On small arts scenes, racism, and the forces that keep it quiet

What gets swept under the rug of #SupportLocal

This isn’t about J*n, but it’s also not not about J*n. If you need more info on that serpentine saga, Race Tuition Centre has you covered.

It’s strange to think that I heard one of the most twisted, bizarre things about my poetry, personhood and race in the foodrepublic at 313 Somerset. It feels anticlimactic - instead of two writers sitting across each other, arguing with coffee and papers askew, I was 17, nervously sitting next to a near-stranger who was scowling at a sheaf of foolscap next to Toast Box.

Some time passed before she finally spoke. “The British colonized India, I’m surprised your grammar isn’t better,” she said, calmly, eyes still running over my verse. Cruelty is never usually spat in the way you’d expect, as if it intends to make you question whether you heard it in the first place.

I had just secured a 9-month poetry mentorship with a local author, and it was one of my first meetings with a mentor who would, ideally, guide me through writing work that would be published in an anthology. It was a dream I had harbored for years, and my idea of someone who had really made it in life was a published poet - I was quiet, and very, very, very, insecure.

The short version of this story is that I cried after that meeting, and after every meeting over the rest of the excruciating months, as she asked me what schools I was from, why I couldn’t write well, was it because I was Indian, was there some relationship between Indians and poetry that kept me from writing how she wanted me to?

I am keeping the story short because the point is what happened after. It’s about what it means to express grievances with anyone, especially about race, in a city where you can’t be separated from the next poet or playwright by more than a handful of degrees.

So the months passed - I ended up telling my mentor to change my work all she liked, I just wanted out - and I eventually gathered the courage to speak with the supervisor of the programme. I stumbled through the comments I had gotten from my mentor, thinking they might elicit some sort of reaction. The reaction was laughable, because it was actually just laughter. There was a hem here, a haw there, and eventually the conclusion that my mentor was stuck in her ways, and treated everyone this way “regardless of their race or school”. And that was that.

It isn’t surprising to mention that my mentor was Chinese, that my supervisor was Chinese, that the friends I tried to talk to about it were Chinese, that most of the poets I would encounter as both peers and published writers were Chinese. It isn’t surprising that no real action was taken. The part that is interesting is that my supervisor knew exactly what was happening, and why it was wrong. It’s why she was able to even give me a stock answer that delicately acknowledged my problem, but did nothing to give it legs beyond our conversation.

It’s not even about the vitriol that hangs in the air, dull, thick and ugly, every time someone makes their racism known. It’s about how it is left to hang by everyone watching, because reaching up to try and pull it away means that you have to sacrifice something.

Amidst the fever of #SupportLocal, the stakes of burning a bridge feel higher, so we often don’t. It’s part of why Priyageetha Dia felt like she had to deal with what she did for so long before speaking out. And even when we do, there is little to no guarantee that anything changes systemically.

I wish I had more to say than that, I wish there was a solution beyond rethinking what it means to make connections and cultivate solidarity beyond the overarching banner of We Make Art - because, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t work - but this is a newsletter, and I am tired. Have a good week, block some racists on the Internet.

Things on my mind this week

  • People are still protesting against the CAA and NRC in India - here are some ways to help and stay informed.

  • Mac Miller’s posthumous album Circles is coming out soon, and the single Good News has been carrying me through the week. I’ve never figured out what it means to grieve for someone who never actually knew you, but somehow knew everything about you. Anyway, Good News is beautiful.

  • I saw a Big lizard on Sunday and can’t stop thinking about how excellent it was. That’s kind of it on this one.