Own Voices Writers: Why they are important to the narrative of their stories

Hi guys!

This post is hopefully one that will raise some discussion in the comments below because I would really love to hear lots of different opinions on the topic of Own Voices Narratives.

The biggest news story in publishing in the past few days has been all about ‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins. For those of you not in the know here’s the blurb from Goodreads for it:

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

The controversy surrounding this novel is that it is not Own Voices and instead it reads like a ‘trauma porn’ type read where, typically white people, can read it and feel sympathy for these characters as the violence is ratcheted up to the hilt and ultimately the book descends into the ‘white saviour’ trope and gives an unrealistic view of migrant America to the reader.

I would recommend that you guys read these blog posts / articles that I found that explain the issues around this book in greater detail and make your own conclusions about whether or not it is a book you would want to read.

I for one will not be reading American Dirt. From reading up on the book and its author I have decided that it is not an accurate representation of a story that needs telling.

And that brings me to my question about Own Voices authors.

The author of American Dirt is not Own Voices for a migration story and as it is such a sensitive topic in these incredibly divisive times I feel it should have been. Because the story is one that needs to be gotten out to a wider audience. The wonderful thing about reading fiction is that it has the most amazing ability to influence our thinking because it can make us so empathetic. We live with characters in books for days if not weeks; they can become part of us, they can touch us in ways that quick news bulletins and snappy vox pop pieces may not…

But I also believe because we as people are capable of such great empathy and therefore that anyone should be able to write about anything because I want to believe that any author writing an incredibly emotive story should (with careful research) be able to metaphorically inhabit that world and deliver an authentic story to the reader.

So I am at somewhat of an impasse with my own thoughts on this subject.

I see the absolute need for Own Voices, for diversity, for authentic representation. I truly believe that publishers should put more PR and spending into publicising Own Voice narratives. I consider myself an Own Voices reviewer for Chronic Illness storylines because I live with chronic illness. So when I read a book focusing on such I know when the book is realistic and when it indulges in ‘trauma porn’. And in my experience the majority of the best books I have read that feature a chronically ill character are all written by Own Voices authors.

Yet I have read books where the author is not Own Voices for illness and they have struck the right chord for expressing the emotions / living conditions / physical limitations etc for that chronically ill character.

So you see how I am torn right?

I don’t think there can be an absolute answer. I don’t think we can say that these types of emotive or controversial storylines should only ever be written by Own Voices writers BUT I think greater spotlight needs to be shed on Own Voices.

I believe that more PR and spending needs to go into Own Voices writers as they are the ones who should be telling their stories first.

Because if we have more Own Voices writers telling the narratives of their experiences then it will make both non-Own Voices readers and writers more empathetic to these realistic stories. Therefore will lead to a greater proliferation of good writing that will feel authentic and true and also will bring about informed debate on these topics.

I would really love to hear all of your thoughts on this subject matter. If you have thoughts on ‘American Dirt’ or have read any great articles either in opposition or in defence of it then please chat / link in the comments below. And if you have any experience in reading similar themed books with one written by an Own Voices author and one not, let me know what differences you found.

26 thoughts on “Own Voices Writers: Why they are important to the narrative of their stories

  1. This is a brilliant post! I absolutely understand how you feel torn. We should of course further support ownvoices authors – for example, I think Rick Riordan uses his platform for this really well – and I also know that some non-ownvoices authors can write really relatable content (for example Nick’s realisation of his bisexuality in ‘Heartstopper’ is written by an ace author), and that’s usually because they’ve done some excellent research and have probably consulted some people who have lived experience of what they’re trying to represent. Thanks for sharing those articles!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! It’s all about creating a space for debate and honest discussion. I will always believe that Own Voices is best and that that is what should be highlighted / promoted. Because those Own Voices narratives will inform general opinion and bring us to a naturally more inclusive society.
      But then exactly as you said some non Own Voices writers can truly make a positive impact. It’s just about finding the balance and recognising that the publishing system of today is still placing the emphasis on white straight cis gendered people and that anyone who is such is privileged. And it’s up to us as readers to demand more diversity on our bookstore and library bookshelves by not reading problematic books such as American Dirt that use harmful tropes when attempting to discuss a very sensitive topic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes we really should be clamouring to publishers for more diversity – even if we haven’t got cash to spend on books, we could request/borrow them from libraries too! What you said about publishers still privileging the writing of white cishet authors (whether or not they’re writing ‘diverse’ content) reminds me of something my lecturer once said to our class – that as researchers into violent pasts, marginalised communities etc. we shouldn’t think of ourselves as *giving* voice to the oppressed (akin to the white saviour thing I guess) and instead think of it as *amplifying* their voices – because they already have their own voices, we just need to listen and spread their stories. Kinda like an assist in football or basketball!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh that’s a wonderful analogy (re the assist) Definitely one to use when some people are trying to argue that any talk of a particular culture etc is good and us trying to explain why it needs to be sensitively handled and as you said amplifying instead of giving voice. I really do love that analogy so much. Truly genius way of simplifying things :)))

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  2. I’m definitely in the same boat as you. It’s hard to see where we should draw the line with topics found in books not written by those who have any experience. I don’t think authors mean any harm (although the author of American Dirt made some bad comments in an interview and that is why I will not be reading it). I think that people don’t see it as “well I can’t write this story because I’m not this” but more or less maybe being “you know I haven’t seen a great story like this and it should be written!” but they definitely need to do a lot of research if they are writing on a topic they know nothing about. When it comes to PR, I think that white authors get more but I can’t comment on if it is on purpose. I don’t look at an author or know anything about them until after I pick up their book.

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    1. Well American Dirt is straight up problematic. The author has been rather shady it seems: a number of years ago identifying as white and now suddenly using a grandparent to identify as LatinX and it’s like no. You weren’t brought up within that culture so yes you may share heritage but you still didn’t live that experience so it’s just very murky indeed.
      And then there’s the whole glamorising the barbed wire images (as decorative table pieces etc). It’s just in poor taste and anyone who had lived that experience would know it’s not something to be so flippantly used.
      And then the trauma porn aspect of the storyline, the white saviour trope… it just feeds into a narrow viewpoint and I for one, after reading countless articles etc to inform my opinion, just cannot support it by reading it.

      And as for Own Voices I very much think that Own Voices is best. And should be highlighted before non-Own Voices. The problem in the publishing industry is that they don’t put enough resources into Own Voices authors e.g authors of colour and that’s why there is very much a white bias to the popular books in our bookshelves and libraries. And like you, I typically just tend to read a blurb rather than inform myself about the author and their credentials. But if the publishers had made the choice to publish more diverse authors then we would have a much more diverse bestseller list.
      I think we always have to recognise our own privilege in these instances. E.g. I’m white from a privileged western country with access to good healthcare for my disabilities and illness, and that’s why from that position of privilege it is up to me to demand that I have access to more diverse reads by making a conscious decision to make it my business to go out of my way and read more Own Voices authors.

      But because I believe in equality I will never say that a non-Own Voices author cannot write a particular story as long as they follow strict guidelines. Including but not limited to careful research and sensitivity writers to illustrate that their book is not negatively appropriating a culture / way of life that is not their own.

      It’s truly an interesting topic though isn’t it Joanna. One that I think is very important for us all in the book community to discuss. Because through discussion we can hopefully come to a place where diversity will become the norm.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the info about the author. Yeah, it’s weird she would claim something like that, lol. That’d be like me claiming my german side because of my ancestors.

        I think that there is definitely room for improvement in the publishing system but I don’t know how they work. For me, it’s not about the author. I read a book because I thought it sounded good. If it is by an Own Voice author then that is awesome! I’m happy to share my thoughts on that book and help promote it. Hopefully that doesn’t sound rude? I don’t think that is the right word but hopefully you get what I mean, lol. I know there are a couple books I am looking forward to reading this year by non-white authors and I am super excited!

        I agree with the equality. There should be room for all. Definitely research is key and maybe even beta readers for books like American Dirt, should have been done by Latinx so that this didn’t happen. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as bad with the backlash.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh I totally get you Joanna. Not rude at all. Because in many ways I am the same. I will primarily choose to read a book based on blurb rather than author / author background etc. But I will always be tempted into reading award winners, hot topic books and anything with chronic illness rep because those are things that interest me. But I do want to make more effort reading diversely because i have found it to be incredibly enriching and because I like to support the Own Voices movement. I’m thoroughly enjoying the debate about all of this. I think discussion posts might be my fav blog posts to write because of all the wonderful avenues they lead us down :))))

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Exactly! Open honest debate where people can come together to inform each other and not to throw down hate. It’s the dream isn’t it. I do wish our news reports and current affairs programmes reflected that dream rather than the current sorry mess where every day is something more depressing than the previous

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  3. Ooooo complicated topic! I personally am all for #OwnVoices and I support those authors with love. But I also agree that there are many not-own-voices books that are empathetic and successful. While I think we need to raise up the #OwnVoices authors, I believe that sensitivity readers also exist for a reason, and the issues are larger than their authors. #OwnVoices will tell it best, but non-damaging narratives of any kind are important.

    Love this topic AND the courage it must have taken to post it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that is an excellent point you raise about sensitivity readers. I fully embrace that idea of having sensitivity readers when non-own voices writers in particular are writing.
      And yes, exactly. We should always raise up Own Voices and those who are not Own Voices (be they reader / author / publisher / promoter etc) should be aware of the privilege that there is in their lives i.e. that they do not have to fight to have their voices heard as Own Voices writers do. Own Voices is definitely best in my mind but I would never say never to a non Own Voices writer writing a story as long as it is both authentic and sensitive and does not culturally appropriate for ill-gotten reasons as seems to be the case with American Dirt from what I can tell.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I understand completely. If this were a post entirely about American Dirt I would have gone into greater detail about how it is completely offensive to LatinX and how it is utterly appropriating of that culture. I am sure it hurts you deeply Destiny to see people defend that book without realising the privilege they have to have their cultural stories be told in honest ways. You have my love and support my friend <33

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have to agree with you about being at an impasse on this subject. For me, it’s more about each author’s extent of research and reflection of the theme as opposed to whether it’s an own voice story. I’ve read good and bad for both and I don’t think there’s a single or simple answer to this. Great post Emer!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that I believe that we should always look to Own Voices first because that way the read will be a much more authentic one, but yes. I will never say that any person can’t write from a particular angle if they’ve done the proper research, gone through sensitivity readers etc etc. But I would hope that ultimately publishers / media etc will start to shift the viewpoint from white cis het and grant the same exposure to diverse Own voice authors so that our bookstores and libraries will automatically become a more inclusive space

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  5. Great post, Emer!

    I work in publishing, and I 100% agree that the publishing industry itself needs to do more to be more inclusive. Being inclusive is something the company I work for are always striving for – we’re a smaller independent publisher compared to a lot of the big London-based publishers, but I think that gives us more scope to make sure we’re telling the stories we think need to be told without worrying what the higher-ups are going to say because the higher-ups are the ones we’re making these decisions with in the first place.

    It can still be difficult, though – ultimately publishing is a business, and a business needs to make money to survive. I work in the marketing and publicity department, and the problems with diversity aren’t only in publishing but also in the media – so often I’ve reached out with stories that deserve to be told and no one has shown an interest in giving the story media coverage. If there’s no media coverage, bookshops are less likely to order stock and before you know it barely anyone in the general public has actually heard of the book and it won’t sell as many copies as you want it to and it doesn’t get into the hands of readers. Publishing definitely needs to be doing more (such as actually hiring more people from minority groups) but the media needs an overhaul, too.

    Having said that, I would never tell an author that they can’t write about something. I’ve never liked the phrase ‘write what you know’ because if everyone wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have SFF or thrillers or even a lot of romance novels we have now. But it’s clear that not enough thought has been put into this book and how it’s been marketed – I was pretty sickened the other day when I saw on Twitter that, at the launch, there were barbed wire centrepieces on the table. That is NOT the way to promote this book.

    I think it’s also frustrating that so much effort has gone into promoting this book instead of promoting an own voices story, especially considering the children still currently separated from their parents at the border and all the other difficulties being faced by immigrants right now. Personally I like to seek out own voices authors when I want to read about a culture or experience different from my own, or at least find own voices reviews to see if the author has done their research and treated the topic their handling with respect, but it definitely looks like that hasn’t happened here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jess, LOVE reading your thoughtful comment. Thank you for sharing my friend. It is super interesting getting your take.

      And I totally agree with you. Media is hugely to blame too. With far too much of a bias on white cis het. It’s a seemingly vicious circle isn’t it and really the ones to break the cycle will have to be us, the general book buying public by putting more of an effort into seeking out Own voice titles and also supporting smaller indie publishers who definitely tend to put more emphasis on unique writing and marginalised writers / stories etc. I personally like to support Irish indie publishers here at home.

      And omg the whole branding of American dirt with the barbed wire… when I saw those photos I couldn’t believe it. Like how did they think that’s okay? I’m truly baffled. And it’s so frustrating that this is the book that is being touted as the migrant story for modern America …. there’s just so much wrong with everything surrounding how that book is being lauded.

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  6. This is such an important topic, and one I’ve really been struggling with putting into words lately, so thank you for saying it so eloquently! I heard about American Dirt because of the #ownvoices discussion that’s been happening around it, too, and I don’t think I’ll be reading it, either.

    But you’re dead on. #ownvoices should be written by #ownvoices authors, but it’s important to see that not-#ownvoices authors have the ability to do it successfully, as well, so that, combined, a wider audience can see these stories. It’s a hard place to be in when we advocate for both, and then we’re let down so terribly, but I’m trying to stay hopeful that it’ll keep getting better every year. Publishing is slowly (verrrrrry slowly) starting to catch onto the fact that we want more diverse books, and hopefully that’ll start to expand beyond just the books and to the authors, as well.

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    1. Thank you so much Mary!!! And that’s exactly it, we should always seek the own voices authors to guide us and the spotlight should always first and foremost should be on them but that doesn’t exclude sensitively written non Own Voice writings from the narrative. It is a tricky one to get right and really as readers we should be demanding better from publishers by not yielding to hyped books like American Dirt.

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