Vivek Shraya Talks Being a FOLD Alumni, and Turning Hate Into Fiction

Brampton Focus had the delight of speaking with Vivek Shraya, “an artist whose body of work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theatre, and film“. She is also an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Calgary.

Vivek will be at the Festival of Literary Diversity on May 3rd. The Festival runs from May 2nd-5th. Tickets are still available at the FOLD website.

Your new book, Death Threat is out. Can you tell me a little bit about what made you want to take what was a really awful, and scary situation, turning it into art.

I think that a lot of my art explores forms of harassment, violence, and oppression whether it’s racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia or homophobia. I don’t think in that sense it was a huge stretch for my brain to take something that was quite disturbing and see it as an opportunity to make art.

When you get the idea for a book or project, do you know relatively quickly that it will materialize into something beyond the idea?

I don’t always know to be honest. Sometimes I’ll get an idea, and I think that I would love to make it into art; So much of the genesis of art is trying to figure out if art is there to be made. Sometimes there isn’t, or it’s really about waiting for the moment, or for something else to click in. I wanted to make something about suicide for so long, but I couldn’t nail how I wanted to do it. It took 2-3 years while I grappled with the idea and my experience of suicide, and thinking about suicide, before it turned into a short film. Part of it is just patience.

Hate invisibilizes the intimacies it steals from us, but Death Threat captures that so viscerally. Can you tell me more about why it was important to juxtapose the extraordinarily awful nature of the hate mail, against moments as ordinary as brushing your teeth in the morning, or watching videos online.

It felt important to show the ways that they are disturbances and the ways that for me as a trans person, I can think as positive as I want. I can wake up in the morning and seize the day, so-to-speak but I live in a world where I can open my computer or my phone, receiving mail that completely de-rails any amount of positive thinking. The broader conversation is thinking about mental supports beyond focus on the positive because I think a lot of us who experience oppression don’t necessarily have a lot of control over when we’re able to have cruel actions or language hurled at us.

I really like that point about thinking positive. People often say that I seem so mad now.

That sounds familiar.

It doesn’t always feel like people get it that there are so many very real things taking away from the capacity of oppressed people just to have a good day. What would you say to someone who feels the pressure to be positive or agreeable, or less angry?

I am all about people owning the truth of their emotions because I feel like in our culture there’s a range of emotions that are considered negative whether that’s anger, or jealousy or fear, a lot of my work is about embracing those emotions if only to move forward. Last year I put out a book called I’m Afraid of Men, and in it there’s a similar politic around fear being something that margianlized people are supposed to tuck away, like we’re supposed to embody this strength or courage. I don’t think admitting that you’re afraid takes away from that experience or your truth. I think it’s actually a very courageous thing to do. Similarly, I also put out an album called Angry with my band Too Attached. Racialized people, and women are often expected to “perform” properly, like when women are expected to smile. My response is very much about owning your emotion as opposed to repressing the emotion.

When you saw the completed book, reading through it, how did it feel to see the timeline and breadth of that time, and the way it impacted you, looking back from the page?

The unsexy answer is that when you turn something like this into art, part of why it’s useful is that it dismantles the reality of it, and the disturbing aspects of it. I don’t read that book as something that happened to me, and I’m not necessarily processing it as a timeline like you’re articulating. It’s a good question but it’s more that I’m thinking as a storyteller. I read it and think- are there gaps, and should there be more spaces here? Could there be another beat here? Do we need to pick up the pace here? Again, a bit of an unsexy answer, but I think that making the project art allows me to render something hateful into fiction.

In a 2017 interview with Daniel Pillai, you said that your artistic purpose is to complicate dominant narratives. What narratives do you hope Death Threat helps complicate?

One of my biggest agendas around this project is trying to get people thinking about internet safety in new ways. Certainly this is a conversation that has existed, and continues to exist but I do think that there are ways that a lot of us have subsumed to the expectation that we’re supposed to just ignore trolls. Ignorance feels complicit because it’s suggesting that hate exists and we’re just going to look the other way.

What that has done in the past five years is emboldened hate to be even more visceral. One of the most terrifying things about Death Threat was that this individual included their address, and full name. There was a time where hate was expressed anonymously but now because there aren’t real safety measures in terms of this on the internet.

People can just be direct about how they feel and not expect any consequences. I don’t have any big answers, but I do think that we should be pushing social media sites, websites, and even Google with Gmail to be thinking about how they might protect us a little bit more. It’s particularly true for so many of us where being on the internet is a big part of our jobs.

There were so many powerful parts of I’m Afraid of Men, and one that resonated in particular was, “How do I love a body that was never fully my own? (p.31)”. When I read your work I think of agency, and how it gives back what popular discourse/media, or legislation take away. How has your work helped you to do that?

I think it goes back to what we’ve been talking about. The loss or lack of agency has often been tied to invisibility, whether through lack of language, or exposure to people with similar experiences, or a lack of institutional support and recognition of systemic barriers. I really strive to name in my work, whether that’s naming misogyny or racism. I think that naming has granted me that agency or helped facilitate an agency that couldn’t be possible otherwise.

Your work has made me feel safer in my truths as a non-binary queer person, and talking to others about it, I know I’m not the only one who has found comfort in it. What would you say to someone who approaches your work feeling uncertain about their truth but searching for a space where they can put down all of the tools or pretenses they’ve used to make dominant groups of people comfortable?  

I work with a lot of institutions so I don’t feel free, and there are definitely ways in which I have to play nice, so-to-speak. I think that the biggest saving grace has been trying to find community with like-minded individuals, or people with similar experiences. It creates a sense of support. I don’t know that marginalized people can exist in white supremacist, capitalist systems without the tools you’re speaking about. The only way through has been for me to find support in people with similar experiences so that I can share the frustration of having to use those tools, if that makes any sense.

You’re a FOLD alumni, and I’m wondering what you’re most looking forward to about this year’s festival.

The last time I came to the FOLD I was on a panel with several “diverse” authors and what I loved so much about it was that we got to actually have a meaningful conversation. It was just established that everyone there was diverse, as opposed to atmospheres I often get invited into where I represent the diversity. The questions around diversity about being an ally, and others are what I usually get on my own so it was really nice to be with a group of other people where we got to talk about our craft, and our ideas beyond our lived experiences and identities.

I would listen to Too Attached’s album Angry, specifically the track Grateful on repeat while trying to navigate an enduring queer, gender diverse anger in a world that doesn’t always understand marginalization. It gave me something I could sing to myself as a comfort while I was having to smile, despite screaming internally. Much of your work has this current of resistance running through it. What does it mean for you to take part in the Rage Becomes Her panel at the FOLD?

It’s one of the reasons why we made the album. We really wanted marginalized people to have something that they could put on and be as angry as the world often makes us feel. It’s very much what we were trying to do so thank you. Honestly, I’m just really excited to be on a panel with so many CanLit powerhouses. I haven’t thought so much about the content as much as I’m excited to connect with other people who are exploring similar ideas and themes in their work as well.

I want to ask what you’re working on next, but I also recognize how this capitalist drive to create constantly asks this.

I appreciate you saying that because sometimes at book launches people ask what you’re doing next, and you’re thinking, “Ah, I just put out this book”. However, I have a play coming out with CanStage next year in February called How to Fail as a Pop Star. It’s my next big project.

If there’s someone reading this who is feeling the weight of a world, whether literary or artistically, that doesn’t reflect them, what would you say to them?

My response to not feeling reflected has always been to make that work. I know not everyone’s inclined to do that, but also I do think we do live in a time where there are a lot of intersectional resources. Sometimes it’s’ also reaching out for support so if someone’s reading this article they should contact you or Jael. I feel Jael is so connected and a great resource for those who might not yet know of what’s available.

The Festival of Literary Diversity runs from May 2nd-5th, in Brampton. Tickets are available at the FOLD website.