Living Memory Keepers: Talking with Alicia Elliott

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Alicia Elliott’s essay collection, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, borrows its title from the Mohawk phrase for depression, “wake’nikonhra’kwenhtará:’on.” Recounting a conversation with her sister who is now fluent in Mohawk, Elliott explains that the translation is not exact. “Wake’nikonhra’kwenhtará:’on,” doesn’t literally translate to “fell to the ground.” In explaining the phrase’s meaning, Elliott’s sister describes the mind as “[l]iterally stretched or sprawled out on the ground. It’s all over.” A second phrase, “ake’nikonhrèn:ton,” means “the mind is suspended.”

Both Mohawk words suggest an inability to concentrate—a state that captures how colonialism and racism robbed Indigenous peoples of their abilities to fully practice their own way of life, as well as the way depression and mental illness take away an individual’s ability to concentrate. Elliott explores these issues, as well as the legacy of oppression and racism in North America, in her book, first published in Canada in 2019 and released in the US earlier this month by Melville House.

Elliott covers a lot of ground—colonialism, identity, Indigeneity, language, intergenerational trauma, and the lingering effects of the residential schools to which Indigenous children were sent to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” Part memoir, part analysis, Elliott writes about the fractured life of a child moving between her Indigenous culture and white communities, her mother’s mental illness, and the toll her mother’s illness takes on their family. She discusses her own depression and trauma, connecting her personal experiences with the broader experiences of Indigenous peoples.

I spoke with Alicia by email about her role as a writer, the importance of language and naming in shaping one’s identity, and how her memory helps her understanding of the world around her.

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The Rumpus: Reading your essays after the spring of 2020 was sobering since your essays address many of the issues that exploded to the forefront of the news cycle in 2020—antiracism and the lingering effects of racism in the Americas. What sparked the idea for this collection of essays?

Alicia Elliott: I’ve always been an inquisitive person who, quite unrealistically, wants to try to fix everything. When I started writing the essays that eventually made up this collection, I didn’t realize yet how arrogant I was in assuming that I could fix anything other than myself. However, I did realize that if I really wanted to change the world—if I wanted others to admit to embarrassing or shameful mistakes they had made, or open up and really be vulnerable and honest—then I had to be willing to do so myself. Each of these essays started as a question or a series of questions that I’d hoped would open up into a potential way to heal or explain myself.

The idea to compile them into a collection was technically my husband’s, but because he referred to it as a “memoir” and I didn’t like that label, I foolishly disregarded his suggestion. That is, until another writer friend, Ayelet Tsabari, suggested I just compile my essays together as a collection. I immediately called my husband to tell him that she’d given me this great idea that he’d already given me—just with a different title. I listen to my husband more now.

Rumpus: You liken racism to dark matter. It’s invisible and undetectable, which becomes convenient for those who want to deny its existence. Simply put, for some people, if it doesn’t happen to me it doesn’t exist. How does your view of racism as an invisible matter impact how you see your role as a writer?

Elliott: I’m glad that you referred to it as my role as a writer instead of the role of a writer. There’s this strange notion that all writers share common goals, purposes, inspirations, stakes, values. That’s obviously not true, though. I just saw a quote from Helen Knott, another Indigenous writer I really admire, where she explained that her role as a writer is that of “a living memory keeper.” I love that notion, as it cuts to the heart of where I pull my insights from: my own memories. Realistically, our own experiences are the only ones we can truly inhabit and understand—so that’s where I ground my own understandings of the world around me. I don’t know everything, but I do know what I’ve experienced, so that’s what I try to unpack. Sometimes that’s painful, and sometimes that’s joyful—but it’s always an attempt to be honest, an attempt to show others that we don’t have to be ashamed of who we are or things that have happened to us.

With regard to racism, just like any form of systemic discrimination, my experience as a white Indigenous woman is nothing like that of my brown-skinned family members. However, that doesn’t mean that my life hasn’t been fundamentally shaped by racism, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, poverty, addiction, and mental illness. I think a lot of white people—including white-passing mixed race folks—tend to think because they don’t experience the negative side of racism, and because they aren’t actively racist against brown and Black folks, that they aren’t also implicated in the continued existence of racism. That’s too easy, since the continued existence of any system of discrimination is dependent on us not doing anything. That’s why I found it so important to write the essay “Half-Breed: A Racial Biography in Five Parts.” That’s also why I felt a responsibility to continually bring up whiteness (and specifically my own whiteness) throughout the rest of the book. We can’t afford for invisible matters to stay invisible any longer.

Rumpus: In the title essay, you talk about the idea of cultural continuity—self-government, land control, control over education and cultural activities, and command of police, fire and health services—and its relationship to lower rates of depression and suicide in communities whose culture isn’t undermined by a more dominant culture. Can you talk about the connections between loss of culture and mental health?

Elliott: Cultural continuity is always connected to language, so I think the best way to illustrate the connection is through looking at language. In both Canada and the US, Indian residential/boarding schools were created to “kill the Indian, save the man.” The residential school closest to Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, where my paternal grandparents grew up, was called the Mohawk Institute. Teachers there believed that Mohawk culture was demonic and treated Mohawk children accordingly.

My paternal grandfather spoke Kanienʼkéha (Mohawk); my paternal grandmother did not. I’m not sure if my paternal grandfather went to the Mohawk Institute. My paternal grandmother didn’t—but she’s the only child in her family who can say that. Her older siblings did, and were worse off for it. When the country that rose up around you and your community begins to tell you that you can’t take care of your own children, that your culture and language are not only worthless, but dangerous—how are you supposed to respond positively to that? How are you supposed to feel any pride or self-worth when the country that rose up around you and your community continues to tell you those things, then takes your children, then takes more of your land, then takes more of your children—and there’s nothing you can do about it. Would you teach your children your language if their teachers disciplined them for speaking it? These are the sorts of hard decisions and deep wounds that are passed on from parent to child under colonialism. And they can’t exactly be solved by cognitive behavioral therapy.

My father never learned Kanienʼkéha, and neither did I. But my sister has been learning it and raising her daughter to learn it. When she explains how Kanienʼkéha moves as a language, when I see her trying to translate this ancient worldview to English, when I see the confidence with which she and her daughter speak and know who they are, I know these connections are real. And, of course, more and more data is proving that.

Rumpus: I love the way you contrast depression and colonialism. You write: “Depression often seems to me like the exact opposite of language. It takes your tongue, your thoughts, your self-worth, and leaves an empty vessel. Not that different from colonialism, actually.” How do you work out the literal and figurative loss of language in the book?

Elliott: That’s a really interesting question. I suppose the entire book was me attempting to do just that. I wrote it while I was in the midst of one of the longest, worst depressions of my life. Anyone who has ever been depressed knows how it sucks out your motivation, clarity, self-confidence. But as a writer I found the most frustrating part of depression was not knowing how to communicate how I was feeling in a way that others could understand. I figured out pretty quickly that if I waited for my depression to pass before I started to write, I wasn’t going to write anything, so I basically had to force myself through every single essay by sheer will. But the benefit of writing while depressed, if there is one, is that depression tends to make you over-analyze everything, which is great when your essays are heavy on analysis.

Rumpus: The title of your essay collection is beautiful and poetic. Yet, it carries significant weight. It captures the essence of colonialism, the way colonialism robbed Indigenous peoples of their language. Do you view writing as a way to regain lost language? A way to name that for which you don’t have a language?

Elliott: I want to separate those questions a bit, if that’s okay. The phrase “lost language” automatically brings to mind all the extinct or endangered Indigenous languages that their people are desperately trying to save. Writing in those languages will of course help others to regain language, because it will help others read that language and strengthen their fluency. But my writing in English about Kanienʼkéha, as I do in my book, doesn’t regain my family’s connection to Kanienʼkéha. Only learning, speaking, listening to, reading, and writing Kanienʼkéha does that.

However, I do believe that having words or phrases to name our experiences is essential for not only communicating with others, but also understanding ourselves. I think you can see that clearly with the next generation of kids. They’re picking up all the terminology that activists, academics, and community leaders have been creating for decades and using them as tools to define themselves, their beliefs, and the world they want to live in. That’s the ultimate way to utilize language, I think—to clarify and give expression to the world around us.

Rumpus: So the essays are also about belonging, about finding your way back home. You write that you’re “in diaspora on our own lands” and watching the same exploitative process that pushed Indigenous peoples from their own land occurring again. Can you talk about the search for home and community? What role does writing essays play in your search?

Elliott: Like a lot of kids who grew up in a poor family, I had a really rootless childhood. Because I grew up moving every couple years and starting over, a funny thing happened: I started to avoid any real intimacy and community. I viewed friendship, intimacy, and community as pain traps; since I couldn’t guarantee that I would still be living at any particular house in six months, let alone a year, it was easier to focus my energy, love, and attention on my family instead. So while I have a very strong connection to my family, I have a hard time opening up to others in my real life. I always worry that I’m going to burden others with my pain, so I tend to keep it all to myself. The idea of seeing others make a sympathetic face when I tell a story I don’t think is sad, or meeting me with complete silence when I tell a story I do think is sad, is often enough to keep me shouldering my burdens alone. I wouldn’t recommend this, by the way. It’s something I’m currently trying to overcome with the help of some outrageously titled but still brilliant self-help books.

Writing, on the other hand, allows me to express what I want to express without having to worry about the immediate reaction of the person I’m expressing my thoughts to. I’ve found it has really helped me climb out of my typical trauma response cycle, because I can just write and write and refine my thoughts until they express exactly what I want them to. I talk about this in the essay “The Same Space” a bit. I sometimes wonder if other marginalized writers—the ones who have been told their experiences aren’t real or important enough to address—feel a similar relief when they write. When you’re writing you don’t have to worry about getting “well, actually”-ed. Until you send it to an editor.

Rumpus: There’s also a strong sense of the duality of your life and that of your family. For your father, it’s one or the other; one must either “stop living in the boat, and come back to the canoe.” But that’s not a solution for you. I’m curious about how being mixed-race complicates your sense of duality.

Elliott: To be honest, I find the mixed-race conversation very uninteresting at this point in my life. When I was younger I was obsessed with the question of what being mixed race meant, as though there were some magical scroll I had to find and read to finally be okay with being “mixed.” It was only after reading Black and brown writers, and deeply reflecting on the differences between my experiences and theirs, that I came to understand how useless that line of thinking was.

We always have to start at the fact that race is fictional and was solely created to justify racism. Any mixed-race person’s crisis of racial identity is proof of that. We spend most of our time looking at the physical, behavioral, cultural, and intellectual expectations of two different races that we’re supposed to identify with, then noting the ways that we don’t meet those expectations. The problem comes when mixed-race people take that information and mistake it as commentary on themselves and their inadequacies instead of commentary on the concept of race and its inadequacies. So many of the ways that we define ourselves rely on this sense of duality—that you must be one or the other. I like to question that assumption in my writing. Are there only two options? Or is that what we’ve been encouraged to believe in order to stop us from having a fuller understanding of the world around us? From imagining newer, better futures?

Rumpus: In “On Seeing and Being Seen,” you described the first time you read another Indigenous woman: “It was such an intimate and personally revelatory moment—as if she had reached out from the pages, lifted my face and smiled. She can see me, I thought. She can see me.” What was it in those pages that felt true to you? And what was missing from other works about Indigenous people that you think was finally captured here?

Elliott: I’m so glad you mentioned that essay. Even though it’s undercover as an essay on cultural appropriation, it’s secretly a big love letter to Indigenous women. Before I read Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, the Indigenous women I saw in books were mainly depicted by non-Indigenous people or Indigenous men. Unfortunately, I found these depictions flat. Indigenous women on those pages weren’t complex. They didn’t seem to have their own ambitions outside of the men in their lives. In fact, many of them didn’t seem to even have inner lives. They certainly didn’t have sex lives that they were comfortable sharing, or that they controlled themselves. They were only ever vessels for others’ desire and disgust.

Simpson’s work, on the other hand, went entirely in the other direction. The Indigenous women she depicted were full of contradictions and complex thoughts and rich histories and their own desires. That made all the difference for me.

Rumpus: Is empathy enough to overcome writers’ lack of experience with a culture that’s not theirs?

Elliott: I don’t think so—but I also think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what “empathy” entails. It seems many well-meaning people believe that empathizing with marginalized people is, essentially, feeling sad for us when they read about our trauma in excruciating detail. That isn’t empathy. That’s sympathy.

Empathy is feeling what we feel, which would require you to have some understanding of and experience with the sort of discrimination we face. I don’t think that many white people have that sort of understanding and experience—and you can see it in their writing. It can feel cheap, easy. It can rely on stereotypes. And if the writer is primarily writing for an audience outside of the culture they’re depicting, the cheap, easy stereotypes are what their audience knows and wants. Unfortunately, that means if the writer wants to meet those expectations and generate praise, the writer has to stick to the script.

This is where the notion of writing with empathy fails, because writers who prioritize praise from audiences outside the culture they’re depicting are still writing with empathy—they’re just writing with empathy for their audience instead of their subjects. In my book I talk about writing with love as a different framework through which we can analyze how well a writer depicted experiences outside of their own. Do you as a writer feel love for that community? And if not, why? And if not, why do you want to write about them? The answers to these questions are, I think, more useful than questions of empathy.

Rumpus: What advice do you have for other writers, particularly those looking for a way back to a culture from which they have been estranged?

Elliott: Listen, listen, listen. Be humble. Get used to hearing the word “no,” respect that there is a reason you’re getting that “no” which you may not understand yet, and learn how to respond to those “no”s with grace. You’re going to make mistakes, as everyone does, but you can choose to learn from those mistakes. That’s what you’re going to need to do if you really want to connect with that culture. If you find yourself continually resisting all of that advice, maybe ask yourself why you really want to connect again in the first place, and if your attitude is going to allow for that to happen.

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Photograph of Alicia Elliott by Ayelet Tsabari.


Donna Hemans is the author of two novels: River Woman and Tea by the Sea. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, and Witness, among others. She is currently working on a novel about Jamaican migrants in Cuba. Find her online at donnahemans.com or on Twitter @donna_hemans. More from this author →