Op Ed by Merriam Saunders, LMFT
Editor's Note: The definition of Ownvoices, a term coined in 2015 by autistic author Corinne Duyvis, is "kidlit about diverse characters, written by authors from that same diverse group."
It’s not news that in the US, authoring has been dominated by a majority pen that frequently misrepresents the minority voice, perpetuating stereotypes and keeping marginalized voices in that margin. Thanks in part to the efforts of #OwnVoices and We Need Diverse Books, this is slowly changing, and space is being made for marginalized authors to tell their stories.
In the case of a marginalized culture or race, it’s often obvious when the author is #ownvoices by their name or appearance (not always, though!) But what happens when the thing that makes you marginalized is invisible? What happens when it’s a mental health issue, a gender or sexuality issue, or an issue of neurodiversity?
In other words: Should an author have to 'out' themselves, in order to prove they know what they’re writing about?
When my dear friend released her first novel a few years ago, she had been diagnosed with the same thing as her main character -- but chose to keep it private. However, one day she was called out and challenged on Twitter as to her right to author this book, since the tweeter assumed she was not #ownvoices. Wanting to defend her book, my friend felt forced to make her diagnosis public.
But what right did anyone have to question her in the first place? It was not that she “got something wrong” in the story or misrepresented the characteristics of someone with that diagnosis. She was being called out simply because it was not obvious that she was #ownvoices.
And what if she chose to stay private? That challenging tweet could have marked her book as a fraud, and turned away readers—when in fact, the story is an extremely thoughtful example of a mirror, window and sliding door that has helped thousands of readers.
By all appearances, I am a cis, white, heterosexual female with no mental health issues. But, can you be so very sure of this? If I were to write a novel about a bisexual girl struggling with ADHD or addiction or depression—should anyone have the right to ask me if that novel is #ownvoices?
I don’t think they do. Consider the case of Becky Albertalli, author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, who just this week, after being skewered and analyzed for years for being allo-cis-het while writing about gay characters, felt forced to out herself as bisexual on Medium.com.
She’s angry, and she has every right to be.
We need to be careful wielding our tweets and posts when asking about #ownvoices as it relates to issues of mental health, sexuality and gender. No one should have to make that information public to appease the curiosity of a challenger.
At the same time—as authors, we need to get it right!! If you don’t have that particular lived experience, please be very, very careful. Ask yourself why you need to be the one to tell this story. Many people choose not to make their issues public specifically because of the stigma that goes along with the issue—and often, that stigma is perpetuated by sloppy authors who rely on stereotypes and urban myths. Don’t be that writer!
And next time you want to call someone out on Twitter over whether or not they're #ownvoices -- or should be -- think twice about whether you can be very VERY sure that the author isn’t just staying private. Which they have every right to do.
Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT, is a family therapist, college professor and author of the picture books My Whirling, Twirling Motor and My Wandering, Dreaming Mind, and the middle grade novel Trouble with a Tiny t, all affirming stories about children with ADHD. She is also co-founder of A Novel Mind. Merriam and her husband live in Northern California with their three kids, one silly lab, and a tiny chihuahua with no teeth. To learn more about Merriam, visit merriamsbooks.com.