The Poetic Polymath: Vivek Shraya Talks Identity, Writing and Style

The Indian Summer Festival has named Vivek Shraya, the Poetic Polymath and it’s a fitting title for such a talented artist.

Vivek Shraya South Asian Queer

With her beautiful short story collection “God Loves Hair,” Shraya has emerged as a skillful writer who delves into the harder topics of race, gender, and identity in a humanist way. From short stories, she’s extended her work to poetry, film, children’s books, and spoken word.

Shraya was a grand marshal for Toronto Pride recently, and she remains an outspoken voice on Twitter, expounding on topics like #BlackLivesMatter and how South Asians can be productive allies. I had the chance to chat with Shraya on her writing process, fashion, and holding her readers accountable through her work.

I love that your work always engages with your South Asian identity in such an intersectional way, could you speak to how these aspects shape you as a writer?

A big inspiration for me to enter the field of literature was to create more visibility for not only South Asian experiences, but also South Asian experiences coupled with the complexity of embodying other identities—in my case queerness, trans-ness, and having a Hindu upbringing.

After reading your latest collection of poetry, you delve into race and identity in such a identifiable way, and holds the reader accountable too, how did that emerge as you were writing these poems?

even this page is white is one project where I really tried to consider various audiences. Of course, a book that delves into racism is meant to challenge the white reader, but I was also intent on challenging non-white readers as well. My approach was to write from the personal and be transparent about not only my experiences but where and how I have been challenged when thinking about racism and accountability. Being angry with white people is important, but it also allows brown people to ignore the ways we are also complicit in white supremacy.

Your poem, “Omar,” speaks about seeing Aziz Ansari in Master of None during a sex scene which is surprising to you, because now there’s been that small window of seeing South Asians doing very normal things on TV, could you speak about how pop culture moments like these play into your poetry?

Aside from pulling from my personal experience, I found it useful to also pull from pop culture as a way to speak about systemic racism, which is often hard to name.

That scene in Master of None had a significant impact on me as it made me realize how asexual South Asians are in pop culture. We don’t have a sexuality. Even in Bollywood. In the poem “Omar,” I cite watching this scene to delve into what it means to be brown and have desire and the shame that is born from this lack of visibility.

You’ve talked before about finding solace in your religion, and those themes play out in She of the Mountains in a really ingenious way, how did that connection form?

When I started writing She of the Mountains, it was meant to be a bisexual love story, written to challenge biphobia. But I realized I couldn’t write about love without writing about hate, and how my experience of hate not only has impeded my ability to receive love but also has embedded itself in my body. In thinking about bodies, I began to recall stories in Hindu mythology, as so often they are tied to embodiment. In the end, I ended up re-imagining narratives about Parvati, Ganesha and Shiva in the book as a secondary narrative.

The photo series Trisha was really beautiful, because your mum is so stylish and you recreated those moments in such an elegant way, what was it like choosing which photos to capture and did it bring you and your mother closer?

I tried to choose photos that captured a range of settings, expressions and wardrobe. I wanted the photos to provide a story of what my mother was like when she first immigrated to Canada. I have not yet shared the project with her.

Your mother seems to a muse in your work, but how do you navigate that in terms of how personal your work is and sharing stories of your home life? Does she ever worry that you’re oversharing?

My mom always thinks I am oversharing. She is supportive but I also think what I do makes her uncomfortable. She is a very private person and I am very transparent in my art. I think she is able to be more understanding when she thinks of my art as my efforts to create the kinds of support I could have benefitted from when I was growing up. But she is forever warning me about the evil eye!

This year you were Grand Marshal at Toronto Pride, where the Black Lives Matter Toronto group had a sit-in. You’ve been outspoken about Pride being quite a white-dominated space, was this year’s event a gamechanger moment in demanding accountability?

That’s a tough question. My understanding is that Black queer activists have been pushing for more accountability and support from Pride for over a decade, so I am hesitant to say that this year’s Pride was a game changer. From my perspective, what I think has been made most clear by Black Lives Matter’s protest is how rampant anti-Black racism is in LGBTQ communities and more importantly, the work that needs to be done to challenge this.

You’ve spoken about Orlando and the Black Lives Matter movement, how can South Asians stand in solidarity and be allies?

For me, my most challenging work in the past year was learning about anti-Black racism, which is the foundation of shadeism, and recognizing my own privilege. I think it’s very hard for non-Black, non-Indigenous people of colour to see our privilege because so many of us are immigrants or first generation, and so many of us do experience racism. But there is a huge difference between white people wanting to wear our bindis at Coachella and worrying about being shot or carded every day on the street. I love M.I.A. so much but she is a great example of how South Asians should not behave as allies. We need to do a lot better when it comes to listening, shutting up, and showing up.

With your children’s book The Boy & the Bindi, you’re reaching out to a whole new audience, how did the idea for this come about?

I think I had been wearing bindis publicly for a few months and was surprised how much attention this got, and not in a positive way. It was strange to think how even a dot on a forehead is gendered. But the book itself wasn’t very pre-meditated. I wrote it on a napkin!

Gender is such a performative act in general, and you’re unbelievably fashionable, (very jealous of your eyeliner game!)! How did find your style over the years?

My eyeliner game is very basic! I don’t even wing! But thank you. I think rediscovering colour was a significant moment in relation to my fashion in recent years. Performing masculinity meant wearing only blue, black and grey. But once I reopened the door to colour, then came patterns, followed by leggings, accessories and makeup. My mom has been my #1 inspiration in regards to how I dress, sometimes even subconsciously. For example, when working on Trisha, I noted how my mom always matched her bindi to her outfit, which is something I always do. #2 is probably Rihanna.

Finally, I loved the illustrations of Sri Devi in Nagina in God Loves Hair. What is one of your favourite Bollywood films?

My current fave is Bajirao Mastani!