“what if there is no right way to be brown / besides the brown you are”: A Review of Vivek Shraya’s Even This Page is White

even-this-page-is-whiteWhen 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!

vivek-shraya

Vivek Shraya, via shelflifebooks.ca

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

or uncomfortable

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:

IMG_20161229_162420.jpg

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.

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Poetry, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “what if there is no right way to be brown / besides the brown you are”: A Review of Vivek Shraya’s Even This Page is White

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