There’s been a lot said about toxic masculinity of late, but Canadian author Vivek Shraya is ready to retire the concept. Same goes for “microaggressions” and a number of other buzzwords used to talk about identity. You won’t find either of them in her new book.
“Language can be so powerful,” Shraya told VICE. “Terms like ‘emotional labour’ can be so useful but I deliberately never say ‘toxic masculinity.’ It’s a deliberate choice because I think a lot of people don’t really know what we mean but toxic masculinity it’s just become a kind of buzz phrase and I wonder about the need to qualify masculinity because toxic masculinity suggests that there is a masculinity that is what, not toxic? And I don’t know that I’ve experienced that.”
Shraya’s book I’m Afraid of Men, which is slated for release in August via Penguin Random House, is nevertheless deeply critical of modern masculinity. It explores the inherent violence of the myth of the good man.
“I think that one of the things that I’m really curious about is what if culturally we abandoned the idea of the good man,” says Shraya, who teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary and whose practice includes music, written work, and visual art. “The book kind of started with the title. I had put out an album called Part Time Woman and one of the songs on the album was called ‘I’m Afraid of Men’ and I had just come out as trans that year when I wrote the song and I was thinking a lot about my relationship to masculinity as someone who has experienced it from a lot of different perspectives: as someone who has embodied it, as someone who was coursed into it, as someone who has walked away from it, as someone who still incurs violence from it.”
In her essay Shraya, who was raised as a boy, traces the imprint that the performance of masculinity has left from an early age. “As someone who was celebrated as a good man for just washing dishes, I also understand how low that bar is,” Shraya explains, seated on a city bench in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant. “I think for me reflecting back on the experiences that I’ve had with men aside from whatever harm was created often one of the things that hurt the most was that I believed that the individual was different—this man was different because he read books or this man was different because he had been nice to me on the internet. We have this abundance of forgiveness and belief in men which feels really imbalanced with how we feel about women culturally.”
I’m Afraid of Men opens with what Shraya refers to as a “day in the life.” She describes the constant navigations, considerations, and protections she enlists in her everyday life as a queer trans girl: inserting softening exclamation points into emails, avoiding eye contact and physical contact on public transportation, the bracement of opening social media networks filled with reports of violence against trans and gender-non-conforming individuals. It’s a process that many can identify with and Shraya’s methodological listing illuminates how constant these protections are for non-cisgendered people, women, and persons of colour.
“For me, certainly, from the beginning of the day to the end of the day there is this thought process,” Shraya says. “For that section, it was less about who is this [book] for and more about if we are going to have a book that’s called I’m Afraid of Men let’s break this down: what are we talking about when we talk about fear?”
The way that fear, particularly fear of violence from men, is discussed and delineated is often derived from conversations surrounding physical violence. The threat is an ever-present danger, but patriarchal oppression goes beyond single acts. “I think it’s tricky because of the conversations we've been having over the last few years about visibility around masculinity and violence, I really felt a pressure with this book to reveal a single traumatic event,” Shraya says. “Like the book with a title I’m Afraid of Men that at some point I’m supposed to expose extreme violence. It was one of my biggest stresses around the book because that never happens, in fact, a love story happens.” Shraya’s narrative mitigates expectations one might have of tragedy—based on the singular type of stories that often get told about trans lives. Shraya builds in the softness and sweetness of a new relationship in with exchanges where the fear of being repulsive overrides the excitement of a flirtation. The fear of men isn’t only a physical threat—rejection, repulsion, objectification—Shraya explores how misogyny attacks self-worth.
Along with avoiding terms such as “toxic masculinity,” Shraya is also careful not to frame her narratives within binary terms. She rejects the concept that there is no toxic femininity—female complantancy is carefully considered. “I will say for me it felt really important to write a book that didn't let anyone off the hook,” she explains. “And that's not to say that there isn't a power imbalance, there is for sure, but i do think that there are always ways where the oppressed individual is complacent.”
The physical book, with bright and bold text on the cover (and the back cover reading “Men Are Afraid of Me”), itself plays an important role in the larger, contextual conversation. Reading the book in public—on transit, in a cafe—the cover text doesn’t go unnoticed and it’s hard to shake the knowledge that there are some men who may take the title as an entry point to initiate conversation, or at worst, a confrontational stance. “I will say that I think that my editor David Ross’s thinking behind the book [design] was to honour and connect to my broader work as an artist,” Shraya told VICE. “I hope that a lot of people feel empowered by both sides of that title.”
“I hope that that's the strength of the book that the fear of the men—and I think it is true for a lot of people—isn't rooted in a single event but rather a series of events that happen through your life,” Shraya says. Violence, regardless of its size, remains violence, and the fear that it produces is no less potent. But in claiming this fear, in recognizing its origins and manifestations, Shraya locates pathways to acceptance and compassion that are very real.
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