Storm clouds gather over the city of Vancouver, threatening a downpour, as the author, musician and visual artist Vivek Shraya peruses the stacks at Pulp Fiction on Main Street. “My book was inspired by this,” she says, picking up a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. “We’re calling it ‘single essay non-fiction’ … There’s something about that book in particular – it’s very accessible.”
Shraya’s latest outing, I’m Afraid of Men, is a similarly slim, accessible work that explores a compelling topic: her fraught relationship with masculinity. Her experiences as a queer trans girl, she writes, place her in a unique position “to address what makes a good man.” It’s why we’ve gotten together today in this artsy Lotusland neighbourhood to browse books, drink coffee and talk men.
The author’s reading recommendations are reflective of the new Canlit movement to which she belongs – a list full of emerging talents and previously marginalized voices. She points out titles of interest, including a collection edited by pal and award-winning writer Amber Dawn. “She’s been a mentor to me,” Shraya says. “I remember being so in awe of her. And now she’s one of my friends.”
With the rain holding off, we head up the street to a packed, warmly lit coffee shop famous for its donuts, and settle in to chat, sharing a sourdough glazed. Born to an Indian immigrant family in Edmonton, Shraya (who recently moved back to her home province to accept an assistant professor position at the University of Calgary) grappled with identity early on. Both her attraction to boys and her femininity – detailed in the book as a “budding sashay,” “soprano laughter” and a fondness for her mother’s powder blue Jordache jacket – made for a rocky childhood and adolescence, during which she was repeatedly told she was gay.
“It’s a very disorienting experience to learn that you are something that is so vehemently hated,” she says. “And that everyone else seems to know this thing about you that you don’t actually know about yourself yet.”
At a young age, she began performing manhood, schooling herself in its mannerisms, codes, customs, beliefs. Assuming its privileges. (In I’m Afraid of Men, Shraya shares a story from elementary school in which she plots to force a girl to kiss her. Although this plan never comes to fruition, its memory haunts her: “At what point did I learn that that was okay?”)
After finishing an undergraduate degree in English, Shraya hopped a plane to Toronto, seeking solace in the anonymity there. Walking around without being stared at, attending Pride and seeing she was not the only queer-identifying Indian man in the world – this meant a lot to her.
She wrote the first of several books, the self-published God Loves Hair, and concentrated on her music career, forming a band with her brother, Too Attached, in 2015. All the while continuing to master a certain kind of hyper-masculine ideal: working out, waxing her chest, wearing a beard.
For Shraya, it was embracing masculinity that ultimately allowed her to move beyond it. “It was only in learning how to be a man that I was able to let go of being a man,” she says.
Shraya became interested in complicating the conversation around masculinity, asking: How are queer people complicit? How are trans people complicit? How are racialized people complicit? “I don’t let anyone off the hook – including myself,” she says.
“There’s this idea that if you are oppressed, you wouldn’t enact oppression on someone else,” she adds. “That’s something that I’ve had to learn over and over again: That that’s not actually true. We all grew up hearing the same things, seeing the same things, learning the same things.”
On her way to turning 30, Shraya felt a “now or never” abandon, and began reclaiming femininity, painting her nails, donning leggings, posing for selfies wearing makeup and posting them on social media. “I think our ideas of transition are: ‘Okay, so when did you get the surgery?’” she says. “For me, it’s such a hard thing to map … A lot of it was very innocuous, and sort of unknown even to me. I was just really living my best life in my 30s.”
The process, of course, found its way into her art. One of her more famous projects, 2016’s Trisha, recreates photos of Shraya’s mother from the seventies, with Shraya as model. (The series was on exhibition this summer at the ACE Hotel in Manhattan.)
Shraya came out as transgender two years ago, on her 35th birthday, releasing a song, Girl It’s Your Time, and began living as a woman. She swiftly encountered a whole new side of masculinity – and that continuing threat to her safety is recounted in agonizing detail in the opening pages of I’m Afraid of Men. “I moved from a lot of privilege, that I didn’t even realize that I had, to now being hyper-aware,” she says. “That’s not to say that I hadn’t had fear before, as a feminine ‘male.’ But it’s definitely different.”
Complicating matters further, Shraya remains very drawn to men. “I don’t hate men,” she stresses. “I’m actually very attracted to them.”
Her book chronicles a romance with a man named Nick. “One of the exciting things about the book is that in the middle of this story – this essay that recounts various experiences of harassment or harm or tension with men – there’s a love story,” Shraya says. “That, to me, felt really important.”
Shraya likes the contrast between the dramatic nature of the statement “I’m afraid of men,” and the fact that the book is, in fact, dedicated to a man: her current partner, Adam.
“Yes, I’m afraid,” she says. “And I’m also in love. Both things can be true.”