Vivek Shraya on who gets to call themselves a woman in 2017

The Toronto multidisciplinary artist launches her Part-Time Woman album at the AGO with the Queer Songbook Orchestra

VIVEK SHRAYA & QUEER SONGBOOK ORCHESTRA at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), Friday (July 7), doors 7 pm. Free with general admission.

The crossroads of intersectionality – and how Canadians navigate them – will shape and define our culture and society for years to come. This is far from a newfangled idea, but for multidisciplinary trans artist Vivek Shraya, the elevated sense of urgency driving it is both palpable and all-consuming.

These are issues she examines on her latest album, Part-Time Woman, released in early June. The Toronto-based writer, musician and filmmaker’s first musical undertaking in six years is best defined as a “pop opera,” a dynamic, textured collaboration with producer James Bunton and 12-piece chamber pop collective Queer Songbook Orchestra. It examines the multi-dimensional intersections of personal identities as a queer and trans BIPOC.

Shraya spoke to NOW about identity, transphobia and who gets to call themselves a woman in 2017.

In recent years you’ve been known more for your writing and film work. What brought you back to making music?

In 2011, after I made my last solo EP, I was like, “I need to take a break and try out other things.” I had written my first book at that time, and I felt really excited about exploring other mediums. But it’s been a strange journey, because I never set out to be a writer or any of these other things. Music has always been where my heart is.

I decided I’d really like to figure out how to come back to music as a solo artist. This is going to sound corny, but I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to open my heart to music again,” and I literally wrote the first song that morning.

You call the album Part-Time Woman and have come out as trans recently. What is a “full-time” woman, in your mind, and where is the common ground?

I named the album Part-Time Woman because I wanted that question to be asked. I think there’s this idea of woman as sort of a universal experience or the whole experience. But as a trans girl, I’ve really struggled with coming into that word because of my own internalized transphobia. I don’t know if you followed the whole Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie debate [on transgender politics], but her idea that trans women are not actually women is quite common, and I found myself thinking a lot about what it means to be a girl and who gets to define that. Also, thinking about the way I wanted to, yeah, just complicate the idea of womanhood.

How do you define success for this record?

The album is dedicated to anyone who’s been mis-gendered, made to feel not feminine enough or struggled to find home in a language that resists complexity. These are things I have really thought about. Most of my albums have touched on things like love and heartbreak and whatnot, but I definitely see this album as a story from beginning to end. I’ve applied the skills I learned in the literary world to the music arena.

How do you respond to people still clinging to archetypal gender roles?

I feel very lucky that I live in a bubble where, for the most part, people see me for who I am or at least use my pronouns. The most important thing friends and family can do is be supportive of someone’s journey – what they are naming and what they are calling themselves – and try not to make it about them personally. I wish I had more profound advice than that. | @nowtoronto

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