Vivek Shraya is an award-winning author whose first book, God Loves Hair, is an autobiographical collection of twenty-one short stories following a tender, intellectual, and curious child as he navigates the complex realms of sexuality, gender, racial politics, religion, and belonging.
One of the things I often get asked after book readings and presentations is: How did you get through junior high and high school? How did you survive daily verbal homophobic attacks?
I grew up in a time before there were Gay Straight Alliances and rainbow flags in high schools, before the word “homophobia” was so widespread. Without language, without being able to name what was happening to me, it was hard to ask for support at school and at home. Without support, like so many queer kids, I dreamt of suicide.
I wrote goodbye letters frequently, always in dramatic red ink, and even planned out my suicide outfit—not too flashy, not too plain, but rather an understated elegance. But the reason I didn’t go through with it—the number one reason I stayed alive—was my mother’s love. Thinking of suicide was often comforting, especially as relief from another day of torment at school, but only to the point of imagining my mother finding my lifeless body. Then I could imagine life leaving her body too.
The older I get, the more respect and awe I feel for a woman who was then a full-time mother, full-time employee, and part-time student—especially on days when I’m too lazy to cook my own dinner. It would be easy to romanticize my teenage years, but this was a turbulent time in our relationship, when we were often at odds about my early curfew, my close friendships with white girls, and my blasting Tori Amos. Obedience was a prime value in our home, and disobedience was often dealt with strict punishment. But despite this— despite how much we argued, despite not knowing how I was going to say the word “gay” to my conservative parents and if they would even know what it meant, and despite that when I eventually did talk to my parents about what was happening at school, their response was “everyone gets picked on,” I never doubted that my mother loved me. Every gesture of care—preparing our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; nagging us about our homework; asking about our days; picking up all my holds from the library; encouraging me to sing; tucking us in at night; waking us up with a song; hugging us before school—was another reason not to hurt myself.
In recent years, my mother has expressed regret for not doing more for me during that time. The truth is, there is no way my mother could have done everything—no way she could have completely saved me from what was happening at school. And I didn’t have the language to fully express what I was feeling. Ultimately, what mattered most was knowing that there was one place in the world my life did matter—in my mother’s heart.
Vivek Shraya’s first book is a collection of twenty-one short stories following a tender, intellectual, and curious child as he navigates the complex realms of sexuality, gender, racial politics, religion, and belonging. Told with the poignant insight and honesty that only the voice of a young mind can convey, God Loves Hair is a moving and ultimately joyous portrait of the resiliency of youth.
The stories are accompanied by the award-winning full-colour illustrations of Toronto artist Juliana Neufeld. God Loves Hair was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, won the Applied Arts Award for Illustration, and is currently being used as a textbook at several post-secondary institutions.
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