Calgary-based artist Vivek Shraya lives in striking, paralyzing fear. As a trans woman, the author, musician, and creative-writing professor puts a staggering amount of thought into everyday decisions—the smallest, most mundane of choices that many of us make without thinking—to ensure that she can successfully deter both harassment and unwanted attention at all hours. It’s an exhausting ordeal, one she painstakingly details in I’m Afraid of Men, her recently published (and aptly titled) hardcover that reads as more of an illuminating long-form essay.
In the morning, Shraya picks clothing that will “highlight my femininity” so as not to make others—particularly, straight cis men—feel uncomfortable around her gender-nonconforming body. On public transportation, she hunches her shoulders to avoid touching men and takes care not to make direct eye contact with them, so that “no man will think I am attracted to him and won’t be able to resist the urge to act upon this attraction.” Even her online activity is informed by fear, as evidenced in her generous use of cheery exclamation marks in emails to male colleagues, so that she may “convey the requisite submissiveness to communicate effectively with a man”. If Shraya carries out this quiet, accommodating existence successfully, she lives to see another day. If she doesn’t, she risks being a victim of discrimination, persecution, and violence in a society that has demonstrated time and time again its uneasiness with those who fail to fit neatly inside a “male” or “female” box.
“I think the idea of the book, to be honest, came from the fact that I was thinking about how my fear of men has been pretty constant,” Shraya explains, speaking to the Straight by phone from Calgary. “Since, I’d say, Grade 7, Grade 8, it’s just ebbed and flowed and changed and looked differently. Now, being trans, it certainly hasn’t been easier. And if anything, it’s just a different kind of intense fear.”
Shraya’s first nonfiction publication, I’m Afraid of Men recounts incidents—both bad and good, though mostly bad—in the artist’s formative years as a brown, queer boy in Edmonton, to her 20s as an openly bisexual man in Toronto, to her 30s, when she comes out as trans and, for the first time in her life, begins wholeheartedly embracing and reclaiming her femininity. Many of the stories she describes are deeply affecting, tangible examples of the ways we assert gender norms to damaging effect. The minutiae she recalls, too, whether it be the powder-blue Jordache jacket she was wearing when a fellow boy spat on her as a teen or the green eyes of a classmate who later threatens to hurt her for staring at him in the hallway, are a testament to how trauma manifests itself in the brain—especially during a time when women’s experiences are publicly disparaged and their memories consistently challenged.
“During the process of the book, I ended up regularly having nightmares where I was being beaten up by groups of men,” notes Shraya. “It’s all there; it’s all accessible.…You know, I’m 37, and a lot of the stories I shared happen 15, 20 years ago, and yet they’re so vivid in my mind.”
Shraya’s decision to tell these stories in the first-person narrative—all while putting the reader directly in the place of perpetuators, former crushes, friends, past colleagues, and ex-lovers through the use of “you”—gives her words even more impact. It’s a powerful technique that forces the reader to confront the agony of these incidents, while offering straight cis men—the demographic most oblivious to such experiences—an intimate understanding of the great pains that women and LGBT folks go to in order to ensure their own safety.
“So often when readers engage with memoir or nonfiction or personal narrative, there’s still a healthy distance that the reader is able to preserve because…these narratives are in first person,” explains Shraya. “So a reader can slip in and out, and sort of disengage as they choose—put the book down, go to the washroom. For me, it felt really important that the reader was right there with me. If I was going to do the work of sharing this narrative, I really wanted it to feel like that the reader was just as accountable to me.”
While the tales that Shraya recalls are at times challenging, I’m Afraid of Men, at its heart, illustrates the tension of one’s desire for and fear of men. In its blatant rejection of gender roles and gender-conforming language, and declaration that fear is born of fear—a fact that’s further avowed on the tome’s back cover, which boasts the words “Men Are Afraid of Me” as a contrast to the book’s title—the work is ultimately hopeful, too.
“It seems like it [the title] places the blame on men,” notes Shraya, “but, really, because it’s I’m Afraid of Men, there’s something about it that’s like, ‘The fear is within me and it’s innate or imagined.’ But it felt really important to complete the cycle: where does this fear come from? This fear comes from the fact that men typically have been afraid of me and my difference. And, consequently, as opposed to negotiating that fear internally and wondering ‘Why am I afraid of this person who is different?’, they have acted out at me and lashed out at me.
“My hope is that writing the book allows other women, nonconforming people, and even other men to own their fear,” she continues. “Because I think fear is something we’re not allowed to talk about. And when you’re marginalized, there’s so much pressure to be like, ‘I’m not afraid. I’m brave; I’m courageous; I’m strong; I’m resilient.’ And I think saying you’re afraid is sometimes the most honest and strongest thing that you can do.”
Vivek Shraya will appear at three events at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Friday and Saturday (October 19 and 20). For more information, visit the festival's website.