Written for HarperKids, view the original article on Medium.
Monday morning at school, I met with my fifth and sixth grade reading group. Before we dived into our latest story, the students asked about the #OwnVoices tag on my promotional post for my upcoming debut book, Orange for the Sunsets. They didn’t know what the hashtag meant.
Until then, I’d never stopped to think how important it would be for readers to really understand the importance of that phrase — #ownvoices.
My students knew my book took place during the ninety-day expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda, but I reminded them that the real story was about the friendship between Asha and Yesofu — an Indian girl and Ugandan boy. I shared that in the past writers had researched cultural groups and written about those groups, but they didn’t have firsthand experiences or connections to the cultural groups.
“Why does that matter?” A student asked.
It was a fair question and I asked the students to think about how a story is affected by the writer’s personal experiences.
We discussed how….
The person behind the words is like the main character
#OwnVoices is more than just opening the door to let marginalized groups tell their stories. It’s about giving children the opportunity to see themselves in the stories they are reading and know the person behind the words is similar to them.
As a child, I loved escaping into my character’s world — solving mysteries with Nancy Drew, getting into trouble with Anne of Green Gables, and diving into adventures with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. But, I never saw anyone like myself in those books. A girl with black hair and coffee colored skin who licked the last samosa crumb off her fingers. I can only imagine what it would have felt like to see myself reflected on the pages and know that I shared similar experiences with the person that wrote the story.
The writer is the best authority on telling their own story
When I set out to write Orange for the Sunsets about the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda, the purpose wasn’t a lesson on diversity, empathy, and racial equality.
I wrote about the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda, because that is what I knew. I was born in Uganda. My parents, grandparents, family and friends had lived there. I knew first-hand about the fear, horror, and uncertainty they faced when they scrambled to get out of the country before Idi Amin’s deadline. All of these experiences gave my characters an added richness.
It is first-hand storytelling.
We move away from a monolithic idea about a particular cultural group
When I told the students that my main character’s family is from Goa, a state in India that stretches along the Arabian Sea. They immediately placed Asha in a box with all other Indians.
Asha must be Hindu.
She must be vegetarian.
She must speak Hindi.
This is the danger of the single story.
Yes, Asha is Indian, but she is Goan and there are subtle differences within that cultural community that make her story unique. The food from Goa was influenced by the Portuguese. Many Goans are Catholic and spoke Portuguese and Konkani in addition to English and Swahili. The Goan Institute Club played a huge role in building a sense of community for the Indians living in Entebbe and Kampala and subsequently those ties continued through the years. I share the deepest possible understanding of the intricacies of Asha’s life because I have lived it.
The single story is limiting. It leads children to misinterpret people, their backgrounds, and how they live their lives. It leads children to believe that all Indians are the same. This is why we need books that tell many different kinds of stories about a particular cultural community.
By the end of our discussion the students had the answer to their original question. They understood that history is how we make sense of our place in the world and it matters whose stories get told and how they are told.
They realized that #OwnVoices books portray the subtle nuances of a cultural community that other authors might miss or misinterpret — the day-to-day events and settings that keep pages turning.
The students left that morning knowing that Orange for the Sunsets only represents a small experience within my cultural community — one story. If we are to move away from simplistic stories that lead false perceptions, we need more #OwnVoices books.
Our underrepresented children and students need to know they matter, and what better way than to see themselves authentically within the pages they are reading?