Discussion | #ownvoice versus non #ownvoice authors?

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? 

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Context

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)


Let's Chat! (1)

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!


EST. 2015 (1)

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8 thoughts on “Discussion | #ownvoice versus non #ownvoice authors?

  1. I’m glad you brought this up, and I feel like this is a REALLY TRICKY topic. I know right now we’ve reached a place where many individuals feel comfortable or that it’s necessary to state their identity to the public. This is huge for #OwnVoices, because as you said, it can make it really easy for readers to know what type of content they’re reading. But at the same time, I also think it’s creating a somewhat hostile environment for those who, for WHATEVER REASON, want to keep their identity private. There are certain books I would like to write that might be questionable to some people, but I don’t feel that I should have to put private information about myself out for the public eye just to be able to write them and not be judged horrendously by those who don’t agree. It’s great that people are feeling empowered and comfortable to be completely transparent about who they are. But not everyone is, and I think it’s a problem when their voices and stories are ignored when they try to offer them in their own way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment. That’s something I have been thinking about quite a bit as I know it’s something that has become a really big problem. I’ve personally seen it happening a lot in online discussions where a persons contribution is reacted to with a lot of hostility and backlash until eventually the poster feels pressured into disclosing sensitive information about themselves. As you said, it’s a very tricky discussion to be had because of all of these intersecting factors.

      I think one of the negative consequences of only supporting explicit #ownvoices writers is, as you mentioned, inadvertantly sidelining #ownvoice writers who, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t want to reveal that they’re #ownvoices and their work ends up not getting the recognition it deserves.

      I think the conclusion I’ve been working towards as the fairest to everybody is that we should always be doing our best to boost works that have diverse characters and stories, regardless of who they’re written by, and support #ownvoices when we can to ensure that they’re getting equal publishing opportunities to non #ownvoice writers. That way, hopefully everyone gets fair treatment. We should be celebrating more diverse characters and stories rather than reacting negatively to writers trying their best!

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      1. I definitely think that’s the fairest option 🙂 Like, I understand wanting to support #OwnVoices authors, but at the same time I think it’s good to be aware that it isn’t so black and white about who does or doesn’t fall under that label. I really like this post, and if you don’t mind I think I’ll be bringing up the topic on my own blog and linking back to this one. Thanks for such a great discussion!

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  2. This is a very insightful blog post! This is a hard question to answer because, say in terms of rape, not everyone is very open about their experiences. However, I guess, sometimes you can tell whether a content is harmful or not based on #ownvoices reviewers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your response Cam! It is such a hard subject to talk about, especially with regards to sensitive issues like rape. I agree with you though that you can usually tell in the way that something is written whether it is #ownvoices or not and it’s important we’re not asking vulnerable people to have to disclose sensitive information about themselves in order to view their contribution as legitimate or authentic. It can be very tricky to get a good balance

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  3. I think #owenvoices is very important. My brother is autistic, and for him, seeking out stories and content from other people like him is absolutely vital. Everybody needs to see themselves reflected somewhere – that’s just human nature. The notion that you can’t be what you can’t see is real. In the end all we’re doing is looking for reflections of ourselves to reassure ourselves that we’re doing okay.

    Whether or not it’s important for an author to be #ownvoices is a really interesting question, and honestly, not one that I’ve thought about much – I think for a mix of reasons involving privilege and that most books I read about marginalised communities are #ownvoices, simply because those are the people writing them. I think #ownvoices perspectives are vital, but that ultimately, everybody can tell stories about everybody. The #ownvoices movement is important for so many reasons, but particularly because of the way that white cis storytellers often sideline people from minorities or use them as accessories. I guess if you’re going to write a book about a life experience that isn’t your own that’s just something that you have to be cognisant of during the entire writing process and also that you need to be open to the community that you’re writing about. I rambled a lot here, but I hope I made some sort of sense!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your response, it does make sense :). I definitely think it’s good to have #ownvoice rep, as you mentioned for your brother it’s super important for us to be able to see ourselves represented in the books we are reading and in the publishing industry itself!

      I think it’s definitely good to have a mix of people writing stories, that’s why I was careful to emphasise that everybody can write stories but to ensure they’re done in a way that isn’t harmful to anyone and that doesn’t infringe upon #ownvoice authors too. It’s always such a tricky subject!

      Liked by 1 person

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