Diversity Issues: The Importance of “Own Voices”
There’s much I could say about the importance of diverse stories and characters in fiction. However, while depictions of all types of characters are valuable for expanding choices for readers, the stories that should be most encouraged are those from authors who can provide an authentic perspective.
That means it’s especially important to raise up the voices of those with first-hand experience, known as “own voices.” The point of “own voices” is to listen to those who know.
Although I write diverse characters because that’s how they come to me, as a non-own-voices author, I don’t appeal to diversity shout-outs with my marketing. After all, I’m not writing these characters to be trendy, so I don’t want to take a slot on a “diversity list” of books from an author with a more authentic perspective.
In fact, I’d rather those lists be populated by those with own-voices stories. Along those same lines, rather than rambling about a topic I believe is important, I’ll leave the very capable Wendy Sparrow to share her own-voices insights into the subject. *smile*
I first met Wendy on Twitter about 6 or 7 years ago, and she’s one of my favorite people—and one of my favorite authors. (Seriously, she’s one of the few authors on my auto-buy list, especially as her latest is a gargoyle story like mine. *grin*) She’s preparing for a release under her pen name Wendy Laine that’s very close to her heart—and her experience.
Today she’s here to to talk about what own voices means and how we all can write the best diverse-but-not-own-voices stories possible. As she points out, when it comes to writing about mental illness (or other traits leading to marginalization), it’s possible to do real harm if we get it wrong, so we should all work together to get things right.
Please welcome Wendy Sparrow! *smile*
Mental Illness and “Own Voices”
by Wendy Sparrow (writing as Wendy Laine)
My upcoming YA debut was written in 2010. I’d written many manuscripts before, and I’ve got quite a lot written after that, but Secrets of Skin and Stone needed seven years and the right scenario to be published. Sometimes authors will find themselves thinking, “I’m so glad this didn’t get published when I first queried it,” and this was definitely one of those times.
Writing a novel about a character with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who also practices cutting, was something I approached with a determination that I might call zealous. I needed the book that Teen Me needed, and since it hadn’t been written, I got started.
It’s Hard to Get Diversity Right—Even with Own Voices
Mental illness is a difficult portrayal to get right, and that is coming from someone who has had OCD her whole life. At the time I wrote this novel, I was still keeping quiet about both my OCD and my past as a cutter. I knew others like me, but not a lot.
In the intervening years, I’ve become an expert in what it’s like to be me. In June of 2013, I decided to come out on my blog about the dark thoughts associated with OCD.
Doing this forced me to examine myself, to do research, and opened the door for contact with others struggling with OCD. My hands shook for days after I posted that first time, though—and I had a resurgence in all things associated with my OCD.
Since then, I’ve added to the posts on my blog about OCD, PTSD, depression, and self-harm. You’d think it’d get easier to post, but I still scrutinize each post at least a dozen times before taking a deep breath and hitting publish.
Even Own-Voices Authors Need Feedback
In Secrets of Skin and Stone, Piper has the same type of OCD that I do, Pure-O, and, like I am, she’s a cutter. No one understands how triggering self-harm can be like someone who once cut, in my opinion, so the cutting scenes in the book were difficult to write. I wanted them accurate, but not gratuitous.
I ran them by many, many beta “sensitivity” readers. In fact, I ran those scenes by so many people that I can’t remember them all.
You can’t even imagine how many times I’ve read this novel—I’m the epitome of OCD stereotypes when it comes to editing. A conservative estimate of two dozen times reading this, and I still feel uncomfortable reading the cutting scenes.
I mentioned I was glad that it’d taken this long to get it published. There is no way I could have done this story right even two years ago.
I hadn’t examined my condition to the degree I have now. I’ve written nearly three dozen posts on the topic of mental illness, the majority about OCD. I’ve spoken with, mentored, and befriended many people through my blog posts. I know what it means to be me now.
Additionally, there’s a very delicate balance between accuracy and sensationalizing when portraying mental illness in fiction. I didn’t have the skill to navigate that in 2010. Finally, I needed the editor I worked with on this novel, someone familiar with diverse reads and how to handle the depictions of them. I’m almost ashamed of how clumsy I was in dealing with some aspects of the condition I have even in what I’d considered final drafts.
Diverse Stories Are Needed from Everyone
It might seem like I’m suggesting no one should handle characters with mental illness unless they have the condition themselves. I’ll admit that it probably makes it more accurate. Not to mention that if you do come under fire for your portrayal, you have the ability to make your case for how it was depicted. On the other hand, I would have been very, very grateful as a teen for books with characters with accurate, non-stereotypical OCD.
We do need more diverse reads and not just angsty, poignant books, but also novels normalizing diversity like mental illness and disability. Our world is made up of flawed individuals—no one is perfect or a rubber-stamped copy of any aspect of humanity. It’s time that fiction represented more.
Mentally ill people go on adventures. People with disabilities live large and vividly. We are more than the checkboxes on government documents.
How Can Non-Own-Voices Authors “Get It Right”?
- Rely on Research—not Stereotypes
If you choose to write a character with a diverse experience, research the heck out of it—which includes seeking as many first person accounts as you can. Don’t rely on stereotypes.
I went undiagnosed until well into my twenties because my OCD looks nothing like how it’s portrayed by Hollywood. If your OCD character doesn’t have any dark thoughts but likes to clean a lot—you’re doing it wrong. It’s a shallow depiction that is an insult to those you’re trying to represent.
- Find Sensitivity Readers to Double-Check
Whenever possible, find sensitivity readers and editors to double-check you. I’ve done sensitivity reads on autism, Asperger’s, and OCD…and every last one of them was inaccurate in some way and many were offensive.
Don’t throw out the excuse of “well, it might look like this with someone somewhere.” Chances are that ultra specific outlier will not be reading your book, and the fires you’ll roast in on social media will leave scars. Get it right.
- Question Your Intentions
Check yourself on whether you’re doing this for the right reason. Diversity is not a fad or the “in thing.” There’s a vast spectrum of humanity so side characters should represent that, but being a token “mentally ill” person is not cool.
- Too Much Work? Don’t Write the Story
Also, if you’re not up for the research and emotional investment of getting it right…stay out of our sandbox. Think of the medical motto of “first, do no harm.” Inaccurate depictions or sensationalizing mental illness can harm readers.
- Don’t Erase the Diverse Traits to Force a Happy Ending
Finally, if you have a character with a disability or mental illness, do not magically cure them or suggest that a cure is the only way for them to be happy. If I was cured of my OCD tomorrow, I wouldn’t be me. It’s in there deep. And I have found ways to be deliriously happy, even with my OCD at its worst.
Magical cures suggest that we need to be fixed in order to be happy, deserve love, or be equal to others. Honor the struggles and achievements of those dealing with mental illness and disability by making sure your voice is true.
Writing a book that is preceded by a trigger warning is not for everyone, and I don’t know that I feel equal to the task even now. I tried. And I think Teen Me would be grateful for the attempt.
Wendy Laine is the penname of author Wendy Sparrow. Writing is in Wendy’s blood as are equal parts of Mountain Dew and chocolate. Wendy has been telling tales since she was a child with varying amounts of success. Her parents clearly anticipated her forays into the paranormal because she heard “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” over and over.
She lives in Washington State with a wonderful husband and two quirky kids and is active in autism and OCD support networks. She can usually be found on Twitter where she’ll talk to anyone who talks to her and occasionally just to herself.
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About Secrets of Skin and Stone:
Something is wrong in Hidden Creek. The sleepy Alabama town is more haunted than any place fiend hunter Grisham Caso has ever seen. Unearthed graves, curse bags, and spilled blood all point to an evil that could destroy his gargoyle birthright. The town isn’t safe for anyone, and everyone says fiery Piper Devon knows why.
Piper wants to leave Hidden Creek behind. She’s had enough of secrets—they hide in the shadows of her room and tell her terrible things are coming. Too-charming city boy Grisham might be her only chance to save herself.
To survive, Piper and Grisham have to shed their secrets and depend only on each other. But what lurks in Hidden Creek still might take everything away from them, including each other.
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Bonus Giveaway from Wendy!
Thank you, Wendy! I’m so glad we all get to learn from your insights. I agree completely with all of your tips here—so much so, that I can’t think of anything else I’d add. *grin*
Have you heard of the “own voices” concept before? Do you agree that it’s important to encourage and raise up the voices of those with an authentic perspective? Do you think non-own-voices authors should be willing to put in the work to prevent harm? Do you have any other suggestions based on your experience? Do you have any questions for Wendy?Pin It
This is a very interesting piece. I agree, especially with the comment about being authentic without slipping into stereotype. I’ve written about characters with depression and felt I could because I’ve experienced it. If I were to write about a physical disability, then I’d have to do a ton of research and check in with sensitivity readers to check the representation was realistic, like you’ve suggested.
On a different kind of diversity – I’ve tried writing books with Asian characters in them (I’m Sri Lankan) because I thought it would be nice to see people like me in contemporary romances. Most of the feedback I’ve had from publishers is that these characters aren’t stereotypical enough to be believable, which baffles me because… well, life experience. It’s a bit of a conundrum, really. If the publishing industry feels that characters of a certain trait have to fit a stereotype to be believable, then the only books that get published will be ones that perpetuate the stereotype. Indie publishing maybe the only way to break the cycle.
I notice that Harlequin has just closed its Kimani line…
I’ll stop rambling now. Thanks for a very interesting and thought provoking post.
Oh, ugh, the “not stereotypical enough” thing…that breaks my soul. That’s what’s wrong with most representation of OCD. They’re super clean, organized, and wash their hands constantly. I have none of those symptoms. It’s why I went undiagnosed until my late twenties. I once had someone say to me, after I told them I have severe OCD, “Oh, but that’s like a good thing. You like to clean–how great is that? That’s like the best condition to have.” *headslap* There’s enough of those symptoms represented–to the point that it’s all anyone knows of OCD. Not everyone fits in the boxes of a form of diversity…which seems obvious from the word “diversity.” I feel you. Keep fighting the good fight and good luck on finding your chance to represent.
No thank you. I don’t divide people up based on some identity or another, and in my novels, I make people who do, the bad guys. ( Of course, nobody is the bad guy in their own head.)
Diversity can be as subtle as fleshing out your characters–it doesn’t have to be divisive. The nuances of characters are why a villain is a hero in their own story. Their background has given them the justification for their behavior in some way.
Hey Wendy, Thanks for writing this post! I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the own voices concept, especially as I am a minority in many ways, e.g. I’m nonbinary transgender, bisexual, and on the asexual and aromantic spectra. (I would add that I’m Chinese too–but I wouldn’t be a minority if I were back in Hong Kong where my family lives, lol.) Recently, I’m thinking mostly about my transgender identity, particularly as I’m aware that we’re very rare in the population and it’s a HIGHLY misunderstood identity. My trans experiences were very atypical (not fitting trans stereotypes) too, so I took 25 years to realize that I’m actually trans, not cis! For instance, my gender dysphoria is very mild compared to the media /Hollywood portrayed trans person. But I do still have gender dysphoria. And though I want one type of surgery, I don’t want any other surgery, and I’m not interested in hormones. Not wanting any medical transitions doesn’t invalidate one’s trans identity! Some of my trans friends and I don’t experience the “trapped in the body of the wrong gender” feeling either. My feeling is more like: it’s utterly stupid that people look at me and see one gender, but inside, I am a completely different gender. So it’s a constant sense of frustration and irritation that this makes no sense, and that people keep getting my gender wrong. But again, this is only my own experience; not everyone feels this way. I agree that though I am transgender,… — Read More »
Yesssss. I totally agree on learning the ins and outs of your own identity and how to navigate discussing it without offending or excluding. When I mentioned being clumsy in my handling of OCD, I got called on so many little subtle things that could come across in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Seriously, I’m so glad this book has taken this long to be published. Getting it right so that it feels true to the condition was worth the wait. It still won’t speak to everyone, and I know that. As you said, we all have such a different experience even with those who identify as we do. There are shades and variety to every identity and we’re all on the path to exploring who we are and some are farther than others. Thank you for your comment–there was a lot of things you mentioned that made me think and also made me appreciate how much I need to learn still about those around me.
Thanks for your reply! 🙂 Yeah I definitely don’t want to inadvertently say hurtful things to fellow trans people too. In one of my stories, I actually wrote “born male.” Yikes! Thankfully I know not to use that term now and changed it to assigned male at birth! But another thing I realized is that language can change. I read some older research articles written by transgender researchers, and they were using some phrases that would feel offensive to us today. But I guess back then, the language usages might have been different. I also have no right to judge anyone because I have unwittingly used insensitive phrases too because I lacked the knowledge! Btw I thought of a question: Even though I want to get things right and not offend or hurt anyone, I also don’t want readers to believe that my minority character is a typical/ representative person in that social group. (I’m not sure a “typical/ representative” person actually exists, to be honest, since we’re so diverse!) So for instance, if I write about a nonbinary trans main character, I don’t want readers to think that ALL or TYPICAL nonbinary people are like this. I want my readers to see them as a unique individual. Yet, I understand that we nonbinary people are quite rare, so readers who have never met a genderqueer person or have never heard of us, might automatically assume that every one of us enbies (derived from the abbreviation N.B.) in the community… — Read More »
I won’t say I managed this perfectly, but Piper has Pure-O OCD–a less typical form of OCD. I added an author’s note at the end identifying it as such and giving resources. I’m honestly slightly terrified of the overall reception of my book, especially the cutting scenes.
It’s hard to put yourself out there because social media can be aggressively hostile. And people will be critical without even reading it. Getting mobbed on Twitter for getting something wrong is my nightmare… though, even more scary is doing harm to someone struggling with OCD due to misrepresentation.
So, I guess my answer would be to cover your butt with a variety of sensitivity readers and then add an author’s note. Secrets of Skin and Stone has a trigger warning too. I insisted on it.
I’ll poke my head in here to add another couple of ways I’ve dealt with that “don’t want to imply representative” issue:
I know you’ve read the story, but I didn’t want to get into spoiler-details for others, and I figure you’ll remember the scenes I’m referring to for understanding my suggestions. 🙂 Hope that helps!
Thanks, Wendy and Jami, for your tips! I’m going to copy and paste your answers to a document for reference. 🙂
Oh gosh, yes, I’m terrified that I’ll get attacked by readers for getting any detail wrong too. Especially if they think I’ve somehow betrayed them as a fellow trans person. 🙁 (It’s also easy to misinterpret things if someone only reads your words but never meets you in person…Actually, it’s quite easy to be misunderstood even in person. ^_^ It’s hard.)
Thanks for the post.
I’ll read diverse characters and from diverse authors quite happily, but I might decide that I would not enjoy reading something and so not take it. There are a lot of books out there and not enough time.
You might enjoy Rock Crazy by Rochelle Weber, an SF romance tale featuring a neurodiverse character. I did.
I’ll add that to my TBR pile. I love books with characters with real depth like that. And I agree on there being too many books and too little time. My TBR is in the hundreds of books range and only seems to grow.
Such an important topic! I think a lot of people hear about Own Voices & think only of the obvious minorities (usually ethnic). Mental illness is definitely one that’s under-represented & often represented shallowly or wrong. Yet most people are touched by some type of mental illness, even if it’s a mild one in a relative of friend. We all need to know more.
And Wendy, I love that a big part of writing this book was thinking of the book YOU needed as a teen. I have a feeling that this will be an important book for many people!
I hope so. I’ve been both giddy and sick to my stomach as the release day approaches because I’m not sure of how it’ll be received. That level of honesty leaves you a little raw to criticism.
And I agree on mental illness. I can tell you any number of books with an OCD villain, but only a few with a protagonist with actual clinical OCD. I also regularly run across characters with so-called OCD who basically are super neat or clean or particular about their appearance. *sighs* I think time and brave authors will fix this though. It’s in the wind.
[…] Sparrow explores the importance of “own voices” in diversity, Sheba Karim discusses belonging as a Muslim YA author at a Tennessee book festival, and Harlem […]
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[…] conditions or learning or physical disabilities can be similarly fraught. (For another example, Wendy Sparrow joined us last year to talk about her OCD character who also practices cutting and how much she had to research despite her personal […]