The Importance Of #OwnVoices: An Interview With Corinne Duyvis

The Young Adult book community has been calling out for more diverse representation for years and, slowly but surely with sites like Diveristy in YA, Disability in Kidlit, Gay YA, and LGBTQ Reads, we have seen an increase in the number of marginalised groups with starring roles in the pages of YA. There’s still a long way to go, but progress is definitely being made.

It’s not just representation we’re after, but accurate representation meaning that authors writing about circumstances outside of their own experiences have to do their homework to make sure there are no glaring stereotypes or complete misconceptions. Some of my favourite diverse YA novels have been by authors who have done a ton of research to make sure they have written the people their characters are representing as accurate as they’re able. Unfortunately, though, authors can sometimes miss the mark a little. However, there is a sure-fire way to guarantee that the book you’re reading has the most accurate representation possible; read an #OwnVoices novel.

#OwnVoices is a Twitter hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis, YA author of Otherbound. The hashtag was established to recommend books about marginalised protagonists written by authors who share that same identity. In other words, written by people who know what it’s like to live in their protagonist’s shoes. For example, Duyvis’ second novel On the Edge of Gone is an #OwnVoices novel; protagonist Denise is autistic, as is Duyvis. Of course, everyone is different, and not everyone within the same marginalised group is going to have exactly the same experiences but, when it comes to reading accurate representation, reading an #OwnVoices novel is your best bet.

Duyvis was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to tell us a bit more about #OwnVoices novels, and their importance.

corinne duyvis ownvoices

Can you tell us about #OwnVoices and how the hashtag came about?

#OwnVoices is a hashtag for sharing book recommendations which I first suggested using in September 2015. To be specific, it’s for recommending books with characters from a marginalised group written by an author from that same marginalised group. The topic of diversity has been getting more and more attention in past years, including within the book community, with all kinds of initiatives to promote diverse titles and all kinds of blogs to discuss them. The #OwnVoices hashtag is an extension of that, talking not only about diverse titles, but also authors who can speak from their own experiences.

As for how it came about? There was a discussion on Twitter about authors writing about experiences outside of their own. At first glance, this concept seems obvious. Of course authors write about things they haven’t experienced. That’s part of what being an author is about. I’ve never experienced a world-destroying comet impact, but I still wrote about it. I’ve never experienced being a Surinamese-Dutch teen girl or a teen boy with an amputated foot, but I still wrote about them.

There is a danger in promoting certain books more than others, though, which many marginalized authors have experienced. A book about a Japanese character by a white author may get more attention and marketing push than a book about a Japanese character by a Japanese author. That’s a real problem, and something we need to address.

While this heated discussion took place, I thought: It’s good that people are talking about how important these books are, but we should also talk about the books themselves. I suggested that we recommend some titles under the #OwnVoices hashtag. People jumped on that idea, and soon, the hashtag was trending at #1 worldwide. Now, several months later, it’s become a part of the lexicon, which I’m beyond excited about. People use it not only to recommend books, but also as easy shorthand in discussions.

Why is #OwnVoices representation so important?

I can think of three primary reasons:

One: The quality and depth of the books. For example: I’m sighted. If I want to write a blind protagonist, I would need to do intensive research and consult with blind friends. Even then I would be likely to get things wrong, be it in terms of stereotypes, misconceptions, attitudes, or technical details. Imagine I manage to get all of it right, though. It might be a stellar book … but it’s also likely to miss the depth of understanding and experience—not to mention all the tiny, meaningful details—that a blind author could bring to the book.

In short, if you’re going to write about an experience, it’s usually better done by people who have had that experience themselves. That’s kind of a no-brainer.

Two: I don’t think it’s right to care about diverse books and marginalized readers without extending that to marginalized authors. Many marginalized authors have spoken about getting less opportunities, less money, and less marketing than their privileged peers, and about experiencing intense editorial pressure to make their books more “palatable” to the mainstream.

In other words, if we support diverse books because we realize the extent of institutional oppression and the need for readers to see diverse characters, we can’t possibly justify leaving out the actual authors struggling to gain a foothold in the publishing industry.

Three: This relates to the previous point. It’s about correcting historical and ongoing wrongs. It’s sadly very common for marginalized people to not be allowed to speak for themselves. Think of all-white race panels on talk shows. Think of supportive parents of trans kids receiving accolades while the trans kids themselves are little more than props.  Think of the way many disability organizations are led by and/or aimed at non-disabled people. It’s not right to lock people out of the conversations that are about them, and this kind of co-opting has happened in the publishing world just as much. Many people’s perceptions—say, of autistic people—are formed by media portrayals created by outsiders. This has far-reaching, damaging consequences. We need to center the people who have historically not been centered, and prioritize their voices in the conversation.

What books are covered by #OwnVoices and marginalised groups are recommended through the hashtag?

Although I created it, I want to be very careful about not claiming ownership of the hashtag. I love that it’s become a commonplace term to use, a part of our shared vocabulary. I don’t think it would be proper for one person to dictate a concept and police its conversation.

As far as my original intentions go, however: As far as I’m concerned, the hashtag can apply to any form of art and representation. Forget just extending to NA and adult; I’d love to see it used in discussions of film, video games, and comic books as well. The term started in the YA community but it’s an important concept that I think would only benefit from being more widely adopted.

In terms of which groups are covered, I believe most of the community seems to include: people of colour/non-white people; disabled people; queer people; and people from a marginalized culture or religion. Some include broader definitions; others include more narrow definitions. Sometimes I agree; sometimes I don’t. Either way, it’s not my call to make.

Are there any particular #OwnVoices novels you would recommend?

… how much time do you have?

Sangu Mandanna’s The Lost Girl, Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World, Alex London’s Proxy, Matt de la Peña’s The Living, Ambelin Kwaymullina’s The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, Patrick Ness’s More Than This, Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul, Tess Sharpe’s Far From You, Amy Fellner Dominy’s OyMG, Marieke Nijkamp’s This Is Where It Ends, Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads To You, Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Dahlia Adler’s Under the Lights, Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever, Coe Booth’s Kinda Like Brothers, Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans, Lyn Miller-Lachman’s Rogue, Laura Lam’s Pantomime, Phoebe North’s Starglass, Saundra Mitchell’s The Elementals, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos, Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks, and although I have not yet read these, I have it on good authority that Kody Keplinger’s Run, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, and Heidi Heilig’s The Girl from Everywhere are amazing.

I could go on for a while, but I suspect this is probably more than anyone asked for.

For more information about the hashtag, head over to Duyvis’ #OwnVoices page.

Have you read any of the OwnVoices novels? Do you participate in the hashtag? Share your thoughts below!

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