Vivek Shraya: My creative writing teacher told me I was the worst writer in the class. It was my first creative writing class and I was excited about it, but he gave my first assignment a very low grade. We had to do a photo assignment where we had to find a photo and write an analysis about it, just our opinion, and I chose a photo of Madonna because I was very into her. She was in the street and surrounded by people of colour. In fairness I wasn’t very politicized at the time—I didn’t have a rhetoric—and I would probably read that photo very differently now. But he graded me a five out of nine because I didn’t talk about Madonna appropriating brown or Black culture. Appropriation is such a hard conversation because, as a brown kid growing up in Edmonton, seeing Madonna wear a bindi, that was representation back then, you know? Now, looking back, I’m like, “Oh, that’s appropriation,” but where else was I going to see someone in popular culture celebrating Indian culture?
What was frustrating about this conversation was that it was a white guy getting upset with me about not being upset about a white person appropriating my culture. I stopped going to his class because I didn’t like his vibe and his instruction and I thought, “You know what, fuck it, I’m just going to submit these assignments under your door.” One day, he ran into me in HUB Mall and said, “I noticed you’ve stopped coming to my class. Honestly, if there’s one student in my class who needs my help, it’s you.” He then proceeded to lecture me for an hour.
Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist whose body of work spans music, film, and literature. Her first book, God Loves Hair, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2014. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s best books of 2014, and her recent collection of poetry, even this page is white, has been praised by George Elliot Clarke and Shani Mootoo. Her most recent book, The Boy and the Bindi, will be published in the fall of 2016. Shraya is a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and was the recipient of Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. As a musician, Shraya has shared the stage with Tegan & Sara and will join them on their fall 2016 Canadian tour as one half of Too Attached. In early July, just after she was honoured as Grand Marshal of 2016 Pride Toronto, Shraya and I spoke about her music, her writing, and race in Canada.
Jason Purcell: You began your artistic career as a musician. When did your career as a musician transition into a writing career?
VS: I moved to Toronto from Edmonton in 2003. I had just recorded my first album and somehow it had gotten into the hands of John Wozniak of Marcy Playground—they had that huge song “Sex and Candy”—and I got this call saying, “Come to Toronto, we’ll make shit happen for you.” As a brown queer kid in Edmonton, I wanted to leave the city, so I ended up leaving three weeks later, having never been to Toronto in my life.
My music career has consistently felt like it was accelerating and then completely dissipating. I showcased for different record labels and there seemed to be interest and then it kind of fizzled, then I got a backup band and then it fizzled. In 2007, via Myspace, I was approached by a brand new boutique label in Paris, which sounds fancier than it was. They heard If We’re Not Talking, my first electro-pop album, and they really liked it and they signed me. It was a really exciting moment in my career. I had been chasing the record deal. Back then the record deal was seen as the goal for a musician and I had finally gotten signed.
Then the unfortunate thing that happens to many signed artists started happening to me. They really liked If We’re Not Talking and wanted me to recreate that album. I kept sending them demos that were still electro-pop but had also evolved from that sound, and they said, “No, no, we want you to sound like this. We want you to sound like MGMT.” That was the “it” band at the time. I was getting really frustrated. I had sent them thirty demos and they had made so many contractual obligations to me and hadn’t delivered on any of them. When they signed me, they were like, “We’re going to make you the next Mika.” They had so many ambitions for me and it was hard not to buy into that.
During this period, I started writing again for the first time in years. Not songwriting, because that felt too painful, but these diary entries. I eventually showed them to friends and they were like, “Wow, you should develop these. These could be short stories. These could become something.” What I was writing developed into what would become God Loves Hair, which I self-published in 2010. In a roundabout way, my record company dicking me around was kind of what pushed me in a different artistic direction. I saw myself only as a musician and writing God Loves Hair really opened me up. I realized, “Oh, wow, actually, there’s a lot I want to say and I want to try different mediums. What can I say in the medium of short film? What can I say in the medium of visual art?” This was a pivotal moment for me, but it didn’t happen for me until eight or nine years into my career.
JP: You are now based in Toronto, but you grew up in Edmonton and received your Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alberta. In what ways did growing up in Edmonton shape your artistry?
VS: Being queer and brown in a smaller city is very hard, and I have a lot of admiration for people who do stay. The landscape of Edmonton has changed so much since I’ve left. It’s a very different city now. For me, I felt like I had to move, but that said, one of the things that Edmonton really did is that it really nurtured me. It gave me a strong sense of artistic community that I often feel like I’m lacking here. People are so excited and supportive in Edmonton. You tell someone you have a CD release and people are like, “Whoa, when is it?” and everyone comes out; you have a book launch and people are very excited and they’re very supportive. In Toronto, it’s so saturated—like, my best friend’s dog has a CD release party tomorrow, you know? Being an artist in Toronto is almost disposable because there’s so many of us and we’re all doing it and a lot of people have their hands in a lot of different pots. That sense of community feels harder to find, and it can feel a lot more competitive, it can feel a lot more insular.
I feel especially grateful to the religious community I grew up in, because that’s where I first started to sing, that’s where I first started to write little speeches. They would have me talk about love and I would get up and I would talk and use these religious principles but I would also include excerpts from TLC or R.E.M. Someone came up to me after and said, “That song you wrote was beautiful!” and I was like, “That song I wrote? Oh, I can write a song? That’s a thing?” And that’s what prompted me to start writing my own songs.
Edmonton really nurtured me and gave me a sense of artistic community, and when you’re developing and emerging as an artist, and even now, it is so crucial and I always look forward to sharing new work when I come back home.
JP: I see you returning to Edmonton often in your work. God Loves Hair, She of the Mountains, The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton and even this page is white all consider Edmonton in one way or another. Do you still feel a sense of “home” when you think of Edmonton?
VS: Most people are shaped by the city they grew up in. Being a child of immigrants, there is this whole idea of being caught between two cultures that follows first-generation people and artists, and that comes across in my work. But in some ways I feel also between two cities. I have spent more than half of my life in Edmonton. When I’m forty, it’ll be 50/50.
I’m constantly thinking about Edmonton and am inspired by Edmonton, and as I age my relationship to Edmonton changes. I did an interview with someone who said, “You’re really hard on Edmonton sometimes,” and that’s true, but then I think about last year editing The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton, which to me was a really giant step in my relationship with the city. I see that project as a tribute to the city. I said this in the introduction of the zine, but in a lot of ways, I feel like the malls are a metaphor for the way that people feel about Edmonton. It’s very easy to be hard on, it’s very easy to trash—“Deadmonton”—and malls are that way too, but at the end of the day, that’s where we grow up.
I’m really grateful to the city. The more I make art, the older I grow, the more time and space I have from the city, the more I’m able to find the beauty in it in ways that I wasn’t able to while I lived there, in large part because of the homophobia and genderphobia I faced.
JP: You’ve talked about the ways your music career led you to your literary one. Can you comment on the ways that your work in one medium might interact with your other projects? I’m thinking here of “White Dreams,” the single that accompanies even this page is white.
VS: Yesterday I met with a young artist and he had a giant list of ideas but was feeling stuck, and I said to him, “What excites you?” The older I get, that is what is really important. I am very grateful for the interest in my literary work and other art but there are moments that I wish that I could make music happen. Sometimes music feels like “fetch,” and it’s like, “Quit trying to make music happen.” Music is what makes me happiest, so for me, part of what I have tried to do is to find ways to integrate music into whatever project I’m doing so that it feels exciting to me too and that it has that element of my heart. That’s not to say I’m not passionate about the writing or the filmmaking, but I love music so much and I try to find ways to incorporate it. Having “White Dreams” as a bonus single for the book felt like a nice add-on. If the book can introduce people to my music, wonderful. Maybe music won’t happen and that’s fine, but I still want to find ways to incorporate it. So with even this page is white, I’ve been closing the readings with an homage to Black female musicians, or with Your Cloud, an installation in Toronto, I also released a cover of the Tori Amos song “Your Cloud,” which I named the project after.
Part of it is also thinking of the audience. For me, I want to find ways to surprise an audience and engage an audience. I have a short attention span as an artist, so I have always been drawn to artists that are doing a multiplicity of things and have really big visions.
JP: You recently received national and international attention for a photography project called Trisha, in which you recreate photographs of your mother taken when she was a young woman. Elsewhere in your work, your mother is a presence that you orbit around. Can you talk about your relationship with your mother?
VS: I have a complicated relationship with my mom. One of the reasons I return to her as a theme, not unlike Edmonton, is because of that complexity. First and foremost, her gender and her femininity have always been inspiring to me, especially as a kid watching her, and I reference this in God Loves Hair. She was also one of the few people during my formative years to be very supportive of my gender creativity. Again in God Loves Hair, the last story is she and I going to buy my first pair of tweezers, and this being a symbol of acceptance, a quiet symbol of acceptance.
As I’ve gotten older, maybe my obsession with my mom has increased. There’s this line in Trisha: “You worked full-time, went to school part-time, managed a home, raised two children who complained about frozen food and made fun of your accent, and cared for your family in India. Most days in my adult life, I can barely care for myself.” I often think about my mom and how hard she worked to raise a family in a new country and I have so much respect for her, and I’m so in awe of her.
I’m also fascinated by her perspective. Holy Mother My Mother was an opportunity to hear her perspective and have her talk about what motherhood has meant to her. My interest in my mom comes is tied to femininity. As I’ve grown comfortable in my femininity, I return to my mom a prime symbol of femininity.
JP: You self-published your first book, God Loves Hair. What was the experience of self-publishing like for you?
VS: Sometimes I look back and I think, “What the hell was I doing?” I have boxes of CDs that I never sold. The most I’ve ever sold from an album is 100 copies. When I self-published God Loves Hair, I worked with the printer, and as with any printing, the more you print, the cheaper it is. I printed 1,000 books and I had no reason to believe that I was going to sell those because I had no track record of selling that much “product.” But I really believed in the project and I think, in some ways, that things going downhill with the label left me feeling passionately about DIY culture again. After experiencing the ways that the record deal was stalling me and holding me back, I didn’t want someone telling me, “No, you can’t do this. You don’t look masculine enough here. No, we don’t want to do a full-colour book.” I wanted to have the full control that I had as a musician prior to the label, so I self-published this book and it had a life of its own, which is incredible.
JP: And then it was picked up by Arsenal Pulp Press. I think many publishers would be wary of publishing a book that has already been self-published and had press coverage and seen a lot of success. I think God Loves Hair is exceptional for this reason.
VS: Six months before I self-published it, I had asked Brian Francis, the author of Fruit and an amazing, wonderful human, to blurb God Loves Hair and he said to me, “Listen, I know you want to self-publish it, but I think it’s worth sending it to publishers. You never know, you’d be surprised,” which was interesting because everybody else had said to me, “No publisher is going to pick up a full-colour book by a newbie writer.” So my compromise was to submit it to four or five publishers, and if I heard back positively before I went to press, great, and if not I was going to carry on. So I had actually submitted it to Arsenal then and they turned it down.
I had also contacted them when the first edition had sold out. One thousand copies sold in a year and I contacted them and sent a message saying that this book was nominated for a Lambda Award and has been selling as a textbook in institutions and again they turned it down. So I self-published it again.
They ended up reaching out to me around the time when the second edition was almost sold out, saying they’d love to do a new edition of God Loves Hair. I was really anxious that they’d want to rebrand it somehow. I wanted to preserve the feel of the design because I think that’s partly what makes the book so special, and they were like, “Great, yes.” So there are some minor changes: the spine colour is different and the font is a little bit different, but they really honoured the original project, and I feel very lucky. It was wild to see the kinds of reach that having a publisher offered the book. I feel like I was able to do a lot with the book on my own, but once it was with Arsenal, suddenly it was in Publisher’s Weekly and getting featured in Out Magazine.
JP: You seem to have a very close relationship with Arsenal Pulp Press and I wonder what other types of support they have offered you as a writer?
VS: I’ve been very fortunate. I’m putting out my fourth book with them this fall and I started working with them in 2014, so that’s four books in two years, which is pretty ridiculous. If anything, that really speaks to how much they believe in me. And I’m not one of their best-selling authors, either. They have a chart on their website of best-selling titles and I’m not often on that chart. With even this page is white and The Boy & the Bindi, their website is very clear that they aren’t accepting poetry submissions or children’s book submissions and this year they’re doing both with me. Poetry, as you know, is not as lucrative as a novel, so I feel very lucky to have a publisher that’s willing to take those risks with me because they believe in what I want to do.
JP: I am struck by the threads that run between your first publication, God Loves Hair and your other books, notably She of the Mountains and even this page is white. I find there to be an extremely nuanced exploration of the performativity of gender throughout your work. From being mistaken for a baby girl in “God Loves Hair,” experimenting with makeup in “Lipstick,” coaxing relatives to dress you up in saris in “Dress Up,” to your concern with the poetics of queer masculinity in She of the Mountains. Can you talk about your concern with gender and gender performance and how they may have changed and evolved throughout your work?
VS: What’s really exciting and bizarre is to look at the ways that the art was sometimes ahead of me. I remember one of the first pieces of feedback I got from God Loves Hair is someone said they had read it as a trans narrative. That was a huge compliment, obviously, but I was not identifying as trans at the time, I wasn’t even identifying as genderqueer at the time. I would say I was barely identifying as queer at the time!
What I’m so grateful to art for is that sometimes art has revealed truth to me which has made me seek it further with every project. The continual revelation of truth in art has then revealed those truths in me as a person. It sounds cumbersome because I’m the artist and I’m making it, but I think that art has been a safe space for me to explore gender and think about gender in ways that me as a human might not have been ready to do. I’ve heard similar things about She of the Mountains, that many people have read it as a trans narrative, and that wasn’t my intention with the project but I can see how that’s possible and that’s really exciting.
JP: In “God Loves Hair,” you write about the way your mother prayed for you to look like your father. Then, in Trisha, you write, “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.” Can you talk more about this?
VS: While I’ve been transitioning, even though my mom has been a consistent inspiration to me in regards to my gender, especially while I’ve been transitioning I’ve noted in photographs the way I have started to look like her. That was a large part of the impetus for doing Trisha. It’s interesting talking to you about the project because you’re familiar with God Loves Hair. For me, I see Trisha and God Loves Hair as being a communication, especially that first story. As an artist, I’m always hesitant to repeat myself. I’m always hoping to show new angles. This is one moment for me when I felt like I couldn’t talk about the photo series without going back to that story and that’s why that essay begins with, “My story has always been bound to your prayer.”
JP: And you are addressing Trisha to your mother, speaking directly to her. You’ve joked in other interviews about not necessarily being able to share your books with your parents. What does Trisha mean in terms of communication with your mother?
VS: I would love to share the project with her at some point. I haven’t wanted to weigh down the artistic side of the project with my mother’s response. If she doesn’t like it, if she’s unhappy with it, then it would taint the project for me. I want the project to have a life of its own before I have this conversation.
It is bizarre. I’ve done this homage to my mom, which features a letter to her, and ostensibly hundreds of people have engaged with it in ways my mom hasn’t. But that’s art!
JP: So you’re saying your mom hasn’t seen the photos at all?
VS: My mom doesn’t use the internet a lot and thank goddess! I deliberately didn’t use her name to protect her privacy.
JP: You have been vocal about issues of representation in the publishing industry, particularly in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. You adapted the keynote you presented to the Association of Canadian Publishers in early 2016 into an article on All Lit Up that included thirteen recommendations for presses that need to diversify. Can you share your experience?
VS: The experience was surreal on many levels because even though I see myself as fourteen years into my artistic career, I’m only four years into my literary career. I started out self-publishing and I couldn’t even get some bookstores in Toronto to stock my book. So four years later to be standing in a room with publishers from small presses across the country where I’m giving a keynote was a surreal experience. It was an honour that people would be interested in what I have to say, but what was particularly hard about that talk was here I was doing a talk about diversity in publishing and there were about fifty people in that room and I’m, again, one of the only brown people in the room.
It’s hard to be a brown person—let alone a brown trans person—and stand up and talk about racism. What was really interesting about that talk was I certainly felt a type of defensiveness at times during the Q&A, which is to be expected, but largely I got the sense that people want to do better but they don’t know how. I am sure that this is a genuine feeling, but I also think that it is also tied to complacency. Conversations about diversity in publishing have happened long before I was born. People who I respect and admire who are ten, fifteen years older than me, people like Farzana Doctor, have been doing amazing work and have had these very same conversations. When publishers say they don’t know what to do or how to do it, it’s frustrating because these conversations have been taking place for a really long time. That said, I’m very committed to engaging in these conversations at this point in my career, and that’s why I wrote that article, with the intention that, “Okay, if you’re serious about wanting to make change, here are some ideas.”
What’s been amazing is the way that article has been picked up. I have been contacted by several small presses in Canada who have actually changed their submission mandate based on what was in that article, which is incredible. But I have two major concerns. One of the things I hear a lot is that “diversity is trending right now” and that’s a disturbing concept. Diversity is not trending, diversity is real. Diversity is real life, especially in Canada. When people say it’s a hot topic, it’s disturbing, because what happens next year? Will diversity not be a hot topic anymore? What happens to writers like me next year? Is our writing no longer important or valuable? And this brings me to my second concern, which is that what people don’t realize sometimes is that the work around diversification or inclusion is life-long. It’s not a matter of just changing your mandate, it’s not a matter of just saying you’re committed to this for the next six months, it’s about the long haul. Before I wrote the article, I contacted Brian Lam at Arsenal, and I said, “I think you have one of the most diverse book lists in Canada. How did you establish this?” and Brian talked about taking risks in the 80s by publishing things that other people didn’t feel comfortable publishing. Arsenal, as an example, has been doing this work consistently and that’s what’s key. Let’s change our mandates, let’s change our focus, let’s have these conversations, let’s write articles, let’s read articles, let’s share them, but the work needs to be ongoing. You might not get lots of POC submissions right away or your book lists might not change overnight, but it has to be a life-long commitment.
JP: Are you witnessing any exciting interventions into these discussions? Who do you turn to for their work in these areas?
VS: Whenever I have these conversations, I look to Farzana. Obviously she’s a friend, but she has really mentored me in a lot of ways. She really believed in my future, being published and being part of CanLit, long before I did, even when I was in the self-publishing days. She’s also someone who is constantly championing the importance of diversity and having more marginalized voices represented in CanLit.
JP: You dedicate even this page is white to “anyone who has lost a friend from saying the word race.” In a 2014 presentation called “CWILA and the Challenge of Counting for Race,” Madeleine Thien talked about the difficulty of talking about race in Canada. What has the experience of talking about race in Canada been like for you?
VS: It’s an interesting moment. Again, diversity as a “hot topic” is challenging, but I think I am very lucky because between the publication of even this page is white and diversity being a “hot topic,” the things that I’m saying or pushing or reading from my book have been mostly met with interest, curiosity, respect, appreciation, gratitude—so mostly positively. That dedication, though, comes from not always being in this position. I realize that I have a privilege of a platform right now, but in the day-to-day life when I’m having conversations with friends or co-workers or on Facebook, talking about race has often been tied to some kind of loss. Usually that means a loss of friendship or loss of trust or loss of hope.
Having a platform doesn’t always makes it easier. I did a reading here at a poetry event in Toronto and it was sixty people, everyone was white, and I almost left before it started. I was like, “I don’t want to do this.” It’s really hard work but I also feel as a non-Black, non-Indigenous person, who doesn’t face the kind of daily violence and scrutiny they face, I have an emotional energy to engage in these conversations. I feel like a small gesture I can make as an ally is to try to use my privilege to talk about these issues.
JP: In reading your work, as well as following your online activist presence, I am struck by your attention to the ways in which you might be complicit in perpetuating particular forms of violence and oppression—I’m thinking here of your poems “indian” and “amiskwacîwâskahikan,” in which you address the way our presence on this land perpetuates a colonial violence. Can you talk more about that?
VS: For me, that’s the hard work. I can be mad at white people 24/7 and I would be right to be, but the conversations around racism and white supremacy are much more nuanced. There are lots of places where I have privilege. I work at a post-secondary institution, so even though I’m a brown artist, I do have a certain kind of class privilege. I don’t get carded on the streets of Toronto. I’m never worried about that. So for me, writing a book that delved into racism from a personal lens, it didn’t feel adequate just to be angry at whiteness or white people. For me, it was also unpacking the ways I have upheld white supremacy, whether that’s through things like shadeism, appreciating my light skin as opposed to my brother’s dark skin, and how that actually ties to anti-Blackness.
Nobody wants to own their privilege. Everyone wants to say that they have it hardest. This is my big frustration with gay white men. A lot of gay white men feel that they have had it hard, which is not inaccurate, but they are not willing to think about the ways that they have privilege too, and the ways that their experience as opposed to my experience is very different. For example, in regards to Orlando, the way that moment got completely white-washed was hard to watch. I’m not Latinx, either, so I also had to figure out what my place is in connecting to this terrible tragedy. That’s where the work is, in always situating yourself and reminding yourself of what your privileges are and then doing something about it.
JP: You mention Orlando. I saw a great Facebook post yesterday. It was only two lines, and it said, “Orlando reminded us why we need Pride. Black Lives Matter Toronto reminded us how to do Pride right.” You have just come off heels of Toronto Pride where you were Grand Marshal, where there was the very powerful Black Lives Matter protest.
VS: One of the most succinct things I’ve seen written is by someone I follow on Twitter named Mike Bickerton, and he said, “If you were #OnePulse a week ago and anti-#BLMTO this morning, you’ve misunderstood one of the above.” One of the things we have to think about is the only reason we get to have a big gay parade in 2016 is because of protests by largely Black and Indigenous trans and queer people of colour at events like Stonewall—which aren’t unlike what happened at Pride—and we can’t forget that.
To me, it was such a strange experience, because I was done the parade when that all happened. I was given the impression that all honoured people or groups would be together, but we were all separated, I was at the front and I couldn’t even see where they were, so I was reading on Twitter about what happening in the same parade I was just in. I was in awe. Someone else in my feed said something like, “We invited an activist group to be an honoured group at Pride, and surprise! They took an activist stance!” Their action was a really important reminder of the history of Pride.
What’s been so disturbing has been the backlash from white gay people especially when juxtaposed with how white gay culture appropriates Black culture. Even the language, like adopting “Yaaaas” or “Fierce.” It definitely speaks to anti-Black racism in LGBTQ communities. I think sometimes to the general public, there’s a sense that if you’re marginalized, you don’t oppress other people. I personally know from my own experience how rampant the LGBTQ community is with racism, with biphobia, with transphobia, and this is a visceral example of anti-Black racism in LGBTQ communities and the work that needs to be done there.
JP: In “how to not disappoint you completely,” you ask, “if I write about you is it appropriation / if I don’t write about you is it erasure / if I include you is it tokenizing / if I don’t include you is it invisibilizing?” Do you consider an ethics of writing, and if so, what does yours look like?
VS: First, to talk about that poem in particular, writing about racism is hard. Wanting to make sure I’m writing from a personal perspective as opposed to making blanket statements about groups I’m not part of was even more challenging, because that expectation was there. When I got feedback from my first draft of the book, people asked, “Are you going to talk about the niqab ban? Are you going to talk about colonization?” I felt so overwhelmed with feeling I needed to check off a lot of these “topical” boxes—“Are you going to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis?”—I felt a lot of pressure to talk about these events in Canada that are tied to race and racism, but I’m not a Syrian refugee, and I’m not Muslim, so how do I do this? How do I use the medium and platform of the book to talk about these complicated issues but not claim them as my own? That, in a lot of ways, became one of the central obsessions for me and central points of anxiety in writing this book. That poem was really inspired by Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. So much of her book is about process. It’s kind of a book about making a book. I remember being critical of that, like, why am I reading a book about making a book, I just want to read a book. But as I was writing even this page is white her approach actually felt very useful. Writing “how to not disappoint you completely” felt like an important way to talk about the fact that I am struggling with these things.
When you belong to marginalized communities there is a sense of accountability and so consequently there is a sense of failure. I worried about failing Black and brown people with this book.
So yes, absolutely, my work is tied to ethics. My work is also always tied to wanting to push against dominant narratives. For example, in She of the Mountains or even this page is white or even Trisha, is there a way for me to talk about my body without talking about it as the wrong body? With trans narratives, there’s this idea that transness is feeling like you’re born in the wrong body, but often, it’s more that we live in a world that doesn’t know how to receive us as we are. That’s not to dismiss trans people who do feel they are born in the wrong body, that’s their narrative and that’s important, but for me I’m always grappling with how to push against the most pervasive ideas, how can I always tell a complicated story.
JP: Your most recent book, a children’s picture book called The Boy & the Bindi, is another exploration of a new genre for you. Can you talk to me about this project and how it came to be?
VS: It’s a children’s picture book with an illustrator named Rajni Perera who I have collaborated with a couple of times: the artwork for All of the Lights, the Diwali EP I put out, and the bonus artwork for Holy Mother My Mother. The writing style is a cross between Dr. Seuss meets Robert Munsch, both fantastic children’s book authors who have inspired many, including myself.
Essentially, I was on a jury here in Toronto where I was exposed to children’s books and I was heavily disappointed to see how few children of colour were in these books. I had read this New York Times article in 2013 that talked about how that year they had done research and how something like four or five percent, a really small percentage, of children’s books made that year featured people of colour. Increasingly there are more children’s books about gender creativity, but again, a lot of them are white. I felt frustrated, and from frustration comes art. I had a J.K. Rowling moment and wrote The Boy & the Bindi on a napkin—I wish I had kept that napkin.