I discovered Vivek Shraya on Twitter.
Somebody retweeted Shraya sharing her collaboration with Queer Songbook Orchestra – the six-song album entitled Part-Time Woman – and I quickly looked it up on Tidal. I’d only been out for a few months and these songs so explicitly about the transfeminine experience resonated unlike anything I’d ever heard. I began falling asleep to the album every night. I read the few interviews with Shraya I could find. I wrote the final track of the album – “Girl, It’s Your Time” – into a pivotal moment of the feature script I was working on. And a year after first seeing the tweet, I went to a reading for Shraya’s book I’m Afraid of Men and met her in person.
This experience of discovering someone on Twitter, connecting with their tweets, their work, or both, and then becoming a fan isn’t rare for me. It’s how I’ve found some of my favorite art of the last decade, it’s how I’ve found jobs, collaborators, and even some of my closest friends. I wouldn’t be writing for Autostraddle if it wasn’t for Twitter – I wouldn’t even be reading it.
I say all of this, because Shraya’s new novel The Subtweet is about this kind of fandom, about this kind of friendship, about internet culture, creating within internet culture, forming friendships within internet culture, and about doing all of this specifically as a Brown woman. I responded like I did to Shraya’s work, because it felt outside of a cis gaze. But I was always aware that it was also outside of a white gaze. I was an audience for Shraya, but I certainly wasn’t the audience. It’s one of many reasons Shraya is such a singular artist. She’s making work for herself and her communities – everyone else is welcome to appreciate her, but she doesn’t seem much to care.
But there’s a difference between seeming like you don’t care and actually not caring. Just because you prioritize the authenticity of your voice and choose yourself and others like you as your primary audience doesn’t mean the other feelings disappear. Every artist wants success. Every artist wants artistic freedom. Every artist experiences jealousy. This split – and how it seeps into collaborations and friendships – is the subject of Shraya’s latest masterpiece.
The Subtweet is about two South Asian-Canadian musicians living in Toronto – Neela Devaki and Rukmini, stylized RUK-MINI. Neela is the true artist. She’s spent a decade gaining respect, but little else. She makes her money doing transcription and she’s bad at – or totally uninterested in – the business side of music creation. She’s also as removed from internet culture as any creative millennial can possibly be.
Rukmini, on the other hand, has only recently begun focusing on music and her star is already rising. All she makes are covers, but they gain her an immediate following online. She’s internet savvy and completely connected to mainstream culture. She covers one of Neela’s songs and it becomes RUK-MINI’s first hit – while the original remains virtually unknown.
Rukmini reaches out to Neela and the two form an unlikely, insecurity-ridden, and deeply meaningful friendship. The book is specific in its portrayal of social media and how it can heighten miscommunication. All of the women in this book have such a reverence for each other, but they keep it to themselves with Romeo and Juliet-levels of dramatic irony. Every time one of the characters is obsessing over an ignored text message or an Instagram caption you want to shake them out of their spiral – before recognizing how familiar it is to us all.
Shraya switches perspective with a fascinating disregard for expectations. People’s point of views disappear with an emotional ache and arise with a narrative sting. There are times when we know the characters are communicating past each other, but there are as many moments we’re left just as anxious as them.
Some authors are timid in their portrayals of technology fearful of dating their text, but Shraya commits to the specificity just like she commits to the specificity of the music world. The result is a book that feels far more like modern life than most works of contemporary fiction. Twitter and Instagram and constant access to texting are not simply new tools for centuries old communication. They’ve completely shifted how we interact with one another and The Subtweet is bold in portraying how so many of us now live.
Given the book’s specificity in regards to technology, music, gender, and race it first seems peculiar how little space is given to transness. Rukmini worries that white popstar Hayley Trace has invited her on tour only because she’s a “hip brown trans girl” but that’s the only mention we get. It’s never clear if Neela is also trans nor if the other two women who play major roles in their narrative are trans. This would inevitably shift the dynamics and the relationships as well as the discussions around privilege, tokenization, and ownership of experience and stories. But the more I thought about it and the more I read the more I realized that it didn’t matter much at all.
Given the cis-normative gaze of most readers, many will assume Rukmini is the only trans character. But, again, Shraya is not creating work primarily for this readership. Regardless of the characters’ identities the book is recognizably trans. All women experience jealousy. All women compare themselves to each other. All women get entangled in complicated codependent friendships. (Okay, not all – most.) But the experience of being a trans woman is for many of us the experience of womanhood heightened.
I’m not saying we’re all high femme – this isn’t physical. I’m talking about the specific experience of having a world of people – including members of your own community – doubt your femaleness. Lots of cis women feel like they aren’t doing womanhood right. But it’s an entirely different experience to be told you aren’t doing womanhood at all.
Even for the most well-adjusted among us, experiencing the world in this way does crawl into our relationships with cis women and into our relationships with each other. The doubts, the jealousies, the obsessions, the having something to prove, the wanting – it’s all sharpened.
Nobody can see my isolation
Nobody can see how much
How much I want to be friends
Nobody can see my wanting
Don’t want to be wanting
Because wanting is dangerous
This is RUK-MINI’s only song with original lyrics. It’s not that a cis woman couldn’t have written these words – it’s that a cis woman didn’t.
Every copy of The Subtweet comes with a link to the soundtrack. Most of the songs referenced in the book’s true to life fictional world are now real – including Neela’s “Every Song” in its original version and RUK-MINI’s cover. This isn’t just a fun addition to the novel; the songs live up to their narrative hype. One of the benefits of literature – unlike film and television – is most stories don’t have to justify the praise given to their fictional artists. Shraya decided to ignore that supposed benefit and accept the challenge of filling out her world. While dipping in and out of the characters’ musical perspectives, Shraya has created a short album as accomplished as any of her standalone music projects.
The book begins with the line: Neela Devaki was an original. Vivek Shraya is an original too. Every new work from her – fiction, nonfiction, music, theatre, photography, some combination of mediums – could be described with a list of emphatic adjectives. But above all else each work feels like her. That’s the most any artist – and audience – could want.