How Vivek Shraya turned lived racism into poetry
What does it mean to go through the world as a person of colour? For Vivek Shraya, this question had risen to the fore — but it wasn't until she made her writing deeply personal that she started to formulate an answer.
In her own words, Shraya describes the genesis of her first poetry collection, even this page is white — from the fellow poet who pointed her in the right direction to the tweet that broke the camel's back. This collection was on the Canada Reads 2017 longlist.
Bursting the bubble
"I was born brown, with Indian parents. But growing up, I really pushed against feeling racialized — in my early 20s, I had blond hair and blue eyes — contact lens blue, but blue nonetheless. It's only been in recent years that I've really recognized my racialization and what it means to be a person of colour. As this awareness has grown, I've wanted to talk about it, and have been both angry and inspired.
"After my debut novel, She of the Mountains, I knew that I wanted to make a project that addressed racism specifically. I had been working on a follow-up to the book that was futuristic, but I kept running into these roadblocks with it. I think all writers struggle with blocks, especially in the beginning. But there was something structurally that wasn't working. I struggled with whether allegory is an effective way to deal with racism. Most of us think that racism, homophobia, sexism, don't happen in our own bubbles. And I was concerned allegory would distance this issue even more."
"Early on my friend, the poet Amber Dawn, planted this seed of poetry for me. She told me that She of the Mountains was very poetic and I should try a poetry project. I loved poetry — I wrote it throughout high school and I don't know how I had somehow forgotten that. Amber reminded me that poetry was a viable art form.
"When I was struggling with this new allegorical novel and it wasn't working, I heard her words in my head and thought, what if I make this into poetry? So I went into the manuscript with the highlighter tool and just pulled words or sections that I thought were the strongest, and got rid of the rest of the text. And suddenly I had these poems. There was something about poetry that had an immediacy, and it felt far more effective to address race than a novel for me."
"After the highlighting experiment opened the poetry floodgates and I got into the project, I saw the announcement of some literary panel or award lineup online. The three people in the Twitter image were all white. This is still very common, even in Toronto, where I live. Every time I see something like this I definitely have a reaction. I feel frustrated, for both myself and my peers who are writers of colour. Why is it so difficult in 2016 to have more diversity in panels or award lists?
"When I saw the tweet, I remember texting one of my friends and writing cheekily, 'I'm going to write a book of poetry, and I'm going to call it "even this page is white."' We had a laugh about it. But then suddenly it didn't seem so funny anymore. I wrote a poem a couple of days later that contained that phrase, and that was the moment I knew I had a real project on my hands that was going to happen. The thing I like about the title is that it addresses systemic racism, which is really hard to talk about. The phrase 'even this page is white' really was a rallying cry for the range of experience I wanted to cover."
"I wrote an author's note for this book, which I've never done before, acknowledging the complicated aspect, for me, of what it means to be a settler in Canada on Indigenous land writing a book about racism. What does it mean to have a book that will be read while violence against Indigenous people is ignored?
"During the writing of this book, I reached out to Indigenous people I know, saying these are some of the things I've been wondering. I'd like this book to recognize the privilege I have in writing this book, and to give back. So I chose to donate half the royalties of this book to the Native Youth Sexual Health Network — which is an organization that supports Indigenous queer, trans and two-spirited youth. As a trans person of colour, that was important to me."
Vivek Shraya's comments have been edited and condensed.