I reviewed Gwen Benaway’s poetry collection Passage, which was published recently in Arc Poetry Magazine’s Canada 150 Reconciliation issue. The review started with a reference to Neal McLeod’s book, Indigenous Poetics in Canada. After the publication of the issue, I posted a photo of the review on Twitter. The photo led to a Twitter conversation with Gwen where she informed me of the problem that lay in invoking McLeod in a review of her work, given his history of domestic abuse of Indigenous women. The news of his abuse had broken publicly a few days before I posted the photo on Twitter, while it had been common knowledge within the Indigenous community. While I acknowledged the news as something recent and something that I had been unaware of, I also began to defend the review itself. Instead of being a productive conversation, the conversation became a disagreement. Doyali Islam, the reviews editor for that particular issue, stepped into the conversation, but the conversation ended without any resolution
The next day, after I had a chance to reflect on the Twitter interaction and the actual issues raised by Benaway, I reached out to her via email with an apology. Over email, we were able to unpack the problems raised by the presence of McLeod’s name in the review. The following interview rose out of that initial email conversation. Benaway and I met in downtown St. Catharines during Queer Canada, and over lunch, unpacked some vital issues plaguing CanLit in relation to Indigeneity, today. – Sanchari Sur
Sanchari Sur: I was going to start with our online interaction and your reaction to the review. I want to contextualize the interview within that conversation and move forward from there. You can start by addressing how my use of McLeod’s name, as well as my ignorance about McLeod, was problematic, and why that affected you.
Gwen Benaway: I reacted to the presence of Neal McLeod’s name in a review of my work because my work is situated in femininity, and situated in a response to forms of violence against female bodies, that having the name and intellectual and literary work of an abuser referenced in the context of my work felt like a kind of violence again against my work. My personal links to both Neal and the women that he impacted, which extends on multiple levels for me, was something that forced me I guess, in the context of seeing his work in the review, to have to reengage those kinds of narratives and memories that I have. It felt like a kind of a specific violence that emerged from a lack of knowledge around Indigenous peoples and community. [Within Indigenous community,] Neal’s relationship to women had been known for a very long time and was openly talked and spoken about, and the challenges and issues around his work as well as his own relationship were well known. Most of us had started to avoid and dissociate ourselves and our work from Neal’s work as a response to that.
I think a member of the Indigenous community would have had that knowledge, would have come in with that awareness, and that understanding. It’s not a critique of you or your own positionality within that, but it’s epidemic of the ways that Indigenous work is often taken up by non-Indigenous audiences in ways that don’t understand the context that the work is emerging out of, and can’t truly appreciate or understand the intersections that are happening. And often without meaning to, render that work or interpret that work only in relation to [themselves], and can’t actually hold the work in its wholeness, and that is kind of a frustration.
For me, having [one’s] poetry collection reviewed in Arc, as Canada’s premier poetry magazine has a kind of prestige in association to it, and is something that I wanted having been a reader of Arc for a long time, and when it happened, it happened in this context where – the review itself was fine – but [has] this predatory male presence sitting at the front, overshadowing everything. But also, my own need to then have to engage, and say, ‘But I don’t support Neal, but I stand with survivors, but my work is not reflective of Neal or his politics around Indigenous poetry but in fact in opposition to [it]’.
SS: [Arc had] an Indigenous guest editor for that specific issue [and] I wonder if it had been somebody who was not a male Indigenous editor, would [they] have caught this?
GB: I think that would have produced a change. I think older male Indigenous writers, particularly older male celebrated Indigenous writers, are often implicated in some of the kinds of gendered violence which have happened in our communities, and within the Indigenous literary community. But I think that there is also a certain sensitivity to Indigenous female writers and work, which we have developed with each other and through each other as Indigenous women writing, that doesn’t translate into Indigenous masculinity. And, an Indigenous woman of my generation connected to me in peership, I think it would have been different.
Ultimately, the role of an editor is a complex one. It falls a lot on who is doing the review, who is editing that review, and who is placing that review. So, there’s layers of accountability within that, and also layers of community access and knowledge. So, I don’t know if having an overall issue editor who was female Indigenous would have produced systemic change.
SS: Do you think that non-Indigenous writers should not at all attempt to review or – I mean, it would be problematic to say “engage” because if you are not engaging with the work, then what is the point. We should be engaging with the work to some extent.
GB: I mean, I think it’s important for non-Indigenous folks to engage with [our] work. I also think it’s fine for non-Indigenous folks to review [our] work. But I know in my own writing practice, when I do reviews of works that emerge from communities that I don’t know and am not a part of, I reach out to members of that community, either to the individuals themselves or people who exist within my social network, who can let me know if I have missed something or if I am presenting that community in a way that’s wrong, or if I am missing the point, or if I am interpreting something from that text that I am seeing through my particular lens which doesn’t reflect how it would show up within the community.
I think the work of being a good ethical reader and writer is addressing and seeing your own positionality, and trying as much as you can to reflect the positions of the community that you are speaking about. It may not always be perfect; in fact, it can’t be perfect. But I think it’s good that you show efforts of good faith and try to negotiate that process a little bit.
SS: What I am hearing from you is this idea of listening, and to listen better, and to listen responsibly. Is there any other way that the non-Indigenous community could listen to Indigenous writers?
GB: I think it’s good to engage Indigenous works, to listen to Indigenous people on social media and other platforms, to engage in those conversations. And, I think it is good to develop personal relationships. I think decolonization and the process of reconciliation occurs in the intimate relational space between people. As much as possible, I encourage non-Indigenous people to try and enter reciprocal relationships with Indigenous writers and Indigenous people that allow them to have some of those nuanced conversations.
But I also wonder, when the news of Neal broke, when it became public knowledge, before the [Arc] print publication – a helpful strategy would have been to reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, I referenced Neal in this work and now I am aware of this other stuff, I am sorry about that.’ That simple relational gesture, I think, is reconciliatory. That kind of reparative work within a writing community, I think, goes a long way to build those kinds of relationship networks.
SS: You are right. I should have done that instead of being defensive about it, and trying to defend so hard on Twitter, which is why I reached out to you. I am glad we are having this conversation. Obviously, I don’t want to repeat something like that in the future, and nor would I want somebody else in my position, perhaps another person of colour, who is not aware of the nuances, who has a difficult subject position themselves, [to repeat the same mistakes]. But I think by shutting down the Indigenous community, instead of engaging – therein lies a problem, therein lies the replication of exactly the kinds of systems we are trying to fight. We don’t want to be on opposite sides. We want to be on the same side.
GB: And I think that’s a conversation to have around communities of colour and Indigenous people. I think it’s very hard for communities of colour to hear critiques around Indigeneity. I see a lot of defensiveness and anger and fragility, to be honest, emerge in those conversations. And, I think it’s useful for communities of colour to understand that spurring up with Indigenous communities doesn’t mean you are racist. It doesn’t discount your own experiences of racial oppression, and the knowledge you bring from your community and your specific colonial oppressions.
But it’s important to not conflate that critique from Indigenous people with yourself. And I think that there is a tremendous amount of fragility built into being a racialized body in the world. We are constantly under attack, we are constantly proving ourselves. So, I think that when you get a critique from an Indigenous person, it is easy to be really wounded by that. But I think you have to fight through that woundedness to be able to say, ‘Wait, did I get this wrong? Maybe I did get this wrong. And, how do we work through this?’
SS: I think a part of the problem lies in the kind of privilege that is held by those who are not – say, for me, as a non-Indigenous person, I have a certain amount of privilege. I am also in academia, which adds more privilege to my position – so, there is a comfort in that privilege, a comfort in having that position of privilege, and not engaging with those who are in more oppressed positions. I think a lot of people don’t want to give up that privilege. In communities of colour – like you said, we are already under attack – we are trying so hard to protect what we have, that we forget that we might be harming other communities, unknowingly.
GB: Yeah, and I think Indigeneity is one of those really complicated and nuanced things that functions often like race. But it’s different from race in a way that it presents itself in Canadian society, and that tension is a very complicated one. I think, there isn’t a lot of conversation visible between communities of colour and Indigenous communities, about ‘how do we participate in each other’s oppressions? How do we alter that? How do we build alliances that are meaningful?’
And, Indigenous people are often reduced to figurative representations. I have used this line before, we are the ghosts of Canada, and we often get reanimated by communities of colour and held up as performative land acknowledgements, but not have any actual relationship to Indigenous people in their life. I think there is a very complex and nuanced conversation that really needs to happen around ‘what is the relationship of communities of colour to Indigenous people in Canada, now and historically? And, how do we narrate those histories and realities, and build something from that?,’ where we are not just reacting to whiteness, but we are reacting to each other.
SS: And, that kind of segues into a conversation about social media, as it was social media that started this conversation in the first place. At IFOA, you mentioned that social media is a space where Indigenous people come together, exchange ideas, and create community. How do you think social media has been instrumental in your own visibility?
GB: Social media is really valuable for Indigenous people, and Native Twitter has proved itself to be a very powerful force, both for the critique and accountability in Canadian politics. What I see is Indigenous people who are coming from different nations, and landscapes, and geopolitical positions, intersecting through Twitter, and having a national dialogue around Indigeneity. And through that space [of social media], we find a lot of empowerment. And that’s why we default to it. And that’s why it’s a space where we are able to create in one of the few ways that almost never happens in Canada. Like, literally, a multi-nation Indigenous space where we are all there, speaking, interacting, and talking. And through Twitter, because of its ability to ‘mute,’ it can actually be a space where it’s just us.
We support each other, we jump into conversations, we retweet each other. We are able to engage in community building in community solidarity, which we don’t get to do anywhere else. It is a really valuable space for me, and I think it’s our default way of communicating.
I kept getting feedback from you and the Arc [reviews] editor [for that issue] that Twitter is not the best place to have conversations. I found that really interesting because for us, as Native people, Twitter is the best place to have conversations. And for me, as a trans woman, it’s a protected space, because I have control and access and agency around what I say and what is said to me, whereas, I don’t have that in interpersonal interactions. In some ways, I want to problematize that idea that social media is somehow reductionist and limiting in conversations. I think [social media] actually opens up a lot of space and safety which Indigenous people, or trans people, don’t actually have in everyday life.
SS: That’s interesting, because for somebody like me, I am the kind of person who is not very good at having conversations on the go. I mean, person-to-person, it’s different because there are other cues happening, but something like Twitter is like texting. It’s hard for me to convey tone, for example, or to convey where I stand. Sometimes, I assume the other person will understand what I am saying, but some things get lost in translation. And that’s why I said, let’s have a longer conversation, which email allowed me. I could sit down, get my thoughts together. But I understand what you are saying. [Social media] doesn’t have to work like the same kind of space for everybody.
GB: And it also builds in accountability. If you say something [racist or transphobic] on Twitter, there is a built in accountability around it. So, it creates a protection. For me, violence which is brought to bear on me or my body as a trans or an Indigenous subject, there is a record, and a way to speak back to it. For other forms of communication, I worry if that record exists, if there is a way to actually feel safe in having those conversations around Indigeneity.
SS: I agree, but I have also heard this critique from other people, that Twitter is a space, or social media in general is a space, where people in CanLit who are very vocal are performing by being reactive. Do you want to speak to that kind of a critique?
GB: I think that critique misses the point. Because we are social beings, we exist in social spaces. So, every act is performative, whether that’s in conversation, or via email, or in relational spaces. Sure, you can make the critique that there is a kind of activist and social performativity happening in CanLit spaces. I feel that is absolutely true, and probably doesn’t reflect a genuine engagement with important issues. But I would question that and say that you can actually ascertain if those vocal people being critiqued are actually “performing” that kind of performance. They might actually be honestly engaging – like in my case – with issues in a venue and format that’s safe for them.
Sure, everyone is performing and you can say some performances are problematic cause of the way they are situated or who their intended audience is, but I think you can make that critique in any space.
SS: At your Queer Canada keynote yesterday, you talked about the precarious position of being both Indigenous and queer. Have you ever considered the “precarious position” perhaps as a space of resistance? [Here, I specifically refer to Sara Ahmed and her mobilizing space of unhappiness as a space of empowerment for feminist killjoys]. Is it possible for this unhappy precarious place to be something else?
GB: I understand [Sara Ahmed’s position] but I return to the notion of Indigenous wholeness, where I don’t want our happiness to be complicated. [Laughs]. I want our happiness to be straightforward. What does Native joy look like? What does Indigenous joy look like? And, can we return to that? And, can we return to the conversation about how we hold each other, and stand within ourselves as Indigenous people without having to negotiate or mediate ourselves through the history of violence against our bodies? How do we reconnect and reanimate ourselves without having to rely on outside forces? That kind of emotional, spiritual sovereignty is what, I think, our ancestors envisioned, and what I understand of Anishinaabe world view, and what our inheritance is. And, I want to see a return to that, to not a complicated happiness, but to an uncomplicated joy. It may not be possible but I think we must strive towards [it]. And that means to me, rejecting things like queerness, which to me, as you have articulated, will always be a complicated happiness.
SS: At the Bechdel Tested Panel at IFOA, you mentioned that as an Indigenous person, you don’t see yourself as a part of Canada. But at the same time, your works exists within what is known as CanLit or Canadian literature. So, in that sense, do you think your own positionality is different from the way your work is being positioned within the conversation of Canadian identity?
GB: I would posit that Canadian literature, or CanLit, is more than a practical reality. I would argue that it’s an ideological space, and an idealist space as well. So, I think while my work [is] practically considered part of CanLit work – it’s published by a Canadian publisher, it’s sold in Canadian stores, I attend Canadian events and speak to Canadian audiences – I think my work doesn’t ideologically enter the space I consider CanLit. And I think that ideological space of CanLit which I think my work falls outside of – and other Indigenous writers, and I would argue some racialized writers as well – is the ideological space of creating Canadianness, of multiculturalism, and diversity, and Canadian markers, and nationalism embedded within our work. I think we fall out of that ideological project.
I think we fall out of social spaces as well. Indigenous and racialized writers are often used by CanLit as tokens, as representative members of our communities, to prove a kind of diversity, or as entertainment, to show up as exciting and different stories of worlds and cultures that they don’t understand. But that is not true inclusion. We are not actually part of CanLit.
I would problematize the framing around the ideology of CanLit, and the practicality of CanLit, but not part of it as an ideological construct. So, I don’t see my work as being Canadian. I do see my work as being Anishinaabe. I do see my work as being Metis. And, I do see my work as being transsexual. But I do not see my work as being Canadian.
SS: You know, how Nick Mount’s Arrival, a book about early Canadian writers, was published recently, and there are no Indigenous writers at all included in that book. It is ironic because Indigenous writers have always been excluded from the framing and making of CanLit, so then, why should Indigenous writers even want to be a part of the canon of CanLit. And, that exclusion is still happening now, as the writer of that book is also a professor at a prestigious Canadian university. All of this goes back to Neal McLeod being published by a university press, and his book being on comprehensive exam lists for doctoral students. All of this highlights the underlying problem that lies in the construction of CanLit; that is, which books get published and circulated. I am glad for the suggestions you have made in place of McLeod’s book [in your email to me], like Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs (2012),Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style (2017), and Daniel Heath Justice’s forthcoming book from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (2018).
A final question would be about your forthcoming work with BookThug. What kind of work is it?
GB: Holy Wild is a collection of poetry that really tracks the first year of my transition. And there [are] two kinds of threads in it. There is a thread where I am talking about the physical, emotional, and social experience of transitioning, and drawing connections between being trans and being Indigenous, the relationships I see between Indigenous worldviews and trans embodiments, and how those are linked and connected for me, and really documenting the social and emotional landscape of going through that change, and its implications on me. [The collection also] traces two relationships with white cis men. So, half of the collection is sort of a doomed love story, and through that conversation, it begins to explore trans intimacy, the relationship between Indigeneity, whiteness, and white masculinity, and how those intersections impact you as a person as you go through that.
SS: So, it’s more like the essay in The New Quarterly, “Trans Girl in Love,” and the stuff about vulnerability that you wrote about?
GB: Yeah, it’s more of that for sure.
Description from the publisher:
In her second collection of poetry, Passage, Gwen Benaway examines what it means to experience violence and speaks to the burden of survival. Traveling to Northern Ontario and across the Great Lakes, Passage is a poetic voyage through divorce, family violence, legacy of colonization, and the affirmation of a new sexuality and gender. Previously published as a man, Passage is the poet’s first collection written as a transwoman. Striking and raw in sparse lines, the collection showcases a vital Two Spirited identity that transects borders of race, gender, and experience. In Passage, the poet seeks to reconcile herself to the land, the history of her ancestors, and her separation from her partner and family by invoking the beauty and power of her ancestral waterways. Building on the legacy of other ground-breaking Indigenous poets like Gregory Scofield and Queer poets like Tim Dlugos, Benaway’s work is deeply personal and devastating in sharp, clear lines. Passage is a book burning with a beautiful intensity and reveals Benaway as one of the most powerful emerging poets writing in Indigenous poetics today.
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