Nov. 15, 2021
Vivek Shraya reflects on the nature of change as a survival mechanism, in upcoming book
Back in March of last year, acclaimed writer, artist, and musician Vivek Shraya had begun work on her next non-fiction book, which was then to be entitled Armour. It was intended to have been a collection of essays which would address the ways in which Shraya — a UCalgary assistant professor in the Department of English — has employed fashion and presentation as a form of armour, to protect herself and push back against the violence and harassment she’s faced as a trans person.
Then the global COVID-19 pandemic reached North America and Shraya experienced a crisis of confidence. “I remember texting a colleague at the university and saying: ‘I’m writing about fashion in the midst of a global pandemic — this doesn’t feel quite right,’” Shraya recalls. “Certainly, I felt very out of tune with the times.”
And so, the thematic direction needed to change, which it did. In fact, the book came to embody the very concept of change. The finished work, entitled People Change, set for release from Penguin Canada on Jan. 4, 2022, is an exploration of the personal transformations we all make in life, be it in our beliefs, relationships, fashion sense, dreams, and the ways in which we self-identify.
Some of us fear change and resist it, while others embrace it, but change is a part of all our lives.
“This direction really was inspired by the pandemic, because at a time when so many of us have been, literally, stuck, I think it’s been hard not to think about change. The scope of the book became much broader, and I came to focus on the many ways in which we approach change as a survival mechanism,” she says.
The initial theme of fashion was not abandoned, however. In one section of People Change, Shraya writes about how she presents herself in the classroom.
“I feel that as a trans teacher I do have to think about my presentation in a particular way, because people tend to look at me with a certain type of gaze and a strange sort of fascination,” she says. “I want to avoid having students get too caught up in how I look. I want them to focus on the actual class.”
To prevent this, Shraya says she often wears a uniform of sorts to classes — usually a white, oversized, dress shirt and black tights. She’s also conscious as to how much makeup she should wear, as to not draw unnecessary attention.
Focus on the topic, not on the wardrobe
“This is my way of trying to create an environment where I feel safe and where students are focusing on what I’m saying rather than what I’m wearing,” she says.
Shraya is thankful for the Thelma Margart Horte Memorial Fellowship in Women and Society research award she won last year, which gave her protected and paid time to develop People Change. The late Horte was a tireless advocate for women’s rights, and a research award was established for the Faculty of Arts in her honour.
The fellowship also served as a much-needed support for Shraya when COVID-19 struck. “I tend to be a hyper-productive person, very inspired and creative, and that drive, and spark had dissipated when the pandemic happened,” she says.
“I’m grateful for the fellowship because it allowed me to stay anchored in my work. I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten through those early pandemic times without having this book as an anchor. And I had that because the fellowship allowed me to work on the book.”
Major events include Royal Society induction
The upcoming release of People Change is but one major event on the horizon for the ever-active Shraya. She’s currently adapting her debut play, How to Fail as a Popstar, for television with support from the CBC.
And on Nov. 19, she will officially receive her induction into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. She never imagined such an honour possible, and she sees it as a positive sign that society has become more accepting of transgender people. But on this point, she’s cautiously optimistic.
“I tend to be a little less hyperbolic about progress,” she says. “I worry when people read stories like this and hear somebody like me saying ‘Wow, things have gotten better!’ I feel like that creates an opportunity for us to get a little too relaxed.
"Academia is still a very privileged sector, so while it’s wonderful for someone like me to be recognized in this way, I believe there’s still a lot of work to be done. Hopefully though, this is one small step in that direction."