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Six questions with Vivek Shraya

Toronto-based Vivek Shraya is a creative chameleon, garnering critical acclaim and success as a musician, writer, performer, and filmmaker. I had the chance to read with Vivek recently and was struck by his talent, warmth and generosity.

After the event, I read his book What I LOVE about being QUEER–a compelling compilation of wide-ranging narratives about queer identity. The book is based on Vivek’s earlier film that eventually expanded into an online project and then the book. I loved the creative execution of the project and the diverse, playful and politically powerful responses elicited by the seemingly straightforward question “What I LOVE about being QUEEER is _____” . Vivek graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the project and his work as an artist.

God Loves Hair, Vivek’s first collection of short stories, won the Applied Arts Award for Illustration in 2010, and is currently being used as a textbook at several post-secondary institutions. His first short film, Seeking Single White Male, was featured at international film festivals throughout 2011. What I LOVE about being QUEER was featured on Buzzfeed, theHuffington Post, and in ELLE Magazine IndiaHoly Mother My Mother, his fourth short film, was released this spring.

A two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Vivek was nominated for LGBTQ Person of the Year in the 2012 INSPIRE Awards, and was #1 on Nightlife’s list of “Reasons 2011 was a Queer Year”. His new book, She of the Mountains, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in the fall of 2014.

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What I LOVE about being QUEER

You are a man of many talents, Vivek—writer, storyteller, filmmaker, musician. Susan G. Cole, writing in NOW magazine, says that anything you touch turns to gold. What’s your secret? How do you find time time to work across so many media?

When I was younger, I believed that I would make art when inspiration struck. Now I am very aware that art doesn’t really happen unless I make time for it and am engaging the creative muscles regularly. I work a full-time 9-5 job, so making time for art requires a lot of discipline, which is a big component to my “secret.” Most days, it’s hard not to just come home after work and cuddle a pizza.

Making art also gives my life meaning and a sense of purpose, so I am often creating and working to sustain this.

As a child, did you want to be an artist? Who or what were some of your earliest influences? Do you remember the first thing you created?

I never dreamed of being an artist because as a child of immigrants, that wasn’t in the realm of possibility. My parents regularly emphasized the importance of acquiring a high-paying job and that art could be a hobby.

That said, I have always been creative, whether in fashion (once I wore an onion bag on my head as a hat), or in school projects. When we had to submit papers in elementary school, I often included an audio component on cassette with me reading the text. One of my fondest creations is a poetry anthology I wrote in junior high called Diary of a Mad Man, featuring emo-titled entries (i.e. “Erratic Day 1: Possession”, “Erratic Day 2: Obsession”, etc.)

My earliest inspirations were Madonna, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow and R.E.M.

You multi-media project What I LOVE About Being QUEER is masterful, in both concept and execution, featuring a diverse and compelling range of queer stories. What was your inspiration for the project, and how did it come together?

Thank you. I wanted to create a project that celebrated queerness, that explicitly positioned the words love and queer side by side, because for many of us, this hasn’t been imaginable. I also frequently engage with queer and trans youth in my work as the Positive Space Coordinator at George Brown College (and was then also the Pink Ink Facilitator at Supporting Our Youth) who often disclose how much they are struggling with who they are. My hope was that this project would provide alternative perspectives regarding queerness for youth to consider and perhaps even be comforted by.

The project started out as a short film featuring thirty-four, mostly Toronto-based queers. Since then it has expanded into a tumblr site, where anyone can participate in the project, and most recently a book.

What were the most moving parts of undertaking the project for you? Any story or stories that stand out in particular?

Discussing any form of self-love can be challenging, but to put into words why you love a part of yourself that has elicited hate requires a great vulnerability. It is this vulnerability and honesty that has moved me the most throughout this project.

In a recent issue of Plenitude, Lukas Bhandar wrote a moving piece about how your work (in particular, your video Seeking Single White Male and your book God Loves Hair) had a big impact on his own identity and feelings of self-acceptance as a young queer man. In what ways, if any, do you see yourself as a role model?

I am honoured by the idea of being a role model (and was honoured by Lukas’s piece), especially because I didn’t have any queer/brown role models growing up. This is why it has been so important for me to be making art that reflects a non-white, non-hetero experience.

What’s on your plate now, Vivek? What can we expect in the months ahead?

My debut novel, She of the Mountains, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press this fall. I will be embarking on three book tours to promote the novel as well as the US release of my first book, God Loves Hair.

Looking forward to it. Thanks for taking the time out to answer a few questions.

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Check out Vivek’s work online or find him on Twitter.

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