Gwen Benaway isn’t letting critics slow her down

Governor General’s Award winner talks new poetry and backlash

Gwen Benaway's award winning poetry collection Holy Wild.
Photo by Jodie Grieve

Gwen Benaway’s third collection of poetry, Holy Wild, explores her experience as a trans woman and her experience transitioning.

The winners were announced on Oct. 29, and Benway scored the prize for poetry for her collection. Normally, the announcement is an exciting occasion for chosen authors—but for Benaway, things were different.

Benaway, a Canadian writer well-known for her essays and creative nonfiction pieces, has already published three books, with two more coming out next year. Despite her established presence in the Canadian literary community, she believed the Governor General’s Award would stifle her burgeoning career rather than enhancing it. 

She said that after winning the award, she admitted how scary that prospect was for her in her follow-up interviews, and then was mocked by several critics after those interviews were published. Her fears came from knowing she would be more in the limelight than ever before, not knowing what her new, wider audience would think of her.

“Right after I won that, I went through so many personal attacks—and they haven’t stopped yet,” Benaway said in an interview.

Her work has also received positive feedback, but the author doesn’t feel it has necessarily enhanced her personal life or career thus far. Instead, Benaway has found solidarity and solace through other writers who know what it’s like to be criticized for their writing. They understand Benaway’s hopeless feeling when it comes to alleviating the suffering caused by wide criticism.

She’s come to terms with the fact that as a writer, this kind of attention is unavoidable. That’s why Benaway’s least favourite part of the work she does is “having to deal with people.”

“The jealousy in the industry, the transphobia and racism in the Canadian literary industry, the competitiveness, the gossip, the backstabbing,” she said. “The business of writing itself is quite vulgar.”

Despite this, Benaway remains positive. She dedicates her books to, as she says, “girls like me.” Through this, she’s able to give back to her readers, inspiring them with her strength and endurance.

The author aims to be honest in her writing. A mark of a good writer, she says, is “courage—willing to be vulnerable on the page.”

One author she admires who does just this is Canadian author Alicia Elliott.

“[Elliott] invites something that sort of sits with you, that […] shifts, changes, shapes, alters you, and you carry that piece of writing with you onward.”

To aspiring writers, Benaway offers advice on how to reach Elliott’s level of writing.

“Read expansively and read deeply and read sincerely. Look not just at what’s being praised or celebrated, but to what really resonates with you. When you go to write, don’t necessarily copy what you love, but write towards that feeling of connection.”

While Benaway may feel under attack, she certainly doesn’t seem defeated.

“I’m very comfortable at this point writing about things that are vulnerable and complex, but I also don’t really believe in privacy. Because, you know, I am a trans woman and am always observed and speculated and commented on,” Benaway said.

“I’ve never really had an illusion that there was a private, secret self that I was violating by sharing stories.”

With a book of poetry and a book of essays coming out next year, Benaway is far from letting critics destroy her determination, nor her willingness to share her life with her readers.

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