Vivek Shraya is an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s creative writing department, author (She of the Mountain, I’m Afraid of Men, Even This Page Is White), and musician. Among Canadian queer literary circles Shraya is well known and lauded. Life took a turn one peaceful morning in the fall of 2017 when a stranger took it upon themself to begin sending a string of increasingly alarming and transphobic emails to Shraya. Not one to remain silent, Shraya decided to use these emails as the basis for Death Threat and asked ceramicist and illustrator Ness Lee, who did Shraya’s Part Time Woman album cover art, to draw the project and enlisted Emmett Phan and Hieng Tang as colorists to complete the creative team.
The first thing one immediately notices about this book is Ness Lee’s provocative front cover image. Lee and Emmett Phan and Hieng Tang certainly ramp up the tension between the visual elements and the floating, theater marquee like title. The author’s upended, unconscious body; a single sheet of paper intersecting to allude that words can do harm; impossibly bright red blood seeping downward as the shadow of someone just out of view looms. The title and crdits emblazoned in the same hues of Shraya’s hair and the blood. It’s disturbing and yet the bright and cheery blue tries to calm the eye. It’s a dramatic composition, one I imagine that might even be triggering for some trans women who’ve been threatened and assaulted. I was…am shocked by it, especially knowing that the preliminary cover image, from which the feature image at the top is taken, is devoid of Shraya’s form. Having read the entirety of the book I can assure you that while the tension between language and art continues throughout its pages none of the interior art is as confrontational.
Death Threat turns reality into art and art into reality. At first amused by the initial email that greets her during breakfast one morning, Shraya’s reactions change as the harasser continues to insinuate themself into her life. Amusement turns to contemplation to be replaced by doubt and finding reassurance, support, and love from her parents. Suspicion and distrust (of police) try to gain footing, culminating in a decisive moment for Shraya to turn it all to her advantage by making these very private and personal threats into a very public account for anyone to read. Appropriating their words is an act of both defiance and reclamation. The effort to imagine her harasser’s point of view is one that I suspect most trans people want to avoid but it was a challenge that Shraya thought important.
Death Threat can be a deceptively quick read. This was a mistake with my first reading while following readings yielded more ideas for consideration. Prior to this I’d primarily thought of transphobia in terms of bathroom bills and military trans bans that whipped up the frenzied delusional state of American evangelical Christianity and conservatives. How very wrong of me that was! Much of the letter writer’s wording suggests a Hindu background. For example, they use the Sanskrit words “anashraya” (defenceless, isolated, lack of support) and “napumsaka” (roughly to mean of neuter gender, neither male nor female) and make generalized references to a few other religious notions. Shraya seems to be anything but these things. An allusion is also made to two para military groups (LeT and JeM) operating in the highly contentious Kashmir region. In mentioning them the harasser clearly implied to Shraya the threat of sexual violence by “real” men as a cautionary against her defying gender norms.
Ness Lee describes her art in one video I watched as rooted in healing, exploration, and the human form. Lee relates that drawing gave her the voice which she felt was denied her in her youth. In another video she talks about her love of drawing the contours of the human body with a single continuous line. I thought I sensed a hint of the aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) in her work but Lee’s voluminous figures are the opposite of the thin courtesans and geishas typically seen in the art of the “floating world” with which I’m most familiar. The artist more or less confirmed my suspicion when mentioning that shunga, ukiyo-e’s erotic cousin, inspires her. According to Lee her figures need to be large to encompass the depths of emotions being explored in the piece. This symbolic artistic convention adds a subtle layer to Shraya’s depiction throughout the work. Phan and Teng’s bright color pallette simultaneously enhances the decorative aspects of Lee’s illustrations rendering the border between Shraya’s exterior world and her interior psychological state permeable to the reader. Additionally, the vibrant colors engage the eye of the reader and move them along through the narrative.
In transcending hate and ignorance with strength and vulnerability Shraya with the assistance of Lee, Phan, and Tang deliver a message of hope and courage to all trans women.
Ask for Death Wish at your local comic shop or book store or order a copy from Amazon.