12 Days of Feminists: Vivek Shraya

This year, we're celebrating the women who showed up, raised their voices and fought for change. Here, Sanchari Sur celebrates artist and best-selling author Vivek Shraya

Vivek Shraya poses in silver v-neck dress with a bindi and her hair down, there are illustrations of raised fists around her in a show of solidarity and power

(Photo: Courtesy of Vivek Shraya)

I came across Vivek Shraya three years ago while doing my graduate research project on South Asian Canadian writers. I read her book She of the Mountains—a novel about queer desire with intriguing Hindu mythological illustrations interwoven through the narrative—and then waited eagerly for her poetry collection, even this page is white. In the interim, I became a voyeur of her life via social media. There was something unapologetic and fearless about Shraya, whether in the work she created, or in the way she interacted with the world.

When she came out as a woman in February 2016, I applauded from the sidelines. This was a second-gen South Asian Canadian woman fearlessly declaring to the world the way she wanted the world to see her—an intensely feminist and self-affirming moment for countless other queer people of colour in Canada, like myself. Later that same year, she once again redefined social norms by throwing a divorce party, posting joyous photos with her former partner Shemeena Shraya, celebrating their love, friendship and the rebirth of a new relationship. But it was her seminal photo series Trisha, where she recreated photos of her mother, that really solidified Shraya as a tour-de-force in my mind. Seeing her in those photos touched a longing within me to be seen. I had yet to come out to my family, but seeing Shraya staring back at me from the photos, was a nudge in that direction.

I felt possible.

One of the unexpected benefits of Shraya’s art has been the ways in which this work has given her a space to grow into herself and reclaim parts of herself—parts she says she didn’t even know that existed. In doing so, she redefines possibilities of existing and creates conversation around taboo topics like queerness in South Asian Canadian communities, sexism, transphobia, anti-Blackness and suicide—and in 2018, she pushed those discussions to the world stage.

This year saw the publication of Shraya’s feminist manifesto, I Am Afraid of Men. The non-fiction book engages with issues of masculinity, and Shraya’s ways of existing within the world in relation to that masculinity. The book speaks simultaneously to the invisibility and hyper-visibility of female trans bodies of colour, and the hyper-awareness of men in the world. She writes of the way she constantly adjusts her body within different spaces and situations. In a classroom as a graduate student at York University, for example, she found herself making self-deprecating jokes so other men wouldn’t find her threatening, or using exclamation marks in her emails to soften her message. While these “adjustments” to masculinity may seem antithetical to feminism, these ways of existing are actually acts of resilience, making her book a type of survival handbook for women—and queer men—of colour.

I’m Afraid of Men was referred to as “an essential guide to being a good ally to trans women” by Bustle, featured in Vanity Fair and listed as one of the best books of 2018 by Apple and the Globe and Mail. And yet, for Shraya, the process of making art, and then putting that art into the world, is still both scary and unsafe. “The tricky thing is always negotiating boundaries,” she says.

Some of those boundaries were revealed during Shraya’s recent brush with Toronto playwright Sky Gilbert. On November 10, Gilbert shared a poem on his website called “I’m Afraid Of ‘Woke People’”—which argued that ‘woke’ people made him ashamed of being gay—and addressed it to Shraya. The incident not only exposed Shraya to transphobia within the queer community in Canada, but also brought to light Shraya’s complicated relationship with the queer community. “It hasn’t always felt like a giant room of people who care about you,” she says. The controversy around the poem was challenging, and yet Shraya is grateful for the experience. She says the response in support of her work, as well as the stance against transphobia from the queer community, made her feel “less lonely.”

I was one of the many witnessing ups and downs of Shraya’s career unfold on social media. On Twitter and IG, I watched this artist, author, mentor for younger writers, and now, a tenure-track professor at University of Calgary make headlines. The uncertainty she describes in the book seems now to be replaced by an enviable confidence. Yet Shraya reminds me that there is a lot more than what her growing fan base sees on social media.

“There is a detrimental discrepancy [on social media] between what we see about an individual and the reality behind what we see…I think there needs to be a more cultural understanding in respect to this,” she says. Seeking that understanding is the underlying theme in her next work, Death Threat (forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press in spring 2019), a comic book about her real-life experience with an online troll who sent her death threats by mail.

Shraya is doing necessary feminist work, but as evidenced by the real life events that inspired her 2019 book, it also makes her vulnerable to attacks. And even after the successful year she’s had, that fear still exists. What drives her to keep posting, creating and speaking up is a deep sense of self.

“[For] queer and BIPOC people, [our] voice is constantly diminished,” she says, echoing what I have found to be true as well. From an established artist to an emerging one, she gave me advice that will propel me into the new year: “Trust your voice, and develop your craft.”

More from FLARE’s ‘12 Days of Feminists’ series:

Day 1: Chrystia Freeland
Day 2: Constance Wu
Day 3: Tracee Ellis Ross