To celebrate The Conversant’s evolving relationship with The Volta website collective over its five year run, Senior Editors Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith have selected pieces from our archives which exemplify that relationship for our October issue. This conversation was originally part of our February 2014 issue. Enjoy!
The Conversant long has admired Lemon Hound’s lively, multifarious engagement with contemporary literature. In partnership with Lemon Hound, and in the hopes of encouraging further dialog between Canadian- and U.S.-based poetics, we have decided to re-publish a monthly excerpt from the Lemon Hound archive. The subject of this particular interview is Giles Benaway’s Ceremonies for the Dead.
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy: I want to share my thanks and appreciation Giles, for you allowing your first published collection of poems to be a dwelling place for the Dead. How did the Dead manage to get such space, and why is this space ceremonial?
Giles Benaway: The title Ceremonies for the Dead is in some ways inaccurate, because really, it’s a collection for the living. And the “Ceremonies” are really an affirmation of life, a re-animation of people, voices and stories that for me populate a framework for understanding our place in the world. I was always taught that ceremonies involved several things in the Anishinaabe worldview, but always at the centre of any ceremony was “bringing to life” in one way or another. The collection was also informed by Lee Maracle’s words: “The dead are more powerful than the living.” Between those two teachings, I imagined what it would mean to write a collection that sought through narrative to mobilize the Dead as a conduit for connecting and challenging the living. They are a vessel for addressing grief, loss, trauma, joy, lust and identity. And more than that, I was seeking a way to speak to what I’ve lost: my childhood, my family, my gookum (grandmother), my identity, my sexuality—through the brutalized body, the bruised memory. For me, the solution was through the Dead, as a collective force or construct; they were the starting place, the point of returning, where I could speak to and question my family and myself.
And the ceremony part? That’s influenced also by the experience of trauma. The notion that you need to enter an “altered state” in order to heal, i.e., you need to access a space outside the ordinary in order to gain perspective or be affected beyond your current form. So ceremony, as both a cultural construct of ritualized space and also as a real, living thing, became my way to connect with these larger, greater things. And I also thought, why shouldn’t narrative be a ceremonial space? Why can’t words be lodges as well? And are the intentions of ceremony (i.e., connection) any different from writing? I guess in some ways it was a challenge to myself, to see what I could do with the space. In some ways I think I get there, and in others, I recognize that I don’t reach it.
It’s interesting how people have such polarized reactions to those words. I’ve heard people say it’s offensive to speak of ceremonies, and that I have no place describing traditional ceremonies, implying that the collection is some sort of “new age” appropriation. Which, if you read the book (and I highly doubt these people have read it), you realize that it doesn’t describe any ceremonies per se, and that there is certainly nothing “new age” about it, and it’s not appropriating anything. So people have made very snap judgments based on the title, which in some ways amuses me because it’s also part of what I directly challenge in the work: the notion of intellectual laziness and the failure to engage critically with ourselves, our Indigenous relations/kinship and with our communities. The denial of who we are, by both the mainstream oppressor and ourselves, is this form of racism/shame/fear that cuts us off from each other and ourselves.
The “Dead” part of the title also gets these funny reactions. People don’t want to read the text, or think it’s inappropriate to have me read in public spaces, because they think it’s too “dark” or it’s somehow deviant to speak of the Dead. And that, again, is something I question in the collection—the denial of death by people, and the refusal to engage the importance of history/death in our lives. Part of why Canadian mainstream society has such racist assumptions of us is because they don’t know their history. They don’t have a connection to their ancestors, so they can say, “Oh it was all in the past; just move on” whenever we bring up treaties or residential schools. It’s a form of collective ignorance that allows and, in some ways, directly produces active oppression in Canadian society.
WCS: Indigenous oral, performative and written literatures reverently acknowledge those who have walked the path of souls as being ancestors, which invokes a sense of omnipresence and forever presence. Your use of the word “dead” is a distinct departure from this, and suggests finiteness, even gesturing at times towards the irreverent. What informs your rhetorical departure here? How do you hope it will add to Indigenous literary rhetoric and/or consciousness? How do you anticipate it impacting readings of Indigenous literature?
GB: I find that question really interesting, because I’d argue that I come down firmly on the side of infiniteness of the Dead. I guess, for me, the notion that is most central in Ceremonies for the Dead is the importance of re-connection to the Dead, as objects of memory, as physical inheritance and as a force of the natural world. And it’s not even really about re-connection, as it is about admitting our ties to the Dead. It’s that line I love from the poem “Inheritance,” where I say “we are the heirs of death / and the chosen ones / who will die.” To me, that really is a comment on the links between the Dead and us, but also on the inevitability of our deaths. We are the ancestors and we are also our ancestor’s children—so we inhabit this dual world, a middle space, and that’s part of what makes us so powerful. For me, that’s the way out of our oppression (or at least one of the ways), because we have this tremendous responsibility that forces us to move, and in this, an absence of stagnation. We have capacity to re-dress the past and the history of trauma through our own lives/bodies. We have the hurt, but we also have the means to re-articulate the hurt in different ways. And the Dead, through us, also have a second chance at redemption.
As for how it fits into Indigenous literature? I think it’s in some ways an outlier, like a very different kind of Indigenous literature. I mean, I’m this contradiction in terms, as a Queer writer, as a huge Fantasy lover, as light-skinned, as a mixed race, as a person with a chronic illness, as a skeptic and a believer. And I think my insectionality shows up in the collection. I’ve read the greats of Indigenous literature, like Marilyn Dumont, Gregory Scofield, Louise Halfe, Daniel David Morse, Lee Maracle, Cherie Dimaline, Joanne Arnott, etc. (our icons), but I’ve also read a range of “Canadian” poets, like Lorna Croznier, Karen Solie, Matthew Henderson, Sue Sinclair and many queer poets, like Mark Doty, W.B Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Siegfriend Sassoon, Paul Monette and Crystos. So my literary bones are of a mixed beast and that comes out in the writing.
I also don’t think the collection really sits outside of Indigenous literature. It’s a collection that really takes what has been said before and twists it back inward, trying to close a loop. I didn’t want a book that was the same narrative again—that focuses on renewal and survival, on the regeneration of culture, on the intersection of spirituality and modernity. I wanted to go further than that, to take the skeletons of the work that came before and, instead of just re-hashing it, morph it into another creature. In ways that are recognizable but are also strange, menacing maybe, but interesting.
I hope Ceremonies portrays Indigenous literature as a living animal. That Indigenous writers too, can be cutting, can be sharp and cruel in our work—that we’re also facing the past with more than just platitudes, but with insight, with questions. And that we can offer imperfect answers, that we don’t have to give what is expected of us. I think so much of Indigenous literature has been set up to give people redemption, white people and Nish (i.e., Indigenous) people alike. White people want us to survive and come out shining, be positive examples, because it lets them off the hook in a way. Like things were bad, but look how strong we’ve become, look how far we are going! We’re funny and tough, so it’s OK that our treaties are ignored, our kids are killing themselves and our life expectancy is so much shorter. It’s almost a form of justifying colonial history, because I think redemptive works can lead non-Indigenous audiences to the misconception that their violent and racist interventions in our nations did lead to an intellectual enrichment, a strengthening of our peoples. And I think some of the bestselling literature (e.g., Joseph Boyden) is a redemption narrative for non-Indigenous audiences in some ways. For Nish people, I think there is a profound need to affirm ourselves, and that makes so much sense to me, but I think it can also be harmful to us. It can blind us to reality or dull our senses. We won’t get out of this place, this oppression, with anything less than ruthless inquiry. And it’s important to heal and feel good and celebrate our successes, but sometimes it’s also important to feel uncomfortable, to be angered, to not have an easy answer, and to be challenged, to be questioned, to ask why.
Ceremonies is like that. It isn’t really comfortable. It doesn’t have an easy answer. It isn’t a warm bath. There are edges in it. It’s cold. It’s dark. One of my editors told me it was the “brutalized body with no hope.” And I think that’s also important to have in literature. It’s honest.
I know I’m still not whole. I’m not sure I ever will be. And I’m not sure that wellness is where we should be headed, or what our goal is. It’s more than that. Recognition comes before transformation, and I’m still figuring out what happened. It’s funny, because many of our ceremonies involve blocking out the light. We are always going to dark places, literally, in order to work our practices, so why should our literature be all light? We need the dark, the night, in order to do what we need to.
WCS: Naming and articulating the multiple manifestations of violence—colonial and lateral—that exist in Indigenous lives is a powerful and necessary practice in our literature. I think Ceremonies for the Dead echoes the calling-out of colonial violence through various institutions, (mainly the church), however it also contributes uniquely to this pattern vis-à-vis an unapologetic, candid, calling-out of this violence within our own kinship ties, intimate relationships and communities. As readers, the only reprieve we get from your relentless and refreshing refusal to soften these latter truths is in the beautiful imagery they are manifested through. Can you speak to this a little bit more? What is your hope in calling us out on the various ways we are violent towards each other? What are the implications of this for a Canadian readership that may be operating from outsider mythical constructions of Indian as _______, and what are the implications of this for an Indigenous readership who may not appreciate the mirror that Ceremonies is holding up?
GB: I think it’s dangerous to point out our own complexities and participation in violence, but I think it’s more dangerous to ignore our own agency (positive AND negative). We have never been history’s victims. And I think, in the larger narrative of educating non-Indigenous society about the past, we risk presenting it as a series of horrible things that happened to us. And yes, it was a series of horrible things, but we did lots of stuff around and in that trauma that impacted it. And to me, ignoring the reality of our own involvements in some of the trauma is a form of racism, because it erases both our humanity and our agency.
I understand the risk involved in naming violence—in terms of community reaction to it and the desire in the reader not to witness these things, but again, I think it’s important to wear the scars and move forward with what we have. The risk of the Canadian public appropriating the message of the book and using it against us is real. I think we see that all the time as Indigenous people. But that shouldn’t be a barrier to engaging with the truth, because if appropriation happens we can address it. Silence is something you can’t reason with. So having voice, speaking/naming the violence within and without, is the only realistic way of confronting and transforming the trauma. Maybe there is a price to pay for that kind of honesty, but it seems worth it to me.
WCS: You’ve structured your narrative voice into poems, however I was struck by a strong oral storytelling aesthetic in the beginning of Ceremonies. It got me to thinking about the multitude of ways the Dead may communicate or want to be heard. What prompted you to choose poems as the form the Dead would communicate through?
GB: Poetry demands the most of a reader. It cuts the closest to the bone and happens the quickest, with the most violence and greatest blood loss. Because poetry is so tight, so constricted, it gathers its power inward and, like a needle, plunges in and sedates the mind. You have to hook into poetry to feel it, surrender your senses. So, for the kind of work I was doing, it felt right.
That’s a brutalist way to describe poetry, but I think there is something about the medium that requires precision. Being a poet is like being a seer: You’re always being asked to see to the heart of a thing. You have to see clearly and get to the point, the place where the heart beats, fast. I like that challenge.
WCS: The use of Indigenous languages in poetry is becoming more present amongst Indigenous writers on Turtle Island. I noticed that some of your poems have Anishinaabemowin titles with English translations. Can you elaborate on this? What place do you think Indigenous languages might have in your future writing?
GB: I utilized the language for very specific reasons and very deliberately. I tried to pick places where English couldn’t reach the meaning, or where there was something embedded in the language for me, a personal connection with the Anishinaabemowin word. I didn’t want it to feel like a hollow usage, paying tribute without building on meaning. Also, I didn’t want it be like “beads” and “feathers,” decorative elements that impart some essentialist appearance of Indigenous culture without any of the depth/meaning.
I’d never write full poetry in Anishinaabemowin because I’m not fluent, and I think you need a high fluency to write poetry in any language. I will use words that I have some relationship with, or a memory, or a story. Where the words have become a part of how I think, a part of my body, I’ll use them.
I do think we always need to go back to the language. It’s the starting place. We can think and write in English, but I think there will always be some meaning missed. To really reclaim your worldview, the language is the place you need to go. But I also think that writing in English isn’t somehow less valid than Anishinaabemowin writing.
WCS: Why did you choose Kegedonce Press as your publisher?
GB: I chose Kegedonce because they make beautiful books and they have a reputation for publishing the best of Indigenous literature. Kegedonce also fights a really hard battle, because as you know, Canadian publishing is tough and Indigenous publishing is tougher. You have to battle the lack of funding, the structural challenges, and you have to do so while also fighting racism and ignorance. It’s really a difficult place to be.
Also, I’ve always wondered why we don’t have more award-winning writers, because there is no question that we are some of the best storytellers in the world. Narrative is at the center of our nations in a way that very few people ever experience. But the structural supports, the capacity to hire brilliant editors and spend a year editing a book—that’s just not feasible for Indigenous publishers. So you have really talented writers, but it’s hard for our publishers to give us the support we really need. And we don’t have time or money to get an MFA, even if we want them.
I’d love to have an MFA! But could I afford the time/have the space in my life to complete one? I think it would be a real challenge to access that kind of enrichment. I was too busy paying rent and finding food to even consider being able to dedicate that kind of time to developing my craft. And I think that’s the same for many Indigenous writers. We have the same struggle as other writers, but we’re also living in the lowest bracket of Canada, fighting the hardest battle just to survive and dealing with the legacy of racism in this country. It’s challenging.
WCS: During a short pre-interview exchange about this collection, you indicated that Ceremonies has been taken up in positive ways by non-Indigenous audiences, and has not been receiving much attention from Indigenous audiences. What do you think this variance is about?
GB: I think non-Indigenous audiences take up the work in really un-critical ways, so it’s easier to read, because you’re not implicated in the discussions—not directly at least. It’s easier to face history when you are ignorant of it. For Indigenous readers, I think the collection is harder because it speaks to painful and real experiences. And the burden of history is there for Indigenous readers in a way that non-Indigenous audiences don’t have to carry.
There’s also the challenge of writing for two audiences. And sometimes I think I fail at that in the collection. It’s hard to place yourself as a reader. But, in some ways, I also like that fact, because it forces readers to question themselves continually as they read. For a causal reader that may be off-putting, but for a dedicated reader or a reader that’s implicated in the book, it’s part of how the collection works. I think this is also where the power lies.
I’m not sure it should be easy to read every piece of Indigenous literature. Some of it has to be hard, some of it has to have harshness and some of it has to be un-apologetic, because it can’t be all of our jobs, as Indigenous writers, to educate and comfort the masses. Not that works that take this approach aren’t of critical importance, but we, as artists/innovators, have to be able to speak with all our voices. We have to tell all our stories, even if they are painful to hear. Not because of any vindictive need, but because the things that dis-quiet us are the most meaningful. It’s not the knife that worries the hand—it’s the cut.
Non-Indigenous literature can be brutal, can be unapologetic, can be exploitative, can do harm. So why should we have to meet a different standard? I’m willing to admit some people, some collections, can do both, the gentle and the strong, but not this one. I guess I’m just not that kind of woman.
WCS: In the spirit of furthering non-Indigenous critical reading of Indigenous literature, can you elaborate on what you mean by “I think non-Indigenous audiences take up the work in really un-critical ways”? Perhaps by un-packing what “un-critical” means, we can inform the lenses of non-Indigenous readers towards what “critical” means, or may begin to mean.
GB: When I say “un-critical,” I’m not trying to be a jerk, or insensitive towards non-Indigenous audiences—just noting the differences in how the work is taken up by Indigenous versus non-Indigenous audiences. Part of the difference is innate, as Indigenous audiences have access to a different set of knowledge and experiential-based viewpoints than non-Indigenous audiences. In some ways, that’s really what generates Indigenous storytelling; our access to alternative ways of viewing/telling narrative through Indigenous structures/forms. And we can’t fault non-Indigenous audiences for not knowing what they don’t know, as their access to genuine Indigenous methodology is often restricted.
But for me, non-Indigenous audiences need to be critical of their power/privilege as non-Indigenous audiences, and also of how power/privilege play out in Indigenous communities as well. When I think of the most successful (in commercial terms) Indigenous writers in Canada (aside from Eden Robinson), I’m thinking about straight Indigenous men, and there are a couple of names on a very short list. Those writers are skillful and talented, so there is no diminishment in terms of their accomplishment, but why are there so few female names on that list? Or queer Indigenous voices (though we’ve done better, as we have Sherman Alexie and Gregory Scofield)?
Most of them are also university professors or affiliated with a particular university in an academic way. Part of that’s the business of writing itself, but some part of it is also access to legitimacy and the perceived authority of their voices based on non-Indigenous audiences’ interpretation of their educational achievements. It’s not enough to be an Indigenous writer—I guess you also have to be able to speak to the broader social/political realties of your respective nation/s in order for non-Indigenous audiences to acknowledge what’s been said. Fortunately, we’ve always been good at the “hustle” or showmanship as Indigenous peoples, as one writer I know once put it.
And what narratives are successful in Indigenous literature? Again, when we reflect on the kinds of narratives which achieve wider recognition and acclaim, they are really limited in terms of kind of story arcs/characters presented. We’re always in the distant past, forever surviving some tragedy, constantly being noble and generally comic in a dark way. I’d love for a Indigenous serial killer to get featured or a romance plot-line involving a powwow drummer with some tipi creeping to widespread acknowledgement. It’s kind of like we’re only allowed to write in one voice, because all the other literary narratives we could create are already filled by non-Indigenous writers writing about us as secondary characters (or as crudely rendered metaphors for the Canadian landscape).
I guess what I’m really asking of non-Indigenous audiences when I say be “critical readers” is the need to be mindful of how your individual consumption of an artistic work can be linked to ongoing oppression of our communities. There’s a complex relationship at work, where non-Indigenous audiences are only willing to consume what confirms their original assumptions of us, and where we are only empowering storytellers who are capable of, or willing to give in to, this desired poison. Because of the power dynamics in Canada, it’s often the non-Indigenous audience’s desires which drive what Indigenous stories/story tellers are successful, and which ones don’t reach a wider audience. And while it may be true that it is what the market wants, it is also true that those narratives don’t empower/expand/transform us as Indigenous nations as well.
So what matters more in Indigenous literature—our intrinsic capacity as a self-determined peoples to create our narratives freely, or the chosen capacity to succeed in very limited terms by being complacent in the continued narrative of colonization (by conforming to how non-Indigenous audiences see us)? I don’t have any answers, but I think it’s an important question.
WCS: I’ve identified Ceremonies for the Dead as Indigenous literature, and identified you as a Indigenous writer. Is this text Indigenous literature, Canadian literature, both, or something else? And, how do you want readers to identify you?
GB: I’m an Indigenous writer. But why am I always being asked to choose sides? I’ll speak from the places that are mine, regardless of how others decide to root me. And why can’t we move between categories? It seems strange to expect Indigenous writers to have a collective, coherent narrative. Non-Indigenous writers certainly don’t. Or is the question what my citizenship is? Or what my culture is? Or my race? Those are all different questions, and they can have contradicting answers.
For me, I’m an Indigenous person. Woman. Two-Spirited. Mystical Gay Half-Breed. Whatever you want to call me. But I’m also a participant in Canadian society. Some of my ancestors come from other places than here, belong in other stories than just Anishinaabe ones. That’s not a diminishment to me, but an enrichment.
As for the question of where Ceremonies for the Dead sits in terms of literature groupings, I think that’s more complicated. It doesn’t have the agency to pick its own home, so it has to be interpreted by others and labeled accordingly. I know bookstores have grouped it as Indigenous literature, placing it beside Gregory Scofield and Daniel Heath Justice. But for me, I think there is something racist in excluding the book from the Canadian Poetry section. I remember walking around one of my favorite bookstores in downtown Toronto, Glad Day Bookstore, and realizing that Ceremonies from the Dead could only be found under the Two-Spirited label. It wasn’t in Canadian Poetry, Local Toronto Poetry, the broader Poetry section, nor in the New and Exciting section of the store. And there were like ten copies in the Indigenous section, so it just struck me as a form of literary ghetto. There were also South Asian sections, Black sections, and Muslim sections, but the collections under those labels also showed up in other categories, as they spread the available copies around. So it was something that seemed very particular to Indigenous literature, a kind of literary segregation.
And you see this kind of treatment echoed more broadly within the Canadian literary community. We may get invited to Harbourfront or a public library to read, but it’s always during Aboriginal month or a specific event grouped off for Indigenous literature. It’s almost as if the Canadian literary mainstream will only engage us in these small ways for the purposes of being “diverse” and “multi-cultural,” but will never share the main stage with us. And doesn’t acknowledge us writers in the same vein, but almost as cultural or tour guides into the strange, mythic backcountry of Canada. It’s funny to watch mainstream literary presses and authors tweet about Indigenous issues and activism, but fail to support an Indigenous literary event or reading in their own backyard. It’s this form of support that doesn’t translate into meaningful change—just a continuation of the same segregation policies of the 19th and early 20th century.
So should Ceremonies for the Dead be seen as Indigenous literature? Absolutely. But it should also be seen as part of Canadian literature, because we, as the original and rightful inhabitants of this land, are still a part of that conversation. And for me, as a writer and an Indigenous person—I have as much right to have my book sit beside Matthew Teirney or Ken Babstock as I do to have my book sit with Lee Maracle or Gary Thomas Morse.
WCS: Finally, how do you hope Ceremonies for the Dead will contribute to the living?
GB: I hope it causes people to admit our existing connection to the Dead and to the unborn. We’re like a lake, and we touch all shores because of our place in the present. We are the heirs of death and we will die. So in a sense we’re the ancestors right now. We get to take all of that power, of the ancestors and the unborn, and shape it into something. We get to change both the ancestors and the unborn. That’s a gift.
I use the metaphor of a beaver pond, and really—that’s what beavers do. They munch on all the trees, divert rivers, flood land, shift the landscape and create these pockets where everyone comes and dies. We’re the beavers, I guess, and it’s our job to create that pond and fill it up.
Giles Benaway (Anishinaabe/Métis) is of Odawa/Potawatomi and Métis descent. Born and raised in Huron County, he currently lives in Toronto, Ontario. His first collection of poetry is Ceremonies for the Dead. He spends his time working on his second poetry collection and a young-adult novel about a teenage gay Aboriginal werewolf with Asperger Syndrome, as well as happily blogging about life as an Aboriginal poet.