You ever read a book and have an epiphany, only for that epiphany to evaporate before you get around to writing it down or telling others? I think that happened here—I think one of Alicia Elliott’s essays in A Mind Spread Out on the Ground inspired an epiphany regarding my relationship with poetry … yet I have totally forgotten the thought now! I even paged through the book again to see if I could recover it. Nope. Maybe one day it will return.
I was drawn to this book by Elliott’s social media presence and some of her other writing online, such as this superb article for Chatelaine about 1492 Land Back Lane and Canada’s ongoing colonialism. Elliott’s writing balances past and present tense in a way that helps us connect how the colonial actions of the past reverberate into the colonial present Indigenous people are experiencing today. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a very personal collection of essays. Its title comes from a translation of a Mohawk word that roughly means depression, and a great deal of this book is concerned with the effects of colonialism on Elliott and her family. Yet the essays transcend colonialism, and as Elliott mentions in “Not Your Noble Savage,” she does not want to be pigeonholed as “just” an Indigenous writer.
I really appreciate the nuance on display in these essays. For example, Elliott’s parents often appear in her writing. She makes it very clear that she thinks of them fondly—yet at the same time, her childhood and teenage years are full of moments of tension, abuse, even violence. We are so prone to simplifying people in our lives into single stories—a parent is either loving or abusive, rather than loving and abusive. Elliott rejects the dichotomy and displays both the loving moments and the darker ones. Moreover, her intention here isn’t to excuse these contrasts or to show that she has worked through and somehow processed and come to understand all of this. Rather, she admits to us that it can be difficult to fully puzzle out the way we react to, understand, and respond to the people closest to us.
Within these pages you’re going to find what you expect: the violence Canada does to Indigenous people (especially Indigenous women), the nasty fallout of racism both systemic and targeted, the pain that comes with uprooting and re-rooting oneself and one’s family and—for Elliott is light-skinned enough to “pass” as non-Indigenous—feeling like one never quite belongs anywhere. However, you will also find the moments that are often erased from Indigenous experiences that make it to the mainstream: the moments of joy—particularly when Elliott is talking about her husband and child; the moments of triumph; the moments of honesty. As she mentions herself in several essays, we place Indigenous writers in boxes. We elevate those who conform to what we expect an Indigenous writer to write, and we find reasons to ignore and erase those whose writing breaks out of those boxes.
So as a settler, what I take away from this collection is that reminder that I have to be careful about how I approach the Indigenous storytelling that makes it into mainstream CanLit. (Joseph Boyden’s meteoric rise and subsequent fall from grace is perhaps the textbook case for this issue.) I must do my best to check my preconceptions at the door, not to laud something merely because it meets some subconscious checklist for Indigeneity, nor to reject something from an Indigenous author merely because of its departure from that unspoken norm.
And then more generally, I just valued Elliott’s candidness. The way she spoke about her traumas, about her difficulty navigating both the racism and the misogyny of modern Canada. Hers is a life so very distinctive from mine, by dint of so many axes of experience and identity. I appreciate being able to hear her stories and briefly glimpse my country through her eyes, so I can better understand how it is failing other women less privileged than me, how it is failing Indigenous people, how it is silent about survivors of abuse and assault, and how the very structures—such as public education and childwelfare—we supposedly put in place to protect our most vulnerable turn into the most oppressive, most inequitable parts of our society for some.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is many moments of intensity punctuated by poetical prose and thoughtful ways of weaving facts and education about this country’s colonial attitudes into very personal stories. My mind is not spread out on the ground after reading this, but you can bet that it is buzzing with ideas and interest sparked by Elliott’s essays.