How to Value Artists and People in the Pandemic

Reviewed by Irene Gammel and Jason Wang

“Had I done the lockdown wrong?” asks Edmonton-born writer, musician, and playwright Vivek Shraya in this 64-page book exploring her confounding pandemic experiences and shifting selves (3). The first lockdown from March to June 2020 confronts Shraya with sudden restrictions and claustrophobia, along with the disorientation of seemingly unlimited time at home, which nonetheless does little to fuel her creativity. In the book’s opening scene, her massage therapist’s optimism (indeed his joy about having had more time for drinking coffee, reading, and riding a bike) collides with her own anxiety-ridden response, what she describes as an “ordeal of struggling to do my job (which requires me to be creative), binge watching TV, and worrying incessantly about loved ones, the world, and the future” (3). Unable to look forward to the future with optimism, her creative method is to look “backward critically, wondering what I would do differently if I had to live 2020 all over again, the pandemic over again” (6).


Shraya, who is best known for writing about her transgender identity in I Am Afraid of Men (2018) and People Change (2022), uses the same blunt honesty found in these previous books to articulate the shock and uncertainty of navigating Covid-19. Adapted from her 2021 Kreisel Lecture Series, which was livestreamed on March 29, 2021, at the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta, the book’s five manifesto-like sections and titles call for action: (1) “Stay Caring,” 2) “Skip the Gratitude and Say What You Feel,” 3) “Nothing Is Better Than Something,” 4) “Value Artists,” and 5) “Less Surveillance, Less Judgment, More Grace.” Given the diverse themes and implied arguments of the titles, it comes as no surprise that most of Shraya’s reflections are essays, a genre whose etymological root, essayer, or to test, fuels her approach in the manner first popularized by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.


Indeed, these essays test a variety of ideas and genres including memoir writing (taking a first-person retrospective approach); trans writing (infusing her essay with a gender-non-conforming perspective); autotheory (mixing personal experiences with theoretical reflections about language, politics, and economics), and Covid-19 witnessing (detailing the surveillance put into place by local and national governments). Just as for Montaigne the essay was a vehicle for the articulation of pain and suffering, for Shraya, the construction of her precariously shifting body/self is prominent, as she depicts her reality of chronic physical pain (13), compounded by the mental pain resulting from the loss of physical proximity with family and friends (15). Where Montaigne focused on compassion, Shraya focuses on the need for a rhetoric of care, as she describes coping with the pandemic by using “daily heart emojis to communicate caring and as ‘proof of life’” (9). In these deeply personal and embodied reflections, Shraya offers a cultural critique on care, emotion, and labour for a time of crisis.


Thus, each section calls for action. For instance, “Stay Caring” asks for the abolishment of slogan-like rhetoric; instead of telling each other to “take care,” she argues for a collective care that emphasizes kindness (9). Shraya’s reflections recognize not only the unequal consequences of the pandemic but also the conceptual vicissitudes of identities (and identifications) that are altered, challenged, and reenforced by the pandemic. She suggests tackling emotional isolation by encouraging an everyday practice of affect exchange. Through her own story, Shraya demonstrates that, while emotions are subjective, they nevertheless have important tangible and public dimensions, especially during a time of crisis. In other words, solidarity should always contain the practice of love for others, as well as an understanding of injustice as being at odds with practices of love.


As a valuable first person response to the Covid-19 pandemic, these essays are at their most compelling when Shraya explores the pandemic experience across the identity boundaries of race, gender, and class in relation to the labour of being an artist whose work was deemed nonessential during the lockdown. Her chapter “Value Artists” offers intimate insight into the pragmatics of the artist’s professional life during the pandemic including the economic impact of the cancellation of book tours and the technological difficulties in rendering events online (19). She writes: “So next time there’s a pandemic, let’s remember that a virus doesn’t diminish the value of artists’ labour or art itself. Artists might not be essential workers, but art is essential” (26). Shraya avoids grand theories in favour of tactical critiques related to the embodied experience of a queer, POC artist, reminding readers that even though she is enjoying privilege as a university professor, “as a trans, feminine, queer, brown person, regardless of whether there is a global crisis, I can’t control how others react to me” (8). In this context, the pandemic motto of keeping six feet apart gives an added intersectional poignancy to her recollection that pre-pandemic she kept a safe distance when walking on the sidewalk or the road, often afraid of transphobic aggression against her.


The book’s afterword, consisting of a conversation between Shraya and writer J. R. Carpenter, who moderated the lecture, deepens Shraya’s call for a collective future in which an ethics of care is valued along with multimodal art making. This book directs readers to Shraya’s multimedia presentation of the lecture, whose recording is available on the YouTube channel of the Canadian Literature Centre, with Shraya bridging music, performance, visual art, and literature.


In the end, Shraya’s writing constitutes an act of creative resilience in the face of the difficulties and pain wrought by the pandemic. This book is a boon for all of Shraya’s fans as well as those looking for a perspective of care and empathy in the face of crisis. Besides her belief in the transformative power of writing, creating, performing, and exchanging, the ultimate values underpinning her book lie in “Showing Up,” as the title and lyrics of her song sum it up: “You got to keep showing up—that’s the work / I got to keep showing / so with every note I sing, I am showing up / And it’s everything that I keep on showing up” (33-34).

This review “How to Value Artists and People in the Pandemic” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 21 Aug. 2023. Web.

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