How Broad Is #OwnVoices?

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.

30 thoughts on “How Broad Is #OwnVoices?

    • This means the world to me, truly 🖤Discussions on this topic are still very rudimental but it’s so important to see it’s not a one-dimensional thing!

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  1. Thank you so much for writing this post and for sharing it with us! It truly is an interesting discussion and a very important one!

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    • Thank YOU for your kind words! It’s definitely a topic that still needs a lot of discussion but it’s so important to also see the different angles to it, even if we can only take baby steps right now

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  2. This gives me a lot to think about. I love this quote: “identity is a spectrum, not a clearly defined set of traits you have to have in order to ‘qualify’ ” because I am an adopted Asian American with white parents who didn’t really start to learn about her heritage until sixth grade.

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    • Thank you so much for reading my blog post, it means so much to me you’re sharing about your own background too. Yes, it’s only us who can define who we are, and despite you being raised by white parents, I believe your experiences in life so far might have been very different from you parents’ because of your own background that you, and only you, can have. In the end, it’s about bringing these experiences together despite our different upbringings

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  3. So I was also a tour host for Dating Makes Perfect and I was actually unsure of whether I’d qualify for the tour because the name of company is hear our voices and they specifically asked for own-voices reviewers. But they also mentioned Asian-American, which confused me because I thought own voices meant specifically Thai-American. Now, I’m neither. I’m only Asian, with no relation to America. But I was very interested in the book. I DMed one of the coordinators and asked if it’s okay if I apply even though I’m Asian but not Thai and not American, and was told to go ahead. I did write the review but I did not call it an own voices review.

    Ever since the whole issue with HOV and the DMP rose, I’ve been thinking about what I can apply to and what the term means. But I’ve also been thinking about the point you mentioned about the books being for everyone, not just that group. You raise really good points. In my opinion, review copies should go to multiple sectors of readers but there should definitely be specific own voices reviewers, even if it’s not enough to fill 20 or so spots. They (are the only ones who) can speak for true authenticity and the rest can speak about why the book is good even if you can’t completely relate.

    In conclusion: I loved your post haha and I like how you discussion the topic.

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    • Oh Sumedha, thank you so much for your kind words 💕 It’s seriously so weird with ‘ownvoices blog tours’: The problems start when they claim to be OV —why don’t they say they focus on diverse reads instead? It would solve a lot of issues. Things start getting tricky if other people have to decide for you ‘what you are’ — it just doesn’t work this way. They either give you the chance to explain who and what you are or it just leads to a lot of confusion because pre-made boxes just don’t do the maths. I really like your thoughts on how arcs should be distributed! Since we are all allies in the BIPOC community, I would definitely feel more comfortable seeing them handed out to BIPOC from all over the world rather than to an average non-OV reader too because oftentimes you just know better what it’s like to be immersed in ‘non-mainstream’ society.

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  4. This is a fantastic post! I think it’s important to promote ownvoices and the specific groups, as there are so many different marginalized groups that are all unique, and all Asians, for example, are definitely not the same. With that being said though, as a biracial person, I don’t really like how ownvoices can put people into boxes and be super specific. I recently wrote a full post about ov and being biracial, and I mentioned for example, I’m half Taiwanese half white, and I related more to a half Korean half white character (Lara Jean from tatbilb) than a full Taiwanese character. I (obviously) wouldn’t call myself ov Korean, but I feel like I might be able to relate to Lara Jean’s specific mixed race identity more than someone who is full Korean and would call themselves ov Korean, so the whole making ov super specific and having to match the exact ethnicity can bother me. I definitely agree that identity is a spectrum, not a clearly defined set of traits, and I feel like a lot of the time I don’t know if I’ll identify with a character until I actually read the book, which I can’t do until someone has already looked at my identity and decided whether or not to give me the book lol so that’s not great, but I guess we’re just trying our best.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, I think you’re making a lot of valid points here! What brings us together are often shared experiences, not necessarily one’s own special background only, and constantly being put into boxes only (even when it comes to ownvoices) is super frustrating — identity just doesn’t work this way. It’s not about checking boxes. There’s definitely a disconnect between torn between two cultures because both of your parents are first generation immigrations, and being torn between two cultures because of clashes between two different cultures in mixed-marriage households. Or what if your parents are also already second generation immigrants? The whole narrative is totally different. I wished more books would show these types of diversity and disparities in their stories, and I think it’s also about time we shift the narrative in ownvoices just a little bit so more people would feel more conscious about what makes ownvoices ownvoices really. As a person who is (somewhat) biracial too, I am so glad you’re pointing these things out!

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  5. This is a such thought out and insightful post. I 100% agree with you on partially relating to the OV label, because as you said identity is a spectrum. This a really great post.

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  6. I found your blog because of this post and it was a really interesting and thought-provoking read. I’ve had similar thoughts about experiences of characters but haven’t considered any blog tours yet. Boosting works by POC authors or about POC characters is important but it’s also great to read diversely. For example, if you’re an escapist type-reader (like me) then reading a wide range of fiction will be the most enjoyable (from my experience this has been the case!) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  7. I loved this post, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and what you’ve said is thought-provoking! I like the idea that we should focus on a case-by-case basis and the experiences represented in the book alongside the specific rep itself. It’s difficult, especially when you have multiple ‘boxes’ you could fit into. I know that I’ve been considering this topic with disabled rep, because I’m a disabled person, but it’s not like I always have the same disabilities as people in the books I read, so a shared experience of disability is a more useful way of looking at it sometimes. I guess we all need to judge for ourselves whether we are OwnVoices for that particular story and hope that things like book tours are doing the same.

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    • Thank you so much! I definitely agree, it would be amazing if those in charge of distributing arcs would go on a case-by-case basis but sadly, in reality it’s almost impossible which leads to other dead ends. I love how you’re opening up about your own disabled rep experience — shared experience is so much more important than physical traits, and it’s definitely also the book tours’ responsibility to change the conversation on the term too. Also I think it’s about time people expand their views on ownvoices because many people only narrow them down to ethnicity, but other minorities rep such disabled rep is just as important!

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  8. This post is one of the best discussions on the own voices label I’ve read in a while! I love everything about it and it definitely gave me a lot of food for thought.

    “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.”

    TATTOO THIS ON MY FOREHEAD

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  9. This is an interesting discussion that I’ve seen brought up twice by mixed race East Asian bloggers. I’d say, as someone who is mixed race (Black/Lebanese/Cherokee), I’d say it’s a nuanced discussion that will vary from racial/ethnic group to racial/ethnic/group. I was on the RAYBEARER blog tour and also will be on the upcoming tours for LEGENDBORN and BLACK SUN, and, as a mixed race individual, I never had any doubts as to whether or not I was “allowed” to wsign up. I am Black. I am Lebanese. I am Cherokee. I am all at once, and I don’t believe into getting into the highly dangerous territory of breaking myself into percentages, period. At the same time, though, the racial/ethnic communities I come from aren’t very “exclusive” when it comes to admitting people into our fold. Arab people never ask me how Arab I am or tell me I’m not Arab enough, neither do Native people when it comes to my Native identity, and Black folks *certainly* don’t either. Then again, a large number of my cultural background community—the Black community—was inherently shaped by “one drop laws.” So, particularly for the Black community, if you Black, *you Black.* And a large part of my life has been shaped by the racism I’ve faced as an Arab in a post 9-11 world, as well as by the community I’ve found in the very welcoming Arab community. Same with the Native American community. So I think it’s complicated when other groups try to verify whether some besides themselves is “enough [X].” The other thing complicating the discussion is the fact that race and ethnicity are not actual biological genetic factors that are passed on through blood relation, but rather factors of your “social genetics,” which are passed on through you social, communal, and familial background. So in this way, these two things lead me to say in *myownpersonal* experience, from the viewpoints of my cultural backgrounds, broad groupings are okay. The only thing I’d be careful of is historical books, like you mentioned. But other than that, I don’t think you have much to worry over. But again, that’s me and, as you said, I think it’s a very personal decision we’re discussing. Thanks for the great food for thought ❤

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    • Thank you so much for your thoughts, Lila! It’s really interesting to see the ‘enough’ factor from your perspective because you’ve had such positive experience in your own cultural background communities. I also love how you bring ‘social genetics’ into this conversation, it’s such a fitting term & I definitely agree with you on that— it describes experience and race/ethnicity so much better. It’s the balance of these two that makes something truly *myownpersonal* experience. Again, I loved reading your thoughts, and thank you for opening up to share your own experience ❤

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