Interview by Apphia Kumar
Right after the 2016 BECAUSE conference, I found myself looking for brown bisexual badassery online and that’s when I came across Vivek Shraya in a Huffington Post article. After doing a bit more research, I found out that she was an author and, from what I could see, these were books I definitely wanted to read. I started with The Boy with the Bindi and am currently reading She of the Mountains. The Boy with the Bindi is a beautifully illustrated children’s book about a South Asian five-year-old boy who becomes fascinated with his mother’s bindi. (A bindi is a decorative dot worn on the forehead by Hindus.) I remember being curious about it myself, and about the misinformed stories that I had learned about it. Reading Vivek’s book was like giving the five-year-old me a second chance at learning about the bindi. I loved every single page, and highly recommend it. She of the Mountains is a love story of a man and his body, which is intertwined with Hindu Mythology. The dual narrative explores what effects gender and sexuality policing can have on a person. Vivek takes up space as a South Asian trans bisexual and is brilliant at it.
AK: Vivek, please tell us about yourself.
VS: I am a Toronto-based artist who works in the media of music, literature, performance, and film.
AK: Would you share with us your “coming out story”? When did you know you were bi+? What was it like, letting people see your truth?
VS: I remember brashly telling my best friend in high school that I wanted both girls and boys to like me. She responded,“Of course you do!” Unfortunately, coming out further as bi was halted as I was repeatedly told by gay men that I must either be confused or scared to come out as gay. So coming out as bisexual has been a long process, one that has involved challenging my own internalized biphobia along the way.
AK: What has it been like, coming into your own identity as you experience it today? Has it changed you over the years? Could you share things that stood out to you the most, and affected you the most?
VS: My identity has shifted and changed throughout my life, which can be beautiful, but in my case is largely due to external pressure and lack of safety. It took me over a decade to “come back” to bisexuality as an identity, to have the confidence to own my desires.
AK: Do you remember what first inspired you to be a visible voice for your community?
VS: I had been in a relationship with a woman for a number of years and had become exhausted by the scrutiny we received by the gay community. I constantly felt like I needed to either defend myself or hide my relationship altogether.It was painful to feel like I couldn’t celebrate who I was or the love I felt. This experience inspired me to write my first novel, She of the Mountains, with the intention of challenging biphobia, especially in gay communities.
AK: One of the things I find very interesting is how aware we are of where our identities intersect with our cultural identities. You have been able to voice that intersectionality in the work that you do. How important is it for you to have these various identities intersect with each other in the work that you do, and why?
VS: As someone who embodies a number of identities—trans/bisexual/brown—intersectionality is crucial in my art to illustrate the complexity and beauty of non-normative lives.
AK: What’s your thought process like when it comes to telling stories and writing poetry that is both queer and brown?
VS: My thought process generally involves making sure I am not trying to speak on behalf of a multiplicity of experiences, and to also push against the dominant narratives in relation to brownness and queerness.
AK: The Boy & the Bindi is a fast favorite here. What inspired you to create that? How does it feel having made it?
VS: I was on a jury looking at children’s picture books and I was disappointed by the whiteness of these stories. During lunch hour, I ended up scribbling what would become The Boy & the Bindi on a napkin, as a response to this experience. It has been a fantastic experience putting it out in the world, especially hearing from brown parents who are thrilled to have a book featuring a dark-skinned brown boy to share with their children.
AK: I adore your work and I’m slowly working through She of the Mountains right now. Thank you for the work you do! What’s next for you?
VS: Right now, I am in a bit of an incubation phase, taking in ideas and just exploring. Follow @VivekShraya on Twitter and tumblr or visit www.vivekshraya.com.
A warrior, survivor, and a poet who loves to sing, Apphia Kumar has been a bi+ community leader in India, New York City and Boston. They currently reside in Boston and are contemplating their next move.