Vivek Shraya has become one of Canada’s most well-known chameleons of the arts and culture. Shraya has received praise in different artistic realms, including five separate nominations for Lambda Literary Awards and a nomination for the Polaris Music Prize; her various accolades reveal an artist with a distinctly mercurial style, who pivots glamorously between works of wildly different scopes, ideas, and approaches.
Shraya’s latest literary offering is a distinct medley of the experiences she has had as an artist and cultural trailblazer. This is apparent in two ways. It is clear that Shraya is pouring everything she’s learned from years of writing and making music into a text that combines rhythm and deft technique in bitingly original ways. It is equally clear in The Subtweet that Shraya is using the vehicle of fiction to hash out many of the valid frustrations she’s accumulated over years of navigating the Canadian cultural scene.
In that regard, she sardonically and repeatedly rips at the tokenism of the country’s cultural sector and its unjust allocation of money, acclaim, and celebrity. The novel offers an insider’s view of the Canadian music industry in the 21st century, specifically the way it is grappling with the advent of diversity as a useful marketing tool and how social-justice politics are being adopted in a way that conceals the same old power imbalances underneath.
At its most obvious, The Subtweet follows the trajectory of a friendship between two musicians from its formation to its catastrophic demise. Neela and Rukmini are two women living in present-day Toronto, trying to carve out niches for themselves in the crowded and competitive world of the arts. Neela is an embittered avant-garde musician whose personality leans to misanthropy and pessimism; Rukmini is a pop journalist whose musical dabblings catapult her to fame after she posts a loose cover of one of Neela’s songs on YouTube.
Neela impulsively agrees to meet Rukmini over coffee; the two ignite a bond that is unlikely and perhaps ill-advised, but one that brings intimacy and understanding for both women. Despite the benefits of their nascent friendship, as women artists of colour – who must deal with the dual threats of white supremacy and patriarchy in a city that values “hustle” above all else – such a connection seems destined for heartbreak from its inception.
What makes for an endlessly frustrating, not to mention nail-biting, read is how rife with miscommunication the interactions between the principal characters are. The characters in the novel are constantly connected, orbiting each other’s worlds through the voyeurism of social media. But the infiniteness of technological connectivity defeats rather than enhances actual, sincere communication. Rukmini and Neela interpret other people’s realities through the facades they present on Instagram and Twitter. More often than not, this leads to successive rounds of broken telephone, with characters jumping to ridiculous conclusions as though they are looking for new ways to hurt their own feelings.
The dominant theme of The Subtweet is jealousy – the sharpened outward edge of insecurity. Shraya grants us a glimpse into the emotional and social realities of would-be artistic icons only to pull back the curtain and show us they’re just like us: filled to the brim with anxiety and self-doubt that drive almost every professional and personal decision they make. But Shraya couples this unpretty picture with a portrayal of Brown women trying to forge their way through an industry dominated and dictated by white men.
The weight of an unjust society manifests in much more insidious ways than economic disparity and the lack of opportunities for professional advancement. Self-image, emotional reality, and social connections among those not a part of the hegemonic majority are all caught up in these power imbalances. Shraya skilfully shows this complexity by depicting characters who are frequently ridiculous, petty, and even malicious, while simultaneously pushing readers to understand the underlying systemic factors driving their frustrating actions.
While it wrestles with the political realities of working in the arts and navigating social media, The Subtweet also elucidates certain social-justice modes of thought. Shraya’s narrative pushes back against the ways mainstream and pop-culture formulations of social justice are used to further agendas misaligned with principles of equity. It critiques the ways in which social-justice rhetoric can be wielded as a weapon for the purpose of self-aggrandizement or the pursuit of personal vendettas. The Subtweet attempts to nudge the reader toward a more critical perspective and to encourage the reader to be more skeptical of what comes out of the mouths of public figures, especially when money and politics are involved.