Today I want to talk about something that has been on my mind for a while now. If you’re a part of the bookish community online, specifically on Twitter, you’re bound to have seen the discussion surrounding diversity and #OwnVoices and making space for marginalised writers. I absolutely believe that we should be reading and promoting more books by marginalised writers, as well as seeking out #OwnVoices novels, but has this gone too far in some aspects?
We want to read books written by people about their own stories and identities, but at the same time, it’s important to recognise that that shouldn’t be the only experiences these authors are capable of writing about. If you’re a marginalised author, you shouldn’t be confined to writing about characters of your own specific identity, but at the same time, privileged writers shouldn’t only have to write about characters of their identity. It’s important to respect the spaces of marginalised writers and promote their own stories and books, but at the same time, we need to recognise that authors shouldn’t have to stay in their own lanes if that means not including characters who are of different cultural backgrounds or identities to themselves. And we also shouldn’t demand authors justify themselves and their right to write what they do – many authors may not feel comfortable disclosing such personal details about their lives and it’s not the reader’s place to pry. It’s simply disrespectful and invasive.
I’ve seen marginalised authors being attacked for not writing about their heritage or writing about protagonists who aren’t of the same cultural background as them, and this isn’t okay. It’s appalling to see writers told they can’t write about characters who don’t align with the author’s own identity. At the same time, privileged authors shouldn’t be told they can’t write about characters who are people of colour or in the LGBTQIA+ community or are disabled or neurodivergent, so long as they aren’t taking that space away from other writers or taking the voices from these people. There’s a line between including a diverse array of characters in your work and taking the voices of marginalised writers away from them, and it’s important to recognise that.
So it’s essential to realise that we should stay in our own lanes when writing, but at the same time, it’s also important to recognise that staying in your lane can be the cause of problems. It wouldn’t be my place to write about a person of colour experiencing racism because that’s not something I have dealt with, as a white person. However, as a white writer, it’s still important to have characters of colour in my work, without taking their voices from them. But in doing so, it’s necessary to conduct the right research and do the essential reading to ensure that you’re not perpetuating harmful stereotypes or making these characters unrealistic.
But as a bisexual writer, should I always have to write about protagonists who are bi? What if I want to write about a character who is gay? Are my experiences as a young queer person limited to being bisexual? If writers could only write about characters who are exactly like them, our community would suffer for it. But at the same time, we should also lift the voices of lesser-known, marginalised authors and make space for them and their stories. So writers — stay in your lane. But at the same time… don’t. And the most important thing to do in this community is to listen.
What do you think about the notion of ‘staying in your lane’? What are your favourite #OwnVoices or diverse novels? Do you think that people should only be able to write about their own identity? I’d be interested to know!