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 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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 🙂
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.