Swoon Author Melinda Grace: The Journey to Writing an Own Voices Novel
When I set out to write Meet Me in Outer Space in December of 2015 I had no idea that as I wrote, bent over my laptop at my kitchen table for hours, a movement was happening online. I didn’t know who Corinne Duyvis was or that she’d, only months prior, lit a match that would light up the literary world. I certainly didn’t know there was a whole community of other Own Voices authors fighting for representation and diversity and an equal voice in publishing.
In fact, I didn’t know #OwnVoices existed until another Swoon reader pointed me in that direction. Of course I knew there was a push for more diversity in YA (and literally all other genres of fiction). I knew there were authors and books being called-out for being tone deaf and insensitive and “damaging to children.” I knew there was a demand for books written by people from the marginalized communities which their books depicted.
It’s not a secret that when I posted MMIOS on the Swoon Reads website I had no expectation of it being selected. I didn’t think a book about a girl with a learning disability in college would resonate. I wasn’t confident that my own voice, because I was oblivious to what was happening on Twitter, would matter.
However, this is what I did know. I knew that my experience with my own central auditory processing disorder (CAPD) had its highs and lows. I knew that I wanted to write a character that had this specific disability and that I wanted to highlight how students with disabilities navigate college. I wanted to address the levels of discomfort people with disabilities feel when they are forced to give up their agency. I wanted my future readers, the ones who could relate most to Edie’s story, to know that they are not alone in their frustrations.
The real journey into writing an #OwnVoices novel didn’t begin when I wrote that initial scene in which Edie believes Hudson asks her to meet him in outer space. The real journey didn’t even begin when MMIOS was acquired by Swoon Reads. The real journey began when it finally hit me that what I had written was bigger than me. That Edie’s story was no longer my story, or the story of the three amazing people to whom I constantly deferred when I needed another Own Voices perspective. Edie’s story was now potentially the story of every person with CAPD, or even broader, the story of every person with a learning disability on a college campus.
I say potentially because, despite the Own Voices label, I wrote about a marginalized community that may or may not appreciate my perspective. I wrote about a disability that is practically unknown and because of this I had a responsibility to that community to get it right. To avoid damaging the community in any way. The very last thing I want to do is hurt a community that is already vulnerable to stereotypes and discrimination and misrepresentation to which I have known and experienced first hand.
I never realized all the different “potentials” my book held. It has the potential to be ground breaking, but it has the potential to implode. It has the potential to give a voice to so many people who have never seen themselves in a book, but it also has the potential to hurt or damage someone whose experiences were very different. I say this last part because I know first hand what it’s like to read a book about someone “like you” and have that book cause damage.
At the risk of having very unpopular opinion, in my experience, being Jewish and reading all the Holocaust-related historical fiction we read throughout school was damaging.
Were they informative? Yes.
Are they important? Certainly.
Did they cause me emotional stress? Absolutely.
Why? Because while books like Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank weren’t about me, because I am Jewish, they were by association. I once had a classmate ask me if my family ever lived in an attic, which then led to nearly the entire class saying that my family lived in an attic... This taunting lasted for the remainder of the school year.
A year later (11th grade) I’d had classmates tell me that Night by Elie Wiesel was the worst book he’d ever read in order to get under my skin because I’d disagreed with him in class about something I can't even remember. As if by specifically insulting a book about Jews he was also insulting me.
Books about marginalized communities have the potential to unite the community, if done well and with care. But books about marginalized communities also have the potential to cause anger and resentment. Since my Aha! moment that MMIOS was more than just a book about a girl with a learning disability in college, I read all the blogs, articles, rants, raves, and threads about #OwnVoices novels. I try to stay as current as possible. I watch TedTalks and read the commentary. I look for books like mine. Books about learning disabilities. Books about the college experience. Books about overcoming adversity for the sake of fairness in education. Books about maintaining agency. And you know what, there aren’t that many. There aren’t nearly enough.
All writers are told (at some point in their career) to “write what you know” and while writing a diverse book seems to be what’s popular at the moment, the important thing to understand is that writing what you know doesn’t always translate to the reader expecting to read what they know. A person with a learning disability may pick up my book with the expectation that they will be able to relate to it, but maybe I missed the mark for that person. Maybe I missed the mark for a lot of people, but for me, if the majority of people can read Edie’s story and feel seen and acknowledged and heard then I have done what I set out to do.
The truth of the matter is this, when writing a diverse book the journey never ends, especially a #OwnVoices book. I’ve been called brave. I’ve been praised. I’ve been scolded. I’ve been corrected. I’ve been cheered on and encouraged to keep writing diverse characters. I don’t know where this #OwnVoices journey will lead me... or where it will end, for that matter, but what I do know is that I’m in it for the long haul, allowing each message, tweet, comment, blog post, IG post, etc thanking me for writing Edie’s story to remind me why I “put myself out there” like I did. I’m not brave for telling the world that I have a disability, I’m brave because I never let my disability keep me from continuing to be me.