Non-Fiction, Reviews

I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

Image Description: The book cover with a brown wood background.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear the world girl by turning it into a weapon they used to hurt me. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to hate and eventually destroy my femininity. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear the extraordinary parts of myself.

**There are minor spoilers in the “Content Warnings” and “Review” portions of this post**

Published: August 2018
Genre: Memoir
Representation: People of Colour, South Asian (POC); Trans (LGBT+); Bisexual (LGBT+), Mental Health
Content Warning: Violence exerted by men, self loathing, assault, sexual assault abuse, reference to threats of abuse, reference to masturbation, trauma, racism, sexism, trans antagonism, heteronormativity, homophobia, misogyny, microaggressions, suicidal ideation, biphobia.

Summary

A trans artist explores how masculinity was imposed on her as a boy and continues to haunt her as a girl–and how we might re-imagine gender for the twenty-first century.

Vivek Shraya has reason to be afraid. Throughout her life she’s endured acts of cruelty and aggression for being too feminine as a boy and not feminine enough as a girl. In order to survive childhood, she had to learn to convincingly perform masculinity. As an adult, she makes daily compromises to steel herself against everything from verbal attacks to heartbreak.

With raw honesty, Shraya delivers an important record of the cumulative damage caused by misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, releasing trauma from a body that has always refused to assimilate. I’m Afraid of Men is a journey from camouflage to a riot of color and a blueprint for how we might cherish all that makes us different and conquer all that makes us afraid.

— taken from Goodreads

Review

This book is an absolute must-read for everyone. Man, woman, racialized, white. Everyone. Especially if you’re cis. It’s a short yet impactful book that is likely to inform how you feel about and perceive your own life and experiences, regardless of who you are. You may think back on past interactions and experiences with a different lens, which in all honesty, may be difficult and extremely triggering for you. This will make you stop and consider things you may have taken for granted. It will likely make you feel exceptionally uncomfortable; which is good, because such discomfort is the precursor to change. In doing so, it will probably make you stop and question your assumptions. And you will likely feel called out/called in in a way you never have been before.

Vivek Shraya is an incredible artist, musician, and writer, and we would recommend that you look into her work outside of this book, as well. She is someone who has quickly become one of Abarna’s favourite people on this planet!

Shraya does something here that many of us do not deserve and are probably not entitled to, despite the existence of this book: she splits open her mind and experiences in full view for all of us to see. With her vulnerability, we become privy to her inner thoughts and feelings, which allows us as the reader to see what it’s like to be a woman, what it means to be a man, how being racialized informs your life; and, importantly, it can help us as cis folks begin to understand how difficult existing as a trans person really is in our society, purely because of societal expectations and general bigotry. 

Shraya talks about her experiences living as a man and as a woman, in all parts of her past and present identity. She tackles the ways in which violence and detachedness are expected and ingrained in the socialization of men. She talks about sexual assault and abuse, and the ways in which she has experience terrible aggression and coldness targeted at her merely for existing. In doing so, she addresses not only her fear, but the fear she perceives that others have of her just because she is a trans woman and does not “pass.” She challenges that fear and wonders what her life, down to her personality, her dating life, and the way she presents herself, may be different if people didn’t unjustifiably fear her. Not that she wouldn’t be a woman; she is more concerned about whether she would be more confident in what she likes, how she dresses, how she chooses to do her makeup, and how she holds herself would be different if the world was a different one.

What if you were to challenge yourself every time you feel afraid of me—and all of us who are pushing against gendered expectations and restrictions? What if you cherished us as archetypes of realized potential? What if you were to surrender to sublime possibility—yours and mine? Might you then free me at last of my fear, and of your own?

Through Shraya’s narrative, you start to see things you may have never even considered. Things that weren’t on your cognitive radar. Or perhaps even things that were on your radar that you simply hadn’t put much thought into. As a baseline, the world is often seen and described through the perspective of men. More recently, with the help of the feminist movement, we are starting to see what the world looks like from the perspective of women. Many people don’t stop to even consider that there is more to the world than that; we live in a world where trans and non-binary folks are erased, overlooked, and made to feel as if they are not allowed to exist. Shraya talks about being perceived as masculine and/or feminine, and how those perceptions influence how people treat her, as well as how they have altered her sense of self. These kinds of interactions and societal beliefs necessarily affect trans folks in a way that cis folks will never fully understand. That is the crux of this book, and what makes it so important.

Abarna is an activist. She considers herself to be very well-read and open minded. In her work, she has always listened to other folks, and exists with the understanding that life is about constantly learning, unlearning, and relearning things so that we can create safe spaces for everyone. That being said, there were many things that were learned in these less-than-100-pages. As a cis woman, she has always acknowledged that she has a lot to learn.  

This book made both of us realize that there are things we will never ever understand by virtue of our cis privilege. It is not Vivek Shraya’s job (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to educate us. For that reason, we feel so fortunate to have read this book and been allowed to have such insight into someone else’s mind and experiences. 

The intersectionality between the various parts of Shraya’s identity and how they affect her are undeniable; and as such, this book opens the door for conversations not just about being trans, but also about intersectionality and privilege. Abarna, as a queer, woman of colour with a disability, is nonetheless cis, has a degree, and is more-or-less able-bodied; while some parts of her identity put her at a clear social and political disadvantage, others put her in a place of privilege. This is the case for almost everybody. Just as it is important to acknowledge and fight the oppressions that bind us, it is equally important to recognize our privileges and do what we can to contribute to a safe community for everybody. 

This all brings us back to our original point. This book is a must-read. It, however, in no way describes the universal trans experience, and it should not be taken as such. Our learning doesn’t stop here, and neither should yours.

I’m Afraid of Men is filled with brutal honesties that are important and eye-opening, yet simultaneously disheartening; the latter, because as Vivek Shraya says herself:

I have always been disturbed […]  by the reality that often the only way to capture someone’s attention and to encourage them to recognize their own internal biases (and to work to alter them) is to confront them with sensational stories of suffering. Why is my humanity only seen or cared about when I share the ways in which I have been victimized and violated?

Why, indeed?

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