Toronto-based writer and artist Vivek Shraya and I met during one of the most formative years of my (and I think her) life. I was struggling with identity, but in a way I didn’t see reflected in any form of media. People were coming out as gay, bi, trans, agender, genderqueer, etc., and I still didn’t really feel represented. Vivek was the first person with which I even discussed those feelings. I felt powerful being a woman, but I like presenting much more masculine. It feels weird to wear a dress AND it feels weird to wear a suit, but if I’m dressing androgynous, it needs to fall on the side of more masculine, BUT I hate being accidentally called sir. I had no idea what it meant or where I fell. Vivek was also grappling with feelings that didn’t seem to be reflected anywhere. She felt much more comfortable in feminine wardrobe, accessories, and make up, but was overwhelmed with guilt because she could present and pass as male and no one would even think twice. We were both in such difficult and underrepresented positions. Vivek was the only person I really felt understood what I was going through. When she came out as trans this past February, she requested that all who knew her start referring to her using “she / her” pronouns, with the release of her song “Girl It’s Your Time.” It felt much bigger to me than just a coming out day.
It’s almost selfish that I wanted to interview Vivek because I’m still looking for so many answers and she has always been someone I could rely on to put really beautiful and succinct words to anything I feel / think / believe. She interviewed me about racism for her newest book, even this page is white, and it took a lot for me to NOT scream “YOU TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I KNOW THANK YOU FOR OPENING MY EYES.” She knows and understands the world in a way that I love and admire.
Not to mention she’s one of my favorite artists. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014, and will be followed by her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, out this spring. Vivek has read and performed at shows, festivals and post-secondary institutions internationally, sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara and Dragonette, and has appeared at NXNE, Word on the Street, and Yale University. She’s 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. Vivek’s first children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2016. Her book on recording artist M.I.A. will be published in 2017 by ECW Press, as part of their Pop Classics series.
Once you’re done reading our interview you absolutely 100% have to check out TRISHA, Vivek’s new photo series featuring nine vintage photos of her mother recaptured with Vivek as the subject. She says it’s “a homage to my mother and the daughter she not allowed to want.” It’s absolutely beautiful.
How did you identify growing up?
As a pre-Internet 80s kid, I didn’t have access to a lot of the terminology that is available now. I was very feminine and gender creative. I wanted to be my mom (still do!) in her appearance and mannerisms, and had many female friends. Consequently, I was identified as gay. Conversations about gender, and its distinction from sexuality, did not happen.
It’s bizarre to think about now, how being a femme child only meant that I was attracted to men, when actually, I was drawn to femininity, and those who were reflecting parts of myself back to me.
How do you identify now?
Artist / South Asian / Trans / Femme / Bisexual
Explain to me the process of feeling trans, but keeping it inside.
The first time I learned about transness, I was in my early/mid twenties. I remember wishing that I had been presented with the option when I was younger. It felt like a ship that had sailed.
After a solid decade of experiencing daily genderphobia and homophobia that I experienced in school, my early twenties was also a period of time when I was very focused on adopting masculinity. I often talk about how it was my mother’s love that prevented me from killing myself as a teenager, which is true, but choosing to live was an act of surrendering to masculinity. I even told myself that becoming a man could be a kind of fun challenge.
But the longer I have lived, the more painful the enforcement of masculinity has felt, especially as I have developed friendships with people who have been eager to celebrate me for who I am. So in a lot of ways, I see my transition as more of a “de-transition,” trying to undo the work I did to survive.
Can you explain what sort of “adjustments” you would make in order to present more masculine. What instincts were you going against?
Every aspect of my attempts to be masculine or present as a man could be a described as an adjustment. Adjusting my voice to sound deeper, adjusting my walk to take up more space by walking with my shoulders as opposed to my hips, adjusting the clothes I bought to be baggy and not bright or colourful, and adjusting my diet to be high protein to build muscle. Each adjustment was going against (my) femininity, and although these adjustments were connected to safety, they were also connected to misogyny.
When you look at the contrast between your young self and who you are now, does it feel more – good that you are where you are now, or does it feel more – sad that little you missed out?
Both. I turned 35 in February and a big part of processing my aging has been tied to mourning. Mourning how long it took to find my way back to myself. Mourning that I will never know what it’s like to be a teenage or twenty-something femme. Trans writer Casey Plett recently tweeted, “Age is a completely different concept for us than it is for cis people,” and this resonated with me.
But on the other hand, I don’t want to lose anymore time than I have by mourning. And at least I got back to this place. I am very grateful for this.
Do you ever thank yourself for protecting little you?
I do! Sometimes I look at photos of myself now and say, “we did ok, didn’t we?”
I have also been enjoying the ways my transition is re-contextualized in my art. The dedication of my book God Loves Hair reads “For the boy who was almost lost” and now I think it should have been “For the girl who was almost lost.”
Please give me all your feelings on selfies.
I don’t know if my transition could have happened without taking selfies. I remember wearing leggings for the first time and taking a selfie. I liked what I saw and that photo inspired me to keep pushing in that direction, exploring more femininity in my appearance. Every selfie revealed to me a new, or rather, a true part of myself, and the more truth I captured, the more I wanted to uncover. At some point during the fall of 2014, I remember thinking that photos of myself finally looked like me. The real and whole me. And honestly, I thought she was long gone.
Selfies are still dismissed and associated as vanity (or instability), but especially during my transition, I have often wished I was a photograph because, as a photo I am not reduced to a pronoun or an identity. As a photo, I don’t have to answer invasive questions and worry about physical violence. As a photo, I get to be me.
Tell me about making the decision to use female pronouns, was there an ‘ah-ha’ moment or conversation?
I think there were many factors, but one that sticks out was a conversation with our friend Kristin Russo who suggested starting to explore female pronouns just with close friends. This felt safe and manageable.
That said, a big challenge throughout this process has been the absence of an “ah-ha” moment. I have been often asked if using female pronouns feels good and the honest answer is, sometimes. But I have lived under “he” and “him” for so long that half the time, it takes me a moment to even realize that someone is talking about me when they use “she” and “her.” And in older relationships where I have played more of a “masculine” role, female pronouns feel foreign. Not feeling completely confident in this space has often left me feeling anxious. After years of hearing transphobic comments in LGBTQ ally workshops from cis-participants who have talked about “the one trans person they knew that kept changing their minds,” I have felt so much pressure to be wholly confident about my choices.
Recently, my friend (and artist) Chase Joynt relieved me of this when he suggested that perhaps confidence shouldn’t be the goal in relation to one’s gender. He acknowledged that the pressure I felt had deep historic roots that are tied to a medical system that has often robbed trans people from the opportunity to explore or to express gender ambiguity by forcing people to prove their gender in order to access medical services. Trans people have often been characterized as “deceptive” or “deceitful.” He also talked about how the men he disliked the most were those who didn’t question their masculinity, which resonated with me. This conversation freed me because I felt like I didn’t have to have ALL the answers and feel certain about anything outside of the desire to be honest with and about myself. My gender also deserves the room to change and evolve, if I so choose. I love this recent quote by Lilly Wachowski:
“To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to ‘transition’ imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary.”
I think we’ve talked about the pronoun “they” before? Like, how it doesn’t really feel right for you. Even though maybe you don’t identify as specifically “he” or “she,” something about “they” doesn’t feel right and it’s hard to explain why. I guess I’m just wondering if you’ve made any headway on that explanation lol
I think “they” is a powerful and important pronoun, especially for non-binary people, and for challenging the gender binary in general. But for me, I feel like I was robbed of my femininity and using “she” and “her” is a way to reclaim this. I love the openness of “they,” but for me, I crave the specificity of “she.” But who knows how I will feel a year from now!
That said, I have really struggled with pronouns and language in general. During this time, friends have said to me, “do what feels good for you.” And this is the best possible advice! Gender self-determination is vital and I can feel great about who I am when I am at home. But I live a life where I engage with other people and doing what feels good for me is a lot more challenging when I step outside the door. With pronouns specifically, it’s hard not to feel like you are dependent on others to “validate” your gender, or rather, it’s hard not to feel like your gender is not valid when people use the wrong pronoun. And with our limited (mainstream & Western) options for pronouns, each pronoun has implications. If I continue to use male pronouns, my gender gets read as performance. If I say I am using both male and female pronouns (which I was saying for over a year), people generally still used only male pronouns because I was assigned male at birth and because the nature of patriarchy is to subsume femininity. If I use female pronouns, the assumption is that I identify as a woman. If I use female pronouns as a gender non-conforming person, am I allowed to use the words “girl” and “woman” to speak about my femininity? Are there other words I could use? Does using “she” and “her” immediately change the names of my relationships and the roles I play? Am I a daughter now? A sister?
What can people do to keep strangers from mis-gendering them? OR how do you suggest feeling alright when it does happen?
I don’t know that I have the power to prevent people from mis-gendering me. I wish I did! I have been exploring strictly female pronouns for the past six months amongst friends and even though everyone has been mostly supportive, it has still been bumpy. So I would like to reword the question: what can people do when they realize they have mis-gendered someone? I find the whole “she, I mean he, I mean she, I mean, omg I’m so sorry” process so awkward, despite good intentions. I would rather a person apologize once and proceed onward as opposed to “fussing” over me.
And I don’t know that I can or will feel alright when it happens, but I try to remind myself of all the times that I have accidentally mis-gendered someone, and try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I know it’s an adjustment for everyone. A friend recently told me that even though mis-gendering will likely continue, over time it won’t feel as jarring or hurtful. I am looking forward to this.
Does it ever feel like you aren’t be allowed to be trans? Or I guess, do people make you feel like you haven’t “done enough” or “gone through enough” to be trans? How does that feel, if it does come up and what do you say?
Throughout my transition, I have struggled with not feeling like I had permission, especially in regards to language and identity. People often conflate the word transition with sex reassignment surgery, so I have even grappled with whether or not I am allowed to use the word “transition” if I am currently not altering my body.
The larger struggle is that not feeling allowed or enough has been a consistent theme in my life. As a person with Indian parents but living in Canada, I don’t always feel I am Indian enough. As a queer person attracted to women, I wasn’t considered gay enough. As a queer person currently in a relationship with a man, I don’t feel bi enough. And so in regards to my gender, I have worried about claiming a trans space that wasn’t mine. With femininity in particular, there is also a pressure to prove or display your femmeness. The other day I was out with a friend, talking about my transition, but wasn’t wearing makeup and I felt like I needed to show photos of myself and say, “look at how I have been dressing lately.”
On the flip side, recalling this history has been useful in regards to gender, if only to remind myself that notions of being enough, or adequacy are completely flawed and unachievable for most people.
How do you reconcile having a feminine identity, while still having male passing privilege?
This is a complicated question because the issue of passing is complicated. Often I feel like my options are either to present how I want and then have to check over my shoulder every thirty seconds because I am worried about my safety, or to “choose” to pass and not feel like I am fully myself. Passing is, and has always been, a survival mechanism for me as opposed to being choice. At the same time, I do feel it’s important that regardless of how I feel and being gender non-conforming, I do get frequently read as male, and while this comes with violence (or the threat of violence) and misogyny, historically I haven’t faced the same kinds of sexism as my women friends.
I do think the more important questions are how do we change systems of power that make “passing” necessary, and how do we shift ideas about gender to a place where assumptions aren’t made solely based around appearance. I love wearing makeup but I shouldn’t have to wear lipstick to prove my femininity, and not wearing lipstick shouldn’t mean I am deliberately trying to access male privilege. My friend Alok Vaid-Menon (of Dark Matter) has talked about how their true friends are the ones who see them for all they are without them having to present a particular way. I dream of a time when this is possible for trans people beyond just our close friends and small bubbles.
What was the process of writing your new song “Girl It’s Your Time“?
I basically bawled the whole time.
It was one of the first songs I wrote after not writing a single song in four years. I needed to step away from music because, despite my efforts, I found that my music wasn’t having the kind of impact I wanted it to make. During this break, I channeled my voice into writing books. Literature allowed me the freedom to talk about issues I was passionate about, like sexuality, race and gender, but hadn’t felt comfortable expressing in music. It’s amazing to see how much has changed in the music industry in the past ten years, in regards to the increased visibility of trans and queer musicians. The flip side is that much of this visibility remains white.
When returning to music this year, my hope was to transfer the freedom and wholeness I had found in writing to songwriting. “Girl It’s Your Time” is a personal anthem, a song I sing to myself when I don’t feel brave, when I don’t feel beautiful.
Download “Girl It’s Your Time” from Bandcamp & iTunes here. All proceeds from this single will go to Supporting Our Youth’s Trans_Fusion Crew program—a grassroots drop-in group in Toronto that works to create social and political spaces that speak to the concerns, struggles, and victories of trans*, 2-spirited, intersex, genderqueer, gender independent, non-binary and questioning people. Follow Vivek on Instagram here.