Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She has written for Globe and Mail, CBC, Hazlitt and others. Her essays have both been nominated for and won National Magazine Awards, and her short fiction was selected for Best American Short Stories 2018, Best Canadian Stories 2018, and Journey Prize Stories 30. Tanya Talaga selected Alicia to receive the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award last year. Her first book is A Mind Spread Out On The Ground.
The following interview took place via e-mail at the end of March, 2019.
Rebecca Salazar: First, congratulations on your debut book! I remember you reading from a drafted chapter when we first met in Banff, and it’s such a privilege to get to read the finished collection; your writing moves seamlessly between deeply engaging storytelling, incisive cultural critique, and searing vulnerability. Many of these essays were published before their appearance in the book. How was the process of assembling them into book form?
Alicia Elliott: It was easier when I was writing for me to think about each essay individually and focus on editing it and making it the best it could be on its own. I didn’t want there to be a bad essay in the collection. When it came time to think about ordering the essays, my husband Mike pointed out how I had certain themes I kept coming back to, so he really helped me make sure that I wasn’t going on about one particular topic for too long. It was a conscious effort to ensure that readers wouldn’t be bored. Trying to find the right rhythm between long and short essays was important to me, as well. Even with my longest essay, “Sontag, in Snapshots,” I wanted to break it up with quotes so it didn’t feel like it was a chore to get through. As I read my book front-to-back for the audiobook, it really struck me how certain essays speak to other essays, and how that rhythm works.
RS: I have to ask if you have your book launch lipstick or eyeshadow look planned ahead—any hints?
AE: I just had my book launch two days before writing this, so I can definitively answer this question! I was gifted the Natasha Denona Gold Palette by the Doubleday team as a book launch present, so I wore that, and a bright red lipstick from Kat Von D. I woke up from my pre-launch nap much later than I planned, so it didn’t look the best, but that’s fine. I guess.
RS: I think I texted you at one point while reading your book to say I was taking notes on your shade-throwing technique. Whether you are calling out how Canadians try to temper discussions of genocide by adding the word “cultural” (“as if that somehow softens its edges and makes it more permissible. More Canadian”); or dragging the tokenistic naming of schools after Indigenous poets (“Pauline Johnson, the local Mohawk poet good enough to name a school after but apparently not good enough to have her work taught within it”); or reading to filth the hypocrisy of certain CanLit figures, you make a strong case for sarcasm as critical praxis. How did you come to find this use of irony so powerful in your writing?
AE: Yes, you did! It made me laugh so hard. I’ve talked about this a little bit before, but I’ve noticed that often the most marginalized and oppressed groups of people are also the funniest. It’s probably to some extent a coping mechanism. I mean, the traumatizing circumstances a lot of Indigenous people have been and continue to be in aren’t very funny, but we can’t very well continue on through ongoing genocide without finding the little joys in life. Laughter is medicine in that way, and it came very naturally to my writing, as I think it does to a lot of Indigenous writers’ work.
Plus I’ve always been that eye-rolling teenage girl who throws out remarks like that, so why not embody that in my book?
RS: So many of these essays illustrate how colonial oppressions—including racism, poverty, sexual violence—are physiological. From hunger, to lice infestation, to depression and suicide, you pay such close attention throughout this collection to how social traumas are literalized in the body, and especially so for Indigenous women. Can you say more about why this physicality was important for you to acknowledge?
AE: I find that it’s easy for people to turn away from abstract things like statistics, reports, etc. They don’t necessarily know what poverty and colonialism, for example, look like on an individual, day-to-day level. I wanted to make it comprehensible to those people by grounding these big abstract concepts and histories in concrete, personal detail. That often meant rooting these oppressions in the body, because that’s usually where we feel these systems of oppression most acutely. It’s not just in our minds; racism affects our bodies, our stress levels, our health. It’s a totally different, but more accurate way, of looking at oppression than the sorts of conversations we often see happening in the mainstream media.
RS: Near the end of the title essay, “A mind spread out on the ground,” you write that “both depression and colonialism have stolen my language.” This essay in particular demonstrates how colonialism suppresses Indigenous languages and then erases the cultural specificity of trauma from institutional understandings of mental illness—leaving entire communities without the words to articulate their suffering or their survival. And yet, you finish that chapter with the assertion that “things that were stolen once can be stolen back.” How do you see this reclamation taking place, in your own writing as well as in your communities?
AE: My son recently told me that he wants to go to the same Mohawk program that my sister went to when he graduates high school. When he said that I wanted to cry. He’s one of so many young Indigenous people who aren’t ashamed of our culture or our languages, the way that our parents were taught to be. They see our culture and languages as something to treasure and cherish. That fills me with so much hope.
I want to eventually go through that program, as well, and hopefully learn Tuscarora before it dies out. (There are very few Tuscarora speakers left.) It’s a very intense program, since English is so different from Haudenosaunee languages. Monday to Friday, 9-4. Of course, it’s currently dependent on funding from the government, which isn’t always there. And since there are more and more of our people wanting to learn, it means there’s less money to go around, since the funding hasn’t really increased that much. This is why it’s so important for Canada to declare Indigenous languages national languages. We would have so much more funding in communities so people like myself and my son could learn without wondering how we’re going to eat.
RS: The way you map out the effects of colonial language suppression makes it feel analogous to the neurological process by which trauma physically shuts down the part of the brain that stitches events into coherent memories—both processes result in a fragmentation of linear narrative. I see this reflected in the structure of your essays in a way that de-pathologizes that fragmentation: your storytelling is associative rather than chronological, moves thematically through space and time, and often, untold fragments of an anecdote told in one essay often appear later on, in another, unexpectedly expanding the story. Instead of trying to “fix” the non-linear nature of trauma narratives, your collection seems to find creative potential in “a mind spread out on the ground.” Can you speak to how you think about form in CNF writing about trauma?
AE: The nature of writing is to try and make experiences sensible to your readers. That gets difficult when you’re writing about trauma, because there’s so much about trauma that doesn’t make sense. When I start an essay, particularly one about trauma, I’m trying to write towards a truth that I’m not sure exists. Instead of going straight down the obvious, linear path—which I find often leads to a dead end—I try to go through a series of side doors, circling towards this idea of truth and hoping to excavate other truths in the process. That’s what’s so exciting to me about CNF: I never know where I’m going to end up. I never know what I’m going to end up bringing into the fray. It’s a form that welcomes that sort of exploration, though, which I’m thankful for.
RS: Many of the stories you tell in this collection explicitly challenge what readers expect from stories about racialized and gendered trauma—and how marginalized writers are expected to perform their marginality. Similar to something Hannah Gadsby argues in her comedy special Nanette, you write that “the more that we revisit events, the more entrenched they become in our memory,” and thus, that constantly retelling a trauma traps a survivor in reliving it. While Gadsby posits a need to move forward and tell a different story, perhaps by switching to another genre, you advocate for the right to forget: the right to dissociate away from pain or danger, and the right not to owe anyone proof or performance of trauma. Given the power that your collection acknowledges in storytelling as a way to reclaim and heal traumatic histories, why do you think this option also deserves to be advocated for?
AE: I think it’s important to differentiate between personal experiences of trauma and larger traumatic histories. When you’re a survivor of violence, you need to be able to move on. There are many ways to be able to do that, and I’m not interested in pathologizing certain responses to trauma as “good” or “bad.” That puts too much responsibility on the person and not enough on the society that allowed this trauma to happen and left this person to handle it on their own. Things get complicated, of course, if that survivor starts to deal with their trauma by inflicting trauma on others. I don’t feel we, as a society, are at the point where we can have those kinds of nuanced discussions about this yet, though. Not while the criminal justice system exists the way it does.
On a societal level, on the other hand, it’s actually essential that we acknowledge the histories that we don’t want to acknowledge, because those histories are embodied within individuals. They literally cannot be ignored—even on a genetic level, which I look at in my essay, “34 grams per dose.” The only way to heal from those traumas is to first acknowledge them, then start looking at the systems that created them, how those systems operate now, and then start to dismantle them. Again, though, I don’t think we’re there yet. I hope we get there very, very soon.
RS: Many of your essays transform familiar stories from pop culture, science, or mythology to suggest new possibilities and teachings. “Dark matter” turns the scientific mystery of dark matter into a parable for the unspoken history of white supremacy in Canada, while “On forbidden rooms” interrogates the fairy-tale exoneration of Bluebeard’s cruelty and relates the Catholic parable of St. Thomas’s doubt to the way survivors of sexual violence are doubted and re-violated by demands for proof (the latter is an especially chilling analogy that completely reframes Thomas’ demand to probe Jesus’ wounds in order to “prove” they are real). You’ve written before about how you find storytelling in everything from wrestling to pseudoscience. What draws you to the stories to interact with in your writing?
AE: It’s all very instinctual. Sometimes it’s easier to go into something very personal by first going into something that’s removed from you, like a fairy tale or a Kanye West album. While interrogating why my mind went to that particular place, I usually find that there’s something surprising that connects the two experiences.
RS: You’re going to be part of a panel at this year’s AWP titled “Indigenous Fiction: Intersections in the United States & Canada.” Your own book crosses and blurs colonial border that separates the two countries; can you say more about the relationship between Indigenous writers on either side of the border?
AE: I’m actually on the way to AWP right now! Like, literally typing this on the plane! Twitter has made it so much easier to find one another than it would have been ten years ago. Still, I don’t have as much knowledge of and connection to Indigenous writers living in what’s currently called The United States as I’d like, if I’m being honest. The literary industry is much different in the U.S. than it is in Canada, so until very recently with the success of writers like Terese Marie Mailhot, Tommy Orange, Layli Long Soldier, Elissa Washuta and Tommy Pico, there was very much a “there can only be one!” mentality when it came to Native writers. I think that’s starting to change now—or at least I hope it is.
In Canada, the market is much smaller, so we kind of have to stick together in a different way than writers in the States do. We are seeing a similar rise in Indigenous talent, though. We’re winning all the awards and topping best-seller lists. It’s incredible how different the market is now than it was even five years ago.
It’s interesting, though, because the two men who took up most of the air in Indigenous lit. in the U.S. (Sherman Alexie) and Canada (Joseph Boyden) have both had monumental falls from grace within the past few years. This has had the perhaps expected side effect of making so much more space for new voices. It’s almost like they had to leave the limelight for audiences to realize what they were losing by focusing most of their energy and attention on just those two men. And it can’t go back to the way it was before. We won’t let it.
RS: I have lately found myself doubting the way I write about my own trauma—I keep feeling guilt over inflicting representations of it on possible readers, and asking myself for whom I am writing, and why. There is a tenderness in your writing that guides your readers and holds them through the most difficult passages with empathy and humour. How do you build this relationship of care with your possible readers when you are writing? How do you also care for yourself while writing?
AE: Unlike some writers who can’t imagine their readers’ reactions while they’re writing, I write with the audience in the front of my mind. I can’t help it. I want to make sure that my readers feel safe inside my work. Doing that consciously shapes my work into what I want it to be, instead of having to later edit my writing so that it doesn’t inflict harm.
You can’t write about an experience until you’re somewhat removed from it. You have to be able to step back enough that you can look at the experience not just as an emotional event, but as something that can be edited and crafted. It’s hard to do that before you’re ready. I’ve learned that the hard way while writing parts of this book. Things I thought I could write about would make me start crying when I re-read it, so I just ended up deleting those parts and working around them. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to give everything to your reader all the time. You can control how much you give, and when and how you give it.
RS: You write that seeing yourself represented in the writing of other Indigenous women, especially in Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s stories, “ultimately gave [you] permission to write [your] own.” The final essay in this collection, “Extraction mentalities,” quite literally grants readers permission to write their own stories—structured as a questionnaire, the essay offers blank lines for the reader to fill in their own part in the story you are telling. And yet, this permission to write requires the reader to admit their own histories of complicity in systems of abuse. If there is a lesson to learn here about the responsibility of writers and storytellers to their communities and kin, how would you sum it up?
AE: I don’t like to dictate to people how they should write, but I do like to give side eye to writers who treat their craft as another exercise in extraction: who take stories, use them in whatever way will get them the most money or fame or awards, then move on to the next story without thinking about what the real impact of their writing has been. Because there is an impact. If you aren’t consciously crafting your story to have a certain impact, you’re leaving your reader to discern your message for you, which can be a very dangerous thing. I sincerely hope that writers really think about their responsibilities and not just about their rights. Not only is it more ethical, it just makes for better writing when you’re purposeful in all that you do.