Last month Twitter erupted in another controversy over a non-#ownvoices YA title, this one a story about a trans teen which many felt perpetuated harmful stereotypes. The book in question has not crossed my desk, however I watched, dismayed, from the sidelines as all the worn-out, clichéd criticisms of #ownvoices reared their heads—pretending that #ownvoices means no one can write about anyone the least bit different from themselves and reducing complex and meaningful notions of identity to ridiculously and grotesquely granular parodies.
By contrast, author Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local” sets forth a far more sophisticated notion of belonging that those who ridicule #ownvoices could do well to learn from. She says, in part:
“What if we asked, instead of “Where are you from?”—“Where are you a local?” This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are. Tell me you’re from France, and I see what, a set of clichés? Adichie’s dangerous single story, the myth of the nation of France? Tell me you’re a local of Fez and Paris, better yet, Goutte d’Or, and I see a set of experiences. Our experience is where we’re from.
So, where are you a local? I propose a three-step test. I call these the three “R’s”: rituals, relationships, restrictions.”
Selasi elaborates on meaningful distinctions about lived experience in ways that cross some boundaries while highlighting the often invisible barriers between those who outwardly may seem to inhabit the same spaces. The primary goals of #ownvoices are to amplify the voices of those who for too long have been silenced and to allow readers to experience a greater variety of perspectives. Understanding identity in a nuanced way is a critical piece of appreciating what this means and how powerful it is.
While many authors conscientiously do their homework and produce fantastic works about communities where they are not “locals,” there is a degree of texture in #ownvoices titles that evokes instant recognition from cultural insiders—and can enrich the lives of those who are not. Check out Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing, about a Michigan teen visiting family in the Philippines, Sona Charaipotra’s Symptoms of a Heartbreak, which portrays a New Jersey Punjabi family, and Kissing Ezra Holtz (and Other Things I Did for Science) by Brianna R. Shrum, which features a Sephardic Jewish protagonist. All three were commended by our reviewers for the quality of their #ownvoices portrayals along with other merits. Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.