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Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost and Gwen Benaway’s passage, reviewed: Multiple realms

This Accident of Being Lost

By Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

House of Anansi, 128 pages, $19.95

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Passage

By Gwen Benaway

Kegedonce Press, 120 pages, $16

A storyteller, activist and academic of Mississauga Nishnaabe and Scottish descent, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a poet who strides through multiple realms. In This Accident of Being Lost, she carries the reader along with her urgent, direct address.

Her previous collection of stories and songs, Islands of Decolonial Love, was celebrated for its uncompromising truth-telling and genre-bending style. Writers such as Lee Maracle, Marilyn Dumont and Waubgeshig Rice have declared that Simpson is not only making an illuminating contribution to Indigenous literature, but a necessary one. It's necessary for the next generation of Indigenous artists and activists to see their own experiences reflected, and it's necessary for immigrants to learn about Indigenous worldviews so that reconciliation efforts do not descend into mere lip service.

In This Accident of Being Lost, Simpson sings of "stealing back red bodies/savage desires/ things we can't speak of." She wants to know how the colonized body can "feel good" and "feel safe." These desires may be familiar to the reader, but Simpson orients us from the perspective of those who are the "singing remnants/left over after/the bomb went off in slow motion/over a century instead of a fractional second" – the bomb being the devastating, long-term effects of Canadian colonial policies.

In her story Akiden Boreal, which is in a sense the heart of the book, two lovers visit a mysterious site set up for native ceremony. In this place, she feels a "knife of deep sadness being forcefully pulled out from deep in me." By way of contrast, in pieces such as 22.5 Minutes and Coffee, the speaker's anxiety over her feelings of desire are underpinned by her resistance to the oppressive aspects of North American consumerist culture, which seeps insidiously into social interactions.

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In other stories, the reader is allowed to experience the intimacy of the speakers' inner dialogue and social anxiety; the affectionate inside jokes that Anishinaabe activists share on social media; and the conflicted feelings of privilege that arise from being at a writing residency during a flood. Simpson takes us into neighbours' yards and lake sides to collect maple sap and wild rice, so we can feel the frustration and pain of having to constantly justify cultural practices: "They want a beach. We want rice beds. You can't have both. They want to win. We need to win. They'll still be white people if they don't have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won't be Mississauga if they can't ever do a single Mississauga thing" (from Circles Upon Circles).

Simpson uses the first person to destabilize the reader, as it's not possible to tell which details are lived experience and which are imagined. This is perhaps the point, for if readers are too concerned with authenticity, they might miss out on Simpson's playfulness and emotional intelligence. Her writing educates the reader even as it admits to not having all the answers. In fact, it is the uneasiness and emotional uncertainty of her characters that makes the book strangely addictive. I was stunned by Simpson's generosity in sharing these experiences and inviting us to be challenged and to be lost. I welcomed having my assumptions about urban Indigenous people upended, and this is accomplished with the nourishing humour, wisdom and poetic, loose-limbed lines that have been sewn through the stories.

Gwen Benaway's second collection of poetry, Passage, has a similar generosity and intimacy as it follows her spiritual journey across the Great Lakes, the ancestral territory of the Anishinaabe peoples. It also follows Benaway's transition into a two-spirit woman, a journey of healing.

Reading these poems is like sitting at the edge of water – I was lulled by the short, rhythmic lines and the immediacy of place. Yet the more time you spend travelling with Benaway on her journey home, the more aware you become of her fear and grief – of the swamp edges and dark water. This is not "a mythic journey/just uncertain discovery," and she is not an explorer, only a "clueless halfbreed, exiled again." In this landscape of memory, the speaker longs to be welcomed and desired, but all that awaits are the "mottled tongues of the dead" and ancestors who have "nothing/to feed me, only scraps."

Passage contains short, song-like stanzas, using repeated lines and questions that amplify the speaker's call-and-response. Despite the abbreviated lines, it's a dense book at 120 pages and perhaps would have benefited from more variation in form. There are many references to bones, ghosts, water, rivers and dreams, which tend to make a few poems feel repetitive. However, Benaway's diction more often than not achieves both uniqueness and clarity.

Despite death's call and "that dark current/I carry in my veins" and despite the legacy of parental abuse and the business of trauma, Benaway's speaker still clambers with want. She does not simply want to survive but to be visible, something Indigenous and trans women are too often denied.

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Phoebe Wang's debut collection of poetry, Admission Requirements, was just published.

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