Art is a Healer: Talking with Vivek Shraya – NMP

By Juliana Neufeld


Song: Crisis by Vivek Shraya

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Crisis1.mp3]

All I have to do is let love in.

NMP: You recently took a step back from making music to write and tour your book, God Loves Hair. Can you tell us about the intentions of this tour and how it has impacted your career as a writer?

Vivek Shraya: The book discusses intersecting themes of gender, religion, race and sexuality and so touring was an opportunity to share my stories more broadly while also giving visibility to these issues.

As a new and self-published writer, I occasionally feel unsure about the merit of my work. Touring has really helped build confidence as I have witnessed and have been told of the ways the stories come alive, reach out and connect to others.

NMP: You have said that your book was a personal reflection on your own upbringing and the challenges you faced accepting your queerness and your Indian identity. Can you tell us a bit about these challenges and what helped you finally accept these parts of yourself?

VS: Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta in the 1980s-90s, I was the only “obviously” queer person in any given space: schools, religious community, social groups. Thankfully there was a large South Asian population there which provided a sense of belonging in other ways. But this didn’t negate the reality of my parents’ experience as immigrants in a very white city, which, by extension, also had a significant impact on me. This layering of being both queer and a person of colour inevitably resulted in perpetual feelings of isolation or as though I was abnormal.

I think acceptance, or rather celebration, of these parts is a lifelong effort, but art has been my greatest healer and not just in the creation or writing. I have been so moved by the ways readers/audience members have opened up to me about their own personal stories. While it is always heartbreaking to learn other people have endured similar struggles, there is also a comfort recognizing the ways I wasn’t alone. Also, living in Toronto where there are other queer people of colour has made a tremendous difference.

NMP: You also recently toured your short film Seeking Single White Male which you have described as the “study of a brown body in (queer) white spaces.” Can you talk about the potential of film to communicate these ideas (perhaps differently than text or music)?

VS: I tend to approach art visually and so film has been a natural progression for me. Even with songwriting, there is usually a mental image that I am trying to somehow shift into melody.

There is something about the immediacy of film that also appeals to me. Both my shorts each took over a year to make from conception to release, but once you put something online, it has the opportunity to travel and be consumed anywhere in minutes. My films are also personal but they exist outside of me. I am not directly bound to them in the ways I am to my songs or book, especially when it comes to promotion.

NMP: A lot of your work openly explores your personal life and experiences, are these natural inspirations for your art? In keeping with the theme for this issue of NMP, how does “amour” (love) influence your practice?

VS: I usually come to art as a means to work through the things that challenge me or what I am curious about so my work is intrinsically personal. Also, the art I connect most to as an audience member are personal narratives.

I am heavily influenced by love in my work. 98% of my songs are about love in one shape or another, whether it’s love lost or new love or unrequited love or wasted love. More recent projects, such as the book, have been about finding love for myself or parts of myself that I have rejected.

NMP: Your musical style has shifted significantly over the last few years; you have gone from playing acoustic music to producing electro pop dance songs. What has inspired this change and where else do you hope to take your musical career?

VS: This is mostly as a result of always listening to a wide spectrum of music and also wanting to continually challenge myself by not repeating myself over and over again. That’s boring for everyone! After 5 years of working in the dance/pop arena, my natural tendency was to go in that direction again, but when approaching my new EP 1:1, I worked hard to unlearn the familiar, my patterns.

My hope is to have more fun with music. Sometimes when you are so close to something, you forget how in love you are with it and that’s when it is crucial to take a step back.

I dream of making a country record and an R&B record.

Dear Vishnu
From God Loves Hair
By Vivek Shraya
Illustration by Juliana Neufeld

They say Your skin is blue because You are infinite like the sky and the ocean of milk You rest on. I wish my skin was blue. Brown is boring, it blends into the dirt or concrete background. So I draw on my hands and arms with a blue ink pen. My teacher says that I can get ink poisoning but this only inspires me to draw more for I have heard that it was drinking poison that turned Lord Shiva’s skin dark blue.

I want to be a modern version of You. I would wear a peacock feather in my hair like You, maybe use my mom’s curling iron to match Your wavy locks and get my ears pierced. But my four arms would carry a walkman, a book, a candle and an apple. There should be a “Take Your Believer to Work Day” so I can study You in action, ask questions and take notes. I am jealous of Goddess Lakshmi, Your consort, for the eternity she gets to spend by Your side. Does she know how lucky she is? If You smile, she shares it. If You speak, she hears it. It’s not fair that only one can be so close.

When my mom prays, she becomes stiff as though one wrong gesture could displease You and result in her losing her job or worse, having to be reborn. I wish she knew the version of You that I know, the one whose adventures and victories I read about in my Amar Chitra Katha comic books. You are The Protector, the one that the demigods rush to in times of crisis. They are instantly soothed by the sight of You, decorated with flowers and gold, and Your compassionate counsel. Countless evil demons are slayed by Your mighty chakra or bow and arrow, but You always appear calm, never angry, as though even destruction is an act of love. How do You do it? Sometimes there is a fire in me and when it comes out, it’s never as pretty.

Maybe it’s the blue that keeps You cool. If only I were blue.

Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist and arts educator. Winner of the We Are Listening International Singer/Songwriter Award, Vivek has released albums ranging from acoustic folk-rock to electro synth-pop, driven by tight hooks, powerful vocals, and incisive lyrics. God Loves Hair, his first collection of short stories, was a 2011 Lambda Literary Award finalist and won the Applied Arts Award for Illustration in 2010. Vivek has performed and read at shows and festivals internationally, sharing the stage with Tegan and Sara, Dragonette, and Melissa Ferrick, and appearing at NXNE, CMW, and Word on the Street. His music has also been featured on the TV show Degrassi. Seeking Single White Male, his first short film, is being screened at festivals throughout 2011. A second short, Ache in My Name, is available to watch online. Vivek’s sixth record, 1:1, is slated for release this fall.  http://www.vivekshraya.com/

Comments from old site:

Submitted by AK (not verified) on Tue, 11/01/2011 – 20:08.

Vivek,

From reading your interview it is easy to surmise that you are a beautiful soul.

I related directly with your book, God Loves Hair. It brought memories of my childhood to the forefront of my awareness and I wanted to thank you for being the catalyst for that. We are the stories we tell ourselves and being shown stories lost in our memory is touching.

Thank You! 🙂