My job as a writer of fiction is to tell stories, good stories; at least, that is what I believe. And good stories, when you are writing about people, means reflecting the truth of the world around them — whether it’s about the habits of the older lady in the apartment upstairs, or how a cook tiptoes around the politics aboard their starship.
But truth is hard. It includes so much. A writer can only capture a small slice of it in any one story. In North American, too often the only slice of truth portrayed is from a straight, cis, white male perspective. It doesn’t mean that these truths are necessarily wrong — certainly not all of them. But too often they distort, or omit, or misportray, or downright lie about those who aren’t straight, white, cis males. Do we really need another sexy female magical Indian yogi for the strapping white hero?
When I began writing with publication in mind, I wanted to right this glaring wrong in some way, to tell a fuller truth. So my stories immediately included people from a variety of cultures, with disabilities, with their own truths to tell.
But I had to limit the stories I told. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn is that even if I saw a truth, a good story, it wasn’t necessarily mine to tell. Stories belong to those who tell it, until they decide that it can be shared and retold by others. Getting permission is a basic form of respect.
Unfortunately far too many white writers have taken stories without permission from Black folks, brown folks, Native Americans, Latinx, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, queer folk, disabled folk, autistic folk, in short, anyone not white, straight, cis, and male. And more often than not, those stories are filled with limiting tropes (meet my Black best friend) and harmful stereotypes (don’t excite that autistic man, he’ll start banging his head), or with a bunch of wrong details (look I used Spanish words — too bad they aren’t used in that context).
As a white, Jewish, queer, cis woman, what do I know about the lives of BIPOC folk, or transgender folk, or variously disabled folks, or autistic folks, lives I have not lived? The answer is, not enough. Not enough anyway to get to the full truth of their lives in an honest way.
Yet. (There’s always a yet.) I don’t live in a world limited to white, Jewish, queer, cis women. I daily interact with men, BIPOC folk, disabled folk, trans folk, and so on, even in these days where I only occasionally leave my house.
My family alone comes in many hues, with roots from every continent in the world (excepting Antarctica). They, and my community of friends, and the larger group of my acquaintances, are neither monochrome, monotheistic, queer-only, cis, monolingual, filled with nothing but able bodies, free of any mental illness, nor consistently neurotypical. And we all share stories — so many stories. It’s why we are able to love one another, or simply get along.
Yes, many of the stories are not mine to tell, and I won’t. But I will not leave out the huge part of me that interacts daily with people who don’t look, sound, or behave like me. It is integral to the truth of my story. Of anyone’s story.
People all over interact with people not exactly like them (in big and small ways). Our society is diverse, and our everyday lives meet up with that diversity. Every writer’s truth holds stories about people not like themselves.
And, crucially, when I write about someone not like myself, I am not writing the full story of their lives — that is impossible to do. I only have several hundred pages, and their lives encompass volumes. What I am writing is a limited slice of their life within the context of a broader story.
I am able to do this because I am observant — one of the essential tools of good writing. I do a heck of a lot of watching and listening. And I engage in as thorough research as I can to make sure that what I write makes sense. I read (and read and read), I ask for help, I talk to people, I get beta readers who share the culture on a day-to-day basis. I ask myself, as I do for every character, did I get a true slice of my character’s life?
So, from my point of view, Own Voices doesn’t mean I must only tell stories of Jewish, white, queer, cis women. It means that I should tell stories that are known as part of my truth, including that I come from a diverse society. And those whom I portray in those stories — the slices of their lives that I share — should be honestly human, not stereotypes or tropes, living in full cultures and with complete lives, even if I cannot share it all. Where I draw the line is taking the stories from the folks themselves — i.e., telling a truth that I must appropriate completely from another culture, a truth that is theirs to tell and they have not given me permission to share.
I haven’t always lived up to those ideals — I am human and I make mistakes. My duty is to learn from each mistake (and listen if I am told that I made one), and do a better job next time. But when I tell stories, I will not excise the truth just because one of the participants in that story isn’t exactly like me.