Voice and Ownvoices

I can’t count the number of times I have heard that word used by agents and editors at a writers conference I attended in the fall. Prairie Writers and Illustrators day is a yearly one-day affair by the Illinois chapter of SCBWI. The conference is hosted at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois every fall.

During panel discussions and individual workshops, the faculty repeatedly let attendees know that Voice was the word. One agent said she knew within the first two or three pages if a manuscript was one she wanted to acquire, solely by the voice on those pages. Another editor admitted that voice was the one thing she could not teach an author. As authors we are taught from the get-go that voice is all-important. Almost everyone in the writing profession, from editor, agent, and reader, agrees that a unique, authentic voice, a strong voice, is important.

Until the subject turns to Ownvoices.

Then, suddenly, many mainstream authors refuse to believe there might be something specific about the voices of authors who are part of a group or culture. They maintain that they can do as much as an authentic ownvoice can in their depictions of characters from other races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and abilities. Suddenly, asking for an authentic voice is wrong, discriminating against them. They are writers, they can write anything.

Time after time I hear authors claim they have a right to write outside their race. A character of color, or with a disability, or from some other religion or ethnicity “came to them” they say, so they want to include him or her in their story. Almost inevitably, they add they don’t want baggage to come with their character.

It almost seems like they want to create non-controversial characters who are simply white characters painted in blackface, or redface, or yellow face.

That is unfortunately common with a writer who says he or she doesn’t see color. The baggage is the character’s backstory. None of us exist without our history.  How can any author expect to correctly depict a world, a culture, a history that he or she does not see? Cultural authenticity, writing about real human beings with authentic backgrounds and history,  thoughts, fears and concerns, is not like crafting a fantasy world where everything comes solely from the author’s imagination. Nor is it about deciding whether to call skin color coffee or chocolate.

It requires eyes wide open, the ability to both see and empathize.  Otherwise, the voice you use with those characters that do not share your background immediately rings false. And that can result in charges that you were simply writing to a quota.

“If you cut us, do we not bleed?”

If you turn out caricatures of a group, or write stereotypical characters, don’t members of that group have a right to object? Sometimes it’s not because the author is white, its because their voice is warped and their words carry pain.

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