|by Ambika Thompson
|March 4, 2016
Vivek Shraya is a poet, short story weaver, singer songwriter, filmmaker and was our February Guest Writer. She let us publish her poem Saraswati from her forthcoming collection even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp Press), and she was also nice enough to let us interview her.
Both your books God Loves Hair and She of the Mountains are very autobiographical works exploring religion, sexuality, gender and race. Did you find it difficult to reveal such private stories / information about your life?
The writing is always difficult but not specifically because of the personal nature of the text. Coming from a songwriting background, I am somewhat used to revealing a lot about myself through my art. The panic tends to kick in after a project is done, where I wonder, “Oh no! What have I done? Why am I sharing all of this?”
Is even this page is white, your collection of poetry that is coming out in the fall, quite similar or have certain themes come up that you hadn’t quite explored before?
I see each book as an evolution from the last, and I think even this page is white pushes more in the direction of conversations about race and racism that She of the Mountains touched upon.
She of the Mountains is a beautiful novel about a young queer person growing up in Edmonton mixed with a story of Hindu mythology that explores gender fluidity amongst the gods. How did this come about?
In writing a love story, I realized I first had to write about hate. How my experience of hate and discrimination has embedded itself within my body and psyche, and often prevented me from experiencing love. In thinking about my body, I found myself thinking about Hindu mythology, which is rich with stories about different gods and how they came to have bodies. Reimagining some of these myths became a counterpoint to the contemporary love story narrative.
The first things I read from you was “The Best Gay” taken from She of the Mountains published in Geist. Here’s a snippet of it:
“Honey, we all liked girls at one point. But the Bi Highway always leads to Gaytown.
Perhaps The Only Other Gay, who was clearly an expert on Gaytown, was right. He never mentioned women again.”
In this piece you wrote about the narrator’s pressure to be gay though they’re also attracted to women, and how this is an ongoing pressure for the narrator. Do you feel that this is something that a lot of people can relate to?
One of the lovely aspects to publishing this book has been meeting so many bisexual and non-monosexual people who have connected to the ways the protagonist’s sexuality is policed throughout the book. What has been interesting is the ways in which readers who identify as straight have shared the ways their sexualities have been policed too. So a lot more people related to this than I expected. This is heartbreaking and is also why we need more art and conversations about bisexuality and fluid desire.
I saw that you posted that you’ve changed your pronoun to she/her. Did you want to talk about that decision?
I have struggled with trying to be a boy and a man for most of my life. Using female pronouns is an attempt to reclaim my body and my life.
You self-published your first book God Loves Hair in 2010. What prompted you to do that, had you tried to find a publisher for it first?
After years of chasing the record labels to sign me as musician, when I wrote God Loves Hair, I worried about making this same mistake, chasing publishers to publish the book. I worried about being rejected again by institutions and how hard it would be to cope, especially given the personal nature of the book. Instead, I thought about applying what I had learned as an independent musician for seven years and see if I could apply the same model to the book world.
It’s obvious you like to dabble in various art forms, what made you decide to write a book of poetry?
My friend and fellow writer Amber Dawn had finished reading She of the Mountains and commented on its poetic nature. She suggested that I explore the medium of poetry further.
When I decided I wanted my next project to focus on race and racism specifically, poetry became a useful means to do so, as it allowed me to ask hard questions without needing to provide resolutions in the way that fiction writing often does.
I have a children’s picture book coming out this fall called The Boy & the Bindi.
Oh, and one last question, cause I kinda got a thing about malls… You put together a book The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton where you got 30 or so Edmontonions to talk about some sort of poignant mall memory they had. Lovely! Of course I instantly thought about West Edmonton Mall, which in the 80’s was the largest mall in the world with its water park, ice rink, amusement park, and dolphins, yes dolphins. I’m sure you went there growing up, what was your experience of the place? And what made you want to put this together?
I lived on the south side (Mill Woods), and as you know, Edmontonians seldom leave their corner. Going to West Ed was a rare treat, especially in my childhood. As an teenager, it eventually lost its glow as I found myself easily drained after being there for short periods of time, probably because of all of the features you describe. There is a lot happening in that mall at all times.
The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton zine was a gesture in honouring the places in Edmonton that we are often dismissive of (or snobby about), despite how often we end up having to go there, even to briefly escape the winter.
Thanks so much Vivek!
More about Vivek: vivekshraya.com