The Chat with Governor General's Literary Award Winner Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway_Author Photo_Credit

Next up in our special 2019 Governor General’s Award edition of The Chat is our conversation with Gwen Benaway. Her collection Holy Wild won this year’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry.

According to the jury, "These confessional yet sometimes difficult poems about the Indigenous trans body are lyrical, rhythmic and fierce. It was an extraordinary experience reading this burning, honest manifesto. In her poem 'A Love Letter for Trans Girls,' Benaway says, ‘welcome to the first day of forever… you are enough.'"

Gwen Benaway is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She is the author of previous poetry collections Ceremonies for the Dead and Passage. Holy Wild was also named a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry, and the Publishing Triangle Award for Trans and Gender-Variant Literature, and longlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Benaway is also the editor of an anthology of fantasy short stories titled Maiden Mother and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes. She has been a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ writers from the Writers' Trust of Canada, and her personal essay, "A Body Like A Home," was the Gold Prize Winner for the National Magazine Awards in Personal Journalism. day/break, her fourth book of poetry, is forthcoming from Book*hug in Spring 2020. She is also currently editing a book of creative non-fiction, trans girl in love. She lives in Toronto and is a PhD student at the University of Toronto in the Women and Gender Studies Institute.

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THE CHAT WITH GWEN BENAWAY

The poems in Holy Wild explore the complexities of being an Indigenous trans woman. For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe the collection?

Holy Wild is a refusal of meaning. I write about my life and experiences to question what it means to be a trans woman in the world. I explore sexual violence and assault in the context of my past relationship with a cis man, narrating what it means to face intimate violence. There is no one trans Indigenous woman experience and this book is not meant to representative of our collective experiences, but a very personal and intimate journey through the first year of my transition.

What does winning a Governor General’s Award mean to you at this particular point in your career?

Being the first trans woman to win the Governor General’s award for poetry is a strange experience. When the news was announced, I was leading a protest at the Toronto Public Library over their decision to host a transphobic speaker who was advocating against my existence and access to public life. I was kettled in the library by the Toronto Police during the protest, a strange moment where I was being “celebrated” for my artistic achievement while being forcibly dehumanized as a trans woman by several institutions. For me, winning the award means a chance for a slightly better life and keeps me from being homeless for a while longer.

How important is your win for increasing the visibility of trans writers in Canada and beyond?

I don’t think representation is a good project for subverting oppression. Representation often means tokenization or the oppressors choosing one person to represent their entire community. I can only speak for myself and my experience which may reflect other trans women’s lives, but I can’t be a representative of anything larger than myself. Winning an award may help an individual, but there are much more powerful community-based gestures to focus on, like mentorship, peer support, and building community resilience.

Are their poets or artists with whom you feel a particular kinship or allegiance, who have moved and inspired your work?

I feel a lot of love and closeness to other Indigenous trans women who are writing, like Arielle Twist and Jaye Simpson. Billy Ray Belcourt, Joshua Whitehead, Kai Cheng Thom, Alicia Elliot, Whitney French, Canisia Lubrin, Natalie Wee, Casey Plett, Trish Salah, and Jia Qing Wilson Yang (and many others) have always been my greatest inspirations and supports. Katerina Vermette, the editor on my second collection of poetry and a great mentor of mine, is someone who I have always looked up to as a poet and writer.

49thShelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

All of the writers I just listed! I think folks should look to Arielle Twist and Jaye Simpson. They are going to do extraordinary things and should be supported as they develop as artists. There’s so many incredible BIPOC writers and trans/queer writers that folks should be reading right now.

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HOLY WILD

my gookum said only
the wild ones are holy.

bush in northern Michigan
is the ancestral field of my body,

a girl who tastes of summer ragweed
in the high heat of noon.

my body grows by night in secret,
wet with yearling dew.

breasts and hips spread
like bushfires in a dry season,

skin pale as moonlight at dawn,
soft as a muskrat’s pelt skinned in March.

my mouth is a damselfly’s wings,
iridescent breath on your sex.

my hips hold a cock the colour
of crushed blueberries, bittersweet purple.

my breasts dart from your hands
like minnows, chase deeper water.

my gookum said a woman moves
like the sway of cattails in a June wind.

I lean to you like an otter dives, slick
and glistening against your chest.

underneath the cedar of my thighs,
past the birch tree of my spine

is an opening, a rattlesnake den,
when you press your body in me,

the sound I make is a blackbird’s cry.
here is the wild heart of me,

rush of heat on your fullness,
this is the holy wild she made me.

a woman’s sex is as sacred as her land,
my ancestors learned from creation,

a woman is as holy wild as
her body’s made to be.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

November 11, 2019
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