Vivek Shraya's new book Next Time There's a Pandemic examines our collective response to the COVID-19 crisis
'As a trans, queer brown person living in Calgary, I don't get to choose when I'm safe and when I'm not safe'
Like so many of us, Edmonton-born artist and writer Vivek Shraya spent the pandemic reflecting on her own behaviour, but also that of our society at large. Shraya's new book, Next Time There's a Pandemic, was adapted from the CLC Kreisel Lecture she gave at the University of Alberta in March 2021, which examined how she — and all of us collectively — might have approached 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic differently.
Instead of simply trying to making the best of it, Shraya argues, or offering up platitudes such as "Stay safe," what if we had challenged the status quo and focused on actually being caring and ensuring we showed up for one another?
Shraya's work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theatre and film. Her bestselling book, I'm Afraid of Men, was praised by Vanity Fair as "cultural rocket fuel," and her album with the Queer Songbook Orchestra, Part-Time Woman, was longlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. Shraya is also the founder of the publishing imprint VS. Books. She is currently adapting her debut play, How to Fail as a Popstar, for television.
In both the lecture and your book, it's wonderful how they connect with each other, and both works of art open with you getting your first post-lockdown massage.
Vivek Shraya: Priorities, Shelagh, priorities.
I'd been invited to do this very prestigious lecture, the Kreisel lecture at the University of Alberta. I found myself reflecting a lot on 2020, and thinking a lot about, how could we collectively think about the way that we approach this awful and tremendous and life-changing year? And so that was a big part of it.
I was also working on another book in 2020 called People Change, and that included a lot of my early pandemic reflections in the first draft. My wonderful editor suggested that we try to keep People Change as timeless as possible, and that by including a lot of pandemic references, we were going to date it a little bit. And so I ended up repurposing a lot of that into Next Time There's a Pandemic, because with a lecture I felt like it was important to be of that time as opposed to the same worries in terms of creating this other book.
After years of wishing that you could spend less time on the road, what did you find when things were put on pause during the pandemic?
Vivek Shraya: You know, it's so funny because my mom is really into the universe and stuff. I remember in March and April being very depressed because I was looking at a very packed and exciting year. I'd just launched my play — I feel like I was one of the few people on the planet that got to do a play right before the pandemic. And I was supposed to go to Germany, all this stuff, and my mum was like, "Well, haven't you been saying for years that you just want to have some more time at home?" And I was like, "Yes." And she's like, "Well, be careful what you wish for. The universe is listening."
I need all of the dimensions of being an artist. The time to be at home and be creative is wonderful. But if I'm just staring at a wall all the time, there's no inspiration.
What's interesting is I found that for me, I need all of the dimensions of being an artist, right? The downtime and the time to be at home and be creative is wonderful.
But if I'm just staring at a wall all the time, there's no inspiration. There's no motivation, you know? And how much I crave that engagement with other people — and not just from being a performer, but it also made me realize the ways in which my chosen family as a queer person is largely accessed through travel. My people live across this country and I get to see them when I tour. And so it was eye-opening … it's the travelling, the touring, the reading, the connecting and the downtime that's necessary for me.
As a writer, you work in solitude — has being in solitude taught you something about yourself?
Vivek Shraya: I really don't like being a writer. [laughs] I mean, I'm fortunate that my artistic career is multidisciplinary and I need the other things to be able to perform. I need to sing on stage; I need to do shows, all that stuff. Otherwise, the solitary staring at the screen, staring at the snowfall — it doesn't inspire me.
It's been challenging because for my whole life, I've heard 'You're so restless. You need to meditate; you need to calm down; you need to slow down.' And I did that during the pandemic, but I actually am one of those people who need to be stimulated. That's what gives me inspiration. That's what gives me joy.
And so going back to my writing practice, it's understanding if I'm going to do this, how do I find ways now — especially since we're still in this thing — to continue to be stimulated? Otherwise, I do think it makes for a very sad writer, which no one wants, especially my partner.
When you look back at the early days of the pandemic and the kind of directives we were getting and what we'd say to each other — phrases like "Stay safe" — what kind of weight did "Stay safe" take on for you?
Vivek Shraya: It was one of those phrases – I mean, excuse me, I'm a writer and I teach English, so I definitely get caught up in language and the way that we use it — but any time something becomes a kind of buzz phrase, I find myself thinking a lot about, "What are we actually saying?" And I found myself very uncomfortable with "Stay safe." And it took me a while to unpack why that was. And I think as a trans, queer brown person living in Calgary, I don't get to choose when I'm safe and when I'm not safe — even outside of the pandemic, when I'm out in public in makeup, in a dress —I cannot control how people react to me.
I found myself very uncomfortable with "Stay safe." And it took me a while to unpack why that was. As a trans, queer brown person living in Calgary, I don't get to choose when I'm safe and when I'm not safe.
I also found myself thinking a lot about the relationship between the increase of domestic violence and the pandemic. What does it mean to tell someone who you don't know what their circumstances are, who are forced to be at home that might be unsafe, "Stay safe"?
I remember being very thrown off when frontline workers would wish me "Stay safe" at the grocery store and I'm like, "You stay safe!" But part of it felt almost like a plea — like, please stay home. Like, don't come here and stock up on toilet paper every day.
And so I think what I kept hearing in "Stay safe" was "Good luck to you." How do we use a slang or slogan that's about collective care and responsibility and more like, "Stay kind; stay caring; stay vigilant"? Because I think if we were to say that, it kind of changes what our responsibilities are — it requires us to think about people who aren't just us.
You say artists might not be essential workers, but art is essential. And how would we be making our way through without art? I mean, I can't even think about that.
Vivek Shraya: I talk about this in the book a little bit — it was interesting when this language of "essential workers" got introduced, because very quickly I was like, being a writer or an artist would not be classified in these terms. And yet the way that most of us survived [the pandemic] and continue to survive tends to be through watching TV, reading books, listening to music — and also not just the way we've survived and spent our time, but also how we've connected with other people so often.
Sure, maybe artists aren't classified as essential, but art is essential. So how do we think about supporting our artists better the next time there's a pandemic?
Never in my entire life is the conversation with friends so predicated on, "So what TV shows are you watching right now? What music are you listening to?" Because we don't get to have those shared experiences together in person, art allows us to have shared experiences from our own homes.
I really wanted that chapter of the book to reiterate that sure, maybe artists aren't classified as essential, but art is essential. So how do we think about supporting our artists better the next time there's a pandemic?
Tell me about the list of commitments you write at the end of the book.
Vivek Shraya: In the early days of the pandemic, I did find myself thinking about what kinds of things I would want to change and what kinds of behaviours and actions and attitudes had come about that I'd want to preserve. I am stunned how often I'm in a public washroom and people do not wash their hands. I'm like, "Do you understand what we've been through for the past two years?" So I made this list of commitments that I wanted to share as a gesture to readers or to people watching the video [of the lecture] to think about other things that we might have learned and want to hold on to.
Moving forward, it also felt like an opportunity to create a kind of interactive moment, especially with the lecture, because I didn't get to do it in person. In the video, I actually ask people if they feel comfortable to repeat those lines with me.
Upon reflection, one of the things that I really regret not including — so I'll say it here — is I will never shake someone's hand again.
Elbow bumps forever!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.