Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Own Self be True

“Homophobia is uncomfortable,” opened Jeremy Dias, host of the Own Self be True panel. Discomfort proved to be a running theme for all three LGBTQ writers; Gwen Benaway, Vivek Shraya, and Ivan Coyote each shared stories about the ongoing process of finding comfort – or perhaps becoming comfortable with discomfort – in bodies, in language, in spaces, in history.

The first writer to speak was Gwen Benaway, who sarcastically remarked “You always send a racialized trans woman out front!” This wit, levity, and gravity informed the tone of her reading, weaving humour with bold and, occasionally, dark realities. Benaway shared from her forthcoming poetry collection Passages , which uses the Great Lakes to organize a meditation on Indigeneity, girlhood, and transition. The connection is perfect; Benaway’s poetry gently lilts and rolls, sweeping you along with its beauty. Yet it can also jolt you unexpectedly with its force. Benaway’s performance concluded with a prayer to honour her “second girlhood,” and a poem entitled “Goes On,” exploring the relationship between gender, bodies, and being Indigenous. It was a beautiful benediction to a quiet yet powerful performance.

Vivek Shraya launched into her performance without an introduction. Reciting from her newly published collection of poetry even this page is white, Shraya emoted through words, body, and music. Shraya moved quickly between poems, each one different in timbre and tone, but all peppered with punchy diction. Throughout each of her poems, Shraya omits pronouns and articles, leaving her speech abrupt and disjointed – exactly how we should feel about the race card (“The Truth About the Race Card”) and alienating others who challenge our otherness (“Raji”). Shraya finished her reading with an homage to the black women who shaped the music of her memories – in an outlandishly fun and impressive performance, Shraya sang a poem composed of lines from a long list of chart-topping black women singers. It was an extraordinary finale to an exceptional sharing of herself.

The panel concluded with the wonderful work of Ivan Coyote. From his new book Tomboy Survival Guide , Coyote read a letter he received from a mother whose son was in transition. Her son was struggling, and she wanted to know how to be a better parent, and if things ever got any easier. Coyote’s response was impeccably measured, alternating between humour and raw honesty. Coyote writes of his relationship with his mother, and how in a moment where she reveals an understanding of the fluidity of gender, he cannot contain or measure his love for her. He speaks about his father, and how he has slowly become a stranger to him. Coyote’s reading showed compassion and patience for those who do not know him as he is, and a great hope for the young man who is figuring out that he is not trapped in his own body. Cotoye’s reading was striking and poignant, and the room moved through laughter and tears as he shared his stylistically beautiful words.

The Own Self Be True panel provided an evening that challenged the audience to constantly check their own prejudices, revealed the complexity and richness of intersectionality, and presented discomfort as a space to grow and change. It was an evening of beautiful words and great hope.