more when the book is marked as #OwnVoices. To use your own example, if a Chinese person writes a book about a Chinese character, Chinese readers will go into it expecting to see themselves represented, maybe not 100% but to a large degree. I’ve seen instances of authors getting backlash for “bad representation” despite being #OwnVoices, which then makes these readers “investigate” whether the author actually has a right to that label when in reality it’s just intersectionality at play. In those cases, the label is clearly not enough to prevent these “attacks” from readers.

    On another note, I also feel the #OwnVoices label comes with a certain expectation that the book must be about the specific identity, for example being transgender. Like the book must be detailing the life of a transgender person instead of being any kind of book that just happens to have a transgender main character. I feel like the former is better if it’s equality we’re going for. Of course, the label can still be used for those but I don’t feel like it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint May 24, 2022 / 6:01 pm

      Talking about “bad representation” always makes me feel queasy. A story that might resonate with one person from one community might not resonate with someone from that same community, but it doesn’t mean the representation was bad.

      And I totally get you about the expectation that books should be about someone’s specific identity! Stories like that are absolutely valuable but authors should be given the space to say, just write a book that happens to have a trans main character if that’s what they want. There doesn’t have to be a deep life exploration – after all, that expectation isn’t found for other communities.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. abookowlscorner June 1, 2022 / 1:01 pm

    This was a super interesting discussion, Mint! (Now comes the time to confess that I alread read it a while ago, wanted to comment but didn’t have the time to write everything I wanted to say, and then, like always, forgot 😅 But I’m here now!)

    Anyway, I’m personally very divided on the #OwnVoices thing. I really like that it’s a way to give authors from marginalized groups a spotlight and to also help readers find books that might provide better representation. Because I do think that about 70% of the time, authors who have lived an experience themselves do a more realistic and through job of representing it than those who haven’t!

    But I do also see the problematic aspects you bring up. Although it’s more of a problem on the reader-end of things, I find it entirely ridiculous when people start questioning if authors have the right to consider their work #OwnVoices because their stories don’t reflect the very specific kind of identity readers were hoping to see, for example. The amount of scrutiny that comes from being an #OwnVoices author is insane, and I also don’t think I personally would want to be put in a category like that. There are just some things I don’t need the whole world knowing and over-analyzing… 😅

    And then there are also the people who automatically think a book must be good just because it is #OwnVoices, which always annoys me to no end! It is possible to be a bad-to-mediocre writer despite having a marginalized identity! I feel like it’s so easy to get a shitstorm of hate thrown at you if you criticize #OwnVoices books, because then you’re “invalidating that person’s experience” 🙄 On the other hand, those very same people complain horribly when white authors write “completely uncreative self-insert characters” (see the discussion surrounding Christine Riccio’s “Again, But Better”, it’s hilarious 😂) – then, it’s suddenly a sign of terrible writing and there’s no mention whatsoever of invalidated experiences… And I just find that double-standard kind of stupid.

    However, I think all of that isn’t really a problem with the label itself, but how people interpret it. Personally, I think labeling something as #OwnVoices is a useful way to help people find books, but I don’t really pay a ton of attention to it. I choose my books based mostly on recommendations – if something sounds interesting plot-wise or if someone I really trust loved it, I’ll pick it up, regardless of the author’s identity!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint June 2, 2022 / 12:08 am

      Absolutely, I think that writing from lived experience can really enhance the quality of the book if the author wants to write a fictional representation of that experience. But it’s something that people from all communities have, not just those from marginalized ones.

      Which is where I think your great point about double standards comes in, because the value and expectation of lived experience is applied to some authors but not others.

      I loved the idea behind #OwnVoices but I think the wording itself is a bit tricky and that doesn’t really help with interpretation. I personally prefer to use terms that are more personal to the author and how they choose to represent themselves. And it could also still be used to help readers find books – like lists about disabled authors or LGBTQ+ authors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • abookowlscorner June 2, 2022 / 9:49 pm

        True, the category IS also rather broad… I suppose that is still helpful for people who are generally looking to read more diversely (at least within English-speaking literature 🤔), but yeah, you’re right that more specific lists could be the more informative ones!

        Like

  6. Beth W June 2, 2022 / 4:26 am

    This is a great, thought-provoking article! And everything you say rings true. I’m frustrated that something originally intended to help readers support underrepresented authors has clearly been co-opted by publishers for marketing (so of course it’s reductionist at that point). And you’re right that #OwnVoices is super broad (especially with respect to intersectionality!).

    But trying to make it less general would require even *more* disclosure of personal information that might put authors at risk (for discrimination if nothing else). Yes it’s illegal, but you the discriminated-against have the burden of proving that happened, which is basically impossible. So that’s not a good route.

    And on the other hand, and this may be a minor point, if I know the author has personal experience with the subject matter of their book, I’m more open to being educated about it (this is true for nonfiction and fiction). I feel like the experience of reading a story that’s written from a genuine experience of a thing increases both my awareness of that thing and my compassion for others (who might be struggling with that thing, whether or not I know it).

    A sticky topic, to be sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint June 2, 2022 / 12:57 pm

      You make a good point – making #OwnVoices less general also requires authors to disclose information that could be even more broad than #OwnVoices. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but I can see why that would be even risky. And of course, disclosure often hurts the marginalized more than those who aren’t.

      I definitely agree, I think an author having personal experience with the subject matter can make the book richer if they write on the same material. But I think this is something that all authors could write about in their own way, it’s not just something that’s restricted to #OwnVoices. And sometimes, I notice that there’s this expectation that #OwnVoices authors necessarily have that experience (with the implication being that non #OwnVoices authors don’t), even though that doesn’t always happen.

      Like

  7. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction June 22, 2022 / 8:40 am

    I definitely agree that #OwnVoices can be complicated and it can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it helps to know that stories are coming from a genuine place and an “insider’s” perspective. But you make some really good points about what constitutes OwnVoices. It can be complicated at best, and it puts pressure on people to reveal things about themselves they might not want to. I still think that the #OwnVoices movement is positive overall and has brought us better storytelling (especially when it comes to things like race), but it’s not without faults, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mint June 22, 2022 / 6:52 pm

      I like the idea behind the movement but I think the way that some people have been engaging with it is really disappointing, like the expectation among some readers and publishers that #OwnVoices authors to be 100% authentic to their voice (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

      Like

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