Diversity: Are you the right person to write this?


#OwnVoices has become an important topic in the writing community for a variety of reasons. One of the most important ones being because every person should be able to read authentically about themselves in novels, not through a stereotyped lense. However #Ownvoices does not mean that you can only write in your lane (your own ethnicity, experiences, sexuality, life). But it does mean you need to be sensitive to perpetuated stereotypes that are offensive to groups and avoid them like the plague.

It also means you need to stop and ask yourself “Am I the right person to write this story?”

This is the question that was posed to me, and the rest of the audience, at the Romantic Times Conference Diversity Panel. And that question put so much in perspective for me.

On one hand, I cringe when I see the stereotypes around OCD. As someone who has that mental health condition, has come to understand the complexity of it and how broad the symptoms can be, I do get a little offended when I see people joke about the condition in ways that clearly show a lack of understanding. I also see it when people don’t understand there are more than 60 types of epilepsy, a condition my son has, and are so freaked out when they see him have a seizure. Most people think people with epilepsy fall down and thrash  or shake no the ground, where as my son zones out.

But at the same time I’ll admit it, #ownvoices made me feel uncomfortable at first because I felt like I had broken its rules by having a main character that that was of a different ethnicity to me. But that question made me realise it was my story to tell.

One of the themes in DIVIDED is about identify and finding where you belong. And when I was young, I didn’t always know if I belonged.

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From left: Me, my sister and my father.

I grew up in a typical white family. Except I didn’t look white. And I didn’t look like the rest of my family. People thought I was adopted. People wouldn’t believe my sister and I were actually related. Kids in primary school teased me cruelly and said I was a half-caste (a disgusting and offensive term that is like calling someone a mudblood). In high school I wasn’t teased, but the assumption I was of indigenous heritage continued from both white people and indigenous people. And outside of school, family friends joked I was the Aboriginal milkman’s daughter. For a time this resulted in an identity crisis.

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From left: Me, my sister and my cousin.

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From left my sister, me and my cousin

It impacted on me so much that I rifled through my parents files looking for the adoption papers. I found an x-ray of my mum when she was pregnant with my sister and thought I had found proof because there was not one of me. Turns out it was me! I didn’t read the date correctly, proving I fail at being Nancy Drew.

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My mother and me

I don’t remember when it happen, but eventually I let go of those feelings of isolation and embraced the fact that I get a lot of my looks from my two grandmothers – my Scottish curly-haired nana and my extremely olive-skinned grandma with German highlands heritage. And the older I got, the more people could see the similarities between me and my mother.

We are the sum of our life experiences, which can include what we observe, research and experience as a family member or friend. You can write about things that haven’t happened directly to you. You can write about characters that are different to you. But what we must be mindful in our writing that we are not diminishing others along the way.

Sharon is a writer from Mackay, Queensland, who loves writing ‘what if’ stories. Her first novel DIVIDED is out now with City Owl Press, with he sequel SHATTERED due out in November. You can see the awesome new cover here.

2 Comments

  1. I read an interesting thread on Twitter, where the author urged all writers to include diverse characters, but to leave stories about diversity to #OwnVoices writers. So a story about being trans or coming out as gay is best told by someone who has that experience, but a story about hackers or faeries or crime lords that has a diverse character can be told by another author, so long as it is handled with respect. (This is why “Me Before You” is drawing a lot of heat from some people.)

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