The #Ownvoices label has lost its way

Hello friends,

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?

What’s #Ownvoices?

#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.

signature

38 thoughts on “The #Ownvoices label has lost its way

  1. 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.

    As usual, you hit the nail on the fucking head Fadwa. You managed to lay out literally everything I’ve been thinking and feeling about the own voices label but didn’t have the coherency to articulate. I especially agree with what you said about not taking an own voices label as law or judgment that a book will be automatically good or unproblematic.

    I stan you so freaking hard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad for this nuanced take on the Ownvoices tag, esp since I’m new to it and recent takes on book twitter are just not…considering intersectionality & gatekeeping enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this post, Fadwa, it’s one of your best and covers something that I’ve been seeing more and more of. One of the reasons I follow you is that we have almost entirely different views on things and I appreciate being able to step outside my ‘comfort zone’ and consider other ideas on various topics.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is such an important post and I agree with so many of the points being made! The term has been stripped of so much necessary nuance in the bookish community and a huge rethink of the way we approach it is long overdue.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved reading this well thought out discussion on what is and isn’t own voice. I admit I have forgotten the original terms meaning (exact meaning) and I don’t see it often on the back of books telling why I should read X book. Having said that I have read the odd own voice book and when a book is ownvoice it can have a little more authority on one representation it is talking about. I agree with pretty much all your points.

    Like

  6. You write so so well, Fadwa. I love how this article dissects every part of the own-voices discussion. I’ve seen a few tweets about it, but your post really expands on the topic in a way only you can. The point about own-voices and intersectionality is very important. There are so many books out there by queer, white authors who write about QPOC that are so weird in the race aspect that it seems like the “POC” part is there just for diversity’s sake. I’m glad you pointed that out too. I also really dislike the broad own-voices terms like “African” or “West African”. There are quite a few ” West African” books that use the word just as a buzzword. It’s really annoying lol

    Thanks for the post, Fadwa!

    Like

  7. Fada, why are you so awesome? I loved reading this. There are issues I knew about, and others I just recently noticed. I did use to expect authors to write my experiences. I never voiced this anywhere, because I knew it wasn’t fair, but that slight disappointment was there when I discovered more latinx authors, in my case.

    It’s a weird place to be, because IT REALLY DOESN’T MAKE SENSE AT ALL. It’s exactly as you say. I guess it comes from a place of being hungry for that variety in representation, but it turns this positive thing into something selfish.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this! Let’s hope that with more people realizing this issues, we’ll give #ownvoices its space, nothing more, nothing less.

    Like

  8. “But it is very simple to say “this book isn’t written for me” rather than “this book is problematic and shouldn’t exist””

    SO MUCH YES to this. Surely no two experiences, even if two authors were to share a race and a sexuality or a sexuality and a disability, are the same. Of course it’s lovely when you open a book and see your own experiences reflected back at you, but we can still enjoy and support books while also acknowledging that, for someone else, these experiences will bring them so much more validation than they might bring us. Tbh I also have a slight problem with this idea that we can only enjoy own voices stories that directly reflect our own experiences; for example, I’m aroace-spec so I often find it difficult to find own voices stories, but I don’t need every aroace character I come across to have experiences that echo mine when instead I could be learning how identifying as aroace has impacted someone else’s life in a different way.

    Wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • …I could be learning how identifying as aroace has impacted someone else’s life in a different way.

      I love this point! It’s so important to remember that every book is ultimately an individual creation that reflects a very personal experience. There might be some elements that resonate with many readers, but the book as a whole is not universal. And, for me, it’s very interesting to see how characters who share some part of my identity (bisexual, Lithuanian-American, cis woman, Midwestern…) experience it differently than I do.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is such an important conversation, especially when it comes to discussing intersectionality. Thank you for putting the time and thought into pushing the discussion.

    Do you have any thoughts on #ownvoice as a term for reviewers? Its a different avenue but still an important aspect to uplift.

    Like

  10. I meant to comment earlier, but I needed time to really sit and think on this post.

    I am so glad you chose to address this topic. I am new to Twitter/blogging, therefore the Ownvoices label, and all the discourse has left me feeling a bit sick about it. Thanks for clarifying what the label is meant to achieve, and where it’s gone wrong.

    I love your point on not letting ownvoices turn into gatekeeping for communities. As a quiet (and questioning) queer it’s been discouraging to see so many people attacked and outed in the community.

    I’m also glad you discussed the difference between a good book that wasn’t written for you and a book that actually has problems. Since I’ve started blogging I’m exposed to more diverse books and enjoying reading more than I ever have; but I do have trouble working out my own biases. It’s easy to tell why I like a book, but I have trouble figuring out why I dislike certain books, leaving space for those biases to seep in.

    Anyway, I loved your post!

    Like

  11. “queerness and race for BIPOC are intricately linked and shape our experiences in unique ways that white people cannot and do not understand” THIS! I’ve been feeling very icky when people claim to be an ownvoices reviewer for books with queer BIPOC characters. White reviewers just don’t understand how queer people outside of the US, are never really afforded the same privileges as them.

    This is such a well written post, Fadwa!

    Like

  12. Thank you so, so much for this, Fadwa. I’ve been trying to put all of this into words for the last few weeks, in light of everything that’s been happening lately, and every time I try, I just end up in tears and furiously rage watching all my favorite queer movies, so I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss this in such a wonderfully complex way!

    Like

  13. Oh wow, thank you for putting this into words. People with marginalized identities are NOT a monolith – I feel like we need to paste that on a banner every time we use the ownvoices label from now on. I get incredibly frustrated every time I see ownvoices reviewers claim that the representation is bad bc it doesn’t match perfectly with their own experience, which just seems so counterproductive to me?? There’s this level of critique and scrutiny and gatekeeping that non-ownvoices books don’t seem to get, which makes me want to scream.

    And you’re right! It’s such a complex issue, especially with supposedly “invisible” identities like sexuality or disability. But the attitude of shutting the door on people who aren’t willing or able to claim the ownvoices label?? So incredibly harmful. I love your suggestions of where to go from here, because ownvoices shouldn’t be used as a weapon, but I still certainly believe that ownvoices authors should be prioritizes. Anyways, this is a brilliant discussion and I really enjoyed reading it!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: Reacting to Book Twitter’s Unpopular Opinions, Part Two // Friends to Lovers, 3-Star Ratings, & More! – Caitlin Althea
  15. This is an amazing post, Fadwa! And you put a lot of things in words that always made me uncomfortable with some twitter threads regarding the topic. Twitter sometimes just isn’t suited for really nuanced discussions where there isn’t necessarily a right and wrong way. Especially the gatekeeping part was talked about lately and some authors coming out and talking about their experiences with it … uff.
    I really appreciate your nuanced and careful look at this complex topic and I agree completely. It’s something we have to be careful with, but then it can be a great tool.

    Like

  16. i LOVE this discussion! i recently wrote something similar in my blog about our expectations on own-voices books and i do admit of being guilty of expecting that, because i share something with the author and the representation i’ll be seeing on page, i immediately want to relate with the characters, when our experiences can be so different. it even made me want *not* to write about brazilian/south-american characters, because i feel like i’ll never be able to grasp the diversity of our experience as a people when i absolutely *don’t have to*, because it would be impossible, but also because that’s not what own-voices should install for. i think it’s even more complicated when some of those works are about “stereotypes” surrounding that culture or marginalization. i am currently reading “frankly in love” which i think is a good example of this, as well as “american panda” by gloria chao and both of these books are own-voices, but they still talk about an experience that can be considered a “stereotype” of korean/chinese-american families. while i do understand people being upset because, unfortunately, these stories do get picked up by publishers more often, i don’t think it’s a problem with the authors or these stories to begin with, because even what could be considered a “stereotype” can represent someone out there and these people deserve to be seen just as much.

    Like

  17. I don’t have anything to add to this discussion Fadwa but I just wanted to thank you for writing this and for doing all of this amazing work you do!! Absolute loved reading this post. Especially loved your insight about writing about an identity that is not your own and how that can sometimes be exclusionary (though it is VERY important to reprimand authors that aren’t own-voices who get the representation wrong).

    Like

  18. Pingback: September Favourites – the book mermaid
  19. Pingback: September Wrap-up// I Read 10 Books? – The Confessions Of A Music and Book Addict
  20. Pingback: Bookish Breakdown No 21: September 2020 – Thoughts Stained With Ink
  21. Pingback: September Wrap-Up + Looking To October // What I Read, Watched, and More! – Just A Little Lit Nerd
  22. Pingback: September Wrap-Up | falling into autumn 🍁 – Weird Zeal
  23. Pingback: September Wrap-Up – Mary and the Words
  24. Pingback: May’s Moments of the Month: September // School is Still Killing Me – Forever and Everly
  25. Pingback: Book Bloggers Appreciation | September 2020 💻 – A Book. A Thought.
  26. Pingback: The One Where you gotta read these posts: Book Blogging Posts I have Loved in September 2020 – The Critiques of a Fangirl
  27. Pingback: Interview met Zomerburen-auteur Rianne Robben - Expreszo
  28. Pingback: Show Me the Middle Grade #1: Celebrating Latinx Heritage Month – LYRICAL READS
  29. Pingback: To sum-up : September & October 2020 | Word Wonders

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s