Vivek Shraya's 'People Change' book review: When change is the only constant

In ‘People Change’, Indo-Canadian trans author and artist Vivek Shraya meditates on change, and reinvention, in connection to identity, relationships, gender, sexuality, fashion, and more.

Published: 18th October 2022 06:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th December 2022 01:15 PM   |  A+A-

Indo-Canadian trans author and artist Vivek Shraya.

Indo-Canadian trans author and artist Vivek Shraya.

Express News Service

CHENNAI: In high school, Vivek Shraya experimented with and wore imaginative clothing to assert her individuality (even while being taunted for the same). Later in life, as a creative writing professor, she adopted a white dress shirt paired with black leggings; her idea of a daily uniform to reduce attention to her gender expression in the classroom. Fashion, and external attire, has the inherent ability to create personas. And this has been one of the ways in which she has always reinvented herself to navigate life, says Shraya, who is known for her creative explorations on lived racism and homophobia.

In her book People Change, the Indo-Canadian trans author and artist weaves together life observations and cultural commentary to make sense of herself in relation to the larger world. Incidentally, the book was initially titled Armour, referring to how trans and gender non-conforming individuals use clothing to safeguard themselves, mentions Shraya over phone.

It is hard to slot People Change into a genre. Much like its author, the book, which is a slim volume of unconventionally structured essays, invites one to look beyond what is considered the norm. The epigraph, a 1991 quote of Madonna’s — “I am my own experiment, I am my own work of art” — also serves to describe the multifaceted Shraya, who is a visual artist, musician, theatre person, activist, and changemaker.

Changing ideas about the self
In People Change, Shraya uses compelling arguments to dispel the notion that reinventing the self entails becoming an improved, truer version than who we are currently. Young people, in particular, are bound to feel a sense of relief when Shraya argues there is no idealised or ‘authentic’ self (or selfie). “The word ‘authentic’ is very challenging --- it indicates there is a self that is something you are now, and there is a self that you aspire to be. Thirty years ago, when I was growing up in Edmonton, I didn’t have the circumstance or the perspective that I have now, to explore gender non-conformity, to envision myself as a trans artist. Does that mean I wasn’t living my ‘authentic’ self 30 years ago? I just didn’t know what was possible then. Instead of thinking ‘that’ version as false, and ‘this’ one as ‘authentic’ – why not view them all as versions of yourself?” she urges. The autonomy to explore this multiplicity of self with curiosity, and not authenticity, then is the better philosophy to embrace, she suggests.

Challenges of reinvention
A career of constant reinvention can be an impediment at times, confesses Shraya. “As an artist, I don’t want to repeat myself — I try doing different things, but certain institutions do not know how to support or fund me. I have to be okay with that — rather than trying to do just what they want me to do.” Every such quandary presented in People Change is succeeded by a reframing of the issue, enabling a change in how one perceives it — and that’s where the beauty of the book lies. Here, Shraya goes on to say, being consistently diverse has paid off in having a fan following. “I’ve been fortunate to have so many people who support my work. Those who like my work like that I show many sides of myself, offer new things, I think,” she expresses.

Accommodating change
Change feels uncomfortable, especially when one can’t singularly categorise a person. Speaking about this very human fear, Shraya says, “When you’re showing different sides constantly, people find it hard to pinpoint. As a culture, we love boxes. Are you queer? Are you gay? Are you non-binary? Well, it depends on who I am talking to. If it is my parents, I will probably use the label gay, because they understand gay; they don’t understand queer. Difference does bring with it discomfort”. She adds that her selfies, too, don’t conform to social media ‘brand’ diktats that insist on maintaining congruency. This change in the familiar can be disconcerting — and is one we experienced collectively in the pandemic.

When Shraya moved to Toronto, she lost some of her friendships, but once again, she uses empathy to help readers reevaluate such changes as the start of something new: “I wish my friends could have taken the time to understand my move as an opportunity for us to build a new kind of relationship,” she articulates. One wonders in moments of frustration if some people even possess the ability to change. But people (do) change! assures Shraya. “My father did, and he was in his 60s when he reinvented himself as a parent. Age is considered as a change debilitator (laughs) but he has changed. Some choose to not change but they can change — my book is a gesture at expressing this truth to readers”, she says.

We don’t want the people we know to change. But why can’t we support them by celebrating their changes instead of trying to hold them back? That is then a chance for us to change, too, while we live in a culture afraid of change - Vivek Shraya

Book: People Change

Publisher: Penguin Canada

Pages: 112; Price: Rs 882 


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