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Gender and Identity

Real talk with artist Vivek Shraya: On womanhood, allyship and fighting white supremacy

"Being an ally means letting go of needing to be a good person," says the writer, filmmaker and singer-songwriter.

Vivek Shraya.

When we don’t know how to talk about sensitive or complicated issues, it’s easy to avoid having a discussion. Vivek Shraya gets that  — but it’s not what she’s about.

A writer, filmmaker and singer-songwriter, Shraya’s bold body of work seeks to challenge dominant narratives, bringing intersectional and binary-breaking stories to the mainstream.

Case in point: Shraya’s latest album, Part-Time Woman, explores her own identity as a queer, trans woman of colour and asks: What’s the definition of womanhood? Produced with Toronto-based music collective Queer Songbook Orchestra, it comes one year after the release of her single “Girl It’s Your Time,” which dropped on Shraya’s 35th birthday — the same day she publicly came out as a trans woman.  

I talked to Shraya about art as activism, navigating today’s fraught political climate and what it really means to be an ally.

Q&A with Vivek Shraya

Emma Jones: Racial tensions are high in the U.S., with a violent white nationalist rally taking place in Charlottesville, Va., less than two weeks ago. How are you feeling about what happened in Charlottesville, and does it impact the way you approach your work?

Vivek Shraya: Like many other queer, trans and racialized artists, a lot of us have been writing about white supremacy, and making art about white supremacy or our experiences with white supremacy, for a very, very long time.

So obviously, I understand that what’s happening in the present moment is really shocking and upsetting for a lot of people, but my response to it is mostly numb. It’s mostly just like: Yep, this is what we’ve been saying. It’s certainly what black people have been talking about and saying for years and years and years.

In terms of my own practice, I feel just as committed as ever to making the art that I do. But at the same time, I don’t feel a shift or a mobilization or anything like that.

This is also an important time for white people to check ourselves constantly, and really consider what it means to be an ally — both in broad political ways and in our daily lives. What does being an ally mean to you?

Being an ally means letting go of needing to be a good person. I think this attachment to wanting to be seen or wanting to feel like you’re a good person is what prevents people from challenging themselves further, from being challenged, from speaking out — because you might say the wrong thing, and everyone on Twitter is going to be mad at you, and they’re all going to think you’re a bad person.

So, I think the first step is really letting go of this attachment. I think we all have the capacity to grow and learn, and we all have racist assumptions and prejudices. We all grew up in a world that told us whiteness was superior. So, it doesn’t matter how good you are, how colour-blind you think you are, how much of an ally you might think you are. There’s so much more work to be done beyond that. We don’t start digging below the surface until we abandon this idea of “I’m a good person.”

Do you identify as an activist?

I struggle with the term activist, mostly because I have so much respect for grassroots activists who are on the ground, putting their bodies on the front lines in a way that I feel like, as an artist — even when I perform my body of work — it’s always in a protective atmosphere. So whether I’m making art in the comfort of my home, or performing on a stage where I have a kind of power, I want to be conscious of taking up the “activist” title because of that sort of comfortability I can have as an artist. That said, if you were to ask me if I think that art can be a form of activism, I would say absolutely. I hope my work is a small form of activism.

How are your identity and your art connected?

For me, art has often been a means to talk about or explore the various identities that I embody. So, being queer, bisexual, trans, feminine — any of these identities are all themes in my work.

Your work deconstructs society’s gender binary, which classifies behaviours and traits as either male or female. What does womanhood mean to you?

I think that womanhood should be something that anyone is able to define for themselves. For me, womanhood has been about owning my femininity despite a body that is read as male and the pressures that come with that.

How do you think society will define gender and identity in the future? 

In an ideal world, I hope we’re moving to a place where individuals are given more space and freedom to determine and express their genders however they choose. Whether or not we’re moving towards that picture is yet to be determined.

I think one of the hard things about progress is that there are ways in which marginalized communities get told, “It’s coming, it’s going to happen, look how much change is happening.” [But] it’s complicated, you know. As a 36-year-old now, I’ve certainly seen changes in my life. But some of the change has felt endless, and I can only imagine how people who are much older than me, who worked to create change for so long, must feel. On one hand, I want to acknowledge whatever changes I’ve witnessed; but at the same time, I’m cautious about glossing over the speed at which change happens.

This conversation that we’re having about this being a moment where white people need to be better allies — I literally had this conversation around Ferguson a few years ago. That’s what’s been so bizarre to me. The ways in which a conversation feels new, for us, has happened so many times before. And now, being old enough that I have witnessed and heard urgent conversations replay, it’s hard not to feel hopeless.

How important is visibility in media and the arts?

I think visibility is crucial. I went and saw the new Beauty and the Beast. The gay kiss that happened at the end — I didn’t expect to be affected by it, but I was. It was a really special thing to see on screen ... That kind of response speaks to the fact that there’s such a hunger for various forms of visibility.

For me, I think the flip side is remembering that just because we have Orange is the New Black or Modern Family, that those forms of visibility are not enough … I think we have to be conscious of what kind of visibility we’re seeing because if you look at who is permitted to be queer or trans in the music sphere, it still tends to be largely white artists.

Who do you create art for? Does your audience factor into your process?

It’s complicated — I think it really depends on the project. I just wrote a book of poetry last year about white supremacy. I thought a lot about who this book is for; is it for a white reader or a brown or black reader? Do brown and black people need a book of poetry about racism? And, if not, is this for a white reader? And do I want to be writing something for a white reader?

There are certain projects that demand a kind of conscientiousness and awareness about who the audience is, and what my role as a creator is in relationship to this audience. I do think that there are other projects that have no connection to an audience; I made a photo project called “Trisha” last year, where I chose vintage photos of my mother, and reshot them with myself as the subject. I literally wasn’t imagining an audience.

Obviously, I make art to be shared, consumed and connected with, but I think there are some projects that warrant a more concerted focus on audience, as opposed to others.

How does that apply to your new album? You’re a voice that we don’t hear or see very often in pop music.

Thank you! I think that a big part of what inspired that album was I toured with Tegan and Sara last year. My brother and I were in a band called Too Attached and every night, we’d end it with one of our songs called, “Girl It’s Your Time,” which I put out as a single on my 35th birthday last year, when I came out as trans.

The response to that song from trans, queer kids in the audience was just so heartening and overwhelming. I had these young, gender-creative teenagers who came up to me and were like, “Thank you for being visible.” It just sort of reminded me of the way that so much of pop music is not specific, but I think that there are ways in which racialized, queer and trans listeners are forced to imagine ourselves in these songs [even though] they’re not actually for us.

I was really excited to make songs that, of course, any listener could connect to; but the album is dedicated to anyone who’s been misgendered, or anyone who’s had their femininity questioned. For me, it was really wanting to create something that trans and gender non-conforming listeners could hear parts of themselves in.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.