Photo courtesy Penguin Canada

U of C professor challenges gender with new book

By Thomas Johnson, August 31 2018 —

“I feel like I’m Afraid Of Men forced me to relive a lot of experiences that I maybe wouldn’t have had I not decided to embark on the book. But in the context of writing a book called I’m Afraid Of Men, it felt kind of impossible not to go down the path that I went down,” says University of Calgary professor Vivek Shraya about her new book, I’m Afraid Of Men, released on Aug. 28.

I’m Afraid of Men offers an acutely distressing first-person perspective of Shraya’s experiences growing into her own skin, the one she is meant to inhabit, amid an intolerable world ignorantly replete with misogyny, trans- and homophobia. From the formative years of her adolescence in Edmonton grappling with her sexuality, to her eventual transition in Toronto’s culturally diverse mosaic, Shraya’s pinpointing of the various stages of emotional suffering painfully — out of necessity — illustrates the struggles of living outside the margins.

“I think all places I’ve lived have definitely impacted my growth. Edmonton is where I experienced my first experiences of harm from men and so it makes sense that the book begins there. I think in a lot of ways Toronto offered me a way to become myself. I don’t know if I ever would have come out as trans if I had stayed in Edmonton and I think there’s something about living in a city with so much ‘diversity,’ ” Shraya says. “You can take public transit in Toronto and half the transit will be people of colour, several queer people, at any given time. I think there was something about being around so many kinds of people that it freed me.”

Between the shifts in scenery, Shraya is careful to not mischaracterize the places she’s lived.

“That’s not to over-romanticize Toronto, because I do disclose in a book how being in a city that is urban is often confused with ‘more accepting.’ I share stories of transphobia I’ve encountered in Toronto as well,” says Shraya. “In terms of Calgary, I’ve only been here for nine months so it’s hard for me to weigh in on the impact it’s had on the book. I was writing the book as I was getting ready to move, so it was a bit of an intense time. I will say that coming back to Calgary, the experience that I’ve had at the university and the city, does feel healing. In some ways, it feels very different than the Alberta I grew up in.”

ARTS_VivekShraya_ZacharyAyotte-01-cropped

Courtesy Zachary Ayotte

 

There’s a redemptive quality to I’m Afraid of Men, an intangible satisfaction at having come full-circle with the ability to assuage an issue you had to stare down unarmed at one point. As the narrative — a series of interspersed vignettes inspired by Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger — progresses, Shraya’s prose become increasingly comfortable, bold and urgent. As she reminisces the debilitating effects repressing her femininity as a child would come to reap on her adult self, Shraya opens up her disillusions of gender and offers a modernized concept of the masculine versus feminine, acceptance, expectations and what it truly means to be ‘good’ in 2018.

“I think anytime someone writes about pain, there’s an assumption that it’s cathartic or healing. I don’t know that writing I’m Afraid Of Men was actually healing. I’ve certainly had that experience of writing about pain, trauma and feeling healed by the experience. That’s one for the reason I make art,” Shraya says.

A restless creative, Shraya’s exhausting work ethic has led to her output in a variety of mediums. Apart from a prolific writing career, the creative-writing professor has made in music as part of the duo Too Attached with her brother, as well as various short-films and visual art projects thematically revolved around the dynamic nature of modern identity. Despite the acclaim and newfound visibility I’m Afraid Of Men has brought her, Shraya continues to breathlessly pursue new avenues of expression.

“In terms of my next project, I started to receive a series of hate-mail from a stranger and I get trolled relatively often online. I tend to block those comments out, mute those individuals. But in this case, the messages were quite poetic for lack of a better word, as they used sanskrit, which is a language I grew up with in a religious context, and they referenced my family. There was something in the way the messages had been written that felt culturally familiar that gave them a more pronounced impact than the average troll,” Shraya says. “The past few years, I’ve been getting into comic books and graphic novels, and one of the things I love about that medium is the room for dark humor and wackiness. So I will be turning these letter and responses into me and the people around me have had into a comic called Death Threat.”

Shraya will launch the release of I’m Afraid Of Men in Memorial Park on Sept. 10. She will also be present for number of events at October’s Wordfest in the wake of I’m Afraid Of Men. Death Threat will be available in the spring of 2019 via Arsenal Pulp Press.

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