“Mimi, is that weird?”
“Is what weird, Lil?” Her grandma stopped typing on her phone and looked up.
“That.” I pointed toward her feet with a soap-bubble-filled finger. She was leaning against the sink, keeping me company as I washed. To me, it was obvious. “Standing. You know. Aren’t you afraid of falling? It’s just weird.”
Lillie is just shy of twelve. She has cerebral palsy and has never taken a step. The world from her chair is very different and very similar to what the rest of us experience as we walk through life. I am learning so much from the conversations the two of us have.
Recently, I asked her if she would ever consider writing a story. A story in her words, with characters created in her mind, with a main character in a wheelchair – an “Own Voices” story.
#OwnVoices is a hashtag created in 2015 by Corinne Duyvis. Since its creation, it has spread into a beautiful movement highlighting the stories of those who live in the margins of society in their own voices.
Here is what you need to know when considering an “Own Voices” story:
First, these are pieces of fiction written by an author who shares the marginalized identity of the protagonist.
This means that I cannot write Lillie’s story as an “Own Voices” story. Only Lillie can do that.
I can write a story of a middle school child in a wheelchair. I can ask Lillie for input on the story and incorporate it to make the story more believable for my readers. It will likely resonate with readers who share the protagonist’s particular struggle. It will be a good story, a needed story, but it will not be an “Own Voices” story.
I have some knowledge of Lillie’s day-to-day life when speaking about her story. For example, I have debilitating arthritis. I have spent some days unable to get out of bed on my own. I carry a handicap placard in my car that I qualified for based on my disability. However, I do not know what it feels like to have never felt my feet on the cold tile floor or how it feels to have people looking down at me when we talk or what the air feels like as three children run past me in a school hallway while I struggle to open my own locker.
None of my knowledge makes my telling of a protagonist in a wheelchair an “Own Voices” story.
Second, know the ways in which you and your protagonist are alike and how you are different. It is fine to capitalize on the sameness, but it is not okay to lump differences under the “Own Voices” umbrella just because you share one common trait.
Let’s talk about Lillie again.
Lillie’s father is Venezuelan. He spoke to the children in Spanish from their birth. He has incorporated their culture and traditions into their home. This gives Lillie an additional “Own Voices” possibility. If she describes her protagonist as Venezuelan and incorporates some of what she knows from growing up in this household, she could market the book on social media with a hashtag like “Fabulous Middle School (MS) book features #ownvoices wheelchair-bound Venezuelan protagonist.”
Another wheelchair bound author could write the same story, with the same protagonist, but if he or she was American or Jamaican or Greek, the nationality could not be highlighted as part of the “Own Voices” marketing. A hashtag in this case might read, “Fabulous MS book features a wheelchair bound Venezuelan protagonist. View from the wheelchair is #ownvoices.”
Third, there is a lot I cannot write about as an “Own Voices” story. There are also things I can share with a main character (MC). We all have a story to tell, and many of us are telling them from a marginalized space.
Your voice is important, valid, and needed. You are enough. Know that. Write it.
I cannot tell Lillie’s story with the depth and experience that she can. More importantly, it’s not right to lock people out of the conversations that are about them. We need to center the people who have historically not been centered, and prioritize their voices in the conversation.
I can tell MY “Own Voices” story. I am a lesbian mother with adult children and grandchildren. I have debilitating psoriatic arthritis. I use a handicap placard for my “invisible disability” and have experienced hate for parking in a space someone who does not know me deemed a space I do not need. I am the grandmother of a child with cerebral palsy and of another one with autism.
I am enough. My voice is important. I intend to use my voice to create an MC that rocks the fiction world. I hope this blog post motivates you to do the same.
I asked Lillie what the name of her book would be if she ever did write it. She said, “Well, maybe like, ‘Roll with me.” Wait. No. Probably, ‘I think I like Tanner,” and it would talk about how hard it is to hold hands and roll at the same time. That is what I worry about if he wants to hold my hand.”
It sounds like she has thought about it. Oh how I love this child.
Marginalized authors often get less opportunities, less money, and less marketing than their privileged peers. Many have been told their books are fabulous if only they are willing to change [CHOOSE MARGINALIZED HUMAN] to make their books more “palatable” to the mainstream. This is not okay!
If you would like to take a look at and support “Own Voices” novels that are on the market today, I offer three possibilities. There are many more.
The creator of the #ownvoices, Corinne Duyvis, has her own “Own Voices” story in which the MC, Denise, who is autistic, fears that she’ll never be allowed to stay on a ship getting ready to leave earth: On the Edge of Gone.
A middle grade novel written by Alex Gino tells a much needed “Own Voices” story of a girl who wants to play Charlotte in a school play, but is told she cannot because she is a boy: George.
Ambelin Kwaymullina comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Her “Own Voices” story is the third in her Tribe series: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.