Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist
“It was really really hard to write this book,” Vivek Shraya told me as we were finishing up this interview. Shraya didn’t just mean that it was difficult to write about race by mining her own personal experiences, but that it was difficult to work in a genre, poetry, that was new to her.
The poems in even this page is white belie any formal struggles Shraya encountered. Her verse is super-readable, light in language, but dense in energy. Her poems tell little stories that unfold intensity after intensity, opening so easily onto the dimensions of cultural darkness that sometimes the effect of reading them is like stepping into a closet in your own house. Shraya’s accessible poems make a whole bunch of dumb shit plain: an appropriate approach to focusing poetic intention on the day-to-day mundaneness of racial micro- and macro-aggression.
I conducted this interview with Shraya over email. My questions come largely from my overall reaction to Shraya’s book, but I preface each one with one of the lines from even this page is white that could have inspired my question. –Sonnet L’Abbé
“as his past bodies have long / built upon mine”
Sonnet L’Abbé: In the opening paragraphs of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent memoir is the line: “by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request.” In the opening lines of your book’s first poem you write: “body you betray me … my brown body / makes white makes nice.” Both of you seem to be saying that you can’t think about race without thinking about the body.
Vivek Shraya: When people think of race and racism, they often think of skin colour. But there is sometimes a disconnect between racism and the physical and internal body. I can’t speak to Coates’s experience, but for me, the experience of racism (coupled with genderphobia) has had a direct impact on the condition of my body and mind—how I carry myself, how I eat, how I view myself, and my struggle to love myself.
… the experience of racism (couple with genderphobia) has had a direct impact on the condition of my body and mind …
Systemic barriers might be invisible but I experience them as tangible, as though I am repeatedly being pushed down or walking into a glass wall. It hasn’t been until my 30s that I have been able to make this connection between racism, my body and mental health. This is something I explore in a poem called “call in sick:”
how many mornings
how many mornings
fresh slate sun rays hope
eclipsed by reminder of your own body
how many mornings
does it storm without storming
do you feel eaten but don’t feel like eating
“to be synonymous with Indians”
SL: I appreciate reading a racialized voice acknowledging its own complicity in oppressing others. I imagine that your writing such self-awareness means more than just putting a guilty conscience on display? Can you talk about what work is done when one explores privilege from a position outside white privilege?
VS: Blaming or raging at the oppressor, however necessary, doesn’t lead to freedom. Growing into myself has required a constant interrogation of my own homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynist attitudes. Working through my complicity as a non-Indigenous, non-Black person while writing this book was a challenging process, because it is hard to recognize having privilege, especially growing up with immigrant parents. But truthfully, I have never known the kinds of violence Indigenous and Black people regularly face.
Complicity is also more than recognizing my own privilege. Aside from perpetuating stereotypes, my most dangerous form of complicity has been silence. Consequently, writing about this—naming the biases I have held and the actions I have not taken—felt necessary. I don’t seek absolution but I do hope that some of these poems are small gestures of solidarity, and that they will inspire similar kinds of self-examination by non-Indigenous, non-Black readers of colour.
“words can I trust you to say what”
SL: Claudia Rankine wrote about living a racialized body’s life in her recent book Citizen. In that book, a poet moves to prose for what she needs to say on this topic. You have written a novel and short stories, but have said that writing poetry allowed you to speak in ways prose couldn’t. Can you say a bit about how language/genre matters when approaching the idea of race?
VS: As a brown person, speaking about race often feels like a responsibility and inevitability. Most of my writing, including prose, does end up speaking about race. But with this project in particular, I didn’t want to tell a story. I didn’t want the reader to have too much of an opportunity to escape or hide into fiction and metaphor. So often when discussing race and racism, the belief is that it occurs elsewhere or it’s imaginary. There is a section in the book called “The Origins of Skin,” and I have mixed feelings about its inclusion because of its mythological quality. Regardless, poetry as a genre allowed me to distil, to eliminate the frills. This clarity and directness felt necessary to discuss racism.
“our creator fascia”
SL: You know what’s missing from this book? The colourful-silk-gold-bangle-pungent-spice-against-backdrop-of-snow vibe of the usual CanLit representations of South Asian experience. Was that a conscious decision?
VS: To not self-exotify in this book, if I understand what you are describing correctly, was not a conscious decision. But some of my previous work may have ventured there, as the juxtaposition of spice and snow for many Canadian South Asians is a real experience, however cliché, and I am always conscious about trying not to repeat myself.
“muscle to make masc”
SL: You recently turned 35 and started using female pronouns. Did anything about writing this book inform your new choices around gender performance/identity? Do you want to say anything about what it has meant to use these words in relation to yourself?
VS: The intention of this book was to centre on racism but it’s impossible to draw boundaries between my race and other aspects of myself, including my gender. I had requested close friends to refer to me using “she” and “her” while I was working on these poems. So I wouldn’t say that this book informed my choices, but my transition definitely impacted my poetry.
But there have been moments when someone has called me “she” and it has felt like an invisible hand reaching into my body, and gently caressing the tenderest part of me.
I have lived 35 years under the banners (and rule) of “he” and “him,” so the new pronouns do feel foreign. Often it takes me a while to realize that someone is referring to me when they are using “she.” But there have been moments when someone has called me “she” and it has felt like an invisible hand reaching into my body, and gently caressing the tenderest part of me.
“thank you for naming all your privileges / now what?”
SL: How has writing this book changed you, or ‘grown’ you, as an artist? What’s next for you creatively?
VS: I am curious how I will feel about this book and the writing process six months to a year from now. Right now, I feel too close to it to know how I feel about it and to name its impact on me. I will say that this book did re-foster a love for poetry. My illustration skills are abysmal but writing poetry felt like painting with words and I am excited to continue exploring this medium.
While working on this book, I also worked on a children’s picture book (w/ Rajni Perera) called The Boy & the Bindi. It offered a necessary, joyful respite from the rigor (and anxiety) involved in writing even this page is white. The Boy & the Bindi will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Fall 2016.
Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Vivek’s first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. A three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist, she was the 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. Her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, was released this spring.
Dr. Sonnet L’Abbé, is author of two collections of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, and was the editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2014. Dr. L’Abbé was the 2015 Edna Staebler Writer in Residence at Wilfrid Laurier University, and is currently a creative writing and English instructor at Vancouver Island University.
This interview is part of a month long series on writing the body.