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She of the Mountains

by Vivek Shraya; Raymond Biesinger (illus.)

In She of the Mountains, Lambda Literary Award finalist Vivek Shraya seamlessly blends a lyrical interpretation of Hindu mythology with a contemporary coming-of-age tale. Using an intimate memoir style, Shraya tells the story of a young boy who struggles with both his conflicted sexual feelings and the external policing of his sexuality as he grows to adulthood.

She of the Mountains (Vivek Shraya)Studded with abstract illustrations by Raymond Biesinger, Shraya’s book is accessible, yet complex. The author employs fun, familiar pop-culture references and casual language, paradoxically giving his modern narrative the same weight as the myths that accompany it. The combination of the two milieus, though initially surprising, never feels forced: one instructs and reinforces the other.

Shraya reveals himself to be adept at experimenting with literary form without alienating his audience. The story is innovative and refreshing, as one might expect from an author who has also worked in music, performance, and film. He enthusiastically breaks free from typical structure and embraces the varied possibilities of the written word. This disposing of rules is not done for the sake of ego, but rather out of storytelling necessity – sexuality is not simple and straightforward, nor should the telling of it be.

Ultimately, the book is preoccupied with big, hard, human truths. It tackles, with humour and affection, vast topics such as youthful insecurity, the ever-changing nature of desire, and the complexity of the self. “After years of hiding and being unseen, her touch was a deep thawing, a permission to feel, a memory of heat lost long ago.” It is with lines like these that sex and sexual identity are honoured appropriately. They are not presented as a lazy source of titillation, but as tender, emotionally revealing acts of humanity, with which almost any reader can identify.

In a largely homogenous (white, straight) literary culture, books like Shraya’s are a blessing. There is the sense that what he achieves with She of the Mountains is so new, we don’t have the proper language to articulate its success. The ultimate hope is that this work will pave the way for more of its ilk, and provide this country and culture with a robust look at identity and its inherent fluidity.