So lately I’ve been seeing more blog tours that priorities #ownvoices reviewers. And this is wonderful of course! But also seeing forms with race/ethnicity boxes to check has me conflicted, just like race boxes to check have had me conflicted my whole life, so here we are.
I need to start this post by saying that #ownvoices is incredibly important. If you somehow don’t know, ownvoices is when the person (author, reviewer, etc) is from the same marginalized group as the character, thus can draw from their personal experience. Diversity is important, and people from diverse or marginalized communities should be able to share their stories. And there is no one better to tell these stories than people who have lived the experiences.
A little bit about myself that I don’t think I’ve ever shared online before. I live in a very Asian community in the United States. Although Asians make up only 5% of the US population, Asians are the majority in my city. My high school was about 50% Asian (and the rest mainly white, but also latinx, Black, etc), and most of my friends growing up were/are Asian.
I’m sharing this because this makes my experience very unique, unlike most Asian Americans. Because as a biracial Asian American, I’ve been told over and over again that I’m not Asian enough. And that hurts. I recognize that saying this comes from a place of privilege that white and white passing people have. But when I leave my Asian bubble and travel to the rest of the US, including the white half of my family, I look Asian. I am a second generation Asian American, living in a house and family immersed in Taiwanese culture that books with full white protagonists never capture. I know that I am Asian, and it’s part of my culture and family, even though people deny it all the time.
So this brings me back to #ownvoices. Because I’ve been told so many times that I’m not really Asian, when I talk about Asian rep in my book blog, when I say that I’m an ownvoices Taiwanese reviewer, sometimes I feel like I’m a white person out of my lane.
This is ridiculous of course. There have even been some incredible Asian fantasies written by halfies! Natasha Ngan, author of Girl of Paper and Fire, is biracial! I’m technically closer to her ethnicity than full Asians, yet I sometimes feel like I am less of an ownvoices reviewer than them.
There’s a big push lately to get books into the hands of ownvoices reviewers, which is so wonderful and I love it so much! But it’s left me feeling very conflicted because I wonder, what exactly am I? I’d imagine a blog tour sign up for To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before would ask if I was Korean, which I’m not, so I would say I’m not ownvoices, and a sign up for American Panda would ask if I was Taiwanese, which I am, so I would say I am ownvoices. However, I identified more with Lara Jean, who is half Korean, than Mei, who is full Taiwanese. I feel more ownvoices for Lara Jean, but technically I would say I only am for Mei.
(speaking of that I love Lana Condor but I’m still annoyed that they cast a full Asian actress for Lara Jean lol Hollywood you had ONE JOB)
And now I’m talking about being more or less ownvoices, which has me feeling a bit like a fraud because how is that possible? The way I’ve seen it discussed, you’re either ownvoices or you’re not. Yes or No. You’re either the same ethnicity as the character or you’re not, there’s no grey area. But if that’s really the case, then to date there exists only one (1) YA book, The Astonishing Color of After, with a biracial Taiwanese/white protagonist for which I am ownvoices, and while I loved it and felt represented, it wasn’t even the most represented I’ve ever felt!
The most represented I’ve ever felt in a book was with Harley in the Sky. That book truly felt like a love letter to multiracial people, and Harley’s struggle with being multiracial and not fitting into any box felt so authentic. I mean, take this quote from Harley in the Sky for example, which basically summarizes up this entire post:
Asian people call me ‘too white’ and laugh at me for not knowing enough about Chinese and Japanese culture. And white people only ever see me as Asian, as exotic–different from their version of ‘all American.’ When someone is biracial, it’s suddenly like, ‘no, you don’t get to claim all the things that you are because you’re not Asian enough.
Harley represents me so much, made me feel so loved, but she isn’t Taiwanese and white, she’s Chinese, Japanese, and white, so if someone wanted to give that book to only ownvoices reviewers, would I have to say that that’s not me? Would I have to pass the book up so a full Japanese reviewer who wouldn’t relate to that quote like I did can read it?
When a book about a half Asian character gets praised by a full Asian reviewer for the Asian rep, of course I’m super happy! Obviously I’d rather a full Asian reviewer get a book with a biracial Asian character than a full white reviewer. But also, I want to scream frustration into the void when Asians praise books like To All The Boys, Anna K (which, by the way, I don’t particularly like the biracial rep in that book) and Starfish for the Asian rep, accepting the biracial characters as Asian, but in real life take one look at me and write me off as white.
The push for ownvoices also makes me wonder, what exactly makes you ownvoices? Is it the Asian culture and customs you have, or is it only how you look? Sometimes I see third or fourth generation Asian American authors or reviewers, and I may have faced less racism from my outside appearance than them, but I’m the one with grandparents living in Taiwan who don’t speak English and who immerse me in their culture when I visit them. And now I’m like, this is so dumb, trying to categorize who is more or less Asian, trying to make everything a contest and squash us all into boxes, and it makes me so frustrated and I just want to ask can’t we both be equally Asian in our own ways?
Honestly this post is getting rambly and side tracked. I think I’ve created most of this struggle in my head, tbh, as for the most part the book community is very welcoming and I’m projecting my irl struggle online. Especially in blogs most of what made me irked and sparked this discussion was twitter lol.
I guess I’m trying to say that as much as ownvoices is truly amazing and absolutely necessary, it sometimes feels a bit confining and restrictive to me. It can feel a bit like trying to fit everyone neatly into a box, and as someone who has never fit into one box, as evidenced by the many times in my life I’ve had to decide if I should put white or Asian on a form that says check only one, it can be something I really struggle with.
I guess, in conclusion, don’t come for me if I call myself ownvoices for whatever I want to and you should all read Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman.
What do you think about #ownvoices? Have you ever struggled with being put into a box? What are some books that you’ve felt really represented by?
Are you going to read Harley in the Sky now? I’d love to chat in the comments below!