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

UPDATE: Seven-year-old dies and her mother and two brothers are injured in trailer fire

Fire started shortly after 1 a.m. and took four hours to put out

Racist videos targeting Maskwacis are under investigation

Video images of what appears to be teenagers issuing racist and sexist… Continue reading

Red Deer County residents decry lack of public consultation over ‘enormous’ river water withdrawals

Noise, light, diesel emission complaints were made to the Alberta Energy Regulator

Woman no longer co-accused in 2019 Red Deer murder

Preliminary hearing of co-accused in murder began on Friday and resumes next month

Red Deer Mayor says city council’s advocacy isn’t over with shelter and hospital funding gains

Additional Crown prosecutors are still at the top of Tara Veer’s list

Fashion Fridays: Tammy’s big makeover

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Your community calendar

Feb. 19 A Liberation of Holland event is being held at the… Continue reading

Canadian-Indians worry for their families as riots break out in India

Naila Saeed could do nothing but worry from afar when rioters descended… Continue reading

Public health agency weighs stronger COVID-19 protection for front-line workers

OTTAWA — The Public Health Agency of Canada says it will consult… Continue reading

Ukraine pledges help for airline compensation for Iran plane crash victims

OTTAWA — Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada says his government will help Foreign… Continue reading

Saskatchewan premier won’t commit to fall election; cites national unrest

ESTEVAN, Sask. — Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says rail blockades and the… Continue reading

Suspect charged with first-degree murder in death of 13-year-old Quebec girl

ST-JEROME, Que. — Friends and family of a teenage girl whose body… Continue reading

Tories call on government to compensate dairy farmers ‘left behind’ in new NAFTA

OTTAWA — The Conservative opposition says the government must compensate dairy farmers… Continue reading

Red Deer Construction Association honours local builders

5th annual Commercial Construction Awards took place on Thursday evening

Most Read