Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern
For the final article of this series, I’ll give you a taste of something easy and enjoyable you can do towards Reconciliation: read a book. There are loads of great books about Indigenous history out there, like Bob Joseph’s 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act and Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian, both of which I highly recommend. Today, however, I decided to talk about a book that is not just educational, but personal and lyrical. It’s a book of essays, but it reads like a novel. And I think it’s brilliant.
The book I’m talking about is Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on The Ground, which combines the author’s personal experience with broader issues of politics, colonialism, and history. Elliott’s essays cover a wide range of topics: racism, poverty, sexual assault, abuse, mental health, headlice, photography, etc. And I love the way she handles these topics almost simultaneously, making connections that I never would have thought of myself.
Ironically, Elliott makes it quite clear that she does not want to be considered a “Native writer” (164). It frustrates her that although she has been disadvantaged by her identity, people think she’s rather advantaged – and has only gotten this far by virtue of her Indigeneity (164). She also doesn’t appreciate being tokenized, as her value is first and foremost as a writer, not a marginalized group (164). Reading this does give me pause. Is it right for me to bring Alicia Elliott up in the context of this blog post , which is clearly focused on Indigeneity, when she says herself that she does not want to be a “Native writer”? After thinking about it, I think it is. Although I’m deliberately promoting an Indigenous voice, I’m also choosing to recommend Elliott in particular. Not simply because of her identity, but because she is a fantastic, insightful writer that I think you will enjoy. Ultimately, I’m using this as an opportunity to write about one of my favourite books.
My favourite essay is “34 Grams per Dose,” which is about Elliott’s relationship with food. As a child, she “self-medicated with sugar and junk food” to deal with poverty and neglect, and binge-eating continued to be symptomatic of her mental ill health, later on (Elliott 94; 91). Since I have also struggled with a dysfunctional relationship with food, this story resonated with me on a personal level. Yet I was also impressed by the way Elliott weaves her story into a broader canvas. After describing how poverty forced her family into a food desert, she critiques the idea that unhealthy eating habits are “entirely your fault” (Elliott 93-95; 101-102). Growing up, Elliott had very little opportunity to get fresh produce, so her overconsumption of processed foods was hardly due to personal choice (Elliott 93-95; 101-102). Rather, it was inextricably linked to her poverty – which, in turn, is linked to race, and colonialism (Elliot 96-97; 108-111). And let’s not forget the mechanisms of capitalism, which values profit over human health (Elliott 97). I hate to gloss over these connections so briefly, but I cannot do justice to Elliott’s voice. I just think you should read the essay!
Before you worry that it’s all doom and gloom, I have to say that I was struck by Elliott’s optimism. Even “Crude Collages of My Mother,” an essay that discusses her family’s struggles with mental illness, ends with a powerful message of love and acceptance (Elliott 149). Similarly, “Extraction Mentalities” describes Elliott’s parents – both abusive to each other and to her – with remarkable compassion. Although her perspective is biased by love and pain, Elliott transcends this to describe two full, complex, truly multi-faceted human beings (200-203). She also manages to discuss the prevalence of abuse within society at large (Elliott 197). In fact, she argues that it is both overtly criminalized and covertly sanctioned by the state (Elliott 210-211). Not only are her arguments persuasive, but they exhibit meticulous nuance. To me, that nuance is what makes her book so good.
Well, if you’re looking for a book to read, here it is. It’ll teach you something or two about the perspective of an Indigenous woman in Canada – and about poverty, mental illness, sexual violence, etc. But don’t read it because it’s educational. Read it because it’s superb.
Elliott, Alicia. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Anchor Canada, 2019.
About the Author:
Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.