Calgary

Vivek Shraya transforms hateful social media messages into new graphic novel

Multi-disciplinary artist and University of Calgary writing professor Vivek Shraya turned hateful social media messaging into a new graphic novel called Death Threat.

'I have a history of using art as a way to cope with difficult things'

University of Calgary associate professor Vivek Shraya's new graphic novel Death Threat was inspired by unsettling encounters over social media. (Susan Holzman)

University of Calgary associate professor Vivek Shraya was used to dealing with difficult people over social media.

"It's part of our job [as artists]," Shraya said, in a Wednesday interview with The Homestretch, where she talked about her new graphic novel, Death Threat

"I feel like most of us it's become what we have to do — to be online, [telling people to] come to my show, come listen to this interview," she added.

"It's part of what I do."

The award-winning author, musician and visual artist was singled out by Vanity Fair for her book I'm Afraid of Men as 'cultural rocket fuel'.  Her album, Part-Time Woman, which she recorded with the Queer Songbook Orchestra, was nominated for a Polaris Prize. 

She was chosen as a Top 40 Under 40 by Avenue Magazine in 2018.

But back in 2017, Shraya started to receive some unusually personalized hate mail aimed toward herself — and her mother.

"I basically just checked my inbox, and there were these friendly messages where this individual was like, 'I have been chanting your name hoping you die and my mom's been hunting in the woods for you.' That sort of fun stuff," Shraya said.

Shraya was used to being trolled, and blocking haters, but something about this particular correspondent made her want to learn more.

"Most of my friends were just like, 'block it again!', but again — this person started referencing my mom, so I felt like it was better to know what was being said, as opposed to sending it to whatever spam inbox," Shraya said.

The attacks referenced Shraya's transgender identity.

According to Shraya, the messages said things like, "Your mother's really disappointed with you. You know, make her happy, you tell her that you're not a woman — all this [vitriolic] stuff.

"And again, I was worried, like how did this person find me?" Shraya asked.

"And if they could find me, could they find my mom?" she added. "Would they start bothering my mom? That sort of thing.

"I just felt like it was good for me to know what was happening."

Shraya didn't view calling the police as an appropriate response to the situation.

"As a trans person of colour, I was sort of like, are they going to take me seriously? Are they going to — I don't know —  the history between queer people and the police is a complicated one," she said.

Instead, Shraya turned the experience into Death Threat, a graphic novel she collaborated on with artist Ness Lee. (Shraya will be appearing at the Calgary Central Library Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. to launch Death Threat with Dr. Dermitt Mason.)

Death Threat, the new graphic novel from Calgary writer, musician and visual artist Vivek Shraya, was inspired by hate mail she received in 2017. (Stephen Hunt/CBC)

Shraya said there was something redemptive about turning hate into a work of art, and in particular, a graphic novel.

"I have a history of using art as a way to cope with difficult things," Shraya said. "But in this particular instance, I just started reading a whole bunch of graphic novels around the same time and graphic novels are so strange — they can go to so many places."

"These messages are so strange," she added. "[That led us to ask], what if we turn them into a graphic novel and then just tease out the strangeness of them? Use pop culture references, throw in the Dixie Chicks,  just really take it out there as a way to reclaim my power with this whole troubling thing."

Shraya said the graphic novel form was a good fit for the message the book attempts to deliver.

"I can't imagine explaining these letters in any other medium," Shraya said. "I don't think that they would work especially because for me so much of it was also about including humour and using the humorous aspect of graphic novels to dismantle the power from these messages."

Shraya said the book is as much for her as it is for her readers.

Vivek Shraya and Ness Lee used humour to dismantle the hateful messages she received in her new graphic novel Death Threat. (vivekshraya.com)

"It''s for me to  get through a really troubling event," Shraya said, "but also I'm hoping that other readers who've encountered other forms of hatred on the Internet see the book and engage with the book as a way to cope as well, because I think a lot of us just sort of deal with this in private.

"And I think that there needs to be broader conversation around how we encounter trolls and hate on the Internet."

What does her mom think?

"She has not read it  yet. I think that she'd be a little disturbed."


With files from The Homestretch

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca