#Ownvoices: Its purpose and limitations


Hello friends!

If you’ve been around the book community for a while, especially the Twitter side of it, you know what #ownvoices is, what it does and what it doesn’t. And I, like a lot of people probably, have alot of thoughts about it swarming my head and demanding to be let out. Some good. Some not so much. Fret not, I’ll get into it, all in due time. And all in this post. So please read on, if you’re interested in my thoughts when it comes to this label.

In case you’re new to the term, #ownvoices was created by Corinne Duyvis to refer to books (or any piece of media, really) that has a main character of a certain minority group and whose creator also belongs to said group. So, for example an autistic character written by an autistic author, a chinese character written by a chinese author, a trans character written by a trans author, and so on and so forth, I mean… I think that by now you get the gist of it. It’s a fairly simple concept and a very useful one at that, but it has its limitations.

When I’ve first came across the #ownvoices label, I thought it was fantastic, perfect, that it was the solution to every hurt that bad representation has caused countless marginalized folks. Knowing when to automatically trust a book and the rep it has, when to know that it’ll be true, real and inoffensive, I really thought that it was the answer. I was also naive, very much so. Don’t get me wrong, #ownvoices is an amazing initiative, a good and important starting point towards authentic diverse books, books that matter, that uplift our voices instead of using them as tokens just to fill a *quota*. #ownvoices is a great label to gauge out what books are more likely to have good representation.

The key word here is likely. In my opinion, the label #ownvoices has gone rogue. And it’s no one’s fault but our own. We’ve put crushing expectations on it, we’ve come to expect it to mean that every single book that claims it needs to represent us, every single one of us who belong to the same minority, one by one, nevermind that we’re all different humans with different life experiences and different world views. We’ve come to demand that #ownvoices books be true to our personal experiences. We’ve come to frown upon them and deem them unworthy and inaccurate when they don’t. We’ve made the word lose its purpose and meaning.

A word whose purpose was to uplift marginalized voices, is now, sometimes, weaponized against them.

And at the end of the day #ownvoices only means that the author is writing their own experiences, not yours or mine. THEIRS. The way they’ve threaded through life being part of their minority, the way it has impacted them, the way it’s made them interact with the world, with other people and with different events in their life. So imagine someone telling you that no, your experiences are worth nothing, that they’re wrong and shouldn’t exist just because they differ from theirs. Not a great feeling, is it? Even if you’re from the same minority, you can’t expect it to be your experience as well. If it is, that’s great, it’s amazing to see yourself, your life, on paper, it’s incredibly validating. But if not, that’s okay as well. There are a lot more things that shape people’s experiences aside from their minorities. Including said minorities intersecting with other ones.

There’s also the fact that only race/ethnicity can be *visibly* #ownvoices -and even then, not always. And this is a big issue with the label. Because a lot of people write their experiences, especially closeted LGBTQIAP+ folks and folks with disabilities they’re not comfortable disclosing for one reason or another so they cannot just up and slap that on their stories without potentially putting themselves in harm’s way. And that isn’t a risk worth taking. And you can NEVER tell someone’s gender, sexuality, health condition, etc with certainty, just by looking at them, and I mean Never. Which means that oftentimes #ownvoices inadvertently gatekeeps people from their own communities, and I can’t imagine what that must feel like to an author. To see their experiences discredited because they can’t label them theirs must be crushing.

I know it’s not as easy as just welcoming anyone to write our stories. Because that ends in disaster more times than not. And I honestly don’t have a solution to this last issue in particular because it’s delicate and complicated. Non-ownvoices books have burned me more times than I would have liked, so I’m wary and cautious going into books that aren’t #ownvoices, either to my own identities or those of others (especially the latter, because I can’t vouch for the accuracy or pick up on harmful content) which may be a way of enforcing that same issue I was discussing before but it’s not something I -and other marginalized folks- can just turn off, it’s a defense mechanism.

So I really don’t know what the right thing to do here is, #ownvoices is in turn both a good and a bad thing, depending on how you use it and what perspective you look at it from. But I’ve been trying my best to use the #ownvoices label loosely, and not jump to conclusions, especially when the authors hasn’t explicitely expressed one way or another. I think that the point of this post is to just…be gentle and careful when using the #ownvoices label? It’s not a word of God, and shouldn’t be taken as such. It’s supposed to be a helpful tool and I think that we should go back to the time where it was *just* that and didn’t harm anyone in the process.

That’s it until next time!

Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.


20 thoughts on “#Ownvoices: Its purpose and limitations

  1. Thank you for this post! I agree with the points you’re making and we do have to remember that experiences come at a spectrum and the experience of one isn’t necessarily the experience of another. My experience as a Filipino living in the Philippines wouldn’t be the same as a Filipino who lives elsewhere in the world and I do try to remember that when looking for Filipino rep.
    I also agree that #ownvoices is still a good label to see which may be a more representative or accurate portrayal of diverse experiences. Nowadays, thanks to the explosion of diverse books, I tend to trust #ownvoices authors a lot more. So far, I haven’t really been burnt yet so I still tend to go for them when it comes to diverse lit. Again, thanks for this great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this paragraph:

    “We’ve put crushing expectations on it, we’ve come to expect it to mean that every single book that claims it needs to represent us, every single one of us who belong to the same minority, one by one, nevermind that we’re all different humans with different life experiences and different world views. We’ve come to demand that #ownvoices books be true to our personal experiences. We’ve come to frown upon them and deem them unworthy and inaccurate when they don’t. We’ve made the word lose its purpose and meaning.”

    Good thoughts and points, Fadwa. I hope we can all do better in the future.


  3. I needed some clarity on what the term meant, and thank you for that, Fadwa. I agree with your points. My experience having epilepsy will be very different from someone who has epilepsy in a different part of the brain, got it at a different age, etc. There is no “one” label for everyone or every group. Each human being experience is different. Thus own voice can only show in each book one lens at a time. If done well, own voice by someone who is of the minority or someone very close to them is (like their son has a health condition) then it can be powerful, but it is still just one lens out of many. We need to remember the limits and as you said not put unrealistic expectations on said books that can never be met.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good post.

    I agree with many of your points. Perhaps it might keep people from making assumptions, although still sometimes it’s difficult to know when to use it.

    For example, I’m in an interracial marriage, as is my mother-in-law and brother. My brother-in-law used to be as well, but they got divorced. My experience is that 99.99% of the time, nobody really gives a flying crap what one’s race is. The characters in the book I’m writing are in an interracial relationship as well.

    A couple of months ago, I made a comment on Twitter about interracial relationships, and I got a few people commenting things like “shut up white girl! You have no idea what you’re talking about!” When I pointed out that nearly everybody in my family is involved in an interracial relationship, the comments stopped.

    I’m not a minority, so I don’t use #ownvoices, but I’ve started to periodically make posts linking to my husband’s account, clearly labeling him as my husband, as a way of pointing out that yes, I know a little bit about interracial relationships.


  5. As always, you are so much more articulate than I could ever hope to be. Thank you for writing this post, Fadwa! I think #ownvoices can be a great starting point, but like you said, it’s tricky, and it’s not universal experiences authors are writing about. It’s their own experience, or at least a part of it, in a way they are comfortable writing about.


  6. Yes! I always scratch my head when someone questions an #ownvoices author’s representation of a character, who is supposed to be like themselves. Every person in every group does not share the same exact experience, but by calling out their rep, it made me feel like they were invalidating that person’s experiences. It’s definitely something that has always bothered me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent post! I fell into the same trap with #ownvoices but now have come round to see it as more of a useful label. It’s sort of like MG or YA. The age recommendations are great, but there are many books that will appeal to other readers as well, or that are labeled MG when they should be YA, or that adults will love as well. The books have to be shelved somewhere in the bookstore, but the age or genre label is not the only thing about that book, and neither should the #ownvoices label be.

    Liked by 1 person

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