First and foremost, a little heads-up:
I know, I know, it may come as a shock. I don’t wish to alarm you, but if you’re reading this, I think you should know the truth. I’m the descendant of slaves brought to the United States from Africa, and indigenous peoples in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans – Seminoles to be exact.
Additionally, I am a person living with an invisible illness, an invisible disability: bipolar disorder, type 2.
I share those things because I fit into the discourse of what I’m going to address today - #OwnVoices in the writing community.
Recently, the We Need Diverse Books organization announced that they will no longer be using the ownvoices hashtag in reference to literature for children. This announcement has furthered the discussion of the problematic aspects of the hashtag.
I’ve spent a bit of time chewing over the reasons We Need Diverse Books shared that led to their decision. At first, I was a bit torn about their criticism, but I’ve come to the conclusion that they make a very good point.
The intent behind the creation of the hashtag is inarguably good. (scroll down to the last question of the article in that link to see the creator’s motivation)
Unfortunately, its use has sometimes become problematic. I don’t want to get into critique of the marketing aspect of the hashtag – I don’t feel I know enough to provide anything useful to the discourse. Instead, I can say that the hashtag works for me, and I will continue using it going forward.
Here are my reasons:
I want my future readers to have an easy way to know that I am addressing issues that I have personally experienced.
I like having a term that expresses the knowledge of my lived experience to members of the publishing community.
I want people to hear my voice and know that it is my own.
There is one glaring issue with this stance: getting pigeonholed or pigeonholing myself.
I have no intention of writing only about things I have directly experienced for the rest of my life. No matter what, my future writing will be somehow informed by my personal experiences. That’s the case for any writer. But I won’t limit my creativity, nor do I expect other writers to do the same.
However, writing “outside of one’s lane” can quickly become dangerous territory. There are responsibilities that come with that choice and it is up to each writer to accept those responsibilities and the possible criticism that will come from failing to do their due diligence.
Returning to the hashtag. I have decided that I am comfortable with it because I have already “outed” myself on social media. On one hand, I had no choice: my skin is black, and I am a cis woman. Those are not categories I can cover up. On the other hand, I made the choice – scary though it was – to be open about my mental illness to help reduce stigma.
To be more explicit, that was my choice. It was not forced upon me by others.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case for other writers who have chosen to create art influenced by their identities.
Social media – Twitter in particular – is rife with stories of queer creators who have been forced out of the closet by consumers of their content. That is unacceptable. None of us knows the situation another individual might be in and if it is safe for them to openly live their queer identity. So, demanding that an author using the hashtag be completely open about why they do can and has caused problems that the author may not have been ready to face when they were creating.
When I first gave myself permission to write with the goal of publication, I was nowhere near ready for the outside world to know that I have bipolar disorder. My parents didn’t even know about my diagnosis. I chose to use a pen name because of the content of my stories (heat level and language choices). That decision had nothing to do with my illness. I also chose to use a pen name because I don’t want my children to be forever linked to the words that I put to paper because they may not like them. I have no right to connect them to something they may later disapprove of.
The process of learning about and the daily work to accept my illness (and yes, it is daily work, even after years of being diagnosed) has allowed me to reach a place where I am comfortable enough sharing that aspect of myself. No one could have gotten me to this point except for me.
So the expectation that has developed within the writing community that anyone who uses the hashtag is fair game for scrutiny, or worse that publishers are justified in using the hashtag to absolve themselves of any criticism if problematic elements are found in the work, creates an environment that is not only hostile, but may well be physically dangerous.
It’s unfortunate if you can’t see my point, but I stand by it.
I hope that this has clearly explained why I will continue to use the hashtag for my own work, even if greater criticism or a future consensus arises that the hashtag is a bad thing.
If, over time, I feel that it no longer applies, I will stop using it.
For the time being, however, I am firm in the belief that my future readers need a clear and direct way of knowing that I am treating certain subjects with respect not only because they are deserving of it, but because my lived experience gives me a depth of understanding that will shine on the page.
I hope you can understand.