Top Five Saturday: #ownvoices books

The Top 5 series is back! Top Five Saturday is a meme hosted by Devouring Books to discover and share books that all have a common theme. Previously on the blog I have focused on witches, werewolves, thrillers, faeries, fairy tale re-tellings, high fantasy and many more. I am going to try and bring this series back for every Saturday.


27th June 2020: Morally Grey Characters

4th July 2020: Coming of Age Stories

11th July 2020: (Over) Hyped Books

18th July 2020: Books Physical ARCs You Own

The #ownvoices movement.

This is an important and vital (as in alive and showing vital signs) idea which grew up in YA from Corinne Duyvis – an wonderful example of how a single tweet and great idea can change the world!

Since she tweeted, the idea of own voices took on a powerful and profound life of its own and in summary comprises a work where the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.

And it is so important for three reasons, so far as I can tell:

  1. it offers readers, and especially young adult readers, from minorities a guide to seeing themselves authentically represented in literature which is so important to foster a secure identity for our children;
  2. it offers readers from outside that minority an authentic view into the challenges that others unlike themselves face;
  3. it ensures (or at least helps to ensure) that authors from under-represented minorities are not excluded from the publishing industry in favour of the “safer” more “saleable” familiar faces.

It is also a movement affected by a touch of vagueness when it comes to definitions, perhaps as a result of its organic growth. How closely do the author and protagonist have to share identity? Does the identity in question have to be central to the novel or incidental to the plot and themes? What about authors and protagonists with multiple identities, some of which intersect which others do not? Which identities are marginalised?

I have my own answers to those questions – and it basically boils down to “be honest and transparent” but I’m not sure this is the right place to air them. I am happy to do so, if anyone wants. I would also refer you to the FAQ on Corinne Duyvis’ page and the WNDB website.

Nor is the movement without its problems: there was an unpleasant twitter-spat at Hay Festival involving John Boyne’s My Sister’s Name is Jessica (which I have not read but it is on my tbr) for daring to write a trans narrative without being trans, and I have heard of some authors being approached and asked explicitly about their sexuality to ascertain whether their books were #ownvoices, which is a terribly invasive idea. Also, I have read several #ownvoices books which were very mediocre and just not good: the hashtag is only an indication of representation, not of quality.

For the purpose of this post, I want to make the following observations: I do not limit #ownvoices to YA as you will see from the list below; and I believe that #ownvoices is descriptive of a work rather than an author, and a description that can be applied by a reader even if the author or publisher have not. If any author wants me to remove their work from this list, please contact me.

In the interests of full transparency, I own my own privileged position as a middle class cis white male at this point.

The List: the top 5 #ownvoices books I have read

Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

This novel is a sublime depiction of and creation of a range of voices, almost all of whom are black, female and British from a range of cultures and class and backgrounds.

Whilst each of the voices belong to a different character whose narrative we follow for a chapter, they all revolve around Amma the lesbian socialist black playwright whose play The Last Amazon of Dahomey is the centre of the novel. And in Amma we have echoes of Evaristo’s own history: she also founded an all black women’s theatre group and “was gay then” according to a wonderful interview with the New Statesman.

Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi

This novel is just wow!

It blew me away when I first read it as the questions of identity and gender and character are twined together with Nigerian mythology and folklore: we hear and see the ọgbanje spirits – the We, Asụghara, Saint Vincent – who have bound themselves to Ada.

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Like Ada, Emezi is transgender non-binary and their experiences are so powerfully and authentically depicted! Her young adult novel, Pet also features a transgender girl as a protagonist – and her forthcoming novel The Death of Vivek Oji will be the event of the summer for me!

Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie explores the world of London from the point of view of a rather emotionally vulnerable black woman – daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean – a London which is shifting and excluding her and incorporates casual racism in her her own boyfriend’s family.

Like Queenie, Carty-Williams is also black, second generation, Caribbean British. Her tweet below perhaps sums up the importance of #ownvoices.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie

I adored this book: a retelling of the play Antigone, it tells the story of a British Pakistani family, written by Shamsie, a British Pakistani.

The novel follows two sisters’ very divergent and conflicting responses to their brother’s joining ISIS in Syria and their attempts to locate and to return him home.

It is wonderful and compelling and heart-breaking.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

Oh my goodness, this is a novel to lift your heart, break it and mend it again! The sort of book that will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye, often on the same page.

I loved Cyril Avery! He is deeply flawed and human and real in a way may other characters are not. The novel charts his recognition of his own gay sexuality – like Boyne’s – and the appalling challenges he faced in living with that identity in Catholic Ireland – as did Boyne – with a frankness and a humour and playfulness which was exquisite.

So, there we have it, the top five exceptional – not young adult – novels which I would describe as #ownvoices. I would urge you to check them out for the beauty and power of their writing, if not for the representation!

I look forward to reading and hearing about your own favourites this week too!

Again, a David Mitchell book is an event, and a thing of beauty! But the music industry is not my natural setting and again I was caught between this and another book – Daisy Jones and the Six in this case – and Daisy Jones was read first. This time, because it was nominated on a book club I was part of.

Bonus: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.

Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich – they’re the only ones worth stealing from – but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.

This one has been on my TBR for years. Literally years. I have heard nothing but praise for it, but so far have never quite got around to reading it! Go figure!

So, there we go: a range of books that I got in 2020 – save for the Scott Lynch – and do regret not reading during the year. Is regret the right word? Probably not to be honest: I do not regret the reading that I did do last year at all. But these are books that I would like to find time to catch up with this year – before prize season hits us again!

Pop in the comments below your thoughts on these – maybe let me know which I should read first!

11 thoughts on “Top Five Saturday: #ownvoices books”

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