Tag Archives: #ownvoices

Reflections on writing #ownvoices books

Mirror.I got into writing via Dungeons and Dragons; when my friend’s dad (our Dungeon Master) commented on my unusual multi-class character, I decided I wanted to know what led her to be the adventurer that she was. So I started writing her story.

My early books were all speculative works, even as my reading habits in the last several years have expanded to include a lot more contemporary novels. I always considered myself a writer of sci-fi and fantasy. Until one day a book demanded to be written that was basically a thriller with light sci-fi elements.

And then November happened. Seeing a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric exacerbated the feelings of “other”ness I’ve had since moving to central Indiana, working in the town that is the birth place of the Church of God. Suddenly, I wanted to tell the story of someone like me, a Jewish girl thrust into the Bible belt after growing up in a town with many more faiths represented.

The main character of that book is not me, but she shares a lot more with me than other characters I’ve written. I’ve never written someone whose views on and practice of Judaism so closely matched my own. Heck, I’d only ever written one Jewish character before, and she was a minor character who only appeared in one scene. Writing this character gave me a space to explore my relationship with my faith (I identify as an Agnostic Jew — culturally Jewish but religiously out on the whole God question) and the role it played in my relationships with family members. Like me, the main character has a Jewish mother and a Catholic father; though unlike me, she had no older sibling to emulate or younger sibling to educate (as best as any kid can answer any other kid’s questions about religion). Writing that book left me with different views on what it means to be a Jewish woman in a Christian town, and a stronger relationship to my culture.

Since I was on a contemporary kick, and I had another idea for a Jewish character with a passion for music, I started another #ownvoices book while querying my first contemporary. This character is #ownvoices not because of her faith (she’s Jewish, but that’s not central to the plot) but because of her struggles with anxiety. Writing the first draft of this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because pushing this character through anxiety attacks forced me to re-live my own. I wrote the lowest points of my life into her. But I also gave her a loving family like mine, and friends who helped her pull herself out of those low points. As I struggled alongside her, though, I gained a new perspective on my own mental health. While I’m quick to tell others that mental illness is not a weakness, I often see my own anxiety as a fault. Writing a character with anxiety made me re-evaluate that assessment, as I see how strong this girl really is in facing challenges head-on. Again, she isn’t me, but she shares more with me than past characters I’ve written.

The thing I love most about writing is seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. I love telling others’ stories, even — especially — when they make decisions I might not make, or are in situations I would never find myself in. But there’s something to be said for giving characters bigger pieces of myself, and coming to terms with those pieces of me alongside them.

Have you written an #ownvoices story? What was your experience?


#ownvoices trans stories

Because I feel one of the best weapons we have against discrimination is empathy, I try to share books with the teens in my community that tell a variety of stories about characters with different backgrounds and experiences. I want my teens to see themselves in books, but I also want them to see Muslims and Jews (who are few and far between in this city), to see refugees and immigrants and people of all races, genders, and orientations.

I will never understand the bathroom bills being proposed in several states, because I cannot fathom the logic behind blatant discrimination and transphobia. There is zero evidence that allowing trans people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity has led to assault against cisgendered people. Far more often, trans people are harassed simply for trying to pee. Moreover, if a man (and I use the example of a man, but remember that boys and men are victims of sexual assault, too) wants to assault a woman in a public restroom, no bathroom bill is going to stop him from doing so. He’s already breaking the law and violating another human being. He’s not going to refrain from doing what he wants, what he feels entitled to do, simply because of a bathroom bill.

But I digress. My heart and thoughts have been with my trans friends especially this week, and so this list is dedicated to them. I have mixed feelings about the language used in some of these summaries (not everyone in the trans community is comfortable with phrases like “a boy born in a girl’s body”), but I’ve taken them all directly from Amazon.com. If you have recommendations to add to this list, please share them in the comments!

Redefining Realness.Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock

In her profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community — and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms.

With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Janet Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor, and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalized and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realization, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another — and of ourselves — showing as never before how to be unapologetic and real.

Rethinking Normal.Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

Katie Rain Hill realized very young that a serious mistake had been made; she was a girl who had been born in the body of a boy. Suffocating under her peers’ bullying and the mounting pressure to be “normal,” Katie tried to take her life at the age of eight years old. After several other failed attempts, she finally understood that “Katie” — the girl trapped within her — was determined to live.

In this first-person account, Katie reflects on her pain-filled childhood and the events leading up to the life-changing decision to undergo gender reassignment as a teenager. She reveals the unique challenges she faced while unlearning how to be a boy and shares what it was like to navigate the dating world — and experience heartbreak for the first time — in a body that matched her gender identity.

Told in an unwaveringly honest voice, Rethinking Normal is a coming-of-age story about transcending physical appearances and redefining the parameters of “normalcy” to embody one’s true self.

If I Was Your Girl.If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Some Assembly Required.Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews

In this memoir, seventeen-year-old Arin Andrews details the journey that led him to make the life-transforming decision to undergo gender reassignment as a high school junior. In his captivatingly witty, honest voice, Arin reveals the challenges he faced as a boy in a girl’s body, the humiliation and anger he felt after getting kicked out of his private school, and all the changes — both mental and physical — he experienced once his transition began.

Some Assembly Required is a true coming-of-age story about knocking down obstacles and embracing family, friendship, and first love. But more than that, it is a reminder that self-acceptance does not come ready-made with a manual and spare parts. Rather, some assembly is always required.

Being Jazz.Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings

Jazz Jennings is one of the youngest and most prominent voices in the national discussion about gender identity. At the age of five, Jazz transitioned to life as a girl, with the support of her parents. A year later, her parents allowed her to share her incredible journey in her first Barbara Walters interview, aired at a time when the public was much less knowledgeable or accepting of the transgender community. This groundbreaking interview was followed over the years by other high-profile interviews, a documentary, the launch of her YouTube channel, a picture book, and her own reality TV series — I Am Jazz — making her one of the most recognizable activists for transgender teens, children, and adults.

In her remarkable memoir, Jazz reflects on these very public experiences and how they have helped shape the mainstream attitude toward the transgender community. But it hasn’t all been easy. Jazz has faced many challenges, bullying, discrimination, and rejection, yet she perseveres as she educates others about her life as a transgender teen. Through it all, her family has been beside her on this journey, standing together against those who don’t understand the true meaning of tolerance and unconditional love. Now Jazz must learn to navigate the physical, social, and emotional upheavals of adolescence — particularly high school — complicated by the unique challenges of being a transgender teen. Making the journey from girl to woman is never easy — especially when you began your life in a boy’s body.


Make Good Art

Make Good Art.2016 has been a tough year. The last few weeks have been exceptionally rough for me, for my friends, for my colleagues, and for several of the teens I work with. But we’re getting through it.

For me, art helps me through the times when it feels like the world is burning. I listen to music, make music, read good books, and, above all, I write. I write to escape. I write to explore new ideas, to share my thoughts, to discover myself. I write because it feels like I’m doing something positive, even if some days that “something positive” is just getting out of bed instead of giving up. Like Neil Gaiman suggested in his 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts, making good art gets artists through the good times and the bad.

Make Good Art.These days, my focus is on making good art. I’m in the early stages of writing an #ownvoices book about a Jewish band geek, because the more I see neo-Nazis in positions of power, the more important my Jewish heritage feels to me. I’m writing a marching band story because I’ve always wanted to write one, because marching band was such a big part of my identity in high school and college. I’m writing because I’ve fallen in love with this story, and I’m surrounded by so much hate that doing something I love is a breath of fresh air.

The only downside to this is that working to make good art is taking up my blogging time. If you’re a long-time reader, you’ve probably noticed my posts getting shorter lately. I’ll try to keep blogging weekly, but please bear with me if I disappear for a bit.

And in the meantime, go out there and make good art. The world needs our stories, our paintings, our songs and dances and plays. Whatever your medium, go push the boundaries and make something amazing. Then come back here and share it with me.

Reflections on reviews, reviewers, and privilege

Let’s get this out of the way. Hi, I’m Liz, and I have a lot of privilege. I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman from a middle-class family. I’ve never had to worry about where I’ll sleep tonight or where my next meal will come from. Neither I nor my siblings have ever had “the talk” with our parents — the one about how to act if we’re stopped by the police. I’ve never been targeted by TSA agents because of my looks or my faith. I can never fully understand the experiences of those who have dealt with these things.

That said, I do my best to relate to and learn from those whose experiences are different from my own. I listen. I am fascinated by others’ stories — I want to know more about those who live in different communities or have different customs that those I grew up with. I care deeply about representation — in books, movies, media, workplaces … basically everywhere. Representation matters.

When We Was Fierce.So, when I first heard about e. E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, I was excited about a book written from the perspective of an African-American teen in an African-American community. After reading starred reviews of the book in KirkusPublisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, I eagerly pre-ordered it for my library and added it to my to-read list.

It’s a reflection of my privilege that, despite everything I’ve heard about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, despite my involvement in conversations surrounding the We Need Diverse Books movement and calls for #ownvoices representation, I didn’t consider who was writing these reviews. I trusted the word of reviewers who are not black and have never been a part of a community like the one When We Was Fierce is meant to represent, because they are professional reviewers. Because the reviews they’ve written, and the publications they’ve written for, have guided my reading and collection development well in the past.

Then my Twitter feed, which is filled with thought-provoking conversations by people like Justina IrelandEdi Campbell, and Zetta Elliot, exploded with concerns about this book. I read reviews by POC readers pointing out that Charlton-Trujillo’s “new vernacular” (in the author’s words) was broken and insulting, that the characters felt like stereotypes, that the book is an inaccurate and damaging representation of black communities. I haven’t read When We Was Fierce yet, but reading the excerpts in these reviews (which I realize were chosen as the most offensive examples), I was deeply concerned. Is this how the readers who gave this book starred reviews really see black communities? The language in those excerpts has no linguistic foundation, and presents black vernacular as broken and uneducated speech. I’m horrified by the thought of handing a book with this language to a black teen, as though saying, “this is how I see you.”

This is not how I see you.

I know my views are impacted by my own experiences and my own privilege, which is why it’s so important to have diverse reviewers evaluating diverse books. We need more #ownvoices books, but at the very least we need #ownvoices writers and readers consulted about books that are meant to reflect their experiences. If you haven’t read Zetta Elliott’s post, “Black Voices Matter,” or KT Horning’s post about “When Whiteness Dominates Reviews,” I highly recommend doing so. We need diverse books, yes, but we also need diverse critics who can speak to the authenticity of these books.