Jenny Ferguson Reviews Alicia Elliott's A Mind Spread Out on the Ground
In A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott demands to be seen as a full, complicated, Indigenous woman across her intersections as mother, daughter, writer, white-coded Tuscarora woman, and scholar. Her debut essay collection navigates the deeply personal and that which all settlers in Canada and the U.S. should already know—their implication with racism—with depth, wit and never-ending heart.
This is not an easy collection to read. Isabella Wang—a Vancouver-based poet and essayist, one of CanLit’s sure-to-be-darlings—told me on Twitter that she was reading the first three chapters and “softly crying.” For some context, Elliott’s title essay approaches both her mother’s mental illness and Elliott’s own experiences with depression. This metaphor—from the Mohawk phrase Wake’ nikonhra ’kwenhtará: ’on—enacts both the structure of the collection and how we approach the traumatic: laid out non-sequentially, seemingly out-of-an-implied-natural-order, and then suddenly, if we can pan from far enough away, the full spread becomes visible. It’s rare to get such a viewpoint on our own minds. Elliott offers such a spread for her readers.
The braided essay “Dark Matter” contrasts Canada’s racism towards Indigenous peoples with a relatively recent discovery in the scientific community. The way Elliott discusses something concrete—Colten Boushie’s shooting death at the hands of a white Saskatchewan farmer and the universe’s dark matter—is skillful. As the essay progresses, this cosmological energy becomes loaded as a metaphor for racism but also always remains itself.
Near the conclusion of the essay, Elliott writes:
Dark matter forms the skeleton of our universe.
Dark matter doesn’t emit light or reflect it. That’s why scientists can’t detect it.
The dark matter particle doesn’t let anything stand in its way.
I wondered how something could be so pervasive, so all-encompassing, responsible for the world as we know it, and still not able to be clearly seen.
This is the depth of dark metaphors in A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Yet, Elliott’s first collection also—as most inspections of the very painful do—brims with sharp humour and a love that radiates off the page. In “Scratch,” an essay about cycles of poverty and poverty’s literal plague—lice—the last line is a zinger. While lice are no longer a daily fact of life for Elliott, she quips: “Naturally, every time my kid has had lice, I’ve caught them, too. That Ouija board [one she and her sister consulted when they were kids] was full of shit”. In “Boundaries Like Bruises” a now-decade long relationship between two people—Elliott and her husband—is explored. While the title seems to suggest this essay will hurt, it’s important to remember that bruises are not necessarily caused from intentional pain.
That’s not to say we’ve fully shrugged off the roles we’ve been assigned. You are a man; I am woman. You are a settler; I’m Onkwehon:we. These differences are stakes in our ground, mapping boundaries that feel like bruises. Anytime we push against them it hurts, but we both know we must be more than historical vessels holding pain; more than performers re-enacting ancient scripts. Despite our best efforts, different shades of abuse will still colour our interactions—sometimes soft and diluted like watercolours, sometimes harsh and angry like charcoal. Cycles are hard to break.
Elliott’s prose overwhelms. Two people, actively working towards decolonial love is beautiful. The choice of second person here is both inviting, intimate, and a gentle call, as if, you too reader, can imagine yourself here, in what feels like the ideal—but for Elliott and her husband is their real, their process.
While the majority of the collection is structurally straightforward, told in a voice that is certain, or, if uncertain, clear and careful about how it positions itself, the final essay is somewhat experimental, inviting readers to write answers to difficult questions in the book itself. Perhaps what’s remarkable about A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is that a reader could remain unimplicated as so many settlers manage to do—this is Alicia Elliott’s life, her thoughts, her past, her present and not mine. Until the last essay, where the reader cannot distance themselves from direct address. Here, Elliott asks us to review the previous essays, to fully implicate ourselves in this narrative of colonial Canada, colonial America, and the colonized mind.
In a word, that feat is, exceptional.
How we readers react in our own minds and our active lives dictates our engagement in the process that is decolonial love and antiracism; Alicia Elliott has shown us her mind and life and process in stark, beautiful detail.
Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. BORDER MARKERS, her collection of linked flash fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She teaches at Missouri Southern State University and in the Opt-Res MFA Program at the University of British Columbia.