Edited by Mythili Rajiva and Sheila Batacharya
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
One Brown girl.
Two killers with white privilege.
This is the Reena Virk case.
November 14, 1997 was a day that shocked the land now known as Canada. Panic ensued in the country after Reena Virk, a 14 year old South Asian girl, was murdered by her peers. The panic wasn’t about the maintenance and escalation of racism in a colony that started with said social ill. The panic wasn’t about the escalation of xenophobia, fatphobia, homophobia, and many other phobias. The panic wasn’t about the origins and rise in attitudes and beliefs that lead to the murder of a young Brown girl.
The panic was over the supposed downfall of white youth, in particular white girls, in a white run society.
Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder outlines the Reena Virk court case and the surrounding issues left out of media discourse and the many court cases spanning 12 years. Editors Mythili Rajiva and Sheila Batacharya put together a collection of 9 essays that critically look at the Reena Virk case (2 written by the editors) that interlock race, gender, class, age, and sexuality.
Rajiva and Batacharya are both South Asian women, as are most of the book’s contributors, which counters the mainly white written accounts of the Reena Virk case. “Both editors also have a personal stake in the collection…they have a strong sense of empathy with Virk’s struggles to belong, which are inextricable from her death at the hands of her white peers,” (p. 2).
Rajiva and Batacharya are self identified feminist and anti-racist scholars. Each essay follows the same framework. By using this scope they bring a completely new perspective that Canadians, and the world, were not given via national and international media in the form of various news sources, a true crime book, a novel, and a play.
Rajiva and Batacharya point out how “mainstream explanations and responses have not addressed how issues of racialized violence against women are central to this crime,” and state, “this collection reframes the murder of Reena Virk by placing it squarely within the context of violence against racially subordinated women,” (p. 7).
To put it simply, race was left out of the case and the umbrella of girl violence covered many elements that led to the killing of Reena Virk.
Reena Virk was Brown, South Asian, the daughter of immigrants, and did not fit into heteronormative standards imposed on people in Canadian-colonial society. Living in Victoria, British Columbia, a mainly white place, Reena lived under a microscope with oppressive eyes watching her. Reena had to survive name-calling, threats, and intimidation for much of her youth especially near the end of her life.
The murder was brutal and it is outlined in the book.
Two sections telling of the violence had me put the book down to be picked up much later:
1) pages 4 and 5 of the intro
2) lower portion of page 57 of Batacharya’s essay Hootchies and ladies: Race, gender, sexuality, and “girl violence” in a colonial white settler society.
Batacharya does not follow the sensationalist ways that journalists tend to write about crime. Although the descriptions are detailed they are not meant to get a rise out of the reader. They are not written in a way to please an editor and publisher looking for sales. Batacharya lays truth on the page in a respectful way.
Batacharya challenges conventions of bullying, swarming, youth violence and girl violence. “These euphemisms suggest that what is at issue is the deviance of those involved rather than issues of domination and subordination and the context of how Reena Virk came to be dehumanized, tortured and murdered,” (p. 36).
Dehumanized. Tortured. Murdered.
These words not only describe the murder of a South Asian teen in British Columbia.
These words describe the history of the stolen land now called Canada.
To Batacharya and her fellow writers in the collection Colonialism cannot be left out of the discourse. Race, which has been omitted by media, police, and the courts, is rooted in colonialism. To talk of race in the murder of Reena Virk one has to talk of colonialism and the true history of the land where the murder took place.
“I would argue that colonialism is always a factor, and the task at hand is how to materially and discursively dissect and disrupt it,” (p. 41).
Batacharya does so via academic sources, her experience as a viewer at Kelly Ellard’s (one of Reena Virk’s two killers) first and third trials, and researching the true history of the land now known as Canada.
Batacharya points out that notions of femininity are rooted in white supremacy; Native women have been targets of colonial violence since European invasion (things have not changed as is evident with the 800+ Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada); feminisim is seen and described as the downfall of femininity and the reason for rise in ‘girl violence’; women of colour and Native men have always threatened white colonial nation building; and that race was central to the case.
Batacharya concludes with, “The question is not whether racism was a factor, but how it is a factor—how it shaped the context in which the murder of Reena Virk occurred and the social responses to it during the past 13 years,” (p. 69).
Mythili Rajiva’s essay The Killing Season? Interrogating Adolescence In The Murder of Reena Virk points out what was and is overlooked in the case: “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia,” (p. 298).
Two things stick out from this deep and complex chapter:
1) Who and what was being mourned
2) The saveable white girl
Again, I was found putting the book down, disgusted, sad, and angry when reading who was being mourned. Rajiva points out that Reena Virk was being mourned not because she was a person who was murdered for no reason other than being Brown and not part of the norm, but, rather, because her murder was the sign of the decline of the ideal Canadian woman: white women.
To the courts, media, and the larger Canadian society, Reena Virk was, and is, a body, nothing more.
Further evidence of this is how 20 people watched Virk get beat prior to her murder. One onlooker, Lorne Lloyd-Walters, tried pulling Warren Glowatski away from beating Virk: “This is not your fight,” he said. This was not out of human empathy, rather, it was Walters not wanting his friend to get in trouble. Reena Virk being assaulted, later to be killed, was of no concern to Walters. His friend possibly getting in trouble with the law was more of a concern than a young woman of colour being gang beaten.
What was, and is, of main concern is the state of the Canadian woman. Such women being white, straight, middle class, able bodied, and as far away from a woman like Virk as possible.
Evidence of this is in how Kelly Ellard, one of two of Virk’s killers, was portrayed in media accounts and books: young, pretty, from a good family etc. Her portrayals were also questions: how could this happen?
Ellard was saveable because she was young, white, straight, and from a middle class family. Virks’s other killer, Warren Glowatski was not saveable because of his class and his non-hypermasculine and non-heteronormative ways of being that were seen as queer and non-gender normative.
Rajiva writes, “Ellard, by virtue of her whiteness, her middle class status, her gender, and her apparent location in a racialized heterosexual esthetic was, and continues to be, constructed subtextually in public discourses and practices as the only retrievable adolescent subject,” (p. 300).
Ellard was tried 3 times and finally convicted. Why? No other killer in Canada has been given that many chances. Why Ellard?
Two chapters of great interest to me were deconstructing the books and plays written about the murder. Tara Atluri’s, Under Whose Bridge? Race, class, and gender in Rebecca Godfrey’s book Under The Bridge, and Michele Byers’, Putting on Reena Virk: Celebrity, authorship, and identity, point out how race was erased, how the white woman is central to Canada, and how the writers of such books gained celebrity, and profit, from Reena Virk’s murder via racist, hollywood like, sloppy and inaccurate re-tellings of her murder.
Reckless eyeballing: Being Reena in Canada by Tess Chakkalakal points out that Reena Virk’s murder was a Canadian lynching.
Yes, Canada, the safe haven for the world, is a place where people have been lynched, and where Reena Virk, a Brown woman, was lynched in 1997. Chakkalakal argues strongly, with great evidence, and a comparison to big cases in the United States such as Emmitt Till’s murder in 1955, Mississippi, that Reena Virk’s killing was a Canadian Lynching.
The strength of the collection is not only its framework it’s the accessibility of language. Most academic books are basically an unknown language to the non academic. If only academics can read such books the information is lost on the shelves of university libraries. What is the point of challenging discourse if only a few can read such discourse?
Another strength is the rooting of colonialism within the text, in this case Canadian colonialism. The editors and writers of this book practice responsible scholarship and allyship in terms of situating the book in the true history of the land where Virk was murdered. There is no tokenization of Indigenous peoples or their struggle as is the case with many non-Indigenous academics, and activist writers as well as activist groups in Canada.
There are some problems with the book. Some of the essays talk of the erasing of Reena Virk in media, books, and plays. But, there is no visual image of Virk anywhere in the book! For someone like myself, who for years Reena Virk was a face without a name and later a name without a face, no picture makes no sense and can lead to people not picking up the book.
Also, certain accounts in the book contradict each other and fact. One writer states there were 7 attackers and 2 killers. Another writer states 8 attackers and 2 killers. Which is it? Further, one writer states that all the attackers and killers where white while other writers in the book state that some of the attackers and killers were of colour and some were mixed race. Which is it?
Although the book is clearly about a murder, I would have appreciated a warning as to where in the book the accounts of the brutal murder were written.
Why read Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder?
The book tells the truth about an important case that was masked as simply “girl violence”. Complexities, as well as realities, were written about that the mainstream does not want to touch.
Reena Virk should be remembered in a good way, and her murder should be told truthfully, not via accounts written by white people (many being opportunists) who don’t want to admit that the country they live in is racist, and has been since its inception.
The intro puts it simply:
“Virk’s story is, thus, of fundamental importance to those who have suffered in the past, and to those in the present and future who (will) continue to negotiate the legacy of difference and marginality,” (p. 26).
Such peoples, and those who are, or want to be, allies to such peoples should read Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder.
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Wednesday November 16, 2011 for an interview with Mythili Rajiva, Co-editor of “Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder”.