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.