What is an #OwnVoices Novel?

You may have seen me mention in conjunction with my novel, Five Fathoms Beneath, and my work in progress, The Stars That Govern Us, that these are #ownvoices novels. What does that specifically mean in the context of my work?

An “OwnVoices” novel is a fictional story with a marginalized character or characters — and there are many ways people can be marginalized in our society, including on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, disability, and mental health issues — that is written by a person who is actually a member of that marginalized group. So, for example, a person who is Jewish who writes a novel with a Jewish character can be considered to be writing an OwnVoices story.

So what does that mean for my own novels? Just a warning — in talking about my work, I’m necessarily going to include some spoilers.

In the case of Five Fathoms Beneath, Alec is an #ownvoices character because, like me, he deals with cancer, albeit he has a head-and-neck cancer while I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Alec is also an #ownvoices character because he is bipolar and has generalized anxiety disorder like I do. I consider the narrator of Five Fathoms Beneath, Ambrose, to a lesser extent an #ownvoices character because his diagnosis is major depressive disorder, which is in the same family as bipolar, but not exactly the same. (Still, I think most people who are bipolar can definitely identify with MDD as depression is a major component of being bipolar.) Similarly, although I have not lost a parent to suicide like Ambrose, I have lost a close friend.

The Stars That Govern Us also features Alec, this time as the viewpoint character, although in this novel, we only see Alec dealing with his bipolar disorder (called at this time in history manic-depression) and his anxiety disorder.

I don’t talk too often about my mental health issues because stigma remains a huge problem; it is why, in fact, I write under a pen name so as to keep a degree (however small) between my professional career as an attorney and the fact I have a mental health disorder. Still, I think it’s important to acknowledge and embrace the fact that my writing is #ownvoices because I think it is important to read books written from authentic perspectives.

In writing characters with bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder, it should be noted that although I based the characters off my own experiences, mental health disorders affect people differently. Alec, for example, is like me a person who is quite high functioning. He is also privileged to have a supportive best friend and wife, as well as good insight into his condition. This makes his story quite a bit different than the story of someone who, say, does not do well on a drug like lithium (which has been a literal life saver for me), or who does not possess insight into their condition (lack of insight is very common and often can be a symptom of mental illness). Which is another way of saying — Alec’s story, and my story, is not everyone’s story.