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Vivek Shraya lands her new academic gig with a Whitney Houston song

With her move to the University of Calgary in December, the multidisciplinary artist adds “tenure-track professor” to her feats.

By SORAYA ROBERTS | JAN 05 2018

Vivek Shraya may be the first faculty member at the University of Calgary to get in with a Whitney Houston cover. At the end of a three-month interview process for a tenure-track job as assistant professor in creative writing, the Alberta-born multidisciplinary artist faced a faculty-wide presentation for which she had no idea what to prepare. Should she quote theorists? Judith Butler, maybe? A friend in academia gave her one piece of advice: stay in your lane. So, Miss Shraya opened by singing Houston’s version of the ballad “I Will Always Love You,” presented a poem from her collection, even this page is white, and read from her children’s book, The Boy & the Bindi. “At the end of the day,” she says, “that’s who they hired.”

Vivek Shraya. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth.

That’s who they wanted. The head of U of C’s English department, Jacqueline Jenkins, says Miss Shraya’s eclecticism was her principal appeal. “In particular, her specialization in children’s and young adult literature was a huge attraction for us, as well as her ability to write across a number of genres,” Dr. Jenkins says. Miss Shraya is one of those indefatigably prolific artists who never seems to sleep. She is half of the band Too Attached and released the album Part-Time Woman with the Queer Songbook Orchestra last summer. She’s also behind five short films and a handful of visual arts projects, and has published five books – a novel, a children’s book, an essay collection, a short story collection and a poetry collection – in as many years. Her next book, the non-fiction title I’m Afraid of Men, will be published by Penguin next fall. Last summer, she even launched an imprint with Arsenal Pulp Press, Vs. Books, which includes a mentorship and publishing contract for young Canadian writers of colour. (On the question of sleep, she assures me that she does, and that it’s anxiety that tells her she “must keep working, must keep doing, must keep producing. Must keep.”)

Serendipity led to Miss Shraya applying at U of C. English professor Derritt Mason had invited her to his class — he was teaching one of her books – and mentioned the school was hiring. Miss Shraya had just completed a master’s at in gender and feminist studies at Toronto’s York University precisely to take advantage of opportunities like this. And yet, “I didn’t really think I had a chance in hell,” she says.

Miss Shraya says she’s thankful to the academics who support her work by teaching her books and sees her new position as a chance to extend that favour to other marginalized artists. “I have a not-so-secret agenda of amplifying the works of racialized writers,” she says. “That would be my agenda in all of my classes, how to introduce as many underrepresented voices as possible.”

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  1. Fawzia Afzal-Khan / January 6, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    What a wonderful and inspiring story! U of C should be applauded for doing something out of the box in hiring and Shraya—not only because she herself doesn’t fit any narrow academic boxes, but because she inhabits a progressive, even radical racialized body, and makes no bones about following her progressive agenda in terms of bringing in more voices of artists of color into the academy.
    In times like these when this past year has seen progressive faculty of color marginalized and even fired or forced to resign for their views by their university admins who ought to be protecting and standing by them instead of caving to right wing forces out to get these professors removed—- well, U of C’s actions speak highly of it’s srnior administrators vision. Good job!

    • Israel L. / January 13, 2018 at 9:39 am

      “In times like these when this past year has seen progressive faculty of color marginalized and even fired or forced to resign for their views…”

      Really? In my experience, anyone without left-leaning views is ostracised in Canadian academia.

  2. Gregor / January 7, 2018 at 9:18 pm

    Tenure-track prof without a PhD? Sounds political.

    • Lisa Henderson / January 11, 2018 at 1:11 pm

      An MA or MFA would be pretty standard in studio or creative writing appointments (and a PHD in literary studies).

  3. Student / January 8, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    Actually about to enter her class in 10 minutes. interested to see how this goes

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