Gwen Benaway's newest collection, day/break (Book*hug), finds the award-winning poet and essayist delving into the internal and external realities of life as a trans woman, unearthing her own history to illustrate the complexities of navigating an often-dehumanizing society.
With verse that deftly alternates between movingly fragile and uncompromisingly blunt, Benaway breaks through social and institutional expectations to intimately explore questions of body and self without demanding answers. Equal parts poetry and memoir, day/break is an honest and cathartic account of trans-feminine experience.
We're very excited to have Gwen at Open Book today, where she discusses the challenging negotiation involved in telling trans stories, the flawed responsibility of writing about others, and the sacred balance between living and writing.
How did your memoir first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
I think being a trans woman requires you to tell a story about yourself. The process of accessing trans-affirming healthcare requires you to turn your life into story because you are constantly asked the same questions by cis people with power over you. Every day is filled with hundreds of small questions aimed at uncovering how you as a trans person came to be. Answering those questions requires you to develop a narrative around your body, gender, and sexuality that mimics the process of writing a memoir.
I started writing creative nonfiction as a way to cope with the pressures of transition, but it has become a way of sense-making for me. I write my way towards meaning. Even when I’m writing poetry, I’m often turning towards narrative and image as a way to negotiate the expectations of cis audiences. There’s so much work built into the story that a trans person tells. It has to satisfy expectations while actively resisting transphobia and transmisogyny. It’s a very intricate kind of giving account.
Trans theorist and philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher describes trans women’s accounts of themselves as forms of “embodied resistance”. I take from her that trans women’s stories are always a negotiation between wanting to be truthful about our experiences and wanting to dismantle transmisogyny as a lens for understanding us. My writing has always been a double-sided intervention of wanting to accurately capture the feelings of my life while trying to interrogate cissexism as the dominant way of producing meaning.
Is there a question that was central to this project? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
I wanted to ask the question of “what am I” as a trans woman in the world but I didn’t want to answer that question definitely. I tried to imagine all of the complexities of my body as a space of incoherency, a nonproductive “dead end”. There’s this tremendous pressure to make trans women’s narratives do a certain kind of work for cis readers. Often, it’s to “teach” them something or make them feel pity, inspiration, or courage, but I wanted my work to move beyond explanation or description.
I think description can be a violence that many of us have to live inside. How are we captured by the gaze of white cis colonial society? What possibilities are constrained by the language wrapped around our bodies and desires? Writing for me has been an attempt to say “look - here’s the question you want to me answer and here’s a long list of incidents from my life that illustrate why I can never answer that question”.
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
I discovered as I was writing that my beliefs about the world have changed considerably. As I change and grow, my writing changes as well. It’s been fascinating to come back to pieces that I wrote in previous lives and discover that I feel differently about them now. I think that’s the gift of memoir writing. Good memoir opens up a space where we can look at the past and start to break down meaning. For me, it’s been healing to look at painful relationships or violence and see its meaning shift. Before it felt as everything bad was my fault, but as I age and learn more, I start to see how the structures around me have forced victimization and dehumanization on me as a trans woman. Reclaiming my narrative agency over the story is a small way to imagine other worlds for myself that are more than being abject to someone else’s belief about me.
If you have written in other genres, what was different for you in writing a memoir?
Memoir has been the hardest for me to write. Creative nonfiction has been the most demanding because it feels so immense. I struggle to find my way through dense bodies of text. With poetry, it’s easier for me to focus and not feel overwhelmed but when I have to sit with a large-scale creative nonfiction essay, I get paralyzed by the volume of the text.
Did you use any materials, documents, interviews, or other research that became part of the writing process?
I use old text messages or emails as source documents. I look back and think, “what am I saying here?” and “what do they say in return?” It’s very instructive for me. Almost like becoming an archivist of your own life. I spend so much of my time capturing small details around me, thinking, “I’m going to want to write about this later”. I think writers who specialize in memoir writing are often people who are insightful and curious because you need to have a natural curiosity to want to write from life.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
My fears were not about myself. I worry more about the people who inhabit my stories with me. It’s painful to encounter a version of yourself that someone wrote. Many of my stories involve ex or current lovers which is a difficult negotiation. Whatever you write about them becomes binding, so there’s an enormous responsibility to be fair. At the same time, you can never be fair. I know that I will misrepresent someone’s intentions or beliefs because I don’t have access to their thoughts. You have to accept that shortcoming and write anyway, but it’s never easy.
When you're reading memoirs, what stands out to you and makes a really great book? Were there any published memoirs you found inspiring structurally or otherwise while working on yours?
Alicia Elliot’s work has taught me so much about creative nonfiction. Reading her essays has always shown me better ways to write. There’s so many talented creative nonfiction writers right now and I can’t list them all without missing someone important, so I’ll just say that I read personal essays and creative nonfiction daily. It’s my favorite content because there is something about the essay that speaks to me. I’m particularly interested in writers who blend poetry and creative nonfiction. It’s a rapidly expanding field and I’m happy to be working in the medium right now.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to finish edits on a book of essays. Aside from that, I feel emptied out of my literary life right now. I need a break to live and make new memories. That’s the trick with good writers, I think. They write and then they live. It’s a symbiotic relationship between living and being in the world with other people. Good writing can’t emerge from bad living. I just don’t believe in it. If you live fully, you will write fully.
Gwen Benaway is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She is the author of three previous poetry collections—Ceremonies for the Dead, Passage, and Holy Wild, winner of the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry, and finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry, and the Publishing Triangle Award for Trans and Gender-Variant Literature, and longlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She is also the editor of an anthology of fantasy short stories titled Maiden Mother and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes. She has been a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ writers from the Writers' Trust of Canada, and her personal essay, "A Body Like A Home," was the Gold Prize Winner for the National Magazine Awards in Personal Journalism. Her latest book is day/break. She is also currently editing a book of creative non-fiction, trans girl in love. She lives in Toronto and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto in the Women and Gender Studies Institute.