Gwen Benaway participates in Canisia Lubrin’s (Dis)Order: The Single Question Series on the theme of convergence in her work. Gwen Benaway’s third book, Holy Wild, is forthcoming from BookThug in 2018.
Q: Writing converges different forms of knowing in ways that allow for the possibilities of knowledge to become particularly expansive because this seems to require listening for what is unknown to us. There exists a vitality that moves a thing from language to idea to fully-realized act. We mostly call such a thing vision, which implies form—whether poetry, fiction, stage play, etc.—and an amalgamation of copious other factors. What does this convergence mean for you as a poet—particularly in the context of your second poetry collection Passage (or your forthcoming collection if you choose)?
Holy Wild, my forthcoming third collection of poetry, focuses on the first year of my transition. As an Indigenous trans girl, I feel particularly placed within the world. I stand inside a relationship to land and history which is unique as an Indigenous woman. At the same time, I’m situated as a trans woman into the violence of transphobia and oppression rooted in gender-based knowledge systems. Both of these places in society relate and intersect. Transness is not outside of my Indigenous culture, but it is often seen as conforming to Western culture to be trans and Indigenous. I write from inside the space of both experiences because I am embodied in the world as both. My poetry acts as the mediator between the world and my body, my ancestors and my gender.
Holy Wild is special to me because it’s one of the only collections of contemporary Indigenous writing focused on being an Indigenous trans woman. Throughout the collection, my experiences of transphobia are contrasted with the experiences of racism and colonialism that my ancestors faced. I see many parallels between these specific oppressions. Close to home, the collection also traces a romantic relationship which began when I first transitioned. It shows the impact of transphobia, racism, and erasure inside trans girl intimate relationships. I like the intersection of these systems of knowing: the intimate body as a site of struggle and resistance.
My cultural grounding, my intimate loves, my poetry: all of them merge into one narrative and voice through my writing.
I titled the collection after a poem I wrote about an Indigenous trans girl having sex with a partner. I wrote the piece to show how Indigenous sexuality and being a trans girl could be holy within our culture, rooted in land, and ultimately an act of cultural reclamation. I wrote and edited with the boy from the other poems in the collection, so there is a weaving of threads for me. My cultural grounding, my intimate loves, my poetry: all of them merge into one narrative and voice through my writing. I like to hold up that complexity, to not pull it apart into separate strands but to see it as a whole animal, just like me.
I think trans women are often punished for daring to speak about love or sexuality. I was told that my work just seems to be my love life, as if that’s something to be ashamed of. I’m not ashamed of that writing. Trans girls are murdered in increasing numbers across North America, primarily Indigenous and Black trans girls, by their cis male partners. I think any writing I can do to normalize and render that love (the love I have access to) as beautiful is important work. I think people mistake writing about intimacy for avoiding or not engaging the politics of Indigenous sovereignty. I disagree. We are sovereign bodies, sovereign loves, and sovereign genders. This fight matters.
And that’s the convergence of knowing in my poetry: how to survive love inside a genocide as an Indigenous trans girl.