Friday, April 13, 2018

5 Problems Within the Own Voices Campaign (And How to Fix Them)

Own voices stories. What does that mean? In short, it's a term used to describe when people write stories that feature characters who share the same identity as the writer. For example: A Syrian refugee writing a story about Syrian refugees. A disabled author writing a disabled main character. A hispanic author writing a hispanic character. A Sikh author writing a character of the Sikh religion.

It is a concept meant to give an accurate voice to underrepresented groups. With so many groups of people being misrepresented or not represented at all, the Own Voices campaign is designed to encourage and boost authors who want to share stories closely connected to their identities.

Sounds awesome, right?

It is.


Yes. There's a "however." I wish there wasn't, but there is.

The Own Voices campaign has sprouted some problematic concepts that are harmful to the writing community and the underrepresented groups it was designed to promote. These issues include gatekeeping, unintentional stunting of creativity and compassion, and the unfortunate propagation of "othering."

5 Problems Within the Own Voices Campaign (And How to Fix Them)

Now, before we begin I'd also like to point out that the issues mentioned below were not originally built into Own Voices. It began as a cool hashtag that would allow readers to find books by authors who write powerful, representative Own Voice stories. Which is great. I'm not criticizing this idea. In fact, I completely support it. This post is simply taking issue with the way that it's gone in a tail-spin since then.

Got it? Okay. Here we go:

1. It shuts down representation. This realization hit me full-force during an online writing conference. A physically-abled author asked a panel of "diversity" authors if they thought it was okay for her to write a main character who is disabled, or if she should just stick to what she "knows." As somebody with Lyme disease who's constantly frustrated by the lack of disabled main characters in fiction, I placed my cup of tea down and leaned forward, excited that a fellow author was wanting to come alongside me and help fix this problem. And then the panelists spoke with resounding, "No." Do not write a disabled character if you are not disabled. This was not the first (nor was it the last) time I'd heard this, but it still broke my heart. Here was a writer who wanted to help represent an underrepresented group and she was being told by industry authorities that she shouldn't.

Readers wonder why we have so few books that showcase marginalized people. This is one of the reasons. Writers are being told to "stay in their lane." To only write stories and characters that they know about from first-hand experience (because apparently having family, friends, and coworkers and traveling and reading and thinking for oneself aren't good enough). This shuts down the opportunity to have good conversations, produce good stories, and widen the pool of books that represent the world and all of the people that live in it. Why has this shutting down taken place? Well, partly because...

2. It assumes that writers are not capable of writing a story about somebody who is different from themselves. So often I see non Own Voices authors told not to write certain characters or stories. After all, if you aren't of a specific underrepresented group, you cannot possibly have the level of understanding or skill required to write about them well. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. While we live in a culture that tries to tell us that some groups are so different from us that we cannot possibly understand them, this is simply untrue. We are all human beings and we can come alongside each other and learn from one another.

For example: What's it like to be a refugee? I am not a refugee so I will never understand what that's like on the same level that an actual refugee can. HOWEVER, I can ask questions of people who are willing to help me understand. I can read books. I can do my research. Just like you, as an abled person, can do the same when it comes to writing a disabled character. No, the story won't be the same as an Own Voices story, but that's okay. It doesn't have to be. It just has to be good. All it takes is humility, time, kindness, and hard work....All skills that every writers would benefit from no matter what story we're attempting to write.

As writers, we owe it to ourselves and our readers to work hard to understand our characters and stories. And, beyond that, we need to work hard to cultivate our writing skills so that we can write our characters well. To assume that writers are not capable of doing this is nonsensical and narrow minded.

3. It is policing who can write what stories. You're Indian and you're not writing a story about an Indian character? You must not care about representation. You're a neurotypical author writing an autistic character? You can't do that because you're not autistic.

I've seen so many of these types of comments and, honestly, all of them are absurd. What gives us the right to decide who should and shouldn't write what type of story? Nobody is obligated to write Own Voices. And no non Own Voices author is obligated to stay way from certain characters or plots. We're writers. We write stories. That's it.

4. It needs to expand to deal with a larger problem: Publishers. I've heard this mentioned a lot: non Own Voices shouldn't attempt to write about underrepresented groups because, if they get published, they are taking that publication opportunity away from an Own Voices writers.  This is operating out of the assumption that publishers only publish a specific number of "diverse" stories. Sadly, this is an accurate assumption. However, the solution is a poor one. Because few diverse books are published, writers should write less diverse books...? What?

Representation, whether it takes the form of Own Voice or non Own Voice authors, is important. We cannot cater to publishing houses and their propensity to overlook entire groups of people when publishing fiction. Instead, we as writers need to be telling stories that are reflective of the real world: Stories about characters of all identities. And we as readers need to be actively requesting that publishers do a better job of publishing said stories.

5. It doesn't understand that all voices and perspectives are different. There's this weird assumption that, because you belong to a certain group, you must be an authority on all things within this group. Errrr. What? This puts an enormous and unwarranted amount of pressure on the shoulders of Own Voices authors. Why? Because everyone has different experiences. For instance, my experience with Lyme disease is different from both of my parents and my younger brother. Just because you belong to a group of people doesn't mean that you all think the same way, act the same way, or write the same way. Yes, you'll share similar experiences, but not identical. And you definitely won't write about it from an identical angle. Nor should you be expected to.

With this being the case, why block non Own Voices authors from writing about underrepresented groups? Yeah, it'll be different from an Own Voices story. But that's okay. Every single story has a different voice, style, and perspective. That's what makes writing so amazing.

I know that we writers can do better than this. Own Voices stories are an awesome idea and the campaign is one that has a lot of potential. Let's not ruin it by pitting writers against each other.

Okay. I think we're done here.

Now let's open up the comment section! What are your favorite and least favorite things about the Own Voices campaign? How do you think it can be improved? What are some of your favorite Own Voices stories?

As always, please leave any and all thoughts below. Just be respectful, thoughtful, and kind. I look forward to hearing from you!

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
9 Tips for Writing Physically Disabled Characters in Fantasy
"Write What You Know:" What This Advice Means And How to Apply it
4 Fundamental Errors in the Diverse Books Campaign (And How to Fix Them)

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (Reposting.. thank you, Blogger. :P)

    "You're Indian and you're not writing a story about an Indian character? You must not care about representation."

    I love this point. I feel this way as a female author writing generally male MCs (which should be an OV issue, but only seems to apply to men writing women?). I must not care about representing women in fantasy. My society affords equal dignity to men and women--why am I not writing a "women overcome society's oppression" story? Maybe because I'm tired of that narrative and think women (as well as groups vastly more under- and misrepresented than women) deserve more than one story line.

    I saw a really great post from an Indian author who does have an Indian MC, but specifically avoided the "standard" "Indian female in America" narrative because she wanted a fun, exciting fantasy story--that also happened to have an Indian MC. I worry that OV might be giving the impression that OV stories should be *about* an issue/experience/identity, rather than about characters who happen to be from a certain group and whose identity informs their actions without becoming the whole point.

    1. Followup thought regarding #4.

      Some advice I heard about this from an African American author was "Yes, write black characters--but when you query, consider how publishers are behaving." Basically his advice was to avoid publishers who only put out books about minorities written by non-minorities, publishers who have bad track records when it comes to hiring minorities, and the like. Look instead for those who are making an effort to publish OV books and books by underrepresented authors.

    2. Hey Kate! I loved the points you make about your female characters. While it is true that women have been oppressed in the past (and it is for sure important to tell stories that remember this), it is SO important to show female characters who have moved past this. So yay that you're doing that!

      That's one of the reasons Black Panther was such a cool movie to me: All characters were African or African American, but the narrative showed them as people of power rather than the black oppression that is so often depicted. Both are valid stories, but it is SO important to show underrepresented characters as amazing, powerful heroes and treat them the way you would treat literally any other character: As an individual rather than a political point.

      So no, OV stories don't have to be about these OV characters facing oppression. They can, but they don't have to be.

      Great comment. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Very well done. Respectful and insightful, as always. I agree that we should support Own Voices, but I also agree that non Own Voices can often represent Own Voices in a super powerful way. Sometimes an outside perspective combined with empathy and respect can find the words in a unique way.

    1. YES. You summed up my point in a single comment. =D Thank you!

  4. I completely agree.
    I've seen books get one star reviews- before they're even released or read by the reviewer- because they're by a white author about non-white characters. Responses like this make it hard to take legitimate concerns about representation, and there definitely are concerns out there, seriously. That's not good for anyone.
    I love the idea of Own Voices- after all, I read to find lives that are different from mine. But it can go overboard.
    Thank you for the post!

    1. Yes, I've seen that, too. And also the flip side where the author is an OV author, but reviewers are upset that they didn't portray a specific thing that they thought was necessary for an OV story. It's unfortunate that some people can't read and review stories based off of their literary merit.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Controversial post! Oooooh.

    Despite having a separate twitter account for blogging/authors, I don't really know a huge amount about the Own Voices campaign? Though I do tend to know this and that about diverse books.

    Okay, so it's true that representation has been messed up so many times before but guess what? That doesn't mean that people can't write about main characters that are different than them at all. I believe that as long as they do research (and even have sensitivity readers if needed) then they can write a book with good representation.

    And this is coming from someone from about three marginalised groups.

    And I've heard that some marginalised people have criticised authors for not writing an experience that was similar to theirs? WHAT? or something along the lines of that...

    1. Excellent post, Hannah! And I like some of your points, Grace, but I have to say I disagree about sensitivity readers. That trend is part of the problem, too. It's a form of self-policing. Asking the question, "Is it okay?" is part of the problem. Just write, people. Let the public decide whether your story, or just one or some of your characters, is racist or not, for instance, and let that factor into readers' judgments as to its worth and marketability. It's okay to make mistakes and learn from them--either by not being published or being directly challenged by readers for questionable content. I'll go farther: Even purposely racist literature furthers the conversation, strengthening non-racist abilities to counter the hatred. Without representation of "the enemy," how will we combat it? How will we learn from history and be better to one another? It would suggest we should avoid having villains in our stories at all.

      For instance, if we were to erase Hitler from history and not try to understand his motivations, fixations, and hatred, we would be robbing the world of the chance to learn how to oppose such forces and, thus, to prevent, lessen, or properly punish the crimes that result.

      All censorship is bad because where does it end? Where should we draw the line, and who decides? These are dangerous propositions to freedom, creativity, and a robust, diverse culture of literature and art. We grow and learn by facing challenging viewpoints, grappling with them, and coming to our own conclusions. And those conclusions can and do evolve as well. Characters in fiction should be censored least of all. People have flaws. If everyone in your novel is sanitized, then you're not writing authentically human characters.

      So, if we seek too much to be "sensitive," always avoiding offense and tiptoeing around our audiences, we shouldn't be writing in the first place, especially not fiction. That approach ruins the work, and reading it will eventually make us feel like we live under fascism, as it should. Taboo, controversy, hatred, racism, sexism, opposition--these are all parts of life and the world. It makes no sense to pretend they don't exist by never writing about them in our stories. Writing about them means representing them. Yes, racism, too. If we erase all racism from books, art, media, how will especially majority readers be able to identify it and recognize its significance in their lives and interactions, and, not being seen for what it is, how will it ever be meaningfully challenged?

      Say and write it all, for crying out loud. Exorcise your demons. Grow. Live. Make things. Stop worrying so much. Most of us are much better people than we give ourselves credit for being. Trust and express yourself. Then, learn from the outcomes, whatever they may be.

    2. I'm totally with you, Grace. Research and asking questions and getting beta readers of all types to help you out? That's important.

      Carrie, I agree with your general idea of how important it is to represent everything in fiction, even if it is the ugliness of the world. However, I think perhaps you've misunderstood what sensitivity readers do. They read to make sure that your representation is "accurate," not necessarily to ask you to cut out things like racism, sexism, etc. It's less a form of censorship and more a way to make sure you're being culturally accurate.

      However, I have seen it cross over into the censorship area (and there are other aspects of sensitivity reads that can go wrong very quickly), so I think I see what you're saying.

      Sensitivity reads are helpful, but there needs to be a large variety and they shouldn't be taken as absolute truths.

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughts you two!

  6. Thanks for bringing up this important issue! While I understand people's fear of being misrepresented as it's been happening for generations, hindering writers from writing about diverse experiences only narrows the pool of characters we see in books. I also appreciate what you said about members of certain groups having different experiences. I'm mixed race, and while I want to publish stories that represent all my identities, I constantly struggle with the doubt that I'm not ethnic enough to represent them. My words to anyone who wants to write about unrepresented groups is
    A) Don't disqualify yourself before you've started
    B) Do your research and respect when someone does not want to share their culture
    C) Learn from your mistakes instead of letting them stop you
    D) Thank you for your efforts :)

  7. I feel like the perversion of #OwnVoices is wrapped up with all the other negativity on book Twitter and the online writing community. There are lots of nice people out there (like you!), but the general negativity makes me want to run away and never come back. :-P And that's the worst of seems just like "general" negativity. I'm not even sure where it's coming from. I don't know any one person I could point to and say "Oh yeah, this person is definitely part of the problem." Most people seem nice! Even the panel of people who told that author not to pursue diversity in her book are probably well-meaning, hard-working people! But there's just this spirit of negativity and "stay in your lane" and "don't take any chances" that makes it impossible to survive in this environment. At least for someone like me, but maybe that just means I'm too soft-skinned to survive as a writer.

    That's my rant for the day...thanks for the post. Do you have any ideas on how to counteract this problem?

  8. Excellent post, and very encouraging to those of us who want to write diverse books while not being representatives of diverse cultures. Putting yourself in the shoes of people who aren't you is the very essence of fiction! And the fact that it's so rarely done well is no argument at all to stop trying.

    I am working on a major series set during the Crusades. I have major Muslim characters. And I can't begin to tell you how incredibly life-changing it's been just to build empathy with these characters. And I want to challenge and edify my readers just as much as I've been challenged and edified through this process. Yes, it's a lot of work. But I think it's so, so worthwhile and that drawing hard and sharp lines around what people are and are not "supposed" to write is just going to build more walls, not tear them down.

  9. There is definitely a big problem with publishers making rules that will only widen the divide between those in marginalized groups and those not. While I strongly recommend Own Voices being written mostly by actual OV folks, there are indeed non-minority authors who are excellent at conducting research and interviews and getting plenty of accurate first-hand accounts, and then you can certainly have an OV story written by a non OV author. It should be a case by case basis. Also (as I said in my own post), if publishers are blocking OV authors from creating/printing their stories, then how in the world do they expect the diversity platform to grow? My guess is that it's more about money for them than actually increasing actual tolerance and inclusion. Sadly.

    1. I was curious what you would think after reading your post on Own Voices.
      Question: do you think nonOV authors, while maybe getting the facts 'wrong' (not that they can't get them right, as Hannah pointed out), could open the door for actual OV writers? It could be a 'safer' choice for a publisher now, and kindle interest in that type of character- like Harry Potter kindled interest in YA or Hunger Games did in dystopian (I'm genuinely curious- this isn't a leading/rhetorical question).

      And I don't blame publishers for being in it for the money- it is a business, after all. I just wish that society would change so that OV stories make just as much money as others.
      And I do think that publishers ARE reading the crowds wrong and underestimate interest in diverse, OV books- I can see why that's frustrating for an OV writer!

      Completely off-topic #chatwithindieauthor question, if it's not too late: How has being a parent influenced how you write younger characters/family dynamics?

  10. I have felt this before and it is so sad! I wonder if the same applies in reverse: can a disabled person write about someone who isnt? By that logic, no. And this is a great loss to the writer, who has the opportunity to expand his or her writing by researching these things and expanding their worldview. By saying no, they are discouraging that expansion and promoting the very problems they run into. Thank you for writing this, it is so true!


    I have seen so much going around about how non-marginalized people (especially white people) should not write characters of different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, abilities/disabilities, or genders than their own. While I totally agree that marginalized groups should be allowed to tell their own stories and be published and have as much weight in the writing world as more 'privileged' writers, it really sucks that we live in a cultural moment that prides itself on promoting equality and diversity, while really fostering suspicion, hate, and, basically, segregation of different groups. Yes, writers who want to write people with different experiences from theirs need to do their homework, but, on the other hand, we're all human, and we can all empathize with one another on some level. And if what people really want to promote is diversity, they shouldn't get upset when well-meaning people try to reach out and write characters different than them. That's completely counterproductive.

    I'm so glad that you took the time to point out some of the problems with the #ownvoices campaign, and offer solutions. Again, thank you so, so much for this post. Hope you have a fabulous day! :)

  12. I hadn't even heard of this before (color me European), but it does harken back to when I read someone's review of Laura Lindstedt's Oneiron (a Finnish book about a group of women from various walks of life meeting in afterlife), and they complained about how there were a few sentences in Yiddish, that were then translated afterwards, and how that was "milking for exoticity points" or similar turn of words. I almost facepalmed my hand through my face. Finns in general can't read Yiddish, so of course it was translated! What did you expect?

    Other than that, I think that this kind of gatekeeping hurts the entire industry. When put "oh, you're x, so of course you won't be able to write y accurately" it reveals how much it is belittling writers. Yes, some writers will frick up, but that's a part of life, and if you dislike it, you can vote with your feet. But don't tell anyone they can't write about x because they aren't x, or I will dismiss your opinion. Why? Because the most lauded story I ever wrote was about sentient teacups, and I'm pretty sure I'm not a sentient teacup and never was.

    This same thing pops up in criticism of TV series with neuroatypical lead characters played by neurotypical people. The thing is, often the people making the loudest noise are also neurotypical people polishing their own shields and protesting to protect people who don't want protection, or the looking down that comes with it. Many autistic/aspie people, myself included, feel icky/are incapable of portraying any kind of false persona, even for a purpose such as TV, and realize it's better left to people who can do it. And I at least can say I readily enjoy such TV series.

    Your point about there being diversity among any given group is also something I've noticed when thinking of myself and other aspies in my life. The first thing I thought so about (one of many, I later realized) was about success in education and life. There's me, straight A's without ever reading the book more than once, but constantly disappointed in the world and humanity. There's my mom, math genius if I ever knew one, but who chose to live far away from the big cities (despite being more than capable to make it there) because she hates the air of chasing money there. There's a friend of mine, a former judge, who couldn't keep his job because he was too absolute about things, which caused friction with coworkers. There's my crush, who didn't even go to high school, but graduates this spring from trade school to be a set constructor for film. And so on. The most important tool when writing about a character belonging to a group is not belonging to that group. It is empathy and understanding of, among other things, that belonging to any one group is a drop in the ocean of things that define a person.

  13. Absurd is right, Hannah Heath. Great post. I've been waiting since the #ownvoice movement began to read its complication from a strong mind. I most enjoy your "We cannot cater to publishing houses and their propensity to overlook entire groups of people when publishing fiction. Instead, we as writers need to be telling stories that are reflective of the real world: Stories about characters of all identities. And we as readers need to be actively requesting that publishers do a better job of publishing said stories."

    I think agencies are terrified of boring, angering, or offending editors. I guess I understand, from a business perspective--they want to sell the author with the work. But, since the collapse of 2008 we haven't had a good buying market for books, and it seems a little anti-money to expect verisimilitude. To ask authors to restrict their work (like was said above: to restrict empathy) to essentially limit them to their own worldview---- that's not writing; that's journaling. And for my money as a reader, I'd rather not read another journal set to the tune of fiction. Anyway, great post.

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