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Haudenosaunee author Alicia Elliott poses for a portrait at the offices of Penguin Random House Canada, the publisher of her new book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground in Toronto, on March 21, 2019.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

  • Title: A Mind Spread out on the Ground
  • Author: Alicia Elliott
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada
  • Pages: 223

In a 2017 article in The Walrus, culture columnist and author Soraya Roberts said: "The personal essay isn’t dead, it’s just no longer white.” This nail-on-the-head observation came in response to a New Yorker essay in which writer Jia Tolentino claimed that “after the Presidential election, many favoured personal-essay subjects – relationships, self-image, intimate struggle – seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance.”

Of course, in the writing world, the arbiters of social relevance have not traditionally been a very diverse group. The idea that the personal is not adequately political ignores the lived experience of racialized peoples. Continued daily existence in the face of genocide, slavery and continuing colonial erasure is in fact, a political act. Roberts recognizes this, citing the works of Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby for their honesty and vulnerability, but also for their wisdom and sense of humour.

In her debut collection, A Mind Spread out on the Ground, Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott takes her place among essayists such as Gay and Irby, infusing intimate details of her own life with sociopolitical analysis and biting wit. In Elliott’s deft hands, eating chocolate-chip cookies becomes a political act, as the deeply colonial and classist nature of the food pyramid is unravelled. In the essay 34 grams per Dose she writes: “The ways Indigenous peoples deal with our trauma, whether with alcohol or violence or Chips Ahoy! cookies, get pathologized under colonialism. Instead of looking at the horrors Canada has inflicted upon us and linking them to our current health issues, Canada has chosen to blame our biology, as though those very genes they’re blaming weren’t marked by genocide, too.”

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In this collection, the particular structure of the personal essay – beginning with the experience of the writer and then weaving in threads of related material – is at its finest. Personal essays explore, they don’t prescribe. And they don’t always come to a tidy conclusion, although Elliott has chosen to end most of her essays on a note of hope, or a call to action for readers. At the end of 34 grams per Dose she does both, asking: “…if intergenerational trauma can alter DNA, why can’t intergenerational love?” It’s a gentle call for loving resurgence, which echoes the work of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Elliott asks a lot of questions, some rhetorical, some simply unanswerable as she unpacks the effects of intergenerational trauma. She does this perhaps most notably in the titular essay, which digs deep into the link between colonialism and depression. This essay asks more questions than it answers, which evokes a feeling that will resonate with many readers struggling with mental illness. When considering the Mohawk word that most closely resembles a depressive state, wake’nikonhra’kwenhtará:’on (a mind spread out on the ground), she asks: “If we had more terms and definitions backing up our understanding of depression, would we have been better equipped to deal with it when its effects began tearing our communities apart? Would those who wanted to civilize us have been more open to listening if we’d used their words?”

The entire collection is strong, but some standout moments include Weight, an essay on teen pregnancy, which Elliott has written in the second person. This startling choice employs the seldom-used point of view to maximum effect, placing the reader in the driver’s seat of an experience that is often judged mercilessly by society. She writes: “Whenever you’re alone, you place an anxious hand on your belly, feeling for a fluttering heartbeat. You’ve heard throwing yourself down the stairs can cause miscarriage. But stairs are in short supply when you live in a trailer on the rez.”

Elliott is not afraid to poke the bear, be it in the world of literature or federal politics. In Not Your Noble Savage, she turns her gaze on the gatekeepers of the Canadian literary canon, comparing the inherently sexist elements of the Indian Act – in which Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men lost status while Indigenous men who married non-Indigenous women did not – to the literary community’s willingness to uplift the voices of mixed-heritage Indigenous writers such as Thomas King over Pauline Johnson. Elliott writes: “The criticisms lobbied at Native authors are not about style or form or symbolism; they specifically replicate damaging colonial attitudes that Indigenous people have faced since contact.”

In a book punctuated with mic-drop observations, this moment is perhaps bested only by Elliott’s comparison of Justin Trudeau’s campaign promises to Indigenous peoples to a “commitment phobic dude-bro you agreed to ‘keep it casual’ with … finally refer[ring] to you as his girlfriend!” And of course, we all know how that turned out. Yes indeed, the personal essay is not the sole domain of white voices any longer, and with writers such as Elliott on the job, we are richer for it.

Carleigh Baker is a Cree-Métis writer who lives in Vancouver. Her debut story collection, Bad Endings, was a finalist for the Rogers Writer’s Trust fiction prize in 2017.

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