Learning to Co-Exist with Fear: A Conversation with Vivek Shraya

By

How do you survive—and thrive—when our culture’s gender policing penalizes failure to conform, often to destructive ends? Bullied as a boy for being too feminine and harassed as an adult trans woman for not being feminine enough, Vivek Shraya’s new book I’m Afraid of Men is a rallying cry against assimilation. It is a manifesto for a new kind of resiliency that allows for the toll of trans women’s daily navigation of a broken and dysfunctional masculinity to be witnessed by audiences who perhaps have interest in trans stories only when they fit with colonialist narratives of overcoming, triumph, and success.

Vivek is an award-winning Canadian author, artist, and musician. She is an assistant professor in the creative writing program at University of Calgary. She is prolific across many outlets: music, film, visual art, poetry, prose, and genre-defying hybrid texts. I’m Afraid of Men was released earlier this fall from Penguin Random House. As a trans man, I, too, am concerned with defying our culture’s toxic gender norms and was eager to talk with Vivek about the spaciousness to be gained for everyone when we speak out in defiance of those norms.

***

The Rumpus: I’m excited to talk about your stunning new book, I’m Afraid of Men. What do you have going on right now? Are you teaching in addition to promoting the book? What has the response to the book been like so far?

Vivek Shraya: Currently, I am teaching, touring, and plotting future projects. So far, the response to the book has been tremendously positive. There is something about just naming fear that seems to be affirming and galvanizing. It’s been especially interesting noting the ways that the book has been shared on social media—often with a quote or passage from the book, or a caption that features a personal anecdote from the reader about their own experiences with masculinity.

Rumpus: The naming of fear felt liberating to read. The book begins with a calm, composed cataloging of the steps you take in a given day to avoid being harassed or harmed or to minimize the number of microaggressions you might endure as a trans woman of color out in the world—you called it “the weight of these minute-to-minute compromises.” The cumulative effect of reading the exacting, painstaking efforts, the sheer expenditure of energy described, is devastating. How was it for you to write it out all of these daily interventions? Was there catharsis in naming the toll of existing in misogynist culture? Was there liberation in articulating the effects of fear in your life?

Shraya: It was a bit shocking to see a day broken down this way, to realize just how much of my life is shaped by my fear of masculinity. Especially because many of these actions have become almost second nature at this point. And no, it wasn’t actually cathartic or healing. If anything, it was a bit re-traumatizing. But being committed to the project, this work felt necessary. What is “liberating” or comforting is knowing that many men will have to encounter this title—whether in bookstores or online. That I don’t have to carry the burden of my fear alone. There is also comfort in the ways in which women and gender non-conforming people and even some men have claimed and celebrated the title as well.

Rumpus: That makes so much sense. Thanks for saying this, because in a way perhaps my question also falls into the trap that to write it, we must somehow be “beyond” it. And yes, it is now something you do not need to carry alone anymore—at least I hope.

Shraya: I think there is always a projected implication that any writing or art about pain must lead to some kind of healing, and of course, this has been the case in the past, but not with this project. Perhaps because my fear of men continues beyond writing this book and perhaps will exist always. For me writing this book was less about conquering my fear and more about recognizing that living requires learning to co-exist with it—which I have been doing and will continue to do.

Rumpus: I’m Afraid of Men is a book-length essay in three parts. The second section, “You,” is comprised of vignettes addressing various unnamed people who’ve wielded misogyny, homophobia, and harm against you throughout your life. I can imagine that there were many countless more potential “yous” that were not examined in the book. I can imagine this book being ten times as long if it told everything—it exercises powerful restraint, and the quality of the language, spare and concise, is gutting.

Shraya: Yes, there were definitely “yous” that were edited out due to redundancy or privacy. Which is funny to admit given how personal the book is.

Rumpus: I empathized so much with your notion of gender assimilation as a survival tactic. I, too, for a small window of time in high school, doubled down on my efforts to try to be a “normal girl” but sometimes these efforts elicited as much negative attention as when I was expressing myself more authentically, and I felt that sense of “damned if you do…” There is so much scrutiny, always, upon the gender-variant body. I was particularly struck by the passage where you describe paring your wardrobe palette down to only “masculine colors” like blue, black, and gray. And to me this felt like such a loss, such a diminishment, because your current sartorial style is so resplendent and glorious, if you don’t mind my saying. And I felt it as not just a loss to you personally but also to the world; a culture of ominous blandness in order for everyone to be left alone by the machine of patriarchy and misogyny seems like a tragedy we should all work to avoid at all cost. Do you feel like conformity extorts a cost beyond that to the individual?

Shraya: Absolutely. A rhetoric that is often used to gain acceptance for difference is “we are all the same,” which has always been deeply frustrating to encounter, and so much of my work is about resisting this idea of sameness. Why is that the only way for humans to accept each other is by believing at the core we are all alike as opposed to celebrating the fact that we are all different, that it’s difference that makes humans beautiful?

Rumpus: Yes, that neoliberal “colorblind” rhetoric…

Shraya: Yes.

Rumpus: The theme of resistance to assimilation and reclaiming what was lost or forsaken for survival’s sake in childhood, runs strong throughout the book. It catalogues quite damningly the manner in which our progressive or countercultural spaces can still replicate assimilation practices upon each other, and it is really disappointing that fearful tactics of masculinity, patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia are enacted also by women, other trans people, gay men, etc. And yet, it is not surprising, since gender is relational and we are social organisms; these problematic undercurrents inform and affect us all, whether or not we choose to be conscious of them or not.

I’m Afraid of Men does the important work of speaking these issues aloud and reads like a manifesto for how an unassimilated queer/trans ethos could be nurtured by all of us. Has the book sparked conversations in your own queer/trans communities about how people might take ownership of such practices and resist fomenting them upon others or ourselves? I know it may be too soon to say, but I am wondering if you’ve noticed any changes within your own broader circles?

Shraya: I haven’t noticed changes, but I definitely am relieved that queer/trans people seem to be finding their own resistance through various passages of the book.

Rumpus: You write about fearing that the book might only elicit pity, but that pity is often a tool toward change. You describe leading anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia workshops for years and observe that people only seem moved to be empathetic “when [you] share the ways in which [you] have been victimized and violated.” What else can we do to exhort people to change? How can we move toward an envisioned (near) future where it is not trans people’s’ job to educate people to treat us as human? Or, again, to at least just stay out of the way and let trans people live?

Shraya: These are the questions, aren’t they? On one hand, I fully believe in the power of education and conversation, and as someone with a platform, like you, I am sure I feel a responsibility to engage in education and conversation on behalf of my communities. On the other hand, the more I engage in this work, the most I also feel deeply skeptical. How many times can I answer the question of how to be a better ally, for instance, especially when other queer/trans/racialized people have been answering this question for decades, and also hello, meet the Internet.

And yet, to abandon the work altogether, despite my skepticism, does feel a bit irresponsible. So the compromise in recent years has been to try to make more art that isn’t specifically for the gaze of the oppressor, or ensure that parts of a project aren’t for gaze of the oppressor. In what is being called a trans memoir by many, I never walk the reader through my coming out process, for one. Which historically has been a necessary component to the genre. It’s a small act of resistance, and yet one that feels important to me. In my book of poetry, even this page is white, I knew that white people would be a large part of the readership, but there is a large section of the book called “brown dreams” that is meant for brown readers.

Rumpus: It is an amazing thing to interact with art or writing or music that you know was created by other trans people for trans people.

Shraya: Yes! And I want to do more of this. The dedication of the album I recorded last year, Part-Time Woman, is: “For anyone who has been misgendered, made to feel not feminine enough, or struggled to find home in a language that resists complexity.” I wanted it to be clear that this album was by a brown trans feminine person, about being brown and trans feminine, for trans people.

Rumpus: You write “How cruel it is to have endured two decades of being punished for being too girly only to be told that I am now not girly enough.” Reading this, I intuited that much of this punishment could very well be delivered from other trans people as much as from non-trans people, and if this is true for you, why aren’t we better at checking ourselves when we express or weaponize our internalized phobias and -isms at each other? Why do we spend so much time policing other people’s genders and gender expressions and shoving these bullshit paradigms on each other?

Shraya: While I do think queer/trans people are in some ways more evolved than others, because of the ways we have had to deeply consider what others take for granted, we aren’t ultimately “better people.” We grew up entrenched with the same messaging around binaries and conformity. And because of how hard some of us have had to fight to be seen for who we are, any one resisting similar forms of compliance can feel threatening to our identities. I have experienced this with bisexuality as well, where the strongest bi-phobia was always expressed by other gay people. So, I do try to have compassion for community policing, as much as I am also critical of it. Why should we know or do better when our confidence, our cores have been so often brutalized?

Rumpus: There is a real fear of fluidity of any kind. So many trans and queer folks are operating from a place of real pain.

Your beautiful novel She of the Mountains also contends with the issue of assimilation from queer and straight people, and how the “gays were intent on preserving… a singular version of themselves.” We not only police each other for how we present our genders, but also for who we love and desire. And I’m Afraid of Men specifically names your brownness as “a form of queerness in and of itself and makes me too queer for gay men.” Has embracing and reclaiming your femininity and coming out as a trans woman shifted or affected your experience of race as a layer of your queerness?

Shraya: This is a tricky question because I don’t often experience my race separately from my gender or sexuality. I will say that transness has allowed me to embrace my brownness in important ways, if only through seemingly superficial gestures like wearing a bindi or Indian jewelry. And yet these gestures are crucial to me as someone who felt I had to assimilate into whiteness and maleness to endure.

Rumpus: Yes, that makes sense, and in that light those gestures are not so superficial.

Let’s talk about your creative practice: you are prolific across multiple artistic genres. Was music your first creative love? How do your different creative practices inform each other?

Shraya: Music was indeed my first creative love and where my artistic journey began. I had zero aspirations of becoming a writer and yet, my books have been what seems to have connected the most. Ultimately, the practices aren’t that separate. I’m Afraid of Men for instance started out as a song on Part-Time Woman [winner of a Polaris Music Prize], moved into a remix with my band, Too Attached (and featuring Peaches), and now into a book. The more refined my skills get in one arena, the more I am able to then bring to subsequent projects/mediums. I am always hungry for the opportunity to challenge myself and jumping around mediums allows me to do that!

Rumpus: I love that threads of the book weave through your music. It makes sense, I think, because at some point perhaps an artist is just creating, not singing as separate from prose writing, etc.

Shraya: I agree. For me, being an artist is very much tied to the act of creating. I love my job very much and am very grateful to be an artist.

Rumpus: What projects do you have coming down the pike?

Shraya: My next project is a comic book called Death Threat, with artist Ness Lee, that was inspired by a series of vivid hate mail I received last year. I also have completed two other books which I hope will be out in the next couple of years. I am touring I’m Afraid of Men a lot this fall, and hopefully more events in the new year.

Rumpus: And finally, what is one question you wish someone would ask you, but hasn’t, about I’m Afraid of Men?

Shraya: I would love to talk a bit about the author/press photo, mostly because of the ways that the author/press photo often becomes a key component of how the book gets disseminated. The photos were shot in the woods in Edmonton, my hometown, which felt important as the site of so much of my experiences of harm from men. The woods at night also served as a metaphor for masculinity/fear itself, and I am dressed in a silver jumpsuit to project a strength that I worried would get dismissed by the vulnerability of the book’s title.


Cooper Lee Bombardier is a writer and visual artist whose work appears in many publications and anthologies, such as The Kenyon Review, Longreads, Put a Egg on It, CutBank, Nailed Magazine, and The Rumpus; and recently in the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology The Remedy–Essays on Queer Health Issues, (ed. Zena Sharman) and Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction from Transgender Writers, winner of the 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards Barbara Gittings Literature Award (eds. Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett). The Huffington Post listed Cooper as one of “10 Transgender Artists Who Are Changing The Landscape Of Contemporary Art.” His visual art was recently curated in an exhibition called “Intersectionality” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, and in exhibitions at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, NM, the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco, and at Helltown Workshop in Provincetown, MA. His visual work has been published in the journals Faggot Dinosaur and CutBank. A veteran of the original Sister Spit tours, he's performed, lectured, and exhibited art across North America. Cooper is the fiction editor at Gertrude Press and an ELL volunteer tutor for immigrant community members at his local public library. He has received fellowships from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Lambda Literary Foundation, and RADAR Labs. Cooper has taught writing at the University of Portland, Clark College, Portland State University, and at various Portland-area high schools as a writer-in-residence through Literary Art's program Writers in The Schools. He is a 2018 Visiting Writer at the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Critical Studies graduate program. Learn more at www.cooperleebombardier.com. More from this author →