The Jennifer Issue
By Joanne Ogilvie
After being part of a sexual assault case that made national headlines, my life took a tailspin into a space so dark I wasn’t sure I would ever see light again.
Two years later, I feel like I can better cope with the past and manage the present, but I still worry about my future. Everything I thought about the case at the time seems fuzzy now, because who I am has changed so drastically. The years I spent rebuilding myself (which is still an ongoing process) changed the trajectory of my life.
I felt powerless and disconnected from my body for so long, I needed something to remind me that I was still in control. I decided to visit The Good Spirit, a metaphysical boutique in Vancouver’s Gastown that offers modern tools to aid in spiritual development, complemented by tarot readings. The atmosphere was calm and inviting as a friendly young woman, whose warm vibe radiated around her, greeted me.
I felt powerless and disconnected from my body for so long, I needed something to remind me that I was still in control.
The bath salts and candles lining the shelves put me at ease, since the bathtub is where I spend a majority of my time — I’m currently writing this in the tub. I opted for a 20 minute reading rather than the in-depth 30 minute option. Far too often I’ve opened up about my assault to a judgemental, misunderstanding audience. I wasn’t sure how emotional I would become during the reading and I still felt the need to protect myself.
The card reader flipped over ten cards and explained their meaning to me. As usual, the universe amazed me with it’s brilliance. The cards played out my past, present, and future. In the cards on the past, there was significant mentioning of men and struggle, and I could feel my palms get clammy. The reader carried on, never stopping to ask too many questions unless prompted by me.
The last card she flipped over was The Empress card. When upright, this card symbolizes fertility, femininity, beauty, nature, and abundance. The sheer gravity of those words read to me was so powerful. Those words represented all of the characteristics I felt had been tarnished by my sexual assault.
The Empress is said to encourage connection with others through nurturing, caring and supporting those around you, and finding ways to open communication by creating spaces to openly express your feelings. So here I am, writing and creating that dialogue, seeing those “future” cards become my present. This gentle nudge was what I needed to remember that my spirit is unbreakable and unbelievably strong. Also that my future, whatever it holds, will be bold and beautiful.
The reader smiled as she spoke to me, as if we’d known each other for more than the mere minutes I had been in there. I felt incredibly comfortable sharing my experience with her; it felt like she already knew. The power of those cards, the energy of the room, and the simple connection between two women talking in a shop window left me feeling grounded and assured not only with the path I was on, but also in the person I was growing into.
The card reader hugged me as I stood up to leave, washing away any residual fears or doubt I brought with me.
Interview by founder Devon Brooks
Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist and trans activist. Impossible to pin down to one mode of expression, she’s written story books and poetry, released several records, toured with Tegan and Sara, and recently conceived a photo series contrasting herself and her mother. Having come out as trans this past year, Vivek explores her particular intersections of identity, the pressure to perform femininity, and why more men should hold hands.
BR: Tell us about some of the people in your life who have supported you in following who you are.
VS: My mom is obviously a huge influence, inspiration and support. I think she was one of the first people in my life to show me a lot of love, no matter how I presented myself or my interests. Consequently, in my art she’s somebody who emerges a lot. Being an artist means being in the spotlight, or craving the spotlight in a way. I think one of the things that has really moved me about my mom is that she was never the person in the spotlight. At our religious organization, she was always the one in the background who was doing all the hard work and never got any credit for it. I’m really moved by that kind of labour because it’s often unrecognized labour that keeps things going.
BR: Have you felt cultural stifling as an artist or as a trans person?
VS: When I was navigating coming out as trans, I was also navigating a publicness. I have a very small platform, but still, how do I present that? I’m already brown and I’m already queer. In the arts industries, those things don’t bode well for you. Now I’m adding on transness. How will this alienate potential audiences, press, or interest in my work? The thing is, once you see the light, it’s really hard to go back. Once I was on a path, I couldn’t do anything but step forward. And I had to be okay with that. That’s what’s funny about the question of authenticity in relation to transness. In some ways, the trans experience couldn’t be more authentic. You’re pushing against years of trauma, homophobia, and genderphobia, to be this person, this identity.
BR: How do you define femininity?
VS: I associate femininity with a kind of softness and a tenderness, mostly because those were the parts my gender that were most contentious. It was my softness and tenderness in what appeared to be a male body that make people very uncomfortable. Part of my work now is trying to find balance. Originally I was like, I’m going to own my softness, I’m going to own my tenderness. Now it’s also about owning that I can also be hard. I can also be strong. I can also be tough. There’s room for femininity to occupy all kinds of space. Initially, the thing that had been taken from me was softness, and so that’s what I feel most attached to when thinking about femininity.
I can also be strong. I can also be tough. There’s room for femininity to occupy all kinds of space.
BR: What is it like navigating masculine and feminine energy on a day to day basis?
VS: After coming out, there’s a lot of pressure to perform femininity all the time, and by that I mean cultural expectation of femininity. The fact that my voice is still deep is uncomfortable for people. I date a man, and people have made assumptions about who plays what role in our relationship because of my transition. Those are actually quite inaccurate and quite limiting. That’s the challenge about gender, too. As someone who spent a lot of my life learning to be a man and now trying to occupy this new space where I’m trying to be myself, I dream of a world where we could explore the fullness of who we are. Period.
BR: How does gender show up in your artwork?
VS: Challenging gender norms and gender expectations is a crucial part of my work. In my writing, I talk about other forms of masculinity. I often talk about how my earliest queer role models were Hindu gods, because they gods have long hair, they have jewellery. For me, North American masculinity was like Tom Cruise. It was a very specific kind of masculinity. It was about being muscular and being tough. Hindu masculinity, I could relate to that. My work is constantly trying to push ideas of gender that aren’t the ones we expect.
Yesterday I was talking about how in India men holds hands all the time. It’s not romantic, it’s not sexual, it’s just friendship. It’s how you show love. When I saw that, I ached. Because how lovely would it be for us to be able to express intimacy? It’s so hilarious in North America to see two bros go to a movie theatre and leave a seat in between them. We have to create as much distance from each other as possible. In India, I’ve literally seen men sit on each other’s laps. And it’s not sexual. It’s just I love you, you’re my brother.
When I saw that, I ached. Because how lovely would it be for us to be able to express intimacy?
BR: Now that you’re a year into allowing yourself to identify and assert yourself as a trans person, what parts of yourself are you seeing flourish?
VS: One of the consistent things people said to me about their 30s was that you stop giving a fuck. I really have found this to be true. Turning 30 really opened me to saying, it’s either now or never. Innocuously I started wearing nail polish, I started wearing leggings, I started exploring lipstick. All these things that I used to do in my teenage years but had destroyed as a form of safety, I started revisiting because again. Either it’s going to happen now or it’s not going to happen. You don’t realize how many things you bury in your childhood because of trauma and safety. One of the things I’ve realized as a musician is I’ve restricted my voice. Trying to build a career in the Canadian music industry as a brown person is very, very hard. So I really taught myself how to sing more linearly, how to have a lot of restraint around my voice, how to sing more softly, because I’ve been told my voice is too abrasive and irritating. Now in my 30s, I’m just like, nope.
BR: What was your relationship like with you Hindu faith as a restrained young man, versus now as a trans woman?
VS: My relationship with faith is not very common in that, because of the room that Hindu masculinity made for someone like me, my religious space was actually one of the safe spaces I had as a kid. I think queer people have really complicated relationships to faith, because we’re so often persecuted by interpretations of religious texts. But for me, it was the other way around. I was being persecuted everywhere besides my religious organization. I actually found a lot of comfort and safety and love in my religious organization. In my 20s I moved away from faith, and the assumption is always that it was because of my queerness or my transness or whatever. It actually had nothing to do with that. My relationship to faith was one where God sort of acted as a third parent. In the ways that I left my mom’s home and my dad’s home, I had to leave the home of god. I saw religion as very parental and I needed to cut those strings and find my own light.
BR: How do you rebel?
VS: Art is the site of my rebellion. That’s where I like to challenge. That’s where I try to incite. I think it’s really important that people use their voices and their platforms, and get involved. It sounds very rudimentary. But it’s interesting, a lot of my white friends don’t feel like they have any power. I’m like, well actually, you have so much power. White people have an incredible amount of power. I’m doing this work. Me and my friends of colour had been doing this work before Trump, will continue to do this work. We’ve been talking about these issues. The Trump election comes as a huge surprise to so many people, and it’s certainly a surprise to me too, but at the same time, this is what we’ve been talking about. We talk about white supremacy and we talk about transphobia — this is what we’re talking about. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.
Sexual trauma is an experience that tethers so many of us. This sisterhood is a secret no more. We’re transcribing the lives of women through art, illustrating the multiplicity of our realities pre- and post- crisis. Ready to share your story?