Your Experience is Not Universal: and that’s okay

There’s been a constant discussion on twitter about writing and who gets to write what. As for contemporary, there’s always been that unspoken rule about #ownvoices — someone writing from their own experience will have better knowledge of the subject, and thus will know what they are talking about, and it’ll be written with better grasp and better research.

But ultimately, the call for #ownvoices books has generated into a problem, and is being used as a weapon against marginalized creators, to supress them in a role that’s “not enough”. I think Justina Ireland’s essay here responds to it in a perfect tone.

It’s ridiculous that a movement originally designed to promote POC, disabled and LGBT writers has now turned into tone policing and being bashed just because the experience doesn’t match the readers own.

Here’s a new piece of information for you: no experience will match your own. NO EXPERIENCE WILL MATCH YOUR OWN.

And you know what? That’s perfectly okay. I’ve rarely read a book where I identified with the character 100% — white Latinx, bi, with depression — and that hasn’t me stopped reading books or even enjoying them, or – gasp – identifying with the character. It’s one thing when the writing is hurtful, but in most cases, it’s reviews bashing a book because an experience is “unrealistic”. Which is just silly.

There’s a difference on an experience being different than your own, and problematic writing. Problematic writing is often spurred by lack of research or use of sensitivity readers – thus making it a craft issue — and a different experience is just a different experience, and doesn’t hurt anyone. For example, I could write about my own experience in discovering being bi, but someone else writing about a bi character who discovers it differently will not lessen my own experience. It won’t be “unreal”. Julie Murphy’s book, Ramona Blue, was bashed even before it became available, simply because the main character discovered she was bi but thought she previously only liked girls. And guess what? It happens. It’s a valid experience. And it isn’t “hurtful” or erasing lesbians to talk about something like that.

The criticism of things may also become a question of “purity”, and that takes us nowhere good. For example, I’ve seen many Asian-Americans talking about how Julie Dao is the “wrong” kind of Asian to write a story inspired by China, or that because she was born in the USA she does not have a right to write any fantasy set there. It’s tiring, frankly, and many other people have spoken out about this — and where it takes us.

The thing about demanding ownvoices by marginalized writers is that we don’t demand any stories from white, cishet allo writers. They may write about whatever they want, but no one demands they write about “growing up Mormon in Utah” or even “growing up white in NY”, because guess what, their experience is “universal”. For marginalized writers, it’s a considered niche within the publishing industry to write about their own marginalizations, and there’s this constant pressure that your book has to do well or it’ll just prove the point that marginalized writers don’t sell. It’s a double standard, because white writers may tank with series and be given a second chance, but that’s not so for (especially) POC writers.

When you bash a book by a marginalized writer featuring a diverse character, you’re part of the problem. Not because you can’t critique it, but because you expect nothing less than perfect by a POC/LGBT writer. You expect them to be better than all the white writers together, because you give them a second chance, but not the POC writers. You expect them to be something that no one can ever be, to write something unproblematic or universal. You forgive many, many writing mistakes from white writers, but in this quest to become “woke” or unproblematic, you end up bashing people who are the allies.

Guess what happens when many POC writers are bashed? Publishers won’t take the risk anymore. They already believe it’s a risk. And if people are calling it out with in-fighting, they’ll drop everything like it’s hot. And in that case, POC writers.

Look, there is no quest to become the “One Diversity Ally to Rule Them All”. You can’t keep trying to call out EVERYTHING in a book just to be the wokest of them all. There’s no such thing. If you care so much about diversity, you should care about their creators — and in this case, WOC, who have bigger career risks when being called out. You’re hurting careers when you decide to actively bash a book. You’ll notice that in many debates, WOC simply go quiet and say nothing at all, rather than being outspoken and putting their careers at risk.

This is a complicated matter. As much as we’d like for it to be simple, it isn’t. When you call out a problematic book by a white writer, the book will get pushed but overall, their career won’t be at risk. When it’s a WOC and especially Black Women, this is not the same. Which is why reviewers need to be extra mindful when reviewing this books for problematic content.

Any book can have problematic content. None of us are perfect. We should always strive to be better. But on this strange quest on the internet between book reviewers, it always sounds like a strange competition is going on — who gets to call out who, who manages to rise above it and call it first. I’m not even going to delve into when a book gets confused with the author (that instead of pointing problematic books it becomes a deep hatred of the author itself), because that’s another subject entirely.

But those are the two things to keep it with you: your experience will never be universal. We are unique human beings that experience things in different ways, which is why we should not be critical of experiences shown in ownvoices book. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t match your own: but it may help someone else. Someone else will enjoy the book. And that’s okay.

And that when criticizing marginalized authors, be extra careful of the way you do it. Internet trolls and the such are always at the ready to try and burn a WOC’s career to the ground, and it doesn’t help when an ally turns against them. What would not generally affect a white woman definetly affects WOC as a whole, because unfortunately, they don’t get to be individuals or be treated singularly by the publishing industry as a whole.