Fifteen Questions with Vivek Shraya, author of I’m Afraid of MenBy Erin Hosier
September 04, 2018
Men are so hot right now. Just look at the options; wherever you go, there they are, and the books about them abound. Adding to the essential essay collections that deconstruct what men are and what to do with them— Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, The War on Men by Suzanne Venker, The End of Men by Hanna Rosin, and Are Men Necessary by good old Maureen Dowd – comes a single essay called I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya, which examines her own varied experiences with gender identity. Men as bullies, lovers, friends, strangers and selves (but pointedly, not fathers). I’m Afraid of Men reads as part memoir, part polemic, part double dare to the reader to take a look in the mirror. It should be required reading on college campuses.
Vivek is always at work on multiple creative projects, which include running her own press to promote the work of fellow queer writers of color who happen to live in Canada, and her own aptly named poetry collection, even this page is white. As a recording artist she has shared the stage with Tegan and Sara and been remixed by Peaches. Her series of self-portraits (made with collaborator Karen Castillo), recreates vintage photographs of her beautiful mother, and were made as Vivek was in the process of transitioning. “Trisha” has been on view at the Ace Hotel this summer in NYC, and is moving to the Portland Art Museum this fall. You can order the book on Amazon or here.
If you want to make a progressive, cis, heterosexual man uncomfortable and defensive, put I’m Afraid of Men on display in your home! Have you ever found yourself, as I have, having a boisterous conversation with such a guy about your book that ends with him pouting, “Tell me I’m a ‘good’ boy…”? Talk about provocative titles and how it came together for you.
I’m drawn to titles that are able to initiate dialogue (or in your case, a tantrum), and act as form of art in and of themselves. One of my previous books was called, “even this page is white” and it’s always a bit amusing and terrifying when this title is named in my bio, before I go on stage for a reading in front of often mostly white audiences. But again, like “I’m Afraid of Men,” that title is alive, it conjures a response (or many) and while I don’t believe in being provocative for the sake of being provocative, I think the duty of the artist is in part to challenge normative (which is often code for oppressive) ideas and attitudes.
I wrote a song called “I’m Afraid of Men” in 2016 (which would later get recorded for my previous album, Part-Time Woman) to highlight the ways that I have been haunted and harmed by men throughout my life. The book was a means to expand upon those lyrics.
Let’s talk about art and process. Can you describe what writing a long-form essay feels like? Do you see a visual in your mind’s eye of the beginning, middle, end, for instance? Do you think of first and last lines before you officially “begin,” or do you write your way to it and find it later?
With this book, in particular I had the title as a guide. I knew I couldn’t talk about my fear of men without discussing fear in general. This is how the book begins.
Fellow writer, Amber Dawn, suggested that I could also tackle the essay by breaking it down into smaller vignettes, which is what I ended up doing, if only for it to feel less daunting.
I am also a huge believer in the magic that comes from the actual act of writing, of allowing yourself to see where you end up. Flipping the title at the end, for example, to “men are afraid of me,” was an unpredicted and special moment in the process.
I really appreciate the way you switch up first and second person in the book. You start off with “I,” but the next section is called “You,” and addresses a “You” that could refer to one man at a time, or the reader in general. It gets us to confront ourselves, like wait, is the writer talking to me, or about me? How did that structure come to you?
Originally, the entire essay was written in third person until the final paragraphs. But there was something about this format that felt too distant. Some of my peers find second person to be a bit of a risk and monotonous, but in the case “you” allowed me to push back against my concerns that third person allowed the reader to be a voyeur, as opposed to have to engage with the narrative. “You” forces the reader to think about their own complicity even if they are not a man. And equally important was naming my own complicity, via through the “I” passages. It was my editor, David Ross, who brilliantly suggested to have two distinct sections, “You” and “I”, so that the switch from second person to first person was a smoother read.
You have your own imprint – VS. Books – in support of queer writers of color. Can you talk a bit about DIY publishing, and how IAOM came into the world with Penguin. What, if anything, surprised you about the process of putting the book together with them?
My journey in the publishing world formally began eight years ago with self-publishing. As an emerging writer of colour, self-publishing was the only means of getting my work into the hands of readers. After four years of self-publishing, Arsenal Pulp Press, a small press based in Vancouver, ended up publishing four of my works (including a new edition of my first self-published book) over the next three years.
My imprint, VS. Books, is under Arsenal, and was set up out of recognition of the barriers I faced in the publishing industry as a racialized author, and with the desire to dismantle some of these barriers for younger racialized authors.
This is my first book with Penguin, and it’s definitely a different experience in terms of reach and the size of staff.
Reliving any kind of trauma on the page can be a brutal exercise. The bullying scene in the book involving your mother’s denim jacket has really stuck with me. Did you feel “over it” by the time you wrote about it? Did you know early on that that was a defining scene in your life and needed to be central to this essay?
I have relived trauma in past books and writing, but perhaps deliberately avoided revisiting that particular story because of how detrimental the experience was. I am not sure I even realized the depth of the damage until writing it out, so I don’t think I was “over it” when I began this book. I don’t know that we ever get over these kinds of experiences. For me, the work has been learning how to survive alongside my history.
There’s not a lot about your parents in the essay, though your glamorous mother looms large in so much of your work. What did you learn from your father about what it means to be a man?
I was very cautious not to include my parents in this book, especially my father, as so often criticisms of men from women and gender non-conforming people are easily dismissed as being the result of “daddy issues.” The one thing I will say about my dad is that through him I have learned that men can grow and change, if they truly commit to this process.
Have you ever had a therapist, and do you find therapy helpful to the creative process?
Art has absolutely been a life saving means to work through pain, but hasn’t negated the usefulness of having a therapist, which I have consulted off and on in my thirties.
And what kind of music did you listen to as you came of age?
I was a huge fan of 90s R&B, as evidenced by my Babyface covers tribute album. Also a huge Lilith Fair girl.
In this country conservatives are always spouting off sarcastically about a liberal’s status as a “special snowflake,” which apparently means entitled to safety and enough self-esteem not to kill yourself before high school is over. It’s a kind of “You think you’re so great that you don’t have to be bullied like I was?” incredulity. (“Pussies.”) It’s such a transparently self-loathing diss, though! Snowflakes are all unique. Pussies are awesome. Why are we so hell bent as a species on sameness, do you think?
I think we often experience difference as a threat and I say we because despite my differences, sometimes when I encounter someone different than me, I can feel my body clench up. The work for me has been to notice these shifts in my body, and challenge biases that often accompany these shifts in my mind. Most people choose not to do this work, or don’t want to, and would rather invest in demanding sameness from others. In short, I think we are incredibly lazy.
Speaking of special snowflakes, the phrase as we understand it took off in the mid-90s due to the popularity of the novel (and film) “Fight Club,” wherein narrator Tyler Durden addresses his army of (anti-capitalist, anarchist) men to ‘Listen up maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake…’ in order to prepare them for the “purity” that can only be attained through beating the shit out of each other while shirtless. FC is arguably more important to our generation’s concept of masculine power than any other popular novel or film. There is one female character in the whole story, the love interest, and it turns out that she only exists in the narrator’s head, as she is really an alter ego/coping mechanism, one of many selves within him, but pointedly the only one who isn’t a man. Have you read the novel or seen the movie?
I have! Also a huge Brad Pitt fan in the 90s. Of course, he is known for his physique in that movie, but I was also drawn to his flamboyance. He wore patterns, border line crop tops and a fur coat. It’s fascinating that Tyler was this masculine leader because in a lot of ways, he reads as queer, and queerness isn’t typically seen as masculine. As a teenage queer viewer, I think a part of me felt like Tyler’s masculinity was an answer of sorts. If I was ripped and tough, I could be as queer as I wanted to be.
As someone who has loved both men and women, can you pinpoint a difference in the way you find yourself responding to or communicating with each?
With women, I tend to feel a lot more free and open. The instinct to self-protect is completely absent, and this is also tied to the fact that women, in my romantic experiences, haven’t been withholding.
With men, I am guarded and tentative, especially because of past experiences but again, this is also linked to the fact that men are often vague, or uncommunicative.
I’m glad you call out women who suck as well. The enabling of terrible behavior and sexist attitudes. The “I’m not a feminist, but…” women, but also just assholes who happen to be women. I look forward to the day when all the shitty people are judged as equally shitty, regardless of where they fall on the gender or sexuality spectrum. Any plans to keep going with Men Are Afraid of Me? You touch on it in the essay – their fear – but there’s a sense that this is a fresher personal realization. There’s the famous line by Margaret Atwood: Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. Was that quote on your mind at all with the title?
I wasn’t familiar with the quote and truthfully, I hope this is the last time I tackle gender so directly in a book or art project. I believe I have officially maxed my quota!
Of course men are afraid. All the problems in the world are rooted in fear, and it’s how you confront that fear that makes the difference. Do you find yourself reacting to things that make you angry in a different way now?
I have a band with my brother called Too Attached, and this year we put out an album called Angry. Titling it as such was both scary and exciting, to be able to name my anger (not unlike naming my fear in the new book) as opposed to repressing it the ways that racialized people are so often expected to do, to avoid risking the angry brown person stereotype.
Women tend to apologize a lot. Even when I don’t mean to I find myself peppering a conversation with “I’m sorry.” Not I’m sorry I did that, but as a way to show that I’m listening and trying to empathize with the other person’s experience. But sometimes it really does feel like, I’m sorry for existing. Have you ever noticed this tendency in yourself?
As a Canadian, sorry is basically punctuation for us. Wrap this up with being feminine and a child of immigrants, and yes, I apologize endlessly and often apologizing for my existence. I am trying to curb this habit and the feelings beneath this habit, partly because I always want my words to be intentional, as opposed to habitual. But it’s a work in progress.
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