Discussions around #ownvoice authors are not exactly new in the book blogging community. It’s something I’ve seen spoken about quite a lot by other bloggers but is not something that I’d especially given much thought to before. The extent of my thought process around #ownvoice authors had been that I should continue to support them and champion their work. If there was a book about an issue affecting black people written by a black author then I would definitely boost the #ownvoice author. And, in cases where a book is written by a non #ownvoice author and has problematic content in it then I speak up about why the book is problematic and recommend #ownvoice alternatives.
But what happens when a book deals with sensitive marginalized issues or is potentially problematic without it being clear if the author is #ownvoices or not?
This is an issue that I came up against this week whilst reading ‘Trans Liberty Riot Brigade‘ by L.M Pearce. I had requested the book on Netgalley on a whim when I read the description. A speculative fiction novel which asks some big questions about gender and sex by depicting intersex ‘Transgressors’, individuals who refuse to be forced to have sex reassignment surgery as is mandated by law. Enter the Trans Liberty Riot Brigade, an underground group who is waging war against the government’s classification of legal and illegal genitalia.
Before requesting the book I did some brief research into the author but couldn’t find anything online about how the author identifies so decided to give the book a chance. I also looked up some reviews on Goodreads, all of which rated the book 4-5 stars and spoke highly of the writing. I’m always wary of reading speculative fiction books which deal with issues such as gender and sex, like TLRB, because, in my experience, those books attempt to explore big questions in a very clumsy manner which is all too often offensive when written by non #ownvoice authors.
In the case of TLRB I actually DNF’ed it after only 5%. This is highly unusual for me. I hate DNF’ing books and when I reluctantly do so it is usually after forcing myself through at least 30% of the book. With TLRB though I just couldn’t bring myself to read any more than 5% because of the content.
Why I struggled with TLBR (CN: transphobia, genitalia)
Putting the forced writing aside, the content was the big issue for me. I’ll use a particular example from the scene that caused me to DNF to demonstrate my issues with the book before moving onto why #ownvoices matters for me.
During some kind of mission early on in the story, our protagonist Andi, and her companion come across someone who had been a member of the TLRB but had gone missing. As Andi explains something is different about ‘Lucky Lips’, “I’ve never seen Lips look this way, with tits like this, and in a dress too”. It quickly transpires that Lucky Lips has, for one reason or another, had reassignment surgery and is now presenting as a woman. Andi and her companion’s reaction to this, I felt, was incredibly disgusting. They begin to heckle and shame Lips for “giving in” to Society.
S/he? Oh , pardon, like weren’t a season ago you were swinging your pecker ’round the quarter?…. Society slut, you’re just an effing Society slut. Gonna take that dick along with the poke of the Society stick?
Then as Andi and her companion flee from the scene after being interrupted by some kind of security droids, she yells to Lucky Lips “hope you choke on a bucket of dicks”.
Now, to me, that kind of content is transphobic and immediately put my back up.
When #ownvoice really matters?
In the example of TLRB, whether the author was #ownvoice really mattered to me. I would like to clarify that I am trans(masculine), but I am not a trans woman nor am I intersex. If, however, it turned out that the author was a trans woman and/or intersex then it would change how I might approach the book, and it would certainly change the way that I reviewed it. If the author was #ownvoice then I would still have an issue with the language used but would also approach it from a position of not being part of that group so it wouldn’t be my place to say how a trans woman and/or intersex person can talk about their genitalia. However, if the author is cis then such content and terminology is problematic for me.
Shaming someone who is intersex for having surgery on their genitalia is never okay and, in the case of using such grotesque and vulgar language, is offensive and gross.
I do not know how the rest of the story progresses so can’t comment on whether the characters change their attitude towards people who decide to have surgery. I would also like to clarify that I do not think that characters are mouthpieces for authors so am not accusing the author of being transphobic, but am saying that this representation is potentially transphobic.
This is when the importance of the author’s own identity comes into play because it can cast some light on the situation. Is the author a trans or intersex person who is using an authentic voice to represent the divisions between different intersex people? Or is the author a cis person writing characters based on their assumptions of experience and creating a messy representation?
To clarify, I am not saying that non #ownvoice authors cannot write about identities that they are not part of or about experiences outside of their own. That is not what I am saying at all. Instead, what I am trying to explore is situations when it can be really helpful for readers and reviewers to know the identities of the authors. Obviously this can be very difficult, especially in instances of abuse survivors and LGBTQ people, so it’s a very tricky, sensitive discussion to be had. I’m not suggesting that authors should have to out themselves, but if authors are cis (or other non marginalised authors) then it would be really helpful for them to be explicit about this. The onus should be on the non marginalised authors to explicitly state their identity and where they are coming from, rather than creating a situation where marginalised people have to out themselves.
Update regarding the author of TLRB (23/02/2018)
The author very kindly tweeted me back confirming that she is queer/pansexual but not intersex herself. I just want to clarify once again that my issues with TLRB are purely in the content itself, and do not reflect any feelings about the author herself (who seems very nice!)
How do others feel about this?
Is it helpful for you to know if an author is #ownvoice or not?
Is knowing the authors identity useful for your interpretation of the book or should it not matter whether an author is #ownvoice?
I would really love to speak to others about their experiences and what they think. However, as this is clearly a very sensitive subject I would ask people to be really respectful in their discussions, not shout over other people, or be otherwise hostile towards each other. I feel that this is an important discussion to be had amongst readers and reviewers so let’s ensure that a conversation can actually be had!