Ramblings on writing outside your identity and how people approach Ownvoices fiction–a discussion post I guess

Hopefully this won’t get me cancelled. Heh.

Before I get started, I want to say that the Ownvoices label has done a lot for promoting marginalized authors and I really appreciate that! A lot of people (including people who are like me) wouldn’t have anywhere near the same amount of publishing opportunities if not for the efforts of people who promote these books. I’m really happy about the push for diversity in the book world over the last 10 years.

Also, I was inspired to write this post by Fadwa’s post on the Ownvoices label, and you should probably read her post instead. I know for a fact her post is better than mine is going to be. >.<

The way certain people approach non-marginalized authors writing marginalized main characters is really condescending towards marginalized people, in my opinion. Yeah that last sentence was a mouthful.

I don’t know, it’s one thing to feel that you’re not in the right place to write a main character with a different identity from yours at this point in time. It’s another to say that NO ONE could get inside the head of someone of a different identity unless the writer was part of those groups to begin with. I find it a kind of dehumanizing take. It can’t be that hard to use research and imagination to fill in the blanks, right? Marginalized people aren’t some eldritch beings beyond ‘normal’ people’s comprehension. That’s ridiculous. And yeah, a lot of people do have some unintentionally–or, God forbid, intentionally–dehumanizing takes when they write marginalized characters, but I don’t think the answer is to say that no unmarginalized people should write main characters who are minorities.

Funnily enough, I don’t see anyone seriously saying that male authors shouldn’t write female main characters, even though women both face discrimination and are often poorly written by hapless/creepy male writers. Maybe it’s because white women aren’t viewed as inherently other and they’re seen as more human, so it doesn’t really occur to someone that male writers would have a hard time getting inside a woman’s head, even though clearly they sometimes do. Just a thought, I’m not sure if I’m correct. Anyway, male writers SHOULD write female characters, but they should just not be idiots about it. There’s a spicy, controversial take for you. /s

On the other end of the spectrum, though, there are people who talk like this because they’re genuinely tired of being misrepresented, and I get it, but still. The take that people who aren’t mentally ill and queer will NEVER get what it’s like to be me makes me pretty uncomfortable. I gotta say though, white, straight, able-bodied people telling other white, straight, able-bodied people why they shouldn’t write diverse main characters will never not make me irritated. Sorry.

It takes research, empathy, and self-examination, but I think it’s definitely possible to tell a story with a character who has a radically different experience from yours. Come on. I want all the stories about mentally ill queers like myself, and if certain people feel like they ‘shouldn’t’ out of misplaced moral obligation, then I won’t get all the stories! Just do your research! (In fact, maybe I should do a post on writing queer characters one of these days. It’s a big topic, though.)

Some people argue that you’d be taking up space from a marginalized author in the publishing industry, because publishers have quotas for how many diverse books they put out each year. That’s probably a really complex topic and I don’t know a lot about publishing, but I will say that that sounds more like our responsibility as consumers to hold publishers accountable? We need to support Ownvoices books, absolutely. But I don’t get why that’s on authors to not write certain books? The publishing industry being mostly white and straight, discrimination marginalized authors face because of that, and publishing quotas sound like problems that require a more complex solution than telling authors not to write outside their identity. But again, I’m not an expert on publishing by any means. I can’t really tell you what the solution should be.

But again! You, personally, do not have to write a diverse story if you aren’t in the right headspace for it. But don’t assume that no one is in the right headspace. And also, um…if you DO write outside your own experience, please, please do your research and use your brain. This isn’t your endorsement to go out and regurgitate problematic tropes straight out of the 19th century.

Also, to be honest, I’m kind of confused on how the Ownvoices label would even work for me personally?? For context, I’m an agender biromantic asexual, which is a lot of words to say that most characters I write are only going to be a part of my identity and not the whole. If I write a female or a male bisexual character, is that Ownvoices?? But the experience of a guy or a gal who experiences sexual attraction is going to be way different than me, a not-guy-or-gal who does not experience sexual attraction. I don’t know, I’m just confused. Am I overthinking this? Probably?

As far as characters who don’t share my identity at all, such as non-white characters, I can’t say if I do the best job with them or anything, but I can say that I don’t regret writing those characters and writing them taught me a lot. so Β―\_(ツ)_/Β―

Yes, Ownvoices books are most likely going to do the representation better than someone outside the community can. (I say most likely because I’ve heard of some wild-sounding Ownvoices books that maybe shouldn’t have seen the light of day. Those aren’t incredibly common, though, at least to my knowledge.) But that doesn’t mean people outside the community shouldn’t even try. Some of my favorite queer books were written by people who probably weren’t queer. And yeah, the books weren’t totally unproblematic, but I didn’t mind! The authors did a decent enough job and wrote REALLY fun stories. In the end, that’s all that matters.

And now for a different topic that Lais talked about way better here but I still wanted to complain about it a little bit myself

Ownvoices books aren’t supposed to necessarily represent you personally–actually, scratch that, diverse books aren’t necessarily supposed to represent you personally. (In similarly related news, I wish I could unread certain reviews.) I cannot begin to elaborate how weird it is when Goodreads reviewers complain about an asexual character being ‘problematic’ because the character isn’t Every Asexual, and I read their complaints, and…

The character is like me??? I’m a sex-repulsed asexual without a, you know, libido (no, seriously. There was a time when I literally did not know what sexual attraction was and thought it was a scam). I find faces aesthetically attractive but not abs. None of that makes a character problematic or means the author ‘didn’t do their research.’ Just because you don’t relate to one character because their experience is different from your similar experience doesn’t make the character problematic!! Why do we put pressure on authors to tell Every Asexual Experience and not on publishers to publish more stories with asexual characters? No book can tell Every Chinese Experience or Every Queer Experience, and authors–especially Ownvoices authors–shouldn’t have that burden put on them.

I don’t know, I just find it kind of hurtful when people call me a problematic asexual character. But also deeply funny. Anyway, it is such an alienating experience to read certain reviews.

On a serious note, let’s not speculate on authors’ identities just because they wrote something we didn’t like, and by that I mean stop assuming authors are straight and then getting in their face for writing queer fiction. Oh, and just a fun story: One time, on Twitter–a place I try not to frequent very often–I saw a debate going on about whether closeted authors could write queer characters, because (step one) closeted authors take advantage of straight privilege to (step two) get a book deal, and (step three) trick queer people into throwing their money at them, thereby (step four) profiting off of queer money. I just about lost it.

It can also get pretty hairy when someone (okay, white queers) approaches a book with an intersectional protagonist (read: a non-white queer) and thinks it’s going to represent them personally, and then gets really mad when it doesn’t. A ton of people have already discussed this topic in depth, so I won’t go into it too much, but. Like. Please figure out when a character is actually problematic and when they’re just different from you. I am begging you.

(God, now I’ve given myself a crisis that I am Every Reviewer that Annoys Me. I am, aren’t I. Oh no. I’ll be right back I’m just working some things out)

Oh, and one more thing

Writing Ownvoices stories is really hard and sometimes you just aren’t in the right place for it. That’s fine, honestly. You shouldn’t feel any responsibility to portray characters like you if you don’t want to. And you might be in the right space for it later! I say all this because I felt like I needed to write queer characters when I was dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia and, while I’m glad I did write those characters because I think they helped me, I also shouldn’t have put so much pressure on myself. The queer characters I write now are legitimately fun for me to write, which means I’m in a better place πŸ™‚

So, I don’t know, tell me your thoughts on these topics. If you want.

This post is literally incomprehensible, my God. I’m totally going to get cancelled because of this.

11 thoughts on “Ramblings on writing outside your identity and how people approach Ownvoices fiction–a discussion post I guess

  1. Can I just say YES TO EVERYTHING you said. Ahhh, you did such a good job writing this! I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t be just repeating what you already said, but there is definitely some hypocrisy going on with #Ownvoices. I mean, take the characters from my novel. The lead character is Indian and bisexual, her love interest is Italian, one of her teammates is a Korean gay man, another one is straight and in a wheelchair, yet another has severe depression, and another is pansexual, mixed race, and the leader of a Mafia. I am none of those things, but I did my research and honestly, how boring would it be if every character I wrote was a dorky, overly enthusiastic, athletic, girly, pop-culture obsessed, animal-loving lesbian writer? I mean, I do plan on writing a self-insert side character at one point, but I think it’s good as a writer to write characters who are different from yourself.
    *clears throat*
    Anyway, I loved reading this. Great job.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Your characters sound really cool, I love mob bosses (in fiction, lol)! Yeah, drawing from your own life CAN potentially create really cool characters and situations, but I definitely think it’s good for a writer to write outside their own experiences, too, however they want to do that. On that note, I can’t imagine if every character I created was a goth biromantic asexual who never talked to anyone. God. One of me is enough to unleash on this world πŸ˜” Two of me would simply be too powerful to exist.

      Also, I find research really fun 😍 I love writing historical fantasy and researching for different settings and characters. I want to be a history major if everything works out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. i absolutely do not believe you should get canceled for this post bc you absolutely were SPITTING FAX, ok. everything you said is true: people should be able to write outside of their experiences, but i do have an issue when people only end up reading “diverse” books by white authors. like, if all the queer/POC stories someone read this year were by not-actually queer/POC authors, then i consider it an issue. but i think that both of these things can coexist: we need more diverse authors and opportunities for own-voices books in publishing. people can write outside of their experiences. like, one thing doesn’t have to rule out the other. it just means that we need to be better as consumers in prioritizing own-voices.
    when it comes to sexuality, though, i have to agree that i don’t think the own-voices label can cut it. i mean, if i was to write about an asexual white boy, his experience would definitely be different than mine as an asexual latinx girl, but i could still slap the own-voices label since we’re both ace, even though our experiences would be very distinct. plus, the whole thing about having to “come out” in order to claim that label, which i also hate. so really if anything i just have the most unpopular opinion ever bc i think own-voices should only be used in cases of BIPOC authors writing BIPOC characters, or if the *author* chooses to do so.
    anyway! this was an absolute amazing post, beck! (also pls excuse me if i cant call you beck bc i just realized i’ve been doing this for a few comments now when i didn’t even ask what you’d prefer and thats embarrassing for me so sorry about that!!!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I always get pretty worried whenever I touch on something vaguely political, lol. I definitely agree with everything you have to say! People who only read non-Ownvoices diverse stories need to expand their reading, especially when they start holding up those books as the pinnacle of diverse literature. A lot of Ownvoices books are REALLY good and creative, and like I said in my post, most Ownvoices books are going to do the representation better than a non-Ownvoices author can. But I don’t get the jump some people make that that means that non-Ownvoices authors shouldn’t even try.

      Yeah, it gets kind of tricky when you get into sexual orientation, because other identities impact your experience of that so much. A Black lesbian won’t have the same experience as a Japanese lesbian. Culture, race, gender, and family are potentially going to change how you experience the “queer” part of your identity a LOT.

      I totally agree that authors who write queer/disabled characters shouldn’t have to claim the label if they don’t want to! And yeah, the “coming out in order to claim the title” is ehh. If an author wants to come out, of course that’s fine, but I’ve heard of some people harassing closeted authors. Don’t out people, you know??

      Thanks so much! And calling me Beck is fine XD

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fam, every single one of us is bad rep, because no one person can represent everyone who shares a piece of their identity. In my last project, I based a good half of the cast on different aspects of me, and it STILL didn’t adequately represent everything I am. It simply can’t be done. Consider me cancelled, I guess. XD

    Liked by 2 people

    • People really are out here acting like there’s only one experience for any one identity and I do NOT get it. Bad rep means falling into toxic tropes and messaging, not portraying a complex character who happens to, I don’t know, be a complex person. The thought that someone would cancel me if I were a fictional character is pretty hilarious, I’ll admit

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Blog Posts I Read Recently #5 – Sareh Lovasen

  5. great post! i think there is so much discussion to be had about ownvoices and i have so many thoughts about it 😭 for me the label has become something kinda… eh, haha. i think my main concern is the taking up space in the industry part, and also whether or not the identity (mainly from a racial perspective, since the forced disclosure of private matters is πŸ˜”πŸ˜”) is being explored in the book. like, i would feel kind of uncomfortable if a white author wrote a book about the racism an asian person faces at school or something like that

    your point saying that acting as if non-marginalized people can never understand marginalized people’s experiences is dehumanizing is really interesting! i feel like there are certain things people could never fully understand because they could never experience it, but to act like marginalized people are totally unrelatable is definitely so alienating and another strange form of othering. great discussion!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks a lot! Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that–I feel kind of iffy about non-ownvoices stories ABOUT an identity. There’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong. Some people can pull it off, but they’re KIND of rare. (But yea the pressure on authors to reveal if they’re disabled or queer is πŸ˜’)

      That’s true that there is some stuff that people aren’t going to fully get if they haven’t experienced it firsthand. Some people take that thought and go in weird, othering directions with it, though. I feel like the idea that people shouldn’t write other identities because they won’t be able to understand them has some…unfortunate implications.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I like this.

    One of the most annoying things I ever read was someone complaining about an autistic character being a savant because it’s a stereotype and THEY PERSONALLY were autistic but not a savant and I was like….BRO. Would have shoved this post at them (but not because, uh, please no conflict let’s not do that). How do you think people who fit into a certain stereotype about their identity FEEL when someone else COMPLAINS about how awful the stereotype is? Totally not a big deal, but someone was once explaining introversion and distinguishing it from social anxiety and making a big deal about how JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE AN INTROVERT DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE SOCIAL ANXIETY because being socially anxious is bad apparently and, as a socially anxious introvert, I was like, gee thanks. I guess I’m not valid because I have social anxiety?? Is that what you’re saying?? It sounded like what he was saying. It was annoying.

    Also, I don’t care WHAT it is, you do NOT have to write #ownvoices, and if you do write #ownvoices, you DO NOT have to tell people that it’s #ownvoices. Seriously. Let’s respect people’s privacy. /rant

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!

      For some reason your comment made me think of this one time some person on the internet was going on and on about how awful people with OCD must feel when people use the term OCD as slang for obsessively clean because don’t you KNOW that people with OCD are in a LIVING HELL and I was kind of just…Thanks? I guess? And she mentioned she didn’t have OCD, so I don’t know what was in it for her! It’s true it does annoy some people when you use the term that way, but it doesn’t annoy everyone, and it just feels kind of weird to me to speak so emphatically for the entire group when you’re not even part of it!

      But yeah, I guess it is a problem when every autistic person in media is a savant, but that doesn’t mean that NO SAVANT CHARACTERS SHOULD BE WRITTEN EVER. Although I do wish more autistic characters existed who have a hyperfixation but it’s on something really obscure and useless. Like, I’m not sure if I’m autistic (I have some autistic traits, but I’m just not sure?) but I have a lot of ADHD symptoms, including hyperfixation, but my hyperfixations are fairy tales and Arthurian legend rather than science and…yeah THAT’S going to get me a job. Anyway, sorry, that was long. But yeah, I do agree! People who call all savant autistic characters problematic JUST because they’re savants are kind of…like yeah, autistic geniuses aren’t as common as media makes it seem but they DO exist.

      Whaaat that’s so weird and ridiculous. Like yeah, it’s true that you can be an introvert without social anxiety, but having social anxiety is fine. I have it. A ton of people have it. No, it’s not enjoyable to have, but it’s definitely not weird.

      Yes, I agree so much! Minority authors shouldn’t be pressured into writing ownvoices or revealing that a book is ownvoices, and I don’t know what people who pressure authors into revealing personal information are doing with their lives–actually, scratch that, I don’t want to know.

      Liked by 2 people

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