November 2014

Gabino Iglesias

fiction

She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya, illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

Vivek Shraya's She of the Mountains is an illustrated novel that uses art and prose in an exploration of otherness. The book contains two separate narratives. The first is a contemporary love story between a homosexual Indian man and a woman, and the second is a violent reimagining of Hindu mythology. Both stories explore the relationship between a person and his body, the shifting and malleable nature of sexuality, and the struggle to fit within the boundaries imposed by gender roles, social status, and race. With an economy of language that makes the book a quick read, Shraya explores some of the intricacies found at the place where desire, love, and identity meet. 

While the narrative dealing with deities is entertaining and allows Shraya to let his poetic voice and knack for visionary prose flow beautifully, it's the less fantastic tale of love and identity that elevates the book. The nameless protagonist suffers abuse and discrimination throughout his childhood and high school years because of his homosexuality. Once out of high school and with his sexuality somewhat figured out, he finds that the gay community has a set of rules and standards from which members are not to deviate. The same group that he expected to fit in with questions his decisions and actions whenever he doesn't play by their rules. To make matters even more complicated, the man falls in love with a female coworker and the two start having sex. What follows is a strange love story of a man who constantly has to question himself in all regards because those around him force him to do so.

Shraya is a musician, performer, and filmmaker, and his multidisciplinary nature shines here in everything from the rhythms he creates with his prose to the way he visually uses words to simulate the oppressiveness that a repetitive offensive discourse can generate. For the unnamed protagonist, life is shaped by the constant accusation regarding his sexuality:

you're gay, you're gay! YOU're gay, you're gay, you're gay, you're GAY, you're gay, you're gay, you're GAY, you're gay! you're gay, you're gay! You're GAY, You're gay, you're gay, you're gay, YOU're gay...

This goes on for a page and half and eventually comes back for a second round of the same. While a reader's first instinct would understandably be to skim this or simply jump ahead to whatever's next, reading every word helps to understand the main character's pain and frustration. Shraya is not afraid to show prejudice and discrimination in its cruelest and most senseless incarnations. Likewise, as a brown man, the author successfully splits his main character's identity into two crucial elements: sexuality and race. The abuse he receives for his sexuality is as problematic as being a brown man in a white society. Again using words in a unique way, Shraya manages to convey the experience of the "Other" in a place where the color of his skin creates a constant difference in any situation even before his distinctive sexuality enters the discussion. For those of us who are brown, this is nothing new, but for readers who have not experienced life on the opposite side of whiteness, the words here can be anything from a revelation to an accusation:

Brown was unremarkable, a non-colour, akin to a shade of grey. For he had been blinded by another colour: white. White expanded limitlessly and drained every other colour out until all that could be seen was

whitefriendwhiteactowhiteteacherwhiteneighbourwhiteinventorwhitestrangerwhiteactresswhitecoworkerwhitesingerwhiteprincipal-whitefriendwhiteactorwhiteteacherwhitecashierwhiteneighbourwhitestrangerwhiteserverwhitepostmanwhiteclassmatewhitebullywhiterockstar...

Again, the repetition is tedious, but demands to be read because its tediousness mimics a reality.

The modern-day love story, which spans almost a decade and has the kind of finale that barely fits the definition of that word, is intertwined with a retelling of the myths of the great goddess Pavarti, her husband, the god Shiva, and their son, the elephant god Ganesha. Walking the line between bloody family saga and a truly bizarre sitcom, the changing and (re)constructing of these Hindu gods' self and relationships to each other offers a breathing space for the reader and shows that the quest for an identity is a millennial one that affects everyone, deities included.

She of the Mountains includes sixteen illustrations by Raymond Biesinger, an artist whose work has appeared in venues like The New Yorker and The New York Times. The illustrations, all done in black, white, and green, tend encapsulate whatever is going on in the narrative when they appear. They add an element that, when taken in conjunction with the shiny paper in which the book is printed and Shraya's creative use of white space on the page, turn this short duo of novellas into a book that crosses into the realm of must-have cultural objects.  

She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya, illustrated by Raymond Biesinger
Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN:  978-1551525600
128 pages