How social identities affect our writing: #OwnVoices and social justice

I recently finished reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power, for me a game-changing look at gender and historical power hierarchies. The engrossing story that follows the sudden reversal of gender hierarchies worldwide opens with a letter from its fictional author, a member of The Men Writers Association.

The book has me thinking about #OwnVoices literature and its significance in the world of social justice. How do our identities affect what we write, and how does it affect how our work is read and interpreted? Please share your thoughts in comments below–I am eager to have discussions about this!

While a huge proportion of the books written, read, and reviewed today are being written by majority authors, authors from marginalized social groups are emerging everywhere. As I’ve been recently exploring the Twitterverse, I’ve been thrilled by, in particular, how many LGBT writers I’ve been able to connect with. It seems like, however far our world still has to go in the fight for equality, there are great people out there using writing to make a difference, to raise visibility, to support other members of our communities, and to keep showing that we are here to stay.

Ysaye Barnwell on singing. I think this is a good metaphor for us writers and what we do.

Why #OwnVoices lit is so important

In my teenage years, books about (and often written by) LGBT people like me were my lifeblood. Boy Meets Boy, the Rainbow Boys trilogy, and The Order of the Poison Oak were instrumental in my own coming out and self acceptance. In years since, I grew through Beloved, The Color Purple, Americanah, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Island Beneath the Sea, The Joy Luck Club, The Latehomecomerand others, learning about the experiences of people different from myself and simultaneously seeing my own struggles reflected around the world and through time.

For young people building a sense of identity, as well as for adults continuing to seek growth and inspiration, representation of people like us in the books we read allows us to connect, to feel heard, and to encounter alternative ways of facing life’s challenges. Check out Sierra Ayonnie’s post on how she responded to her audience’s genre preferences.

And for many of us writers, the act of reframing, penning, and sharing these stories that often go to our most vulnerable places (see Meg Dowell’s lovely post about writing stories from our hearts), that act is cathartic in and of itself and helps us to grow as people as well as writers.

Simultaneously, these books educate people who do not share these identities by challenging stereotypes, raising awareness of minority experiences, and creating conversation.

The flip side: further marginalization and tokenism

Yet in the very identification of our work as #OwnVoices, LGBT fiction, African-American literature, women’s fiction, immigrant narratives, and so on, a limiting happens. When writing by immigrants is called Immigrant Writing, its audience becomes focused, its reach lessened, and the opportunity for that author to speak to the world at large is diminished.

I am a gay writer, yet little of what I write clearly fits the bill of LGBT literature. Although the experience afforded me or forced upon me by this identity undoubtedly informs my writing, it does not circumscribe the stories I want (or am able) to tell. To call myself an LGBT writer feels on the one hand a badge of pride for me; on the other, it is a steep-walled box.

The way forward

How should we as minority writers navigate this issue? How can be both be fighters for social justice and our communities and also resist being boxed in, apart from the mainstream literary community?

I believe we have to keep telling all kinds of stories. If we are telling stories of our own identities or even our own direct experiences, let us tell them beautifully, engagingly, with our best craft. And let us not tell them only as black stories or gay stories or stories of disability; let us tell them as human stories, because ultimately, that is what they are, and the stories of minority humans are as deeply human as anyone else’s.

Dr. Angelou, you are missed.

In that vein, I speak now to us writers who do not share these identities, because the voices of allies are so powerful and so essential. And by “allies” I mean:

  • The cis, straight, Christian, white men out there, and
  • The gay white man with regards to Muslim writing,
  • The Indian-American woman with regards to Latino writing,
  • The heterosexual black woman with regards to trans writing,
  • All of us. We can all do this.

Of us, I ask these things:

  1. Read work by minority authors. Read work about people different from you.
  2. Share those voices. Include them on lists of great books. Sure, include them on lists of great minority writing, but also include them when you talk about great books in general.
  3. Represent an array of identities in your own writing. Normalize all kinds of people, not as tokens, but as central, round, amazing, flawed, human characters. Show in their struggles essential human struggles.

Thank you for reading. Please pass this on. Please write.

As I said above, I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. How do you engage with #OwnVoices writing? How can we both write for our communities and not close ourselves off from others? What are your experiences? What are you reading? I’m eager to hear.

Best wishes this week, and love to all of you,

Jimmy

The late Pete Seeger leading a group sing of “We Shall Overcome.” Thank you for your allyship!

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