Interview with Vivek Shraya: I’m Afraid of Men and Other Things

I’m Afraid Of Men was written as a response to deep gender trauma. From the book jacket, Vivek Shraya is “A trans artist explore[ing] how masculinity was imposed on her as a boy and continues to haunt her as a girl—and how we might reimagine gender for the twenty-first century.” She negotiates this trauma as a writer, an artist, and a teacher, all while holding space for this negotiation in these roles.

We had a moment to chat about this book, and more, with Vivek Shraya.

Julie Matson/Midinette: First and foremost, this is probably a question that you get asked a lot, why did you write this book?

Vivek Shraya: Well I think a lot of the conversations around masculinity, historically and also particularly in the past two years tend to center cis voices, largely on cis white women voices, and I’m Afraid Of Men felt like an opportunity to complicate that discussion around masculinity from a trans-feminine POC lens.

JM: So you have published many books and I’m curious, you’ve crossed disciplines with your writing—you’ve covered poetry, fiction, children’s books. Is there one genre that you feel more at home in, or that you feel more of a connection to?

Shraya: Truthfully I feel most connected to music, that’s where my artistic career began. In terms of writing specifically, I don’t know that I feel at home in a particular genre. I think that for me it’s always about trying to discover new ways to challenge myself as a writer, and what medium can be deployed as a mechanism to get through and put forward particular ideas. At this time I find myself really gravitating back to fiction because I think we’re in a cultural climate where it’s hard to sometimes articulate certain observations and have them received with a respectful or nuanced approach.

For instance I’m Afraid of Men had been part of an online controversy in terms of how being how it’s being understood by particular individuals. So, yes, there’s something about fiction that really interests me these days as a means to communicate some of these ideas that I have, but in a way that might allow for a more nuanced analysis.

I have a novel that I put out in 2014, so it’s been a couple of years. I think that’s another reason why I’m sort of interested in returning to the novel because it’s been a while. I think similarly I imagine I’ll return to poetry at some point as well when an opportunity or an idea strikes. But yeah I don’t feel necessarily more comfortable in one or the other.

JM: Back to I’m Afraid Of Men. It’s written in three sections, from different narrative points. Can you talk about your rationale behind that format?

Shraya: So often with personal narrative, I think because of the Internet and social media the ways in which pain or violence that has been experienced by marginalized bodies, and ways that it is consumed can feel very voyeuristic. There’s a phrase, trauma-porn, that I think is quite apt in the ways that audiences are drawn to. There’s something about watching a marginalized body encounter pain or violence that seems to be tantalizing. And I think that I really wanted to push against this with my book. I was worried about the ways that me expressing my experiences of harm for men would be taken up in a certain way and in a similar way. I know what it means to be reading a book and then someone texts or calls, and you just put down the book. When you’re a reader, you don’t necessarily have any kind of responsibility to the author. I just felt like if I was going to take the trouble to share these painful incidents I wanted to find a way to hold the reader in a similar place of accountability and having that first section all written in second person felt like a way to try to keep the reader with me and imply a kind of complicity, even though clearly the reader isn’t going to be the “you” that is spoken to in the book. I wanted the reader to potentially think about their own complicity in similar incidents in their life. None of these stories are exceptional. I’m afraid of how common, if not mild, my experiences are. I’m also afraid that the most prevalent response these stories will elicit is pity. Even worse, I’m afraid of the necessity of eliciting pity in order to generate concern or to galvanize change.

JM: It’s very powerful. So what’s next for you? What’s coming up? What do you have down the road?

Shraya: So I started to receive a bunch of vivid hate mail from a stranger last fall and I decided to turn them into a comic book that will be out in May called Death Threat. It’s illustrated by fantastic illustrator by the name of Ness Lee. So that’s what’s next for me.

JM: Amazing. I know you have your own VS Imprint through Arsenal Pulp Press. Are you going to be putting it out through that?

Shraya: That’s a great question. The imprint is actually to support young black, indigenous or writers of colour. So we will be putting out our first VS Books book in May as well, by an author by the name that’s Téa Mutonji. Her book is called Shut Up, You’re Pretty. It’s a collection of short stories and that’s the first book that we’re putting out. I’m super excited about that as well.

JM: You describe yourself as an “accidental academic,” which I know is because you now teach in the English Department at UofC. Coming from a diverse background as a musician, activist, and writer, I could imagine these contributing to your skills as a teacher. How has the transition into academia been for you? Do you find you have to navigate between the roles as an educator and as a performer/artist, or do they flow, as your artistic practices do?

Shraya: Being a teacher feels like an extension of my artistic practice, in the ways that both involve a performativity and an emphasis on exploring social/political issues. That said, it’s strange to think of myself as “scholar” especially when I am repeatedly asked in academia what my “area of research” is in—this is not exactly how I categorize my creativity.

JM: You talk about your work as being part of a broader narrative. In this ‘world according to Vivek,’ what are we currently missing and why do we need to pay attention to it?

Shraya: We need more stories by marginalized bodies that aren’t tied solely to experiences of trauma, unless these narratives are what we choose to create and disseminate.

JM: What are five words that best describe you, or your mission in this world?

Shraya: My mission can be best summarized by: challenging dominant narratives through art.

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