Thursday 10 June 2021

Blogjune Day 10 - on #ownvoices writing

On Sunday 6 June, We Need Diverse Books announced that they were no longer using the #ownvoices hashtag, saying that the term 'become a “catch all” marketing term by the publishing industry', which as then been 'used to place diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations'.

They have announced that, instead, they will 'use specific descriptions that authors use for themselves and their characters whenever possible (for example, “Korean American author,” or “autistic protagonist”).'

Personally, I first became familiar with the term 'own voices' in 2018 when Fremantle Press published the anthology Meet me at the intersection. Described as an anthology of Own Voices, containing diverse stories written and created by authors of the same diverse group - in this case, people who are Indigenous, people of colour, LGBTIQA, or living with disability.

It felt like an important term at the time - not only was important that we have diverse representation in the stories that we read, but that we provide opportunities for diverse creators to be creating these narratives based on their lived experiences. It was a way of raising these voices and perhaps distinguishing them from writers who perhaps use other peoples' lived experiences as a device for propelling their own creative work.

So, what's changed? I'm actually not that sure, to be honest. I suspect that this decision is, in part, due to the experiences of Becky Albertalli last year, where she was effectively forced to come out as bisexual after prolonged and intense scrutiny and criticism online. She appeals to the literary community: 'Can we all be a bit more careful when we engage in queer Ownvoices discourse? Can we remember that our carelessness in these discussions has caused real harm? And that the people we’re hurting rarely have my degree of privilege or industry power? Can we make space for those of us who are still discovering ourselves? Can we be a little more compassionate? Can we make this a little less awful for the next person?'

Furthermore, there is a danger with catch-all labels, whether it be Own Voices, or even 'diverse', is that it creates a false dichotomy where it becomes the be-all and end-all of what is good and acceptable. There are many white writers who have written awful works featuring people of colour - but there are also those who have researched, consulted and had people of colour as their first readers to help create authentic narratives in what have become excellent works. There are also Own Voices works that are unfortunately not great.

And then, there are those who would claim their work as Own Voices, where that claim is in itself somewhat dubious, and they rely own the label as a way of raising the profile of their own work instead of its individual merits.

Ultimately, whilst measuring diversity is a useful indicator, it's the specific elements that make the industry diverse that is valuable. So, yes, I'm very happy for us to be more specific in the ways that we celebrate cultural and literary works - all the more opportunity to identify those specific voices that are underrepresented and absent, and raise those voices into prominence.

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