It’s not surprising since the graphic memoir Death Threat is by the versatile, multi-talented artist Vivek Shraya, but her latest book is completely unique and unlike anything I’ve read before. Shraya has, somehow, turned an experience of internet hate mail into a moving, complex short book with bright, evocative illustrations by Ness Lee.
The book begins by addressing the email sender directly, as you: “you hunted me down.” Shraya goes on to share pieces directly from the actual first email she was sent. (She describes later in the book about how the email sender, unbelievably, sent her a cease and desist letter). There’s a weird, deliberate (?) vagueness to the words that disguises the threat beneath: “They may have a Vaidya diagnose you and then put you in a separate mud hut. There you will see the Earth, the atmosphere, the outer space. You will be absorbed by your physical gender. Likely that is male.”
On the surface, and from the perspective of someone who hasn’t learned to detect hate from any place it might be coming from, these words might not look so threatening. Shraya brilliantly revisits them later in the story, after the book has been written and she and Lee are out promoting it. (The story is quite meta-narrative, actually; the book is conceptualized, created, and promoted within the narrative of the memoir). The same words from the first email are reprinted, with completely different art that clearly illustrates the threat:
As you can see in the text I’ve quoted above, the sender is also using South Asian words from various languages (Sanskrit for example) and concepts. He makes a direct connection to Shraya’s family afterwards: “Your mother wants to hear sweet words from you.” At this point, Shraya is really started to be affected by the words, even calling her parents to make sure the negative messages she is receiving from this stranger about being rejected by her family and culture are not true.
At the same time as she is describing the insidious emails she’s receiving, the art contrasts that hateful experience by showing her simply living the ordinariness of life: sleeping, eating breakfast, brushing her teeth, putting on some Ariana Grande, strumming on her guitar, teaching in her classroom. As a reader who isn’t a trans woman, you’re left with the profound, horrifying sense that transmisogynist hate is simply part of that regular life.
You also see how Shraya is by necessity forced to continue living her life; she even says “Initially, your letter amused me. I shared it with my friends.” She asks, “Doesn’t being trolled on the internet go hand in hand with being feminine?” But the words start to seep into her, into the rest of her life. Of course, as the artist that she is, she decides to make a comic book as a way to deal with the experience. That comic book, of course, is the very one that you’re holding in your hand.
I’ve always said that I have a hard time writing about visual art because I just don’t have so vocabulary or framework for discussing it. But here I go! Ness Lee’s artwork in this book really struck me with her surreal interpretations of the words; the bright, almost primary colours (I should nod to the colourists, Emmett Phan and Hieng Tang here); the bold dark blue lines outlining the shapes. One of my favourite, and heartbreaking, illustrations is of Shraya when she receives an encouraging and loving letter from her parents, and the tears of joy and gratitude spill over into a river:
Don’t miss this book! Like all comics, it’s a quick read, but its impact is still with me. I wonder what new and unique piece of art Vivek Shraya is going to make next?