What is the #OwnVoices movement?
Alaina: The #OwnVoices movement originated as a hashtag, started by Corinne Duyvis. Duyvis is an own voices author of OTHERBOUND and THE EDGE OF GONE. Duyvis started the hashtag with children’s literature in mind, but the hashtag has expanded by its users to include all literature or publishing. The hashtag #OwnVoices is meant to showcase works that are created by authors/illustrators who share the identity of their characters, such as a book with a d/Deaf protagonist written by a d/Deaf author.
Why is the movement so important?
Alaina: Whenever we talk about diversity in publishing and literature, there are some critical things to consider. Are we discussing diverse characters, or diverse authors, or diverse gatekeepers and industry professionals? Are we concerned with diversity in that stories are being published with inclusive casts, or are we also talking about the lack of diversity in whose work gets published, and who is sitting at the table making decisions about what to publish? The reason that #OwnVoices creators are so important is because, as marginalized people, we’re the best authority on telling our own stories. It’s great that more people are talking about how to write authentic, sensitive stories outside their experience, and getting sensitivity readers involved, but it’s also important that marginalized people are able to tell their own stories. And that’s what #OwnVoices does—it allows us to be a voice in our own storytelling, when stories about marginalized communities have historically been told by privileged people.
How does the movement relate to other literary movements, such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks?
Alaina: I think a lot of these movements fold together into a central goal—to have more diverse, authentic and intersectional representation across the industry. The different shades of hashtags, such as #OwnVoices and #DisabilityTooWhite (started by Vilissa Thompson), only go to show that there are nuances to the general idea of diversity, whether it’s the idea that disability representation isn’t inclusive of people of color, or the idea that we should prioritize authors writing about their own marginalized experience. These are all unique issues within the larger diversity movement, and I think every time a new hashtag or discussion pops up, it allows us all to dig in deeper and think about the ways we can improve, not just as individuals, but as an industry.
What are some ways you see the #OwnVoices movement show up in your work?
Alaina: I’ve seen such a huge push toward including and prioritizing #OwnVoices in publishing. I’m involved in both book and digital publishing, and it’s great to see how many editors, authors, agents, and publicists are using the movement as a positive thing. A lot of editors are prioritizing—or even requiring, in some cases—that authors be #OwnVoices to tackle a subject, or if they aren’t, to have multiple rounds of sensitivity editing and accountability as an ally. And agents are calling for #OwnVoices manuscripts. I’ve also seen a lot of authors who present themselves as #OwnVoices or who recommend other #OwnVoices writers for that same reason: to prioritize the marginalized community’s own experiences first. And awards such as We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Award serve to highlight diverse authors who are creating diverse works.
I know, as a reader, I was hungry for #OwnVoices novels as a kid and teenager even before the hashtag, or Twitter, existed. I’d read a lot of perspectives about the LGBTQ+ and disability communities that just didn’t ring true, and after some research, I’d usually find out that the writer didn’t identify the way that their character(s) did. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these inaccurate and harmful portrayals made me feel worse about being a queer, disabled teenager. I’m so glad this movement is gaining traction now, because I can only imagine the kids and teens who are able to find that many more books that accurately reflect their experiences.
How does the #OwnVoices movement relate to the need for diversity within the industry?
Alaina: I think a lot of marginalized creators are wary of having their work read, and rejected, by people who don’t share their experiences. Right now there’s a big shift in the industry, that we’re openly and publicly talking about, and demanding, authentic diverse representation. It’s definitely gotten people to acknowledge their privilege where it exists, and to actively think about these issues while reviewing books to edit, publish, and promote.
But I also think there’s a lot to be said for increasing diversity among our ranks, especially in light of Lee & Low’s 2016 Diversity Baseline Survey, which shows how white, abled, cisgendered, and heterosexual the publishing industry really is. One thing I think I bring to the table as a multiply marginalized person is the firsthand experience of what it’s like to be queer, disabled, and low income. I know the fears that people in those communities commonly have about what’s being published, and I’m always willing to listen and learn more. I’ve spoken to disabled writers who have been told by editors that their characters weren’t relatable enough because of their disability. And I always check my privilege, and listen to and amplify voices in marginalized communities I’m not a part of. I think that there’s a lot of improvement that can happen from within the industry if we actively make it more accessible for marginalized people to take part in, because then there won’t be as much of a barrier between the diverse author and the privileged gatekeeper who doesn’t understand their experience.
Alaina Leary is a Boston-based publishing professional. She works full-time in book publicity and marketing, and serves as a social media assistant for We Need Diverse Books. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Marie Claire, Bustle, Bust Magazine, Everyday Feminism, The Establishment, Brooklyn Magazine, and more. When she’s not busy reading, she can be found playing with her two literary cats and covering everything in glitter.