It’s easy to read the two main characters of Vivek Shraya’s The Subtweet as archetypes. On one hand, we have Neela, the capital-A artist who cares more about authenticity than popularity. On the other hand, we have Rukmini, the Neela superfan who becomes unexpectedly famous when she posts a YouTube cover of one of Neela’s songs, transforming the raw, personal track into a crowd-pleasing pop song. The jaded professional and the bubbly newbie, the long-struggling artist and the instant celebrity—these archetypes create a recognizable dynamic that lets readers jump into the story without delay.
But what makes The Subtweet an absorbing, can’t-put-it-down read is that the conventions of this dynamic immediately start to unravel. Rather than succumbing to a predictable rivalry, Neela and Rukmini form a deep and genuine friendship. As the novel progresses, Shraya lovingly develops this unlikely friendship, then nukes it into oblivion with a single sentence.
To those unfamiliar with Twitter, a subtweet is a post that obliquely criticizes someone without mentioning them by name. The subtweet in question comes from Neela as Rukmini’s star rises around the world and hers remains resolutely confined to cramped Toronto bars: “Pandering to white people will get you everything #hegemony.”
The Subtweet is as much a critical reflection on the way artists of colour are racialized as it is a meditation on creative integrity and jealousy. Calgary author Shraya skewers the performative wokeness of self-conscious progressives and highlights the tightrope that artists of colour have to walk: trying to stay true to their art and achieve professional success (and financial security) without being transformed into politically neutered token minorities by a creative-industrial power system that seeks to package them as palatable commodities for white consumers.
After the subtweet (and Rukmini’s subsequent cancellation) the sudden shift to Neela’s first-person narration is an inventive choice—as is Rukmini’s disappearance from the rest of the book. Shraya is not afraid to take bold swings, and her willingness to break conventional forms adds interesting angles to her story.
It’s ironic that The Subtweet’s gorgeous cover art (by Manjit Thapp) depicts a woman talking on the phone (a landline, no less). Much of the book’s drama comes from the fact that its two main characters communicate largely through text messages. Although Shraya ends her book with a wry poke at “calling in” (as opposed to calling out online), one can’t help but wonder how things would’ve been different if Neela and Rukmini had simply spoken to each other. But ultimately The Subtweet is more than a cautionary tale about social media; it’s a damn good book.
—Bruce Cinnamon is the author of The Melting Queen (NeWest).