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Author, musician and artist Vivek Shraya joins English department

High social media interest reflects excitement for Shraya's new science fiction literature class

Vivek Shraya's first class as an assistant professor is science fiction literature with a twist (English 393). Photo courtesy of N. Maxwell Lander

By Heath McCoy

When author/musician/filmmaker/teacher Vivek Shraya tweeted the course outline for her first class as an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of English, it’s fair to say a corner of the Twitterverse exploded with excitement.

The tweet, for a class in science fiction literature with a twist (English 393), garnered to date 366 likes, a bevy of retweets and gushing responses from students, fans who wished they were students, and even a shout out from famed Calgary-bred indie pop duo Tegan and Sara — who count the transgender artist as both a friend and collaborator.

“I want to sign up for your class,” read the Tegan and Sara tweet. “Teacher's pet.”

Shraya’s class will focus on science fiction by Indigenous and black writers and writers of colour. “Often in English literature classes you get one ‘diversity week,’ with the race stuff or the LGBTQ content tucked away in the eighth or ninth week,” Shraya says. “I thought, ‘Let’s change that approach.’ This is especially suited to a class on science fiction, which is all about the alien and ‘the other.’ So often the alien ends up being racialized. I figure let’s flip the script on this and start from the perspective of ‘the alien.’”

One might think the English department has a bit of rock star on its hands.

Indeed, Shraya has toured and recorded with her friends Tegan and Sara in the past, and she has a track on one of their projects, The Con X: Covers Album, where she appeared alongside such stars as Ryan Adams and City and Colour.

Shraya’s 2017 album with Queer Songbook Orchestra, Part-Time Woman was also a hit with critics, scoring raves from Now Magazine, Vice and the CBC.

Shraya’s literary success has equalled her musical achievements. Her debut novel She of the Mountains (2014) was named one of the Globe and Mail’s Best Books and her 2016 book of poetry, even this page is white was long-listed for CBC’s Canada Reads. She was also praised for her first children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, which challenges gender expectations, telling the story of a young boy’s obsession with his mother’s bindi.

Her next novel, I’m Afraid of Men is due for publication next fall by Penguin Canada. The book will reflect on the hurtful ways in which “toxic masculinity” has impacted Shraya, as a queer young boy who now identifies as transgender.  

“I think the unique thing about it is that it’s from the perspective of a trans girl,” says Shraya, “someone who grew up forced into masculinity. And then, two years ago, I came out as trans. I’ve had an interesting ride with masculinity, as someone who lived it and now as someone on the other side of the fence, so to speak.”  

Born in Edmonton and raised by parents who had immigrated from India, Shraya’s younger days were a struggle. “I definitely had a tough time growing up in Edmonton as a queer brown kid,” she says.

After earning her undergraduate degree in English at the University of Alberta, Shraya moved to Toronto to pursue her music career. She also found work at George Brown College, working in the Diversity, Equity and Human Rights Office, while teaching a course in sexual diversity.

She took to the city’s music scene in an amusing way that reflected her sheer gumption. “When I moved to Toronto I had no friends, no family, I didn’t know anybody,” she says. “One thing I did to keep my spirits up as an emerging unknown musician was going to concerts, and I used to throw my CDs onstage. I always hoped that Macy Gray or Jack White or Coldplay’s Chris Martin would call me the next day, but, of course, none of them called.

“One night I went to a Tegan and Sara concert and, again, threw my CD onstage. I almost hit Tegan in the head! She picked it up and she emailed me about a month later saying: ‘We enjoyed your album so much. Whatever we can do to help you, please let us know.’ They’ve been huge supporters. I look up to them like they’re like my big sisters.”

While making a name for herself in the music and literary worlds, the tireless Shraya also completed her master's degree in gender, feminist and women’s studies at York University. “So many great writers and artists have turned to teaching as a way to sustain themselves but also as a way of providing mentorship,” she says. “I feel there’s almost always been a link between my art and the work done in the classroom. That’s why this position at the University of Calgary is such an exciting opportunity.

“I love being creative. People have different reasons for waking up in the morning and, for me, having a creative project, whether it’s writing a song or a story, that’s my reason for waking up. It keeps me stabilized, grounded and inspired.”