Why should people of colour solely have to speak about racism? What happens when the tables are turned and white people are asked to think of their role?
It’s officially Vivek Shraya week. She talked with Dina and Daniel on my favourite literary podcast, Can’t Lit; she’s on the cover of this week’s NOW; she is serving as a 2016 Pride Toronto Grand Marshall… and now here she is, talking with me! Vivek is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes albums, films, and books. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. Her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, was released this spring. She’s received three Lambda Literary Award nominations and a 2015 Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. I first saw Vivek perform and speak at the FOLD, and I was immediately smitten by her poetry and her forthrightness.
SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Vivek. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
VIVEK SHRAYA: There are many hard things about being a writer but one of the hardest things is knowing how much to consider the audience. I know a lot of artists who feel that art should be made without considering an audience at all, and that this is the only way for the art to preserve a kind of purity. I agree and disagree. I think writing for a particular audience can be detrimental and limiting, as I have repeatedly learned that my audience isn’t always who I think it is. At the same time, I am not a private artist. I make work to share and connect with others, so in a sense, it feels almost disrespectful to not consider the reader.
I also make work that sometimes has a political agenda. With my novel, She of the Mountains, I wanted to challenge biphobia, and my new book of poetry, even this page is white, attempts to highlight systemic racism. In both of these circumstances, I found myself trying to navigate potential biases or defensiveness by the reader.
SM: I’ve been hearing your new book of poetry, even this page is white, described as a necessary book. It completely is. It does and says and addresses so many things that the poetry community in Canada has been thinking/worrying/yelling at each other about. One poem that speaks to me in particular is “a dog named lavender”, which begins:
are you staring at me because
are you not looking at me because
you don’t like me because
you don’t desire me because
you desire me only because
i don’t like myself because
i wish i was like you
am i safe here
where are the others like me
there are no others like me
i was not considered because
i was only considered because
I feel this so hard. I notice often that I am either the only or one of the only people of colour in the audience at readings in Toronto, the most multicultural city in the world, and I’ve started thinking about how truly fucked up that is. The audience for poetry is by and far white, white, white, and with the eagerness to address this (as evidenced by, say, the creation of the Toronto Poetry Talks), writers of colour get put in the position you describe in “a dog named lavender” – you want me, but why do you want me? What does it mean to write a book of poetry about racism to a mostly white audience? Or do you not see the “mainly white room” as your audience?
VS: Last year, when I knew I had a poetry book on the horizon, I started frequenting more poetry readings in Toronto, and while lit readings in general can be pretty white, poetry readings seemed to be moreso. Going back to what I was saying earlier, it was hard to not consider this when writing even this page is white, knowing that I would be reading these poems to mainly white rooms, as you said. I couldn’t ignore a white audience. Furthermore, white people, however well-intended, are most complicit in maintaining white supremacy, so while writing poetry about racism I had to consider what might be the most effective ways to communicate this experience and violence.
And yet, a lot of the interest in my work in recent years have come from poc communities, which I am grateful for. I didn’t want to write a book just for white people because there was something inherently problematic – and submissive – about that too. I was adamant about not centering whiteness and to centre brownness, the complexity of it, as much as possible. I did this through gestures likes not providing English translations for some Sanskrit words, and even naming the book even this page is white.
There had been concerns that this title would alienate white audiences and to choose a title that was more subtle. But alienation is often tied to the experience of racism itself, and if we are going to have an honest conversation about what racism is and feels like, then let’s call a page, call the publishing industry and art sectors what they are. Subtlety is a privilege that brown and Black people don’t have.
SM: In regard to the alienation “problem” – you’ve done some really interesting things in the book to deal with that, including the interlude where you interview some white people about their relationship with white privilege. I thought that was kind of a genius way to bring in that white audience into the book and a really generous gesture, to let the white audience speak actually within the book.
So you’ve done a lot to mediate this relationship with your audience. But writing hard shit can be hard on a person. I think back to when my first book came out, which had a lot of very personal stuff in it – I was a complete wreck. (It didn’t help that my life was falling apart and that I landed in the psych ward a month before it was released. I did my first reading from it on a day pass, hospital wristband tucked up my sleeve.) I’m always interested in the emotional labour it takes to do hard things, like, say, bring out a book of poetry about racism into the mainly white room of CanLit. What was going on for you during the time of writing, then in anticipation of the book’s release, and now, when it’s out and it’s being received?
VS: Even that gesture was a hard decision, again, being concerned about the conversation appearing to centre whiteness. From my perspective, it was a way to put white people in the hot seat, so to speak. Why should people of colour solely have to speak about racism? What happens when the tables are turned and white people are asked to think of their role?
Maybe the stakes are higher with each book, and this being my fourth, I can honestly say that it was the hardest one to write. I had severe anxiety in regards to whether or not the poetry I was writing was “legitimate” and concerned about a criticism of poor craft wielded as a way to dismiss the content. I was also very anxious about writing about my relationship to being a settler and of anti-Black racism. To not address both of these issues in a book about racism felt like a huge oversight, for the lack of a better word. And yet, I worried about how to write about these issues without appropriating struggles that aren’t my own.
The month of the book release, I had a breakdown. I have struggled with suicide ideation for most of my life, but my anxiety around the release and potential criticisms (especially after being called out on the internet before) amped up these feelings. For the week before and after the book’s release, my boyfriend handled all of my social media. My ex took me out of town for a few days. They joked that the book was poetry and therefore would likely not get read that much, and therefore didn’t have to worry.
It’s hard to talk about because having a published book is a privilege, and so is any kind of readership or interest, and to say that I struggled with the impending release sounds a bit ungrateful, doesn’t it? But there is an accountability that comes with writing or art-making, especially when you are part of marginalized communities – and I am ever trying to do right by everyone, and ever feeling like I am failing everyone.
SM: Oh, I feel you Vivek. My first book was written in response to the missing and murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I was terrified of how it would be received. I worried that it wasn’t smart enough (for the academics) or sensitive enough (for the families of the victims). I worried that it was too confessional (I wrote a lot about my relationship with my mother, who lived in the DTES at the time). I worried, I worried, I worried. I went deep into addiction and my eating disorder re-emerged. And I had the same feelings, of shame for my ingratitude. That year should have been the best year of my life, but it was actually the worst.
Do we sound whiny and ungrateful? I don’t think so. I think that it’s important to talk about the cost of writing especially when the writing is about difficult stuff. All publishing is vulnerable-making, because it makes the writing public, and the public is not known for its kindness. But your book makes you vulnerable in ways that other books do not. I am glad to hear that you had support and care.
How has it been since? I feel like everyone is talking up your book and dying with love for it. Do you feel buoyed by the response? Are you reading the comments?
VS: Wow. I can really relate to your experience but am also sorry that was your experience.
This is kind of you to say. I feel like it’s early days still as the book has only been out a month. I am curious how I will feel about it in a year. The book feels incomplete, which is I think the nature of writing about racism, as racism perseveres, so there is always more to say. But I have been very grateful for the positive response thus far. Talking to each other about racism feels at times impossible and my hope is that the book will spark more dialogue and more action.
SM: I think all books feel incomplete, to be honest. All mine have. What have your experiences been like talking about racism as the result of this book? Would you prefer that people not come up to you after your readings and start talking about racism with you? I’ve once in a while started talking about difficult things on social media, which seems to prompt people to PM me about their own experiences, sometimes strangers or people I haven’t seen in years. It all comes pouring out. And I try to be supportive, but to be honest I’m not always equipped to deal with it. I just wonder what those conversations, if they are happening, are like for you.
VS: On every book tour I have done, I have always offered Q&A after a reading but with this book, I deliberately decided not to, as a way to preserve myself. This has turned out to be a smart decision because I didn’t anticipate how emotional reading from this book would be. That said, I have had many conversations with people of colour who have shared the ways the work resonates with them, which I am grateful for, of course, but also saddened by.
SM: Any final words of advice for writers of colour coming into poetry and worrying about how their work will resonate with the mainly-white room?
VS: Worry less about resonating and focus on trusting your instincts. Take risks and play with language, format and grammar. Ask for feedback from peers. Read plenty of poets of colour.
Next week I talk to Alex Leslie about The Focus: Where is it? Where did it go? How do I get it back? Helpful if you are currently asking yourself the question, Why am I covered in cookie crumbs and waiting for the next episode to stream when I could be writing?*