Digging Deeper into #OwnVoices

From its well-intentioned origins as a guide for readers to the problematic usage by some publishers, possibly doing more harm than good.

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Previously, I wrote about the #OwnVoices tag, from its well-intentioned origins as a guide for readers to the problematic usage by some publishers, and how We Need Diverse Books has dropped the hashtag for doing more harm than good.

Some additional resources for people interested in a deeper dive:

#OwnVoices in the Library:

Elizabeth Bird, one of my favorite librarians, posted a blog about her own efforts to diversify her library shelves, and the challenge her library and others face in categorizing a collection by author and character identity.

Part of the reason we initially liked the term #OwnVoices so much was how well it paired with specific Voices. One could even include multiple terms to a single record. So you could have #OwnVoicesBlack, #OwnVoicesIndigenous #OwnVoicesHopi #OwnVoicesLGBTQIA+ #OwnVoicesTrans all on a record if it applied to just one person.

I should note that this is just one of many many solutions to these issues and may not even be the best solution. Right now, as we speak, librarians and catalogers are having these conversations all around the country. Because here’s the dirty secret about equity audits. You can conduct them all day long, but until you make those BIPOC and other voices searchable, how the heck are your patrons supposed to find them?

It’s a fascinating read for insight into a noble effort that’s quietly taking place in libraries across the country.

#OwnVoices Case Studies:

When the WNDB statement mentioned harms caused by the #OwnVoices tag, two authors came to mind. Aero has a deep dive into both of them.

On Becky Albertalli and her experience upon the breakout success of her 2015 debut YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda:

Just as Albertalli’s star began to rise, however, online critics started asking whether a straight woman should be allowed to write—and profit from—queer stories. This question has started bubbling up more and more often in YA discussion forums, as part of a larger conversation summarised by the hashtag #OwnVoices. This term (coined by YA author Corinne Duyvis) was originally just a shorthand for books whose authors share their protagonist’s group identity (gay, black, immigrant and so on), but it has become a weapon to use against authors who do not share their protagonists’ precise group identities.

Albertalli didn’t explicitly present herself as sharing the queer identity of her protagonist. And because she eschewed a label meant to give readers a reason to trust in her ability to tell such a story, some readers and industry professionals chose to actively distrust her instead, and to pile on with others in the echo chambers of social media.

After years of enduring derogatory treatment and a boycott of the movie her book was adapted into, Albertalli came out in an article on Medium.

Labels change sometimes. That’s what everyone always says, right? It’s okay if you’re not out. It’s okay if you’re not ready. It’s okay if you don’t fully understand your identity yet. There’s no time limit, no age limit, no one right way to be queer.

And yet a whole lot of these very same people seemed to know with absolute certainty that I was [cisgender and heterosexual]. And the less certain I was, the more emphatically strangers felt the need to declare it. Apparently it was obvious from my writing. Simon’s fine, but it was clearly written by a het. You can just tell. Her books aren’t really for queer people.

As the Aero piece puts it:

Albertalli’s coming out as bisexual should have been a joyful time for her. Sharing it with her readers and the larger community should have felt triumphant. Instead, it must have felt sad, which was an indictment of a community that has increasingly behaved as if it is entitled to know every detail of its authors’ personal lives.

“Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t how I wanted to come out,” Albertalli writes. “This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinised, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted.”

Albertalli’s Medium post sparked a much needed conversation about the complexity of the issues surrounding queerness and #OwnVoices. You can’t look at a person and see their sexual preference or gender identity. You can’t read a book and infer its author’s true identity. To believe that you can is to put stock in stereotypes and biological essentialism. Coming out is an incredibly complicated, personal process, and it should never have to happen the way it happened to Becky Albertalli.

The article also details the experience of Rod Pulido, a Filipino American aspiring YA author whose path to publication was blocked by his not being out, and in fact still processing and exploring his identity while attempting to publish his book.

Pulido’s novel, Chasing Pacquiao, quickly got him a literary agent, and attracted the interest of editors at major publishing houses, but all ultimately rejected it. Pulido notes that a few editors told him they were interested but had “reservations” about publishing a queer novel written by a straight man. They assumed he was straight, and—possibly for that reason—rejected the novel.

Though he was “disappointed and a bit concerned,” Pulido shrugged off the rejections. On its second round of submissions, Chasing Pacquiao attracted the attention of a young editor who told him that she loved it and wanted to pitch it to her boss for approval. But, first, she and Pulido had a phone conversation to discuss the book further and get to know each other. “After years of hard work, the end zone was in sight,” he writes. “Soon, I would no longer have to refer to myself with the dreaded qualifier of aspiring author.” The phone conversation went well until the editor asked about Pulido’s home life:

I proudly told her about my lovely wife, and how we were high school sweethearts, plus our precocious, yet incredibly messy, son. “Oh,” she replied, “I didn’t realise you weren’t queer.” Her tone had shifted from engaged to uncertain. I began to worry. She expressed concerns that the story wasn’t truly Ownvoices because of my sexuality. I wanted to reply, “But I’m probably bisexual!” I wanted to confess to her about my boyhood crushes and all the times a playground bully had tormented me with a gay slur. How those experiences informed my writing and made it true and real. But how could I? I was still in the process of re-evaluating my sexuality. I hadn’t even broached these very personal issues with my wife, how could I reveal them to a stranger? Even if I did admit my feelings, it would only appear as a desperate stab at credibility. So, I kept my thoughts private, and we cut our talk short.

The next day, Pulido’s agent told him that the editor had rejected Chasing Pacquiao.

Pulido detailed his experience in a blog post.

In the case of Becky Albertalli, the #OwnVoices tag, originally meant to guide individual reading choices, was used by activists to police and filter books that they called out as inauthentic, based solely on a perceived author identity that, in this case, turned out to be false. The author was hounded and harassed into going public with deeply personal information under unnecessarily painful conditions.

In the case of Rod Pulido, the #OwnVoices tag was appropriated by publishers as a marketing ploy. Not by all publishers. Not by all staff within the worst offenders. Probably not even with ill intent. But economic disincentives created in publishing house marketing departments warped the processes of acquisition and promotion. As a result, authors were harmed, voices were silenced, and books failed to reach readers who may have needed them.

These were the harms that ultimately outweighed the tag’s original benefits.

I’m not sad to see the demise of the #OwnVoices tag, as long as it comes out of an honest conversation about how we can do better in celebrating and amplifying a diversity of voices and characters in the media we consume.

My own stories are written in the only voice I have. They include characters who differ from their author, just as the characters in every other work of fiction. In presenting diverse characters, my baseline goal is to do no harm, and to research and learn how to maybe do some good. I will make mistakes, but I am listening, growing, and always trying to do better.