Exploration and Excavation: An Interview with Vivek Shraya by Sarah Neilson

On navigating the success and failure dichotomy, the tropes of women friendship narratives, and working across mediums.

Cover of Vivek Shraya's The Subtweet

Canadian multimedia artist Vivek Shraya is a powerhouse of creativity. Through music, literature, film, visual art, and theater, Shraya’s art has garnered awards and recognition across the world. Her latest book, The Subtweet (ECW Press), is a novel set in modern-day Toronto that centers on the friendship of two women, both musicians, with very different relationships to their craft and audience.

Rukmini is a social-media darling who rises to fame mostly by covering songs. Neela is an established but underappreciated singer/songwriter who grapples with the tension between interior artistic process and external forces on art. When Rukmini’s cover of one of Neela’s songs goes viral, they forge an intimate friendship that nonetheless remains tenuous throughout the book. Neither of these women fits into an easy category; both have complicated histories with their work and the people in their lives who have been involved with it.

The book is a fast read, but it is dense with complexity. There are no romantic relationships here (what a relief), but a probing exploration of what it means to create art, to be a friend, to work, and to live with what Shraya calls a third party in all of our lives—namely, social media. It also comes with its own fantastic soundtrack.

—Sarah Neilson

Sarah Neilson Many of Rukmini’s fans love her because they haven’t seen a Brown girl like them in such a big spotlight before. Can you talk about the specific ways you tackle the complicated relationships between representation, colorism, and “the diversity stock market” in the book?

Vivek ShrayaAs a Brown artist, these are questions that I certainly grapple with, especially as a Brown artist who makes art in an environment where the audience is largely white. As I’ve grown as an artist, I’ve had to question my own intentions and agenda around creating art—who am I creating my art for? One of the things that often came up in the past few years, especially in marginalized communities, is the conversation around the fact that representation isn’t enough.

People on magazine covers or whatever else—those kinds of gestures aren’t enough. And yet so many of us are still so hungry to see ourselves represented. The novel is really grappling with that tension between a desire for more representation and how much representation ends up actually being for the white gaze. 

SNThat makes me think about the part of the book when Neela writes a letter to Rukmini where she says, “For you art was exploration, not excavation.” Can you talk a little more about that distinction as it relates to the characters? Also more broadly as it relates to making art that’s meant to be consumed, especially as a person whose identities are mined for voyeurism and pain by white, cis, straight audiences?

VSOne of the things I really struggled with was how to write a female friendship that doesn’t fall into tropes. First of all, female friendships and art are so few and far between. If you Google books about female friendship, the same ten books come up, and the list is always a list of ten. It’s never a list of fifty, never a list of 100. 

Often the tropes that happen with female friendship are the same. You have one woman that is smarter, or you have one woman that is older, or you have one woman that is prettier. The tensions between women are always around these superficial details. I thought, How do I write a complex story about women and friendship that doesn’t fall into these tropes? One of the things I landed on was thinking more about work ethic and assumptions that are made around work ethic, and not centering romantic relationships. To center the friendship itself. There’s no romance in the book. There’s not even a mention of a romantic relationship, which was a deliberate choice.

When you have a book that’s about female friendship without romantic relationships that’s trying to push against tropes, it’s really challenging. For me and my women friends, when we talk and we meet, we don’t talk about romance; we talk about our work. We talk about art. We talk about creativity. [So with] the line around exploration versus excavation, Neela prides herself on being the kind of artist that’s really about excavating, about going deep and honing in. When she talks about writing songs, for her it’s about repetition and just really burying herself in her craft.

Then she encounters Rukmini, who she struggles with at first but learns to admire for the fact that her work ethic and creativity is [more] explorative. This is a moment of reckoning for Neela where she realizes that maybe excavation isn’t the only approach. In a lot of ways Rukmini really challenges Neela’s ideas around not only art-making but also personhood. That tension that you’re circling around with exploration versus excavation is me trying to build a tension between women beyond the typical tensions.

Vivek Shraya

Photo of Vivek Shraya by Vanessa Heins.

SN That branches off a little bit into the idea of making art in solitude versus collaboration. How do you personally forge a creative balance between solo work and collaborative work?

VSThat’s such a good question, because I would identify as a solo artist, but the bulk of my work is highly collaborative. To use The Subtweet as an example, I wrote the book, but so much of what’s on the page has been developed in conversation with peers, with friends, with other writers, with other artists. The soundtrack that includes some of the songs from the book was created in collaboration with other artists. There is something really important about protecting the initial creative spark and really allowing an idea to develop in its own right, to be very protective of the kitchen before the cooks enter, so to speak.

But I do simultaneously believe that art can always be rendered better and stronger and richer by the involvement of other people. At some point I do open the door one way or another and involve other artists and perspectives because we, as artists, can be so precious and so singular about our vision that we have blind spots. Through collaboration you allow the art to widen. 

SN You mentioned the album that goes along with the book. Did you develop the album and the book simultaneously, or did one came before the other?

VSI love this question. Actually, I wrote the key song in the book, which is called “Every Song”Neela’s song that Rukmini ends up covering—while I was working on my last solo record called Part-Time Woman. It was one of the songs that just didn’t make it on the album. That was in 2016, and this book was in its very, very early stages. I hadn’t considered pairing them together. 

But one of the things I love about art is that you just never know where a rough draft of something will find its way elsewhere. In writing The Subtweet, I knew that I wanted to create a world that took place in the music industry. I knew I wanted to have this element of rivalry, if we can call it that. And I knew I wanted it to have a musical element. It seemed more efficient to use lyrics that I had written as opposed to existing lyrics by somebody else. And every song ended up being a song that just came into my head in that process where it was like, What if this is the song that is centered in the book? 

I’ve long wanted to pair music with a project in a more elaborate way, like this. There’s always been a relationship between music and text for me, and I’ve always wanted to do a soundtrack. With a book that’s about music and about the music industry, it finally worked out.

SN Both The Subtweet and your recent solo theater production How to Fail as a Pop Star explore the idea of embracing failure. Can you talk a little about how you see success, failure, and the idea of destiny in relation to art?

VSIt’s probably not coincidental that both of my major projects this year deal with music and the theme of success or failure. Part of that is because music is my first love; music is where I started my artistic journey. As I inch towards forty, I’ve had to grapple with the reality that my music dreams, on the level that I wanted, won’t happen. That’s definitely what the play is about—me embracing failure as opposed to trying to wrap it up in a box and being like, Well I’m an author, and I’m a visual artist, and I’m successful in other ways. Instead of doing that whole gratitude dance that I think so many of us are asked to do or forced to do.

It’s been important for me to just stand face-to-face with my failure around that particular dream. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is that I’d like to change my priorities as an artist when I think about success and failure. In an ideal world, as an artist, I would love for the thing that mattered the most to be making great art. Success for me would be measured in whether or not I can say, Yes, I made something that I feel proud of. Yes, my craft has gotten stronger. But when you’re an artist that’s making public work, it’s hard not to consider the audience. As someone who didn’t have an audience for a lot of my career, I don’t take an audience for granted. I think an audience is sacred. I do think about audience, and I do think about my goals in relation to audience. I think, How do I reach a wider demographic with this project?

I wonder sometimes how my art would be impacted if I wasn’t ambitious in relation to the audience, which is a question that I haven’t yet solved. You’re asking me the question that I’m grappling with at this particular moment, so I don’t have an answer. It’s definitely top of mind. How much is success and failure necessary to art-making? How much is the desire to be successful, the ambition, necessary for me as an artist to keep making work? I don’t know yet. 

SN The book explores how Twitter culture influences lives away from Twitter. The characters’ interactions with each other are often predicated on what Twitter tells them about their own and others’ lives and worth. How did you approach capturing this particular aspect of society, especially in the lives of artists? 

VSIt’s something that I’ve been hungry to see. We see social media featured in art mostly through YA, in speculative fiction, in horror or thriller. But we don’t really see it in “literary fiction.” I think part of the reason for that is that Twitter isn’t really taken seriously. There’s this idea that social media is either juvenile, or soapy, or it is fantastical.

The reality is that social media is such a real part of our lives. There are very few people I know who aren’t active or engaged in some platform or another, whether it’s Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. I wanted to write a book that captures its role in all of our lives. So many of our engagements are mitigated through this strange medium in ways that I don’t think we even anticipated. It’s such a bizarre thing to go online and find out that your friend’s dog died, or that your friend is pregnant. These are things that you would once tell each other directly. Social media has in some ways made it easier, but in some ways it has just become this very aggressive third party in our lives. What happens when two people who meet each other become friends, but then you have this other third party in the room at all times that is mitigating that friendship and adding a different kind of language to the friendship?

SN I love that the word “trans” is only uttered once in this book, and only in passing. Thank you for making trans art that isn’t about Being Trans™. Can you recommend other trans or gender-nonconforming artists/writers whose work you’re excited about? 

VS I really admire Kai Cheng Thom’s work. I am a huge fan of ALOK and the work that they’re doing. I also love Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s writing, an American poet. 

SN Is there anything next for you project-wise that you want to talk about?

VSSpeaking of trans artists that I admire, I have an imprint that I started a couple of years ago [with Arsenal Pulp Press] to publish works by emerging BIPOC writers. It’s called VS Books, and we’re republishing the second book in the fall. It’s called Burning Sugar, and it’s by a Black poet in Vancouver. Their name is Cicely Belle Blain. If you go to VSBooks.ca you can get all the information. Their book of poetry is stunning.

This year is actually ten years since I self-published my first book, God Loves Hair; it’s wacky how much time flies. I started in publishing by self-publishing, and I did two editions on my own. And then Arsenal Pulp Press, who my imprint is under, published a third edition in 2014. And this year they are doing a special ten-year anniversary edition of the book, which is super special. So that’s coming out in the fall as well. We’ll also have a new story, a new illustration, and a new forward.

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya is available for purchase here.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work appears in Seattle Times, Electric Literature, LARB, LitHub, Buzzfeed, The Believer, BOMB, and Bookforum among other outlets. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and on her website, sarahneilsonwriter.com.

Ariel Pink by Gary Canino
Ariel Pink

Chaotic performances, live recordings, and Generation Tween.

Center Love: Caleb Azumah Nelson Interviewed by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

A novel about two Black British artists who fall in love and are forced to face challenges beyond their control.

Unavoidable and Unsettling Intimacy: A Conversation by Katie Kitamura & Ashley Nelson Levy
Katie Kitamura Ashley Levy Blue

Two novels about grief, translation, and the revelatory traces of language.