Does Unrelateable Representation Equals to Bad Representation?

bad representation

If you don’t know it yet, April is the autism awareness month. Cait @ Paper Fury wrote this amazing posts that explains her experiences in writing autism and anxiety #ownvoices in her newest book, The Boy Who Steal Houses. I think that post has a lot of amazing points that can be applied to #ownvoices writing in general and that’s what inspires me to write this post.

Diversity has become such a huge topic in the mainstream media, and YA literature does not escape this fight for more inclusion and representation on what we’re reading. Many authors started to have more representation in their books and as the number grows, we also started to see more and more #ownvoices authors pouring their own experience into their books.

However, as Cait has pointed out in her post: ONE #ownvoices experience β‰  everyone in that marginalization’s experience. And that means the experiences portrayed in that book will not be relatable to everyone in that group, in fact, it could be totally different! Yet I see quite often how readers label a diverse book with low rating just because it doesn’t resembles their own experience, to the length of labelling the book problematic.

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While I am not an author (and I don’t have an aspiration to be one), this mindset could be really toxic to those #ownvoices writer. These people pour their hearts and story into books, for people to read and hopes can give some representation needed and instead, they are being judged because it doesn’t meet everyone’s experiences.Β What we need to understand and stresses out more is unrelatable experience portrayed in the book does not mean the book is bad or unrealistic. For example, also as Cait’s said, autism is a spectrum. This means, not everyone will have the same manifestation. I have a cousin that can hold jobs and family, but I also have a classmate that needs assistance in class, can’t hold his tongue, and had at least 2 breakdowns each term.

Anxiety also manifests in different severity and depends on different triggers, as with depression. Again, I have friends that can’t do their work when they are in depression because they can’t even find the will to get up and go to class, much less do the work. But I also have a friend that is a high-functioning depression, as in she throws herself to her works and works normally. If the book portrays the high-functioning depression instead of portraying depression with its “normal” red flags, it doesn’t mean it is a bad book! Maybe the author has different experiences with depression and just because it doesn’t relate to yours, doesn’t mean theirs (and others) experiences are invalid.

While I agree with calling out problematic books, where representation are treated as checkboxes, token characters, plot points to further the story, and damaging stereotypes, I also think we should be more critical and cautious before we deemed a book as bad. Is it really bad, or is it just not meeting my experiences? And if it doesn’t meet mine, does it represents anyone? And finally, does the author actually part of the group or does any research before writing about the topic? Because usually, even when the author is not part of the group, they do research with people that’s part of the group and therefore, the writing is based on those people experiences. Bottom line is, I think critically thinking about the representation is important before labeling a book of having a bad rep just because it doesn’t relate to your personal experiences, as you may invalidate other people’s experiences by doing so.

That’s all for today folks, just a quick post as I’m really busy this week and writing this in a rush (I apologize if I use wrong word choices or if you need clarification). What do you think about this topic? Have you ever read a book where the representation is not what you experienced at all? How do you react to it?

tasya

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15 thoughts on “Does Unrelateable Representation Equals to Bad Representation?

  1. This was a really thoughtful post.

    I think this topic needs more discussion in the blogging community, as it is a very important one. I’ve come across books that focus on different types of mental illness that I may or may not be able to relate to, but I try not to let that interfere with my rating. It’s true that sometimes if I can relate to a certain book on a more personal level I might like it more than a book that focuses on something I CAN’T relate to. But I totally agree with you, everyone’s experiences should be appreciated, even if you can’t relate to them, which is why ” lack of relateable-ness” shouldn’t be something you deem a reason for rating a book lowly.

    Again, great post, and thanks for shedding light on this important topic!

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    1. Exactly! But the thing is, our rating for a book depends on how much we enjoy it and on a certain level, relateable-ness may be one of a criteria. Even in fantasy where the world and magic system are totally unrelateable to use, if the protagonist is someone we could relate too, we would enjoy it more. I think we should be mindful and objective in rating a book, and not attacking others directly without consideration πŸ™‚ Thanks for reading!

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  2. I agree! But I think I may have an idea of where it stems from. I’m latin-american. And I remember being very excited for Labyrinth Lost, a book by an ecuadorian author, Zoraida Cordova. She’s a hero to me, truly. But her experience is different. She lives in the U.S, and I live here, in Ecuador. I remember being happy, but also a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more… ecuadorian-ess in the book? It was only a minute, that I thought this. It wasn’t fair to think that, but there it was.

    In my case, this happened because I was so deprived of YA books with people like me, with my background, that I wanted that, to see myself. So maybe that’s what’s happening with these other peeps. Hopefully, with more inclusive and diverse books, we’ll be able to have stories in which everyone can relate more!

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    1. I totally understand- despite the progress we’ve made, we still have a long way to go and there are still not enough representation in literature. So some people are bound to be disappointed when they feel like they are not represented by the books that should be representing them. But like you said, everyone’s experiences are different despite being from the same group, so a little consideration and objectivity while reviewing can go a long way! πŸ™‚ And yeah, I hope with more and more diverse books being released, there will be more stories that can represent more people!

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  3. I discussed this in a post I wrote a while ago about how #ownvoices is kinda straying from its purpose and people are using it too harshly these days. This is a great post and something more people should be talking about!

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  4. Might be a quick post, but it’s an important one! I completely agree. Even if two two people have the same marginalization, they might have very different lives. Everything from where you live, to your family, to your friends, to your financial situation, etc. affects your experiences, and that includes experiences with disability, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexuality, gender, etc.

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    1. Exactly! There won’t be a book that managed to captures all experiences, and that’s okay! I think both authors and readers should be mindful of this when reading, because harsh words might hurt the author and trying to capture all experience could resulted in harmful representation instead πŸ™‚

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  5. Oooh! I really, really loved this post! There are some books that I’ve read and recognized that a different experience was being portrayed and I wasn’t bothered.

    The few times that I’ve gotten angry about representation that wasn’t true to my experience has fallen into one of two categories. Either the representation was problematic, which isn’t always obvious, and sometimes is so subtle that it takes someone who had a different experience to notice. And the other times have been when an experience has been portrayed as the ONLY experience. This frustrates me to no end because it limits the conversation about a topic to one aspect, instead of opening a conversation the way good representation does.

    Great post!

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  6. I definitely agree with you here. There’s lots of discussion about people portraying a marginalization in a way that’s “wrong” because it doesn’t match a specific person’s experiences (or needs), but we need to remember that everyone experiences the world differently. A single book can’t be everything for everyone.

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  7. I do so agree that we tend to be way too critical of books with marginalized rep when it’s something we ourselves relate to. I guess it stems from the expectation that something we could potentially relate to would be portrayed, and so when it’s not what we expect, naturally we get disappointed. We need to be more aware of the fact that there is no one way to experience something. There is, however, a thin line between this and problematic rep, and the trick is in identifying which is which! Loved this discussion, Tasya!

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  8. Yes, I feel like ownvoices is just starting to spread out in the book community and we should all be a little appreciative towards the authors who are working hard to include as much positive representation in their books as they can. Unless a books is extremely problematic, we shouldn’t be quick to cancel it.

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