‘Op­er­a­tion Blend In’

Prof and trans artist Vivek Shraya writes about her mixed at­ti­tudes

The Delhi News-Record - - BOOKS - ERIC VOLMERS

When Vivek Shraya was in her 20s, she en­listed a co-worker to coach her on how to walk like a man.

It wasn’t un­til 2016, more than a decade later, that she would come out as trans­gen­der at the age of 35. At this point, she was liv­ing as a gay man in Toronto. Learn­ing to stroll like a straight man was part of what she calls “Op­er­a­tion Blend In,” a pe­riod where she dressed only in blue, black and grey, low­ered her voice, frowned a lot and mod­elled her­self af­ter Tom Cruise, whom she dubs “the mas­cu­line megaicon of the era.”

But her co-worker said she wasn’t get­ting the walk right. “Straight dudes walk widely, legs point­ing in ei­ther di­rec­tion, shoul­ders dropped,” she was in­formed.

At first, it seems a rare mo­ment of lev­ity in the Cal­gary-based writer’s new mem­oir, I’m Afraid of Men. But she says the mem­ory was painful to re­count. Not be­cause the walk-like-a-man lessons were par­tic­u­larly trau­ma­tiz­ing, but be­cause of what they rep­re­sented.

“I learned to take up a lot of space when I was in pub­lic,” says Shraya. “Part of that was about as­sert­ing my mas­culin­ity, but it was also about safety. If I walked big, I felt safer. Now look­ing back, I won­der about the ways that, in try­ing to pro­tect my­self and feel safe, I might have in­truded in women’s space and made women feel un­com­fort­able. Even though I feel like I was re­ally a fem­i­nine boy, I’ve also con­trib­uted to a cul­ture of mas­culin­ity that has been hor­ri­ble to oth­ers.”

The cul­ture of mas­culin­ity is at the heart of I’m Afraid of Men, a quick 86-page read that nev­er­the­less cov­ers a lot of ground. It not only chron­i­cles the abuse and ha­rass­ment Shraya has en­dured from var­i­ous boys and men since grow­ing up a “fem­i­nine boy” in Ed­mon­ton but also in­cludes mem­o­ries where she be­lieves she was com­plicit in in­ad­ver­tently pro­mot­ing or suc­cumb­ing to that cul­ture.

That in­cluded tar­get­ing a shy girl for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion when Shraya was a kiss-ob­sessed Grade 3 boy.

“That was one of the hard­est sce­nar­ios to write about,” she says. “Be­cause I do feel a lot of shame about the fact that, in my mind, I re­mem­ber plot­ting out how I was go­ing make this girl kiss me. Thank good­ness it never hap­pened. But I’ve of­ten won­dered what was hap­pen­ing there. As a boy who was so young, what was it about my up­bring­ing or what I was see­ing on TV or what I was hear­ing that made me feel I could push my­self on a girl at that young age?”

De­spite the ti­tle of the book, Shraya said she did not want it to be a straight vic­tim nar­ra­tive. She wanted to explore what it was about mas­cu­line cul­ture that so of­ten man­i­fests it­self through misog­yny, ho­mo­pho­bia and trans­pho­bia and how it can be chal­lenged and changed.

She ad­mits that her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences may be “com­mon, if not mild” com­pared to the “sav­age forms of vi­o­lence in­flicted by men” that oth­ers have en­dured. Still, Shraya of­fers a se­ries of painful anec­dotes that stretch back to her early days. Over the years, she has been threat­ened, groped, spat on and ha­rassed by men. The book also dips into her own love life and writes about two longer-term re­la­tion­ships, one with a woman and one with a man, that of­fer in­sight into so­ci­etal gen­der norms.

But one of the run­ning themes of I’m Afraid of Men is that peo­ple who Shraya as­sumed could have be­come al­lies — whether it be the fel­low South Asian–Canadian boy who quickly be­came her tor­men­tor in ju­nior high or the women

who crit­i­cize her ap­pear­ance — did not.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing how to think how your per­spec­tive changes about your mem­ory,” she says. “When I think of some of those child­hood in­ci­dents, I find my­self less an­gry to­wards the boys or the men and more an­gry about the adults that were around that didn’t in­ter­vene and the women or girls that were around and en­cour­aged that be­hav­iour.”

I’m Afraid of Men ac­tu­ally be­gan life as a pop song. It’s on Shraya’s Po­laris Mu­sic Prize-longlisted 2017 al­bum Part-Time Woman that she recorded with the Queer Song­book Orches­tra. An as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary, Shraya’s out­put as an artist in­cludes the 2014 novel She of the Moun­tains, the 2016 chil­dren’s book The Boy & The Bi­dini, the 2016 book of poetry Even This Page is White and her 2010 book of short sto­ries God Loves Hair. She also per­forms with her brother Shamik Bilgi, a beat­boxer and pro­ducer, as Too At­tached, who have remixed the orig­i­nal I’m Afraid of Men with the help of elec­trop­unk mu­si­cian Peaches.

Cur­rently, she is work­ing on the comic book Death Threat with artist Ness Lee. It’s a re­sponse to dig­i­tal hate mail she has been re­ceiv­ing from a stranger since the fall of last year.

Shraya ad­mits the work fol­lows a cer­tain pat­tern. She once tweeted an un­of­fi­cial mantra of sorts, sug­gest­ing she of­ten “finds a wound and makes art about it.”

“So of­ten when you find a wound, the in­stinct is to let it heal or to back away from it,” she says. “As an artist, I al­ways run to­wards it. It’s only af­ter mak­ing the art when I say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t feel so good.’ ”

Still, while re­vis­it­ing her past was of­ten “re­trau­ma­tiz­ing,” Shraya says she hopes I’m Afraid of Men starts a deeper con­ver­sa­tion about chal­leng­ing gen­der norms and rec­og­niz­ing and nav­i­gat­ing the prej­u­dices within our­selves that risk vic­tim­iz­ing those who are dif­fer­ent.

“Change can hap­pen if peo­ple are will­ing to take that time to have that ini­tial re­ac­tion, whether it’s fear or dis­com­fort, but then be will­ing to take that ex­tra mo­ment to think: ‘ Why do I feel un­com­fort­able right now? What is it about this per­son that makes me feel threat­ened or un­safe? Or, ac­tu­ally, is this per­son kind of awe­some be­cause they are liv­ing their truth? Maybe in­stead of say­ing some­thing or push­ing them or hurt­ing them, maybe I should just A, leave them alone or B, cel­e­brate that they are here and are tak­ing up space in their truth.’”


Vivek Shraya.

Vivek ShrayaPen­guin Ran­dom House Canada

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