“Own Voices”: Roxane Gay and the Metric for Reality

Ann-Marie Cahill


Ann-Marie Cahill will read anything and everything. From novels to trading cards to the inside of CD covers (they’re still a thing, right?). A good day is when her kids bring notes home from school. A bad day is when she has to pry a book from her kids’ hands. And then realizes where they get it from. The only thing Ann-Marie loves more than reading is travelling. She has expensive hobbies.

Roxane Gay was the star of the show, as a guest panellist on ABC Australia’s Q & A (Monday 25 March 2019). She was smart, articulate, witty, funny, poignant–many things we have seen in her work previously. She was also the perfect example of why we need to hear more from the #OwnVoices movement.

Q & A: Democracy in Action

Q & A is a weekly, panel television show, broadcast live on Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC (Monday nights, 9.30pm). It is also available to watch online almost anywhere around the world. It is spruiked as “democracy in action”, providing a panel of guests to a diverse audience, who are invited to ask questions on current affairs and social issues. All questions are shortlisted prior to the broadcast, however, all discussions from the questions are live and unedited. It can lead to some very interesting glimpses into Australian culture and, dependent on the guests, the international community.

I was fortunate to be in the live audience and see Roxane Gay, along with Senator Mehreen Faruqi, The Honourable Tony Burke (Shadow Minister for Environment and Water, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia), Simon Cowan (Centre for Independent Studies), and Teena McQueen (Federal Vice-President of the Liberal Party). The majority of questions were focused on the recent terror attack in Christchurch (NZ), the rise of hate-speech, and the importance of speaking up. While I was disappointed not to ask my own question, I was impressed with the calibre of those presented by others in the audience.

The Metric for Reality

The beauty of a show like Q & A rests on the shoulders of the participants; the audience members who ask questions and the panellists being thoughtful with the answers. What made this particular episode so powerful was the diversity of both panel and audience. Questions were asked by people directly impacted by current social issues: terrorism; Islamophobia; hate-speech; feminism. This was an opportunity for people to have their own concerns heard; not being spoken for by someone else.

What hurt this particular episode was the presence of one person who completely disregarded these voices and reality.

A person who provoked shocked gasps from the audience. A person who was clearly fresh out of her own bubble concerning social affairs, cultural diversity, and common decency. A person who was so upset with her own performance on the show, she could not even shake hands with the panellists once the cameras were turned off.

Teena McQueen.


Absolute kudos to Roxane for upholding all of the patience, grace, and dignity for her side of the table. Teena showed none at all. In fact, you know it’s bad when the white middle-aged male politician is explaining the basic concepts of social empathy and the importance of hearing “own voices” in the discussion.

While most of the panellists were thoughtful and considerate, McQueen confused all of us with her ill-placed bragging and completely irrelevant comments. At many times, the audience groaned or nervously laughed at the awkwardness felt for Teena’s participation, but as the night went on, it became clear how this was not ‘a performance’. This was the perfect example of someone commenting on social issues they had no experience with whatsoever.

It was the perfect presentation of why “Own Voices” matter.

The Importance of Hearing #OwnVoices

During the broadcast, a question was asked regarding the Mueller Report and whether this would affect President Trump’s future behaviour. While some panellists raised the issue of misogyny and sexual harassment, McQueen leapt to Trump’s defence and proclaimed how he could never be sexist because he never said sexist things around her during their brief interaction for Miss World in 2006.

It was at this point Roxane pointed out the obvious:

“Once again, you are using your own personal experience as a metric for reality.” – Roxane Gay to Teena McQueen during the live broadcast of Q and A, 25 March 2019

Roxane’s words needed to be plastered across the noticeboards of every politician’s office. Not just Australia, but all around the world. This isn’t a new concept. It is, in fact, the core of the #OwnVoices movement.

“Own Voices” is something we feel strongly about here at Book Riot. It comes from the hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis, calling for books to be written by an author sharing the same marginalised identity as the protagonist.

Initially, “Own Voices” applied to children’s literature. It has since grown to include all literature or publishing, with more people pushing for it to be used in social commentary. Only recently has there been this movement to support people to write of their experiences. Mainly because it has only been recently we have pushed to have greater diversity in the publishing industry. Previously, the most diverse characters were often told by people who were gazing through a window of opportunity, without any connection or understanding. The #OwnVoices movement is not intended to stop these stories from being told; in fact, it is about hearing more of them, from the people who know, who have experienced. By empowering those who share the experience by giving them the platform first. Allow them to speak up first.

Or as the white middle-aged male politician said during the Q & A broadcast (Thank-you, Tony Burke):

“I’ll go through my whole life in this country without ever experiencing that sort of hate speech…For those of us who don’t experience hate speech–and I’m one of them–we need to have a moment where we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand, this can be brutal.”

Don’t Just See It. Speak Up. Lift Up.

It is not enough for us to merely “speak up” when we see blatant bias and discrimination. Some of us are lucky enough to never experience bias and discrimination. That doesn’t give us the right to benefit from it. We should instead be motivated to lift up those who have been hurt and allow them to tell their stories with their own voices.

A recent example of this same situation arose from the Romance Writers of America and the announcement of the 2019 RITA finalists. While there was great acknowledgement for those recognised, many were quick to note the absence of authors of colour and members from the LGBTQI community. Some have withdrawn their nominations, stating it would be inappropriate and unjust to consider their nominations without a more accurate selection from the diverse community of writers.

However, it is disappointing to see the same reaction from white women for the RITA as we did from a white woman on Q & A. It started with ‘there aren’t enough black writers to select from’ and continued right down the path into ‘maybe black writers aren’t as good as white writers’.

Remember: Roxane has gifted us with the prize response to all of this.

“Once again, you are using your own personal experience as a metric for reality.” – Roxane Gay to Teena McQueen during the live broadcast of Q and A, 25 March 2019

We need to remember this. We need to shout this. We need to lift up anyone who has been marginalised and hand them the microphone.

Just because you didn’t hear him say sexist things doesn’t mean he isn’t sexist.

Just because you haven’t read a book from an author of colour doesn’t mean their books don’t exist.

Just because you’re not married to someone of the same gender doesn’t mean same-sex marriage can’t work.

Just because you haven’t been threatened with death because of your religion doesn’t mean Islamophobia isn’t a real issue.

We all need to stop using our personal experience as a metric for reality. We need to support #OwnVoices and encourage diversity in our literature. And then we will hear the voices calling out for help, crying out to be seen.

Those books that are #OwnVoices provide an added depth of understanding and empathy because the author shares the identity with the character. Their voice, their experience, is amplified because it has been the author’s reality. By sharing their story, we can learn from it and realise how much more is going on in the world around us.

Roxane was right to point this out. She gave us the words to remind us. Don’t be limited by your personal experience. Don’t judge the lives of others by your own personal bubble.

Instead, read more from #OwnVoices and jump into these experiences. Expand your reality and discover more of what’s happening in our world.