On Own Voices and Why I Think They’re So Important

Back in 2015, YA author and Disability in Kidlit Co-Founder Corinne Duyvis, suggested a hashtag on Twitter. That hashtag was #OwnVoices and it was meant as a shorthand for art forms created by marginalised authors who share the same identity as their protagonists. This as a term and a hashtag has highlighted some great work, by some creators whose work has received some much needed uplifting. But people are unfortunately moving away from using the term and even outrightly stating they don’t like it. This is very concerning to me and I’d like to talk about why.

Some voices are more privileged than others. This is because discrimination is still widespread in our society.

I as a white disabled woman am regularly subjected to ableism and sometimes sexism. Were I a brown disabled woman, I would be subjected to regular racism, ableism and sexism. However, were I a white able bodied man, who didn’t belong to any other diverse group or belief system, I wouldn’t be subjected to discrimination at all.

Don’t believe me about this? Let’s talk through some examples.

Why is it that the books featuring disabled characters that get adapted in to movies that get a lot of marketing, are written by able bodied authors promoting ableist ideas, think Me Before You Everything Everything etc?

Why is it that journalists don’t use disabled sources when covering disability stories?

Why is it that parents complained that they had to have difficult conversations with their kids, when Cerrie Burnell, a lady with only one arm, became a CBEEBIES presenter?

Why is it that in Britain, the GCSE unit on literature from other cultures features books such as Of Mice and Men by John Stinebeck and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, both of whom are white people writing about race?

Why is it that you can study English Literature all the way to degree level and only have read books by white men?

Why has a report found that only one percent of children’s books in the UK have black, Asian or minority ethnic protagonists?

This is because of privilege. Society values the voices of privileged people, even on subjects they don’t know anything about, rather than listening to the people whose stories are being told.

This is why I think it’s important to have own voices. It’s a way of saying, this is someone with this experience, talking about what that’s like, let’s listen to what they have to say.

I think this is such an important thing that we should celebrate.

I also think it’s nice to read a book and know that it’s written by someone who shares the identity that they’re writing about.

I personally have read so many representations of blindness, that show a complete lack of understanding of what the experience of being blind is like. I have heard other people complain about all sorts of other harmful representations.

To be honest, when I sit down to read a book that’s about a marginalised group by someone I know isn’t from that group I’m worried about what I may find. If I’ve read that they’ve done a lot of research or got and from that group involved I’m slightly less concerned, but I still don’t feel comfortable. This is not me being picky, this is me having read and heard about, loads of bad representation and not much good.

Because it’s not often that you find a representation that gets it right. I read the first representation that I felt understood what visual impairment was like and I will add that the character was visually impaired, not blind, last year and that was an own voices book.

So I like having the opportunity to both support marginalised authors and recommend people books or media containing representations from people who have first hand experience. Own voices gives us that.

What I will say though, is I want this, for creators who are at a place where they feel comfortable, coming out online about whatever marginalised group they fall in to. Because it can be very hard to talk about these sort of things. I would never out anyone knowingly and I would condemn anyone else who knowingly outed someone else.

It’s a big thing, to take on talking about these sorts of issues. The openness can be liberating, but there are going to be people who just don’t get it and people who discriminate against you and are horrible to you because of your identity or background.

When I first started writing online, I was just a book reviewer and I didn’t talk about disability. I started writing about disability a while later and even then, there were and still are, places on the internet where I have published and still publish, writing that in no way talks about my disability. There are definitely situations where I don’t talk about disability.

But for the most part, I am fairly comfortable being open about being blind online. I’ve had a whole life of not being able to make a choice about whether to disclose my disability, because my eyes look unusual and most of the time if I’m out, I have a cane with me because I need it. So I’m now fairly comfortable talking about blindness online, but I can assure you it’s very curated.

So what I think own voices is not, is a way of saying, you must be open about your identity. It’s a way of saying, if you want to, here’s a platform where we’re going to try and promote the idea that marginalised people should be telling their own stories, by promoting those stories.

If people don’t feel comfortable being open about their own identity, but want to write about it, cool. As much as I will say reading representations that aren’t by authors who share the same marginalised identity can be emotional labour if they are poorly done by authors who haven’t researched properly and involved sensitivity readers, I still read books that aren’t advertised as own voices.

I would actually suggest, though this is an issue that I think every author has to decide for themselves, that saying you’ve done research and maybe even involving sensitivity readers is a good idea, even if you’re writing about your own identity. I’m currently writing a book with two blind protagonists and I am still doing research in to visual impairment, because there are things that my characters experience, that to be quite honest, I don’t have a clue about.

I’m actually using the writing experience, to learn more about certain issues relating to blindness, that I just have no or very little experience of. And I intend to get other blind people to read the book.

So I think there is definitely room to say, I know this is a good representation because I have done research and I have had people from that identity read it. There’s no reason why people should demand to know who your sensitivity readers are, so there’s no reason that one of your readers with expertise shouldn’t be you.

I’m also totally not against other authors including characters from identities they do not belong to. I perceive own voices as a category of diverse books, not that diverse books should be exclusively own voices. I actually think that own voices books can be a good source of research for people who are looking to write diversely.

I also don’t think that marginalised authors should be forced or pressured to always write own voices material. Corinne Duyvis makes a very good point on the own voices page of her website when she makes the distinction that she talks about own voices books and not own voices authors. It may be that an author wants to write one book about the identity to which they belong, promote it as own voices and then move on to write completely different things.

Authors can write what they want. Own voices is just a way of saying let’s support what marginalised authors create, when they choose to write about their own identities. And I think that’s definitely something worth celebrating.

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