This post has been a long time coming. I’ve been meaning to sit down and write it for the past month or so but it just never seemed to happen, something always got in the way or time got away from me but here I am today, talking about all the ways in which I love and hate the label Ownvoices. Ownvoices is a label that I used to love but that I slowly grew to resent, nowadays, it makes me cringe more often than not. And that only tells me one thing: This word has strayed very far away from what it was intended to be.
I wrote a post about this very topic almost two years ago and my thoughts have stayed pretty much the same. So you’re probably wondering, why are you making a whole other post just to regurgitate the same thoughts and feelings? Well, it has been two years, I have grown as a person, and thus when I went to reread the post I felt while the ideas were there, it was surface level and a bit disorganized, there are also some points I wasn’t aware of or didn’t touch on that I would like to add or expand on, so second time’s the charm?
#Ownvoices is an initiative created by Corinne Duyvis to highlight books with marginalized main characters written by authors who share those same marginalizations. And this goes for any and all types of marginalizations, be it race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, mental illness, neurodivergency, disability, etc…you name it, if the author and character share it then it can be labeled ownvoices.
Sounds simple, right? I wish.
Like the creator said, the concept has taken a life of its own and just like anything that starts being used widely, there are certain nuances and caveats that the initial definition doesn’t cover, which I will attempt to walk you through while talking about the ways in which the Ownvoices label should be used and the ways in which it is often misused.
What the #Ownvoices label should be used for
Quite simply, the purpose it was created for: The use of the Ownvoices label highlights authors who are writing from within their own marginalizations. It is meant to signal when an author shares the identities and experiences of the character(s) they are writing about, so for all intents and purposes, it is meant to tell us when an author is writing their own experiences, when the representation on the page is authentic to the ways in which they navigate life as part of a minority. We see what it is like to be part of that marginalization from their own lens, and theirs alone.
And that is where the first bit of nuance comes in. Sticking #Ownvoices on a book or a character doesn’t mean that the experience within the pages is universal, it doesn’t mean it is supposed to be the perfect image of what it is like to be part of the marginalized group represented. It is only meant to tell us that the author is writing what they know, what they live. It doesn’t mean it is going to be all encompassing, that every single person who shares the identity is going to feel seen and represented within the pages of the book. #Ownvoices means that the book represents a single experience within the marginalized group, no more, no less.
#Ownvoices is also supposed to uplift and celebrate marginalized voices, it’s supposed to put them at the forefront and highlight their work as one coming from a place of knowing, of living. A place where the author is intimately familiar with the ways in which their character threads through life, the ways in which being part of their minority shapes how they view the world and more importantly, how the world views them. All their bits and pieces, jagged edges and all. The author and their character. Not the author and their readership. Not the author and the rest of the community. The author and their character. And if the character manages to hit home with most people who share the identity? That’s great! If not? It’s bound to resonate with *some* people and that is enough.
All the WRONG ways the #Ownvoices label is used
The intended use of the label is pretty simple and straight forward, but the way in which it’s misused are unfortunately not. Throughout the years that I have been involved in the book community, I have seen the word used wrongly one too many times, even maliciously at times. So let me walk you through all the ways in which I have seen it be used that it is NOT meant for.
Ownvoices shouldn’t police what authors write
I have seen this sentiment expressed by many authors before and I can’t help but empathize. I have seen a few statements in the vein of “Ownvoices puts us into boxes that are too tight and don’t fit right”. Or rather, it’s not the label itself that is at fault here, it’s the way it has been used by readers to put expectations on the kind of representation they come to expect with the use of it. We tend to forget that, like I stated above, Ownvoices means the author is writing their own experience. We have come to expect it to mean that their work has to somehow portray our own experiences, or perhaps a universal experience. Which is hypocritical, because what’s the first thing we shout at the top of our lungs when talking about being part of a marginalized group?
We are not a monolith.
And then to turn around and put the burden of portraying a whole community on a single book? It doesn’t make sense. And this is one of the pitfalls of limited representation (which is a much larger discussion for another day). We so desperately want to see ourselves within the pages of a book that we come to expect, and even sometimes demand that the book be true to us. And with those expectations come certain implied do’s and don’ts, certain limitation we implicitly put on the kind of representation we want to see and when something is written outside of it? It’s deemed wrong, bad, not enough.
And I’d hate to be the one to break it to you (not really) but you’re playing into the exact system we are trying to fight. For so long we have been told what kind of Muslim, what kind of Black, what kind of queer, what kind of disabled, what kind of *insert any other minority here* we need to be to be palatable, to be marketable and to fit into the narrow box of the outsider’s gaze. And by writing their uniquely shaped stories, that span a wide spectrum of experiences from one author to the other, these people are breaking out of that box, making space for more narratives, expanding the types of stories we are *allowed* to tell. So then, being told, just as they start putting their foot in the door, and from within their communities no less, that only *certain* stories are accepted? That’s fucked up, please excuse my french.
TL,DR: Being an “ownvoices reviewer” doesn’t make you the authority on what should and what shouldn’t be written, it also doesn’t make you the judge of whether representation that portrays someones else is inaccurate, when it’s quite literally someone else’s lived experiences.
Ownvoices doesn’t mean unproblematic
Jumping off of my last point, this might seem a bit contradictory if not for the nuance in my two statements but hear me out. Above I said “you can’t decide what is accurate” not “you can’t discuss what is harmful”. Because let’s be real, if you are part of a marginalized group, growing up in a supremacist society, you are conditioned to hate or deny the parts of your identity that aren’t deemed “the norm” (whatever that is). You are bound to internalize some if not a lot of it. Internalized biases and bigotry are a very really thing that marginalized folks have to grapple with and unlearn for years upon years and even then you’re never guaranteed to unlearn it all, some of it might still sneak up on you.
So even if you’re writing your *own* experience, you aren’t exempt from perpetuating harmful ideas and negative stereotypes. Now, I’m not talking about books that tackle and challenge those notions, I am talking about books that find themselves with those concepts insidiously weaved into the narrative, and often times it isn’t a conscious act of the author. It just…sort of slips. Which is why I am a firm believer that even ownvoices novels need and should have sensitivity readers. Yes, even for the minorities the author is part of. Because other people might catch what you let slip, and maybe even, in portraying your own experience with your marginalization you might accidentally invalidate someone else’s. So the “but the story is ownvoices” in the face of criticism doesn’t fly, even ownvoices stories can cause harm.
Ownvoices shouldn’t gatekeep
Ah. My BIGGEST issue with the use of the #Ownvoices label. Nowadays the conversations go as follow: is this ownvoices? Yes? Great! No? Yikes. And that is a sentiment that I’ve seen go around so widely the past couple years and it quite frankly makes my insides shrivel. This is especially harmful when it comes to queerness and disability (both mental and physical), because not everyone can claim the #ownvoices label. Not without putting themselves in real danger. And although a story with #ownvoices stuck on it is more trustworthy, I think that if representation is done well and respectfully, authors don’t owe us every piece of themselves to justify writing these stories. Not when making those pieces of themselves public can cause them direct harm.
Now, this is a very complex matter, because there’s also the very real issues of non-marginalized folks taking up the space for -visibly- marginalized folks. Minorities have it ten if not a hundred times harder than your average non-marginalized writer to get their foot in the door of publishing, so novels that do not claim ownvoices get a knee-jerk reaction of “they’re taking mine or someone else’s spot” and I get it, I do. I want marginalized authors to thrive and be on an equal footing, especially those who stick their necks out and claim all their identities as theirs, publicly. But understand that this is something that some people aren’t ready yet to do, or cannot afford to do, which isn’t to any fault of theirs. Some people have just been dealt a rotten hand they need to work with the best they can.
In a perfect world, everyone would be able to fly their colors boldly but we do not live in a perfect world. We realistically cannot demand that every single story be ownvoices without accidentally gatekeeping people who share those identities but cannot share it, not without asking them to out themselves. Are they not allowed to write their stories, their experiences, just because their circumstances don’t allow it? That’s like adding a pile of shit on an already shitty situation. And I acknowledge there is no perfect solution, but what I do ask is that we navigate it with grace and while keeping this possibility in mind.
Ownvoices and intersectionality
This is where things get really sticky and unclear (for some), so let me just get this out of the way. If a character is at the intersection of many identities and you happen to share one of those? You are not ownvoices for that representation. and this is both for authors and readers. This is ESPECIALLY true for white queer people writing/reading QTBIPOC, which is what I am going to focus on here. If you happen to be bisexual and white and write a bisexual Black character? You are not ownvoices. Not even for the bisexual representation. And same goes for white reviewers, your review of a BIPOC queer book isn’t ownvoices and that is for the simple reason that our identities aren’t detachable from each other.
They might seem like two different things but queerness and race for BIPOC are intricately linked and shape our experiences in unique ways that white people cannot and do not understand. There are a number things that factor in this, which I might get into at a later date, but the gist of it is that race informs the way queerness is viewed and experienced. These aren’t two separate things, they are two equal parts of a whole, that make for vastly different experiences when separated from each other. And this goes both for non-queer BIPOC and white queer folks when approaching these books and characters.
People thinking the contrary has made for some harmful situations where reviewers have deemed QTBIPOC books bad and problematic because
, and excuse my bluntness, they do not have the range nor the nuance that’s needed to understand the work. Now is their hurt still valid if the book happened to hurt them? Yes, absolutely. But it is very simple to say “this book isn’t written for me” rather than “this book is problematic and shouldn’t exist” when it can and will resonate very deeply with QTBIPOC, because honestly our experiences can be very messy and complicated in ways that are unique to us. And it is okay to admit that you don’t have the tools or knowledge to understand what a book is trying to achieve, it’s okay to sometimes say “it’s me, not the book”. And on the flip side, authors thinking that queer BIPOC experiences are just like white queer experiences has made for some outright hurtful and offensive portrayals in the worst cases or a white queer experience painted brown at best.
Ownvoices isn’t a broad term
This one is pretty straight forward and will make for a much shorter section than the previous ones because it really shouldn’t have to be said and yet. Ownvoices doesn’t work for umbrella terms most of the times. Let me give you two quick examples to illustrate this. There is no such thing as ownvoices Asian. Asia is a continent, you can’t tell me that someone who’s Indian is ownvoices for a Chinese led story, or someone who’s Filipino is ownvoices for Thai representation. The math just doesn’t add up. Same goes for ownvoices Indigenous. Indigenous people exist all over the planet so you can’t tell me, I, an Indigenous North African individual, am ownvoices for the Indigenous representation from the Americas.
Some identities are close enough to overlap in a lot of ways and for people from a neighboring identity to see themselves but if you mean Chinese say Chinese, if you mean Indigenous specify the region of the world, if you mean lesbian say lesbian, and so on a so forth. The ownvoices label is specific, and making it broader than it is meant to be makes us circle back to the issue of making people who share the same identity or adjacent identities a monolith. And that is not a good look.
Where do we go from here?
In the post I wrote two years ago, I said I didn’t have any solutions to this issue but I do this time. Somewhat. Because I genuinely think that #ownvoices is an important tool when it’s used in the ways it’s intended for. And long term I think there are some things we can implement to fix our relationship with it before we stray too far.
1. Prioritize ownvoices books. Being able to claim the label is a form of privilege, there’s no doubt in that. But it also comes with its own risks and challenges. People who claim it publicly stick their necks out and put themselves at the risk of harassment just for existing, so they deserve the support and they deserve to go first.
2. Don’t gatekeep. And when discussing books that are perceived as non-ownvoices, you can discuss and criticize the representation to your heart’s desire, but leave the author’s identity out of it *stares at recent events*, no one deserves to have their most vulnerable parts put under a microscope, scrutinized and dissected, so stick to talking about the work. So just, thread with kindness.
3. Don’t take the ownvoices label as the law. Just because someone is ownvoices for something doesn’t mean whatever they say about it goes. Like I said and will say over and over again, marginalized communities aren’t a monolith, so that one person’s opinion is their own, that one person’s experience is their own and what might resonate with someone might alienate someone else and both are valid.
4. Ownvoices is only supposed to mean that there is a shared identity and shared experiences there, not all of these other things it’s being used for. So let’s go back to the roots, please?
That’s it until next time!
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.