Thoughts on #OwnVoices

I am a bi/pansexual person with non-visible disabilities. Five years ago, I hadn’t come to accept either of those things about myself. In the first case, I was repressed, and in the second I was ignorant.

Ten years ago, not only was I not the feminist I am now, I was very vocal against certain rights for women. (Yes, I hated myself. It’s a potted history.)

Do you know what helped? For the most part, educational Tumblr posts.

Seriously. From the more liberal parts of the internet I not only learned some pretty key things about myself, but also a level of self-acceptance I had never experienced before.

As I hope these points illustrate, talking about issues outside of the ‘norm’ helps real-life people in real ways. Whether it regards race, sexual orientation, disability, disfigurement, or anything else.

Perhaps ‘issues outside the norm’ isn’t the best way to word that, but I can’t think of a better alternative.* Part of the problem regarding said issues is that the terms have become politicised. People don’t always have the right words. Other people get offended. It becomes a bit of a shitshow and the main points get lost.

A prime example of this has been the recent Twitter drama regarding the ‘Own Voices’ movement.

If you don’t know what that is, there’s a really great article by Refinery29 linked here all about it. It specifically relates to Young Adult fiction, which is something I have a bit of a stake in, being the writer of YA novels.

Here’s the crux of things:

  • Not enough people from disadvantaged backgrounds are represented in literature
  • In response to this lack of representation, there has been a big push (particularly among the YA community) in recent years towards diversity
  • More books about non-binary, non-white, disabled, neurodivergent, poverty-stricken, etc etc characters got published (though still not nearly enough)
  • Some people started to say that the increase in diverse characters wasn’t enough – that the characters needed to be written authentically, by authors who experienced the same struggles and issues their characters had
  • This pursuit of authenticity became known as ‘own voices.’ It garnered support and attention

And here’s another key point: Own Voices is a great, important thing.

Writers from diverse backgrounds should be as much focused on as characters from those backgrounds.

But intersectionality makes things tricky. People are complicated things. As such, they often fall into more than one category. One writer might be black, disabled, and poor but have their book about a black, disabled, impoverished character not picked up because the character is also gay and the writer isn’t. Diversity becomes a checklist, and people across Twitter become gatekeepers.

This has gotten particularly nasty in some circumstances. People have been subjected to online abuse. Author’s books and careers have gone up in flames. In short, things have gone too far.

People who would otherwise be allies risk being alienated and, worst of all, the very communities at the core of such issues are further disadvantaged. Everybody loses.

In my personal opinion, own voices writing about their own experience should be lifted up. A light should be shone on them without a doubt. But I don’t think they should be the only people who are allowed to tackle such topics.

As a bisexual, disabled person, I want more books about LGBT characters with disabilities to be written. If they’re written by people with personal experience, all the better, but the important thing is that they are written. The characters and issues get in front of people’s noses and those characters and issues get seen.

I can’t help but feel like putting limits on stories and, in the extreme, censoring narratives entirely, is the opposite of progress.

As a bisexual, disabled person, I have LGBT and disabled characters in some of my stories. The trilogy I am working on also happens to centre around main characters who aren’t white.

Call me biased, but I don’t think I should scrap those stories because I am white and therefore have “no right” to speak for the non-white community. Because I’m not claiming to write for non-white communities. My books aren’t trying to depict the definitive non-white experience. Even if there was such a thing, I’d say it almost certainly would need to be written by someone who wasn’t pale as a ghost in snow.

I don’t have intentions as arrogant or lofty as all that. I just want people to someday pick up my books and see themselves included.

Fiction – good fiction, at least – is there to connect people. To build empathy. How can we hope to do that if all we are only ever allowed to write about our own experience?

*I wanted to come back and clarify this point, now I’ve had a little more time to think about it and also discussed the topic elsewhere online. So, what I’m referencing here are assumed “defaults.” What that means, in real terms, is that if a book character isn’t described outside of their actions, readers will generally assume some things about them. Unless otherwise stated, they will assume the character is white, for example. They will assume they are able-bodied. They will assume they are heterosexual. These “assumed defaults” are not real life defaults because, in real life, there are lots of variety across race, ability, sexual orientation etc. What getting more diversity in fiction is all about, is making sure the actual defaults and reality match up, so everyone is represented. 

Recommended, related content: Am I “Disabled Enough”? | Jessica Kellgren-Fozard & Hannah Witton

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