This book was the November selection for the Rad Roopa Book Club in which I participate, but it was also one I just really wanted to read soonish (and I’ve purchased a copy as a birthday gift for a friend!). Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives was an important book for me a few years ago. I haven’t read anything from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, but her words here proved just as significant. Rehearsals for Living is a moving and meditative journey through the minds and hearts of two powerful, political women. It gets you thinking—but it should hopefully do more than that; it should get you acting.
The book is a collection of letters the two authors wrote to each other over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letters are long and intended to be turned into a book, yet they still feel very intimate. Maynard talks about her struggles with parenting during lockdown and raising a Black child in an anti-Black society. Simpson recalls how land defence actions, like the Oka Crisis at Kanehsatà:ke in 1990, shaped her as a young activist, and connects this with ongoing Indigenous stewardship, sovereignty, and protection of the land. This is not a history book, yet you will learn history from it. It is not a manifesto, yet it left me feeling energized and invigorated.
Canada is an unjust society. A lot of people have trouble acknowledging this fact, owing perhaps to propaganda we get fed in school or a reluctance to feel like we are more like our neighbour to the south than we care to admit. Nevertheless, it’s true. We have serious issues with anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and structural social problems that prop up a carceral, capitalist state built on colonialism and resource extraction.
Now, if you’re looking for a soft introduction to these ideas, then Rehearsals for Living is not the place. This book assumes you are at least somewhat aware of the problems Maynard and Simpson discuss. That’s what I liked so much about it: I really want to move from ally to accomplice, move beyond “antiracism 101: don’t do a racism” lectures that tend to proliferate throughout EDI training. This book is a great step in that journey, both for how it challenges the reader’s assumptions and ideas and for how it demonstrates concrete action.
I read this the week after Treaties Recognition Week here in Ontario. The first full week of November has been designated for teaching and learning about the Treaties between Canada (or its predecessor colonial governments) and First Nations. I live on territory that’s part of the Robinson–Superior Treaty of 1850. Usually in my English course, I discuss Treaties in general and then show the NFB documentary Trick or Treaty?, by Alanis Obomsawin, which is about Treaty No. 9, to the north of Thunder Bay. Treaties are an immensely important part of understanding the historical, legal, and cultural relationships between settlers and First Nations. We are all Treaty people.
So land was on my mind as I read these letters. I had tried, as best I could as a white woman, to impress upon my students (some Indigenous, some not) how much colonization comes back to land. How different the worldviews of First Nations are from those of settler-colonial institutions when it comes to even the idea of “ownership” of land. Of course, Simpson expresses it so much more eloquently than I ever could! I read some passages from one of her letters out loud to my class.
Simpson and Maynard together help to demonstrate how so many seemingly separate injustices are connected and how they have their root in the land. Black and Indigenous activisms are connected because Black and Indigenous people are both overrepresented in Canada’s prison system. Incarceration is another way of controlling who has access to, who is restricted from, certain land. Whether it’s reserves dictated by the Indian Act and Department of Indian Affairs or sentences handed down by judges empowered by jurisdictions more interested in developing land than serving the people who live upon it, the state has always had intense mechanisms available to it to exercise this kind of control.
Rehearsals for Living is also inescapably about the pandemic and how it affected life, including activism. On one hand, there was some early release of prisoners to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. On the other hand, lockdown increased the isolation of vulnerable people, made group demonstrations and protests riskier and more difficult to coordinate, and increased risks for frontline workers, who tend to be racialized people. The ground shifted between us in the past two years, and Maynard and Simpson take note of this. Their letters capture their frustration with the moment, their exhaustion, but also their irrepressible hope. Because their people are still here. Indigenous people are still here, five hundred years in to colonization. Black people are still here. The centuries-long project of genocide, the attempt to erase people in favour of persons, of labour, has not been successful.
However, as these two authors note with sincerity and admonishment, we cannot think our way out of these problems. We cannot write our way out of these problems. Simpson and Maynard both share details of their actions, how they organize, participate in, support, or otherwise enable demonstrations, protests, sit-ins, mutual aid. The state is not going to save us; we have to save ourselves. This is something I think about a lot lately, both as a white woman with a lot of privilege in our society, as well as a trans woman who experiences structural and individual discrimination. It all comes back to community-building, to finding your people, and rallying around the cause.
From prison and police abolition to mental health to climate change, Rehearsals for Living tackles the important issues of our day with grace and optimism and unapologetic honesty. Part of me worries that white women like myself will elevate this book as another kind of feather to put into our reading cap—oh, did you read Rehearsals for Living? Touching, isn’t it? Yes, I learned a lot from it—well, onto the shelf it goes! Look at how educated I am! But as tired as I can tell Maynard and Simpson are from dealing with white people, even so-called allies, I can also see a lot of hope in their writing. All of us who live here can play a role. But we need to step out onto that stage, need to take responsibility, need to start living the relationship between ourselves and the land and other people on it. At least, that’s what I took away from this.