Arts·Point of View

Dear Canadian writers: Stop apologizing for who you are and share your truth

If CanLit has one thing to offer the world, it should be our diversity of viewpoints. Poet Gwen Benaway says we need to share our lived experiences more boldly.

If CanLit has one thing to offer the world, it should be our diversity of viewpoints

Canadians are so reserved it's a problem. According to poet Gwen Benaway, it's time that changed — especially when it comes to our art and literature. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The recent CanLit scandal around cultural appropriation highlighted an important conversation for me about art as an expression of truth. Art, particularly literary art, is often a window into the human experience. Our cultures and worldviews, race, gender and sexualities shape our experience of our humanity. Art is a place where those divergent experiences are shared and collectively processed.

Gwen Benaway is the author of the 2016 poetry collection, Passage. She lives in Toronto. (Courtesy of Gwen Benaway)

I look to poetry as a space to speak truth. The technical and artistic aspects of poetry are important to me, but the revelation of truth through language fascinates me more. One of my guiding principles in poetry is to write until it hurts. I try to write to the point of discomfort. If I'm not being honest enough about my experiences, I go back and try to uncover what is underneath my words. We live in a world, particularly in Canada, which values discretion and a public presentation of politeness, but any Canadian knows that underneath our apologies and "pardon me's" are our actual feelings. I often hear people from other countries comment on Canadian passive aggressiveness. One of my friends from America talks about how frustrating it can be to talk with Canadians because he is never sure what we actually feel or think. On social media, I watch my friends express this same public politeness.

I'd like to imagine Canadian art stepping up to celebrate truth telling.

I think it would be healing for Canadian culture if we returned to truth telling — to inhabiting honesty, and sharing our experiences freely and authentically through art. Truth is not shameful or cruel, but an opportunity to embrace our world more fully. While a large portion of the global world is plunging deeper into dishonesty, I'd like to imagine Canadian art stepping up to celebrate truth telling.

Achieving that isn't just a challenge for Canadians, though. I've seen many writers developing their craft who are wary of sharing their truth. It requires you to be vulnerable. It leaves you open to criticism and judgment. For many people, being vulnerable is a terrifying experience. It is for me too — but I've had to face that discomfort as an artist. My art has to emerge from my truth or it lacks power. Being able to be comfortable with your vulnerability and the vulnerability of others is central to an artist's work.

The truth is also political. There are many truths in Canada. Indigenous peoples experience a different kind of reality than non-Indigenous Canadians. People from immigrant communities and racialized Canadians have unique experiences. If you are sexually diverse in Canada, you will have a different experience than someone whose sexual expression matches the mainstream. For me, as a heterosexual transgender Indigenous woman, my truth is a very uncommon one. It is often not seen in the mainstream culture at all, rendered invisible or actively attacked in public spaces.

One of my guiding principles in poetry is to write until it hurts.

This why truth telling through art is so important. Art allows us to speak to other truths, to engage the world around us and show the diversity of what it is to be human. Recently I was attacked on Twitter about being a transgender woman. A group of men with very extreme viewpoints started calling me a pretend woman, questioning and shaming me for my gender. They said I had a mental illness. But my truth of my body and gender is very different than their perspective of me. I know who I am as a woman and a human being — and my art translates those experiences to the broader world.

One of the gifts of being a transgender woman and an artist is the power of being connected to truth. If you have to risk your safety and wellbeing to be who you are, you value and appreciate truth in a deeper way. The most liberating discovery of my transition was realizing I don't have to hide. I think this is something which cisgender people could learn from transgender people: embracing our truth is one of the most powerful experiences we can have as people. There will be people who are not comfortable with your truth, but there are also people who will embrace it. Learning to value honesty as a core way of relating to others is transformative.

If Canadian art has one thing to offer the global community, it should be our diversity of viewpoints.

Connecting truth back to art, I think there is an opportunity in the recent CanLit "Appropriation Prize" controversy and within Canadian culture broadly. We've always lived in the shadow of American culture, holding on to our small corner of the world. We are formed of British, French and Indigenous cultures but have expanded to embrace a wide range of nationalities and worldviews. If Canadian art has one thing to offer the global community, it should be our diversity of viewpoints. Instead of attacking Indigenous or racialized communities for producing art from their cultures, Canadian art should champion those distinct voices. We are a country with many truths. This is a strength, not a weakness.

What would we be as Canadian poets if we embraced that truth? What would Canadian art look like if we weren't afraid of our capacity? Instead of apologizing for our unique place in the world, I want Canadian art to embrace truth-telling in its entirety. Every truth in Canada is meaningful, not just Toronto-based writers or voices in the mainstream. Let's open up the doors to that truth and step fully, as a nation of nations, into our own power and beauty.

Gwen Benaway is of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Based in Toronto, she is an award-winning author and poet. Her second collection of poetry, Passage, was published in 2016.

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