About a year ago I reviewed a work of fiction called The Subtweet by multi-disciplinary artist Vivek Shraya, and along with many other critics I really enjoyed it, so I was excited when another one of her books People Change landed on my doorstep a few months ago. Unlike Subtweet, this is a short work of non-fiction, only 100 pages long. It’s a small taste of a big subject – people changing, how they change and why they change. Tens of thousands of books will never be able to fully cover this topic, but I appreciated the entry that Shraya offers us in this bright and reassuring read.
Broken up into approximately five sections, the book begins with a brief introduction to the Hindu guru known as Sathya Sai Baba, and the Hindu beliefs around reinvention – this quickly transitions into another guru of reinvention we are all familiar with: Madonna. Shraya’s view of these two people ultimately shaped her craving to reinvent herself, which follows the thread to her future artistic reincarnations and the many versions of herself that she will pursue as she ages. She touches upon her transitioning into presenting as a woman, her many stages and platforms as an artist, the way previous romantic partners have shaped her current long-term relationship, her father and his shifting attitude to parenthood, and many other examples of people changing in her life. She also analyzes the contradictory way our society views change; some embrace it, while other are suspicious of it. For those who are questioning their gender, this change is especially fraught by the expectations of others, which is a subject Shraya can offer valuable insight into – most interesting are the complaints and questions that supposed ‘allies’ confront her with.
For those who aren’t familiar with this highly lauded Canadian artist, it’s important to note that (from what I understand) Shraya is a trans woman who presents as female, but has not undergone any physical surgery, so the concept of people changing is one she is intimately familiar with. Perhaps it’s because she lives in Calgary and has done quite a few high-profile projects lately, but I would assume she is one of the most recognizable trans people in our country, and her popularity keeps growing, mainly due to her incredible output – she is one of the hardest working people in the entertainment and artistic industries. This book, just one of many, is another example of how successful she is, but also how desperate we are for voices like this; voices like hers that are typically marginalized are now being given a platform (at least in Canada), for which I am grateful, of course there is always more work to be done in this arena; trans voices and representations are still very much relegated to the sidelines.
Above I refer to this book as bright – and I stand by this description, as I found her thoughts on change to be comforting – she is reassuring us of the importance and beauty of change. But I do want to mention that for many, including Shraya, this change can blossom from a very dark place; within the first few pages of the book she admits to suicidal thoughts, and was bullied for presenting as queer in her teenage years. But as much as this book is about her, it’s also about change in general. One of the most interesting quotes describes her feelings around Halloween, a holiday (and the one time of year) where changing our dress is encouraged and celebrated:
“I’m eager to observe how transposing someone else’s aesthetic onto mine creates someone new. This is why Halloween makes me uncomfortable: the intention behind dressing up is to scare (or for jest). Why must transformation be monstrous and frightening, or something to be laughed at, instead of an opening for self-discovery?”-p. 23 of People Change by Vivek Shraya
She also uses examples from other aspects of our life to demonstrate the importance of change by addressing the way our personalities can shift and transform when we create new friendships. The inclusion of new friends into our lives can change us in a way too; introduce us to new activities and uncover a side of ourselves we never thought possible. I simply appreciated the very open and thoughtful way Shraya addressed this topic in the book, and it makes me want to seek out more of her non-fiction for this very reason.