Who tells your story?

Photo: Xandro Vandewalle

Own Voice in literature

By Mie Hald

Have you ever read a book with a character that by all means should have something in common with you, but is just written in a way that is so… wrong? There can be many reasons for the author to not succeed in writing a character relatable to you, and one of them could be that the book maybe hadn’t been Own Voice.

What is Own Voice?

Own Voice is a relatively new term. According to Norwoodlibrary.org, it showed up for the first time in 2015 on Twitter, where it was used by author Corrinne Duyvis as a hashtag and tool to find book recommendations. The hashtag came just after #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which was started in 2014 by the Asian-American authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo, and it was originally about children’s books: More specifically that children should have access to books that reflected their story and life in an authentic way that they could relate to.

The term grew from Twitter, and like many other things that are paved with good intentions, it is also very much used as a marketing tool in the book world of America. But the conversation is still important.

“Own Voice is when you as a person are part of a group, often a minority, and you tell your story with your own experiences.” That’s how the educator and design manager Lasse Kjøbeløv (he/they) explains the concept in a phone call discussing the topic. “Non-Own Voice is when the majority tells that story.”

Own Voice-stories are quite simply created by authors who write from their own experiences, often in connection with their background, ethnicity, and identity. It could be an author with depression writing about depression, or a polyamorous author writing about a polyamorous character.

Though it may sound like it, Own Voice is not a term for biographies. It’s about representation in fiction and not just in books.

Body and soul or pure imagination?

Of course you don’t have to be X or Y to write about it, but there is a significant difference in writing about something you’ve experienced on body and soul and something you’ve researched.

“Own Voice is important, since we, especially in minority literature or literature about other groups at risk, need to have a direct voice and need to have space for it.” So says Line Lybecker (she/he/it), author of a number of Young Adult novels and owner of the fantasy publishing company Ulven og Uglen, when we met on a cold Monday in January. “I don’t think we should always fit the label of Own Voice onto the author,” she adds, “especially since it can be dangerous for the author to out themselves. But it’s handy for minorities, and the majority, to know if something is Own Voice, so you can find a story that reflects real life as much as possible.”

Stories that are not Own Voice can easily be good representation if they’re created in a respectful and curious manner. It’s often easy to tell when an author has been interested in inclusion, but hasn’t put a lot of thought into it – this results in problems like those that many have pointed out in the white author Rainbow Rowell’s book Eleanor & Park, wherein one of the main characters is of Korean descent. The book and the author has been criticized for portraying anti-Asian stereotypes (see for example ‘The Problem with Eleanor & Park’ by Chantal Cheung in Northeastern University Political Review).

It’s especially important to give attention to those who use their own lived experiences. First and foremost, it has not been possible for many of the people who write Own Voice (like POC, LGBTI+, and non-Christian authors) to tell these stories, either because of discrimination or even persecution. 

It seems very straightforward, but it can still get a heated debate going.

For better and for worse

Some people think that because of the enhanced focus on Own Voice, there is now a limit on what you can write about. This is simply a misconception.

“People with the old opinions will always feel like they’re being invaded or threatened,” says Line Lybecker. “I think there’s a tendency to make it sound like Own Voice is the only possibility,” she continues. “I don’t see it that way, and I don’t think that’s how it should be. I think we should have both. Minorities should be able to tell their stories, but it shouldn’t just be them.”

All topics have nuances – both Line and Lasse agree that the reaction is a defensive one. Lasse Kjøbeløv explains it thus: “I think the reason as to why many people get a little scared, uncomfortable, or think it’s dangerous, is for this reason: that many minorities are starting to explain that the stories we know already are contributing to prejudice or stereotypes in some way or another.”

Very few people enjoy being confronted with the flaws in what they are used to. It may seem aggressive for some when those who were previously silent now get a voice. “What I think they get scared of is that we at some point as minorities start to show our teeth,” Lasse Kjøbeløv says. “And they get told that they can do a better job than what they’ve been doing already.”

Off limits?

A cisgender bisexual woman can write about a transgender heterosexual man, but not without stopping to think. It becomes so easy to use misunderstandings and preconceived notions in the text, because the author understands it as fact. “You can write about whatever you want,” says Lasse Kjøbeløv, “but you have to respect who, or what, you write about. People have to be held responsible for fact checking and be aware of preventing stereotypes and prejudice.”

Research, empathy, and openness are important when an artist doesn’t write Own Voice. Because no matter how good your intentions are, the stereotypes can hurt the ones who the story is about a hundred times more than it can hurt the artist. As Line Lybecker explains it at our meeting: “I think it triggers a defense mechanism when something is demanded of the majority. But writing about others has to be done properly.”

And it doesn’t just apply to artists who belong to the majority, but also minority groups who shine a light on other minority groups. Nobody is omniscient, and respect doesn’t cost a lot.

The Importance of Own Voice

The beautiful thing about Own Voice is that two authors with the same background can write about wildly different experiences. Because people are so complex and nuanced, and Own Voice breaks down the narrow-minded idea that is so easy to cultivate unconsciously.

“It shouldn’t be that Own Voice is the only type of minority story,” Line Lybecker says. “It’s damn important, but others should be able to write about these things as well. Minorities should likewise be able to tell their stories, but it’s also important that we do not label people to only write Own Voice, because that’s just as damaging.”

And Own Voice isn’t just important for those who the story is about: “It also gives you, as the reader, an opportunity to learn and understand groups of people that you might not meet in your day-to-day,” says Lasse Kjøbeløv. “Or you’re in a place where you’re so privileged that you won’t experience structural racism, sexism, queerphobia, and so on.”

Good representation is important for everyone, no matter who you are. But some are more used to it than others. There should be enough space to tell your own story, and that’s why it’s important to focus on those that have been able to write with their own voice.

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