Vivek Shraya: Connecting the Dots
Books Education Lifestyle
Photo: VS Prints
While a shipment of children’s books gifted by first Lady Melania Trump to libraries was spurring public debates in elementary schools across the United States this weekend, Vivek Shraya was oblivious of the part she was unwittingly playing in the saga. Shraya’s book, The Boy & the Bindi, was among the titles that Cambridgeport Elementary School librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro thought Trump should have gifted to the school, instead of Dr Seuss’ works that she said were steeped in racist propaganda.
“Truthfully, this interview is the first I am hearing of this, so thank you for the heads up!,” Shraya told Little India in an email interview.
The Toronto-based writer-musician-artist — she sees herself as a multidisciplinary artist — added that she was deeply moved by Soeiro’s letter and glad to have been made aware of the charge of racism in Dr Seuss’ books. In her letter to Mrs Trump rejecting the 10 works by Dr Seuss, the Cambridge, Mass., Librarian Soeiro wrote that “Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”
Shraya said, “Like so many children, I grew up reading his books, and his rhyming style inspired the format of The Boy & the Bindi, so this connection coupled with Soeiro’s list feels perfectly subversive.”
Shraya, who grappled with issues related to gender and ethnic identity for years, is no stranger to feeling complex, intense emotions. She was bullied in school for being brown-skinned, and effeminate. After years of solitary struggle, she finally told her mother about her sexuality at the age of 21. And found the source of strength she needed.
“I turned to my mother, who was one of the few people to celebrate my differences in my childhood,” Shraya tells us. Not that it was easy. Shraya brooded over her mother’s possible response for years, before finding an open window to broach the subject one day, she recalled in a previous feature that she wrote on BuzzFeed:
“So, you’re gay?” my mom asked, without skipping a beat.
“Yes?” I often wish I had said, “No, I am bisexual,” instead, because it would have made my subsequent coming out about dating a woman a bit smoother.
“Well, some kids have cancer. Some people are paralyzed. You are our child. We love you no matter what.” Not quite the PFLAG-mom response or fanfare, but I was mostly happy to not be kicked out of our home and that she didn’t, to my knowledge, have a jagged little breakdown.
Shraya later paid a touching tribute to her mother through Trisha, a much-applauded project involving a series of photographs, old and new, in which she replaced her mom as the subject to recreate the vintage images. The stunning imagery is accompanied by equally moving prose. Shraya addresses her mother at one point: “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’.”
Religion provided a recourse to Shraya too, just like it did to her mother, who went through challenging times when she moved to Canada from India after marriage.
“I turned to religion,” Shraya tells us. “The non-denominational form of Hinduism we practiced seemed to have space to hold my gender creativity in a way that Western masculinity did not.”
Shraya, who announced on her 35th birthday via Facebook that she is now using the pronouns she and her, says owning her femininity wasn’t born from a singular event but was rather the product of years of trying to undo teenage trauma. “When I first came out, it did feel like a huge weight had been lifted, but soon this weight was replaced by continued concerns for my safety and the expectation to perform femininity in a normative way.”
The deep imprints that these experiences etched on her personality seep out in her works. The themes of skin color, gender politics, and divisive opinions emerge as a recurrent pattern in her works, be it the short story collection God Loves Hair, her recent album Part-Time Woman or her debut poetry collection, even this page is white. “They are deliberate focuses in my art,” she says. “I can’t strip my race or gender from my experiences and my perspective.”
It’s, however, a double-edged sword, that often cleaves her award-winning works in favor of her transgender identity. Shraya finds it unfortunate that her sexuality is talked about more than her creations. “I identify as an artist more than any other label,” she says. “I think this is also quite common for racialized, feminine and/or queer artists, where focusing on our identities is also a way to undermine the value of the art itself. White and straight artists are ‘artists,’ and brown and queer artists are ‘activists’.”
The world needs both, so carry on, Vivek Shraya.
Librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro’s List of Recommended Books
Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic written by Ginnie Lo; illus. by Beth Lo.
The Boy & the Bindi written by Vivek Shraya. illus. by Rajni Perera.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music written by Margarita Engle. illus. by Rafael López.
King for a Day written by Rukhsana Khan; illus. by Christiane Krömer.
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation written by Edwidge Danticat; illus. by Leslie Staub.
My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood written by Tameka Fryer Brown; illus. by Shane Evans.
Red: A Crayon’s Story written and illus. by Michael.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation written and illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are like the Clouds written by Jorge Argueta; illus. by Alfonso Ruano; translated by Elisa Amado.
Two White Rabbits written by Jairo Buitrago; illus. by Rafael Yockteng; translated by Elisa Amado.
Melania Trump’s List of Recommended Books by Dr Seuss
Because a Little Bug Went KaChoo
What Pet Should I Get?
The Cat in the Hat
I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
The Foot Book
Green Eggs and Ham
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!