‘Operation Blend In’
Prof and trans artist Vivek Shraya writes about her mixed attitudes
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 ShrayaPenguin Random House Canada