Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 2), Canada: This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Okay, so maybe I was looking the other way and missed the sheer force of poetic nature that is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, but after reading her latest collection of stories and songs, This Accident of Being Lost, I can only sit here and think: Where have I been? To balance my review of the Australian anthology, This country anytime anywhere, I was hungry for something vital and exciting from my own country—not that I didn’t think I wouldn’t find it from an Indigenous writer here, but I didn’t know where to look. I wanted something different than the fine, but more conventional narrative novels I’ve read in the past. I wanted something passionate, something that would challenge, discomfit.

And here it is.

Simpson is an acclaimed writer, musician, academic, and activist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry. She draws on the storytelling traditions of her people, merging them with elements of contemporary realism, speculative fiction, and spoken-word poetry. In turns introspective and political, her work is raw and uncompromising—shifting shape and stretching time—to bring the harsh realities of decolonization into focus through poems and stories that are vibrant, unexpected, and sometimes brutally funny.

Simpson’s writing erupts with an immediacy and intimacy that catches the reader off guard. The world she opens up is one where the uneasy ground between a self-centred, ego-driven contemporary culture, one with roots deep in the motivation and mentality of the colonial mindset that helped shape North American culture, meets an Indigenous worldview that values the dynamic interrelationships between family, community, ancestors, nature and the environment. This is the tension at the heart of the decolonial process. It is, at many levels, still a matter of paying lip-service, at best, to the legacy of the injustices endured by our Indigenous peoples. I may like to imagine myself “concerned” and “compassionate,” but reconciliation is meaningless unless otherwise unheard voices are truly heard.

This collection of short, often fragmented pieces does not endeavour to soft-peddle a message for easy consumption. Honest, frequently conflicted emotions—anger and bitterness, confusion and self-doubt, sadness and injury—come through; as does a deeply abiding respect and concern for the environment. As a storyteller and poet, Simpson’s power lies in the lyrical beauty of her language, and the vulnerability and sarcastic humour of her narrators. This is work that is at once engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

An underlying theme in This Accident of Being Lost, is the reality of being an Indigenous woman today and the disorientation that can create. The protagonists are searching for connection, to others and to their heritage. The poetic pieces tend to feel more political in tone, either as direct protest songs, or in a more plaintive evocation of loss and pain such as “travel to me now” which begins:

the wind has worn my edges
the cold pricked away brittle skin
bones lying here in front of you
lost before they can begin

there’s red on the ice of the lake
there’s bruises that never heal
there’s past collapsing on present
she took things i didn’t know you could steal

As much as I enjoyed the poetry in this collection, it was the prose pieces, at least on this first reading, that made me fall in love (yes, love), with Simpson’s writing. She weaves a selection of original, often fragmentary, stories, that drop the reader into the imaginations, concerns, and anxieties of her narrators in a way that is abrupt and intimate.

We see attempts to reclaim Indigenous cultural practices in altered spaces. Stories delivered with pointed sarcasm. In “Plight,” a group of women engage in the guerilla-styled tapping of maple syrup from the trees in a Toronto park (albeit marking the trees before the leaves fall in the autumn to be certain they have the right ones), while in “Circles Upon Circles,” a family tries to revive the practice of harvesting wild rice from a lake now bordered with summer cottages. In both cases, white residents have to be appeased: “Listen to their paternalistic bullshit and feedback…. Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” It is an emotionally exhausting process.

There are also a number of pieces that play with the way modern technology impacts communication. Online obsessions mediate relationships built around social media—intensifying insecurities and fragilities when texts don’t arrive, chat messages are ignored, and “real life” encounters are anticipated. But that is not where electronic interaction ends. The spirit world is also online. In the wonderful story “Big Water,” the narrator is engaged in text communication with Niibish, the surprisingly security-concerned spirit of Lake Ontario (Chi’Niibish to the Nishnaabeg people) as the lake waters rise, threatening the city of Toronto with extensive flooding. The lake is sending a message: “We’re in a mid-life crisis, out of shape and overcompensating because it’s too late to change any of that. Beaver’s doing push-ups on the soggy grass. Bear’s doing power squats and bragging about his seven-minute workout app and the option of having a hippie with a whistle to call out the next exercise.” It’s very funny, and yet it’s not. The message is serious.

Some of the narrators are delightfully sharp-witted, navigating settings—a firearms class or a daughter’s dance course—where they manage to hold their own. But it is in the more open, fluid pieces that explore the strained, breath- and bone-deep emotion of the search for connectedness with lovers, with the land, and even within the vagaries of modern society, that Simpson’s work speaks to me and to the “otherness” I struggle with. Her prose is exquisite, she handles longing and sadness so beautifully. In “Brown Against Blue,” a woman is heading out on a hunting trip with a man she loves, in the way that love is complicated and fragile. She doesn’t want to ruin the experience but fears she will. Her partner asks why things can’t just be “good” and she tells herself that one reason is because she is always “straddling the eroding edge of pathos.” But that’s not quite right:

I never teeter on the edge of things. I live there. I cheat on myself with Sad and she never abandons me. In a way that will sound awful to you, but not to me, she is the only one that loves me in the way I need to be loved. My constant lover, Sad, as muted, dysmorphic entrapment.

Another answer is that he lives in his own muted, dysmorphic entrapment that is slightly different than mine.

Songs and stories together, there are thirty pieces in this slim collection. They invite, and reward, re-reading. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began collecting traditional narratives and essays in her earlier publications, before releasing her first collection of fiction, Islands of Decolonial Love, in 2013. That was where I had originally wanted to start, but I could not find it locally. I now want to explore her earlier writing, her music, and see what other writers and artists this leads me to.

This Accident of Being Lost is published by House of Anansi Press.

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 1), Australia: This country anytime anywhere

Over the past decade, I’d like to think that my reading has broadened in scope. I used to scour and select books from mainstream literary reviews, major award longlists, and end-of-year round-ups. Reading works in translation, turning to smaller independent publishers, seeking more experimental writing, and allowing myself to follow my own idiosyncratic fancies have all served to expand the borders of my attentions (and the limits of my bookshelf real estate). But every now and then it doesn’t hurt to take stock and think: What are the gaps I might want to fill? What voices am I not listening to?

This year, when my friend Lisa of ANZ LitLovers announced her annual Indigenous Literature Week, I immediately thought of a book I picked up in Alice Springs this May: This country anytime anywhere: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing from the Northern Territory. However, if I was going to read and write about an Australian publication, I promised myself that I would balance my efforts with the work of an Indigenous writer from Canada. That review will follow in a few days.

Published in 2010, This country anytime anywhere is a joint project of the NT Writer’s Centre and IAD Press. The initial phase involved workshops and consultations with over 100 Indigenous people—some established writers, but the majority beginners interested in telling their stories. The resulting collection of poems and stories is diverse, featuring writers who range from teenagers to elders and hail from urban, rural, and remote backgrounds. Critically, eight Indigenous languages and English are represented. There are several bilingual offerings and two submissions for which no comfortable English language translator could be found. This is an indication of the precarious state of some of these Indigenous languages.

The range of offerings in this slender volume is impressive—from family histories, to traditional folktales, to poetic expressions of anger, and narrative songs and stories. The variety of styles and subject matter is impressive. Many evoke a simple, unadorned voice. Magical, or more accurately, spiritual elements are often woven into the fabric of mundane, everyday life, speaking to the connection to a heritage and land that extends back centuries, millennia. But, as one might expect, these poems and stories echo sadness, loss and grief. Fallout from the Stolen Generation, the years (1910-1970) when many children were removed from their families, is still very present. The ravages of alcohol, mental illness, injury, and suicide are not ignored. But there are also stories of hope and survival.

One of the most widely known contributors, writer and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, is represented with two bilingual (English/Pitjantjatjara) poems and two stories. “Spirit Gate,” which she describes as a “satirical work of fiction based on hope,” imagines the sudden disappearance of all the Aboriginal people from Alice Springs. The main character, Trevor, is awakened in his Melbourne home by the disembodied voice of his grandfather. The Song he hears is a summoning and he promptly leaves for Alice. Light-skinned, he arrives without attracting attention, to a community distraught by the disappearances. At a café, he listens to the clientele—“artists, social and youth workers, hippie-types and government ‘yuppie experts’”—debating the strange circumstances:

Snippets of conversation confirmed that all Aboriginal people had vacated the township region about a week ago. There had been no warning of the exile, no specific signs to the exodus, and most people had failed to notice the blackfellas had gone for several days. People had just assumed they’d gone for another funeral, or collecting royalty money somewhere.

Trevor learns that the non-Indigenous population feels “jilted and hurt.” Business and the tourist trade are threatened. Unruly behaviour on the streets and drinking on public lawns indicate that the Dry Town rules are being violated. It is a world turned upside down. Though the tone is tongue-in-cheek, Cobby Eckermann is taking a pointed stab at the industries that benefit from the Aborginal presence. In the end, the protagonist goes out to join his own people who have gathered beyond a spirit “Gate” to be renewed and regain the dignity they have lost.

Having just been out and spent time in Alice Springs and beyond (observing the town as an outsider but having an opportunity to engage with those who live and work there), this and a couple of the other pieces set in the community had an extra resonance. The desert imagery was also especially poignant for me—even after a short stay, the land gets into your system. The natural world is a common theme in much the poetry in this collection. For example, “Red Desert” by Maureen Nampijinpa O’Keefe opens:

See the thorny lizard walking along the red desert dunes.
See the snake slithering across the red desert sand.
See how high the eagle flies, hovering above the desert.

The spinifex glistens golden in the sun,
as the desert winds blow softly amongst the ghost gums.
See the leaves swaying to the desert wind.
Listen to the leaves rustle as the squawking of the white cuckatoos
breaks the desert’s silence.

This collection offers an interesting insight into contemporary writing from the Northern Territory. The poetry tends to have a plaintive, political undertone, while the prose pieces showcase the legacy of the long storytelling traditions of the Indigenous cultures. However, these are very much stories of the 21st century. And they are often brutal. Of note is “The Tree” (Gloria Daylight Corliss), a short piece that shifts between a third person narrative recounting a man’s memories of playing, camping and fishing beneath a large banyan tree, and a first person tale of personal loss and environmental degradation. What begins with a boy playing on the branches of the tree ends with the grown man hanging from the same tree. The urban-set “The Irony of that…” (Jessie Bonson) is a darkly playful tale of a teen-aged would-be writer who creates horrifying scenarios only to routinely erase them: “Edit – Select All – Delete.” But woven into the tapestry of her fantastic scenes are the very real domestic terrors that haunt her and her mother.

For the participants in this project, writing is healing. Since I traveled to central Australia to take part in a fundraising event in support of an Indigenous Women’s Council, this collection (which happens to feature female writers by a ratio of about 3 to 1) is a fitting complement to that incredible experience.