Vivek Shraya observes life astutely, comments on it with insightful precision, and then offers his tales in a package that transcends commonly held notions of what a book ought to look like, say, and do. Twice a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, Shraya’s new novel She of the Mountains (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014) is this year’s finalist for the award in bisexual fiction. One can hope that third time’s the charm.
It is a contemporary love story juxtaposed with a re-imagining of the Hindu mythology of Shiv, Parvati, and Ganesh. Shraya is a musician, performance artist, and filmmaker as well. His life’s work seems to be about examining inter-connectedness and so do his books, to no one’s surprise. The love story at the center of She of the Mountains is balanced with sharply rendered critiques on binaries, body shame, and marginalization, all the while imagining what Hindu mythology might have to say about these issues. Beautifully illustrated by Raymond Biesinger, it is a fun, funny, refreshing, and powerful novel that leaves us hoping—to paraphrase Shraya himself—that he has still so much more to share, still so much more to say.
Bi Magazine: Why was it important to contextualize your main character’s story with Hindu mythology? Are there aspects of Hindu mythology that fascinate you and that you felt provided a framing device for this novel?
Vivek Shraya: Honestly, the original vision of the book didn’t include the Hindu mythology narrative. This grew out of a piece entitled “Parvati’s Song” in the first draft of the book, that readers of this draft seemed to connect to. At first, I was resistant to exploring this further in the second draft, as I wasn’t sure if the mythology was being exotified by white readers. But it’s always valuable to consider the feedback, even if I don’t agree. In the end, the Hindu mythology narrative became an important counterpoint to the contemporary love story narrative, to explore further the themes of love, transformation and embodiment.
BM: What queer mythology had a significant impact on defining your queerness? Is queer mythology important and why?
VS: I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha* comics. By definition, they might not be “queer,” but as a queer brown kid without queer brown role models, the Hindu male gods, with their long hair, jewelry and softness, provided a sense of comfort in myself. They reflected to me a familiarity that I was not seeing anywhere else, which is perhaps why queer mythology is important in general.
*One of India’s largest selling series, Amar Chitra Katha retells stories from the great Indian epics, mythology, history, folklore and fables in a comic book format.
BM: How can queer writers claim a right to queer and non-queer interpretations of religious texts?
VS: I was recently asked what gave me the right to re-imagine Hindu mythology in this book. Strangely, it was not a question that I had considered before, even in the writing process. This is perhaps because my relationship to religion (and my impression of the relationships of others to their faiths) is fundamentally constructed from my interpretation of texts, of teachings, of prayers. Re-interpreting the myths in She of the Mountains felt like a way to see the stories from a different perspective, primarily one that wasn’t as patriarchal as the lens I had been taught to see through. That said, as a queer writer, I am more invested in dismantling the notion that queerness and faith can’t co-exist.
BM: She of the Mountains is about a very intimate relationship. The end of the relationship—as powerfully as it is conveyed through its economy of language—is described in fewer pages than the beginning and the courtship. Was it a test of how much pain one can endure, like Parvati, to write about it, and how so?
VS: The bi love story was definitely painful to write, but more so necessary, because of the biphobia I had experienced. And a lot of the pain came less from writing “the end” of the relationship and more recalling the various biphobic experiences and also struggling with how to write a story that would challenge biphobia, knowing how pervasive and deep biphobia is. For instance, if the man and woman break up, won’t readers automatically think “of course they broke up, he is gay”? This is partially why “the end” is de-emphasized and ambiguous.
I also wanted to challenge the idea of endings, in regards to relationships. This is from the first draft of the book:
When does a love story end? Is it when he leaves her? Is it when there is a new body in her bed? Is an end a failure?
One of my greatest learnings has been that love grows, if we allow it.
BM: Your book is a visual treat. Streams of thought are expressed in broken up sentences written on separate lines. Why is the unconventional – in how the written word is consumed – important to you, and which authors do you look to as your mentors in that direction
VS: Words can be impactful in numerous ways, not just through their meaning. For instance, as a songwriter, I have learned the impact of repetition. Playing around with the format and placement of the text was a breakthrough for me, especially in moments where I wanted to convey the impact of homophobia, biphobia, and racism.
The first time I had seen words being used as visual art in the context of a book was in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
BM: Tell us about your collaboration with Raymond Biesinger.
VS: Working with Raymond was a wonderful experience. Initially, after he read the book, we had long emails and phone chats about our ideas, flagging various sections that would benefit from an accompanying illustration. We agreed there would be roughly 11-15 illustrations around the Hindu mythology. For each illustration, Raymond provided three rough sketches, until we both agreed on the general direction. For this book, Raymond ended up sketching just over forty drafts! From this, he developed the final sixteen illustrations, which largely due to his vision accompany not only the Hindu mythology narrative but also the contemporary narrative.
Lambda Literary Award winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on June 1 in New York City.