Vivek Shraya on turning hate mail into art

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Vivek Shraya. Photo: Tanja Tiziana

Vivek Shraya is a multidisciplinary artist and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. She uses the mediums of literature and art to challenge the current state of masculinity and navigate the experience of receiving vivid, transphobic hate mail in the graphic novel Death Threat, illustrated by Ness Lee and recently published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Shraya spoke with Alexandra Valahu earlier this month about the process of creating Death Threat and her two other recent books, the essay I'm Afraid of Men and the poetry collection even this page is white.

I know you're in a pop band, called Too Attached, with your brother Shamik Bilgi. So you have worked on artistic collaborations, and for Death Threat you worked with Ness Lee. What was the process of collaboration like for this book?

I'm a huge fan of Ness. I saw her work all over the streets of Toronto, in 2017, and I immediately approached her to do the artwork for my album, Part Time Woman. It was such a great collaboration that when I started thinking about Death Threat as a comic book, I decided to approach her again. With the comic book there are 70 pages that have to be illustrated, and in a lot of ways she's telling the story. That involves a lot more communication.

Although the language is minimal, she has to take the story you're telling and translate it into images that you feel accurately represent what it is you're trying to share. I'd imagine there's also a certain level of trust one has to have.

Yeah, and that's exactly it. Not to talk on behalf of Ness too much, but I think that some of her concerns were about inaccurately representing me or inaccurately representing the story. Both of us are so used to personal narratives where we just have a lot more freedom. What I also tried to do is just reassure her that I trust her completely and I just think she's such an artistic genius.

She tends to work within a particular kind of aesthetic and it's often black and white. Adding colour was such a significant part of the decision around this book because I didn't want it to feel dire. I actually wanted it to feel humorous and tongue-in-cheek in places.

That reminds me that in I'm Afraid of Men, your recently published exploration of masculinity and blurred gendered boundaries, you wrote about surrendering color in order to protect yourself, turning to neutral colors like grey and blue. What I was most struck by when I opened Death Threat was the vividness of the colors. I was wondering if, in any way, this allowed you to feel like you were reclaiming some power from this situation that you were put in?

I think we both agreed that if the colours were streamlined it would help create a visual consistency but also help in terms of decision making. I was really inspired by Ricardo Cavallo -- his aesthetic in terms of a color palette.

We talked a lot about using primary colors and if anything I feel like using primary colors -- blue, red, yellow -- in comic world is sort of an iconic triad that goes like Superman. It was an interesting subversion of that iconic primary color triad. What does it mean to take that and create a brown transfeminine comic book, as opposed to the context in which we're used to seeing those colors in Superman?

What drew you to the comic book as a medium for your story?

One of my best friends is a comic artist and she's always sending me references and we're talking about her work. But truthfully, it's not a genre that I felt very well-versed in. Also, discovering Michael DeForge's work. I remember the first time I read Big Kids, I was just pacing around my house being like, woah.

When the incidents in Death Threat started happening and I started getting these messages, -- they're not your typical hate mail like "you’re going to die" -- they were just so visual that I found myself picturing these letters and I somehow got to comics. These letters are strange but also so visceral and they seem perfectly suited to the genre.

Because of how economical language is in graphic novels, how were you thinking about language and about translating your experience and reprinting these letters in the novel?

One of the things I felt from the beginning is that I really wanted the text of the letters to stand out and any other text to be quite minimal. This is where the book relies so much on Ness and her skill and illustrations because there's not a lot of text for me.

True to the form of graphic novels, my intention was to keep the text pretty sparse, which I think it is for the most part. The trickiest thing was aesthetically trying to figure out how to make it clear what parts of the text are from the letters and what parts are my voice or my narrative text.

Ness includes a lot of surreal imagery. I noticed a lot of illustrations of fire, and I was wondering if that was something you consciously included as an emotional response?

That was definitely Ness's take. I think where the fire came from was conversations around what the person who had been sending the letters should look like. One of the things that felt really important is having an ambiguous shape or looking character, especially because when I first received the emails, the name seemed feminine which made me reconsider who I imagined to be people who send hate mail.

For me, especially in 2019, who's been trolled by all kinds of people at this point, it's important for us to understand that the trolls are amongst us, (laughs), and it's not just white men. Ness and I had lots of conversations around what the hate mail sender should look like and I think one of the ideas we really liked was that their appearance would change and shift throughout the text, to sort of speak to the ways in which our ideas of who a troll is need to shape and shift. We lovingly refer to Nain as the blob, so when you first open the book, the blob is personified with fire and white arms. When you think of violence or hatred, fire makes sense as a symbol.

And the bodies are so beautifully drawn and colored. In I'm Afraid of Men, you write about your body as both a shield and an ornament and you ask the question: "How do I love a body that was never fully my own?" Can you tell me more about the conversations you may have had about how you wanted to illustrate the bodies?

I'm so thrilled that you asked this because a couple weeks after the book went to print, I texted Ness and I was like, "I just really wanted to thank you so much for how you represented me." We actually didn't have elaborate conversations around what I should look like and part of it is because Ness has a particular style and I didn't want to impose too much. I was also open to her recreating me in her style, to be Nessisized. One of the things I love about how she represented me is, if I can say, she drew me beautifully.

I feel beautiful but also she drew me with a kind of sensuality or even a sexuality. I just feel like transness is so often robbed of desirability. There's a perceived undesirability that is associated with transness and that's also the subtext of -- I don't know if we can even call it subtext -- the letters I'm getting as well. It's that there's something abnormal, something abhorrent about who I am. I think that Ness drawing me in such a beautiful, sensual way, in and of itself, is a beautiful form of resistance to these letters.

Because you work in so many mediums, I was thinking about how you work through each form and about your poems in even this page is white. Were you finding any similarities between your music writing process and your poetry writing process and the ways you think about rhythm in both of those?

When I was writing even this page is white, I certainly felt like I was leaning into some of my songwriting skills. At the same time, there is a kind of separation, in that in poetry there's room to be a lot more abstract and free-flowing, whereas the kind of music I make, which is pop music, I'm required to stick to a particular convention in terms of "verse, chorus."

A good example of that distinction is the opening poem of the book, "white dreams," is also a song. Both the poem and song come from the same idea but the song allowed me to explore something a little bit different than the poem. Both mediums have different limitations but poetry felt like a space where I could be a lot more open and abstract in a way that songwriting requires me to be a little more focused, and melodic.

In I'm Afraid of Men, you alternate between sections titled "You" and "Me," and you alternate a personal narrative and weave it in with sections where you speak to a reader. Why did you decide to write with that framework?

One of the things that we've noticed in recent years, and for me it goes back to around the time that Black Lives Matter got a lot of visibility, was the ways in which people's trauma has been consumed in a voyeuristic way. In writing I'm Afraid of Men, I wanted to try to force the reader to be a bit more present with me. I didn't like the idea that that this could be something that people read and then feel sorry for me and feel better about themselves because they empathized with a brown trans person.

It was all written in first person originally and then I changed the first sections, which was half of the book to "You," to second person. My hope was that it would force the reader to imagine themselves in the world of the "You" and think about their own potential complicity.

You write about being afraid of men, most prominently in I'm Afraid of Men, and also desiring them and this overlap of desiring the same thing that you fear. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about this tension?

I just did a performance in St. Catharines a couple days ago for I'm Afraid of Men, and a person came up to me after and they were like, "I really liked your piece where you talked about how you hate men and why you hate men," and I was like "Oh, that's not at all what it's about." First, I think it's interesting because -- and this is my experience with whiteness and masculinity -- anytime that you assert an oppression, or being oppressed, or even just being afraid, what the oppressor hears is hate.

To go to your question, one of the reasons why I found it troubling and saddening is that the book is actually about that tension that you speak about where the complexity of my relationship with men is that I fear men and I also desire men. Both of those feelings can be true, and I think are true for a lot of people, and a lot of women. There's this idea that, as a marginalized group, or as a marginalized person, you're never supposed to admit fear or you're supposed to portray a kind of confidence or courage or resilience. One of the things I had been saying when the book first came out was, I'd like for the articulation of fear to be seen as an act of strength as well.

You have spoken about I'm Afraid of Men as an object. In what ways have you thought about your books as works of visual art, as objects themselves?

I think that all of my books have a kind of visual aspect. even this page is white, the way it's laid out with the text in the margins and the whiteness of the page sort of being the center. I'm Afraid of Men certainly doesn't have illustrations but I was definitely fascinated by how a bold statement and a bold design could render the carrying of that book in public spaces as a form of resistance.

The closest similarity to that would be What I LOVE about being QUEER, because it's a bright yellow book that’s 10×10. The design for that book was deliberately ostentatious because, sort of similar to I'm Afraid of Men, I wanted to take up a kind of space.

Death Threat cover by Ness Lee. Author image by Tanja Tiziana.

Alexandra Valahu is a freelance radio producer and writer based in Vancouver, B.C. ​

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