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The Joyful Side of Death Threats with Vivek Shraya
Not to build up some kinda trash versus treasure binary, but Vivek Shraya really turned some trash into treasure with this one.
Her new book, Death Threat, is a graphic novel made in collaboration with illustrator Ness Lee that explores the damage that online harassment can wreak on its recipient's life offline. Inspired by a very real, moderately legible series of emails that the Canadian writer-artist-musician-multihyphenate received -- their text reproduced in the pages of Death Threat -- Shraya takes the reader on a journey through processing the violent, transphobic messages that kept popping up in her inbox, with Lee's vivid illustrations bringing humor and life to an otherwise morbid tale.
At first Shraya laughs off the hate mail, and then she starts to wonder if its content might be true. Is she really being hunted? Are her parents actually ashamed? The tale turns meta as we see Shraya trying to turn in the manuscript for Death Threat, and how the harassment and self-doubt begins to hinder her ability to create.
Out recently had the chance to speak with Shraya about Death Threat, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in May. We also talked about working in different media, the dangers of visibility, and the deeply fraught politics of the junior high group project. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Out: What was making a graphic novel like compared to, say, writing or music?
Vivek Shraya: It's just such an exciting medium. Maybe it's my outsider perspective, but I feel like anything is possible with graphic novels. Now, I find literature quite stuffy, comparatively. Of course, any genre can be quote-unquote "experimental," but graphic novels are quite experimental in ways that we just take for granted. Graphic novel readers are also more open to a kind of possibility that I don't think the average reader or the average publisher is. For me, the biggest challenge was the burden of labor. I'm someone who, when we did group assignments in junior high, usually did all the work.
Because your team didn't do it or was it some kind of self-martyring thing?
Probably a bit of both! I grew up with a mom who always did the most work so she could hold it over our heads, so I was kind of like that, too. But I was also good at what I was doing, so things were put on my plate -- but that's a tangent. What I'm saying is that I take the division of labor very seriously because inequality of labor's not really my jam. [laughs] But with graphic novels, the burden of labor falls on the illustrator, especially with a book like this where almost all the text has been taken directly from the letters I received. That's not to say that I didn't put in a lot of work behind the scenes to craft the story, but Ness did the bulk of the work. I'd love to create another graphic novel, but I can't draw for shit.
This is, like, the least deep question I have, but I noticed all the line work is blue and not black. Why the blue lines?
Ness tends to work in black and white. I was concerned that a comic book about death threats and hate mail in black and white would just feel depressing. For me, the goal was to create something a bit satirical, so one of the conversations Ness and I had was about how to bring color to her work. I think the decision around blue was hers. I was really inspired by the color palette of artists I found on Instagram like Ricardo Cavolo -- lots of bright, saturated, primary colors.
I imagine that it might've been painful to revisit those experiences over and over to make Death Threat. Was it difficult? Cathartic?
Honestly, it was such a joy-filled process. I'm always hesitant to admit that because I don't want to diminish the severity of receiving death threats and hate mail, but the point of the project in a lot of ways was to use humor to dismantle the power of the messages. For me and Ness, we tend to steer closer to the emo side of things, so it was fun to think about how we could exaggerate these messages and trot out how ridiculous they were -- like how Ness drew literal antlers on my head when the author of those letters refers to his mother "hunting" me down or throwing a Dixie Chicks CD into the bonfire of my books to show how an entire community was against me. Making art about the letters allowed me to disconnect from how disturbing they were to receive, especially at first.
What kind of messages do you wish you got in your inbox?
That's such a nice question! [laughs] What kind of messages... Oh, I mean, since you asked, I wish someone was like, "Hey, we wanna cast you in our new show!" Listen, I'm really lucky. I feel like the internet and social media have been really good to me as an independent artist. For most of my career, going all the way back to MySpace, these platforms have been the only place where I could access a broader audience. A lot of people use them to show me support, whether that's through tweets or comments in the DMs, so I try to keep that in mind as I navigate the trolling that comes with being a marginalized person who's public online.
When we talk about visibility, it's usually framed as some kind of net good for all trans people. But Death Threat shows how being public and visible can lead to online harassment -- just like your most recent book, I'm Afraid of Men, explored how terrifying being visible can be when you leave the house. Has that been a difficult line to navigate, making public work that has the potential to make you more vulnerable?
The truth is that I've always been a public artist, even before identifying as trans. I started out as a pop musician writing love songs. I always wrote those songs to be shared with others, to connect with others. I was never a bedroom artist, so to speak. I think there's nothing wrong with that, but it's never been the path I've chosen for my career.
There have definitely been moments where I question my choices. I think my ideas around representation and visibility have gotten a bit more nuanced over the past few years. A lot of us, when we first get started, are motivated to create the visibility we didn't have growing up, which is so valid. But as so many other trans and queer people in the past have pointed out, that visibility doesn't actually translate to safety or financial security or any of those other things that we imagine visibility and representation will be a cure for.
I'm a lot more conscious and maybe even self-critical of wading into the waters of representation as justification for my work these days. I didn't approach Death Threat thinking "This is a trans comic" or, you know, a "trans contribution to the world of graphic novels." Hopefully, all those things are true, but I'm more interested in the actual story and if it makes sense.
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