When she did leave, and a second head appeared on his shoulder, he tried to conjure her love. She loves you, she loves you, she loves you, he said to the head. It refused to disappear.
Why isn’t this working? She loves you, she loves you, she loves you, his original head kept telling the other, his voice increasing in volume, thinking perhaps the new head’s ears could not hear very well.
You’re wasting your breath, the new head replied. And it was right. Her love did seem to have limitations. Its effects were temporary, and he desired a more permanent solution.
But she loves you, he cried. She loves you, she loves you… I love you, he accidentally blurted.
No you don’t, the other head responded. It was right again.
She of the Mountains tells two stories partially in concert with one another: The first is a retelling/reimagining of the Hindu myth of creation, focusing on the relationship between the mother of the universe Parvati, the Lord of Destruction Shiv (Shiva), and Parvati’s son Ganesh, who is beheaded by Shiv before having his head replaced with that of an elephant demon’s; the second narrative details the sexual evolution of a young boy and the girl he loves, despite the voices in his head and those surrounding him from all sides and shouting at him, telling him in no uncertain terms just how gay (and in denial) he really is. Tying these two narratives together, beyond slight repeating themes and ideas, are occasional sparse illustrations used to blur the line between the two realities.
At its core, Vivek Shraya’s unique twin narrative appears to be about embodiment and dysmorphia—and not just dysmorphia in the physical sense so commonly attributed to those suffering eating disorders (although there is an element of that within the text), but dysmorphia tied to the perception of others who see the main character’s expected black-or-white sexuality as a badge or label that quite literally transforms his appearance—or should.
The novella is similar in detached tone to that of a fable. The non-mythological characters are only “he” and “she,” a collection of experiences and physical attributes woven together but never quite achieving genuine depth or dimension. The story follows the pair from Edmonton to Toronto, offering small pieces of information here and there regarding who they are and the worlds they’ve come from without ever really giving them concrete identities the reader can latch onto.
What is made clear from the beginning is that “he” is representative of both the “other” and the opposition to what the “other” represents—the hard lines dividing one lifestyle from another. “He” is:
“… in a brown category that was generally frowned upon by other brown people, especially other brown parents: Alternative brown. This meant he wore vintage clothing, had his ears pierced, had blond streaks, and hung out with non-browns.”
Additionally, his sexuality is questioned by others before he can begin to address it himself—the words “you’re gay” are flung at him first as something to be ashamed of, and later as something to define his passions (which when tied to the phrase’s initial intentions—shame—cloak his desire beneath a veil of unease).
Taking this detachment from self a step further is the character of The Only Other Gay, whom the main character meets while still living in Edmonton, just as he is beginning to accept himself as both being gay but also loving and finding himself attracted to his dearest friend, the “she” of the tale. Through The Only Other Gay, the protagonist sees with greater clarity the hard line that exists for many between gay and straight, and how little it differs from the hard lines so frequently drawn between people of different races and socioeconomic classes: He wonders if in fact he is bisexual due to the conflict between his nature and his heart’s own desires. Even among those expected to want to include him, the protagonist is still the “other” in his refusal (or inability) to fit comfortably beneath just one banner.
I found the novella strongest near the end, in the third part, as the protagonist, deep in the throes of self-doubt and/or self-hatred, begins to psychologically unravel. He imagines himself with extra limbs, extra fingers, a tail—all manifestations of his struggles with accepting himself as someone hovering between several worlds without something to keep him grounded. That something, in this case, being first her pronouncement of love for him, and second, his reciprocation (given unexpectedly). This felt like the payoff for the slight anxiety-based dysmorphia that had been alluded to throughout the novella.
Overall I enjoyed She of the Mountains, but I wasn’t as moved by it as I’d hoped to be, based on its enticing premise. Additionally the images, while lovely, did not feel particularly essential to the narrative, or even to its presentation. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy looking at them—they’re lovingly executed—only that had they been removed, I don’t feel as if my reading of the text would have suffered in any way. However, Shraya’s novella is still an interesting, wholly unique read, one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. I just wish I were feeling a little more “full” from the experience.