Tuesday 18 April 2023

When is 'own voice' not 'own voice'? Writer Mel Darbon speaks out - by Lu Hersey

 Currently, the publishing industry is very keen to promote books that are 'own voice' - stories written by people who have themselves undergone the lived experience of their characters. It makes for interesting and diverse reading, and helps promote understanding and empathy for people who are different from ourselves. It also gives everyone a chance to see their lived experience reflected in a character in a story. 

But some people literally CAN'T speak for themselves. Mel Darbon's much loved and much missed brother Guy was a case in point. So I wanted to ask her how she felt about writing a character like Guy - and whether her writing counted as 'own voice'.

Mel, for those of us who aren't entirely sure, how would you define 'own voice'?

Own voice is a term that refers to books about characters from underrepresented/marginalised groups, in which the author shares the same identity. The writing is inspired by the author's own experiences and written from their own perspective.

Own voice books can be a good fictional representation of the group of people they represent. However, it's important to note that an own voice book doesn't necessarily represent everyone within a particular group.

I can't emphasise enough the importance of diverse stories and characters in fiction, especially from those authors who can write from their own perspective and lived experience. We need to normalise diversity, so that all children grow up seeing themselves in books, otherwise we're in danger of not getting things right and possibly misrepresenting someone, or even causing them harm by making something gratuitous.

What about people who can't speak for themselves, for whatever reason?

My brother Guy was one such person. His disability made it impossible for him to write his own story, but that didn't mean he didn't have a voice or that he should be made invisible, never having representation in books or the media. People with learning disabilities are rarely seen in books. Statistically they are the least represented group of people in fiction, in any age group. 

Characters with any sort of learning disability didn't feature in books at all when I was growing up, which made me very sad. I always wanted to give my brother, and others like him who can't speak for themselves, a story - so they could be heard. Unfortunately people tend to only talk about the negatives of a learning disability, as they can't see beyond the condition - or don't know how to. 

I wanted to show beyond the negatives, but it was also important to highlight some of the situations my brother had endured in his life, in the hope that it might stop people in their tracks and help them think about what they say and how they react to someone like him. Education creates tolerance and understanding and it's vital if we want an empathetic, caring world for our children to grow up in.

So effectively, What the World Doesn't See is an own voice book?

In a way, yes. Just because people with certain disabilities have difficulty communicating, it doesn't mean they have nothing to say. I've been reinforcing this idea since I started writing inclusive stories, inspired not just by my brother, but all the young people I worked with who had Down Syndrome. 

They may need someone to write their story for them and be their voice, but I don't think this makes it any less an 'own voice' book.

Do you see yourself as the voice of your brother?

I realise I can never fully understand how my brother felt and can only record what I observed and learnt over the years, having such a close relationship with him. Guy couldn't easily communicate what he wanted from life, or what he was feeling. His needs were complex, and he required twenty-four-hour care. He had very limited speech.

Because of this I try to be the voice of Guy for all his wonderful achievements, influenced by his family, friends and teachers, but it is his voice in my book and he deserves to be heard, as much as I do as a representation for young carers. In a way, it's an 'own voice' book for both of us.

Given your lived experience, do you think you still need sensitivity readers for books like yours?

Despite my first-hand experience of people with learning disabilities, I still think it's essential to research and speak to as many people as possible with lived experience, because there's an enormous diversity within everyone's disability. They are all individuals with different needs and experiences. So yes, I will always find sensitivity readers to check my writing, and to make sure I'm giving as accurate picture as possible.

Does your writing come under the diversity umbrella?

You'd think so. Diversity covers colour, race, religion and LGBQT+, but for some reason not people with learning disabilities. I was completely dismissed as a judge for a well known competition because I was writing for people with learning disabilities, and they don't qualify.

I found this heart-breaking because my brother, and everyone like him, is being blanked out of society. Guy was ignored, dismissed, treated with intolerance, prejudice and was constantly discriminated against. Surely this means it's time people's attitudes changed for people like him?

Similarly, I've been told that What the World Doesn't See can't be considered an 'own voice' book. So how does someone like my brother ever be heard? He's being dismissed because he can't speak for himself, and because it's not him that's written his story.

If this doesn't change, people will continue to make assumptions about people with learning disabilities and they'll remain invisible in society. This is where authors like me have to step in. By putting on my brother's shoes, I'm trying to help people have empathy for people like him, and see them with love, not hate or fear.

Thanks to Mel for this interview - wishing her the very best with her beautiful, heartfelt YA, What the World Doesn't See

Lu Hersey


Penny Dolan said...

Lu and Mel, thank you. This post makes such an important point, and about the doubly difficult restrictions created by some book lists.

Surely, in some cases, ghost writers and strong editorial support are brought in to help & encourage new authors to find their own voice?

Good luck, Mel, with telling your brother Guy's own story.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Penny. It is such an important subject - and, yes, ghost writers and support are brought in, which is wonderful, but for those who can’t communicate easily and who have very limited speech, and quite often can’t even wash or dress themselves, like my brother, there have to be authors like me to be their voice. But It is definitely their voice and I feel it should be labelled as an ‘own voice’ book.