Governor General’s Literary Award winner Gwen Benaway hopes her poetry will amplify her voice to reach other trans women, but fears the attention will also draw out a familiar chorus of people eager to silence her. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Governor General’s Literary Award winner Gwen Benaway hopes her poetry will amplify her voice to reach other trans women, but fears the attention will also draw out a familiar chorus of people eager to silence her. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Governor General’s prize a ‘double-edged sword’ for trans poet Gwen Benaway

When Gwen Benaway found out she had won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry, she said her immediate reaction was not joy, but “intense fear and panic.”

The Toronto writer and scholar says she’s shocked to be among the few transgender women to be recognized by a Canadian literary institution, even as she protests another.

News of the honour came as Benaway and others denounce Toronto Public Library for refusing to cancel an event featuring a speaker who has been critical of transgender rights. She’s since been fielding a barrage of online attacks for her role in the outcry.

Benaway, who is of Anishinaabe and Metis descent, hopes the awards spotlight on her third poetry collection, “Holy Wild,” will amplify her voice to reach other trans women, but fears the attention will also draw out a familiar chorus of people eager to silence her.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Benaway, 32, said by phone ahead of Tuesday’s announcement of the literary prize winners.

“You have these moments where representation happens, and it means a lot to people like you, but at the same time, you’re almost more vulnerable.”

Benaway is among the critics who urged the library’s board to cancel the planned talk, saying the institution is providing a platform for Meghan Murphy to spread hate speech.

Murphy, a freelance writer who runs the website “Feminist Current,” has written that “allowing men to identify as women” poses a threat to women and their rights.

The library, meanwhile, says it is aware that the event has caused “anger and concern” but maintains it has an obligation to protect free speech.

Benaway said she would protest the talk set for Tuesday, titled “Gender Identity: What Does It Mean For Society, The Law and Women?” and hosted by a group called “Radical Feminists Unite.”

“It’s kind of funny to have literary recognition happen … during that time period, because it reminds me of how much work we have to do as trans people and trans women just to have our voices be heard, just for us to be taken seriously as artists and thinkers.”

Benaway said “Holy Wild,” published by Book*hug, tracks how institutional discrimination is entwined with more intimate forms of transphobia, drawing from her own experiences with romance and dating.

“I’ve heard from a lot of other trans women that the book was important to them, that it was one of the first times that they saw themselves,” said Benaway.

“I think it is important in that way to create these works of literature that show the possibilities, but I don’t want to sugarcoat the reality of what life is like for trans women in Canada. It’s still very difficult.”

The Governor General’s Literary Awards, which are administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, named six other English-language winners Tuesday.

Winnipeg’s Joan Thomas scored the fiction prize for “Five Wives,” published by Harper Avenue, a historical novel based on the real-life stories of women who must fend for themselves in the Ecuadorian rainforest after their missionary husbands are killed.

Thomas, whose previous accolades include the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, said she’s honoured to join the ranks of Manitoba-bred writers such as Miriam Toews, Sandra Birdsell and Carol Shields who have been recognized by the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which were founded in 1936.

“This is a prize that’s had so much historical significance,” said Thomas. “It’s always felt very prestigious to me.”

Don Gillmor of Toronto received the non-fiction prize for “To the River: Losing My Brother,” published by Random House Canada.

The drama honour was awarded to Toronto’s Amanda Parris for “Other Side of the Game” from Playwrights Canada Press.

Erin Bow of Kitchener, Ont., won the young people’s literature prize for text with “Stand on the Sky,” published by Scholastic Canada, while the illustrated books award went to Halifax’s Sydney Smith for “Small in the City” from Groundwood Books.

In the French-to-English translation category, the winner is Linda Gaboriau of Montreal for “Birds of a Kind” from Playwrights Canada Press, a translation of “Tous des oiseaux” by Wajdi Mouawad.

Each winner receives $25,000, while the publisher of each winning book receives $3,000 to support promotional activities. Finalists each receive $1,000.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette will host a ceremony honouring the winners at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Dec. 12.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Paul Harris, owner of Tribe restaurant downtown, said a lot of the blame for the latest restrictions that will close outdoor patios on Sunday can be blamed on those not obeying health regulations and the government for failing to enforce the rules.
Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Restaurant owners frustrated by patio shutdowns

Outdoor patios must stop serving by midnight Sunday to stem rising COVID infections

The City of Red Deer said Wednesday that some outdoor activity rentals will be available starting Monday for households only. (Advocate File Photo)
City of Red Deer outlines activities available as new provincial COVID-19 restrictions set in

There will be limited recreation activities available across the City of Red… Continue reading

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 2,271 new COVID-19 cases, Red Deer cases rise slightly

Across Alberta, there are 666 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 146 in the ICU

‘Love, Oran’ is a documentary feature made by Red Deer-raised filmmaker Colin Scheyen. It’s about hidden letters, found in a Woodlea home after 70 years, revealing a family secret. (Screenshot by Advocate staff).
Hidden letters reveal secrets of Red Deer family in a new documentary film

‘Love, Oran,’ by filmmaker Colin Scheyen is showing at Edmonton’s NorthwestFest

Red Deer Rebels’ three graduating players, Josh Tarzwell (left), Chris Douglas (middle) and Ethan Anders (right) will all move on to new opportunities next season. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
‘It was a rollercoaster’: Rebels’ graduating players look back on wild season

The nerves. Even three-and-a-half-years later, Josh Tarzwell still remembers the nervousness he… Continue reading

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson, left, directs her teammates, lead Briane Meilleur, right, and second Shannon Birchard, against Estonia at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 5, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

CF Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy, left, talks with midfielder Lassi Lappalainen during the second half of an MLS soccer match against Columbus Crew, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Damian Warner, of Canada bronze, smiles during the medal ceremony for the decathlon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Nariman El-Mofty
Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gestures rounding third base after hitting his third home run against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, April 27, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Canada players are seen prior to the match against Costa Rica as part of the 2021 CONCACAF Futsal Championship in Guatemala City, Guatemala in this Wednesday, May 5, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, CONCACAF, Straffon Images, Norvin Mendoza *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver addresses the audience at the Yukon Government swearing in ceremony, in the Yukon Government Legislature foyer, in Whitehorse, Monday, May 3, 2021. The Yukon government says travelers who can prove they've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer be required to self-isolate when they enter the territory beginning May 25. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Kelly
Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Most Read