Q&A

She used to get spit on at the bus stop — now she's fighting back with a new book

As a trans woman, a Calgary writer, artist, teacher and activist is challenging people to think twice before acting on prejudices and stereotypes of gender and masculinity.

Vivek Shraya teaches creative writing at U of C and she's an activist against trans and homophobia, sort of

I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya challenges people to think twice before acting on prejudices and stereotypes of gender and masculinity. (Supplied-David Bell/CBC)

As a trans woman, a Calgary writer, artist, teacher and activist is challenging people to think twice before acting on prejudices and stereotypes of gender and masculinity.

Vivek Shraya's new book, I'm Afraid of Men, is a reflection of a youth marked by not fitting in. She spoke to The Homestretch on Tuesday.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Q: When did you first develop your fear of men?

A: It was largely in junior high school when I started experiencing homophobia from my male classmates.

One of the incidents that has haunted me, has been wearing my mom's jacket which I love, and hearing someone behind me giggling and another person making grunting sounds. I realized they were spitting on me.

Q: Were you angry at the young women for allowing this to happen?

A: You change how you feel about things the older you get. When I thought about that incident when I was younger, I was hurt by the young man, but as an adult, I am like, 'Wait a second, why was that girl laughing?'

Q: Did your fear of men get worse after deciding to transition?

A: No, it has just been a different kind of fear. This book came from thinking about how I have been afraid even before transition.

Q: How has it affected your relationships with men?

A: It has made me guarded and tentative and often not quick to trust.

Q: What have you done to manage that fear?

A: Sometimes I will name it, like with this book, but sometimes I will be really honest with the fact that I don't understand where they are coming from, or could they say a little bit more.

Q: The back cover of book reads "Men are Afraid of Me." What does that mean?

A: I think for me it was really important to complete that cycle. I am afraid of men, it sounds like a victim, but I am afraid of men because I have encountered harm and harassment from men who have often feared me.

That's how they have navigated their fear, by treating me terribly.

Men's fear of difference is just as much part of this narrative as my fear of men.

Q: Is reflection by men one of the goals of the book?

A: I think that is great. I talk about my own experiences as a male and the ways I have taken up space, or the ways I have felt entitled to touch women.

My hope is by doing that, and by people reading the book, that people take that time to think about the ways you also might have been complicit and how can you change those behaviours moving forward.

Q: We are living in divisive times. What's it going to take to make a difference in the lives of people feeling marginalized in our society right now?

A: Take that extra moment. I know what it's like to encounter someone I perceive as different and have an internal reaction.

Now, when people have a reaction, they act on it immediately as opposed to asking, "Why am I having this reaction? Why am I uncomfortable? Why am I afraid? Maybe instead of acting on it or saying something, maybe I could leave that individual alone? Maybe I could celebrate the fact that they are living their truth?"

I think it's about taking that extra moment to think about the prejudices and stereotypes that we have internally, moment-to-moment.

Q: You teach creative writing at the University of Calgary. Do you feel safe in that environment?

A: I do. My students are super respectful. They all call me Ms. Shraya. They use my pronouns.

I moved here from Toronto, I was born and raised in Edmonton and I wasn't really sure what it was going to be like in Calgary, to be honest, and I have been really happily surprised.

Having Naheed Nenshi as mayor, for me, was definitely a motivating factor. I was like, "Wow, we have a brown, Muslim mayor," compared to what was happening in Toronto when I was out there.

Calgary is looking pretty progressive to me. There is always work to be done and conversations to be had but I see a lot of growth and potential in Calgary.

Q: Is it easier for someone who has transitioned to live in the arts community?

A: Absolutely, being a performer does give me a certain amount of privilege and a platform.

The flip side of that is that often who I am is seen as a costume. That becomes challenging.

Q: Are you an activist or advocate?

A: A little bit of both. I am hesitant to claim those words because there are people who are full-time activists and doing incredible work, and I think about the privilege I have to sit and write a book in the comfort of my home and have it called activism.

But, do I believe that art and writing have the capacity to change? Absolutely.

And do I want to be a part of that and use my words and art to support my people and my communities?

Absolutely.

It took Homestretch host Doug Dirks about an hour to read Vivek Shraya's new book called 'I'm Afraid of Men.' But, he spent many more hours thinking about some of the things she reveals. In her book, Shraya speaks to her life as a trans woman. She is an artist, musician and author who teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary. She joins me now in studio. 7:22

With files from The Homestretch.