Content Warnings: Racism, sexual violence, domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide.
“Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness—things neither social workers nor police officers have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged, to patrol.”
Alicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. Her debut collection has amassed an impressive array of blurbs, including Eden Robinson and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and the acknowledgements include thanks to the likes of Roxane Gay, Waubgeshig Rice, Cherie Dimaline, and Tanya Talaga.
The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. The essay “Crude Collages of My Mother” fruitlessly attempts to piece together the divide she created in her mind between her mother when she was well, and when she was sick, and the fundamental unity and yet irreconcilability of the two halves. It also means eventually confronting her own depression and anxiety, and the fact that suicide rates among her people are twice the national average thanks to a complicated history of colonialism and genocide.
A significant part of Elliott’s collection also deals with perceptions of Indigineity. For her parents, this is the push-pull between her mother’s white Catholic identity, and her father’s desire to more deeply connect with his Indigenous heritage. For her it means confronting the perceptions and misconceptions of being half-white, and the choice to pass, or not, in various contexts. When she becomes a mother at eighteen, it means grappling with the fact that her child, who has a white father, does not have status, and the simultaneous guilt and gratitude for the fact that the child is white-passing. She calls out the internalized racism. “No one should have to feel thankful that their child is not dark-skinned,” she laments.
Another theme that runs through the essays is the power of seeing your reflection in literature, and how that impacts a young writer’s ability to create the kind of work they need to make. However, Elliott is equally critical of how the concept of diversity has been positioned in the literary sphere, arguing that it is the publishing world’s equivalent of the “ethnic” restaurant, fundamentally designed to cater to the white palate rather than reflect the tastes or concerns of the community from which it springs. While proud to be labelled a “Native writer” by other Native people, Elliott notes that being labelled a “Native writer” by non-Native people “is more often than not an act of literary colonialism, showing paternalism, ownership and a desire to keep us inside a neatly labelled box where they deem us a non-threat.” Outside their own communities, it is a label that calls even their accolades into question, as Elliott cites from a thesis in which the work of Thomson Highway is deemed to have been “canonized” simply because it came along just at the time when concerns were being raised about the pervasive whiteness of Canadian literature.
Elliott’s essays range from highly personal, to more academic, though they all incorporate a personal component. Some essays, such as “Dark Matters,” use poetic license on a scholarly concept, such as dark matter in physics, to draw a parallel: “Racism for many people seems to occupy space in very much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable,” Elliott analogizes. The most academic of these is “Sontag, in Snapshots” which begins with her reflections on why she hates having her photograph taken, and how her friends have often refused to respect this boundary. However, it quickly expands into a more wide-sweeping critical examination of how white artists and photographers like George Catlin and Edward Curtis co-opted the public depiction of Native people, so that they were seen as “frozen in time, relics of the past, beautifully tragic vanishing Indians.” Building on the Sontag essay on which she is reflecting, Elliott critiques how the agency of white photographers has been given priority over the agency of their non-white subjects, cementing the photos as facts, even when the situation has been highly manipulated, or the image is taken out of context.
Across these many themes, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.
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