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How #OwnVoices is #OwnVoices?

Lately, I've been wondering - how #OwnVoices does a novel have to be to be considered #OwnVoices? And how much personal information about his/her/their marginalized identity does an author owe a reader?

First, to define the term.

When I Googled “What is #OwnVoices,” this quote, from BookRiot, came up:

“In case you aren't familiar with it, #ownvoices is a hashtag that was created by Corinne Duyvis to highlight books that are written by an author that shares a marginalized identity with the protagonist. So a Deaf protagonist written by a Deaf author is #ownvoices.”

I then went to Corinne Duyvis' website. The hashtag was initially created in a Sept 6, 2015 tweet, in which @corinneduyvis wrote, "#ownvoices, to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group."

(See links at the end to BookRiot article “The Problem with OwnVoices LBGTQ Lit” and to hashtag creator Corinne Duyvis’ website for more information. Also, note that Duyvis' is herself on the Autism Spectrum, and her second novel, "On the Edge of Gone," features an autistic protagonist. I did not know either of these things when I initially wrote this blog post, and will now be ordering her book as I am excited to read it. Thanks to the friend who let me know!)

#OwnVoices has since been a major part of the conversation about writers and their work, as it relates to ceding the floor to and lifting up those who come from a variety of marginalized identities. For the purpose of THIS blog post, though, I am focusing on myself and my personal situation(s) in regards to the protagonists in my debut novel and work-in-progress. I’m not talking about writing outside one’s race/culture, and/or cisgender people writing transgender characters, and/or straight people writing LGBTQIA+ characters, and/or writing about disabilities, diseases, disorders the author doesn’t have a personal connection with, save for those specified in the blog post below. I am not making any comment about whether authors can and/or should write from the identities they don't share, or about the function or necessity of sensitivity authors. That is a talk for another time.

So... back to the topic at hand...

How #OwnVoices must a work be to be considered #OwnVoices?

I have been asking myself this question a lot as of late. I have seen my debut novel (Planet Earth is Blue) referenced as “Own Voices” a couple of times on Twitter now, and I have mixed feelings. I believe I may have referred to it in the past as “own voices” too, but now wish I hadn't. What if it's not #OwnVoices enough? What ultimately makes a book #OwnVoices? How much of my identity do my protagonist and I have to share for it to ‘count’? How much of my personal life, self, and circumstances do I owe the reader? If people read the label “Own Voices” attributed to my work, what assumptions about me will they then make? What if these are incorrect? What if they're correct, but things I don't want people to know? How should I react?

Regarding Nova in Planet Earth is Blue, I based many of her attributes and issues and quirks and diagnoses on myself, namely as a child, but not all, and not one very big one: I made her nonverbal, which I am not. On the contrary, I talked too much as a kid. I talked all the time. I could not stop talking. It was an actual problem. I talked to my family, other kids, random adults, my pets, my stuffed animals, myself… out loud… It was a struggle for me to not talk. Sometimes I even got scolded in school for talking to myself during ‘no talking’ times, which I didn’t think was quite fair (and once I got in trouble because the girl next to me was talking, even though she wasn’t talking to me, because I was the go-to person to blame for classroom chatter, but that’s another story!).

So can my book be #OwnVoices if my character is nonverbal and I’m not? Even if we share other marginalized identities? Which identity must we share? Is the label accurate, or misleading?

As I said, in writing Planet Earth is Blue, I took a number of my own traits and gave them to Nova. The anxiety. The sensory issues. The Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder present since toddlerhood. The desire to make friends coupled with enough awkwardness and cluelessness to make doing so difficult - though I did have (and still do have) friends. I was like Mallory in some ways - the leader, and quite unhappy if the game didn't go my way. But back to Nova. We share the overactive imagination that impedes the ability to concentrate and function and remain in the present. The easy-flowing tears. The frustration over not being understood when trying so hard to make something clear. The stimming. The melting to the floor while melting down when overwhelming emotion coupled with overly intense external stimuli (conflicting noises, namely) takes over. The mixed feelings regarding touch. The difficulty with describing (or remembering) what people look like. The deep capacity to feel love and empathy, but also the struggle, at times, to express it properly. I cry. I'm a crier.

Though we have some major differences, she's a lot like me. This didn't happen on purpose. I set out to create a character quite unlike myself, but inspired by kids I know and care for. I have tried, with my second book, to again create a protagonist who isn't me... thus far, I worry I'm kind of failing. It's hard to distance ourselves from our main characters - but that's what writers do. We get inspired, and we create.

One major thing I took from my life and gave to Nova is obsession. Hers is with space travel, which is partly why she’s so focused on the Challenger launch. Mine, at her age, was with newsworthy tragedies, because I perseverated on things like the Challenger disaster. I used to watch the news and take notes (some of which I still have). I was both in awe of and afraid of natural disasters like possible volcano eruptions, extreme weather like Hurricane Bob, and historical catastrophes like the sinking of the Titanic. I was nine when the Oklahoma City Bombing happened. I remember sitting in front of the television trying to memorize every fact, every image, so I could regurgitate the information verbatim later… and then being told I couldn’t watch it on the news anymore because it was too much, I was depressing my parents, and I couldn’t sleep. I did the same with the war in Kosovo and with the crash of TWA Flight 800 and, in high school, 9/11.

For Nova, it is not the disaster itself she will dwell on, but the hope that the space program would recover and that people would go again, despite what happened to the seven-member Challenger crew. I gave to her the hope I wish I’d focused on as a child, rather than the fixation on the tragedy itself.

Ultimately, Nova is autistic. "Special." On the Spectrum. "Different." She has OCD. Sensory Issues. She's "particular." With an overactive mind. Deeply empathetic. "Emotional." She is like me - and yet, she is NOT like me. Much like Book2 WIP's protagonist, we are different in nearly as many ways as we are alike. Maybe more. Which is intentional.

My Book2 work-in-progress features a Greek-American tween girl with some issues similar to mine (and to Nova’s) like an overactive imagination, social issues, and OCD. I didn’t give her these traits on purpose, but they seeped in while writing, probably because I am unable to completely separate myself from my characters, as I indicated above - I'm working on that.

Book2 WIP protagonist is probably even more like me than Nova in some ways, though I can’t help feeling she’s actually even LESS "OwnVoices," because, like with Nova, she has certain defining characteristics I do not share. Though I am an American of Greek descent, and share as many traits with that new protag as I do Nova, I currently wouldn’t be comfortable with labeling my work-in-progress #OwnVoices. And when it comes to another of my works-in-progress, I KNOW I would NOT feel comfortable sharing which experiences and traits the main character and I have in common, as that delves into really personal territory, and would involve sharing information that I don't feel is anyone's business but my own, frankly.

Which brings me to another question –

When a book is labeled #OwnVoices, how much personal information does the author owe the readers?

On Corinne Duyvis’ website, there are a number of questions regarding specifics as they relate to the hashtag (underlined below), which Corinne has answered (in italics).

Q: Is this about race? LGBTQIAP+? Disability? What counts? And can we use the hashtag for picture books? What about movies? Short stories? Do you think this character/author combo counts? What about a situation where—

Whoaaa remember what I said about not wanting to moderate or regulate it? Use it for whatever marginalized/diverse identity you want (I personally like the WNDB definition) and for whatever genre, category, or form of art you want. As long as the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.

Let’s highlight some of those words, though:

“Author,” as in the actual author has this identity, not their relative or student.

“Identity,” as in at least somewhat specific. Aim for: “character and author are both blind” and “character and author are both African-American,” rather than: “character is blind and author is autistic, thus both are disabled” and “character is African-American and author is Korean-American, thus both are people of color.”

And “a” marginalized identity, not “all.” Sometimes a character will be part of a group the author isn’t. For example: a straight Cuban author writing a lesbian Cuban protagonist. As long as there’s another marginalized aspect of their identity they do share, it’s #ownvoices.

Beyond that? It’s not my place to decide what counts as diverse/marginalized, nor what counts as “same group.” I won’t police either the hashtag or people’s/characters’ identities.

This is pretty clear, but as the BookRiot article delves into, not all LGBTQIA+ authors feel comfortable discussing their sexuality, and are uncomfortable with the pressure being placed on them to self-label as #OwnVoices, even though well-meaning readers just want to be sure they’re supporting marginalized writers when buying these books.

As someone who similarly does not wish to air out all of my personal business with the online world, I understand this quandary.

If Planet Earth is Blue is labeled #OwnVoices, how much of myself and my childhood and my thought process and my struggles and my ‘labels’ do I need to share? How in-depth do I need to be? What if I want to keep some things to myself? Is it okay to say, “I’d rather not answer that” if I feel uncomfortable about an inquiry? Do I need to share personal issues and experience to justify choices I made for Nova, or struggles she’s had, or the diagnoses she’s either gotten or should have gotten (if she were a tween in 2018 instead of 1986)? Should I clarify, “this book is #OwnVoices for the following things: X, Y, Z…, but not for these: A, B, C…”? Is it okay for me to direct curious readers toward Corinne Duyvis’ answer above, specifically the part that reads, “And ‘a’ marginalized identity, not ‘all.’ Sometimes a character will be part of a group the author isn’t. For example: a straight Cuban author writing a lesbian Cuban protagonist. As long as there’s another marginalized aspect of their identity they do share, it’s #ownvoices and leave it at that?

This is causing me a good amount of stress and I don’t have any answers, but I hope when readers dive into Nova’s story (and my two WIP protagonists', someday) they’ll see a genuine, realistic, quirky tween girl who comes from an intensely personal place, and that they’ll be able to relate to her and maybe even understand her and girls like her - and yes, like me - a little better, regardless whether they share any of her "marginalized identities."

Ultimately, I just want to tell a good story, to reach readers, and to create characters they connect with. I want to show the reader a slice of life they probably haven't seen before, and leave them with hope.

Thanks for reading.

(Sorry for rambling.)

BookRiot article:

Corinne Duyvis’s website: