Vivek Shraya: Changing for Good
For the interdisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya, creativity is at the heart of self-discovery.
Vivek Shraya is a multidisciplinary artist whose work spans music, literature, film, visual art, and theater.
Shraya was born in 1981 in Edmonton, Canada; her parents were South Asian immigrants. She began recording music in 2002. Her 2017 release Part-Time Woman was nominated for a Polaris Music Prize for Canadian musicians. She has also recorded two albums with Too Attached, a collaboration with her brother, Shamik Bilgi.
As a writer, Shraya has been nominated for six Lamda Literary Awards for LGBTQ literature. Her first book, God Loves Hair (2010) recounted growing up as a genderqueer child in an immigrant family. She has published illustrated stories, poetry, novels, and non-fiction. Shraya has also created several short films screened in international festivals and a photo exhibition, Trisha, shown in multiple North American galleries. Her debut theatrical work, How to Fail as a Popstar, was staged in Toronto in 2020.
Shraya came out as transgender in 2016. She teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary.
Over the years, Vivek Shraya’s creativity has taken many forms. Installation, film, music, fiction, poetry, and in 2018, a bestselling memoir. But growing up, Shraya had a singular outlet for self-expression, singing bhajans, devotional songs at temple.
Vivek Shraya: It was the one place that I felt special, as opposed to in junior high, in high school, where being a quote unquote boy that sang was actually seen as undesirable in some ways, so for me, music did become a place for me to express longing and vulnerability, but also a way to gain comfort and admiration in a way that wasn’t happening at school.
(Vivek Shraya singing from “Part-Time Woman”)
I don’t shave
I don’t wear lipstick
I’m not polished
I don’t fix it
What does that make me?
What does that make me?
Does that make me a part-time woman?
From a young age, Vivek Shraya felt different from other little boys. Creativity quickly became a refuge, a space for self-discovery. In 2016, at age 35, Vivek Shraya began using female pronouns to describe herself. The same year, she created one of her most popular pieces to date, a photo essay called Trisha, in which she reproduced old photos of her mother using herself as the subject.
Shraya: You used to say if you had a girl, you would have named her Trisha. You had also prayed for me to look like dad, but you forgot to pray for the rest of me. It is strange that you would overlook this, as you have always said be careful what you pray for. When I take off my clothes and look in the mirror, I see dad’s body as you wished, but the rest of me has always wished to be you. I modeled myself, my gestures, my futures, how I love and rage, all after you. Did this worry you and dad?
Trisha is one of few of Shraya’s works that her parents have actually seen. Mr. and Mrs. Shraya came to Canada from India in the 1970s, keen to blend in, and as a result, even today, conversations about her evolving sense of self don’t dwell in details, a sort of compromise meant to keep them on common ground.
Shraya: I grew up in a house where what happened in the home stayed in the home, so very, very, very private, and it was definitely a protective, an immigrant protective mechanism. We are outsiders, we don’t belong here, so the only way to protect ourselves is you know? And then I became an artist, and I was like, And so I think, for me, the strategy in some ways is a form of reconciliation. It’s trying to reconcile this with this, and also trying to sustain a healthy relationship with my parents.
(Excerpt from Shraya’s short film Holy Mother My Mother)
I always wanted to be a mom, that was my greatest dream. And now I am one. I’m truly grateful for that experience, thank you, and thank you for the challenges you have put us through, and thank you to the Divine for all the encouragements and letting us sustain all the things that come our way.
Now 38, Shraya continues looking to her mother as a model of womanhood, but she also recognizes just how expansive a concept femininity really is.
Shraya: I think everyone’s femininity is a little bit different and it’s really about figuring out what that means for you, individually. For me, personally, I know that it was my tenderness, my flair, my outspokenness, all of the things about me that were policed, I often associate that with femininity. That’s not to say that femininity has to be tender. I think I have to check myself, too. I’m like, you know, when I’m strong and confident, that’s femininity, too, and I think this is, again, where I was really fortunate to grow up in an environment or at least with the kind of religious practice where I was exposed to a range of femininity. We had the goddess that was in a lovely white lotus, and I’m the goddess of learning, but then we also had Kali, who’s literally, blood is pouring from her mouth and she’s dancing on her dead husband’s corpse, and skulls around her neck, and I’m like, yeah, femininity’s all of that, and I want to be all of that.
Shraya’s celebrated 2018 memoir, I’m Afraid of Men, explores her long and at times fraught journey to embrace aspects of herself.
(Excerpt from I’m Afraid of Men)
I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me fear. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear the word girl by turning it into a weapon they used to hurt me. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to hate and eventually destroy my femininity. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear the extraordinary parts of myself.
Shraya has some other fears, too, many that are more esoteric in nature.
Shraya: I’m afraid of the death of ideas. One of the things that really keeps me up at night is just that I’ll never have another good idea again, that I’ll never have an idea that feels exciting or energizing. As an artist, ideas are my capital. The idea of not having another idea is something that causes me a lot of stress, so I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid of, time, you know, as a trans person, as a queer person, I’ve lost so much time. There’s something about time that feels scary, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m always trying to do as many things as I can, because there’s always this sort of invisible clock that is hanging over me, and I never want to take this life or time for granted.
(Vivek Shraya singing from “Girl it’s Your Time”)
Girl it’s your time
Don’t ever, ever change your mind
‘Cause you’re mine
All those years of playing tough
All those years I gave you up
I’m never gonna hide you
Never gonna fight you again
Not for any man
Through art, Vivek Shraya continues to move ever closer to that which alludes many of us, an understanding and acceptance of self.