Synopsis: Everyone talks about falling in love, but falling in friendship can be just as captivating. When Neela Devaki’s song is covered by internet-famous artist Rukmini, the two musicians meet and a transformative friendship begins. But as Rukmini’s star rises and Neela’s stagnates, jealousy and self-doubt creep in. With a single tweet, their friendship implodes, one career is destroyed, and the two women find themselves at the center of an internet firestorm.
Celebrated multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya’s second novel is a stirring examination of making art in the modern era, a love letter to brown women, an authentic glimpse into the music industry, and a nuanced exploration of the promise and peril of being seen.
This book was one of my recent borrows from the library and it was really worth the wait! I think I was waiting to borrow it for a month or so, but once I got it I really dove into it. This book was so relatable in so many ways, and raised so many questions about creative license and control. Like the synopsis states, Neela and Rukmini both brown, female artists in the music scene in Toronto. They first meet at a panel discussing diversity in music, but only really come into each other’s circles once Rukmini covers Neela’s song. The story then traces their friendship and how one tweet can change everything.
Right off the bat, I loved the premise of their friendship and how Neela struggled with it. The feelings someone might have when another person interacts with their art is such an interesting thing to think about. In the case of Rukmini covering Neela’s song, I can see how Neela would struggle with that. Why did her rendition deserve more praise than the original? How do you even cope with someone taking something that you’ve created, an intimate and unique thing that came out of your mind, and changing it so that it’s their own? I love that Neela struggled with artistic ownership throughout the book despite her friendship with Rukmini, because I do think that those feelings wouldn’t necessarily go away as soon as you’re friends – they’re something that needs to be addressed.
I also really loved how friendship is portrayed by Shraya throughout the novel. Neela, Rukmini, Kasi, Sumi, and Malika are all women who are within each other’s circles, but friendship doesn’t come naturally or easily between them just because they’re all brown women in the music scene. I feel like in some books it would be a given that they all associate, that they create a band together, that they become instant best friends. But I loved the tension between all of them, the stumbling around trying to find common footing. When Neela and Rukmini first start hanging out it’s awkward, it’s not natural, they’re trying to see if they vibe with each other. Throughout the novel there is a desire from both of them to be see as equals, and to show each other their true selves, but they have such difficultly being vulnerable with each other. It made me want to scream and cry at the same time, because of course that type of vulnerability is scary. And nothing is every wrong in a relationship until suddenly it’s all added up to disaster. And when Neela and Kasi reconnect towards the end of the book, it’s so nice to see that relationship finally flourish. Even Sumi’s short part at the end of the novel was so interesting, just to see how she viewed all of the events that happened throughout the novel, and it totally casts everything in a different light.
All of the characters were so multidimensional, and on top of this Sharya managed to make some incredible comments on the music industry in general. Quotes like “What are the implications when a light-skinned brown woman replaces a dark-skinned brown woman” pull colourism in the music industry into really clear focus. Was Rukmini more easily fangirled over because she was a lighter skin tone than Neela? Or was it just the music? Shraya also addresses pandering in the music industry by asking questions such as how can Artists of Colour be criticized for pandering when it is only through pandering that their art is deemed acceptable? Can they be criticized for using an oppressive structure’s fetishization of them to get further ahead in the industry? What if that is what allows them to truly make art for people of colour?
Hegemony is another interesting aspect of the book where I think these questions can be looked at. When it was an underground album it was liberating and empowering for women of colour. Once it becomes mainstream does it lose that power? Does consumption by the masses diminish it in any way? I would argue that it doesn’t, however it does give way to many more possibilities of misinterpretation and misuse by White people. It also shows that even an action done out of love, such as Rukmini’s use of women philosophers of colour’s words as lyrics, can be criticized by those who see the work in a different light. Was Rukmini, as a lighter-skinned brown woman, using the words of darker skinned women as a way to get ahead or displace them? No, she was doing it as a way of reverence and tribute. But these things can be viewed in so many different angles, and any move can be criticized by people.
Overall I loved this book and the issues that it raised. The final chapter of the book is narrated by Sumi, and it ends on a striking quote. At a concert, Sumi “thought about brown women who become ghosts”, and it really drives home how women of colour are treated, both in the music industry and in society at large.
That’s all for now ducks, have a great day!
PS – Check out Vivek Shraya’s spotify, where The Subtweet audiobook is available, and you can listen to Every Song (both Neela and Rukmini’s versions!). It’s so good ^_^ give it a listen and let me know which one you prefer!