At Verses Festival of Words, artist and trans activist Vivek Shraya ponders online threats

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      When the Georgia Straight reaches Vivek Shraya at home in Calgary, it’s the day before the Alberta election—and, understandably, she’s trying hard to stave off any premonitions of the disaster to come.

      Shraya allows that she’s worried, but also admits to having moments of optimism. “I’m like, ‘Well, but I’m in Alberta, and I’m a trans teacher at a university, and when I was growing up in Edmonton, I couldn’t have possibly imagined anything like that,’ ” the writer, musician, trans activist, and University of Calgary assistant professor explains. “I couldn’t have imagined a teacher looking like me, or teaching what I’m teaching.…So I’m just trying to remember that there are people here who are really deeply committed to continuing to do the work, and continuing to foster the conversations that need to be had—and I hope to be one of those people. So whatever happens tomorrow, there are definitely many Albertans who will continue to fight the good fight.”

      Now, of course, it’s obvious that continuing the good fight will be even more necessary, bigotry having at least temporarily won the day. But confronting hatred is familiar terrain for Shraya, whose new graphic novel, Death Threat, is about exactly that. A collaboration with illustrator Ness Lee and colourists Emmett Phan and Heng Tang, the book stems from a series of threatening letters emailed to Shraya, but it’s also a larger examination of the dangers that lurk online.

      “One of the things that’s at the core of this project is wrestling with the expectation, in many of our jobs, to be visible and active online,” Shraya says. “That does benefit our jobs—I certainly could not reach the kind of people that I’ve been able to reach with my music, for example, without being online—but simultaneously there’s no protective measures in place for the kind of things that have happened to me. And I’m not unique in this experience, right? There’s all kinds of vile things that happen on the Internet that there are just no safety measures for, and I would love for us to be thinking more about how we can create or reimagine the Internet as somewhere where people don’t just have to turn the other cheek, if you will.”

      Death Threat doesn’t offer a prescription for what ails the Internet, but should stimulate more discussion of the case. Saturated in the bright primary colours of superhero costumes and advertising—scarlet, blue, and yellow—the book’s graphic elements are an effective mirror of the online world, where things are often heightened, unreal, or even crude.

      “I love Ness’s work, but she tends to operate a lot in black-and-white,” Shraya says of her primary collaborator. “And with a book called Death Threat, I just felt that with black-and-white it would just get dire very quickly.…The vision of the project was always to have something that would use humour as a way to dismantle the power of these letters, and so colour felt like an equally important device, so it wasn’t just my character in black-and-white, crying in my bedroom.”

      The next challenge Shraya faces is that of bringing her graphic novel onto the stage—Death Threat will be launched this weekend, at the Verses spoken-word festival. “This is a tricky one,” she admits. “The story itself is not a long one and I don’t want to give the ending away, so I have tight parameters there. But in terms of how to do it live, I’m thinking of reading largely the letters themselves, because those are where the entire project started.”

      Her Vancouver presentation will also be a chance for her to explore other aspects of her work, including songwriting and memoir. “They’ve generously given me 45 minutes, which is longer than it would take to read that book 17 times,” she says, laughing. “So I’ve been thinking a lot about explorations of letters and violence and masculinity in my other works—and there’ll be some poetry in there as well.”

      Verses Festival of Words presents Vivek Shraya at the York Theatre on Sunday (April 28). For a full festival schedule, visit the Verses website.