Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. Her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, was released this spring, and her first children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, was published this fall. Vivek has read and performed internationally at shows, festivals and post-secondary institutions, including sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara. She is one half of the music duo Too Attached. Vivek is a 2016 Pride Toronto Grand Marshal, a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist, and a 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Vivek Shraya
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
You use several different mediums to express yourself. You write for the printed page, write and perform music, take photographs, and make films. What would you say is the most important element or catalyst for discovering a new mode of creativity? What does the medium of writing for the printed page allow you to do as opposed to, say, songwriting?
For me, I focus less on the medium and more on the idea—what medium bests serves the idea. Poetry, for instance, seemed an ideal format in which to explore racism as, unlike a novel, there is no demand to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. With poetry, I could ask hard questions and not have to provide answers.
Certainly, writing on the page feels less constricted than a 3-minute pop song and this is something I consider when I try to figure out which medium to use to push forth an idea.
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
My art career began with music. I had made a few albums and toured, but I found it impossible to make a connection or have success with music. I did briefly get a record deal, and I had hoped that this was an indication of change and growth in my career, but the label kept shelving my demos and my project. Out of frustration and a desire to continue to be creative, I began writing what would become my first collection of short stories, God Loves Hair. I often think about how being open to a different path, as opposed to trudging along on the same one, was one of the best moves I made as an artist and human.
In an interview with Leopardskin & Limes, you mentioned that you “see each book as an evolution from the last.” How has each of your publications helped to push a conversation forward?
Every book is tied to a different kind of conversation or themes (and in some cases a different kind of audience), but cohesively I think each book creates more varied and complicated representations of brownness and gender non-conformity, and strives for wholeness.
You self-published God Loves Hair, and you found Arsenal Press as a publisher for your later titles. Could you characterize your interactions with the publishing industry? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed?
Being published by an institution is in some ways not so different than being self-published. I do a lot of the same amount of work in regards to promotion and booking tours, for instance. That said, it is lovely having additional support, especially financially. It’s a relief not to have to pay for book printing costs up front. What has changed the most has been the ways I feel I am taken more seriously now that I am with Arsenal as opposed to when I was on my own— for instance, reviewers are more inclined to check out a book because of their familiarity with Arsenal’s catalogue. I struggle with this, because I think self-publishing was a useful experience in learning to legitimize myself.
Recently, we had Steven Dunn as a Celebrity Author on TBL’s website. I asked him what advice he would give to writers who, in their work, feel fixated on certain themes, questions, or problems. Some of these writers have framed this feeling as a tiring obstacle; others completely embrace it. Do you have a take?
I struggle with this. I never want to repeat myself, but aside from limitations I place to challenge myself, I also can’t fight the muse too much. The way I reconcile being drawn to certain themes is through trying to find a new lens or angle in which explore the theme.
Can a book be “finished?” How do you know when it’s time? You deal with intersectional subjects and questions that are not easily resolved. How do you negotiate the idea of “completion,” when in the themes you return to there are so many gaps, silences, and raised questions?
A common criticism of my books is that they are too short. This is a good kind of criticism, a desire for more, which artistically is a choice for me. My criticism of most art is that it’s too long. So when navigating completion, a big part of the process is trusting my gut and also trying not to overwrite or create tidy resolutions. That said, with even this page is white, this is a book that despite an ending I am proud of, feels incomplete. I attribute this largely to the reality that it’s perhaps impossible to finish a book about racism as long as racism persists.
Who is your audience? Has this changed? How do you reach them?
I think my audience largely consists of queer people and people of color. But I am also learning that my audience isn’t always who I think it is—do I think my audience is largely queer people because my work has been labeled as queer? While I am not striving for universality, I am open to the idea that art can transcend notions of whom it’s supposed to be for.
Being on social media is, of course, a solid way to reach people. But I try to tour as much as I can because there is really nothing like the one-to-one connection.
As a writer with an intersectional identity, you must be constantly expected to speak out about racism and diversity—can you talk about what this constant expectation feels like? How can we help?
It is complicated. On one hand, I recognize the privilege I have being an artist with a platform, and I do feel responsible to do right by it and the communities I am part of. The flip side is that this can feel exhausting for a number of reasons—sometimes it feels like I am just preaching to the choir and other times I worry about failing my communities by not saying or doing or making the right, thing. I would love to see non-racialized people taking on some of this labour. Solidarity is in understanding that we are in this together as opposed to being a silent bystander.
Unfortunately, many writers of color can become demoralized when publishing houses that claim to invite “diversity” reject their work. You’ve written on the subject extensively, in essays like “#PublishingSoWhite: 13 Ways to Diversify Your Press” and “The Poetics of Racism.” Could you talk how the current work you do translates the guidance you give to fledgling writers/artists of color into support? I know that you’re now the E-writer in Residence for Teens at Toronto Public Library.
As a writer of color that has managed to get my foot in the publishing world, I feel a responsibility to create space for others, specifically by demystifying the publishing industry—through articles, like the ones you mentioned, or workshops or mentorship.
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