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Photo courtesy of Gwen Benaway.

Writers Fest: Gwen Benaway on decolonizing Canlit

By Lee Pepper on October 3, 2016

There’s a rich variety of writers in this country, of many backgrounds and interests, yet our view of whose stories are considered representative of “the Canadian experience” is still profoundly limited, and deeply shaped by Canada’s colonial history and present.

Toronto poet Gwen Benaway, who is two-spirited and is of Odawa/Potawatomi, Cherokee, European, and Métis descent, focuses in her writing on themes that include the work of surviving and resisting the ongoing trauma of colonization.

It’s a story that’s fundamental to what Canada is, but that is too often left out when we talk about Canadian literature, or about what it means to live on this land. As Benaway puts it,

I think “CanLit” is a cluster of bullshit which avoids the truth of Canada.

Her first collection of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead is available through Kegedonce Press.  A second collection, Passage, is due for publication this fall.

Gwen Benaway will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival for “Own Self Be True” alongside Vivek Shraya and Ivan Coyote, at 8:30pm on Sunday, October 23rd.

Apt613 interviewed Gwen Benaway by email. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Apt613: I’m so excited for the panel you are on with Vivek Shraya and Ivan Coyote, what a great lineup. Can you talk about these other two writers and your thoughts on their work?

Gwen Benaway: I am a big fan of Vivek Shraya’s work. I encountered her work when she invited me to read at the launch for her recent poetry collection, even this page is white, and I have become an advocate of her writing/music/art since then.

I feel she is creating space for important reflections on the intersections of race, gender, and power through her art.

As a female Indigenous artist, I love to see women from other experiences of colonization be successful and transcend binaries. There are so many intersections between South Asian and Indigenous women and our experiences of racism/state violence. Shraya’s work explores these intersections in very insightful ways.

Everything else aside, girl can throw down some mad literary/oratory skills. Her Instagram is always on point fierce!

I am less aware of Ivan Coyote’s work. I know of them and actually share some mutual friends, but I have not read any of their work previously.

That said, I know enough of them to know they are an important voice in the literary conversation on gender and I look forward to hearing more of their work.

When you published a poem on your blog recently about “gardens, mountains, grief, and winter”, you joked that it was “so Canlit” of you. Outside of these clichés, what does Canlit mean to you?

For me, the clichés of Canadian literature is all that Canadian literature means to me. Like Canada, Canadian literature is a social construction made up by the CBC and marketing firms.

I always encounter Canadian Literature in the context of it being used to sell a particular vision of Canada and its history, a cottage-lined Muskoka painting of a rough land with cold winters and unbalanced homesteaders.

So much of Indigenous and Queer (especially Trans) Canadian writing is erased out of the Canadian literature marketing narrative because it doesn’t align with the placid vision of who Canadians are.

The literature which does get included is often of a very limited perspective and confirms the notion of Canada as a distant colonial being, lumbering towards a utopia of socialism and cabins.

The reality of Canadian literature from an Indigenous and Queer perspective is literature which showcases Canada’s active racism and oppression. If we talk about cottages, it’s because wealthy white people own them and have pushed us out of our ancestral lands. If we talk about going camping, it’s normally about avoiding racist/transphobic violent attacks by the locals, so all that to say, I think “CanLit” is a cluster of bullshit which avoids the truth of Canada.

Disclaimer: I love Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Margaret Laurence, Lorna Crozier, and Al Purdy as much as anyone, but I also adore Lee Maracle, Shyam Selvadurai, Katherena Vermette, and Casey Plett! Those are the kind of “Canadian” writers & literature we need to champion, because they reflect the real “Canada” we live in.

You’ve written online about having mixed feelings about publishing personal writing, specifically about your transition. I love how you put it here:

“There is always a pull to witness in me. Words make sense of life, speaking protects against erasure, and silence is easy but not brave. I live my life on fire, burning up and burnt out. I don’t know how else to be.”
What are factors you weigh when you decide whether or not to write publicly about an aspect of your life?

When I began my transition, I quickly realized that privacy was one of the things you lose access to as a trans woman. I am always on display wherever I go and whoever I am with. The only time you are “private” as a trans woman is when you are alone.

Everyone stares at you. Your body and clothing are commented on by strangers, friends, lovers, etc. Everyone has a stake in your person and passes judgement on you, positive or negative.

Your body is a topic of public consumption. It’s political. Guys who hit on you ask if your genitals still work. Friends ask if you are going to go “all the ways”. Close friends tell you they don’t support you taking “hormones’. Some people stop talking to you altogether. Whatever the question or the reaction, you will never be read as “neutral” or “human.”

So as much as I worry about being public with my writing, there really isn’t a sense of privacy in any part of my life. You live on camera as a trans woman.

You become a dehumanized, desexualized to some and hypersexualized to others, an icon of gender whether you want to be one or not. At least with my writing, I have agency and I’m structuring the narrative.

So I err on the side of disclosure. I write as honestly and openly as possible. I’m a confessional poet. I live for truth. It’s a painful but meaningful way to live.

At the end of day, I know where I stand, and fear (inasmuch as possible) doesn’t sit between me and the world.

Your bio mentions that you’re working on a young adult novel about a teenaged gay Aboriginal werewolf with Asperger’s Syndrome. This sounds amazing! Could you talk about how the idea for this story came to be?

I’ve been writing this novel for seven years! Will it ever be finished? I don’t know. I hope so.

I wanted to write YA fantasy literature which spoke to me as an Indigenous Queer person and championed unlikely heroes. I’ve also dated several guys who were somewhere on the “spectrum” and it made sense for me to have an Indigenous male character who was into science/math and not neurotypical. I think we need more Indigenous characters who break conventions of what it is to be Indigenous.

What have you read lately that you’ve been especially excited about?

The Break, by Katherena Vermette, is amazing. Buy it today! It’s the most beautiful story by an Indigenous writer I’ve read. It tells you what it is to be an Indigenous woman in such a heartrending way.

Small Beauty, by Jia Qing Yang-Wilson, is also incredible. First time, small Ontario novel about coming home and reconnecting with a Trans lead who is unconventional and brilliant. Can’t say enough positive things about this book.

See Gwen Benaway at the Ottawa Writers Festival for “Own Self Be True“, at 8:30pm on Sunday, October 23rd. For more on Benaway’s work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.