We spend a lot of time talking about #OwnVoices and how that specifically affects the LGBTQIA+ community. Outside of queer lit, the two most prominent discussions are often about race and disability.
There are many different views on this within both reader and writer circles (and the overlap between the two). Even though I’m usually pretty firmly on the side of primarily supporting writers engaging with their (our) own experiences, I readily concede that #OwnVoices is not equivalent to “better written.”
The reason this came up again is that I’m taking a college class in which the required reading is a distinctly non-#OwnVoices book about disability. It’s a good example of why writers need to be very, very careful how they frame things when writing outside their own lived experiences.
Without trashing the specific book or author, I will say that it is about a teen girl with a disabled sibling and a new friend who is also disabled. On the surface, that sounds...well, it sounds all right. And it would have been if the story hadn’t been About Disability, screaming it from page one. This is a story about how a not-disabled teen “deals with” the disabilities of people in her life.
The book is troubling on a number of fronts. There’s the girl’s wish to have a “normal” sibling and her savior complex toward her friend and her general embarrassment about being seen with disabled people all throughout. I cannot imagine being disabled and reading this...
Oh, wait. Yes, I can. My autoimmune issues are disabling. I have at times been in public “visibly disabled.” I also have children who are neurodivergent, and I grew up with a disabled parent. So yes, I can very well imagine this, and I am disgusted with the author’s views.
And yet, somehow, this book is an actual Newbury Award winner. For real. I couldn’t make this up.
Instead of a story about a girl going through a situation or having to solve a problem, with her sibling and friend at her side, it’s about how sad and tragic it is that she must deal with these “not normal” people around her.
We really do need to be more cautious when writing about people unlike ourselves. It’s so easy to fall into bad writing habits or to be a reader who doesn’t look at a book critically. I’m not saying people shouldn’t write outside our own experience. We’ve all done it. I’m only suggesting that we exercise some restraint and look into whether the things we’re writing might be uncomfortable for people who identify that way.
It is incredibly difficult to do well with a story centered on disability unless one has experienced it. I found it almost painfully funny when I wrote about disability and didn’t make it tragic, resulting in a reviewer being horrified that the story wasn’t melodramatic enough for their taste.
While I’m glad we’re seeing much more diversity in fiction these days, we still have a long way to go in terms of both the representation and the lifting up of authors writing our own experiences.