When I started reading books seriously, which was during ninth grade, I never bothered what I read about or whose story I was reading. I just wanted to read. Nevertheless, I remember staying away from ‘local’ books, i.e, contemporary romances by Indian authors, because they were too romantic, or too Bollywood-style for my taste.
What I wanted was a good story. I loved reading books like The Book Thief, Gone With The Wind, Thirteen Reasons Why or All The Bright Places because they were immersive and because I found myself reading books about people and places I’ve never met or heard about. Because they were ‘new’. The idea of diversity in books never struck me. I didn’t crave to see myself in books like many others did because I was happy I had a great time reading what I did.
Until I finally read She Wore Red Trainers by Na’ima B. Robert, a contemporary romance about two Muslim teens set in South London.
I was AWED. Amirah, the lead character was basically a version of myself. It was the first time I discovered the immense joy of being represented on paper. I felt surreal. Coming from a Muslim household and realizing that my experiences were not mine alone was a completely new feeling.
Even though the book was kind-of cliched, I instantly gave it five stars because oh-good-god I loved that it was basically about me. Though there were slight differences because I’m Indian and the book was mostly white, I finally understood how lacking YA literature is in terms of diverse novels. I wanted a YA book about a Muslim teen who is also SOUTH INDIAN. That became more specific, and hence, difficult to find.
But then came Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed. The protagonist was an Indian Muslim Teen. I jumped right in. Lo-and-behold, I hated it. I hated how different Maya was from me, and how the author failed to represent an entire religion. I wasn’t in a place to recognize that #ownvoices story actually do deserve their value, I refused to acknowledge that Maya represented a huge part of the Muslim community just because I was a Muslim and she was different from me.
Recently on Twitter, I asked the marginalized community to share their stories of reading representative literature. The responses were varied. Nobody seemed to have found an accurate representation of themselves in books, but they all had snatches. A Chinese-American protagonist here, a neuro-divergent protagonist there. Somebody also replied that they haven’t yet found a book featuring a Sikh protagonist in YA. That was shocking because the Sikh community is one of the most prominent in North India.
I also noticed that whenever people read diverse characters, it is less impressive if the representation isn’t #ownvoices. More so if the diversity isn’t acknowledged. Like, Jesper from Six of Crows, who we all know has ADHD, but the book never states that. I’ve seen how this sometimes hurts the readers, making them feeling dismissed or ignored. There are myriad of other ways readers are hurt by representation in books. It’s not our place to tell a reader they shouldn’t be. It’s not our place to tell an #ownvoices author they’re wrong to write a character a certain way either.
I feel weird telling this, because my rant review for Love, Hate and Other Filters is still at the top of the review page on Goodreads and my most loved review yet. But I can’t seem to delete it or take back my opinions because I know I’ve made valid points there, I have poured my entire heart into it, trying to explain why the representation hurt me. I do realize I shouldn’t have sounded so harsh though. That the #ownvoices experience probably never meant to represent me. That maybe a representation doesn’t have to mean relatable, as Nadia very rightly points out in her Augvocacy post.
But it also doesn’t mean that authors can write diverse characters every which way. Proper research and care can mean so much to readers who belong to the community of people represented by a character who isn’t #ownvoices.
I was recently very touched by one interaction between and author and a reader I came across on Twitter. A reader noticed a certain sentence in a book by Meg Cabot that might have been hurtful to autistic people, so she messaged the author who replied very politely, thanking her for pointing it out. You see? Authors are also human. They make mistakes, but they also are willing to understand and rectify them.
In the end, it boils down to this – readers are varied. A book isn’t.
Experiences of reading a book can vary a lot with the reader. It’s impossible for a book to appeal to all of the readers it claims to represent. Reading is subjective. Authors aren’t inclined to write our stories for us and include diversity in their books. We can’t expect them to write a book with a diverse character who qualifies all the check-boxes for the said diversity. That is what ‘diversity’ means – we all don’t fit into one single box of predefined notions. We are wide and varied and our experiences are as different and infinite as our skin color and races.
If anything, you got to write your story yourself. There are millions waiting to hear it. It’s unfair to anybody to have a bundle of expectations placed on their head just because they decided to tell story their way. Let’s give authors space to write what they want, how they want it. Let’s make the publishing industry free and open to all sorts of diversity. After all, diversity is endless and that’s why we advocate it.
Augvocate for the Day
Fuzaila is a twenty-year old with a passion for books, photography and all things art and creativity. When she’s not trying to be disappointed at the lack of Muslim reps, you can find her watching unconventional movies or fangirling over Marvel characters.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August
until the 28th.* Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
* Note: Due to unforeseen delays on my part, the posts for Augvocacy 2019 will keep coming until the 23rd of September! Hence, the new title: #Augvocacy2019 (Extended).
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 What are your thoughts on Fuzaila’s article? Do you think there are advantages and disadvantages to #ownvoices representation?
🌻 Have you ever fully seen yourself or your personal experiences in an #ownvoices story? How did that make you feel?
🌻 Do you think it’s unfair to expect #ownvoices authors to represent an entire identity or a whole marginalized community?