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Ahead of Toronto appearance, author Vivek Shraya explains why she’s afraid of men
Joshua Freeman, CP24.com
Published Sunday, October 28, 2018 10:12AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, October 29, 2018 5:01PM EDT
Vivek Shraya is a noted musician and writer. She’s also a trans person of colour who has spent decades grappling with difficult issues around gender and identity.
In her new book, “I’m Afraid of Men,” Shraya paints an intimate and sometimes difficult portrait of life as a trans woman who has had a difficult and complicated relationship with men and masculinity throughout her life.
Ahead of her appearance at the International Festival of Authors, Shraya spoke with CP24.com to talk about the book and what it’s like to be a writer and to be Trans in Toronto.
Some responses have been edited for clarity and length
What made you want to write this book
I came out as trans two years ago and during that time I found myself thinking a lot about the way that my life had been shaped by masculinity, whether it being someone who was coerced into masculinity as a child because I was assigned male at birth or the way that I sort of adopted masculinity as a twentysomething individual. So yeah -- I think just thinking about last year there were so many conversations about masculinity online and I found myself thinking about how so many of those conversations felt like they were coming from a particular lens, often a white non-trans or cis gendered lens and so for me, “I’m Afraid of Men” felt like an opportunity to widen the conversation around masculinity from a trans perspective
It’s quite short and digestible. Was that part of a conscious effort to want to make it an accessible read?
Yeah. I think the conversation with Penguin was always that this would be a single essay book modeled after some of these other books like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” because of the way that it allows the reader to tackle a seemingly dense topic in a very accessible way.
In this book you describe a world where it seems that you live in almost a constant state of fear. Do you think that’s the reality for most trans people today?
I am always hesitant to speak on behalf of anyone, but I do think it’s very likely that a lot of trans people live in a regular state of fear. We have a thing called Trans Day of Remembrance happening on November 20th. It happens every year and it’s been set up to commemorate the lives lost due to violence so I think trans people live in a legitimate state of fear and not just in terms of you know ‘I am afraid of spiders.’ It’s more like ‘I’m afraid that when I leave the house I might not come back home.’
On one page of the book, you describe a number of things in your daily routine that make you anxious, to say the least: Getting out of an elevator, you’re afraid someone might push you, you’re afraid that a notice on the door might say “faggot.” Are those all things that have happened to you?
It’s interesting because I think sometimes when people talk about their fear and their heightened sense of fear, it comes off as being paranoid, like ‘oh why do you feel that way’ and I think for me it’s not necessarily that those things have happened to me. This is what I try and show in the book. That because I have experienced such a range of harm from men, it has created this sort of hyper-awareness and hyper-vigilance where I’m constantly worried about the worst. And if it hasn’t happened to me I certainly see it happening to other women and trans people on social media on a regular basis so I think that’s also part of what feeds into the fear is the way that news reports – which are important in terms of bringing visibility – often tend to sensationalize. As I talk about in the book that kind of reporting becomes a form of social control because it reminds me that I need to be afraid. I remember having a conversation with a woman who read “I’m Afraid of Men” and she said that she forgot that often when she’s walking, she’s worried that a man is going to be behind her with an axe. Realistically, being in an urban city nobody necessarily walks around with and axe. But I think it’s this heightened sense of fear that women and non-gender-conforming people feel because of our past experiences.
Some things in the book you certainly have experienced, such as people gawking or calling names. People who do that – what is it that they don’t understand about trans people?
I don’t even know that it goes that far to be honest. I don’t think that people who have that kind of reaction are like ‘I don’t understand something about trans people.’ I think that people see something or see someone different and I think encountering difference with confusion is probably pretty normal. I’ve certainly had that experience running into someone who looks different from me and being confused, or even uncomfortable. For me the work is taking that extra step of challenging myself – why do I feel uncomfortable why do I feel afraid of what’s going to happen in that moment. So I think a lot of men, instead of doing the work of ‘why is this different human making me uncomfortable,’ they tend to just lash out. I think so much of our culture is framed around ‘you need to understand who I am.’ Truthfully I’m not looking for understanding. I don’t need somebody to understand me or transness or my story. Often I’m just looking for men to leave me alone and I think what’s required is for men to think about why they’re so uncomfortable with someone who doesn’t look the way they think they should look, if that makes sense.
What are, do you think, the best ways to do that -- to engender that kind of thinking?
I think part of it is about emphasizing thought in our conversations around growth and social change because I think so often most people think they’re good people because they haven’t used an offensive word or acted out necessarily in a violent way. But usually violent actions and violent words come from thoughts. Thoughts go unmonitored all the time. So for me thinking about this more deeply, I think there needs to be an understanding of how thoughts are crucial in relation to actions and words and that thought need to be engaged with, everyone of them. Every time I feel some kind of prejudice or stereotype or think something that is stereotypical or discriminatory, even I have to do the work of challenging myself in those moments internally.
You’ve lived in Toronto for some time. Do you think that the city has gotten to be a better place to be a trans person in the time you’ve lived here?
It’s such a complicated question. I moved there from Alberta I when I was 21 and I think I needed to live in a city where there was a lot of diversity. Truthfully I don’t know that I would’ve grown into the person that I am, including coming out as trans, had I not lived in Toronto. But at the same time I think sometimes Toronto has sort of this moral superiority in relation to the rest of the province because it’s seen as this place where people aren’t trans-phobic or racist or homophobic and then the election happened and you’re like ‘oh, wait a second. What happened? Who voted for that individual?’ I think one of the things I really like about Alberta is that you really, really know what people’s politics are. You really know where they stand. Whereas Toronto people get to be a lot more covert about what they think. That to me feels harder because anytime I’ve experienced any sort of racism and misogyny in Toronto I find myself second-guessing like, ‘did that happen?’ because it’s so coded and so covert.
You’re also a musician. What can you do in your book that you can’t do in your music
It’s interesting because “I’m Afraid of Men” actually started out as a song that I released on my 2017 album “Part-time Woman,” which I recorded with Toronto’s Queer Songbook Orchestra.
So I think that there is such a strong relationship between both mediums for me and I think when I first started writing songs, I didn’t see it as a political tool per se or as an overtly political tool. Writing books has challenged me to find ways to incorporate politics in music so the last two projects— “Part-time Woman” — and then I’m in a band with my brother Too Attached. We put out an album called “Angry” this year and for me it’s a very political album. The album is named angry to celebrate racialized rage because so often people of colour need to be polite and sort of suppress our rage so I’m really excited about the ways that pop music can be used as opportunities to engage in some of the themes and ideas that I have up until this point only done in my other work and what’s exciting about pop music in particular is that you can then have these conversations in music clubs.
When we perform “I’m Afraid of Men” my band did a remix with Peaches and every time we talk about it we talk about the van attack that happened in Toronto and we talk about misogyny. So to me it feels really powerful and important to think about how you can use pop music to have these dense conversations at a pop show at a rock venue.
Is Toronto a good place to be a writer?
I sense a diplomatic answer taking shape…
It’s hard. Admittedly I have complicated feelings about Toronto but admittedly I grew into the best version of myself in Toronto. In many ways the literary community was like 20 times more open than the music community. I moved to Toronto for music and in many ways I feel like it didn’t do anything for my music. When you look at posters for summer festivals in Toronto they often feature the same band as they featured 10 years ago. It’s a very insular community whereas I have found in Toronto the literary community to be a lot more open and sharing of resources and supportive.
I think that the tricky thing about Toronto, to answer your question in a different way, is that I think one of the things that needs to change is that Canadian arts tend to really shine its light on Toronto artists. I really benefited from that and every Toronto artist benefits from that.
For me the challenge now living in Alberta is trying to figure out ways for us to dismantle that a little bit because I do think that there are amazing writers and artists across the country and just because we don’t live under the guiding light of Toronto we don’t get the same visibility. So to answer your question, is Toronto a great place to be a writer? Absolutely. If you want to be an artist in this country, in a lot of ways, Toronto is still the centre.
So how has this book been received so far?
I’ve been really fortunate. With a title like “I’m Afraid of Men” it’s really hard to predict who’s going to read this book and if people are going to engage. But it was the Indigo staff pick of the month for all of September, which was incredible and then it’s been on the bestseller’s list across Canada. More importantly I’ve just had a lot of very interesting and lovely messages from readers who have been really engaging with the material, which to me is really exciting. As a trans, feminine person of colour, the thing I hear about my art so often is that it’s “niche” and seeing that people are actually engaging with this work and that you don’t need to be white for you to write a story that’s engaged with by a mainstream or universal audience, to me it’s validation. I’ve always known that but it’s nice to have proof.
In this book you also have a lot of tough things to say about men and masculinity in general. Has there been any blowback about that so far?
I mean I have the occasional message from men who swear at me and tell me to die or whatever. But for me I have been very heartened by how many straight cis men have told me how much they appreciate my book and how much they relate to it and how much they too have engaged with that kind of fear and have had to navigate it as well. So again I think it’s a reminder not to underestimate the reader. You just never know who’s going to pick up your work and connect to it.
Who do you hope will read this book?
I don’t have a designated audience in mind. I hope that everyone reads the book and I’ve written it from a perspective of trying to welcome a range of different people into that conversation.
You’re going to be appearing at the festival. Will this be your first time participating?
It is. I lived in Toronto for 15 years and this is the first time.
You’re actually living in Calgary now?
I live in Calgary now. That’s all it took.
So you had to leave in order to get invited to come back?
Well this is the joke about Canadian arts, right? That you have to leave the city or the country for the city to notice you. So I’m certainly seeing that in a range of ways.