#OwnVoices: A Discussion on Diversity in Publishing

I’m sitting in the center of my college campus, on my laptop as I type this post. I just left a twitter conversation with someone. This person is white. She commented on a tweet I made about how being white and queer doesn’t mean you (hypothetical “you”) know the struggles of any person of color. The conversation then switched to being a person of color and queer, and then to representation in literature. And this is the focus of today’s post.

When I write these posts, they serve a dual purpose:

1) to generate discussion around the topics. As I am black, bi, and have been screaming about diversity in literature for years now (both in terms of sexuality and race but particularly race), a fair number of the posts that I plan to make will center around diversity.

2) to get out my own thoughts on the matter. I have written easily hundreds of Twitter threads on race in books just through conversation. And these have come out unintentionally. It’s like, once the gates have opened, all my thoughts on race and diversity pour out until I’ve exhausted words. And this was actually why I started this blog in the beginning: to put my thoughts somewhere other than a Twitter thread.

So, why am I saying all of this now? Because these posts, while substantiated with research like miniature research papers (see the works cited page at the end of all my posts), ultimately serve as a record of my thoughts. They’re written in a stream of consciousness mind sometimes and then research comes in the middle of the writing, halting the flow so I know exactly what to say next. I don’t want to be misinformed or give you all the wrong words.

This post, however, is not a normal post. With the exception of one or two, there won’t be any links at the bottom. This is just going to be a talk. A talk between me and some of the other authors of color (AOC), queer writers, and disabled writers that read my posts–well, at least I hope some of them do. This post, as the name states, is about the twitter hashtag #ownvoices.

#OwnVoices: A History

The twitter hashtag that has blown up literary circles, #ownvoices, was created by one Corinne Duyvis. Originally created for kidlit, the hashtag had taken on a life of its own as more and more LGBTQ+, non-white, and disabled authors came into the fold, using the hashtag to promote books written, either by themselves or people they knew that were written by people with a marginalization featuring a protagonist with that marginalization. Corinne summed up best the purpose of #ownvoices in a blog post made shortly after it began to expand, in which she said,

“it’s common for marginalized characters to be written by authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst. […] All #ownvoices does is center the voices that should matter most: those being written about.”

Writing as Therapy

Now, the reason I brought up the history of the hashtag, especially for us people of color with a hashtag designed, in part for us, is simple: history tells us where we’ve been. Unearths the true meanings and motives of everything. Like many social movements, #ownvoices has become a thing all its own and is beginning to shake publishing to its core. It challenges the foundations of an industry that has historically excluded, degraded, and used us as props to sustain a culture of hate and intolerance at being non-white, non-straight, and disabled. Publishing was, and still continues to be, a place where people who fit the dominant and hegemonic culture thrive and people who are outside of that are held away, kept back at the gates, refused entry unless under a specific set of circumstances. #Ownvoices exists as part of an equalizer.

However, I’ve been noticing that the vast majority of books with non-white, LGBTQ+, and Disabled protagonists feature certain themes. Themes of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and on and on and on and on. The many ways society, and people, oppress others are put on display in these books and, I’d hazard to say, they all come from #ownvoices. Now, this isn’t meant to be an indictment of #ownvoices. Before you call for my crucifixion, I am not saying the hashtag should be burned to the ground and made anew.

I understand the therapeutic benefits of putting our fears and phobias of larger society into the books we write. The series I’m writing after Dream Come True! has a black female protagonist (see my Does YA Have a Gender Imbalance? post if you want to know why all my protags tend to be girls) who’s mad as hell at society because of everything that it does. Institutional racism, colorism, biphobia, all of those are on display in that series. It’s deeply ingrained in Ashanti’s world because Ashanti’s world is a magical black mirror of our own.

Writing, for some, is a form of therapy. They write to get the thoughts out. To sort out their own personal madness. It doesn’t completely get rid of the fear I feel when walking past a group of police officers or how I have to police my own language when saying things to non-POC and non-queers, but I don’t particularly think it’s supposed to. It helps purge me momentarily and empties my cup.

But, those aren’t normally the types of books I read or write.

I got into writing and continue to do it to write things that people enjoy. When I first read Jason Reynolds’ All-American Boys, I loved that the protagonist was black like me. But I also screamed at the book a lot in panic. Rashad did things in the store that my mom constantly warned me against, and I’m pretty sure almost every person of color can relate.

Make no sudden movements, say everything you’re doing before you do it, don’t resist if you get cuffed because that’ll only make it worse, etc.

All-American Boys was both a good experience and a bad experience for me personally. I saw all aspects of myself and my reality on display. It forced me to confront the things that cause me anxiety every moment of every day. It launched me back into reality when I normally use books for escaping.

Diversity in Diverse Stories

Dreamer and that series is more the type of series that I love writing and reading. Maya, Rosemary, Astrid, Shelby, and all of the other girls have problems that relate to their specific world and doesn’t typically rely on issues from our own. Due to Maya’s dad being Honduran and movies like Hercules and Mulan existing, of course colonialism exists in their universe along with all of its byproducts including the United States and its media, but it isn’t the core of their stories. Maya corrects someone on her name once in the novel. The reason it happens isn’t rooted in racism, but rather in the fact that Maya’s mother’s side of the family (the Lilacs) has the savior of the universe coded into its genes.

There are slivers of our real world in tensions between the species and Maya does, particularly in book 2, speak about how she still feels fear in telling anyone that she is bisexual because of how they will react (something that I particularly feel with regards to my family), but the main story and the character arcs are mostly independent of those real-world tensions. And whenever I hear about the “newest bestseller”, they always tend to be books like The Hate U Give, which feature big social issues. Mainstream Traditional Publishing, currently, appears to only promote books with non-white, non-straight, disabled protagonists when those protagonists face societal injustices.

There seems to be a distinct absence of books showing people of color, queer people, and disabled people, queers of color, disabled people of color, and disabled queers of color just living their lives. (And for anyone thinking that a black/Latine/POC protagonist can’t be both queer and disabled, I’m here to say that we do exist in reality. I, for example, am black, bisexual, and was born with a hearing loss. And we can also exist in stories without it being “too much” for a character, but that’s a different discussion.) And those are the stories I’ve always been craving.

Seeing people that look like me in a place that isn’t contemporary literature, surrounded by police or allegories of racism. I want to see more books of us just living our lives. These are the stories I typically write and seek out because, while I do recognize that the real world struggles that we have to deal with are therapeutic for us to write, for me personally as a reader, I largely seek an escape. Sometimes I’ll read stories with racism in them, but I tend not to read many, largely for my own sanity.

Both types of stories are valid. I am not calling for anyone to criticize another person for the stories that they write unless they specifically harm a community.

I very much understand and appreciate them both, but I would very much love to see more #ownvoices stories where the main plot or subplot doesn’t feature a real world issue at its heart. Of course, I can’t control what any writer does, nor would I want to. Corinne, as the originator of #ownvoices, didn’t set up a tight set of parameters because the hashtag should grow and evolve as the people who use it see fit. And, like Corinne, I am not seeking to force a change within the hashtag or the people who write their books.

This post was meant to be a sort of discussion. A place where I just put my thoughts out and we could have a sort of discussion. So, now I turn it over to you. What do you think of what I said? What do you think of the types of stories that you tend to see, either in the hashtag or in publishing as a whole?

Corinne’s blog post about the success of #ownvoices: http://www.corinneduyvis.net/ownvoices/

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