If You’re Not #OwnVoices, Maybe You Shouldn’t Write It

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Trigger Warning: The following discusses self-injury.


A couple days ago, a book blogger posted a photo on Instagram that several members of her audience and the book community felt triggered by. In the photo, she’d painted her hand and arm blue and added bleeding cut marks in gold. When several people politely pointed out that her photo was making them think of self-harming, she became defensive, saying she hadn’t read the book yet and didn’t know that it was harmful. She continued by stating that because she’s an artist, her photo can’t possibly be harmful because it’s art. (See screenshots of the photo and one of her comments here; the rest of her and others’ comments have been mysteriously deleted.)

It got worse from there. While more people politely spoke up and said that they too felt triggered by the photo, she became more defensive and began accusing these people of bullying her. She began deleting anyone’s comments who disagreed with her, and invited her friends to jump in and defend her from this horde of mean people recovering from self-harm. Other people started jumping in, saying “Well, it doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you.”

When someone tells you “This hurts me, please stop,” your job is not to get defensive or angry. Your job is to listen to the human being in front of you. An appropriate response would be “I’m so sorry. I had no idea but I’m listening and I’d like to talk about this so I can do better.”

Whenever this happens, though, it’s almost always a marginalized person being bullied by a person of privilege. This blogger had no idea the effect of her photo because she’s never suffered from self-harm. She even admitted it herself, saying something to the effect of “I have depression and anxiety, but never self-harmed, so no one should be bothered by this.”

If you don’t know what the motherloving hell you’re talking about, maybe you should just not.

The book in question is Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth—a book that has been discussed to great extent for its many problematic themes. There are so many issues with this book, it’d take me a whole other blog post and then some to cover them, so I’m not going to go into detail. What I am going to talk about, though, is how privileged authors and their hordes of privileged fans are doing the marginalized communities that they pretend to serve more harm than good.

This should be obvious, right? Gather ’round. I’ll Liz-splain it to you, in case it isn’t.

Here’s how this goes down. Authors like Roth—who don’t suffer from chronic pain or self-harm, and are white—decide they want to tell a story. Maybe their intentions are good. Maybe they genuinely want to shine light on what it’s like to struggle with self-injury and chronic pain while showing the world that dark-skinned people are not dangerous by default. But in their lack of experience, their inherent prejudices show through. You don’t have to be purposely hateful to be prejudiced, by the way. This is another thing that privileged people can’t seem to wrap their heads around, but I digress.

Roth’s portrayal of these themes is problematic because of her lack of experience and neglect to consult anyone with those experiences. Often privileged authors go dancing into writing a diverse book like they’re doing marginalized communities some great big favor. They’re not.

Look, I’m a huge advocate for diverse books. I believe that the more of us who are writing them responsibly, the more normal they become. Readers won’t have to search very hard to find characters like them. But if you can’t be bothered to admit that something is outside your area of expertise and find an editor plus beta and sensitivity readers who do have that knowledge, then you shouldn’t bother to write that book. Leave that space for someone who does know what they’re talking about.

It’s pretty simple.

And if your fans are behaving problematically, posting triggering photos without regard for the people who are very nicely speaking up about it, then your book is acting as a catalyst for abuse, completely condoned by your flippant interview responses.

As authors, we have a responsibility for the weight of our words. There’s nothing wrong with including a particular topic or theme in our books—so long as it isn’t inappropriately glorified or vilified. We can’t control how our words are interpreted, nor can we control our readers’ actions, but we can do our very best to articulate ourselves well. That’s our damned job, after all.

I’ve been seeing a lot of marginalized people asking non-#OwnVoices people to stop writing diverse books, and I’m inclined to completely agree with them. Even when privileged authors do so responsibly, those who think they’re above serving their readers with care ruin it for everyone else. There are so many POC, chronic pain patients, and survivors of self-harm who should’ve had this publishing opportunity over someone who has never experienced these things and can’t possibly understand the perspective she’s written from.

I’m all for bringing diversity into your fiction whenever you can, but this attitude that some authors have—this sense of entitlement that they can do whatever they want and too bad for anyone who’s hurt by it—needs to stop. It’s a message loud and clear to your horde of privileged readers that it’s okay to treat other people with the same prejudice and disrespect.

We see you.

I Won’t Be Silenced

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Recently a popular book blogger announced that they won’t be supporting authors who talk about politics, their children, and other non-book topics. Artists have always shaped the world around us, since the world around us is what shapes our work. Looking back through history, artists have been on the frontline during any great social or political change—either through expression, or through persecution.

The first novel I ever published, Sade on the Wall, was a culmination of years of watching loved ones struggle with addiction and being powerless to save them. I’d recently lost a high school friend to a heroin overdose, a close relative had disappeared to crack addiction, and an ex-boyfriend hurt me physically and emotionally for years while succumbing to alcohol and multiple drug addictions. If I chose to not talk about my personal life or social issues, Sade on the Wall would not exist.

None of my books would exist.

Survivors of rape, sexual assault, and incest know better than anyone else what the price of silence is. Any trauma survivor knows. There’s only so long that you can squash down the things that hurt your soul. Eventually, it either consumes you or you have to free your voice.

You have to speak your truth.

In the past year and a half, I’ve begun speaking my truth. My voice gets louder and louder, and with every step of my journey to healing, I feel more free.

I will never be silent again.

I will continue to talk about my traumas, my autoimmune disease, my cat, and my godkids. And I will continue to talk about the horrible things that Trump and his cabinet are doing to my country and her people.

If we all remained silent, if we all kept the things that are important to us to ourselves, what would the point be in being human? Humanity is about connection; we’ve needed art to explain the world around us since the dawn of time. When we find others who share our experiences, we feel less alone. We are supported. We are able to press on and survive.

Too often we turn the other cheek to suffering. We walk past the homeless veteran begging for change, turn up the volume on our headphones while our neighbor beats his girlfriend, pretend not to hear other classmates make fun of a disabled student. The worst kind of silence is apathy. To refuse to speak out is to enable the suffering, to assist the oppressor. Few spoke against Hitler, and he systemically violated group after group of innocent citizens, altogether murdering millions and millions of people. Hardly anyone spoke against Roosevelt when he rounded up Japanese-Americans, took them from their homes, and put them in camps, violating their American civil rights in a hypocritical attempt to protect Americans.

I understand that many readers use books as an escape hatch. I know I always have. Some people don’t want to think or hear about bad things because they have enough going on in their personal lives. I completely understand needing to insulate yourself and create a safe space.

But I will not be silent for the sake of selling more books.

I’ve always written to make sense of the world around me and my personal life. I created Jett to cope with a family member struggling with alcohol abuse; I couldn’t make my loved one stop drinking, but I could write about Jett’s journey to recovery.

I can’t stop the Trump administration from persecuting Muslims and taking away my healthcare, but I can write about two teenagers fighting white nationalists in their city.

I can’t cure my autoimmune disease or control my pain, but I can write about a queer spoonie and the girl who rescues her from her pain prison.

I love my readers and I appreciate your support, but I will never change who I am for the sake of selling more books. First and foremost, I am an artist. A real person with real worries, struggles, and triumphs. Words are the only weapon I’ve ever had, and with them I speak the truth.

Sign Up: Just One More Minute Release Blitz

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Hey everyone! I’m putting together a little release blitz for Just One More Minute. From November 18th to 30th, I’d like to share the first chapter of the book in as many places as possible. If you’re interested, please fill out the form below. I’m also offering ARCs to any bloggers who would like one.

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

BLURB

A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.

Rowan left Connecticut to escape her indifferent family the second she graduated high school, but when her loving aunt dies, she drops everything to return for the funeral. All Rowan wants is to say her goodbyes and get back to her life—until her aunt’s lawyer tells her that she’s inherited Elli’s Bakery, the last straw that sent her running to New Jersey.

Even worse, her brand new business partner is Matt—the guy who stole her dream job at Elli’s and crushed her heart. Is she really supposed to just forgive him and run Elli’s by his side?

For Matt, Elli’s has been a safe haven, a way to take care of his heartsick mom and fatherless little brother. When the woman who took him in passes away, Matt has no idea what he’s going to do next. Until Rowan returns to their small town and becomes his new business partner. But after everything that went down between them, it’s clear that Rowan resents him.

Digging up the past will only be painful, and Matt needs to keep the bakery in business. Can Matt convince Rowan to stick around long enough to work things out between them?

Just One More Minute is a standalone small town bakery romance.