After I finished reading Vivek Shraya’s latest novel The Subtweet, I sat on it for a few weeks before posting anything on social media. I delayed writing about it because I was so overcome with the feeling that my words were inadequate in face of what an incredible piece of art it is. I was overwhelmed with how thought-provoking and complex it was, while at the same time so readable and, as the somewhat awkward expression goes, “un-putdownable.” It is one of those books whose world and characters I deeply missed after I closed the back cover.
The Subtweet features Neela and Rukmini, two South Asian Canadian women musicians in Toronto who form a friendship when Rukmini covers one of Neela’s songs. Characters are the most important part of any piece of fiction for me, and The Subtweet is a prime example of why. Shraya does such an incredible job of showing how achingly real people who exist only in a novel can be.
I loved how Shraya refused to make Neela and Rukmini “likable.” When I say Neela and Rukmini aren’t nice and likeable, I don’t mean that they aren’t kind to each other (and others) and that I didn’t like and sympathize with them. I absolutely did. But they aren’t “nice” and “likeable” in a way that flattens and uncomplicates them. Rukmini and Neela are not made easily digestible and palatable, which is how a sexist white supremacist society wants them. Neither is the villain or the victim.
Once while I was in the middle of this book, I was 20 minutes into doing the dishes when I realized I had been washing the pots and pans in silence, just thinking about Neela and Rukmini. This is very unusual for me. I am an obsessive audiobook listener and never normally do chores without one playing, or at least music. But these characters had captured my imagination so much that I didn’t even notice I was scrubbing away in silence.
The concepts in The Subtweet are as thoughtfully explored as the characters. Among other themes, the novel investigates brown female friendship, professional jealousy, the pleasures and price of making art (much like Amber Dawn’s recent poetry collection My Art is Killing Me – stay tuned for a review of that book soon!), social media and call-out culture, and the way systemic racism and sexism pits women of colour against each other.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a contemporary work of fiction that so authentically and meaningfully integrates social media into the narrative. As is obvious by the title, Twitter plays a significant role, as does Instagram. Texting is also heavily used a method of communication (gasp—just like in real life!). One of the ways in which the differences between Neela and Rukmini’s personalities are highlighted is through their use of social media. Rukmini effortlessly gains likes through her fun Insta photos with effervescent captions full of cheerfullness, praise, and tags for friends. Neela wonders why her weird niches tweets about her dreams aren’t popular. Although they are actually the same age, their respective digital and social media literacy levels couldn’t be farther apart. Neela doesn’t even know what a subtweet is until Rukmini explains it to her.
The two women’s evolving friendship is fascinating. When the novel opens with Neela, readers see that she is an established musical artist, with a body of work under her belt. But she’s still working her day job as a transcriber and is yearning for critical acclaim and validation from peers and the industry. She’s a perfectionist, opinionated, grumpy, and tends to see things in black and white. One of the first things Shraya tells us about her, through a brilliant use of free indirect discourse, is: “Neela loathed cover songs.” I found myself really relating to Neela’s grumpiness about people standing at concerts and forcing everyone behind them to stand up too. Can’t you just enjoy the music sitting down?!
Rukmini has only recently starting making music ( although we learn later than she does have a history as a musician of sorts, so this is a revival for her). In fact, all she’s been working on are covers. Rukmini is open, bubbly, and enthusiastic. In university, she got super into postcolonial feminist theory. She was the type of keen student who read the “suggested” readings in addition to the required ones. Rukmini is a fan. Her emotionally intense reaction to first seeing Neela perform is a beautiful representation of unabashed fan admiration. In contrast to Neela, Rukmini’s musical success after covering Neela’s “Every Song” comes swiftly. This is the beginning of the end.
There is an intense focus on Neela and Rukmini’s relationship in the same way that a romance novel focuses on the connection between the romantic pairing. The insecurities manifesting themselves, miscommunications understandable because of the insecurities, shy attempts at connection, overthinking how and when to contact the other person — it’s all there. As Shraya puts it: “The discovering-each-other phase, the addictive self-reflection-through-another’s-eyes phase.” Shraya also features Neela and Rukmini’s relationships with other women of colour (Rukmini’s roommate Puna, Rukmini’s former bandmate Malika, Rukmini’s coworker Sumi, and Neela’s keyboardist Kasi).
At first it’s almost unremarkable that something so central to most stories about women is missing. Then you realize how remarkable it is—there is no romance narrative, not even as a subplot. In fact, there is almost zero discussion at all of any of these women’s romantic or sexual relationships or orientations. There is a rumour in the wake of Neela and Rukmini’s friendship implosion that the two were dating—but this is only mentioned in the form of a media clip. The only sex scene in the novel is an absolutely incredible masturbation scene that leads Neela to a creative breakthrough. I hadn’t realized how much a fresh breath of air a novel that completely ignores women’s romantic and sexual relationships would be until I read The Subtweet. (And I love a good romance, not going to lie).
The Subtweet is also very much a love letter to women (mostly of colour) artists and theorists of all stripes. Frequently throughout the novel, Shraya names artistic creators. It’s another thing I never realized was so missing from contemporary literature until I noticed it. I talk about women writers, musicians, journalists, and more all the time by name — why have I never seen it reflected in fiction? Shraya mentions, for example: Shani Mootoo, Lykke Li, June Jordan, Gayrati Spivak, Bjork, and Meera Sethi. I found myself googling and enjoying learning about the people I wasn’t already familiar with — when was the last time that happened when you were reading fiction? (I am now obsessed with Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes album, to be honest — thanks Vivek!).
If you’re familiar with Vivek Shraya, you might be wondering what kind of trans content there is in The Subtweet. It’s quite a ways into the novel when Rukmini casually refers to herself as trans. She wonders if she has been chosen as the opener for a famous cis white girl pop musician Hayley Trace because she’s a “hip brown trans girl.” That’s it. Her being trans is never referenced again. What a way to shake up cis readers’ cissexist expectations! (I include myself there).
More importantly, though, this revelation made me think about trans readers and how Shraya is writing to and about brown trans women. What if we were to assume all the major women characters in the novel were trans? Why not? Is Shraya writing to a brown trans woman readership in which being brown and trans can just be assumed? I’ll admit, when I first finished reading the novel, I was thinking of Rukmini as trans and Neela as cis. But that was merely because Neela hadn’t been explicitly described as trans. But she hadn’t been explicitly described as cis either. There’s a lot to think about here, and I would love to hear a brown trans woman reader’s thoughts!
Vivek Shraya is a jill of many artistic trades, including music. This obviously explains her intimate knowledge of music as displayed in the novel. She’s also known for doing inventive genre defying work, which explains the brilliant idea of writing, performing, and recording the major songs by Neela and Rukmini that are featured in the book. Ummmm how cool is this?? Of course when you’re reading about these performers you wish you could hear the songs. Don’t worry, Vivek Shraya has got you!
Every purchase of The Subtweet comes with a free download of songs by Rukmini and Neela performed by Shraya, as well as a cameo by Rachel Cantu singing as “Hayley Trace” aka white cis girl pop musician. (Sidenote about how Hayley and another white musician, a dude, are portrayed in painful accuracy as so called woke white people conversant in social justice language just enough to fend off criticism and to appear to be doing the right thing while making themselves look good). The original (Neela) and cover version (Rukmini) of “Every Song” are also available on Spotify. Although it’s Shraya who sings as both Neela and Rukmini, you’ll be surprised at how much she sounds like a different person. I have had the Neela original on repeat lately.
Okay have I convinced you that you need to read this book? Check out the virtual book tour Vivek Shraya is doing for The Subtweet. By the way, while writing this review, I listened to two new albums by women musicians on the day they were released: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia. It felt like a very appropriate way to write about my favourite book of 2020 so far.