TOP 5: Diverse #OwnVoices Fantasy

Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post! I was reminded in the comment section that diversity and representation in itself is wonderful, but it’s always important to boost the voices of people from those different communities.

Corinne Duyvis (author of ‘Otherbound’ and ‘On the Edge of Gone’) started the #OwnVoices hashtag on Twitter in 2015 as a way of highlighting books about diverse characters that are written by authors from the communities represented. It’s used to include writers who are (at least one of) the following identities:  people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, and other ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. Whilst I believe that all writers, regardless of their background, should try to write more diversely, #OwnVoices authors can offer the deeper, more nuanced representation that people who share these identities are calling out for.

IMG_0523.jpgI’ve been lurking around the #ownvoices tag since I started my “year of reading widely” (AKA 2017) and I’ve discovered some treasures, from both authors who are gaining more traction this year and from self published or lesser known writers. After a request on tumblr, here is my first top five for the blog – FANTASY.

1. ‘The Second Mango’ by Shira Glassman

#OwnVoices cred  Shira Glassman describes herself on her blog as a “Queer Jewish Feminist” – need I say more?

What I loved… This is the first book in the Mangoverse series, and it holds a special place in my heart as the first time I ever read about a character who had similar dietary restrictions to me. Set in a fictionalised South Florida-esque world where everyone is Jewish and most are LGBTQIA (or shapeshifting dragons), they are both gripping plot wise and refreshing in their positivity. Fans of grimdark beware – these are not the novels for you!

“I want to give fairy tales to the girls who often get left out of them. I don’t like a world where we have to abandon our Jewishness or our queerness or our chronic illnesses in order to be make-believe queens and have adventures with warriors and dragons.”

– YA Interrobang Feature

2. ‘The Paper Menagerie’ by Ken Liu

#OwnVoices cred Born in Lanzhou, Gansu province (China) before moving to the states at age 11, Ken Liu both writes SFF short fiction and novels, and translates novels from Chinese authors (sidenote: when I get round to a Sci Fi list, Liu Cixin will be on there for sure!)

What I loved… ‘The Paper Menagerie’ is like a masterclass in short form fiction. There are award winning and nominated stories in the collection (including the titular story which was the only story so far to win the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy award), but my favourite is actually the first in the collection. ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’ is possibly more Sci Fi than fantasy, but it was crafted with such loving care, and it broke my heart just a little. Here is a man who knows (and loves) words.

3. ‘Down Among the Sticks and Bones’ by Seanan McGuire

#OwnVoices cred Seanan McGuire is LGBT (witness her demolishing biphobia in the tweet quoted below) and also has long term mobility/chronic pain issues. Basically, I’d like to be her if I ever grow up…

What I loved… Oh, everything. The concept: what happens to the children who go to “doorway” worlds (think Narnia, Wonderland, Never Never Land etc) when they eventually come back? The fluid prose, so beautiful it reads like poetry, but without unnecessary flourishes or obfuscation. The LGBTQIA+ representation! I was introduced to this book by one of my friendly local booksellers, who shouted “there’s an ace character like meeeeeeeeeeeeeee” in the middle of our Waterstones. I’ve never seen her that excited before or since!

“I am not a lesbian when I am with a woman. I am not straight when I am with a man. I am not asexual when I am with neither. I’m bi.”

@seananmcguire, Twitter

4. ‘Sorcerer to the Crown’ by Zen Cho

#OwnVoices cred Zen Cho is a Malaysian author (based in the UK) who writes speculative fiction that makes me weak. I’ve just got my hands on ‘The Terracotta Bride’ at last and I can’t wait to dive in.

What I loved… This novel deservedly won Cho the 2016 British Fantasy Society Award for Best Newcomer – the plot is incredible. She systematically dismantles the idea of whitewashing fantasy in the name of historical accuracy, with her Regency London setting and her main character (England’s first African Sorcerer Royal). Cho doesn’t pull any punches in describing the micro- (and not so micro) aggressions that come from being a person of colour in England, and that refreshing honesty kept me on the line of discomfort, re-examining the privilege I have as a white person living in the UK.

5. ‘Peter Darling’ by Austin Chant

#OwnVoices cred On his Goodreads bio, Austin Chant is described as a “queer, trans writer of romance and speculative fiction”. He also co-hosts ‘The Hopeless Romantic’, an amazing podcast on romance writing and LGBTQIA+ love stories.

What I loved… The new twist on a familiar tale. ‘Peter Darling’ is a reimagining of Peter Pan, where the boy who never wants to grow up is a trans man returning to Never Never Land after a long absence. Chant ratchets up the darkness already present in Peter Pan, reflecting the fact that Peter is now a man, not a child, and the coming of age is both beautifully written and morally fascinating. The world building is divine as well – what could have become staid after many tellings and retellings, are given a fresh new perspective thanks to Chant’s skill with words. It’s worth it for the fairies alone.


So there’s my top five #OwnVoices fantasy. I’d love to hear from you all with recommendations of your own and any thoughts you have on any of these books…

We need diverse fantasy…

Picture me, one year ago, sat in my local Waterstones waiting for one of the biggest names in fantasy to start his book reading. In my head, I’m rehearsing the question I’ve been practicing for days: “Mr Author, do you think that using the word ‘cripple’ in your latest book might affect some of your readers with disabilities?” I’ve twisted this round in my head for so long that the words have lost all meaning but I’m still burning to know why he chose to include that word.

Picture me, later that night, as Mr Author says this: “I started thinking about what it would be like to live with severe pain. It would turn you into some kind of bitter, sadistic person who was capable of anything. That’s what inspired me to write that character.”

Picture me, swallowing my question down, trying not to choke on the lump left in my throat. I’ve lived with chronic pain for thirteen years, finally getting my diagnoses like badges of honour over the last 18 months. Lupus. Fibromyalgia. Sjögrens Syndrome. Have I descended into bitter sadism? (Mostly) no.

In 2014, the hashtag #weneeddiversebooks started trending as Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo vented their frustration about the lack of diversity in kidlit. The statistics they quote still make me shiver: for example, only 10.6% of the children’s books published in 2013 had characters of colour. Their campaign promotes diversity in kidlit, supporting stories with a wide definition of diversity.

“We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” – Mission Statement, weneeddiversebooks.org

I got home from Mr Author’s talk, and I stared at my bookshelves. Three floor to ceiling stacks, and where was the diversity? Maybe a third had female main characters. Less than a quarter had people of colour in starring roles. Precisely three had LGBT+ characters in the spotlight. Mr Author’s “cripple” was the only disabled character on the shelves. My own reading habits had to change.

The benefits of diverse reading aren’t just for kids. Our writing should reflect the people who exist in our world. Stories give us a window into the lives of others, and there’s no good reason that shouldn’t extend to the fantasy genre as well. There are plenty of grown-ups who need to learn to value all the ways people differ, and see past these differences to our common hopes, dreams and motivations.

There are better blogs than mine that explain that NO – “historical accuracy” isn’t a valid excuse for whitewashing (check out http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/ ). That talk about how to write different race sensitively and avoid harmful tropes (the mods at http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/ do a fantastic job!). That describe why LGBT readers deserve more than coming out stories (http://lgbtqreads.tumblr.com/ ). This blog just adds my voice to the story, to join in the battle-cry “we need diverse books!”

After all, if you can believe in dragons, then a diverse cast should be a snap!