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The #OwnVoices Movement: Whose Voices Are Being Heard?

From abandoning the acronym BAME to placing diversity and inclusion at the forefront of their values, representation has never been so important in the creative industries. It’s about time too, particularly in the publishing world. In the UK, this industry has been notoriously slow to be more representative of its population. The Publishers’ Association admitted that ‘there has been little progress in its […] target of increasing the ethnic diversity of employees’ earlier this year.

This lack of representation in turn affects the books that are commissioned and opinions about the authors who are writing them. For example, publishers have expressed alarming concerns about the ‘lack of ‘quality’’ of books by people of colour. After witnessing the success of works such as Sathnam Sanghera’s Empire Land and Bolu Babalola’s Love in Colour in recent months, it is evident that this is simply not the case.

With the #OwnVoices movement, it seems as though things might finally be changing. Originating on Twitter in 2015, this hashtag refers to a campaign championing the right for authors to tell their own stories in connection to their diverse identities. The author shares diverse or marginalised attributes with their main character, such as race, gender, sexuality, or disability, which reinforces the authenticity of their writing.

The campaign’s potential is evident when observing previous grievances in the commissioning landscape. For instance, the novelist Vikram Seth had to defend the choice of Andrew Davies, a white writer, adapting his novel A Suitable Boy for television last year. Writers such as Nikesh Shukla criticised this choice, stating that ‘so many brown writers are struggling to find work’ before questioning how many ‘opportunities there are for brown screenwriters’. While this issue moves beyond the world of publishing exclusively, it demonstrates the importance ofwriters  representing their own stories as well as their lack of ability to do so.

The movement has additionally had notable success in practice. Corinne Duyvis, who first coined the hashtag #OwnVoices, published her third novel, The Art of Saving the World, last year after the success of her debut, Otherbound, in 2014 when ‘queer YA books were still rare’. In her latest book, her protagonist Hazel is depicted as struggling with anxiety, something she has also personally experienced. The publication and positive reception of Duyvis’s work demonstrates what this movement can achieve. 

However, this hashtag is not without its obstacles. It has often come under criticism for publishers’ decisions on what authors can represent which communities. As a result, writers from diverse backgrounds can be denied opportunities on the notion of not being representative enough. This was the case with the author Tallie Rose, whose manuscript featuring a gay protagonist was recently rejected by Hurn Publications. The publishers believed that Rose did not come from the LGBTQ+ community and misrepresented the community in her work, despite her bisexual identity.

Writers are also increasingly frustrated by expectations to write only about certain communities or subjects. Historical fiction writer Cath outlines how her existence ‘and the existence of our BIPOC characters, are treated as inherently political’. She goes on to point out the ‘shades of either joy or trauma’ that are expected within her characters that consequently transform them into ‘educational tools’ or ‘trauma porn’. Not only do underrepresented authors face obstacles on entering the publishing industry, the material they produce  is under further limitations too.

When observing both sides of the #OwnVoices campaign, it is perhaps useful to turn to a collection that I believe transcends its limitations. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been a powerful literary force in the last seven years since its original publication. Rankine’s collection provides important insight into the psychological trauma stemming from microaggressions, racial profiling and police brutality. As a black woman, Rankine’s voice is imperative in depicting these urgent issues in America.

However, the lack of identifiers in her collection universalises her poetry beyond the Black community in America. Her short, fragmented scenes feature narrators whose race and gender is often undisclosed: ‘You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’. The respective races of the passenger and driver are easy to guess based on this brief snapshot of a scene. The passenger’s bigotry further reveals the professional boundaries often experienced by Black people in America as they are continuously excluded from traditionally white spaces.

Yet the unidentified race of the driver also ensures that any person of colour can connect to this scene. When asked about the most unexpected reaction to her book, Rankine reveals that ‘the most surprising thing has been the number of Asian women who have come up to me at book signings with tears in their eyes to say: this is my life you’re writing’. The authenticity of Citizen speaks more broadly to the experiences of people of colour as a whole. This is not to suggest that all experiences are the same, rather Rankine’s writing reveals the power of mutual grief and solidarity. 

It is therefore important that authors themselves get to choose who or what they want to write about. This choice is the key behind impactful writing. Underrepresented writers must be recognised as being able to push literature to new and exciting limits, like Rankine. While the #OwnVoices movement clearly has huge potential, there needs to be more emphasis on the word “own”. Authors need to be trusted to own their stories, whether they are a reflection of their own communities, or an exploration of something new. 

Image Credit: Daniel Thomas via Unsplash, CC0

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