Reading Our #OWNVOICES

The post you’re reading is part of Book Riot’s observance of #BlackOutDay. We are turning our attention fully to issues facing black authors and readers with help from the folks at #BlackoutDay and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Book Riot is grateful to have a platform to celebrate diversity and critically examine the book world every day, but today we have turned the reins over to our black contributors and guest contributors all working towards social justice and good books. Enjoy!

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This is a guest post from Lamar Giles. Lamar writes novels and short stories for teens and adults. He is the author of the 2015 Edgar® Award Nominee Fake ID, a second YA thriller Endangered, as well as the forthcoming YA novel Overturned from Scholastic Press. He is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and resides in Virginia with his wife. Check him out online or follow @LRGiles on Twitter.

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When I started this post, #OWNVOICES was popping all across social media. The hashtag generated buzz for diverse authors who write books about their own experiences. As opposed to, say, an author from a dominant group who writes about a marginalized culture, and gets a ton of praise and money for it.

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In my fast-scrolling Twitterstream, I see familiar names that don’t get nearly enough attention. There goes all of Cindy Pon’s fantasy novels (Serpentine, in stores now, btw). Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delagdo Wants To Kick Your Ass. Jason Reynolds’s When I Was the Greatest. This is the action for positive change part. Incredible authors getting more shout outs and recognition than they might have gotten from their own publishers. This harms no one. Yet, feelings get hurt and weirdness starts.

I’m down with We Need Diverse Books (though my opinions are my own…it’s right in my Twitter profile). I consider the members of the organization family. Now whenever I’m involved in a public conversation about diversity, I’m inevitably confronted with a predictable set of questions/statements that have become a Hell of My Own Choosing.  Allow me this attempt to address the most common ones:

1) “It’s like you’re saying I shouldn’t write outside my own experience.”

I never said anything like that. Listen to my actual words. I have said if you do it, you better get it right and that won’t be easy. I have said you’ll get called out for perpetuating stereotypes. I have said you might get called out even if you aren’t perpetuating stereotypes. Criticism is part of this job. There’s this other thing I’ve said, and I think it’s the real trigger for the misinterpretation. Goes like this: If you agree publishing’s lack of diversity is a problem that can be solved, and you know you’re not part of an underrepresented group, why do you think YOUR writing is the solution?

Maybe you’re Neo here to rescue us all from The Matrix. But while you’re working on your Kung Fu, how about you do what #OWNVOICES is doing, and spread the word about authors who are already telling the stories you’re going to have to research? Better yet, buy some of their books, get your friends to buy some of their books, tell your local booksellers how awesome they are so their books are actually on the shelves. It won’t take long. I mean, you’re not going to write all day, are you?

2) “Is it cool for me to put at least some black or brown people in my book?”

I don’t know. I haven’t read your work and have no clue what you’re capable of. If you’re talking about recognizing the different people of the world you’ve been ignoring up ‘til now, and you want to depict better, more accurate human interactions, that might be cool. If you’re talking about color-swapping the formerly white best friend so he has cornrows, lives in the projects, and has a misspelled codename like “Rhymz”…no. Either way, I can’t sign your permission slip. It’s not fair for you to ask.

3) “Bruh, don’t let them tell our stories.”

This one’s tougher for me, because it’s usually coming from another black writer who’s felt the same pain in this industry I have. It’s also another misinterpretation. If I had the power to control other writers, I would’ve had James Patterson forward me one of his royalty checks a long time ago.

Whenever this comes up—and I’ve heard it more than you think—it’s probably linked to my statements about writers getting it right IF they plan to write outside of their culture. Dude, seriously, that’s not me telling another writer to appropriate someone’s culture, especially mine. That’s the same advice I’d give someone writing about engineering, or cooking with truffles, or Minecraft. What I’m saying is if you’re going to do it, don’t be lazy. That’s a far cry from, “Here, take my life.”

But, I get the concern. I have a platform, and I’m not saying, “Hey, don’t you dare write about [insert applicable Other] people.” I won’t say that. I can’t. Before I ever made a dime from my writing, I spent cumulative years of my life alone in a room making up stories about all kinds of people. I consider it a sacred process and would not have reacted kindly to someone leaning over my shoulder saying, “Don’t type that.” I will never tell another writer what they’re allowed to write. Sorry, not sorry.

4) “I want to help, but I’m not feeling very welcome.”

If helping someone (presumably underserved readers) is dependent on you feeling welcome, who are you really trying to help?

When I was asked to write a post for Book Riot’s contribution to The Blackout, I was given a lot of leeway, with a request to keep things ‘bookish.’ Starting with #OWNVOICES felt right. It’s been a long year. I’ve seen too many people who look like me dead on the news (#blacklivesmatter, y’all). I don’t have much influence over how things shake out in the street. If I can have a small impact on what kids read (words matter, too), and see them grow into adults with way more empathy than some of the people I grew up with, I ain’t stopping.

I will end on a positive note because everything (everything) below made me extremely happy this week.

Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything hit #1 on the NYT YA Hardcover list.

Dennis Liu’s Raising Dion is a thing (the trailer made me think of my own awesome mom…I almost cried).

Amadeus Cho is your new Totally Awesome Hulk.

That dude (he has no name here) got called out for pretending to be a Chinese poet.

That’s what change looks like. If I can play even a small part in keeping it going,  well, into the depths I go.

No need to mince words here: we are giving one lucky Book Riot reader $250 to blow at Amazon. Overstuff those stockings or get a jump on your New Year reading pile--up to you. Go here to enter. amz250_wide
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