Own Voices: can authors write about communities they aren’t a part of?

#OwnVoices is thrown around a lot these days, and for good reason.

If you are unfamiliar with the term, it is used to describe works of fiction featuring a main character from a diverse community the author is also part of. It is often much deeper than this though, delving into the experiences of someone in the given community, rather than just their identity as a descriptor. So, a queer author writing about queer characters would be #OwnVoices, but a straight author writing the same would not be, as a very loose example.

The emergence of this idea has prompted many a debate about representation in literature and who can write certain experiences or identities, which has been a really constructive ongoing discussion. The discourse tends to focus on one huge question: can authors write about characters and experiences from a community they are not part of?

The answer, in my opinion, is that it depends.

In my reading experience and my extensive involvement in the book community, I think the way in which these topics and characters are written about affects whether the story should be #OwnVoices or not. It also depends on the specific author in question, because let’s face it, some are better at diversity than others.

On a basic, surface level, labelling characters as a member of a certain community purely for descriptive purposes is fine, even if the author does not belong to the community. White authors should not feel restricted from including Black characters in their work because they aren’t Black, and trans characters are not off the table for cisgender authors as a descriptor only.

However, there is a huge difference between representing the people themselves and representing the issues they face, and this is where the line for #OwnVoices falls. Having a Black character in a white-authored story is great, but if this same author writes about said Black character’s experience of racism, this is not acceptable. The white author has obviously not experienced racism themselves, so how can they authentically and accurately write about it? Get the idea?

If the reader is looking for stories about the Black experience, then turning to a white author should not be the first move. Seek out Angie Thomas, Brit Bennett, Bernadine Evaristo and more. At the end of the day, it’s about authentic representation, and I certainly wouldn’t trust a cisgender person to write about issues facing transgender people.

All of that in mind, I also believe there are ways for authors not belonging to certain communities to provide representation well. Take, as a shining example, the king himself, Rick Riordan. Riordan’s books are masterpieces for a multitude of reasons that would take a year of my life to write, but he manages to provide amazing representation for a wide section of identities and communities.

Granted, he doesn’t delve into the experiences of those identities because there are monsters to kill and a world to protect, nor is it his place, but he consistently engages with his community of readers and seeks the input of those around him to ensure his characters are the best representatives of a community possible. His characters are not based on his own perceptions or observations, and that is how diversity is done without having to be #OwnVoices. Riordan is just a master of everything, and I will hear no different.

However, if an author does not seem to be writing from #OwnVoices, there needs to be boundaries as to how we address this. The book community can be savage, and a few months ago Becky Albertalli, the author of ‘Simon vs the Homosapiens Agenda’, discovered this the hard way. Her book about a gay teen has garnered a lot of attention as the #OwnVoices movement strengthened, with readers calling into question Albertalli’s sexual orientation as she is in a heterosexual-presenting marriage. Some horribly invasive people decided this was grounds to ridicule Albertalli for writing this story about a community she isn’t part of, to the point where she was forced to come out as queer in an article in response to the backlash.

This is obviously not acceptable, and it goes to show how toxic #OwnVoices can actually be. Authors have their own lives and are of course entitled to their privacy, but the importance and primacy of #OwnVoices forces these aspects of their lives into the limelight without their consent or control. Those who pass as straight or are not openly queer, as an example, will always be questioned when writing queer stories, with those seeking answers having no clue what is going on behind the scenes. I’ve seen similar responses to stories about chronic illness and invisible disabilities, and authors should not be expected to ‘prove’ they are part of a community or in a certain demographic. #OwnVoices can go too far, and authors need to be left alone sometimes.

In summary, #OwnVoices is so important, and it should ensure we are reading about authentic experiences that are not fabricated from an external viewpoint. That said, this cannot limit authors’ ability to represent communities at all. All authors of all skin colours, sexualities, gender identities, able-bodied or not, should work to increase diversity in literature. Having certain communities be entirely off limits to certain people only hinders this.

Oh, and don’t harass authors. They are people too.

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About Author

Sam Hewitson

Sam Hewitson

Travel Editor - 2019/20

Editor-In-Chief - 2020/21

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April 2021
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