It's no small feat in the age of multinationals, big houses doing good numbers with e-book sales and celebrity memoirs to self-publish a book that garners the respect of one's peers and general and lasting buzz interest. It's also no small feat to have this same book a 2011 Lambda Literary Award finalist. Recently re-released, Vivek Shraya's God Loves Hair is a DIY masterpiece in the age of Wal-Mart top 10 book clubs.
Shraya began writing God Loves Hair in January 2009, when he found himself inspired to write a story he himself had not yet read, "particularly in the queer literature genre," he explains. God Love Hair is a pared down series of vignette styled fictions, carved from the crude matter of Shraya's own life reveals the intimate interactions and personalities of a South Asian, Hindu family and growing up with immigrant parents. Adding to the enchanted post-nostalgia tone the book offers are enigmatic and hyper-coloured artwork by Juliana Neufeld. Artwork like this Shraya says was also something he himself lacked witnessing in his own experience. "These are illustrations I didn't see in books growing up, featuring brown skin and a general Indian aesthetic."
Shraya, an accomplished musician whose recent film Seeking Single White Male, was screened at festivals throughout 2011, says the focus on writing was a welcome change to music, which up to recently was all-encompassing in terms of artistic outlets. "What started off like blog entries, eventually evolved into short stories, especially with the encouragement of friends who believed that there was more for me to uncover and tell."
Reduced to a simmer, God Loves Hair is a coming of age tale told in a confluence of visually-stunning and pared down exacting prose. The book is packaged as one of those cozy children's book reads from the 1980s (Henry The Explorer, The Snow Day or Where The Wild Things Are) which addresses issues of gender identity, economy, race, sexuality but is harnessed more in the earnest expression of self than a typical murky kitchen sink drama. Shraya's turns of phrase are poetic and intense, such as the scene where he covets the cut of his mother's wardrobe. "It too is small and tight, with a life of its own," he writes.
Or take the majestic scene at 12, after telling his parents they are just his "earth parents" while Sai Baba (Divine Mother and Father) is his true caregiver. As he waits for Him "in the sweltering south Indian heat," he internalizes his desire for a connection:
Who does God love? Maybe if I was white, maybe if I was a girl, maybe if I was younger, maybe if I was older, maybe if I was prettier, maybe if I was troubled, maybe if I was more kind, maybe if I fasted, maybe If I recite the Gayathri mantra 108 times, maybe if I didn't lie to the woman selling flowers yesterday...
Whether he's being called a pervert (for playfully making a snake out of his hands near a cousin while watching a playoff hockey game) encountering homophobia during early teen erotica, getting Bollywood crushes, staring at the gym teacher's "bubble butt" or searching for the perfect starter sports team cap to blend in with his male counterparts to blow off essential homosocial steam, Shraya's story transcends the boundaries of genre and categorical obsessions many book lovers enjoy debating over water cooler chatter.
"As a queer person of colour," Shraya explains, "my main intention was to bring visibility to an experience we don't often see or hear."
With the support of his writer friends and loved ones and using the successful sales model he found lucrative in promoting music, the book is already in its second printing. Shraya says the biggest sales boost came from a university who began using the text in Gender/Sexuality courses, while steady sales continue through his website.
"The more 'religious' or spiritual stories were the hardest to write because they are the most personal and detail experiences I don't often share but it felt important to show how sometimes we find safety or comfort in the most unlikely spaces. As a queer kid looking for signs of normalcy, I really identified with the male Hindu gods whose masculinities were infused, not diminished, by their dancing, singing, long hair etc. What has surprised me is that these stories are the ones that readers often connect to the most, vs. the more broadly themed stories.
Shraya is still keeping busy, having just released a new EP this past fall, entitled 1:1 and recently released the second edition of God Loves Hair with Positive Space Ryerson and RyePride which includes additional material from the 2010 edition. He is at work on a new book.—Nathaniel G. Moore
Nathaniel G. Moore is currently shopping his own family saga Savage 1986-2011 and will release an ebook later this spring called The Chelsea Papers.