Interview With Vivek Shraya
By Danila Botha
Vivek Shraya is one of the most inspiring writers I’ve ever met. I was lucky enough to share the stage with her last year. She read from her beautiful novel, She of the Mountains, and I was moved by her honesty and fearlessness. Her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, is incredible, and tomorrow night she launches her first children’s book, The Boy & The Bindi.
DB: even this page is white is so powerful, and beautifully written. First of all, I love the title. I love how unafraid the whole collection is to tackle the issues in all their complexity—race and gender and sexuality, from the personal to pop culture. I used to teach high school, and I thought of the poems about Nicki Minaj, and the Oscars could be such a good starting point for important conversations. Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote these poems, and also, aside from the subject matter itself, was there a conscious attempt to subvert and make readers reconsider what poetry is, or what important poetry can be?
VS: Absolutely. I struggled so much while writing the book with feelings of inadequacy as a poet, especially as a writer who wasn't formally trained in poetry. But through the process, what I uncovered is that rules are made to be broken, especially with poetry. A poem can take many shapes and conjure multiple reactions at once. A title can be a poem. In the case of even this page is white, this title on its own, beyond the contents of the book, is constantly labouring. Every time it is mentioned, said aloud, read, white supremacy is called out and highlighted. This book is meant for those who are willing to sit with the reality and discomfort that the book title evokes, and to dig deeper.
DB: I also loved the conversation with white friends. Such talented people, Rae Spoon, Sara Quin, Amber Dawn, Dannielle Owens-Reid. It gave me a lot to think about. I really loved what Amber Dawn said, “I thank the person for taking the time to educate me. I let the person know that I will think more about what they’ve said.” I also love what Sara Quin said about the importance of taking time to listen. There’s so much timely important stuff in all of their dialogues. I also loved the part about managing defensiveness. I feel like it could encourage so much introspection in people. Have you been getting positive reactions? Have you found that people have been reconsidering their biases, or have been more aware of them, or their behaviour since reading this? I feel like it’s such a crucial step in starting the dialogue.
VS: The reactions have been mostly positive. Certain poems in particular, such as "a dog named lavender" and "conversations with white friends" seem to be sparking reflection. My hope is that readers are going beyond just reflecting though, and this is hard for me to measure.
DB: Of course. I love the honesty and sensitivity, and I admire the vulnerability in your writing so much. "birth certificate says m" made me cry. It articulates the emotions and describes them so clearly and so well—and the thing I admire most is, as the subject, you describe it all—the frustration, the anger, the guilt, the compassion and love you feel later. It’s amazing. I was thinking about this as I reread "a dog named lavender" today too (also, such a beautiful poem) I find that so many writers (myself included) are self conscious and afraid to expose ourselves so openly. I always find myself saying, “It’s fiction” as a way of distancing myself. How do you get to a place where you can express yourself so three dimensionally, and bravely? Does it involve a lot of editing, or do you let it come out naturally and stop yourself from making any changes? Were you always able to write that way, or was it a process? Whenever I read your work, from your poetry, to your columns on Open Book, I always think about how brave you are, and I feel so inspired.
VS: I think about this a lot. Aside from self-preservation, as you mentioned, part of the issue is also that I don't think personal writing is considered literary or artful. If you are writing about your own experiences, how is this different than writing in a journal?
That said, I think this perspective is shifting especially with the popularity of long-form essays. Some of the best pieces of literature I have read this year have been personal essays. In my case, I have been writing songs since I was thirteen, and so writing personally feels very accessible to me to the point of worrying that maybe it's a crutch. And again, part of this worry comes from a fear that the writing isn't legitimate. In regards to even this page is white, I also worried about feeling like I needed to speak to numerous racial issues in the context of a "book of poetry that delves into racism." Writing mostly from personal experience was an essential means of avoiding writing about racialized experiences that are not my own.
DB: Congratulations on being TPL’s new E-Writer in Residence. So exciting. I want to also ask you and The Boy & the Bindi. It looks beautiful. I’m so excited to get a copy for my son. The concept is so lovely and magical. Tell me what inspired you to write it, and also: was it difficult to write a children’s story? (I imagine, just from reading books to Lev, and seeing how few words and sentences comparatively there are in kids books, it must be challenging.) What was the writing and editing process like for you?
VS: I started wearing a bindi in public a few years ago and I noticed the attention it elicited from strangers. It was bizarre to consider that even a small dot on a forehead can be gendered. This idea was the foundation for The Boy & the Bindi. I actually wrote the first draft on a napkin during a lunch break. The editing process was challenging because I used a rhyme structure, and the pattern changes, so making sure the writing still flowed.
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DB: That’s so interesting. Thank you so much! I can’t wait to read it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Danila Botha is the author of three short story collections, Got No Secrets, For All the Men (and Some of the Women I’ve Known) which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, The Vine Awards and the ReLit Award. Her new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness will be published in March 2024 by Guernica Editions. She is also the author of the novel Much on the Inside, which was recently optioned for film. Her new novel, A Place for People Like Us will be published by Guernica in 2025. She teaches Creative Writing at University of Toronto’s SCS and is part of the faculty at Humber School for Writers. She is currently writing and illustrating her first graphic novel.