HomeAll postsDefining "Own Voices" Authors: you can't have it both ways

Defining “Own Voices” Authors: you can’t have it both ways


Over the years I’ve had conflict with a number of authors about whether or not they are an “own voices” author and whether or not they’re appropriating (or misappropriating) others’ stories. Many authors claim identities when it’s convenient for them, when they stand to sell books or get a publishing opportunity. These same authors will not, at other times, identify as disabled. They won’t tick the “disabled” box when it might lose them a job. They won’t tick the “disabled” box when they might miss out on opportunities. They see the identity as a “treat” box they can dip in to at will but pass by when it’s inconvenient. And yet they want to use Dark Matter Zine, my platform, to wink at audiences, implying and claiming an identity that they will shed like a coat when the weather is warm.

Cherry-picking identity is not limited to disability. Nor are the consequences of owning a marginalized identity. The beautiful image below is also tragic: it commemorates LGBTQIA shooting deaths. The Disability Clothesline that commemorates disabled people’s deaths in Australia is equally poignant although their image isn’t as pretty. The Black Lives Matter movement has loads of logos, shirts, etc. And I’m sure there are a significant number of other minority groups suffering violence who are, likewise, raising awareness.

Own Voices people suffer violence: Orlando queer flags, Rainbow flags commemorating the victims of the Orlando Pulse shooting. Photo by Maia Weinstock (Creative Commons).
Minority groups suffer violence. Photo: Rainbow flags commemorating victims of the Orlando Pulse shooting. Photo by Maia Weinstock (Creative Commons).

Meanwhile authors say “today I’ll be disabled but not if it means I miss out on opportunities”. They say “I’m queer but not when it’s inconvenient”. Or “I’m black but I will pass for white whenever it benefits me”. Every person who does not have a choice misses out on these opportunities. If you have a choice then you do not understand what it is to be hemmed in without choices. If you have a choice and you shed an identity like dirty clothing then you are not an “own voices” author.

“Own voices” identities that apply

Various identities are, like disability, cherry picked by authors. These authors feel those identities benefit them on occasion but when those identities are likely to cause inconvenience – or to make the authors suffer discrimination – then those same authors conceal those identities.

They want to claim to be an “own voices” author and they want to disavow that identity when owning that identity does not suit them. I use disability as an example, but this equally applies to being LGBTQIA (aka “queer”), Muslim, a person of color, and so on. If you’re “passing” as straight, or areligious or a conforming religion, or white, then you don’t get the full technicolor violent experience of the identity you’re claiming. You are NOT an “own voices” author if you don’t own that identity ALL THE DAMNED TIME.

disability symbols: This image or media file contains material based on a work of a National Park Service employee, created as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, such work is in the public domain in the United States. See the NPS website and NPS copyright policy for more information.

Owning an identity

Owning an identity is complicated. You don’t have to have that identity plastered on your files and your life like mine was. When I was 6 months old, my mother received the handicapped child’s allowance for me then sent me to a special school starting grade 1 when I was 3 years old. My story is rare, even among disabled people these days. If you’ve avoided the familial shame, being the family secret, and the domestic violence including childhood sexual assault that I grew up with because I am disabled, then all speed to you. I envy you but I would not wish that on anyone.

However, if you want to claim to be an “own voices” author, then lay claim to that identity, live it, day in and day out. Don’t shed it when it’s inconvenient.

Impairment vs owning the disability identity

As an adult, don’t come to me and claim “I’m an own voices author – when it suits me. So don’t mention it. Treat me as if I have this identity, but keep it a secret so I don’t suffer for it.”

If you haven’t “come out of the closet” regarding being disabled then YOU ARE (probably) NOT DISABLED. Even if you have an impairment that qualifies as a disability, you do not own disability identity. If you have an impairment – and god knows no one’s body is 100% perfect so EVERYONE has impairments – impairments do NOT qualify you to claim disability. If you wear glasses but can still read normally, drive a car legally, etc etc, then you might have a slight vision impairment but this does not qualify as a disability.

Some people claim to be disabled because they have an impairment while never actually suffering more “discrimination” than being called “four eyes” at school. Oh, poor baby. My heart bleeds for you.

Shell game

Other people play a shell game. They claim to be disabled but “I don’t want to talk about it”. Okay, you don’t have to talk about it. But if this “disability” is a big secret, then you’re not owning the disability identity. Unfortunately some authors then get the shells out.

Pick a shell, any shell, to find out whether this author is disabled. That shell? Oh, yes, here’s the pea, I’ll be disabled to sell books. But only IMPLY that I’m disabled, I only want to be disabled to sell books. Don’t say anything definitive because it might come back to bite me. PICK ANOTHER SHELL. Nothing there! I’m not disabled, ha ha tricked you! I never said I was disabled, I can’t help it if you thought otherwise, you misinterpreted, the onus is on you…

Thus authors lay claim to being “own voices” authors to suck audiences in. But by hiding this identity – if, indeed, they have any claim to it – by hiding the identity they discredit themselves and their claim. It’s a con game to make money. Under this banner, any author who’s ever found someone of their gender attractive could claim to be queer while never having had a same sex relationship, never having experienced coming out, never having experienced others’ reactions to being nontraditional, nonconformist. It’s a con.

Far better to acknowledge that you’re writing another’s story than to falsely claim it as your own.

Knowing I had a disability vs owning the disability identity

For years I drove despite my disability. I failed every eyesight test I ever took that had a pass/fail. In high school, I took drivers education classes with all the other students. Clarence High School, the best public high school in Tasmania, did its absolute best to support me as a vision impaired student with some notable exceptions. Like PE teachers who hated me for my complete inability to function in ball sports.

I’m sure there were staff room discussions about whether I should do drivers ed; I vaguely remember Mr Cox (vice principle and drivers ed teacher) having a conversation with someone about whether they should include me. However, this was a school that was not prepared to exclude me from the mainstream curriculum. And Mr Cox was really good about me speeding down the racecourse and braking too late in the turns because EVERYONE returned from Baskerville boasting their maximum speed. I’m sure I shaved a few years off his life expectancy and added a few grey hairs.

No one ever told me my eyesight was so bad I couldn’t drive. This would have been useful information.

Vision impaired holder of a drivers licence

As an adult, I studied and studied for my drivers licence written test. I passed it with flying colors. Then I had to pass the eye sight test. Even then I knew this was a risk. I wished the eyesight test was first.

My heart plummeted when I saw how small and far away the eye chart was. There was no way in hell I could read it. I mentally shrugged and took a few steps forward until I could make out the letters. The person conducting the eye test sighed. He told me to get my eyes tested. And he gave me my learner’s licence. Even though optometrists and ophthalmologists knew I was driving, we TALKED ABOUT IT, no one took my licence away. Over the years they asked how many accidents I had but I was such a cautious driver, never tailgating, not running red lights, etcetera, that I think the consensus was that I was probably safer than nondisabled drivers on the road.

We won’t discuss some of my near-misses. Let’s just say that a hitchhiker probably saved my life because he saw the train. That I was driving towards while overtaking a car stopped in the middle of nowhere. I was wondering WHY IS THAT CAR JUST SITTING THERE? IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE? And the hitchhiker was like “TRAIN! TRAIN!!!”. Me: “Oh, yeah. That train camouflaged itself well… in the bush.” And that was just one near-miss.

(He asked to be let out in the middle of nowhere a few minutes later.)

I had a disability – this fact was inescapable – but I did not consider myself disabled

My point? I HAD A DRIVERS LICENCE. SO I DID NOT CONSIDER MYSELF DISABLED. Sure, I knew I HAD A DISABILITY but I did not consider myself disabled. I definitely did not identify as disabled. And that did not change until 2005 when the Central Northern Health Service, part of the Department of Health in South Australia, refused disability access. I could not sit ergonomically at my computer.

Then they took my counselling job away from me and gave it to a student social worker who had not counselled clients at all until a couple of months earlier. I complained. The internal investigation did some creative accounting to diminish my professional experience to only experience prior to working at CNAHS but it didn’t even count all my prior experience. They dismissed my additional degrees and extra qualifications, claiming that my allegedly “only twelve months’ experience” was less than that of a student social worker about to graduate with one bachelor’s degree and zero professional experience. No disability discrimination here, move along.

If I could have concealed my disability as a “secret identity” and kept my job, I would have.

Disability discrimination in the workplace

While working at CNAHS, I strained my eyes when working on the computer. They refused disability access repeatedly over the 6 months I worked there, including in emails. I memorized the database I had to input client information into so I didn’t have to try to read the fields. I hunched over the computer.

And, when I wasn’t at the Salisbury Community Health Center but was instead at the Tea Tree Community Health Center, I used a smaller screen. I struggled to read with my nose bumping against the screen while squinting. The OH&S officer refused to sign off on my OH&S orientation and, when she saw me struggling to read at Tea Tree CHC one day, she demanded to know what I was doing. (I left my office door open when I wasn’t with a client.) She knew I had a disability but hadn’t realized how bad the situation was for me.

I had to drive to work because it was a ten-minute drive or over 2 hours by public transport. By the end of every day straining my eyes I COULD NOT SEE THE ROAD PROPERLY TO DRIVE HOME. This main road had gravel verges. I kept driving onto the edge, felt the gravel, then veered back onto the road.

I begged my husband to drive me to work but he refused.

Taking a taxi to work was my next choice but my husband insisted I drive.

Up until then, I hadn’t realized that my husband was in denial about my disability.

The cost of owning an identity

Finally, in 2007, the Equal Opportunities Commission of South Australia found that I asked for disability access and that management had refused. However, the EOCSA blamed me for CNAHS’s refusals of disability access. Their report said I HAD NOT ASKED ENOUGH TIMES. Records prove I declared on the phone before CNAHS even gave me a written job offer and I declared in employment intake forms. And records prove I asked for disability access over the period of my employment including after a change in managers.

But the Equal Opportunities Commission blamed me for CNAHS’s repeated and ongoing refusals of disability access. They also accepted, at face value, CNAHS’s report that dismissed my professional experience and higher qualifications, claiming my replacement – the student social worker – outclassed me despite the senior social worker loading me with higher-level clients beyond my pay scale. Without the EOCSA’s support, I could not get legal assistance. My husband did not support me and asked me not to continue to fight for my career. After 10 years of study and work, I lost my career. I lost my dream. All due to disability discrimination.

Tell me about secret identities. I’d like one of them, kthanks.

Trauma of minority identity

The trauma of these events, of losing my career because of disability discrimination and the workplace bullying leading up to that loss devastated me. During 2005-2006, I finally gave up. I shouldered the weight of my disability identity. And I gave up driving after another near-miss accident that was entirely my fault, was not due to eye strain nor even light shining into my eyes. I kept my drivers licence and planned to do so in case of emergencies but, when I moved to Melbourne, they actually did an eye test and expected me to pass. I laughed when they put up the eye chart. Then I cried.

I understand that owning an identity comes at a cost. However, you don’t get to pick and choose. You’re in or out. Own it or you don’t. Although the facts may add up to shades of grey, whether you own an identity, whether you’re an “own voices” author, is black or white.

I’m only able to talk about disability as an identity but a lot of other people can talk about other identities authors claim when convenient only to discard to avoid discrimination.

Superheroes vs owning an identity

I blame Superman and Clark Kent. There’s a whole generation of authors out there – multiple generations – who decided to have a secret identity. The problem is, Superman submitted to hazing, mockery and humiliation as Clark Kent. It’s part of the humor of the story, appealing to nerds everywhere. But these authors only want the best of everything, they dance between identities in order to avoid humiliation and discrimination.

Sometimes authors have said to me “I do NOT want to own this identity”. I have never asked why. When an author discloses like this, my respect increases. They could claim to be an “own voice” author but have chosen not to, in the full knowledge of the costs and benefits of owning and disclaiming that identity. That is a choice I can get behind.

NOT owning an identity

Not trying to own an identity is an HONEST choice. When an author declares “this topic is off limits” and “I do NOT want to own this identity”, I can work openly and honestly with this author in a podcast or review. I know where I stand, where the boundaries lie.

When an author says “I own this identity but IT IS A SECRET” it raises issues. You’re trying to wink at the audience, you’re playing a shell game. You are being dishonest.

If you have a disability and you’ve written a book about a disabled character coming out of the closet but you’re not out of the closet THEN YOU’RE NOT AN OWN VOICES AUTHOR. If you’re IN the closet and you wrote a coming out story? YOU ARE NOT AN OWN VOICES AUTHOR BECAUSE YOU HAVE NOT HAD THAT EXPERIENCE.

End. Of. Story.


Authors don’t have to claim identities to write them. However, authors need to be cautious in their appropriation, do their research, and treat audiences – including me – with respect.

I will not be party to lies and deception.

The shell game is an interesting storytelling device but I refuse to play. And I will not knowingly give a platform to someone who is playing a shell game to further their career.

I can give you a list – albeit not a very long one – but I can list a number of authors who claim to have experience of disability but who do not own the disability identity. They’re honest. In my dealings with them, I try to always remember their position. I never out them and it’s never a problem BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT CLAIMING TO BE OWN VOICES AUTHORS WHILE ALSO HIDING THAT IDENTITY.

Be honest and consistent. Stay in the closet if you will but don’t simultaneously claim to be an own voices author. You can NOT have it both ways.

This applies to all minority identities.

This is Dark Matter Zine’s official position on this matter.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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