An Incredible Piece of Art and My Favourite Book of 2020 So Far: A Review of THE SUBTWEET by Vivek Shraya

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.

vivek-shraya-MAC

Vivek Shraya; photo from the MAC Canadian Originals campaign

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-Vivek-Shraya

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.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Postcolonial, Queer, South Asian, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 4 Comments

Literary Queer Comfort Food for Tough Times: A Review of REBENT SINNER by Ivan Coyote

In the hellish past (literal) week and (figurative) year, I have been yearning for some literary queer comfort food. A new(ish) Ivan Coyote book is the perfect antidote! I actually read Rebent Sinner in late 2019, when it had been years since I had read any of the legendary queer storyteller’s work. The experience was like a cozy homecoming. Given that I now have ample time to write for my blog again (since I’ve been laid off lol/sob) here I am to tell you all about it.

It is always such a treat and privilege to get a new Ivan Coyote book. I’ve been reading their work for a decade — gosh that makes me feel old — and it always makes me feel strengthened and empowered and full of community. Wouldn’t you love to do something that makes you feel connected to queer community but also doesn’t require you to leave the house a la social distancing? Read Rebent Sinner!

Like Ivan Coyote’s many previous books, Rebent Sinner is a collection of personal essays, anecdotes, and other unclassifiable memoir-ish stuff. But this time around, the writing often has a more elegiac tone than I’ve seen before. Their perspective is also a little more nuanced and complex — but still with their trademark vulnerability, kindness, and curiosity. Let’s not forget, though, the flip side of fierceness, strength, and determination that also shine throughout the collection.

17325905_web1_IvanCoyote_photo-by-Jourdan-Tymkow
Ivan Coyote; Photo by Jourdan Tymkow

These two sides of Coyote’s writing sometimes emerge when they tell two different kinds of stories about the same event or place. On one page, there’s a heartwarming story about a church basement event at Moose Jaw Pride, about meeting a grandmother in her mid-80s who comes to the Ivan Coyote talk because she’s trying to learn about her trans grandson. She tells Ivan that even though they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, she’s trying. She says “God bless [you] about four or five times.” The next page’s much shorter story reads:

You want to hear the other story that happened to me in Moose Jaw? I got called a dyke bitch in the elevator at the hotel. No one wants to hear that story, though. But that happened, too. I never once felt safe on the streets in that town, night or day, but that is so normal it’s not even a story. But it’s true.

rebent-sinnerSome of the other most moving material is Coyote looking back at the impact their work has had on the people it has reached, and also themselves. One essay is about writing a Facebook post in 2016 in response to a situation they had stumbled upon at a bus stop where a woman was being harassed by a man she didn’t know after not responding to his hello. The post ended up being one of Coyote’s most popular ever, and they got attention all over the world. A lot of this attention was, to put it very mildly, not good. Coyote writes:

This is what I learned: I look like a man to most people in my tiny profile picture on social media…  Men get listened to by default… I was perceived by most to be a man speaking to other men. Most men don’t respond well to this… The whole experience rattled the ghost of the little girl I once was, and shook loose my own stories, and my own scars. It also made me flip over my masculine privilege and examine it, take it apart, and study the pieces… Butches and trans masculine people, especially of my age, have not been afforded many healthy role models when it comes to constructing our own masculinities, and we often assemble ourselves around the remains of our own traumas and still-screaming memories of failed attempts of being feminine.

Other topics throughout the collections are about Coyote’s work talking to schools about anti-bullying, being used as a spokesperson for “diversity” as a queer non-binary person, (searching for and perhaps moving towards being) queer elders, travel, dealing with TERFs, family, and random human connections. Although they write about tough stuff and do not suffer oppressive bullshit or paint anything with rose-coloured glasses, Rebent Sinner leaves me feeling like I can face the world. The power of storytelling indeed.

Posted in Butch, Canadian, Ivan E. Coyote, Non-Fiction, Queer, Trans, Trans Masculine, Transgender, Vancouver | 6 Comments

Joy and Heartbreak in Queer Parenting and Pregnancy Stories from SWELLING WITH PRIDE edited by Sara Graefe

Over the course of one rainy day cooped up inside, I recently read a very interesting anthology: Swelling with Pride: Queer Conception and Adoption Stories, edited by Sara Graefe. Let me tell you about it!

There are some really stand out personal essays in here! A few brought me to tears, a few more discussed aspects of parenting and getting pregnant that I hadn’t thought about before, some were heart-breaking, and one in particular had strikingly beautiful writing.

My first favourite essay was “Pathway” by Patrice Leung. Her story is about how she, a Chinese Canadian lesbian, adopted two girls from China. Not only is it one of too few adoption stories in the anthology, it features the incredible and horrifying detail that she had to obtain a notarized document for the Chinese government declaring she was “not a homosexual.”As she looks into the face of the Canadian social worker, whose “salt and pepper hair was as short as [hers],” Leung says,

‘No problem,’ without hesitation. Oh the wicked irony. I tell my children not to lie. I tell them lying breaks trust. Damages relationships. And yet. And yet. I lied to get them.

My next favourite was also the most unique and experimental in terms of format: “The Difference between a Hard and Soft C” by Nicole Breit. Breit is one half of a two bi women couple, and she starts the essay with her own identity and the beginning of her longterm relationship with the woman she’d been friends with since childhood. Her bisexuality and interest in exploring polyamory are weaved in with the emerging interest in getting pregnant and potential parenthood with a cis guy. In short, often incomplete sentences and metaphor, Breit conveys her meaning in sparse, impactful prose that can, as she writes, feel like “a tiny fist punches me hard in the gut.” She also plays with sound throughout as the title indicates, and pulls the concept in for a striking ending to the piece. I think this essay is the best in the collection; that’s maybe because her writing explicitly about bisexuality spoke to me personally!

While Breit’s piece ends with no baby (yet) but hopeful, later essays in the collection are heart-breaking as they chronicle the writers’ attempts to have kids either through adoption or conceiving only to end up still childless after all their efforts. “O-heso (Belly Button” by Terrie Hamazaki is one of these devastating essays. She weaves in her experiences of ectopic pregnancies (where the embryo attaches outside the uterus) and multiple miscarriages with her fraught relationship with her own mother. Enduring horrific homophobic statements from her mom–including emphasizing that she won’t consider her daughter’s child her grandchild–she also yearns for her mother’s comfort and support throughout the process.

Other standouts in Swelling with Pride included a non-binary person navigating pregnancy in the context of their marriage to a cis man; a non-gestational lactating lesbian mom (I somehow had forgotten that this concept was even possible!); two friends, a cis gay man and trans masculine spectrum person, becoming family as they become co-parents; a lesbian who filmed her whole labour process and uses the video as part of the curriculum in a queer parenting course she teaches; and a woman who goes through the first steps of adopting a teenager only to have the teen return to her previous foster home.

swelling-with-pride

One caveat I do want to highlight is that this collection is dominated by stories about cis mostly white lesbians having babies with donors (known and anonymous) and intending to raise them in their two-mom households. For me, these stories blended together somewhat and got a bit old. I could definitely have done with fewer of these essays. In my experience, these are the stories I know from real life too, so for me (and I think other queer women my age) there’s less of a need to read about them in a book.

Given that the best stories in here are about doing family, parenting, and pregnancy in ways that differ from two cis women households conceiving, it’s a bit disappointing there aren’t more of them. You’re halfway through the book before there’s an essay by someone who isn’t a cis woman! No trans women are included which is a major oversight. (There are a couple non-binary writers and one person on the trans masculine spectrum who doesn’t specifically identify as a man).

More people of colour would have been great too! Again, two of the best and most interesting essays were by Asian Canadian women writing specifically about their cultural heritage and how that impacted their journeys to parenthood. Why not include and/or seek out more essays like that?

Although the editor uses the inclusive acronym LGBTQ2 in the introduction and back cover blurb, there are no actual two-spirit writers included, which makes the “2” feel a bit like superficial lip service. You couldn’t find even one?? It’s also a bit odd to use that full acronym and not include any stories by queer cis men. Usually I’m all for not over-emphasizing perspectives of gay men in particular, as their stories tend to dominate media that supposedly covers the whole queer spectrum, but I would have welcomed some stories here about gay/bi/queer men adopting or exploring surrogacy or co-parenting with queer women.

Overall, it feels like the unstated focus of this collection is writing by parents who are assigned female at birth. I’m wouldn’t have liked that as an explicit choice, and it’s certainly strange as an implicit one. I mean, the title of the book is a play on pregnancy, so this is perhaps not surprising. I would have preferred an anthology that leaned into the strengths of the unique essays already included and collected a broader range of perspectives. That said, those unique, fascinating, and beautiful essays that are here in Swelling with Pride certainly make it a worthwhile collection as it is.

Posted in Anthology, Canadian, Lesbian, Non Binary, Non-Fiction | Leave a comment

Gender, Colonization, and Incidental Queerness in Leigh Matthews’ Hard Science Fiction Novel COLONY

When I picked up Colony by Leigh Matthews I didn’t realize it was going to be the first and I think only “hard” science fiction book I’ve ever read. If you’re looking for hard science fiction—fiction with a focus on and concern with scientific accuracy and logic—with incidental queer characters, definitely check out Colony! I found it to be a fascinating and unexpectedly spooky book—just in time for Halloween.

This story takes place in the near future: 2036. Humanity is attempting for the first time to establish a colony on Mars.  Our main window into this world is Silver Antara. She’s a flight engineer who has already spent six months on Mars. We learn early on that she’s left her wife and child back on Earth. Going back to space has become, ultimately, more important to her than her family. The philosophical questions this decision poses reverberate throughout the novel. Where does Silver belong? (This takes on special relevance as Silver is an Indigenous (Navajo) person who grew up divorced from her cultural heritage). What does Mars or space offer that Earth does not? What does it mean to keep moving and never settle down? It’s to the book’s credit that it offers no simple answers to any of these questions.

1

Leigh Matthews, image via goodreads.com

The harshness of life on Mars is front and centre in this story from the get-go. The humans are constantly having to protect themselves from the radiation and solar storms that are a way of life on Mars. They are working hard to find materials like minerals and water to sustain human life. Just staying alive is so much work. It feels clear that the human do not belong there. Even without the book’s title and Silver’s Indigenous background, it’s a quick leap of the mind to make a connection to the history and ongoing colonization in many corners of Earth. What effect does the complicated legacy of colonization on Earth have on the colony project on Mars? I’ll leave you to discover the answers in the book.

While regular sustenance of life is a struggle, the stakes in this novel quickly become higher as an unexplained mining accident sparks an increasingly volatile and life-threatening situation. I think that’s all I want to say about where the plot goes from there. It is one of those narratives that you grab onto for the ride, reading relentlessly to find out “what happens next.” The pacing is excellent! It’s best experienced without knowing even the vague outlines of what is to come. I will warn you that it definitely spooked me!

I really loved how this was a story with a queer protagonist that wasn’t at all about queerness. Stories that centre sexual identities are great, but it’s really nice to also have books like Colony that don’t focus on it at all. There is a nuanced integration of the concepts of gender, indigeneity, and colonization into the plot overall, but less so into individual characters. In short: what Colony does, as in all good science fiction, is question what it is to be human.

(P.S. You should also check out Matthews’ other books that I’ve reviewed, a completely different type of novels that are a modern day lesbian pulp series set in Vancouver).

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Indigenous, Lesbian, Queer, Science Fiction, Vancouver | 3 Comments

Internet Hate Mail Becomes a Moving, Complex Graphic Memoir in Vivek Shraya and Ness Lee’s DEATH THREAT

It’s not surprising since the graphic memoir Death Threat is by the versatile, multi-talented artist Vivek Shraya, but her latest book is completely unique and unlike anything I’ve read before. Shraya has, somehow, turned an experience of internet hate mail into a moving, complex short book with bright, evocative illustrations by Ness Lee.

The book begins by addressing the email sender directly, as you: “you hunted me down.” Shraya goes on to share pieces directly from the actual first email she was sent. (She describes later in the book about how the email sender, unbelievably, sent her a cease and desist letter). There’s a weird, deliberate (?) vagueness to the words that disguises the threat beneath: “They may have a Vaidya diagnose you and then put you in a separate mud hut. There you will see the Earth, the atmosphere, the outer space. You will be absorbed by your physical gender. Likely that is male.”

On the surface, and from the perspective of someone who hasn’t learned to detect hate from any place it might be coming from, these words might not look so threatening. Shraya brilliantly revisits them later in the story, after the book has been written and she and Lee are out promoting it. (The story is quite meta-narrative, actually; the book is conceptualized, created, and promoted within the narrative of the memoir). The same words from the first email are reprinted, with completely different art that clearly illustrates the threat:

20190919_112449.jpg

As you can see in the text I’ve quoted above, the sender is also using South Asian words from various languages (Sanskrit for example) and concepts. He makes a direct connection to Shraya’s family afterwards: “Your mother wants to hear sweet words from you.” At this point, Shraya is really started to be affected by the words, even calling her parents to make sure the negative messages she is receiving from this stranger about being rejected by her family and culture are not true.

At the same time as she is describing the insidious emails she’s receiving, the art contrasts that hateful experience by showing her simply living the ordinariness of life: sleeping, eating breakfast, brushing her teeth, putting on some Ariana Grande, strumming on her guitar, teaching in her classroom. As a reader who isn’t a trans woman, you’re left with the profound, horrifying sense that transmisogynist hate is simply part of that regular life.

vivekshraya_press5_deaththreat_300dpi

Vivek Shraya and Ness Lee, via vivekshraya.com

 

You also see how Shraya is by necessity forced to continue living her life; she even says “Initially, your letter amused me. I shared it with my friends.” She asks, “Doesn’t being trolled on the internet go hand in hand with being feminine?” But the words start to seep into her, into the rest of her life. Of course, as the artist that she is, she decides to make a comic book as a way to deal with the experience. That comic book, of course, is the very one that you’re holding in your hand.

I’ve always said that I have a hard time writing about visual art because I just don’t have so vocabulary or framework for discussing it. But here I go! Ness Lee’s artwork in this book really struck me with her surreal interpretations of the words; the bright, almost primary colours (I should nod to the colourists, Emmett Phan and Hieng Tang here); the bold dark blue lines outlining the shapes. One of my favourite, and heartbreaking, illustrations is of Shraya when she receives an encouraging and loving letter from her parents, and the tears of joy and gratitude spill over into a river:

20190919_114523

Don’t miss this book! Like all comics, it’s a quick read, but its impact is still with me. I wonder what new and unique piece of art Vivek Shraya is going to make next?

Posted in Canadian, comics, Graphic, Non-Fiction, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 2 Comments