When one of my fellow Book Riot writers was asking for contributions to a post about this year’s best under-the-radar books, Vivek Shraya’s debut poetry collection Even This Page is White was the first book to come to mind. Of course, it’s a book published by a small (amazing) independent Canadian publisher (Arsenal Pulp Press), so it’s not surprising this poetry book wasn’t getting tons of publicity and attention in 2016. It’s really too bad, though, because so many people need this book (me included), and it’s such an accessible, yet beautiful collection of poems.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. This is Shraya’s debut poetry collection, but it’s not her first book: she’s also written a novel (She of the Mountains) and a couple memoirish/non-fiction books (God Loves Hair and What I LOVE about Being QUEER), in addition to being the kind of artist that makes all kinds of art (music, photography—notably this really cool project where she re-enacted old photos of her mom). So even though this is her first foray into poetry, it’s not surprising that Even This Page is White is a complete success, and a stunning, diverse, daring collection.
I always have a hard time articulating what it is that I love about the poetry that I love, often ending up just quoting poems at length in my reviews. The poems in Even This Page is White are perhaps doubly hard, because it’s both the content about race and racism—so necessary for me as a white person—and the skill and craft Shraya shows playing with different poem types and structures that make this book so wonderful.
You know this book is about race from the clever title alone. It was a really important book for me to read, one that taught me a lot for my always-ongoing education about race and racism. I know it’s one that I’ll keep coming back to. I predict it’s going to be one of the foundational texts writers and artists, especially QTPOC ones, will look back on and come back to as the groundwork that informed their practices and inspired their work, artistic and political. My and others’ communities are so lucky to have Shraya’s words!
For me, the most powerful poem was “a dog named lavender.” Shraya describes the debilitating self-doubt and the energy taken up by being preoccupied with race/racism and by moving through the world as a racialized person. She writes:
are you staring at me because
are you not looking at me because
you don’t like me because
you don’t desire me because
you desire me only because
i don’t like myself because
i wish i was like you
am i safe here
where are the others like me
i was not considered because
i was only considered because
why would you say that
i thought you cared about me
did you say that because
do i respond
how do i respond in a way that you will hear me
how do i respond without making you angry
can i be ok with not responding
As the questions directed to herself go on and on, the weight and pressure of them begin to climb, and the enormous amount of time and energy stolen from her life because of racism is clear as a bell. You’re left with the stunning ending:
what would i make if i wasn’t thinking about this
who could i be if i wasn’t thinking about this?
In a later poem she tackles how racism pits people of colour against each other, writing
when i feel jealous won’t let scarcity come between
we have already lost so much
when we should be friends
Smack dab in the middle of the book, Shraya includes a conversation about race and racism with white friends, because she “still believe[s] in the value of dialogue and because white people listen to white people.” You can find the whole thoughtful dialogue on Autostraddle.
What’s also incredible about this book is that it’s full of thoughtful, inventive poetic play in addition to being a powerful, educational (for me) punch in the gut. Flipping through the collection, you can see Shraya experimenting with all kinds of different forms and structures. For example, a number of the poems use “found” language from sources like a petition to ban Kanye West from playing the Pan Am Games closing ceremony, white celebrity interview sound bites, and the last names of the authors on a lover’s bookshelf.
One especially unique poem called “you are so articulate” uses a checklist format. Shraya writes:
dad had to
- work three jobs
sold vacuums door to door
fly on your magic carpet
back to where you came from
to work three jobs he had to
- give his time off to sleep
instead of knowing me
Other poems play with the visuals on the page, like when she writes the word “waterfall” like this:
The final poem in this powerful collection is perhaps the most powerful poem yet, which ends:
what if there is no right way to be brown
besides the brown you are
soil nut clove wheat bark pluto
It’s not hyperbolic to say that this is a book everyone should read. It’s the kind of poetry collection that makes you feel privileged just to have read it. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially any folks of colour as I know our reading experiences would be very, very different.