By Savanna Scott Leslie
SSL: Your novel, She of the Mountains, is both a love story about a queer Indian man and a first-person account of the goddess Parvati’s relationship with her husband, Shiva, and their son, Ganesha. These two narratives are interwoven through illustrations by Raymond Biesinger. In March, you explained to Anokhi Media, “My queer and Indian identities have often felt at odds with each other, if not amplified by each other. Furthermore, as a queer Indian, my experience is often ‘invisibilized.’” Was this book a way to consolidate and bring visibility to your queer and Indian identities?
VS: The desire to not compartmentalize who I am, to present a wholeness in my work, began with my collection of coming-of-age short stories, God Loves Hair. She of the Mountains was an opportunity to realize this desire further by addressing my queerness/bisexuality.
SSL: God Loves Hair is also illustrated (by Juliana Neufeld). Can you tell us more about your decision to publish these books with illustrations?
VS: Even though I am not a visual artist (sadly!), I tend to create and write with visuals in mind. With these books, the illustrations also act as a means to highlight the brownness in the writing itself.
SSL: The protagonist in She of the Mountains, growing up in Edmonton, faces a culture that represents white bodies almost exclusively. You write, “Brown was unremarkable, a non-colour, akin to a shade of grey. For he had been blinded by another colour: white. White expanded limitlessly and drained every other colour out until all that could be seen was whitefriendwhiteactorwhiteteacherwhiteneighbourwhiteinventor” et cetera. In your experience, does this overwhelming focus on white people and underrepresentation of everyone else extend to the literary arts community in Canada?
VS: Absolutely. I will always remember the first time I was invited as a guest of a writer friend to a fancy literary gala in Toronto. The sea of whiteness was insurmountable. Or even when I was pitching my manuscript to Canadian publishing houses, I would see the word “diverse” proudly used in their descriptions and yet their author lists not reflecting any visible diversity. I could list many more examples but the message is always demoralizing. The Lawrence Hills in Canada are still the exception and for a country that does so often proclaim its multiculturalism, this is a big problem.
SSL: The protagonist of She of the Mountains comes to identify as gay before realizing that “gay” doesn’t represent all the parts of him. Later, he discovers the word “queer” and embraces it. He hopes it will help the people who insist he must be gay understand his bisexuality and accept his relationship with a woman. But this doesn’t work. He meets with anger instead of understanding. Do you think the language we have available to describe our sexual identities is adequate?
VS: While I think labels and language can be limiting and frustrating, I don’t think language is the problem. Idealist comments like “why do we even need labels?” often come from people with privilege and are often dangerously followed with comments like “we are all humans” or “we are all the same.” This is the real problem.
We are not the same and this is a good thing. A lot of pain can be avoided if we could allow ourselves to let go of our attachment to sameness and needing each other to act according to our own personal preferences.
SSL: Do you think biphobia is in part a language issue, as your protagonist suspects?
VS: I went through a phase where I gave up on labels. Saying I was straight or gay felt wrong and my own biphobia prevented me from adopting “bisexual.” But not identifying as anything was even more confusing to the people around me. It was like I was telling people I was nothing, and clearly, in their minds, I was something (and something, of course, was always gay). But would I have incurred less biphobia if I had identified as queer or bisexual sooner? No. And this is why I don’t believe it’s about language. Biphobia is fundamentally connected to policing desire and behaviour that isn’t monosexual.
SSL: The relationship in She of the Mountains is between a bisexual man and a woman. Both partners face scorn and ridicule, but the reactions to their relationship seem divided along gendered lines. The masculine protagonist is told he must be gay, that he doesn’t know himself, while his partner faces both biphobia and misogyny. She’s viewed as delusional for loving a gay man, derided as a desperate “fag hag,” and physically scrutinized for being “fat.” Both these reactions are hateful, but it’s interesting to see that the protagonist is viewed more as frustrating and tragic while his partner is seen as foolish and ugly. His autonomy is recognized while she is objectified. How do you think queer and bisexual communities are affected by misogyny? What can these communities do to check this kind of bias?
VS: In my experience, misogyny has been at the core of homophobia and biphobia. In gay culture, there is a huge pressure to be masculine, and feminine men are often undesirable. Many gay men, including myself at times, suffer from internalized homophobia which is largely rooted in this misogyny. Much of the biphobia I have experienced has come from gay men and again this is tied to femininity being undesirable.
I think one of the most important things we can do is name misogyny because so often it seems to get lost under other terms, especially when talking about issues relating to race, queerness, class and ability, et cetera. Without an intersectional analysis, without being vigilant about the ways misogyny is embedded in everything, misogynistic bias will continue to be the norm.
SSL: In God Loves Hair’s final story, the narrator discovers the deity Ardhanarishvara, the half-female and half-male fusion of Parvati and Shiva. The narrator observes, “All the lines that divide what men and women should be and should do begin to blur in the light of this explicit fusion of two gods and two sexes.” By blending and transcending gender roles in an analogous way, can people subvert misogynistic traditions?
VS: When I was younger and at family/cultural gatherings, the women would all be in the kitchen, preparing food while the men would sit in the living room chatting. Eventually the men would be served by the women. I never felt comfortable sitting with the men, so I would join the women. This often made the men uncomfortable, and they would try to encourage me to return to the living room. When I refused, often a handful of them would join the women in the kitchen. This example, however simplistic, speaks to the ways that I have witnessed of how blending and transcending gender roles can subvert misogynistic and sexist traditions.
SSL: In a recent interview with Daniel Pillai discussing She of the Mountains, you said you felt that writing this “bi/queer love story” was “the only way to challenge the kind of biphobia I have experienced.” Is this desire to challenge usually part of your creative efforts, whether writing or music?
VS: The desire to challenge has definitely been part of my writing and my short films (not music—yet!) because I do believe art can be transformative.
SSL: She of the Mountains also depicts body dysmorphia and shame. The protagonist internalizes shame when people are unable to accept him, and this manifests in revulsion with his own body. He eventually overcomes this dysmorphia through self-love. The peaceful Parvati’s story of transformation into the bellicose Kali and her subsequent rebirth parallels this theme of embodiment and self-love too. In your own life, has creating art been a way to develop self-love?
VS: Fellow artist Casey Mecija often talks about art being a site for repair and healing and this resonates for me. And it’s through this healing that art continually pushes me to be—and love—my truest self.
SSL: God Loves Hair was originally self-published in 2011 and then published, like She of the Mountains, by Arsenal Pulp Press. Did your experience with self-publishing help prepare you for working with a traditional publisher? Would you recommend self-publishing to other writers?
VS: I would highly recommend self-publishing, with the caveat that authors understand that when you self-publish, you aren’t just the writer but you are also your own publicist, booking agent, distributor et cetera. You are a business and it is a lot of work. But if you are willing to do the work, the bonus to self-publishing, aside from full artistic control, is that you collect 100% of the revenue.
Despite having a lot of wonderful support from Arsenal, I still do a lot of this work now. So self-publishing is definitely a good entry point into the literary world.
SSL: When we were discussing doing this interview, you mentioned that, although you identify as genderqueer, you want to be cautious about taking up space at CWILA, given your male privilege. Do you think this privilege has affected the critical attention you’ve received for your work? How do you navigate this privilege as it intersects with your brown and queer identities?
VS: This is a complicated question to answer as being brown and queer does challenge and undermine my male privilege. In regards to She of the Mountains specifically, bisexuality is one arena where the male voice, and more so the poc male voice, is underrepresented.
But I am aware that as someone who presents as male, of course this comes with privilege. I try to utilize it as best as I can by approaching my work with a feminist/poc agenda.
SSL: What do you take away from book reviews or critical essays (on your own work or other people’s)? Do they affect your approach as a writer or as a reader?
VS: I do pay attention to my reviews and criticism. I want to make the best art I can possibly make, and for me this involves being open to where I can do better.
That said, there are some criticisms that are hard to turn into motivation or that I am suspect of. My music has received many negative reviews, which has played a part in why making music has been challenging for me. Many of the reviews of She of the Mountains described the book as “experimental” and there is something about that that feels off. What makes a book experimental? Is it when the content isn’t a white narrative?
Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist working in the media of literature, music, performance, and film. Vivek’s body of work includes ten albums, four short films and three books. Vivek is a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, and his books have been used as textbooks at several post-secondary institutions. His debut novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. Vivek has read and performed at shows, festivals and post-secondary institutions internationally, sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara and Dragonette, and has appeared at NXNE, Word on the Street, and Yale University. He was the 2014 recipient of the Steinert & Ferreiro Award for leadership in Toronto’s LGBTQ community and the recipient of Anokhi Media’s inaugural Most Promising LGBTQ Community Crusader Award in 2015. Vivek is also a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award Finalist.
Savanna Scott Leslie is an editor and publishing consultant. She has an honours BA in philosophy and Russian literature from the University of Toronto and a post-graduate certificate in publishing from Ryerson University. She’s newly based in Hamilton, Ontario.