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Vivek Shraya wants to talk about whiteness

Author investigates the politics and emotions of a world driven by skin colour

Vivek Shraya Credit: Courtesy The Word On The Street

“If we’re going to have a conversation about race, we have to talk about whiteness and we have to name whiteness,” Vivek Shraya says.

Shraya’s latest work does just that — and doesn’t flinch in the process. Even this page is white, a collection of the author’s poems on race and identity and investigates the politics and emotions of navigating through a world that is often driven by skin colour.

“In ways that most people don’t think they’re homophobic . . . most people don’t think they’re racist,” she says of what it means to traverse through life as a racialized individual.

She says the title was initially considered controversial to some who were afraid that naming whiteness might alienate readers. But Shraya sees this as being emblematic of the inequalities of race.

“I’ve been brown my whole life. I haven’t had the privilege of not being named or not being labelled or not being seen.”

She wanted to create work that highlighted how it feels to be racialized and to experience microaggressions on a regular basis. The book, a collection of original poetry, found poetry and conversations with friends, was released in the spring, but is getting revisited through a reading at the upcoming The Word On The Street Festival in Toronto on Sunday, Sept 25, 2016.

The opening poem, white dreams, counts a laundry list of things in Shraya’s life that are white — billboard adverts, bones, mountain tops — making it seemingly impossible to not be aware of one’s existence in a white world.

“even/this page/is white/so i protest this page,” she writes.

The book itself is also meant to stand on its own as a piece of art. Each page sees the text largely surrounding by stark white spaces, often with the words pushed to the margins, highlighting the experience of racialized individuals.

Though the majority of poems are based on her experience of juggling gender, sexuality and race, she also investigates her own role in the lives of other racialized individuals. The piece indian, for example, recounts when her mother drove by a First Nations reserve and promptly locked the car doors and sped up, making Shraya meditate on what it means to live on colonized land. This experience is part of the reason she’s donating half of her royalties from the book to the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, an organization that promotes sexual health programs for indigenous peoples.

“The job of eradicating racism or pushing against white supremacy is not just the job of people of colour and black and indigenous people,” Shraya says. “I think that we all have a role to play in this. And if you care about me and you care about . . . things getting better, you need to be active.”

At 35 years old, Shraya has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, including 10 albums, four short films and three books. However, even this stands subject to racial analysis.

“I think CanLit is still pretty white, and still pretty white male and straight, so I think there’s a lot that needs to be done,” she says of the publishing industry in Canada.

She cites not being able to receive many literary grants because the large majority of her work has been self-funded and self-driven. This means she’s had to navigate through the arts world without the support of institutions to back her up.

“I think we need to be having more conversations about art as labour, art as a form of labour, and how art is consumed on a regular basis and yet so many of us . . . are working so hard and not being compensated,” she says. “So how do we change that culture?”

Despite the difficulties in writing and publishing in Canada, Shraya continues onwards, with an upcoming children’s book, The Boy and the Bindi.

“I don’t feel weighed down by [the imposter syndrome] in the same way I did in my 20s,” she says, reflecting on how her writing has changed over the years. “There are definitely times when I read something now and think, ‘Oh, shit — I’m a writer.’”

And even though she continues to work hard and hone her craft, she admits that she almost stumbled into writing.

“I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid. I never wanted to be a writer,” she says while laughing.