Vivek Shraya self-published her first book (which boasts one of our favourite titles), God Loves Hair, in 2010.
In the seven years since then, her books have taken the literary world by storm, securing her numerous publishing contracts in genres ranging from poetry and fiction to a picture book. Her artwork has been seen in national news outlets, while her music has taken her across the country and seen her sharing a stage with indie duo Tegan & Sara. The only predictable thing about Shraya is that it is impossible to predict what she'll do next, with her talents stretching across artistic disciplines and genres, her politically engaged commentary, and her support of emerging authors.
It's that last passion that has informed Shraya's most recent move: the launch of the unique imprint VS Books with West Coast indie powerhouse Arsenal Pulp Press. We got the chance with speak with Shraya about VS Books, why it was important to launch an imprint dedicated to showcasing great work by Indigenous writes, Black writers, and other writers of colour, and the issues she sees facing the Canadian publishing community.
For Indigenous or Black writers and writers of colour between the ages of 18 and 24 who are interested in submitting to VS Books, please visit the VS Books website for more information. Submissions will be accepted until September 15, 2017.
How did VS. Books come about and why was Arsenal Pulp Press the right house to partner with?
Last year, I created a mentorship program and was fortunate to work with nine young artists. At the end of the year, I began to evaluate how to move forward with a future mentorship, reflecting on the kinds of specific supports the artists I worked with wanted, which was consistently about how to get published. I also thought about how self-publishing my own first book, God Loves Hair, allowed me break into the literary world.
I started to imagine a hybrid mentorship and publishing opportunity, where I would work with one young writer on their manuscript and then fund their work to be published. But then I wondered about partnering with my publisher, as Arsenal Pulp Press has not only published four of my books, but has always been willing to think outside of the box, especially in their support for underrepresented authors. I pitched the idea to Brian in October 2016 and he said yes in April!
Why was this the right time for VS. Books? What need did you see in Canadian publishing that motivated you to create this imprint?
As a multidisciplinary artist who has experienced barriers in various arts industries in Canada because of my race, gender and sexuality, and I am committed to helping break these barriers for emerging racialized, queer and trans artists. VS. Books is an opportunity for an Indigenous or Black writer or writer of colour, to submit a manuscript that will be read by a racialized writer, as opposed to acquisition editors who are mostly white.
Most importantly, I am especially passionate about creating more opportunities for intergenerational conversations and support. In the past year alone, CanLit has felt demoralizing, isolating and even unsafe, and my hope is that this imprint and mentorship is a reminder that CanLit is also full of writers who are working to make it better.
VS. Books offers a mentorship opportunity to an unpublished Indigenous or Black writer or a writer of colour, between the ages of 18 and 24. Why are these parameters essential?
It was essential that VS. Books created an opportunity for Indigenous and Black writers, and writers of colour who are often either tokenized, mocked or overlooked, as most recently exemplified by the Appropriation Prize debacle. As someone who has been making art professionally for almost fifteen years, the age parameter allows me to support emerging writers and provide the kinds of informal mentorship I received or needed.
Do you have a vision for the kinds of books VS. Books. will publish, either in terms of style, tone, or content? What are you looking for when you consider submissions?
What I am looking for the most is work that is unpredictable and takes risks.
You've already mentored nine emerging artists (who are also eligible to apply for the VS. Books opportunity). Where does your passion for supporting young artists come from?
I made my first album when I was 21 and self-published my first book when I was 29. Both of those experiences were lonely, for a lack of a better word, despite the tremendous support of my friends and family. I didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I really understand what I was getting into, the uphill battles I would face, especially being brown and queer. My passion for working with young artists comes from a similar place as my art—wanting to provide the kinds of supports I wish I had when I was younger.
I also learn so much from young artists. They often remind me to keep making art from a place of curiosity, innocence and hunger.
As a writer in multiple genres yourself, you've been on the submissions side before. How does it feel to be on the publisher side, adjudicating on the manuscripts you receive?
Truthfully, I am a bit nervous, especially about the rejection process. While I hope the imprint will continue beyond this cycle, I wish I could say yes to everyone!
Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Her first book of poetry, even this page is white, won a 2017 Publisher Triangle Award and was longlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads. Her debut novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books, and her first children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, was featured on the National Post Bestseller List. Vivek has read and performed internationally at shows, festivals and post-secondary institutions, including sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara. She is one half of the music duo Too Attached and the founder of the publishing imprint VS. Books.
A four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Vivek was a 2016 Pride Toronto Grand Marshal, and has received honours from Toronto Arts Foundation and The Writers’ Trust of Canada.