The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Vivek Shraya

TREVOR CORKUM cropped

Vivek Shraya’s first collection of poems, even this page is white, is a bold, powerful work of art, addressing questions of racism, whiteness, and marginalization in social, creative, political, and intimate spaces.

Praising the collection, Shani Mootoo says, “this brave and very contemporary lyrical collection dares to ask the unspoken yet screaming questions, to finish the sentence that hurts, that reveals, that provokes, that celebrates. Like a Durga goddess, Shraya juggles with deft hands the multiple aspects of desire, race, gender, queerness, and contemporary pop culture.”

The Toronto Arts Council says, “Shraya’s voice is valuable to the future of poetry in Canada because of her undeniable strength, honesty, perception, and innovation."

Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. She is also one half of the music duo Too Attached and the Associate Editor of Heartbeats, a website that features racialized artists and stories. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. Vivek is a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist, and a 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction.

Vivek’s first children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2016. Her book on recording artist M.I.A. will be published in 2017 by ECW Press, as part of their Pop Classics series.

***

THE CHAT WITH VIVEK SHRAYA

Trevor Corkum: This is your first collection of poetry. How did even this page is white come into being?

Vivek Shraya: In 2015, I began writing what I believed to be my next novel. The concept was an allegorical and futuristic story that centered on race and racism. But I found the process to be quite challenging. At first, I assumed this was just because I was learning to write again, getting my feet wet.

But after several months, I wondered if allegory, and more broadly, fiction, was the right fit for what I wanted to get across. I parcelled through the writing, highlighting words and sections that I thought were the strongest, and ended up with fragments that felt exciting and more effective. These fragments were the beginnings of what would become the poems in even this page is white.

TC: This is a strong, challenging collection, asking the reader to confront his/her/their own relationship to race and racism and the dominant tropes of whiteness in our culture. You balance pathos and confrontation, poetry and polemic, and, as in all your work, seek to peel back the layers of subterfuge to get right into the heart of the matter. Can you talk about the importance of addressing race and racism so directly and explicitly in this work?

VS: One of the reasons I struggled with employing allegory to discuss racism is that it felt easy. Not to write, but easy for a reader, a white reader, not to have to engage or personalize. This is already the case with racism, where most people don’t think they are racist nor have racist biases. Being direct, through the bareness of poetry, felt like a more necessary and needed approach. If we are going to talk about racism, let’s talk about racism!

TC: One of the sections I cherished most in the book is the sequence origins of skin. The third poem in that section, in particular, speaks to our changing awareness and relationship to skin colour, self-worth, and desire, from childhood through to adulthood. Here’s an excerpt:

 

three/adolescence

 

before skin

you only looked

at each other

with purest love

 

raw hands pressed

 

over your rib

cage in case

your heart tried

to jump out

 

what was that like?

 

Can you talk about what this sequence means to you, and your experience writing it?

VS: I am often struggling with connection, or rather, feelings of disconnection. Humans are full of longing and yet we don’t always know how to connect. Often this is because of a fear of difference, a history of violence, or envy.

In this section, I was trying to imagine a time (not unlike adolescence) when humans were in complete awe with each other. Maybe we require this kind of admiration to break the barriers and prejudices between us.

I was trying to imagine a time (not unlike adolescence) when humans were in complete awe with each other.

TC: You’re also clear in the collection to name and address both anti-black racism and settler colonialism, with regards to Canada’s indigenous people. How and why was this important to you, both as an artist and as an individual?

VS: Blaming white people or being angry at white people for racism only goes so far. For me, the hardest part of writing this book was thinking about my own complicity.

What are ways that my actions and opinions feed into white supremacy? Is it hypocritical for me to write a book about racism while being a settler on stolen land?

Is it hypocritical for me to write a book about racism while being a settler on stolen land?

Asking myself these kinds of questions feel like basic and necessary steps in regards to unpacking my own privilege and wanting to work in solidarity with Indigenous and Black people.

TC: In addition to your writing, you’re a prolific visual artist, musician, performer, to name just a few of your hats. How do the various genres in which you work speak to one another? Can you give us a little insight into some of the projects you’re working on currently?  

VS: Each medium has different strengths and different limitations. Working in various media sometimes allows me to work through a feeling or theme in a different way. Every copy of even this page is white comes with a link to a new song called “white dreams,” but the book also features a poem called “white dreams.” The foundations for both works are similar, but each have different functions, and will be (hopefully!) consumed through different formats.

Other times, working in various mediums allows me to have a break from certain projects, especially projects as weighted as even this page is white. This spring, I am also playing my first shows with my new band Too Attached (with my brother), and this offers me the opportunity to be a little more playful. So does my forthcoming children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, which Arsenal Pulp Press is publishing in the fall.

 

**

 

Excerpt from the poem three/adolescence

 

remember when

last you looked

at something

someone

 

without attaching

 

want

but rather

an irrepressible

satisfaction

 

in their existence?

 

Excerpt reprinted with permission of the author.

 

even this page is white - vivek shraya (book teaser) from Vivek Shraya on Vimeo.

April 6, 2016
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