Cover Story

Transforming Transphobia  by Megan Butcher
Transforming Transphobia

For 17 years, Vivek Shraya has been blazing a trail through pop culture, breaking boundaries between genres with apparent ease. This includes the release of 15 EPs and full-length albums as a solo artist, in collaboration with other musicians and as part of the electro-pop band Too Attached.

Shraya has also published six books spanning poetry, fiction, memoir and essay. As an artist, Shraya has worked on film and photo projects. With every project, new space is created for those who come after. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Shraya came out as trans in 2016, when she released “Girl It’s Your Time,” a song that announced her switch to she/her pronouns. Shraya cites her mother as a major influence on her femininity and has noted that her Hindu community was one of the few spaces to nurture her gender nonconformity in the 1980s.

Shraya is an assistant professor in creative writing at the University of Calgary. Death Threat, her newest release, combines a keen visual sense with some of her most personal writing. In 2017, Shraya received hate mail that strayed from the general transphobic tweets that form part of the regular online experience for many trans people. The person behind the death threats used explicit cultural and family references.

Her response? Not to block the troll, but to push further into the experience, to turn the threats into art as an act of resistance. Using pop culture references, humour and bright colours, Shraya joined forces with visual artist Ness Lee to bring this vision to life in the comic book Death Threat, published in May. The book’s publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, says, “Death Threat is an unflinching portrayal of violent harassment from the perspective of both the perpetrator and the target.”

Herizons interviewed Vivek Shraya at an Ottawa restaurant about collaboration, privacy, finding the right fit and the links between trauma, creativity and the market.

HERIZONS: From as early as God Loves Hair, your young-adult collection published in 2010, your textual work has included illustrations. Did creating Death Threat as a graphic novel seem like a natural move?

VIVEK SHRAYA: I feel like every book I’ve made has a very strong visual quality, whether working formally with illustrators, or the way the poetry is laid on the page. I think it was ripe for the picking, so to speak. That said, it’s a medium that I didn’t understand very well until I started reading Michael DeForge. I came across a book he wrote called Big Kids, which was a coming-of-age—I would say queer—graphic novel. I was taken aback by how unexpected it was.

As I explored graphic novels more deeply after that, I really liked that there are really no rules in graphic novels, and, as someone who sometimes feels limited by form, there was something very appealing about that. When I started receiving the letters [that sparked Death Threat], because they had such a vivid quality to them, and because they were so strange, I was like, “I think that this is a solid foundation for a comic book.”

HERIZONS: How was working with an illustrator different from working with Ness Lee on Death Threat?

VIVEK SHRAYA: Working with an illustrator to come up with six scene illustrations that accompany text is very different than having someone literally draw every page and having 70 pages. I always wanted the text and the letters to be the most predominant part of the book, and that really relies on Ness and her vision, her skills. It was a lot more time-consuming, and a lot more rigorous—a lot more ambitious.

HERIZONS: Even when your work isn’t explicitly about real events, like in Death Threat, the personal details in your writing give it a real urgency and beauty. How do you decide what to reveal and what to keep private?

VIVEK SHRAYA: My approach to art has often been, “There’s a wound, go deeper. Expose it.” I think about privacy a lot in relation to how I use social media, but I feel like I don’t put those barriers around my work. I don’t know what’s different. Maybe it’s in my mind, because it’s art.

A lot of my work is framed as fiction or creative non-fiction. I’ve been exploring the personal so much in my work, for such a long time, that I don’t really think about what not to share. I think it’s a strange allegiance to the art to tell the story, and to not place too many barriers or limitations on it. Also, I really do believe that once a story is written and put out, it does turn into fiction, especially when it involves other people. Two people can encounter the same event but have very different experiences. Once it’s out there, it becomes its own thing.

Where it gets complicated is when I include people who are currently in my life. Whether it’s my partner, my ex, my friends or family. That’s when I start thinking more about the ethics of including people you love, or people who you don’t talk to anymore.

Those are the lines I grapple with more. My own privacy, I’m just sort of like... [shrugs] which is funny, because I’m also a deeply private person.

HERIZONS: You mentioned that when you have a wound, you do a deep dive. Could you expand on the relationship between trauma and creativity for you?

VIVEK SHRAYA: That hasn’t always been the case for me. I started off as a musician, [but] I wouldn’t say it was explicit in my music. I think it was only after I wrote God Loves Hair… I remember writing that book and crying and crying. It felt incredibly cathartic to be able to say those things. To have people bear witness, and have people show care, and have people show interest.

Often, art has become a way for me to work through experiences of oppression and experiences of trauma. As a marginalized artist, I do feel a social responsibility to be bringing a larger conversation to some of these social issues. But by no means is that all I want to do.

HERIZONS: In an essay for NOW Magazine (May 1, 2019), you talk about wanting to write a book about raccoons and having your proposal turned down by publishers. How do you navigate the relationships between expressing the trauma of oppression, creativity and the market?

VIVEK SHRAYA: I’m trying to figure that out. I’m Afraid of Men was one of my most commercially successful projects. At the same time, touring and writing that book was really hard. One of my favourite questions about that book is, “So, are you still afraid of men?” There’s this assumption that if we articulate a trauma, or a fear, or an oppression, that we’re somehow freed of it.

Those experiences never go away. You just feel them a little bit less. Certainly, with something like I’m Afraid of Men, I’m not less afraid. My day-to-day living experience doesn’t change just because I write a book called I’m Afraid of Men and it has a certain kind of success. It’s hard not to make the connection between popularity and the revelation of trauma. What happens when that’s not the thing I want to talk about? If I want to talk about raccoons? This isn’t to say that my previous projects aren’t meaningful for me, but as I continue to grow as an artist, there are lots of things I want to explore, and it’s easier for me to get institutional support if I continue to do this particular thing.

I see this as a theme for a lot of marginalized artists. I think there’s a reason a lot of the popular South Asian books are about the immigrant story, because how we are able to consume brown-ness is through the lens of “I came from this mystical land and I don’t fit in and I’m from two worlds.” Like the coming out story. There’s a reason why so many queer writers end up writing that story. And, again, that’s not to take away the legitimacy or importance of that narrative. But I also think that there is a reason why those are the stories that get published. I think there’s an assumption that’s what the market wants. And it’s not just about

the market, but also about the institutions, what they are saying the market wants.

The relationship between institution and market is not as symbiotic as we’re led to believe. Publishers now look at [my poetry book] even this page is white and say, “We want something like that.” But a few years ago, no one wanted to publish that. [My novel] She of the Mountains—a bisexual narrative interweaving Hindu mythology—no one wanted that. It’s interesting now to have institutions say, “We want something like this.” And I’m like, “You only want it because it proved itself beyond the limitations of your expectations. So, take,a chance again.”

There’s this idea of a glass ceiling, right? And essentially the whole concept is that once you’re through, you’re through. But what I’m realizing is that no one’s inviting me to stay. I have to keep asserting myself with every project. I think there’s no point at which you’re like, “I’ve done all of these things, and I’m here.”

There’s no arrival.

But I don’t feel that publishers or film companies have to take up everything that I pitch! It’s more the: “We like you. We support you. We value you. We think you’re an incredible voice… but we want you to do this one thing.” That’s the issue I have. If they were just like, “Sorry, this isn’t the project for us,” that would be different. But it’s, “Can you do this thing instead?”

HERIZONS: Right. “We love you, but only if you’re hurting.” Not writing about raccoons.

VIVEK SHRAYA: Exactly. I feel that.

HERIZONS: Given your creative output since 2002, I’m sure you have something new up your sleeve. Is there anything you’d like to mention?

VIVEK SHRAYA: Probably the most exciting thing is that I have a play coming out in February 2020 with Canadian Stage called How to Fail as a Pop Star. I started reading a lot of music biographies last year and realized that since my music career isn’t known for the most part, no one’s going to sit and read my book and be like, “She wrote that song!”

I started thinking about a different platform to talk about the comparative lack of success of my

music career. I’ve been around theatre a long time and the way I bring texts into readings tends to be pretty performative. So this seemed seemed like the right project—the right fit. ▼