By Riley Dauber
In recent years, readers and publishers have worked toward diversifying the book business by reading and publishing #OwnVoices stories, a hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis that shows support for novels written by and about marginalized groups, according to a Little Feminist article by Shuli de la Fuente-Lau.
According to New York Times Magazine’s Marcela Valdes, “[In] July 2020…the start of a period in which the number of nonwhite employees in the book-publishing industry surged. During the national protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, book publishing came under scrutiny for its history of undervaluing and ignoring Black editors.”
Now, the publishing business is hoping to diversify not only its publishers and authors, but the novels they choose to publish as well.
“Reading a #OwnVoices book means being confident that the worlds created or described in a book are represented as authentically as possible,” Fuente-Lau said. “#OwnVoices authors and illustrators create not with an observer’s gaze, but with the cultural nuance from being an active member of that culture.”
Some recent examples of #OwnVoices stories include Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” about a young Black girl using her voice after her friend is killed by a police officer, and Tahereh Mari’s “A Very Large Expanse of Sea,” which follows a young Muslim girl attending high school following 9/11.
Both examples are written by authors of color and feature protagonists of color. Writing characters from the same marginalized groups as themselves allows the authors to provide personal and accurate representations of both their lives and the characters’ lives.
Although the publishing industry is attempting to take steps toward diversifying bookshelves, there are still many examples of poor representation.
One recent example is popular historical fiction author Taylor Jenkins Reid’s new novel “Carrie Soto Is Back.” It is about a Latina tennis player in the 1990s attempting to make a comeback.
Reid developed a large fanbase online, specifically Instagram and TikTok, for her fame-centered historical fiction novels, including “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” and “Malibu Rising.”
Fans of “Malibu Rising” will recognize Carrie Soto, who was a secondary character. The novel, which takes place in 1983, sees four siblings hosting a party in Malibu. Carrie is introduced in flashbacks when she is dating the main character’s ex-husband.
However, Carrie’s race is not mentioned. Reid did not discuss the character’s Latinx identity until the Feb. 17 announcement for “Carrie Soto Is Back” was posted on Instagram.
Reid’s other novel, “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” has been heavily criticized for its LGBTQ+ and BIPOC representation. It tells the story of fictional actress Evelyn Hugo and her successful career from the 1950s to the present. Evelyn, a bisexual Cuban character, is flawed and complex; but the representation is still poor.
Evelyn’s parents play into harmful Latinx stereotypes – an abusive father and a sex worker mother – and Evelyn is often praised for her looks and body type.
Evelyn also discusses that she forgot how to speak Spanish, and this confession makes for a striking scene where she is unsure if she should try to interact with her Spanish-speaking maid. Her sense of identity is gone; she has become someone she thinks the public and producers will adore.
But then, as soon as the situation is introduced, Reid moves on to a different scene. She dangles the idea of representation in readers’ faces.
The #OwnVoices movement targets issues of poor representation by focusing on stories from authors of color who can accurately portray diverse characters. Despite their efforts, Reid’s novels are continually published due to her level of popularity and success, despite the aforementioned issues.
Although it has been five years since “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” was released, Reid’s representation is still lacking.
The major issue in “Carrie Soto Is Back” is the frequent use of the Spanish language interspersed with English phrases.
For example, on page 164, Carrie says, “What am I? Twelve again? No necessito hacer esto.”
Most of the dialogue between Carrie and her father, Javier, switches from Spanish to English in the same sentence. Not only is the Spanish not translated for non-native speakers, but many Spanish-speaking readers have criticized this style of dialogue.
The novel focuses on Carrie’s return to tennis, despite the high expectations the public sets for her. However, Reid never touches on how Carrie’s role as a Latina woman affects the public scrutiny. Instead, she focuses on Carrie’s gender.
“And yet, no matter what type of woman you are, we all still have one thing in common: Once we are deemed too old, it doesn’t matter who we used to be,” Reid writes on page 178.
Although Reid attempts to infuse her novels with diversity, her efforts are very unfulfilling. She lacks either the personal experience or knowledge to cover the problem extensively. Often, the representation in her novels leave readers wanting.
According to Fuente-Lau, “Books not created by #OwnVoices authors and/or illustrators leave out nuances and may inaccurately capture cultural elements.”
White authors can write about people of color; that’s not the problem here. The problem is getting those novels about people of color published is much easier for white authors than authors of color.
BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors with Reid’s level of talent should have the same amount of success and platform, since the stories and representation present in their novels are more accurate and personal.
Accurate representation also provides readers with the opportunity to relate to characters who look like them.
According to Fuente-Lau, “Because the books we read are our windows and sliding doors into other experiences, it’s really important to ensure that our view is accurate, informed, and authentic.”
Reading fiction can serve as a learning experience, while also being enjoyable. Reid’s novels are fantastic and entertaining, but are often lacking when it comes to representation. Not only can she do better, but the publishing world should work toward diversifying the authors they choose to publish, therefore supporting the #OwnVoices movement.