Book Bitches
3 min

Climb every mountain

Vivek Shraya’s first novel is a beauty, inside and out

Vivek Shraya’s She of the Mountains is a tender and complicated exploration of love between a boy and a girl.  Credit: Zachary Ayotte

With his first novel, author and musician Vivek Shraya has achieved something remarkable: a queer love story where the reader desperately hopes its gay male main character will settle down with a nice girl. That’s a bit glib, of course — Shraya’s story is far more complex than that (we haven’t even mentioned the Hindu gods yet) — but his tender exploration of love between boy and girl is the beating heart of She of the Mountains that’s beautifully told and brilliantly illustrated.

“I knew the only way this book is going to work is if people fall in love with the characters,” he says. “If the reader doesn’t fall in love with the love story, then it doesn’t succeed.”

He needn’t worry. His bisexual love story is both celebratory and subversive, as it continually challenges the expectations of its characters and readers alike. Will Shraya’s unnamed protagonist get the girl? Or run off with the boys? And why are we so invested in whichever “side” he chooses?

“There’s many challenges in writing a bi/queer love story, but that in particular was big,” he says. “If they don’t stay together, it’s like, ‘Yes! We knew he was gay all along and he’s finally come to his senses!’ But if they do stay together, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s just in the closet.’ You kind of lose either way. The whole point of the book is to challenge that biphobia that I’ve experienced.”

As with Shraya’s acclaimed 2011 story collection God Loves Hair, about a sensitive Indo-Canadian boy exploring his own tangled sexual and gender identity, much of She of the Mountains is drawn from Shraya’s own experience, but the author stresses that his latest work is neither a sequel nor a diary.

“I definitely didn’t want it to read like a sequel,” he says. “Though I certainly see how that’s possible, especially in the timespan, as God Loves Hair ends during adolescence and this picks up afterward.” There’s a sequence in the book where the unnamed protagonist lists the reasons he’s probably gay (including hair treatments and Tori Amos), and I tease the author that it sounds a lot like him.

“Fucking Tori Amos gave it away!” he laughs but maintains, “if I was going to write just what happened to me, it would only take a week. She of the Mountains is very much based on my experience, but it’s also probably the project in my body of work that I’ve worked on the longest. Originally, the idea was to write a contemporary queer/bi love story, but I couldn’t do that without a) talking about my relationship to hate and b) talking about my relationship to my self, during which themes of body came up a lot. It made me think about Hindu mythology because in Hindu mythology, deities are constantly changing shapes. It seemed like an interesting counterpoint to these themes of not only love, but also embodiment and how these gods navigate that.”

Shraya’s simple and affecting love story succeeds on its own but is brilliantly entwined with this fresh take on Hindu myth, its fascinating gods and monsters brought to vivid life. The author says this was originally just a short section, but during the first round of feedback, everyone who read his initial draft wanted more, delighting in moments where his love story is touched by the divine.

“I didn’t want the narratives to touch all the time, but I liked these moments where they met,” he says. The Hindu tales that enrich his story are further enhanced by the engaging illustrations of Raymond Biesinger, a Montreal-based illustrator whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Walrus.

“Originally, I didn’t want there to be any illustrations,” Shraya says. “I wanted to do everything possible for the new book not to be like God Loves Hair. I didn’t want to repeat myself in any way.” As his Hindu themes developed, however, he realized that “Hindu mythology in general has a huge history of being told through images, and when you work on something long enough, you become less attached to random limitations. After two years, I wanted to do what was best for the book.”

Shraya loved collaborating with Biesinger on the striking images. “We ended up bonding over the fact that we’re both from Edmonton,” he says, loving Biesinger’s additions. “I originally just wanted mythological pictures, but in the first round of roughs, he included the ‘duelling dicks,’ as we call them, and I remember seeing how contemporary images could balance that.”

The result is a rare novel that’s visually appealing and lyrically written while tackling big themes of identity, sexual politics, race, religion, body issues and the ideal of love without labels.

“I know it sounds very cliché and maybe a little bit hippie, but I feel people should be allowed to explore,” Shraya says. “Imagine if people had the freedom that we’ve all said we’ve been fighting for, the freedom to express our desires and attractions without anyone policing them — including ourselves!”