Elle McNicoll introduces the Own Voices movement and explains why it’s so important.
There are so many wonderful things about being an author. Most of them are to do with the incredible people who become your readers. It is the privilege of my life that people share their stories with me, after reading my debut. A Kind of Spark has become this bridge between me and so many people like me.
I’m neurodivergent. I have a brain that is wired differently. It made school and childhood challenging and difficult for me a lot of the time, especially as I was bullied a lot for being different.
Now, I use my personal lens and my experience to write the books that I so desperately needed as a lonely kid in the library who was hiding from sneers and jeers and bullying. I tell my truth and I write ND heroines with tons of heart, brains, guts and spine.
And the response has been life-changing. People reaching out with their own stories, kids sleeping with the book because they love it so much. Students writing me long letters. Teachers who say they finally feel able to have conversations about neurodiversity. It has been intense. The book has been nominated for a bunch of awards, and won Blackwell’s Book of the Year, but the real prize is undoubtedly the connection I now have with readers.
This is the positive side of being an Own Voices author.
However, there are negatives as well. For those unaware, Own Voices is a movement in the book world that was created in order to lift up and support authors who are underrepresented in the industry. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve loved my Own Voices community, as a disabled author.
But there are people who don’t understand. And those who want to see Own Voices authors continually excluded from the book world.
As a disabled person, most books about people like me are not written by other disabled people. They are not edited by disabled people. They are not published by disabled people. They are not reviewed by disabled people. This creates problems in multiple ways. Misinformation can go unnoticed and harmful stereotypes can be printed over and over again.
By shutting certain voices out of the room in publishing, the varied and diverse work of storytellers is not able to flourish.
Own Voices is the antidote to this. By uplifting marginalised creators, and encouraging them to write about whatever they want and in whatever genre, the stories that are often excluded from the mainstream suddenly have a place to thrive. Organic diversity. Inclusive storytelling.
I am proudly Neurodivergent and I write proud neurodivergent books. I happily introduce myself as an Own Voices author so that ND readers can identify me as a member of the community that I write about. That is it. Fin. It’s that simple.
You would be astonished at how much grief I get for it.
There are your regular trolls. The ones that call me slurs and tell me that I should never be proud of what I am. They bother me the least. I think it’s safe to say there is something deeply wrong in a person’s life if they have to hurl abuse at people they don’t even know. Besides, the whole point of A Kind of Spark is that the heroine learns to drown out the hatred and prejudice of others. She taught me a great deal while I was writing.
Then there are the bad faith actors. The ones who pretend that by uplifting underrepresented writers and calling out harmful stereotypes, you’re being censorious. And look, if I say ‘ableism is bad’ and you feel attacked? That may just be a problem you should handle and not me. Envy, bitterness and good old-fashioned ‘we don’t want people like you in our club’. I’ve had it thrown my way. I’ve been called a token by someone who has never read my work.
If I cared about all of this, I would never write. And I write every single day. I ask that the industry do better. Selecting one marginalised author a year is not good enough. The Own Voices movement requires publishers to not only seek out diverse writers, but also hire more inclusively. Make those rooms full of people who are all different and can all bring their own unique perspective to the table.
I really don’t think ‘hire more inclusively and support diverse authors’ is that controversial, but my mentions prove me wrong.
Here are the usual boring gripes people like to send my way, unasked for may I say:
‘You can’t speak for everyone’.
Never claimed to. No Own Voices author has. If you knew the movement, you would know that.
‘Why can’t I write what I want?’
You can. I’m supporting marginalised authors. That shouldn’t make you defensive.
‘Own Voices authors can still get things wrong.’
Yes. Let’s then afford them the same grace majority authors have been given since the beginning. They’ve been allowed to get messy, to make mistakes. They still are. It is not the job of an Own Voices author to tell the story of their entire community. Merely their own.
Because you see… the book industry can sometimes be a little like that playground I once ran from. There are bullies. There are mean girls. There are cliques.
Only this time it’s different. This time, I’m not alone. I have an incredible community. The people who care about inclusive books, as well as the authors who write them. The brilliant disabled writers and editors I now call my friends, many of whom worked on my two books before they were published. So that I could incorporate other neurodivergent viewpoints.
They are the force field keeping out the prejudice, the sneering, the disdain and other people’s insecurities.
My new book, Show Us Who You Are, is a futuristic novel about a mysterious corporation that makes digital holograms of real people. Two ND kids, Cora and Adrien, are going to throw a spanner in their works. Some people were surprised that my second book was a) Science-Fiction and b) had more neurodivergent leads. But why not? There are so many ways to be neurodivergent. So many ways to be the hero of a story. I could never let A Kind of Spark be the only ND story I told.
Own Voices authors are diverse, multi-faceted and ready to change the industry for the better.
No more single stories.
A Kind of Spark and Show Us Who You Are are published by Knights Of, £6.99 pbk.