Review of The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
by Vivek Shraya
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Ordinarily, a book with this kind of ending angers me, but I think I was already angry with The Subtweet—in a good way. Ironically it took a Scot recommending me, a Canadian, this book by fellow Canadian author Vivek Shraya. So it goes. I was asking for recommendations for novels by trans authors that aren’t about “trans stuff.” As much as I love reading about trans experiences from trans authors, I believe it is deeply important that we allow trans authors to tell other stories in addition to trans ones. Until this happens more often and more widely, we have not truly achieved equity. So I was delighted to dive into The Subtweet.
I think I can do a better job discussing this book if I spoil plot and storytelling details. Honestly, I don’t think it will ruin your enjoyment of the book if I do this. But you have been warned!
The book follows multiple characters in a couple of perspectives. It’s mostly third person limited and mostly concerns 2 brown women: Neela Devaki and Rukmini. Both are musicians in Toronto. Rukmini acquires a small amount of Internet fame when she creates an electronic, pop cover of Neela’s “Every Song,” which leads to the two striking up an uneasy and unlikely friendship at Rukmini’s behest. Then someone leaks an experimental spoken word album that Rukmini created in college with a classmate, Malika. This catapults Rukmini even further ahead of Neela in terms of fame, and soon Rukmini is departing to open for a white woman artist’s world tour—with Neela’s own guitarist in tow. Neela finds herself missing Rukmini a great deal but also grapples with feelings of jealousy and insecurity, all of this ultimately culminating in the eponymous subtweet. Nothing is the same after that.
I commented to my Scottish friend, who of course has no context for what I said, that “I’m not sure Shraya would appreciate this description, but this book is very CanLit even as it tries to subvert that.” By this I mean that, in many ways, this book adheres to the tropes of characterization and storytelling that often glimmer on the CanLit landscape: the characters feel like sketches of people than actual people; the setting is effusively in-your-face Canadian (Toronto, in this case); the storytelling style has a whimsical quality to it that identifies it as “artistic” enough to justify this book’s presence before the Canada Council of the Arts. As the years have gone by, I have been less and less enamoured with most CanLit.
Indeed, The Subtweet had its work cut out for winning me over. Neela is not a very likable character, and this honestly doesn’t change throughout the book. Rukmini is also quite flawed, though I think I am more able to understand and forgive those flaws because we learn more about her past. I don’t mind any of this, and I think there can be advantages to having unlikable characters—but it’s just one of the several factors that contribute to the CanLitness of the book and made it work a little less for me overall. That being said, the one thing I will defend in its entirety is the way that Neela and Rukmini occasionally obsess over issues of social media.
It’s tempting to read this as a cautionary tale about social media use. Don’t subtweet people; you’ll ruin a friendship! Don’t obsess over who is or isn’t liking or faving your posts! There is truth to this, of course, but I think The Subtweet is trying to get at a deeper message. This isn’t just about the perils of social media. It’s about the ways in which social media has shifted how we talk about each other and how we talk about art. For people with large followings, social media can be both performative and punitive. Neela retweets Rukmini’s cover, shares other positive news about her, because she feels a social pressure to do so—to be the gracious brown woman making space for another brown woman. To remain as aloof as Neela likes to be IRL would be seen as haughty and supercilious. Similarly, Rukmini’s social media is toxically positive even when she doesn’t feel that way—this is a sentiment I suspect most of us can identify with, but it’s one that fame and attention must amplify. In this way, The Subtweet comments on how all artists—visual, musical, written—are now performance artists. They must perfect not just the art they create in studio or on stage but also the persona their social media displays. Failure to do so results in a range of consequences, from accusations of inauthenticity to fractured friendships.
Perhaps the most honest character in this story is Bart Gold, the recording executive who is clearly only out to make a buck off you!
Let me explain now why the ending should have made me angry but didn’t, purely because I was already angry with the book as a whole. After Neela’s subtweet, we never hear from Rukmini again. We get Neela’s first-person perspective. We hear from Kasi, and we even follow Sumi for a bit. However, the book ends without us or Neela hearing from Rukmini. Refusing to provide closure in this regard is a stroke of genius on Shraya’s part yet also incredibly frustrating from my point of view as the reader. I wasn’t hoping for a “happy ending” and tearful reunion between these two; but I was hoping for at least some kind of resolution, a final conversation or a hint that perhaps, one day, this wound would heal. The utter lack of communication from Rukmini, or even any hint as to where she is, what her status is, creates a breathtaking sense of silence in the final act of the story. It aligns, I expect, with the lack of closure we receive as the consequences of our actions on social media sometimes—the mutes we don’t learn of, the blocks that cut us off from contact with someone who was once our mutual.
In addition to the themes around art and social media, Shraya also explores the intersections of these topics with race. Race and skin colour come up a lot in The Subtweet. There is a particularly interesting article written by Sumi that is included in the story. In it, Sumi essentially contextualizes Rukmini’s success as an example of light-skinned brown women displacing or erasing dark-skinned brown women by being more appealing to our white supremacist society. So Shraya touches on colourism/shadeism and the way that critics love to “purity test” racialized people, especially women, to tear them down once they get too big. Indeed, one of the most important things to note about this book is how the majority of the characters are women of colour: Neela, Rukmini, Puna, Sumi, Kasi, etc. Bart Gold and Hayley are the only two white people with any significant role, and both exhibit unappealing facets of white supremacy—Bart in the form of unadorned capitalism; Hayley as a doubtless well-intentioned yet oblivious ally saturated in white guilt.
So Shraya centres women of colour and, in so doing, creates a space in which they can disagree with each other and argue (sometimes constructively, sometimes not), something we still seldom see. Shraya’s overall point? Representation is not enough. It’s not enough to have one brown woman in the room or on the page, because then she necessarily becomes the brown woman. Instead, we must create space for multiple, dynamic types of people who otherwise share a marginalization so that we reify them fully as humans, not as diversity hires or cast members.
Moving back into my own lane, let’s examine the trans characters! As I said at the beginning of the review, The Subtweet satisfied my criterion of a book by a trans author that isn’t overtly about trans issues. That doesn’t mean it lacks trans characters. However, Shraya pulls this off so subtly that I need to call it out because this is how it should be. Rukmini’s trans-ness is remarked upon twice: once, she comments to Neela, “But what if Hayley only invited me because I’m a ‘hip brown trans girl’?” A little later, once Rukmini is on tour, Neela observes a social media post celebrating Rukmini’s representation on the tour stage that has the hashtag #TransIsBeautiful. These subtle reinforcements of one aspect of Rukmini’s are all we get. There is no deadnaming, no unnecessary conversations about Rukmini’s past, nothing about her transition and journey, etc. No one misgenders her; they all treat her as a woman. This is how you do it!
More significantly, however, Shraya broke my brain by pointing out my own, obvious internalized cisnormativity. For those unfamiliar, cisnormativity is simply the assumption that being cisgender is normal, just like heteronormativity is the assumption that being straight is normal. Such normative thinking is harmful to people from marginalized identities, because it further marginalizes and others us. But it’s important for us to understand that normative thinking isn’t limited to members of the group being normalized. Because by definition it is pervasive to our society, most of us who don’t belong to that group also experience it!
Once I knew Rukmini was trans but that her trans identity had only been mentioned subtly, I realized that I had assumed every character in this book is cis without any proof. Indeed, who is to say that any of the main characters are cis? We just don’t know, and in the same way that we need to stop assuming all characters are white by default until their skin colour or race are mentioned, we need to stop assuming all characters are cisgender until we’re told they are trans. I include myself, a trans woman, in this exhortation.
So The Subtweet is a fascinating and dare I say worthwhile novel for the way it examines many interesting topics while also challenging my preconceptions. There are aspects of its style, its plot, its storytelling that I didn’t enjoy (the revelation around Hayley’s identity, for example, felt very trite and “close-the-loop” rather than truly meaningful). But I am glad I read it, and it definitely met my criteria. Please send more books by trans authors that aren’t mainly about trans issues my way! We need more of these.