Multidisciplinary artist and author Vivek Shraya recounts the true story of receiving hate mail in her new graphic novel, Death Threat, illustrated by Ness Lee. We caught up with Shraya over the phone to talk about her work ahead of her appearance at Verses Festival, a Vancouver literary and storytelling festival.
BeatRoute: This is your first graphic novel. What inspired you to tell a traumatic experience through this medium?
Vivek Shraya: A big part of it was the letters themselves. They’re not your average hate mail and they have a vivid quality to them. Having somebody talk about their mom’s neighbours going hunting for me in the woods – it was hard not to picture that.
BR: Are there any graphic novels that inspired you?
VS: The person that I credit in a lot of ways is Michael DeForge. I read his first book, Big Kids, and I remember putting it down and pacing around the house being like, “Whoa,” – just feeling so excited about his work and the medium.
BR: Death Threat is told from not only your perspective, but also the imagined perspective of the person sending you hate mail. What did it feel like to put yourself in their position?
VS: There was going to be more of their narrative, [but] seeing the letters illustrated by Ness [Lee], I was like, “These are very strange things to say, let alone send to a stranger.” It was definitely a challenge to try to understand that perspective and, hopefully, that’s a good thing.
BR: Did you feel like you were in immediate danger? How did it feel going through that?
VS: The thing that scared me the most about the letters was that they included their address. This is something that is so important to think about – because trolling has become an everyday occurrence, and therefore acceptable, people are no longer attached to hiding their identities. If we permit a behaviour, we tell ourselves that that behaviour is normal. Then why should hate have to conceal itself? I think there’s a connection there between this person using their full name and their full address because it’s like, you know, just another day on the internet!
BR: Did this change your relationship to technology or social media?
VS: I don’t know that it changed my relationship to it, but I don’t think I’m unique in my experience getting these kind of messages. There’s a scene in the book with all these trolls on their computers, and my character says, “Do I have a right to complain? Doesn’t being trolled on the internet go hand in hand with being feminine?” I’m hoping the book instigates more conversation about better support and protective measures.
BR: If this troll were to read Death Threat, what would you hope they would glean from it?
VS: I would be curious if, in seeing their words illustrated, it would force them to consider the ways in which what they had stated is perhaps more disturbing than [they thought] when they wrote the text. You know, an apology never hurts. I’m not really interested in hearing from them, but I don’t know. Just be more conscious of the language that they’re using. I feel like these are big asks from someone who essentially wants you to die. For me, the big intent around the project was trying to find a way to work through something traumatic. So reconnecting it as an art project – and an art project that features me eating chips and watching goat videos – I felt like I was able to reclaim a little bit more of my agency in all of this and get a chuckle here and there. It definitely felt empowering in that sense.