Oni Magazine

Book Review: Vivek Shraya's Even This Page is White By Jamie Berrout

Oni Magazine
Book Review: Vivek Shraya's Even This Page is White By Jamie Berrout

Between the title and the quotes that preface the book, it’s a powerful metaphor that opens up Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white: think of whiteness and all the work that whiteness does to sustain itself as the empty page; oppressive in its blankness, the page is a void precisely because it avoids (or seeks to consume) the racialized other; but the writer of color can challenge the white page with their ink and the dance of their “black words”; after all, if whiteness thrives in an era where it is unseemly to talk about race/racism then surely to speak on whiteness, to leave a mark upon the page, is to strike a blow against it.

But when I got into the poems themselves I found that they often stopped at the point of calling whiteness by its name and did not venture far beyond that initial reaction of throwing ink out on the page. Rather than dance with a unique vocabulary, creative use of visual space, or the use of musical devices (apart from frequent use of repetition and experimentation with form and structure), the poems remain mired in literal language and phrases that feel lifeless on the page. Even the discussion of race here – what it does to brown people and how brown people themselves enact the violence of racism on Black and Indigenous people – is shallow and oddly contradictory despite the fact that this is meant to be the heart of the book.

So for every searing, breathless, perhaps less structured poem like “epilogue /decomposition” – this is how they named me there can be no light / for even when my / dark / body stands naked – there’s another few paper-thin poems that are limited by their rigid structure. For example, “skeptic,” which consists solely of a pair of couplets that don’t quite add up, logically or otherwise: once I loved a brown woman / you said I hated myself // now I also love a white man / you say I hate myself. Hint: the couplets do not describe equivalent situations, so why does Shraya treat them the same? Moreover, whereas “epilogue/decomposition” rounds out a series of six excellent poems that make a moving, dreamlike meditation on skin (or the narrator’s awareness of the significance of their brown skin) following an abstract journey from gestation to past the point of death into a kind of acceptance – no freedom I cannot leave this / darkness / behind – poems like “skeptic” hinge on a single thought and proceed to hammer it home without much regard for what is being said or whether the words are indeed dancing on the page.

At its extreme, this disregard comes off as gimmicky. A poem like “eraser,” for example, as with other poems in the book, simply wasn’t meant to be read out loud or even visually all the way through; though, it does look like there’s a lot happening on the page in terms of experimentation with form, with phrases like I will not make this about / race and I will not bring my / race to school broken up, aligned, and repeated five times each. The effect is there; it’s brutal seeing the page filled with these conformist thoughts that deny race/racism, but with these kinds of poems I find myself wondering whether this affirmation of the basic reality of race needed to be made yet again and whether this isn’t just another way of falling into a trap set by whiteness, that if we continue like this we’ll be forever stuck debating race 101 and feeling like there’s even a need for a debate when our lived experiences show that the time for debate is long past.

Yet the need to speak about race remains, or rather the need to not let racist comments or any other microaggression go unchallenged, to make some sense out of the violence we’ve had to live through due to racism, and all we’ve lost under the pervasive system of white supremacy. This impulse is where even this page is white lives, but it is also where the book generally remains. Even as I make this criticism, I feel as if it might be unfair somehow to ask a writer of color to do more than this, to make something new, something that goes further than screaming fragments of facebook rants into the void.

However, this book isn’t enough. It’s not enough for me as a reader and more importantly it’s not enough – in thought or care or humility – for the people Shraya throws into the poems on her way to making a point. For example, the poem “what pride sounded like...” consists mainly of a transcription of part of Jennicet Gutierrez’ statement at the White House on ending the deportations and detention of queer and trans people, with her words set against President Obama’s dismissive comments and the shushing and booing of the docile queers in the audience. I was surprised the first time I read “what pride sounded like...” but it was only because I couldn’t believe Shraya had actually taken those words from an undocumented trans Latina activist and tried to make a poem out of them – and I’m still surprised at her audacity. It’s something I would have never thought to do.

Then there’s the poem about Kanye West where Shraya casually includes an ableist slur (presumably, I guess, because the poem is based on found text). There’s the poem about Miley Cyrus being anti-black when she said something about Nicki Minaj, but the title Shraya chooses for the poem is, bizarrely, written in AAVE, and it’s Nicki’s own words: “miley, what’s good?” Still, there’s the poem where Shraya confesses to having done something anti-black recently and lets the poem end there, with her moving on from the act and the reader left wondering if there was a point to hearing that apart from, I don’t know, relieving her of her past sins. And, what I wonder – what exactly are black readers of even this page is white supposed to make of Shraya and the book after seeing that?

Though probably the most incredible moment in the book in terms of betraying its stated vision – the desire to speak back to whiteness and push back against it – is the long poem titled “conversation with white friends...” which is based on actual interviews Shraya conducted with her white friends.  Elsewhere in the book, Shraya had critiqued the performance of allyship while engaging in that performance for her own benefit – in “indian,” she asks, am I keeping it social justice / or social performance and what would it mean to digest you...while also confessing to her anti-blackness and to being just another colonial settler – but in “conversation” it’s the reverse. Here it’s more like she offers up her own brown flesh for her white friends to consume as a way of absolving them of  benefiting from white supremacy their entire lives. We’re made to believe that the conversation will turn the tables on whiteness, and that because it’s her white friends (rather than Shraya) having to answer pointed questions about racism and their own action or inaction with respect to combating racism, that they will finally be called to account.

Instead, in this poem Shraya just ends up listening to her white friends vent – one talks about how they struggled to understand race until Shraya showed them the way; another tells us how happy they are every time Columbus Day rolls around because of the outpouring of performative outrage it allows them to take part in and enjoy; we’re also defensively reminded, i think many white people are angry about racism; and one says about the issue of speaking out on racism, i end up too scared to do or say anything at all. Shraya makes no critique of any of these questionable comments, she simply asks her next question and gives her white friends yet more space to let out their feelings of inadequacy and to remind us that they’re doing essentially nothing about racism apart from trying to listen and boost the voices of people of color. It’s an awful thing witnessing these white friends (friends?) cannibalize Shraya’s flesh. Moments like these in the book almost make me wonder if it isn’t all a satire of its own self, but as much as I wish that Shraya had been operating on another level – panning the very position she seems to inhabit at the surface of this book, the brown ally caught up in her performance, the blundering well-intentioned activist, the exhausted poet of color lecturing race 101 – we’re not that lucky.

Artwork: Evan Ifekoya, Ebi, Flo