“This is the secret of skin,” transdisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya writes in her poem “four / adulthood.” “Restoration begins with extending and / the end of taking.” Shraya, a Canadian writer and artist working at the nexus of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, violence, and history, writes in a voice at once tender and ferocious. She is relentless in her confrontation of traditional binaries, and urges us to act likewise. Her work demands that we, as readers and listeners, consider the complex ways identity structures and undergirds our histories, our language, and our capacity to empathize.
The mediums Shraya works in are as varied as her approach to art and identity. Currently based in Toronto, she is a singer (half of the musical duo Too Attached) and filmmaker (Holy Mother My Mother; What I LOVE About Being QUEER; Ache in My Name). Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of the Globe and Mail’s best books of 2014. Two years later came the release of her debut poetry collection, even this page is white, and her first illustrated children’s book, The Boy & the Bindi, in which a young boy becomes captivated by the mark between his mother’s brows.
In every case, Shraya reckons with bodies, historical memory, and how we mythologize our culture and ourselves. In She of the Mountains, she stitches a reinvented Hindu mythology to the story of an unnamed young person learning and unlearning his gender and sexuality against a backdrop of social violence. Her narrator first comes to understand his identity within the context of the gay-male community, only to fall in love with a woman.
Shraya continues to reckon with these ideas of remaking identity in her recent photo project, Trisha, by recasting old photographs of her mother with herself at their center. In one set of twinned images, Shraya’s mother reclines on a wrought-iron chaise lounge, her image multiplied and refracted through a kaleidoscopic trick of the camera. In the second photo, Shraya replicates this pose with the same multiplied self, the same red jumpsuit, the same red lips, the same poised stare. Trisha shows us how becoming the other, another, might release us from our bodies. At the same time, we see the limits of such a release.
The boundaries between the external and the internal in Shraya’s work are always permeable. And her efforts to understand how pained histories can be reconfigured to exist alongside a not-yet-here queer future—as queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz might have put it—feel like a revelation. Shraya and I sat down to talk during the Princeton, New Jersey, leg of her Ask & Answer tour, during which she read from even this page is white and collaborator and fellow multidisciplinary artist Chase Joynt from his book You Only Live Twice. I was especially struck by her generosity, which invited me to think alongside her—to be an accomplice.
—RL Goldberg for Guernica
Guernica: She of the Mountains is about a body in transition, but it isn’t explicitly a trans novel; rather, transness is latent throughout the narrative. You came out as trans after writing it. What is your relationship to this fictional character’s queerness?
Vivek Shraya: My intention was never to write a “trans novel”—which is perhaps an effective strategy for writing a trans novel. My focus was to write a love story that would challenge normative and homonormative ideas around love. But I have been thrilled to hear about how the book has been taken up by trans communities; it reminds me that art often has a wider or different reach than you expect. It is a valuable reminder not to limit my ideas about audience.
In relation to my own coming out as trans, post-novel, it’s exciting to consider how art, in its ability to reveal, can be ahead of the artist. Perhaps this is because art can sometimes be separate from the artist. I feel like I have had to catch up to the art I’ve made, and learn from the protagonists I have written, especially in relation to gender. My first book, God Loves Hair, ends with a short story called “God Is Half Man Half Woman.” The protagonist ends up finding an image of a Hindu deity that he identifies with. When I was reading this story at an event in Buffalo a few months ago, the transness of this identification really solidified for me. Strangely, it didn’t occur to me in the writing process.
On the flip side, after coming out as trans, there are elements I wished I could change. The dedication in God Loves Hair is: “For the boy who was almost lost.” This should actually read: “For the girl who was almost lost.”
Guernica: She of the Mountains is about finding the right words, in the right language, but failing—and still yearning. It reminded me of something Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Quite frequently, it is by language that the other is altered; the other speaks a different word, and I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world, which is the world of the other.” How has your relationship to language changed because of, or in spite of, this book?
Vivek Shraya: When I was writing, I wanted every word to be not only deliberate, but musical. Precious. While I always work with text orally in the writing process, saying passages aloud to measure flow, with this book I even sang passages out loud to try to infuse melody into the writing.
My interest in language is steadfast, but I think each project and its accompanying intentions dictate how language must be used. My subsequent book, even this page is white, demanded a different style. In writing it, I had to think about how to use words still deliberately but less lyrically, because writing about racism requires a directness that writing a love story did not— despite it being a book of poetry. In writing my newest book, The Boy & the Bindi, the biggest consideration was the audience; it is a children’s picture book, so I turned to a rhyme structure. I don’t yet know what style will be required for my next novel, but my sense is that each book will involve a new relationship to language.
Guernica: How do you come to these different genres? When and how do you know an idea should take the form that it finally does?
Vivek Shraya: I tend to focus less on genre as a starting point and more on idea or intention and let the idea dictate genre. I knew I wanted to do a project that would challenge biphobia, for instance. Writing a modern bisexual romance novel, one that readers would hopefully fall in love with, seemed to be the best strategy for this. That’s what inspired She of the Mountains.
Guernica: Structurally, something I so admire about the novel is its “white space”—the space you allow between lines that lets the words breathe on the page. How did you conceive of making space a part of She of the Mountains in this way?
Vivek Shraya: I quickly realized I couldn’t write about love without writing about hate—specifically, how the experience of hatred embeds itself in the body and prevents love from entering or leaving. My protagonist experiences homophobia and genderphobia, but I struggled with how to convey this beyond anecdotal incidents. I wanted the reader to not just empathize with the character, but to grasp the impact of this kind of policing and trauma. I turned to repetition—repeating the words “you’re gay” on a singular page, as a kind of visual representation of what the protagonist was experiencing.
Experimenting with repetition and space on the page opened up the possibilities of the novel for me. It allowed me to create visual representations of other forms of oppression the protagonist experiences. This exploration of the page itself within the context of writing prose also inspired the text and layout of the poetry in even this page is white—and perhaps the title.
Guernica: In that book you write, “even / this page / is white / so i protest this page.” What shape does protest take in your writing, and in your thinking?
Vivek Shraya: I am always hesitant to call myself an activist, mostly out of respect for the activists who are using their bodies and voices to protest or activists online who are constantly engaging and educating others. As much as I believe in the capacity for art to create change, and as much as being an artist is physically and emotionally challenging, there is ultimately something a bit comfortable about making art in the comfort of your own home.
That said, I do use art as a site of protest, particularly in relation to dominant narratives. If I am writing a love story, how can I push against the dominant expectations around love? If this is a queer story, how can I push against the dominant expectations around queerness?
Guernica: How do you even begin to grapple with these kinds of questions? What expectations are you still learning to push back against? And how does this translate from theory to real life?
Vivek Shraya: Generally, I start by observing the existing and popular narratives in my social spheres and media, and the pressures I face in my own life experiences. As someone who is “newly” trans, I am constantly thinking about what the dominant narratives are around transness, how my work can push against these narratives, and how it already falls into these traps. As part of my public coming out, I released a song called “Girl It’s Your Time.” I worry about the ways this song reinforces the idea that gender is or has a destination—that I have arrived at girlhood happily and forever. But my legs are prominently featured in the artwork for the single, and they aren’t conventionally feminine in their size and their hairiness. Even though these are small, and perhaps even superficial, details, it still feels significant for me in pushing against the pressure to perform girlhood in a cisgender manner.
Despite being brown and experiencing racism throughout my life, it was only in recent years that I began to unpack what being racialized means. I think this is largely because my hyper-visibility as a queer body, and the consequential experiences of homophobia and genderphobia, resulted in a hyper-fixation on my own queerness. Of course, I can’t separate my queerness from my brownness—if anything, my queerness amplifies my brownness, and vice versa—but I spent so much of my early twenties trying to erase my differences, often without awareness of what I was doing. When I wouldn’t leave home without my blue contacts or when I was bleaching my hair, I didn’t have the language to articulate that I was trying to assimilate to whiteness. If anything, I was trying to “look normal.”
But in my late twenties, when I began working as a human-rights advisor at a Toronto college, I started learning to see and name the entirety of my experiences. Just because I had only been called “Paki” a handful of times didn’t mean I hadn’t experienced racism. In fact, the pressures I felt to assimilate to whiteness were a direct result of racism, even in the queer community. This is something I explored in my first short film, Seeking Single White Male.
Guernica: Your poetry takes up personhood and perception from so many different angles: from being racialized and externally perceived, to exploring one’s gender identity and turning inward, to engaging with cultural and religious mythology and spirituality. How did you come to poetry?
Vivek Shraya: In my thirties, I have felt a greater urgency to make art that highlights what it feels like to be racialized, likely due to living in a country that obscures our racism with the idea of “multiculturalism.” I was working on a dystopian, allegorical novel, but I found myself grappling with whether allegory was an effective way to discuss racism. I didn’t want to give the white reader an opportunity to think of racism as imaginary—a sentiment that is already a central barrier in addressing the problem.
My friend and fellow writer Amber Dawn had commented on She of the Mountains’s poetic quality, and suggested I continue to explore poetry. I went through my novel and highlighted the phrases and words that felt the most vital or impactful and then attempted to reformat this text into poetry. These poems struck me as achieving something closer to what I had hoped for with the novel. In poetry, I didn’t have to provide resolution. I could ask hard questions without feeling responsible for the answers.
Guernica: Speaking of answers: over the last few months, you’ve been on a tour called Ask & Answer, with fellow Canadian artist Chase Joynt. Has the audience asked you any challenging questions?
Vivek Shraya: At our Montreal gig, I was asked how I reconcile reading from a book about white supremacy with touring with a white artist. Questions around collaboration and race are ones I think about a lot. Both God Loves Hair and She of the Mountains were illustrated by white artists. As a general rule, I tend to collaborate with artists whose work I admire, and this includes Chase, of course. But as a person of color, I know race can’t be stripped from admiration or preference. If anything, I have witnessed the ways my art travels, or is rendered more accessible, when sanctioned by or connected to white artists. I am also more likely to get paid for my art if it’s presented alongside a white artist, so the questions around value and agency arise: What choices should I make, or do I have to make, if I want to be compensated for my work? Why isn’t my art valued on its own?
The audience member’s question also seems to suggest that as a person of color writing about white supremacy, I should be collaborating solely with artists of color. Should I be collaborating with artists of color solely because of their race and my politics? This question is weighted with my own worry that I have been invited to speak or collaborate solely because of my race, and not because of my abilities. But are white artists ever questioned about collaborating with other white artists? Are white artists ever questioned about their intentions or considerations when collaborating with artists of color?
Guernica: The aesthetics of your books are all so wildly different. How did you arrive at them?
Vivek Shraya: Despite the fact that I’m not highly skilled in any visual art, aesthetics have always played a strong role in my art, including my first albums. I have always considered the aesthetic of a project, including press photos, as a means to further the message of the art itself.
God Loves Hair’s peculiar shape originated from wanting the book to feel like a children’s object. I wanted the book to be in full color because I needed to see brown skin and vibrant Indian prints to make up for a lifetime of not seeing brownness reflected in books. In The Boy & the Bindi, the text was actually written with the illustrator in mind. Rajni Perera’s work often takes places in space, and so I deliberately wrote an astral section. Rajni chose the large size of the book, as she wanted a lot of room to work with.
The choice to include illustrations in She of the Mountains was based on my desire to further reimagine Hinduism through a feminist lens. What might Goddess Parvati look like on her own, instead of in the domestic contexts she is typically portrayed in? What might Goddess Ganga look like if we emphasized her body over Lord Shiva’s body? We chose to use one color, green, for illustration because it has a fertile quality that corresponded with the mythological narrative.
In even this page is white, the text is generally laid out on the bottom corners of the page, creating a lot of white space. This is obviously quite a literal translation of the book, but it also reflects the ways that brownness is often pushed to the margins—and that despite this, we are still here.
Guernica: What made you want to write for children?
Vivek Shraya: I started wearing a bindi publicly a few years ago. At first it was funny, and then disturbing, to notice the negative reaction it elicited. I was perplexed that even a colored dot can be gendered and cause discomfort. I decided to write a story from the perspective of a little boy who is curious about his mother’s bindi, and goes on to explore wearing one himself.
Children’s books have great potential to reveal new possibilities to readers, because the intended audience is at an age of genuine learning. Writing this book felt like a useful opportunity to tell a story about a gender-creative child whose Indian mom does not disown him—despite racist assumptions that brown parents tend to reject or have difficulty with their queer children—and who isn’t bullied by his classmates for expressing his difference.
Guernica: What has surprised you in talking to children about identity?
Vivek Shraya: Taking The Boy & the Bindi to elementary public schools has shown me that children are receptive to talking about gender creativity, confirming the importance of the book as a means to instigate this dialogue at an early age. I recently did a reading at an elementary school in Ottawa, and one of the children asked me if I was a girl. I said yes. Another child commented that I had a deep voice. I responded: “Can girls have deep voices?” There was a pause and then the group responded, “Yes!”
Not surprising, but disturbing, has been the response of some of the adults in these rooms—teachers and principals—when the subject of gender arises. There seems to be an ever-present concern about the prospect of parents complaining. It’s hard to know if this is a genuine fear, or if parents are being scapegoated for the discomfort of teachers, or if it’s a combination of both. I have had a range of experiences, including being told to focus on the cultural aspect of the book, or feeling ushered out of the classroom even as I’m being told there are trans students at the school.
My friend Robin Phillips, who is a grade-school teacher, created a wonderful teacher’s guide to accompany the book, and my experiences with teachers in schools haven’t been solely negative. But I do worry about this kind of gatekeeping in an environment with so much possibility for learning.
Guernica: In a piece for BuzzFeed, you question the idea that queer people should disclose our identities to our families. You ask, “Why is there such an unrelenting investment in sharing personal information with our parents?” and wonder, “What would happen if instead of asking trans and queer people if they have come out to their parents, we told them that they are loved, that parental acceptance is not paramount to living queerly, and that we have a rich history of building chosen families that allow each other to be seen fully and adored?” This felt especially poignant to me in the context of your photographic project, Trisha.
Vivek Shraya: Trisha, a photo project where I reshot vintage photos of my mom with myself as the subject, was released shortly after I came out as trans. Consequently, I was bombarded with questions around disclosure: Had I shared the project with my mom? Had I come out to my mom? When I said that I hadn’t, the response was almost consistently one of shock.
I began to feel like I was a disappointment—to the person asking me the question, and to my parents. I wanted to write something that addressed not only the pressure to come out to parents—and how not coming out to them seems to render one’s identity altogether invisible—but also how sometimes an innocent question is actually a demanding one. The BuzzFeed essay grew from here.
Guernica: You mentioned that you often sing passages of your writing out loud. You’re also a musician. How do music, writing, and performance intersect for you?
Vivek Shraya: Music is my first love, where my artistic journey began. I began writing songs as a way to articulate the loneliness I felt as a brown queer kid. I also used singing as a safety measure. I would pay attention to what songs the popular girls liked, learn those songs from the radio or library cassettes, and then “accidentally” sing or hum these songs in class. This would impress the girls, who would then defend me from the boys.
Making music has also been connected to one of my greatest heartaches, because my own music has never quite connected with audiences. But it was this heartache that pushed me to explore other artistic avenues, like writing and filmmaking, and I ultimately feel most at home in a multidisciplinary environment. This is why when I do book readings, I always incorporate music or singing. Recently, at music shows, I have been incorporating poetry.
Guernica: Amid the current, horrifying political topography—specifically the global fascist-right trend we’re seeing—and in light of the recent election of Trump in the US, do you think our relationship to art will change? Must change? What might it mean to make art “after Trump”?
Vivek Shraya: Musician Amanda Palmer recently tweeted: “IF YOU COME ACROSS AN AMERICAN ARTIST RIGHT NOW WHO HAS NO POLITICAL OPINIONS OR IS AFRAID OF TALKING POLITICS, BE VERY CONCERNED.” I agree with this sentiment, especially in relation to white artists. Post-election, I think white artists have a responsibility to be not only naming white supremacy, but to be using their power and privilege to support artists of color.
As a brown artist, I have mixed feelings about my relationship to art and my “responsibilities” post-Trump. I have dedicated a significant portion of my time and artistry to making art that addresses various forms of oppression, including white supremacy, misogyny, and biphobia. I have been and continue to be committed to art as a tool to ignite, comfort, and discomfort. Given this, I would love to see more dialogue around the “responsibilities” of art consumers—how can audiences better financially support artists we love, artists who are doing the work, so that artists have a more solid foundation upon which to make art?
My art career often feels less like an art career and more like a career in educating, usually by using my body. In even this page is white, there is a poem called “a dog named lavender,” and one of the lines is: “what would i make if i wasn’t thinking about this”—this referring to the weight of white supremacy. This question feels equally if not more relevant to me as a brown artist post-Trump.
I worry about what Trump will inspire in Canada, especially given incidents that have already occurred here since the election. I especially worry about the ways Canadians can be glib about our supposed difference from the US in our “acceptance” of “diversity.” Now is not the time for Canadians to be sanctimonious. It is time for us to be prudent and active.