Books·In Conversation

Writer, musician and artist Vivek Shraya has done it all — and isn't afraid to fail

The creator from Alberta spoke with CBC Books about her writing life and career.

'So much of my career has been visible, but actually half of my career has been invisible'

Vivek Shraya is an author and artist from Alberta. (Tanja-Tiziana)

Vivek Shraya is a writer, artist and musician from Alberta. In her writing, Shraya tackles topics such as community, diversity, identity, leadership, failure and pop culture. Shraya has been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award multiple times and has received the 2015 Dayne Ogilve Prize Honour of Distinction from The Writers' Trust of Canada. 

Shraya's work includes the novel She of the Mountains and the poetry collection even this page is whiteHer latest books are the essay I'm Afraid of Mencomic book Death Threat, the theatrical play and accompanying book How to Fail as a Popstar and the novel The Subtweet, about two musicians of South Asian heritage whose friendship is tested when a social media post triggers a media storm.

Shraya also manages the Arsenal Pulp Press imprint VS. Books, which offers a mentorship and publishing opportunity to a young Indigenous, Black writer or writer of colour. The first book under the imprint was the award-winning short story collection Shut Up, You're Pretty by Ontario author Téa Mutonji. 

Shraya spoke with CBC Books about her writing life, her career and why she "pays it forward" in supporting emerging artists.

What is The Subtweet all about?

There's a range of things that none of us, who didn't create the internet, could have anticipated. There were a lot of things that I wanted to say with the novel that I didn't feel I could say through a tweet or on the internet. 

Questions like: What does it mean to have jobs where you're required, as part of your job, to be on these social media platforms? What does it mean to get called out on the internet?

One of the biggest things about being online is it lacks the nuance and the ability to have complex conversations. We've all experienced Facebook fights where people are commenting back and forth — and in the back of your mind you are realizing that it is never going to get resolved.

One of the biggest things about being online is it lacks the nuance and the ability to have complex conversations.

What I like about fiction is that it's an opportunity to explore a range of ideas and a range of themes — unlike I'm Afraid of Men, which was very specific and focused in terms of thinking about harassment and violence. 

With The Subtweet, and the novel form in general, I had to think about things like friend breakups, jealousy, the internet and call out culture. And it felt like a novel was the right place to explore all those themes at the same time. 

The Subtweet was an award finalist for the 2021 Dublin Literary Award, the 2021 Lambda Literary Award and the
2020 Toronto Book Award. 

The biggest success that it got published! It wasn't an easy ride, so I'm thrilled about that. I'm glad that I stuck with it because I think there were definitely times where — because the book was so challenging to make — I did doubt what I was doing. I was like, "Does this book have merit? Should I sell that?"

I'm grateful to the people in my life who told me to stay true to my vision. Recently, the book returned to the bestseller chart, so that was a success for me.

Vivek Shraya on her poetry collection.

What type of feedback are you hearing about The Subtweet

I love how many brown people have engaged with it. One of the big shifts for me with The Subtweet was thinking about my body of work and how much of it has sometimes inadvertently been for the "gaze."

This is so normal for people of colour — that when we make work, we're often put in these educator roles. Like: how do I teach you on how to be an ally? How do I teach you about what racism is?

And the audience for that is never my people. The audience for that is white people or straight people or cis people.

The Subtweet felt kind of risky. That risk was reflected by how difficult the book was to get published, because it wasn't doing what I'm expected to do as a brown queer trans artist.

With The Subtweet, it centres brown women. It has no romantic relationship. It centres friendship. It centres women who are passionate about their careers. 

So to me, it felt kind of risky. That risk was reflected by how difficult the book was to get published, because it wasn't doing what I'm expected to do as a brown queer trans artist. I've been relieved and thrilled at how many of the reviews have been like, "Yes, finally a book about brown friendship," or "Yes, a book that isn't about a relationship or women sitting around talking about their dating lives."

I love that the people who get it really get it. That feels like such a win.

Sounds like that's a complicated juggling act for a BIPOC author.

It is complicated, right? Because especially in North America, or at least in Canada, I'm very aware that the audience and the people who move books are white people. Book buyers ultimately affect whether or not a publisher is interested in buying and publishing your work. When you do the math around it, it's not an easy calculation.

What I've done is try to find a balance. With my book of poetry, even this page is white, the first chapter was called White Dreams and the last chapter is called Brown Dreams, which is very much for the brown reader. White Dreams is about engaging the white reader. I tried to speak to multiple people at times and as I've gotten older, the more I feel like, "OK, well, I've done that work and I feel a responsibility to try to speak to my people more."

I tried to think less about the white male reader.

In creating characters, it's about thinking how messy your characters can be. I find that very hard because you are thinking how is this going to be read — and how is this going to be interpreted by a white person who's thinking, "I read this book about a brown girl and all brown girls are like this."

One of the things I remember hearing, when we were pitching the book, was that some readers couldn't tell the difference between the characters. And I'm thinking, is that my flaw as a writer, or is it because white readers don't know how to tell the difference between two brown women? 

I don't think it's easy work. But I tried to think less about the white male reader.

As an artist, we have witnessed your personal journey and transformation over the years. Do you feel pressure or anxiety being so much in the public eye?

So much of my career has been visible, but actually half of my career has been invisible. Most people, if they are familiar with me, they know me as a writer or maybe they know me as a visual artist. But most people don't really know my music. Most people can't name five of my songs. And not to romanticize failure, but what that experience has done has made me familiar with what it means to put out work that people aren't interested in. 

It's interesting — so much of my career has been visible, but actually half of my career has been invisible.

I'm very grateful any time people are interested in work I'm making. But also, in some ways, I'm quite equipped for the opposite. The lack of success I'd had in my music career has prepared me — if I'm not going to take risks now, in this mid-career stage, what's the point?

Compared to your experience, do you think it's easier for LGBTQ and/or BIPOC authors or creators to come out — literally — or even in terms of building a platform? Do you think they have it easier than you had?

It definitely seems like a different world. I see young artists who seem more self-actualized, who are able to name their identities and who are reaching thousands of people, either through major book deals or TikTok deals. That's not the world that I grew up in. 

When I was starting out in the music industry, I remember my manager telling me at the time that no one's going to sign a brown and gay Canadian artist in Canada.

When I was starting out in the music industry, I remember my manager telling me at the time that no one's going to sign a brown and gay Canadian artist in Canada.

But I do see minor changes in the industry. That's exciting. That's the change I want to be part of, whether it's through my imprint or the work that I'm doing. The hope is that the work that I'm doing makes it a little bit easier for someone else.

Toronto Pride Grand Marshal Vivek Shraya opens up about her art and its inspiration

6 years ago
Duration 4:39
In this segment, artist Vivek Shraya discusses her relationship with her mother, masculinity, and Toronto Pride.

What makes you want to give back and pay it forward through the work you are doing?

Despite the challenges I faced in whatever industry or genre I was in, I have a range of experience. I've been a musician. I've been an author. I've made films. I've experienced a range of Canadian arts industries and I feel I have this wealth of information.

I'm also an introvert. So it's about finding ways to be in a community. One of the biggest things about being "a good person in the world" is trying to find actions that are aligned with the person that you are.

I see young artists who seem more self-actualized, who are able to name their identities, who are reaching thousands of people either through major book deals or TikTok deals. That's not the world that I grew up in.

It's about finding ways to use my platform and share the kinds of information that I have in ways that feel comfortable to me. And without sounding cheesy, I think that one of the greatest gifts of being an artist is being able to share what you know with others. 

You recently created a theatrical work, complete with an accompanying book, both titled How to Fail as a Popstar. What's it about?

It was funny going into the play game thinking, "I'm a performer, I'm a writer, I can do theatre!" But it was definitely not like that, as theatre is definitely its own medium. It was very humbling to learn that, in a good way.

What was interesting about theatre is that I am so used to this "isolated writer staring at the computer screen" experience. I was adamant with my director, Brendan Haney, that I wanted a different writing experience. I still have to write a script, but I didn't want to just write it the same way as I write a book. This is something that is going to be performed live. So why not try writing it orally, as opposed to trying to write it on pen and paper or whatever?

It was definitely a different experience that way. That said, when we decided to publish it in a book form, we decided that we wanted the book to be accessible to non-theatre people, and so we actually formatted the book as short story. 

 It was a bit of a full circle because my first book, which also came out 10 years ago, was in the short story genre. It was interesting to try and return to that format for the sake of publishing. 

Inherent to your work are themes like failure, success and personal transformation? Do you see yourself as a role model in terms of your gender identity and personal journey?

There's nothing more annoying than when people who have a platform are like, "I don't see myself as a role model." It's less I'm seeing myself as a role model and it's more that I recognize that I have a social responsibility as someone with a platform. That's something I think a lot about.

It's less I'm seeing myself as a role model, and it's more that I recognize that I have a social responsibility as someone with a platform.

Every time I'm creating work, I'm always sort of thinking about how to make sure I'm doing the things that I'm doing in ways that are aligned with my vision. But that is also, hopefully, in service of my communities. It's a difficult balance because communities are not a monolith. It's also having to reconcile the fact that you might piss people off. 

And that's also part of your job, in a way.

Vivek Shray on her extended essay I'm Afraid of Men

What drives you as a writer and artist?

In your 20s, you feel the whole imposter syndrome, and you're worried that someone's going to call you out, especially when you're POC and you haven't necessarily been classically trained and all that stuff. 

These days, I'm excited about getting better. I'm excited about continuing to test my skills as an artist. But there's always a concern that a project won't succeed or reach an audience. I read a speech that Neil Gaiman did and he talked about how when you make art, it's like putting a message in a bottle and you're putting it into the water and you hope that it reaches the other side. 

I'm just excited about getting better. I'm excited about just continuing to test my skills as an artist.

I love that analogy because I feel like I put a lot of messages in the bottle, in the water, that have sunk. Every so often, a bottle gets to the other side and it's exciting.

If I was afraid of failing, I would have stopped a long time ago!

Vivek Shraya's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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