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#Ownvoices, Authenticity, and Orientalism

I’ve written about authenticity before. It’s a topic that, no matter how often I write about it, never exhausts itself for me. A large part of my hate-on for the concept of authenticity comes from my years living in China, during which I was occasionally subjected to the rantings of fellow travelers who would express dismay that the city where I lived was too “Westernized.” Where is the “real China” they’d ask, hoping for some insider information, as if, by virtue of living in China for such a long time, I might know where the authenticity was hiding. Which village, which neighborhood, which experience, would give them the Instagrammable China they were hoping for. They didn’t endure twenty four hours of travel for Starbucks and Burger King after all.

This line of thinking always enraged me. Rich kids driving BMWs and sipping PSLs while wearing Gucci in Beijing were the real China, just as my sister in law selling leeks at the village market wearing a ratty blazer and sleeve protectors was also the real China. The criteria for authenticity is fairly straightforward: are you in China or does the experience involve Chinese people? Congrats, your experience is authentic.

The concept of authenticity, when applied to cultures and the products of those cultures has always had uncomfortable ties to colonialism and orientalism. The idea that cultures exist only to entertain and inform outsiders is not a new one, but this idea also intersects with publishing’s relatively recent emphasis on diversity in storytelling, and in particular, with the #ownvoices movement.

The #ownvoices hashtag was created as a way to highlight and amplify stories written by marginalized creators about characters that share those marginalizations. Increasingly, publishing and media in general have become aware of just how important representation is, particularly for children and teenagers, and #ownvoices is one way to ensure representation – that Black teenagers can read books that feature magical heroes that look like them, that Chinese-American kids like mine can see their culture represented in graphic novels, that Muslim children can read picture books about fasting for Ramadan. These representations, created by writers and artists who share the same background with the main characters, while not guaranteed to be 100% unproblematic, are usually less likely than those written by cultural outsiders to contain harmful stereotypes or outright racism.

Unfortunately though, we white folk are not. And, much like the travelers in China who complain about authenticity, white readers (and sometimes even publishing industry pros) often forget that the point of an #ownvoices book is not to educate white readers about another culture. A few weeks ago Arvin Ahmadi’s book How It All Blew Up was released. How It All Blew Up is a queer Muslim book by a queer Muslim author and yet many reviewers criticized the book for not being “Muslim enough.” One (non Muslim) reviewer said “I don’t really get how this can be labeled as a Muslim book, when that was not at all a main point, or even a side point in this book.” She was not alone in this sentiment. The popular criticism seemed to be that there was not enough “Muslim stuff” in the book. Ahmadi’s presentation of a relatively secular Muslim family was clearly not the exercise in cultural tourism that they expected. Ahmadi himself says, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, that “this is a religion of a billion people, so if you get five Muslim people together … they all practice differently. Some may be more secular, some may be more devout, and I would love to see that full range represented in queer Muslim stories.” Despite this, the (again, non-Muslim) reviewers seem to reject the notion that there is room in fiction for different kinds of Muslim representation.

Perhaps such reviewers should keep in mind that Ahmadi’s book was not written to educate non-Muslims about Islam. While education may be a happy by-product of #ownvoices writings, the assertion that such books must by their very nature adhere to an outsider’s concept of a culture, must satisfy the cultural outsider’s curiosity in order to be valid or useful, is an assertion that is rooted in orientalism. Just as the tourist exclaims that the big city is not the “real China” and demands that the country, which has existed for thousands of years on its own, satisfy their desire for a commodified cultural package, the reader devours #ownvoices novels as a cultural voyeur and demands the writer create an image of the culture which is suitably “exotic” and fascinating. To the cultural outsider a “good” diverse read should have just a hint of the “other,” perhaps foreign language words, some unfamiliar religious rituals, or a titillating cultural practice (see: white people’s love of novels about arranged marriages). Diverse reads that feature characters that just simply exist, rather than putting their marginalizations (and often, their oppression and trauma) on display find little welcome with these readers.

#Ownvoices is an important movement, and white readers can and should read diverse books by diverse authors. Reading and enjoying books is not the problem, but just as traveling should be done ethically and responsibly, so should reviewing. Cultural outsiders commenting on the authenticity of the culture represented, as if diverse books exist solely for their own edification, is bad enough. It is worse when publishers and agents insist upon a certain type of #ownvoices story, and pigeonhole the writer into a certain kind of representation. Chinese-American stories do not have to feature Tiger parents, Muslims do not have to be devout, Black stories do not have to be about police violence. And while they may feature these elements, if that is the story the writer wishes to tell, outsiders have no business dictating which narratives are and aren’t authentic to the cultures presented. The #ownvoices tag was not created so that white readers could be entertained by the “other,” with the expectation that writers satisfactorily perform their cultures for the cultural outsider. #Ownvoices creates non-harmful representation for the readers who truly need it, the kids, like mine, whose cultures are so often presented only in caricature. What does authenticity in representation mean to my twelve-year-old? “It means people who get it, mom.”

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