Vivek Shraya knocked on the door at 9:23AM. “A woman of her word,” I thought. “What a change from all these Montreal flakes.” Soon enough, the interview team found itself in a living room made up exclusively of women and femmes of colour, plants, couches, two tables, tea cups, and timid sun rays. Vivek Shraya is a multidisciplinary and widely acclaimed artist who recently released the best-selling book I’m Afraid of Men, which delves into “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.” We invited Malek Yalaoui to interview Vivek. Malek is a friend, but also a force to be reckoned with. She is a queer femme of colour, a Chai Chats Podcast host, and co-founder of SistersInMotion MTL, an annual showcase of spoken word performances by and for BIPOC women and femmes.
Malek Yalaoui (MY): How did art come into your life?
Vivek Shraya (VS): I started writing music first. I used to sing at my religious organization when I was a teenager. They used to get me to do speeches — it’s so cute, a young person giving a speech, right? So I started including pop songs in my speeches at my religious organization and then this uncle came up to me — not my uncle, like Indian uncle or whatever — he was like “that song you wrote was so beautiful” and I was like “oh, I didn’t write it” and then I was like, oh writing songs! And that’s what inspired me to write my own music. Looking back, if I were going to project a narrative on what inspired me to write songs, music was a way of gaining not popularity, but support. In school, where I was being harassed all the time, in my religious organization, singing was what made me feel special, which I didn’t have every other day of the week. People would be like “we drove all the way from wherever to come hear you sing.” Music was a way for me to channel my feelings of isolation and loneliness in a way that I couldn’t convey anywhere else. That’s where I started my artistic journey. Music was my first artistic career path but it didn’t really pan out, and I still needed to be creative. So I ended up writing what would become my first book, God Loves Hair, which I ended up self-publishing. It was sort of an accident in a way, I worked very hard on it but I had no ambition of being ‘a writer,’ but life is wild in that way… For me, the lesson is about being open to the muse and where…
MY: … where the life is.
MY: That’s so amazing too that you got the support from your community first, because that’s not something I often hear!
VS: I think a lot has to do with North American masculinity being very different than this sort of religious Hindu/Indian masculinity I was around. So me being a dancer, prancing, faggy boy in the context of my religious organization was like “oh you’re like Krishna.” It actually made me almost holier in a weird way whereas every other day at school I was the worst human, the worst boy, because I wasn’t acting like I should be. It was two extreme ends of a spectrum to be completely abnormal and completely special under two different lenses.
“You read all this stuff and say, ‘oh, you got spit on, oh it’s so terrible,’ and then I wanted it to say, ‘yeah, and imagine if I didn’t have to tell you these things for you to care.’”
On “Exceptional Men”
MY: In the book, you said you regretted telling Nick [Vivek’s ex-boyfriend] that he wasn’t special but that you also regretted all the times you told him that he was. Is Nick exceptional? Is looking at Nick outside the construct of him as a man the only way to understand him in all his human complexity and contradictions?
VS: For me it’s tied to that conversation about the “good man” or “the exception.” I think throughout my life, any time I’ve encountered a man that was nice to me I’ve been like, “oh he’s different.” It often doesn’t require much for that to happen — totally low bar. It’s like oh he’s sensitive, he’s nice to his mom, he knows some social justice speech, whatever it is.
MY: But Nick actually did do a lot of incredible support work.
VS: Exactly. In fairness, Nick was quite lovely but at the same time I don’t know that thinking of men as exceptions serves us, because I think what happens then is that we don’t allow them to fuck up. And when they do fuck up, it’s devastating, it’s like, “I thought you were an exception” whereas if I just treated Nick like a human that was completely fallible that was doing amazing things but was capable of doing things that weren’t so amazing, it would’ve been a different kind of pain, I wouldn’t be “grieving the exception.” I feel that for me that has been the consistent theme in my relationship with men, where I’m not just grieving potentially some fucked-up things they’ve done but just grieving the fact that “another one! Not another one!” I’d rather be engaging with one form of pain as opposed to thinking of men as an exception. I just don’t think that’s useful. Also, I just don’t think that it’s something that women or gender non-conforming people get to have access to, no one is ever like “she’s an exception,” it doesn’t go both ways. So why is it that we can believe in a “good man” or a “better man” when we don’t equate women or gender non-conforming people with the similar terms? So for me I’d like to get away from this bar, period, and see what happens when men are seen as people that are capable of good and bad and not necessarily even use that language of good and bad.
MY: You wrote about reimagining forms of masculinity that don’t arouse fear, but then also about blurring gender boundaries, and sort of how do we do both, are these even useful categories?
VS: It’s difficult, because realistically I don’t imagine a world where we’re all going to embrace gender nonconformity. I think people are very attached to the gender binary. It’s like trying to speak to reality and optimism simultaneously. And so from a realistic perspective, I propose some ideas about how we might reimagine masculinity. And number one is moving away from this “good man” idea. And second, you know, for me it’s really important for men to be thinking about how to be able to honour femininity. And that being the central part of the work. And by honouring femininity, really what’s underneath that is being able to understand and unpack misogyny, and understanding the ways that misogyny is inherent in so many forms of harassment, but also ideas. I think a lot of men, especially in 2018, think that they’re sensitive, think that they’re good listeners, think that because they hold the door open for women that they are “good men” and that they don’t have misogynistic ideas. But then I hear the same guys who say “I listen to her, and I’m nice to her, but she doesn’t want to date me.” And I’m like, wait a second, so you listened, and you were good to somebody, so what? That’s a weird entitlement. And I think that that entitlement to women and desire is a form of misogyny. Its like, “how dare you not want me after I spent an hour listening to you or half an hour listening to you.” And that’s just one idea, or one example. And I bring this up as an example because I, too, as a male, walked around like “I LOVE WOMEN, I’m not capable of misogyny, I don’t have misogynistic ideas,” but when challenged by friends I was like “oh shit yeah there it is, of course.”
MY: And we all do!
VS: Yeah of course. So to answer your question, I think that I have a surface proposition in terms of thinking about gender, but simultaneously at the end I’m sort of like in an ideal world, I would love for us to move beyond masculinity and femininity altogether. What would it be like to abandon those terms, what would it be like to embrace gender creativity. So that’s me at my most hopeful, but I don’t know that that’s super realistic.
On Time, Transness, and Potential
MY: I wonder for you personally, do you feel that you’ve realized your potential, or do you see it as still on the horizon, or do you think that that’s possible in the world that we live in?
VS: I mean, I know I’m old, but I hope that there’s still more potential.
MY: I mean The Queers think anyone over 30 is old!
VS: It’s true — I’m already an elder! I mean truthfully it’s something I’ve struggled so much about in my thirties. Like in your twenties people are like “oh, so and so has so much potential,” but then in your thirties no one talks about the potential you have anymore — you’re just you. Which is kind of scary in a way. So thinking a bit broader than I’m sure what you’re asking, I also think about all the people I’ve been in 37 years: I hope I haven’t realized my full potential. Like I hope there’s still more, I’m curious what my gender will look like ten years from now, if I’m still around. It’s so hard for me to imagine a future as a queer, trans, racialized body, and so, I don’t know. I hope that I haven’t, and I don’t know what that looks like, but that’s what’s exciting about life. Like I always felt that trans-ness was like a boat that I missed when I was 25, kind of like ecstasy. Like I didn’t do ecstasy, and I didn’t come out as trans, so I guess that’s it.
MY: As in, “I missed the window?”
VS: And you know ten years after I’m like “oh, here I am.” So, for me it’s been exciting to be like, “oh, you can come into these identities and realities later” and it’s complicated because you do feel this feeling of lost time. At the same time, I look at who I am in the mirror and I’m like “can’t believe we made it.” And isn’t that nice, you know?
On Internalized Misogyny and Racism
MY: You were talking about some misogynistic ideas we all had, and that you had. And I wanted to ask you: you had written about your childhood, and the ways in which you once felt entitled to Brown women’s bodies and their labour. How was your experience writing about this?
VS: What I share in the book, is that when I’m in grade two I decide I really want to know what it’s like to have a kiss. And I don’t know where I’m going to get a kiss from, so I imagine I’m going to make Manpreet kiss me. That was one of the hardest parts of the book to talk about — because first of all, transness and queerness are already equated with weird childhood perversion or predatory behaviour. But for me, it was really important as an example to talk about — isn’t it really disturbing to think about how even as a young boy I had already learned that I was entitled to a young girl’s body? And where did I learn that? That was the point of that example, and owning it as well. I don’t think I would have ever done that to a white girl. I think I understood that here is a girl, with a long braid and sideburns —
MY: It’s like, “I’m low on the totem pole, but this is someone who is just a tiny bit lower.”
“I don’t know that thinking of men as exceptions serves us, because I think what happens then is that we don’t allow them to fuck up. And when they do fuck up, it’s devastating, it’s like ‘I thought you were an exception.’”
VS: Exactly. So even though I was clearly an outcast, clearly a nerd, here was someone who was, like you said, lower socially even though those hierarchies were already being formed. I knew she was vulnerable. And again, I didn’t have this language — but it’s disturbing to think about the ways that I understood that — how I deliberately chose a Brown girl from my class, as opposed to a blonde white girl.
MY: Right, and we get those messages from birth.
It’s just unconscious…
VS: Totally. I re-watched this Bollywood film that I used to really like as a kid called “Chandni”, for the first time since I was a child. And I’m not blaming Bollywood, but it was just strange to see this man, who is literally trying to make an advance on a woman and he just starts grabbing her — and she starts running. But he keeps grabbing her, and it’s just this joke. And I was like, “oh, well here’s an example of where I might have learned this behaviour.” Again, we see it in so many forms and I’m not saying it’s that particular film, but I’m sure it was part of it.
MY: Towards the end of the book you start to talk about how you’re afraid of women as well. You had some really powerful examples in the book of women who either emboldened or defended the men who harmed you, the girl who giggles when you’re wearing the blue jacket, the one who passes on your high school crush’s threat, the one who tells you it’s a compliment when you’re groped. And the ones who, you wrote, “have internalized their experiences of misogyny so deeply, that they make me their punching bag.” How do you think we can begin to hold women accountable for the ways in which we participate in and defend mens’ violence, what do you see as the road to healing and reconciliation between women?
VS: I have a trans friend I really look up to on Twitter — who I think, actually used to live in Montreal – Morgan Page. She has this Twitter rule “I’ll never drag another trans woman on Twitter,” and for me that has been so crucial in my own thinking about visibility as a trans body and online interactions. But I think that applies to all marginalized groups. It’s a tricky part of the book because there’s this idea that women just don’t get along like “oh, they’re always catfighting.” And it’s like, no, that’s not the issue, this has been enforced on us, this is how men maintain their power by having us tear each other apart. So for me the work is, in those moments where I feel “competitive” with another woman, or when someone is putting me in competition with another woman: how do I challenge that feeling? For me at the core of the book actually, so much of it is how to challenge thought and feeling, because I think that most people assume that they are good people because they’ve never pushed someone or used “faggot” as a word or something. But the truth is so much of the work that needs to be done is challenging the inside stuff that’s happening, and for women it’s so easy for us, because we’re so trained to rip each other apart. And I’ve experienced this as a girl, in the queer community, in the Brown community – it’s not specific to girls, right. This is the nature of how oppression works: we end up having conflict with each other because where else are we going to direct it? So a part of it is really spending time with those moments when you feel petty and direct that towards another woman and wondering why I feel this way. What is this woman ‘taking’ from me? How might I turn this feeling into actual support, and nurturing? Or how might I have a conversation with this woman directly, one-on-one as opposed to “cancelling” them or tweeting about them online? I think that’s the work, it’s really investing in the one-on-one, in the work of internal processing.
MY: I feel like there’s been so many instances in which I have either said something dumb and ignorant, which is very possible for me to do…
VS: Which happens. It happens for all of us.
MY: … or have been perceived as saying something oppressive which wasn’t actually or whatever. And then it was like — it’s over, you’re done, I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to say hello to you, I don’t want see you in any space that I’m in.
VS: (sarcastic) …That doesn’t sound familiar… (laughs)
MY: And it’s literally like, wait, but could we just continue the conversation for maybe three minutes after I said the wrong thing? And I understand in a way because people are dealing with a lot of violence and trauma, so maybe you don’t have the capacity for that right now, but I just don’t know how we move forward — we’re eating each other…
VS: I really don’t think that intimacy can be built without conflict. I think most people are just like, “I don’t like conflict, I shy away from conflict.” I appreciate that but for us to get to the next level, we need to talk this through. I feel like it’s so easy, especially in larger cities. This was my experience in Toronto a lot: you do something fucked up, which happens, and then you never know what you said, what you did, sometimes you don’t even know what it is or how it was perceived, and then suddenly people aren’t talking to you anymore, and you’re just like… “okay…”
MY: And if you have any kind of platform now they want to take your platform from you — my life’s work is done because I said something in a bar or…?
VS: Yeah! And I’m like blah blah blah all the time! You can’t control everything that comes out of your mouth. The reality is we’re all going to fuck up in our communities, it doesn’t matter how woke, how political —
MY: Because we have this stuff inside and it’s going to come out, and that’s the opportunity to deal with it.
VS: Yes, and also you can’t control how people are hearing what you’re saying. So you could be saying something that’s very harmless but you don’t know how that individual might hear you. For me it’s like, let’s have it out. Let’s have the conversation. If I said something, yes, of course I want to be held accountable, but not online, not publicly. Can we have this one-on-one, and also can we just have it, period? As opposed to being just like, “bye!” I feel like that’s the work, I get why people don’t want to do it. The thing is, there are lines right? If it’s a white man who’s done something, I’m like, “I don’t have the capacity for it, bye!”
MY: My experience has actually been that it’s the opposite, and it all comes back to who we see as disposable — if a woman of colour, a femme of colour, a trans woman of colour fucks up, she’s done —
MY: But a white man can do the same thing, for a decade and nobody’s called him out! So it’s like, why aren’t we cancelling the white men?
MY: About sisterhood, S-I-S not C-I-S (VS laughs). Do you believe in sisterhood? What do you think is the importance of sisterhood?
VS: Maybe this is a little second wave [feminism] (laughs) but I really believe in sisterhood. As much as I’ve definitely called out women in this book, at the end of the day, I would not have come out as trans had it not been partly because of women who “saw” me. Actually, my friend Alanna one day showed up at dinner, she brought me, it sounds so superficial but she brought me these beautiful, coloured eyeliner and she was like “I don’t know I just had a feeling that you’d like these so just have fun with them” and it was then that we just started talking about makeup more. I feel like she “saw” something, embraced it, and she loved me. I feel like I’ve had that kind of generosity from women as well, so I absolutely believe in sisterhood, I just think we have work to do… And the only way to “dismantle the patriarchy” is actually by holding each other up, and finding ways to have conflict respectfully and lovingly.
“I’m Coming for Everyone, Including Myself”
MY: You write: “why is my humanity only seen or cared about when I share the ways in which I’ve been victimized and violated,” and you share so much of that in this book — so I’m wondering why you made that choice. Ultimately, why did you write this book?
VS: (laughs) I asked myself that question so much during the writing process. I felt like a lot of the conversations around masculinity were a little one-dimensional, especially the ones that had been happening the last few years. They had usually been by cis white women, cis white straight women, so what that meant was that a lot of queer men, or gay men, get to be off the hook, get a pass, so to speak. Racialized men, some of them have gotten a pass, trans men have gotten a pass, women have gotten a pass, and I’m like no no no, we’re all a part of this. So for me that was a big part of the impetus for I’m Afraid of Men — let’s broaden this conversation and talk about how we’re all a part of it. I’m coming for everyone, including myself. Certainly the white man is a large issue, but it’s so much more complicated than that, so that was a big part of why I wrote the book.
“Me being a dancer, prancing, faggy boy in the context of my religious organization was like ‘oh you’re like Krishna.’ It actually made me almost holier in a weird way, whereas every other day at school I was the worst human, the worst boy, because I wasn’t acting like I should be.”
On Trauma Porn
MY: I’m Afraid of Men is written in the second person, why is that?
VS: There’s this current fascination with people’s suffering, especially marginalized bodies — I think the word is trauma porn. After starting to write it all in first person, it just started to feel really gross that the reader would be able to just put the book down. I’ve just disclosed all this stuff that’s so personal, and you get to just be in and out of it? How do I keep the reader here with me? If I’m going to be accountable to these stories and talking about it, how do I keep the reader accountable to me? How do I create more of a relationship as opposed to a passive one? By changing all of those stories to second person by saying “you,”, “I see you,” “you do this,” “you said this,” it felt like a way to put the reader in the hot seat. If I’m going to do this work, you’re going to sit here with me, and you’re going to try it. And even if it’s clearly not you, the hope is to get you to think about your own complicity. If not in that specific interaction, but other interactions of your life where you may have been a bystander or someone who engages with this kind of activity. I used to work at a college in Toronto where I did anti-homophobia workshops and there I found that the only way to get many people mobilized was by telling them about how gender non-conforming people would pee in their pants, as opposed to going to the washroom. And suddenly everyone was like, “Oh my god, that’s terrible!”
MY: “Well if you’re suffering, then you deserve rights!”
VS: Exactly! But if I was just like “Transphobia, it exists — misogyny, it exists,” people would be like “yeah, sure, whatever.” So I worried that I was sort of engaging in this practice, that a lot of oppression is based on disclosing personal hardship to solicit allyship from the oppressor. So here I am doing that, but how do I navigate it? For me it was by naming it. “Okay, I’ve done this work now, but you’ve made me do this work in a lot of ways. The only way I know how to mobilize you and to get you to care about me and my trans brothers and sisters is by me doing this, so can we challenge this? Can we find a way for this to not have to happen?” Because I think we all know this, but I wanted it to be part of the book – you read all this stuff and say “oh, you got spit on, oh it’s so terrible,” and then I wanted it to say “yeah, and imagine if I didn’t have to tell you these things for you to care.”
MY: I wanted to ask if there’s anything that you wish you would be asked.
VS: Oh, that’s so nice. Well I’m curious, did you think it was like 101 when you were reading? Were you like, “oh yeah, been there done that?”
MY: No, I didn’t think it was 101.
VS: That has been my biggest fear in terms of my communities, I feel people have been doing this kind of work around gender and unpacking gender in smarter and more nuanced ways for years and years and years. So there’s been a part of me that’s like, “oh, no, my people think this book is like very very basic.”
MY: That’s not what I thought at all.
VS: Okay. I’m not fishing for compliments, either.
MY: No but I just want to say: I actually didn’t take gender studies in school or whatever, as part of that like coming to myself later in life — I just thought I was in college to find a way to make a lot of money and get a good job. I didn’t understand that you could explore ideas in university! I actually don’t have that theoretical background at all; I haven’t read Judith Butler, or whatever, but I have learned a lot in the context of community spaces. But sometimes it has felt like “these are the ideas, and you need to get on board, or you’re a homophobic, transmisogynist, piece of shit.” And so I’m just like, okay, “tell me what I need to believe,” just to get the good stamp, you know. And there’s very little patience for actually exploring. Like I’m not saying that I’m not there — but just, can we walk through it a little more? I feel this book was so generous and so patient with walking me through it all in a very accessible and step-by-step way to understanding “oh, the gender binary is destroying all of us.” I felt like I had the time to sort of steep in your ideas, to get there on my own, as opposed to “here are all of the things you need to believe to be able to ‘count’ as a legitimate person.”
VS: Well thank you, thanks, that’s great. And thank you so much for all of these questions. I really appreciate having a conversation with another Brown girl about this. It’s been strange because you realize how much of mainstream media is white men, and so its funny when they’re like (gravely) “I’m Afraid of Men, what is this book about?” and its like “ahhhhh! you’re scaring me!” So thank you so much to all of you, I really appreciate this opportunity.
MY: Can I give you a hug?
VS: Yes! Please!
The interview has been edited for clarity.