Ownvoices (OV) readers. I love this expression so much. Ever since this term has been coined together a few years ago, it has greatly shifted the dynamics in the book blogging community and the way readers see stories. Publishing books by authors with a ‘minority background’ has a long tradition of being largely ignored in the publishing industry, let alone bringing OV books to OV readers, so seeing the recent efforts to empower marginalised minorities in the book blogging community brings me truly joy. Whether it’s Shealea’s Asian Bookish Creators index or several blog tour companies that have popped up in recent months, empowering marginalised communities is so important.
Something that I have been thinking a lot lately (and it was way before ‘ownvoices’ blog tour companies came around) is: To what extent is it okay to say that you are #ownvoice when in fact you can only ‘partially identify’ with the story’s background? Is it ‘ethically correct’ to use one’s own OV card to request an arc which features POC characters whose background you can only ‘broadly’ identify with? Am I a true ally to the community by signing up for a blog tour when I don’t 100% match the main character’s (e.g. ethnic) background? And with this, I don’t even mean people that identify as mixed-race, I mean identity on a broader scale — but more on this later. Just a quick disclaimer: In the end, it’s really up to you to decide what you identify with, but whatever you identify with comes with responsibilities. And most importantly, identity is a spectrum, not a clearly defined set of traits you have to have in order to ‘qualify’.
My musings were probably sparked when I was contacted by Hear Our Voices, a blog tour company that aspires to ‘connect BIPOC, QTBIPOC+, POC and QTPOC reviewers with work that represents them’, a little while ago to sign up for a blog tour that would promote Dating Makes Perfect, a book that features an all-diverse cast with a Thai-American main character. Here’s the thing: I felt truly honoured to be contacted by them because they were actively looking for book bloggers with an Asian background to get a copy of this book, something that doesn’t happen a lot really. I see it as my mission to spotlight diverse reads, and the fact that the main character in this book is the daughter of Asian immigrant parents made me ridiculously excited. Do you see it though? I didn’t only sign up for the blog tour because it features an Asian main character — I specifically signed up for it because the MC has both an Asian AND a second generation immigration background who feels torn between parental expectations and the American lifestyle, something that I could very much relate to. Here’s the other thing though: I am not Thai. And herein lies the problem with ‘identity on a broader scale’ — I am Asian after all. German-Chinese(-Vietnamese). A second generation immigrant. Thai-American people my age are Asians too, and we probably share a lot of values and experiences, but we face a lot of differences at the same time also. How #ownvoice am I then, if not even not at all?
Then a few weeks later I saw the sign-up form for a blog tour that would feature a book that thematises the internment of Japanese-Americans in the US during WW2 (it’s We Are Not Free in case you’re wondering). This blog tour was looking for Japanese-American readers specifically, and alternately (because ‘OV blog tours’ usually don’t 100% reach readers with the story’s specific background) Asian-Americans to sign up. However this time the situation was very much different. While this book is a work of fiction, it talks about a very specific (and disgusting) part of US history, and even as a person with an Asian background — how can I possibly qualify to lift the conversation on this book? I have never had to deal with this specific type of pain. Am I not leading the conversation away from people who were really affected by this pain by signing up? Am I really able to empathise with the marginalised community’s pain or am I merely a spectator to it? To be blunt, I thought it felt rather unfitting to say I feel ‘entitled’ to have the privilege of getting an early copy of the book, just because my Asian background ‘qualifies me’ to promote the book. Yes, even if most Asian immigrants of all backgrounds have probably faced some sort systemic racism in their lives, am I not only ‘OV-passing’ this time?
Here are two things that I can say so far though.
1) It’s hard to ‘get it right’ because with each individual marginalised group comes a very specific ‘set of experience’, real reality and type of pain which shapes/had shaped one’s own identity. Even if you are part of the broader marginalised group (being Asian-American for example, but not Vietnamese-American), you will probably lack part of the whole experience.
2) We need to be especially careful with historical fiction because they are based on actual facts and often are very painful — history made marginalised groups ‘marginalised groups’ after all. Your family has either experienced it or not.
Then, I tried to switch the conversation around. What if I was part of the marginalised group and an OV book based on this experience came out? Would I want non-OV readers to read this story first? To be exact, what if a book came out that talks about the cruelty and exodus of people from/in Vietnam during and after the Vietnam War? Because that’s the reason my parents and their parents even ended up in Germany and other parts of the western world.
The answer is: Of course! Of course I would want other readers to read the book to help them educate themselves on important topics and backgrounds, and to make sure they become more comfortable with OV reads in the future. It’s important to diversify one’s own reading experience after all, to get a better understanding of the world and how layered life is. At the same time though, I would feel greatly hurt if the first readers (or basically people that are involved in the book community and that will promote the book) were solely picked based on their broader ethnic background (as in Asians of all backgrounds). Instead I would want people to read this book whose families perhaps have a refugee background. Or people who had had a difficult upbringing because of difficult communication due to their family’s past.
In the end it’s really about experience (and pain). I wouldn’t want people to profit from real people’s pain if they have never experienced this pain. I don’t want people to pretend they’re able to empathise with a story when really all they’re doing is reading about it. Why I’m saying ‘profiting’? Because with promotional posts you have been given the privilege to boost your own platforms too.
Also I guess the fear of non-OV readers slamming the book because the story was ‘too heavy’ or the characters ‘were not relatable enough on an emotional level’ will never go away, and this can definitely happen to ‘OV-on-a-broader-scale’ readers too.
On the other hand we often tend to be too critical with ourselves because most books aren’t written specifically for ownvoices readers. They are written for everyone so everyone should feel okay to read a book. I guess if there is one person who knows who this book is targeted at, that is the author. Also, even if priority is given to ‘real OV readers’, what about the rest of promotional spots? Who should get a review copy then? Isn’t it in the end all about promoting the book, because if we pay too close attention to OV, who will be left to drum up business? Shouldn’t we just move to the next ‘somewhat fitting’ people?
Something that I love about being POC (or a minority person) is the massive amount of support and solidarity within our big community, through our shared experiences of being part of ‘marginalised communities’. Are we all part of the ‘broader identity’ then, even though we are also distinguishable through different external and internal traits?
Obviously there is a lot that has to be said about this topic and it is not up to me to come up with a conclusion because this topic is still very raw. I don’t think I would have even come up with these thoughts ten years ago when e.g. #weneeddiversebooks hadn’t even been founded. The only thing that I can say is that it is important to always recognise an OV book’s cultural impact and significance for a marginalised community — even if you are not an OV reader. It’s even more important to understand the pain which you might cause by claiming to be able to empathise with an OV book when in fact you’re only reading about it/profiting from the marginalised community’s pain. What makes OV OV does not come down to the cultural and historical setting only, but to shared experience, values and pain.
Most importantly, in the end it’s all about supporting POC authors and getting their stories heard, to listen and learn. Appreciating their work without necessarily relating to the characters and the situations they face. It is not useful to ‘fight’ over the ‘ownvoice label’ if we lose track of what is really important, which is empowering marginalised communities and boosting OV authors. At the same time we need to be more careful about how we label things (or ourselves) as ownvoices because it can be hurtful to people that really are ownvoice and aren’t getting their voices heard in the heat of the moment. It’s up to us to be responsible readers and responsible book bloggers to raise more awareness on this.