Smash Pages Q&A: Vivek Shraya

The writer, artist, musician and performer discusses her collaboration with Ness Lee, ‘Death Threat.’

Vivek Shraya is a writer, artist, musician, performer who has consistently pushed boundaries between forms and genres. Given this, it was perhaps inevitable that Shraya would eventually make a comic.

Death Threat, a collaboration with the artist Ness Lee, was published earlier this year by Arsenal Pulp Press. In fall 2017, Shraya began receiving a series of threatening, disturbing letters and while terrifying, they were also visual in a way that Shraya couldn’t ignore. The result is a book about receiving such letters, about how to survive such an experience that is chilling, moving and deeply powerful.

I spoke with Shraya recently about comics, collaboration, and the connections between this book and her previous one, I’m Afraid of Men.

The first question I ask people is how they came to comics. Because you’ve done so many things and worked in so many media, I’m also curious, why comics?

Honestly I have to give credit to Michael DeForge. Discovering his work a couple years ago really opened the world of comics to me. Discovering his work I suddenly felt like I could appreciate the genre in a way that I never had before. I certainly had read other graphic novels before, but it was his work that really impressed upon me how limitless the world could be.

After you started receiving these threatening letters, where did the idea of making something with them start?

I started getting these death threats, essentially, and because the letters were so strange, but also visual, I really couldn’t ignore them. I kept picturing them. And in picturing them, they became these illustrations. In my mind it just began to evolve as an art project.

What was the process of working with Ness Lee on the book?

It was very tricky because we didn’t live in the same city. I think that the illustrator also had a lot of anxiety around wanting to ensure that she was doing right by the story, responsibly and respectfully. In a lot of ways it was getting through those concerns. We had to do that all digitally and we were making phone calls and using numerous google docs and slides to go back and forth. Basically there was a lot of conversations around ideas for concentrated periods of time.

Did you script the book? Or have a sense of how you wanted it to look?

I knew that the bulk of the book would be the letters so I created a document for Ness to work with, which is largely the letters. Then it was, “How do we build scenes or transition?” Basically the outline started with the letters and moved into notes of what could happen in between and comments in the margins about ideas of what I could imagine. It’s not a commission, and you want it to feel like a collaboration, so you don’t want to overstep. I wanted Ness to bring her own vision to the table, but I found that she was really open to my comments.

You were very conscious of wanting a collaborator.

Absolutely.

This may be too broad a question, but are you always looking for a collaborator in a new project, even if it’s your primary vision?

I do really like collaborating. I do flag people who are artists I admire. Michael is a great example. I would love to work with him one day. Ness, same thing. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Often, I have an idea and then it’s about meeting a collaborator, but often because I’ve already mentally flagged a bunch of people, I tend to go to them. I really like collaborating because I think there is something when you bring multiple artists into the creative room so to speak as opposed to a singular narrative.

I kept thinking about this book in some ways in relation to your previous book I’m Afraid of Men, which is about masculinity and gender and these ideas imposed on all of us. I feel like so much of your artistic practice – including this book – is not you imposing ideas on others to help express, but of being in conversation with ideas and other artists.

Yes. I like that juxtaposition.

The letters in Death Threat are the personification of all these ideas in I’m Afraid of Men.

That’s a really good point, and I think that it is sort of a natural extension or followup, if you will, to I’m Afraid of Men because it does exemplify the kinds of hatred that certainly trans bodies incur.

These conversations about gender and identity aren’t abstract; it is dangerous and life-threatening for so many queer people, and especially so many trans people.

Exactly. It’s the proof, if you will. You see that constantly in the political climate and media where we’re brought into conversations and used as a device to polarize.

I did want to ask about VS Books because I don’t think most people know about it. Can you say a little about what it is, because I know Tea’s book just came out.

As a marginalized writer, I’ve encountered all kinds of barriers in arts industries. I wanted to be able to use whatever platform I have to help break down some of the barriers for younger writers who are also marginalized and still face similar barriers. I offer a one year mentorship where I work closely with a young writer of color between the ages of 18-28 and work with them on their manuscript. Not just editorial work but also, how do I write a grant? How do I use social media to promote my work? The range of knowledge and experience that I feel like I had to learn as I went. At the end of the year, they would “leave” with a published book through the imprint. Tea Mutonji is the first writer we published, and her book Shut Up You’re Pretty came out in April, and it’s fantastic. We selected our second book, a book of poetry out next fall by Cecily-Belle Blain.

You’re always doing so many things. Are you interested in making more comics and more collaborations like this?

I think collaboration will always be a key part of my work. I would love to make another comic book. I love the genre so much. I think there’s just so much possibility there. I think the tricky thing is just building in more time. [laughs] I’ve made illustrated books before and a children’s picture book isn’t quite as time consuming, but yes, I would love to return to the format.

As you were working on this, was there a book or something you were looking to as a guide?

I’ve dropped his name but we looked at Michael DeForge’s work for inspiration. I also think that Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was a reference in terms of how much that book is about the process of making a comic book. I think Death Threat is a book about how to survive death threats and how to make a comic about how to survive death threats. That meta component was very much inspired by Are You My Mother?

You’re doing so many things; is there anything you want to mention that’s coming up?

I have a play coming out next year, which is something new. How to Fail as a Pop Star. That will be out in Toronto in February, and that’s the next big project I’m working on.

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