Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario with her husband and child. Her writing has been published by The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, The Walrus, Macleans, Globe and Mail and many others. Her essay “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” won Gold at the National Magazine Awards and has been selected to be published in Best Canadian Essays 2017. She has most recently been named the 2017-2018 Geoffrey and Margaret Andrew Fellow at UBC. Her book of essays, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, is forthcoming from Doubleday Canada in Spring 2019.
In her essay, On Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing With Empathy and Writing With Love, Alicia expresses the importance of representing marginalized people in literature and discusses the difference between loving representation and “empathetic” representation. It will be included in her upcoming essay collection, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.
I’ve heard that when you see someone you love your pupils get bigger, as if your eyes themselves want to swallow them up and trap them inside. I don’t know if that same physiology applies to seeing objects, but I like to imagine my pupils were huge, hungry black orbs when I first read Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, gobbling up each of her words as fast as they could. Every sentence felt like a fingertip strumming a neglected chord in my life, creating the most gorgeous music I’d ever heard.
It was the first time I, as an Indigenous woman, read the work of 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. I was twenty-five years old.
I’d known I wanted to write since I was twelve, but back then I’d never seen a girl like myself in the books I loved so much. I saw white girls—often upper-middle class, often pining after unremarkable white boys. So that’s what I wrote. I wrote my way out of used clothes and Hamburger Helper and parents who screamed in the night. None of my characters ever worried about money. None of them were concerned what their friends would think if they met their Haudenosaunee dad or their white bipolar mother. None of them had a Haudenosaunee dad or white bipolar mother. Things were simple; things were normal. Rich boys and brand names were normal.
Obviously, as I got older, my taste in literature changed. What didn’t change was my suspicion that publishers felt Indigenous girls like me were unworthy of book covers or book deals. Even in university the women we studied were white: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Jane Austen. I admired these women’s work, but they weren’t writing what I needed to read, and this made it hard to believe there was space for what I needed to write.
So imagine my surprise when a fellow writer—a white woman—told me during post-workshop beers that I was going to get published right away “because I was Native.” I knew that there was some talk about the literary community’s need to be more “diverse,” but as far as I knew that was all it was. Talk. I could count the Native writers I knew of with half a hand—none of whom were women, and none of whom were writing about Native women in a way I recognized.
The idea that the colonialism, racism, and sexism—which had systematically kept Indigenous women out of the literary community—could somehow be leveraged through some half-assed literary affirmative action to benefit me as an Indigenous woman was absurd. And yet this white woman believed it with her whole heart. And yet this white woman got into an MFA program and I got rejected from every one I applied to. Perhaps I hadn’t made it clear enough on the application that I was Native. Perhaps I had made it too clear on the application I was Native. It was hard to say.
After that I stopped writing for years. When I would write—between mothering a four-year-old and shifts at my minimum wage job—I scraped all indigeneity out of my work. At least if my fiction read as “white” I’d be sure that any rejections were based on the work itself. I wouldn’t have to field questions about why my characters were Native, or deal with criticisms that they somehow weren’t “Indian enough”—issues that, as far as I could tell, never came up for white writers, for white work.
Then came Islands of Decolonial Love. Everything changed.
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Alicia Elliott visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Sonia Di Placido, Crystal Mars, and Anar Ali.