Vivek Shraya, a Canadian-Indian performer, started writing songs from the age of 13 and later went on to perform alongside Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara. In 2016, she came out to the world as transgender and requested to be referred by the pronouns, ‘she’ and ‘her’. While reading her 2010 short story collection, God Loves Hair, which is as visually appealing as it is comprehensive, one would wonder about the child looking everywhere for a vocabulary to define herself. Years later, she would finally grasp it.
Shraya’s God Loves Hair is perhaps best described as a visual book. It contains illustrations by Juliana Neufeld and chronicles Shraya’s experiences as a brown kid growing up in urban Canada. In the initial reading of the book, it is very easy to describe it as a bildungsroman very similar to Jane Eyre and David Copperfield. But queer theorists would disagree. Queer literature from the time of Shakespeare has found ways to mold itself away from the mainstream. The reason is that queer experiences are very different from heterosexual cis-gender experiences. For instance, while both Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Orlando by Virginia Woolf are stories of people/women growing up and building their lives, one cannot co-relate one with the other — they are not interchangeable stories even though they both deal with similar themes.
Shraya’s God Loves Hair, similarly, is not a simple bildungsroman. Queer literature expresses itself the way its community does: with no ‘straight’ narratives and plotlines that fit into the long-running jargon that feeds the heterosexual cisgender society. Queer lit, like Shraya’s, runs on consciousness, fairytales, folk literature and visual books with drawings and words melting together to create a personal narrative. And that is why Shraya’s short story collection is a much needed discourse in not just mainstream queer texts but also in children’s literature.
God Loves Hair, Shraya tells us, and indeed, why wouldn’t God love hair? It is a part of one’s body and one’s body is sacred and not something to be ashamed of, and this is what Shraya’s text invokes. It is quite common to realize as a kid that hair is something to be prized if it’s on your head and be ashamed of if it’s anywhere else on your body. Shraya’s protagonist too realizes this early in his life but flips this to create a story of longing and connecting through hair. In one instance, when at the age of two he goes to Tirupati to donate his hair, he says, “My first haircut is in Tirupathi, next to my baby brother, just as my mother prophesized. I cry as the barber pours warm water over my newly shaven head, the small cuts, made by his severe grip and his old razor, burning. God is happy. I am two years old.”
This signals the child protagonist’s departure from one identity to another. Before that, people often mistook the protagonist for a girl, and Shraya makes sure that the reader knows that it was never something the child was uncomfortable with. In fact, the loss of hair is almost a rapture, as if the mother sacrificed her child’s hair to please god — and the child sacrificed its identity. Later in the text, our protagonist will equate love for god with ultimate acceptance and slowly come to terms with the body as a deeply sacred and personal space. Therefore, this fiction is valuable as a book for all ages (especially children) as the narrative focuses on the changing landscapes of one’s own body and at the same time the changing exterior environment.
In another instance, Shraya’s mother buys her a new eyebrow plucker after witnessing her struggling to tame her unibrow. It marks another moment in the protagonist’s early life when growing up is starkly marked by rituals related to hair and also symbolizes a bond between Shraya and her mother where she silently senses her daughter’s needs before Shraya could vocalize them. For her father, however, it showcases a particular indifference one imbibes in boys in their growing-up years.
“My dad tells me how to shave over dinner.
Can you show me?
No, it’s easy.”
But beyond all the conversations about hair, what truly sets apart this collection of short stories is Shraya’s refusal to become one gender. She doesn’t use any pronouns for herself throughout the book and this nudges the reader to do the same. The young Shraya wasn’t in a hurry to clothe themselves into layers of labels and definitions. For one, the protagonist in the stories and Shraya herself right now are two different selves and we gradually see the young Shraya taking steps to become the person she is today.
Like every young person, the protagonist wanted acceptance and a discovery of the complexities of the language of the body. The only way to decipher those was to grow up, and this is the change we see with Shraya though these stories. Hence, they become revolutionary in the way they deal with body politics, identity politics and most importantly, god. Shraya turns god into an image of herself rather than the other way round. In the final story, titled God is Half Man and Half Woman, Shraya brings her book to a culmination by declaring that she refuses to be unseen. She sees herself in god’s final image and that is how she comes to accept herself, with all the intricacies and all the hair.
All the lines that divide what men and women should be and should do begin to blur in the light of this explicit fusion of two Gods and two sexes. I breathe a sigh of relief. It is as though I have found an old picture of myself or the answer to the question I didn’t have the words to ask. I bring it home with me and tape it my bedroom door as a declaration.
I am not invisible anymore.