We live in a culture of disposability, says Canadian writer Kai Cheng Thom, that is “a society based on consumption, fear and destruction—where we’re taught that the only way to respond when people hurt us is to hurt them back or get rid of them.” Thom’s words resonate in Vivek Shraya’s important new manifesto, I’m Afraid of Men, released this summer to wide acclaim from sources as divergent as Vanity Fair and the feminist organization Bitch Media.
An assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary, Shraya has previously crossed the borders of genre and gender through an impressive range of audiovisual work, poetry, queer YA and children’s literature, and an extensive career as a musician. I call Shraya’s first non-fiction book a manifesto—manus (hand)/infestus (hostile)—because Shraya affectively touches readers when she dissects the impact of multiple forms of violence on the bodies of racialized queer and trans subjects like hers. Shraya writes fiercely about her lived experience as a gay boy, a queer teen and a trans woman; about what it means to feel expendable and how this violence has materialized in her body, generating feelings of pain, fear and shame. The result is paradoxical: “My fear of men is a fuel that both protects my body, as a survival instinct, and erodes it….”
This tension, in my view, reflects the perverse logic of sexist and transphobic structures of power. At the same time, I’m Afraid of Men (which significantly includes an additional cover title that reads Men Are Afraid of Me) invites readers to interrogate our own complicity in these systems of power. As Shraya writes: “What if you were to challenge yourself every time you feel afraid of me—and all of us who are pushing against gendered expectations and restrictions?”
I’m Afraid of Men will help new generations of youth think carefully about gender and racial oppression, and how these exclusionary practices are entangled with other systems of discrimination. I work in a department of teacher education and particularly appreciate that the book comes with online guides. Apart from including a range of activities for the classroom, the guides raise complex questions such as “How does Shraya’s identity and experience as a trans girl provide additional insight into the manifestations of toxic masculinity in society? Why is it so difficult, for so many people, to confront their own prejudice in the absence of violence and suffering?” These are indispensable concerns for the general reader, and I especially encourage teachers in search of novel pedagogical tools to use I’m Afraid of Men as an ethical compass to transform, in Thom’s words, today’s culture of disposability into one of indispensability.
–Libe García Zarranz teaches English at Norway’s NTNU.