On 6 September 2015, I made a suggestion on Twitter:

I’m thrilled that #ownvoices has taken on its own life in the years since then. It’s easy shorthand for a necessary concept, and the hashtag is filled with brilliant recommendations, questions, and discussions. That’s awesome. I’m happy to for the Tweets above to be the extent of my involvement, as the hashtag has been doing just fine without my input; I don’t want to moderate or regulate the discussion in any way.

In other words, feel free to stop reading at this point!

If you do want to know more, I’ll answer some common questions about the concept.

FAQ

Q: I know #ownvoices started in the kidlit world, but can I use it to recommend adult novels?

Go for it.

Q: What about comic books? And picture books? What about movies? Short stories?

Go for it.

Q: Is this about race? Queerness? Disability? What counts? Do you think this character/author combo counts? What about a situation where —

Remember what I said about not wanting to moderate or regulate the hashtag? Use it for whatever marginalized/diverse identity you want (I personally like the WNDB definition), as long as the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.

Let’s highlight some of those words, though:

Author,” as in the actual author has this identity, not their spouse, child, sibling, parent, student, neighbor, friend, etc.

Identity,” as in at least somewhat specific. Aim for: “character and author are both blind” and “character and author are both African-American,” rather than: “character is blind and author is autistic, thus both are disabled” and “character is African-American and author is Korean-American, thus both are people of color.”

And “a” marginalized identity, not “all.” Sometimes a character will be part of a group the author isn’t. For example: a neurotypical Muslim author writing an autistic Muslim protagonist. As long as there’s a marginalized aspect of their identity they do share, it’s #ownvoices. (I have more on this further down.)

Beyond that? It’s not my place to decide what counts as diverse/marginalized, nor what counts as “same group.” I won’t police either the hashtag or people’s/characters’ identities.

Q: Right, but you gave wildly different examples. What about when the identities are not identical but similar, like —

Sorry, I’ve said pretty much all I feel comfortable saying. I don’t want to set up specific rules or guidelines beyond the obvious ones above. I’m aware that “obvious” won’t answer all questions, and identity often isn’t obvious; it’s nuanced and complicated and hard to categorize.

And that’s exactly why I don’t think it’s my place to make that call.

Q: If my character and I share one type of identity, but the character is also marginalized in ways that I’m not, wouldn’t it be misleading to call it #ownvoices?

Depends on how you frame it, IMO. If a white trans woman writes a Chinese-American trans girl, the book could be described in different ways:

• Cool Heist Book features a Chinese-American trans girl! #ownvoices

This implies it’s #ownvoices for both identities, which is deceptive.

• Check out Cool Heist Book — it’s got an #ownvoices trans girl lead!

This is accurate.

• Cool Heist Book features a Chinese-American trans girl — the trans aspect is #ownvoices!

This is both accurate and forthcoming, allowing for a more complete description of the character without misleading potential readers.

Basically, just be specific and be clear.

Q: That feels like it ignores the way identities can intersect. It allows authors to claim books as #ownvoices even though the authors are still writing outside of their own experiences.

I share these concerns. Marginalized identities can’t be easily separated from each other, neatly outlined or categorized; these identities intersect and inform each other. Someone who is Black and Deaf will have vastly different experiences from those who are white and Deaf, and from those who are Black and hearing.

This absolutely complicates which books can or should “count” as #ownvoices. I feel like there’s no easy solution to this. While we could restrict usage of #ownvoices to only describe books where every single identity of the author and character matches, I worry this would come with major downsides. It would significantly cut down on the number of books that can use the tag, which would make valuable books far more difficult to find for those looking for them. That would negatively affect both marginalized readers and authors. It would also place even more pressure on marginalized authors to write about characters who are purely like them.

After five years of following the #ownvoices discussion, and seeing the way these conversations have affected marginalized people in the industry, I believe that the answer to the previous question in this FAQ — to be specific and clear when describing #ownvoices novels — is the best solution, even if it is an imperfect one. It’ll allow people to make informed decisions about what they’re comfortable reading, publishing, or supporting.

A book being able to “claim” the #ownvoices label does not place it or its author above criticism. It’s not an automatic seal of approval, authenticity, or quality. We can use a broad definition of #ownvoices while still having important discussions about the effects of authors writing outside of their lane.

Q: Are you saying that marginalized authors have a responsibility to write about characters like themselves? Or that privileged authors shouldn’t write marginalized protagonists?

People can write about whatever they want; whether they should is a valid and complex discussion to have — a discussion that’s separate from the definition of the term #ownvoices, which is what this page is about.

Getting to write what you want goes both ways. However, it’s disingenuous to pretend these are similar conversations. Historically speaking, it’s extremely common for marginalized characters to be written by authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst. Society tends to favor privileged voices even regarding a situation they have zero experience with, and thus those are the authors that get published.

All #ownvoices does is center the voices that matter most.

#ownvoices is empathically not about policing or pressuring marginalized authors to write about any particular topic or character. This is a large part of the reason I talk about #ownvoices novels and avoid using the term #ownvoices authors. Some authors identify as such because they choose to only write about characters from their own marginalized group; that’s great. Many authors, however, may write some books that fall into #ownvoices, and some that don’t. That’s great, too!

#ownvoices is simply a subcategory of diverse novels I think is worth highlighting.

Q: Not everyone is open about their identity. Are you saying authors need to out themselves?

Nobody is under any obligation to disclose any part of their identity. Safety and privacy are essential. We’re just working with the information we have; it’s all we can do.

(And this should go without saying, but if you have information about an author’s identity that isn’t public, don’t label their books #ownvoices without the author’s explicit permission.)

Q: Do I need to credit you as the creator when I use the hashtag?

If you’re just using the hashtag for a recommendation or mention it in a discussion? Nah, definitely not.

If you’re centering a feature, discussion, or article on the topic? Then I would appreciate a mention or link to this page, as these things get misattributed very easily.

Thank you for asking!

Q: Can I use the hashtag to promote my own work?

Go for it.

(Since it’s a pretty quiet hashtag, though, please don’t dominate or spam it.)

Q: I want to start a [website/community/network/organization/etc.] for #ownvoices. Is that OK?

I love that people want to promote and connect over these books. Please, by all means, do whatever you’d like.

My only request is that you avoid using #ownvoices (or variations like “own voices”) in the title/name. I want #ownvoices to remain a neutral term that everybody can use; I prefer it to be associated solely with a concept, and not with any kind of individual or organization. This is simply to prevent misunderstandings.

Feel free to use the term in your mission statement, description, and tags, of course.

I can’t control what people do. This is simply a polite request, and I hope that you understand where I’m coming from.