5 Incredible Two-Spirit and Queer Indigenous Writers to Read Right Now

In response to the recent horrifically racist and colonialist editorial advocating a “cultural appropriation prize” in The Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine Write—made even worse by the fact that that issue was focused on Indigenous writers—as well as an equally horrific positive response to that editorial by some prominent white CanLit editors, I want to highlight some amazing Indigenous writers. In particular for my blog I want to talk about a few two spirit / queer Indigenous writers. This is just a sampling of some of the authors I’m familiar with and am a fan of. Gwen Benaway and Daniel Heath Justice in particular have also been active on social media calling out the editorial and the response. You should definitely read “Facing the Legacy of Erasure and Cultural Appropriation in Canadian Literature” that Benaway published at the Winnipeg Review on the 15th. If you have more suggestions, please add them in the comments. Please read, buy, review, and promote the work by these great writers to support Indigenous writers telling their own stories!

Gwen Benaway_2017Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway (Anishinaabe/Tsagli/Métis) is a two-spirited and trans woman poet with two books of poetry to her name, both published by the Kegedonce Press (a great publisher run by and focused on publishing Indigenous writers). Her first collection is Ceremonies for the Dead and her latest is Passage. She writes about survival, violence, colonization, inter-generational trauma, and trans femme gender and desire. Both collections are rooted in Benaway’s ancestral homeland around the Great Lakes and Northern Ontario. I just finished reading Passage, which I thought was gorgeous and lyrical. There are some tough topics like abuse and suicide but also beautiful moments describing land, water, and their healing powers. I loved how Benaway explores the complexities, joys, and pain of relationships, trans/gender, and sex. Check out my full review here. You should also read Kai Cheng Thom’s thoughtful review of Passage and this excerpt from “Lake Water”:

I remember a poet saying

that water carries sound,

as if it knows how to amplify

the movement of all living things,

as if it knows how to speak

the mottled tongues of the dead.

daniel heath justiceDaniel Heath Justice

Daniel Heath Justice is a Cherokee scholar and writer, most notably of the fantasy trilogy The Way of Thorn and Thunder (also published by Kegedonce Press). He’s also written numerous articles and books on the subject of Indigenous literatures—the most recent book being 2016’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. He also co-edited, among other anthologies, Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature and The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature. I LOVE The Way of Thorn and Thunder trilogy and have reviewed the first book Kynship, the second book Wyrwood, and the final one Dreyd. I’ve been known to call it LOTR if it was queer, feminist, and decolonizing. The plot of the trilogy is definitely an allegory to colonization in the Americas, but it is also an action-packed tale full of interesting flawed, funny characters that stands very well on its own. (In particular, one of the plot points is a clear reference to the Trail of Tears). While you’re waiting for him to put out more fantasy, you should also read Badger, an entertaining and informative book that moves from an examination of how badger characters turn up in European kid’s lit to the viral YouTube wildlife video about the honey badger to fascinating facts about badgers’ burrowing and predation habits.

chrystosChrystos

Chrystos is a legendary two-spirit Menominee poet whose collections include their first (and now sadly out of print) book Not Vanishing (1988), Dream On (1991), Fire Power (1995), and Some Poems By People I Like (2007, with four other poets including Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha). They are a fiercely feminist lesbian writer who also has an extensive background as a Native land and treaty rights activist. They won the Audre Lorde International Poetry Competition in 1994. They write ferociously political poems about colonization—which they take on in the very ways they refute Euro-American grammar and punctuation in their poetry—but you should also not miss their erotic poems, which are sensual, joyful, and triumphant. Check out this 2010 interview with Chrystos at Black Coffee Poet for more from Chrystos! Here’s an excerpt from “Vision: Bundle”:

They have our bundles split open in museums

our dresses & shirts at auctions

our languages on tape

our stories in locked rare book libraries

our dances on film

The only part of us they can’t steal

is what we know

ma nee chacabyMa-Nee Chacaby

Ma-Nee Chacaby is an Ojibwa-Cree lesbian whose autobiography A Two-Spirit Journey was published last year and is now a finalist for the most recent Lambda Literary Awards in the memoir category. It’s supposed to be both a harrowing and hopeful account of her extraordinary life. She recounts her childhood growing up in a remote Ojibwa community, where, on the one hand, she learned Cree cultural and spiritual traditions from her grandmother and trapping and hunting skills from her Ojibwa stepfather, but on the other she suffered physical and sexual abuse from various adults, becoming an alcoholic by her teen years. Her life in Thunder Bay after leaving with her children to escape an abusive marriage is a journey towards sobriety, becoming an alcoholism counsellor, raising her biological and foster children, acclimatizing to living with visual impairment, and coming out as a lesbian. Fingers crossed for Chacaby’s win in the Lambda Awards later this year!

qwo li driskillQwo-Li Driskill

Qwo-Li Driskill is a Cherokee poet, scholar, activist, and educator whose work I was first introduced to in the anthology Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature, which ze also co-edited. Driskill is also a co-editor of Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. I love hir intellectual yet emotional poems, which were a highlight for me in Sovereign Erotics (and that means a lot because there was a ton of great writing in that book). Ze even writes sonnets! Could more contemporary LGBTQ2IA+ writers please explore classic poetry forms? You should pick up hir poetry collections Walking With Ghosts: Poems (2005), Burning Upward Flight (2002), Book of Memory: Honor Poems (2002). I especially love “Love Poem, After Arizona,” a poem which manages to be sweet and sexy as well as communicate a message of decolonization at the same time:

Baby

let me press my palm

against your chest

staunch the flow

of despair that beats from

your sacred heart

like an oil spill

We are two mixed-blood boys

and know empires are never gentle

Take off your Mexica mask

so I can see your beloved

Nahua face

Remove your wooden shield

so I can kiss your

Apache sternum

taste in your sweat

the iron of Spain

that never conquered us

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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