If you follow this blog, you’ve probably noticed I use the term “#ownvoices” to refer largely to nonwhite people writing their own cultures. This is because these are the stories I am personally most interested in reading and supporting, especially in light of ongoing, harmful (mis)representations of many nonwhite cultures by white writers. My life experiences have been and are directly impacted by stereotyped, insensitive representations of Japanese culture by white people. Any and all countermeasures in the form of Japanese (especially diaspora Japanese) speaking up for ourselves goes a long way toward dismantling the white-is-right ideologies I’ve been bombarded with for most of my life.
When #ownvoices started, I was still relatively new to social media. Seeing a highly visible movement supporting nonwhite people writing ourselves helped me realize how social media can create communities across socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic borders. While #ownvoices is now “old” by Twitter standards, I continue to discover and learn from other nonwhite folks who use it – and to find out about upcoming #ownvoices releases.
My above reasons for supporting #ownvoices and the way I choose to utilize the term on this blog are NOT the same as saying these are the only stories which qualify as #ownvoices writing. For those unfamiliar with its history, #ownvoices was actually created by a white writer, Corinne Duyvis, who writes about disability from an #ownvoices perspective.* Below is a screenshot of a screenshot (haha) from Duyvis’s website:
I am grateful to Duyvis for starting #ownvoices. While I can’t say someone else wouldn’t have created a similar hashtag if Duyvis had not, the fact remains Duyvis did create this one and it has proven enormously useful to many nonwhite people, including me.
#ownvoices is at its heart about the importance of people writing stories based on their own experiences, including but not limited to experiences with race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and intersectionality. These lived experiences can never be fully replicated or “known” by an outsider. In other words, #ownvoices stories are inextricably linked in some way to the identities of their writers.
In several discussions on book reviewing, I’ve seen arguments for evaluating a book without evaluating its author. I don’t believe this is possible. In terms of semantics, yes, we can leave an author’s name out of a review, or avoid directly attacking the author’s character – in the world outside of that review, though, the book did not spring into being by itself. Someone wrote those words. Someone made decisions about which words to use, and when, and how. Books are human creations – it is impossible for them to exist without humans standing behind them. The words an author chooses to put on a page open up questions, not just about the book, but about the person who created it. While the reader cannot know an author’s personal beliefs and history merely by reading their work (unless the work explicitly cites these things), the reader can question the author – directly or indirectly – about why the author made certain choices in their work. Readers should ask these questions, especially if the work in question contains harmful representations of a group with which the reader identifies – and authors should respond.**
If you follow online discussions about “diverse” books, you probably know the above sentiments are often directed toward people writing outside their lanes. However, the same principle applies to #ownvoices stories: you cannot evaluate the book without evaluating the author. The very essence of #ownvoices precludes this – the point of having #ownvoices stories is about HOW the identities of the people writing them SHAPE the work itself. This is not to say #ownvoices writers restrict themselves to purely autobiographical work. Rather, I’m saying who wrote the book matters as much as what was in it.***
Here’s a personal example to illustrate:
Whenever I pick up a book pertaining to Japanese culture, written by a Japanese person, my mindset shifts into one different from the one I’m in when I read other books. Before I even turn to page one, I’m already wondering how many cultural markers I’ll find inside – words, turns of phrase, aesthetics, ways of thinking – which will make me smile and think, yes, this person knows. If the book is in English and the author is bilingual, I’ll pay extra close attention to how they present Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I’ll also look at whether the author spent the majority of their life inside or outside Japan (again, diaspora Japanese v. Japan-based Japanese are different, etc, etc). If the book is in English and the author does not appear to be bilingual, I’ll still pay extra close attention to the things I listed above, but I’ll also see if I can discern whether/how the author’s diaspora experiences shape their writing.**** If the book is in Japanese, I don’t generally wonder about finding cultural markers – the author’s use of language often speaks for itself – but I do pay attention to how the author handles any US or English-language references, if they even appear. Always, I’m looking for authors whose backgrounds closely parallel mine. I live for the moments when I find something in the text that makes me go, THIS – this is me – this is us.
By contrast, when I read non-Japanese, nonwhite people***** writing about Japan, my mindset is not the same as when I read #ownvoices work. Before even picking up the book, I look at the author’s background. What is the nature of their connection to Japan? How did they prepare for this work? What are the chances I will get hurt by reading their work? If the chances seem high, I don’t read it. If I do start reading, I pay close attention to how the author presents Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I also consider the author’s background in relation to their representations of Japanese culture – if something seems jarring, I try to see where they might have been coming from. This isn’t a foolproof method and sometimes I still get hurt, but sometimes I also learn about how other nonwhite cultures intersect with Japan.******
When I read these works, I am not expecting to find myself in the pages. I am not expecting to have moments where I go, this – yes, this is me, this is us. I doubt the non-Japanese author expected their work to be a mirror for Japanese readers in the first place. Also, I do not expect someone without the lived experiences of being Japanese to utilize, much less be aware of, the cultural markers I find in work by Japanese writers. Some things cannot be learned. I do expect non-Japanese, nonwhite authors to put in the work necessary for respectful, nuanced representations of Japanese culture, just as they ought to expect any outsiders writing their cultures to put in the necessary work – but even so, I will never approach these works in the same way I approach #ownvoices Japanese work.
#ownvoices matter because research is no replacement for lived experience. Writers cannot wholly remove themselves from their work. Even if they choose to adopt an alternate “persona” while writing, the choices they make in the creation of said persona will inevitably reflect their own life experiences. People writing outside their lanes don’t and won’t have the life experiences of insiders. This is not something that can be changed. They do, however, have life experiences of their own, from which I’m sure they could craft some kickass #ownvoices stories – but for some reason, they choose to imitate other people’s perspectives instead.*******
The level of arrogance commensurate with this choice – especially by those folks who claim to write so [insert race/ethnicity/culture] readers will see themselves represented – staggers me. Either these writers truly (and wrongly) believe they are capable of writing these stories as well as or better than #ownvoices writers – or they understand their work will never take the place of #ownvoices and do it anyway. I won’t waste time calling the BS of the first reason. The second is just – why? If these writers truly believe their readers from [insert race/ethnicity/culture] would be better served by #ownvoices stories – then where does their own work fit in? If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be elevated above their own – why are they bothering to write their versions in the first place? I fail to see the logic from either a moral or capital perspective. If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be privileged above their versions, are they truly encouraging readers to buy #ownvoices books over their own? Are they truly calling for their sales to decrease? If so, sure, that’s fine – but then why write a book for publication in the first place if they’re just going to discourage people from buying it? Or are they just saying #ownvoices stories should be elevated but secretly believing their versions are interchangeable with #ownvoices? – in which case, I cite the abovementioned BS.
I’ve also seen outsiders trying to write insider stories because “diversity is the real world” or some such reason. Ok, sure – but newsflash: in the real world, you are YOU, not someone from [insert race/ethnicity/culture]. I find this reasoning much more believable – even if I still approach these works with caution because you don’t need to inhabit someone else’s POV in order to create a harmful representation of them – if the POV is #ownvoices but the world is populated by characters of varied backgrounds, i.e. white writer writing from white POV but including nonwhite characters. I’d like to think that writers who understand the difference between “diverse” worlds and “diverse” POVs are at least a little less arrogant and prone to creating harmful rep than writers who jump headlong into a POV that isn’t theirs and splash around in it because it’s pretty or exotic or trendy or moneymaking.
So, why did I just take a giant tangent to rant about outsiders taking on POVs that aren’t theirs and the issues therein? Well, I do think these writers should deeply consider the problems inherent to writing outside their lanes, but more importantly, the existence of these problems is yet another reason why #ownvoices is so relevant to today’s writing scene. #ownvoices writers are already part of the communities they write about. They already understand ways of connecting with #ownvoices readers. They have the background and the experiences to create yes – this is me – this is us moments for #ownvoices audiences. They don’t have to craft a POV from scratch – sure, their work may not be autobiographical, but their real-world experiences help lay the foundation. They know their own preferences re: representation and can choose how to place them in dialogue with their community’s perspectives. In short, their lived experiences as a member of the group being represented inform their representations of that group at macro and micro levels, in ways outsiders will never access or understand.
As a kid, I learned early – so early I only remember knowing it, not actually learning it – to be wary of non-Japanese representations of Japanese culture. It probably helped that I spoke Japanese from the get-go and grew up in a household strongly influenced by beliefs and practices my mom brought with her from Japan, as well as the diaspora Japanese beliefs and practices of my dad’s side of the family. I knew the correct pronunciations of sushi, Tokyo, karate, samurai, etc. – but I didn’t think of them as “correct” – I thought of them as “the pronunciation” because they were what I learned first. I still remember hearing westerners say those words in English and not understanding what they meant because the pronunciation was so badly butchered. I remember a white classmate thinking my last name (my real name, not the one I use here) was pronounced the same as a country in Africa. I corrected him and he asked if he could keep using the name of the African country because it was easier to say. Given this and many other experiences, I’ve never really had faith in the ability of outsiders to get anything “right” about Japan or Japanese culture because they have demonstrated time and again that they can’t – and they don’t care.
Looking back, I wish I had had more exposure to #ownvoices media by diaspora Japanese during my school years. I had plenty of exposure to #ownvoices media by Japan-based Japanese – in fact, probably just as much as I had to western (white)-based media – but I also knew from my time in Japan that Japan-based Japanese relate to Japanese culture very differently than diaspora Japanese. The only diaspora Japanese books I remember reading during that time were Yoshiko Uchida’s books and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori. (There were probably a few others, but I don’t recall the titles.) I was dreadfully disappointed when I realized the writer Lensey Namioka was Chinese, not Japanese – because her books were the first ones I found in English that even came close to showing some understanding of samurai culture as I knew it from Japan-based media – and I so badly wanted Japanese people to communicate this information to western audiences, instead of the stereotyped representations I saw by non-Japanese. For the record, I’m still a Lensey Namioka fan, but I’d also love to see diaspora Japanese create something similar to her Zenta and Matsuzo series. A collaboration between diaspora Japanese and Japan-based Japanese on this topic would also be super awesome!
Suffice to say, there are a lot of reasons, both personal and more wide-reaching, that I support #ownvoices stories over outsider representations. If you’re interested in other perspectives on #ownvoices, I recommend checking out the Resources page. As always, I speak only for myself on this blog, unless otherwise stated. My views aren’t representative of the Galactic Federation of Japanese, or Asians, or nonwhite people, etc, etc. Thanks for reading!
*For the record, I do not hate all white people. While a great deal of harm has been done by white people attempting to represent nonwhite cultures, especially my own, I appreciate how some white people have spoken against such acts and demonstrated awareness of their own privilege. We still have a long way to go re: decolonization and respectful representation, but seeing even a few white people with the potential to work with us toward these goals gives me hope. While it would be nice to see fellow nonwhite people fully in charge for once, short of supernatural means I don’t see us dismantling white hegemony without at least some cooperation from white people. This is not to say I condone white privilege and racism. I do, however, believe in not ignoring white people who indicate via their words and actions that they support equity and inclusivity for nonwhite people. (Note: This is not the same as “diversity” and I give no cookies to white people merely for treating nonwhite people like human beings.)
**If you have chosen to be a published author, don’t pretend you live in a vacuum every time a reader addresses your work, ESPECIALLY if the reader says, “your book hurt me.” Any author who refuses to acknowledge AND make amends for any harm they have caused to readers through their work does not deserve the privilege of having their work circulated to the public.
***#ownvoices writers should also be prepared to respond to readers, if they choose to circulate their work to any audience other than themselves. If an #ownvoices work hurts you, the reader, and you also belong to the group represented, I’m sure the author wants to know so they can do better next time (I know I would, at least). Readers always have the right to speak up about books that cause harm to them. I hope my fellow #ownvoices writers feel the same way about receiving critique from #ownvoices readers. It helps none of us if we made it this far, only to cut ourselves off from insights that are very likely more useful and nuanced than what we might receive from outsiders.
****I have yet to meet a Japanese person who has spent all of their life in Japan but can speak/understand only languages other than Japanese. If they exist, I’d be interested in talking to them, though.
*****I don’t currently read white people writing about Japan. I’ve explained why in other places on this blog, so I won’t elaborate on it here.
******As a Japanese person, I believe there is value in hearing non-Japanese perspectives on Japan, especially with regard to topics like Japanese imperialism. For example, I feel it is absolutely relevant for me to have some understanding of Chinese and Korean perspectives on Japanese imperialism when interacting with my Chinese and Korean friends. Not because we’re necessarily discussing Japanese imperialism, but because, if some passing reference is made to historical tensions between China and Japan, or Korea and Japan, knowing something about Chinese and Korean experiences may reduce the chance I accidentally hurt my friends with a comment from my Japanese perspective.
*******I am referring specifically to outsiders who write from the perspective of something they are not, i.e. white writer writing from Japanese POV.