#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 HILARY WESTON WRITERS' TRUST PRIZE FOR NONFICTION
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019 BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL • CBC • CHATELAINE • QUILL & QUIRE • THE HILL TIMES • POP MATTERS
A bold and profound meditation on trauma, legacy, oppression and racism in North America from award-winning Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott.
In an urgent and visceral work that asks essential questions about the treatment of Native people in North America while drawing on intimate details of her own life and experience with intergenerational trauma, Alicia Elliott offers indispensable insight into the ongoing legacy of colonialism. She engages with such wide-ranging topics as race, parenthood, love, mental illness, poverty, sexual assault, gentrifcation, writing and representation, and in the process makes connections both large and small between the past and present, the personal and political—from overcoming a years-long battle with head lice to the way Native writers are treated within the Canadian literary industry; her unplanned teenage pregnancy to the history of dark matter and how it relates to racism in the court system; her childhood diet of Kraft Dinner to how systemic oppression is directly linked to health problems in Native communities.
With deep consideration and searing prose, Elliott provides a candid look at our past, an illuminating portrait of our present and a powerful tool for a better future.
About the author
ALICIA ELLIOTT is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River living in Brantford, Ontario, with her husband and child. Her writing has been published by The Malahat Review, The Butter, Room, Grain, The New Quarterly, CBC, The Globe and Mail, Vice, Maclean's, Today's Parent and Reader's Digest, among others. She's currently Creative Nonfiction Editor at The Fiddlehead, Associate Nonfiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and a consulting editor with The New Quarterly. Her essay, "A Mind Spread Out on the Ground" won Gold at the National Magazine Awards in 2017, and another of her essays, "On Seeing and Being Seen: Writing With Empathy" was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2018. She was the 2017-2018 Geoffrey and Margaret Andrew Fellow at UBC, and was chosen by Tanya Talaga to receive the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize in 2018. Her short story "Unearth" was selected by Roxane Gay to appear in Best American Short Stories 2018. Alicia is also presently working on a manuscript of short fiction.
Excerpt: A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (by (author) Alicia Elliott)
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground
He took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose the way men in movies do whenever they encounter a particularly vexing woman.
“I’m really confused. You need to give me something here. What’s making you depressed?”
His reaction made me think briefly of residential schools, though at the time I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was the fact that he operated his therapy sessions out of a church. That certainly didn’t help.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Can a metaphor or simile capture depression? It was definitely heavy, but could I really compare it to a weight? Weight in and of itself is not devastating; depression is. At times it made me short of breath and at times it had the potential to be deadly, but was it really like drowning? At least with drowning others could see the flailing limbs and splashing water and know you needed help. Depression could slip in entirely unnoticed and dress itself up as normalcy, so when it finally took hold others would be so surprised they wouldn’t know how to pull you to safety. They’d stand there staring—good-intentioned but helpless. Empathetic, perhaps, but mute. Or, as in the case of this particularly unqualified therapist, angry and accusing. Not that I necessarily blame them. I’ve done the same thing.
When what was left of my family moved to the rez we lived in a two-bedroom trailer—my sister and I in the smaller room, my three younger brothers in the master bedroom. My parents had no bedroom, no bed. They slept in the living room on the couch and recliner. As one may assume of such circumstances, privacy was precious, if it existed at all. Doors never stayed closed for long; at any moment someone could barrel in unannounced. This meant there was no place for my mother to hide her illness.
I’d mostly known her as having bipolar disorder, though she’d been diagnosed and rediagnosed many times. Postpartum depression, manic depression, schizophrenia. Most recently, my mother has been diagnosed as having either schizoaffective disorder, which is a version of bipolar disorder with elements of schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on which doctor you talk to. None of these phrases gave her relief. In fact, they often seemed to hurt her, turning every feeling she had into yet another symptom of yet another disease.
What these words meant to my siblings and me was that our mother’s health was on a timer. We didn’t know when the timer would go off, but when it did, our happy, playful, hilarious mother would disappear behind a curtain and another would emerge: alternatively angry and mournful, wired and lethargic. When she was depressed she’d become almost entirely silent. She’d lie on our brother’s bottom bunk and blink at us, her soft limp limbs spilling onto the stained, slate-coloured carpet. I’d sit on the floor beside her, smooth her hair—bottle red with grey moving in like a slow tide—and ask her what was wrong. She’d stay silent but her face would transform. Damp, swollen, violet, as if the words she couldn’t say were bubbling beneath her skin, burning her up from the inside.
Terminology is tricky. Initially, depression was known as “melancholia,” a word that first brought to my mind a field of blue cornflower and golden hay. Its trochaic metre gave it an inherent poeticism, an ingrained elegance. It was delicate, feminine. Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, definitely did not suffer from depression. When she floated down that river, decked in garlands, stones in her pockets, she was in the throes of melancholia.
The term first appeared in Mesopotamian texts in the second century BCE. At the time, they considered melancholia a form of demonic possession. They weren’t alone: ancient Babylonian, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations all attributed mental illness to demons overpowering the spiritually weak. Exorcism—which often entailed beatings, restraint and starvation—was the only known “cure.” Even during the Renaissance, when thinking about depression began to reflect the more progressive views of the early Greek physician Hippocrates, a heavily Christian Europe had another way to describe those with mental illness: witches. They were “cured” by being burned at the stake. Sometimes, as part of their trial, suspected witches underwent an ordeal by water. They were tied to a rope and thrown from a boat. If they sank they’d be pulled back to a safety of sorts, their innocence proven, but their illness unchecked. If they floated, like Ophelia, they were considered a witch and summarily executed.
My quite Catholic mother believes demonic possession is a real danger. She pretty much used the 1973 film The Exorcist as an instructional video for my siblings and me. It was mostly effective. I played with a Ouija board only once, reluctantly, and though I remained firmly in control of my body, I still try to avoid the game (and pictures of Linda Blair) at all costs. I know demonic possession is impossible, probably, but it still scares me more than I’d like to admit.
So when my mother, now living in an adult care home in Florida, told me she was hearing demonic voices and thought she needed an exorcism, I was legitimately terrified. Not because I thought she was possessed—she didn’t mention anything about floating above her bed, and her voice sounded normal. I was scared for her. She truly believed demons were real and could take control of the spiritually weak. If she believed she was being overtaken by these demons, logic dictated that she was spiritually weak. As if her depressed mind didn’t have enough to guilt her with.
She wouldn’t tell me what the voices were saying to her. She just reiterated over and over that she was a sinner, that she had impure thoughts, that she hadn’t been going to church enough. None of this seemed to me like enough reason to call in an exorcist.
Evidently her priest down in Florida disagreed. He said it did, indeed, sound like she was in the midst of a spiritual battle, that she should contact the church about sending an exorcist right away. Though he himself was part of the Catholic Church, he never offered any assistance with her “spiritual battle,” never offered to bring in an exorcist to slay her inner demon. He just gave her his half-baked opinion like a torch and watched as she caught flame.
As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one. Both overtake your faculties, leaving you disconnected and disembodied. Both change you so abruptly that even your loved ones barely recognize you. Both whisper evil words and malformed truths. Both scare most people shitless.
According to Diane Purkiss’s The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, European colonists widely considered Indigenous peoples to be devil worshippers. In fact, during the Salem witch trials, the people of the Sagamore tribe were blamed—described by early Puritan minister and mastermind of the witch trials, Cotton Mather, as “horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurors . . . [who] conversed with Demons.” One person on trial claimed to have attended a black mass with the Sagamore Indians. Mercy Short, another accused witch, took it one step further: she claimed the Devil himself was an Indian, describing him as “not of a Negro, but of a tawny, or an Indian color.”
Literal demonizing of Indigenous people was a natural extension of early tactics used to move colonization along. In 1452 and 1455 the Catholic Church issued papal bulls calling for non-Christian people to be invaded, robbed and enslaved under the premise that they were “enemies of Christ.” Forty years later, when Christopher Columbus accidentally arrived in the Americas, European monarchs began to expand on the ideas contained in those bulls, issuing policies and practices that have been collectively referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery. These new policies dictated that “devil-worshipping” Indigenous peoples worldwide should not even be thought of as humans, and thus the land they had cared for and inhabited for centuries was terra nullius, or vacant land, and Christian monarchs had the “right” to claim it all. The Doctrine of Discovery was such a tantalizing, seemingly guilt-free justification for genocide, even U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson adopted it as official policy in 1792—and we all know how much Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from Europe at the time.
The Doctrine of Discovery is still cited in court cases today whenever Canada or the U.S. want to shut up Indigenous tribes who complain. In an attempt to stop this lazy, racist rationale, a delegation of Indigenous people went to Rome in 2016 to ask the church to rescind these papal bulls. Kahnawake Mohawk Kenneth Deer said that after hearing their concerns, Pope Francis merely looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll pray for you.” Two years later, after the delegation’s second trip to Rome to discuss these papal bulls, they were told the matter was being sent to another committee. Nothing else has been done, though presumably the Pope is still praying for us.
“Can you imagine going to a funeral every day, maybe even two funerals, for five to ten years?” the chief asks. He’s giving a decolonization presentation, talking about the way colonization has affected our people since contact. Smallpox, tuberculosis, even the common cold hit our communities particularly hard. Then, on top of that, we had wars to contend with—some against the French, some against the British, some against either or neither or both. Back then death was all you could see, smell, hear or taste. Death was all you could feel.
“What does that type of mourning, pain and loss do to you?” he asks. We reflect on our own losses, our own mourning, our own pain. We say nothing.
After a moment he answers himself. “It creates numbness.”
Numbness is often how people describe their experience of depression.
I was sixteen when I wrote my first suicide note. I was alone in my room, for once. It was cold; the fire in our wood-burning stove must have gone out. I was huddled beneath the unzipped sleeping bag I used as a comforter, listening to the only modern rock station my ancient radio could pick up. The songs washed over me. My brothers laughing, crashing and crying washed over me. My mother half-heartedly yelling at them while she watched a movie with my sister washed over me. My father’s absence washed over me.
Even though the trailer was full I was alone. I was alone and I felt nothing and it hurt so much. More than grief, more than anger. I just wanted it to end.
Tears fell on the paper faster than I could write. It was hard to read in parts. I didn’t care. As long as it reassured my family they shouldn’t blame themselves, it would do the trick.
I looked at the knife I’d smuggled from the kitchen, pressed its edge to my wrist. Nothing happened. The blade was too dull. I’d have to stab hard and slash deep just to break the skin. I was crying so hard.
I reread my note. I looked back at the knife. Even though it could hardly peel a potato it scared me more than the void I felt.
I lay back down, disgusted with myself and my lack of resolve. I tried to listen to the radio. I couldn’t hear anything.
#1 National Bestseller
Shortlisted for the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Shortlisted for the 2020 First Nation Communities Read Indigenous Literature Award
"A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a tour de force. . . . Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott takes her place among essayists such as [Roxane] Gay and [Samantha] Irby, infusing intimate details of her own life with sociopolitical analysis and biting wit. . . . In this collection, the particular structure of the personal essay—beginning with the experience of the writer and then weaving in threads of related material—is at its finest." —The Globe and Mail
"Exceptional essays as arresting as her title. . . . Elliott ranges over a wide canvas. She tackles the vexed question of identity, both personal and political, powerfully linking larger questions of Indigenous life—from the residential school legacy to the loss of languages—to the unfolding of her own life. In forthright prose, in a format . . . that should make it difficult for non-Indigenous Canadians to ignore, she also links past and present, laying out how the colonial legacy still shapes contemporary lives, Indigenous and non-Indigenous." —Maclean's
"[Elliott's] childhood is heartbreaking ground, and she writes about it fearlessly in her debut collection of essays, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. With caustic wit and sharp prose, Elliott . . . turns her own lived experience into seething declarations on the political and social issues of contemporary Canada. . . . Weaving her own childhood trauma, teen motherhood, her mother's mental illness and her father's abusive behaviour, Elliott is fierce and unapologetic in damning the 'settler' class for propagating a modern take on colonial attitudes toward Indigenous Canadians and people of colour. . . . A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a breathless barrage of facts, confessions and conjecture." —Toronto Star
"In this bitingly smart, often funny, consistently challenging collection, the Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott tells her own story alongside that of Canada's Indigenous peoples. She comes at matters of trauma, racism and reconciliation with dazzlingly fresh perspectives. . . . Each one is candid and compelling, simmering with an underlying call for change." —Chatelaine
"In her raw, unflinching memoir . . . Elliott sketches a broad-strokes map of Native brokenness, crisscrossed by rivers of blood—the genocide perpetrated by the U.S. government on Indigenous peoples. Midway, you think that you’ve read the worst that has happened to this author, but the floor drops yet again. Her book is a searing cry to stanch the bleeding." —The New York Times
"Elliott is fearless here in revealing her own encounters with mental illness and family trauma. But these are not chapters of autobiography. They're meant as lenses through which author and reader can view what would otherwise be too vast to take in at once: the ongoing cultural catastrophe Indigenous people have experienced under colonialism." —The Georgia Straight
"Elliott's writing is equally fearless as she reflects on intimate details from her life, like her mother's struggles with bipolar disorder and her own teenaged motherhood, and racism within the Canadian judicial system and the links between suicide within Indigenous communities and colonialism. Treading on these heavy subjects, Elliott remains inquisitive and insightful, while never shying away from biting humour." —NOW
"Elliott takes a raw, fierce, deep-dive into the lasting legacy of colonialism in Canada." —The Hill Times
"With its eloquent combination of love, anger and impassioned insight, [A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is] a must read." —PopMatters
"Alicia Elliott has shown us her mind and life and process in stark, beautiful detail." —Hamilton Review of Books
"This book is hard, vital medicine. It is a dance of survival and cultural resurgence. Above all, it is breathtakingly contemporary Indigenous philosophy, in which the street is also part of the land, and the very act of thinking is conditioned by struggles for justice and well-being." —Warren Cariou, author of Lake of the Prairies
"These essays are of fiercest intelligence and courageous revelation. Here, colonialism and poverty are not only social urgencies, but violence felt and fought in the raw of the everyday, in embodied life and intimate relations. This is a stunning, vital triumph of writing." —David Chariandy, author of Brother
"Wildly brave and wholly original, Alicia Elliot is the voice that rouses us from the mundane, speaks political poetry and brings us to the ceremony of every day survival. Her words remind us to carry both our weapons and our medicines, to hold both our strength and our open, weeping hearts. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is what happens when you come in a good way to offer prayer, and instead, end up telling the entire damn truth of it all." —Cherie Dimaline, author of The Marrow Thieves
"A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a new lens on Indigenous Canadian literature." —Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries
"We need to clone Alicia Elliott because the world needs more of this badass writer. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground showcases her peculiar alchemy, lighting the darkest corners of racism, classism, sexism with her laser-focused intellect and kind-hearted soul-searching. A fresh and revolutionary cultural critic alternately witty, vulnerable and piercing." —Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift
"The future of CanLit is female, is Indigenous—is Alicia Elliott. I anticipate this book to be featured on every 'best of' and award list in 2019, and revered for years to come." —Vivek Shraya, author of I’m Afraid of Men and even this page is white
"In A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Elliott invites readers into her unceded mind and heart, taking us on a beautiful, incisive and punk rock tour of Tuscarora brilliance. Elliott's voice is fire with warmth, light, rage and endless transformation." —Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, author of This Accident of Being Lost
"Alicia Elliott has gifted us with an Indigenous woman's coming of age story, told through engagingly thoughtful, painfully poignant and enraging essays on race, love and belonging. With poetic prose and searing honesty, she lays bare what it is like to grow up Indigenous and exist in a country proud of its tolerance, but one that has proven to be anything but. She opens eyes and captures hearts, leading you by the hand to see our fractured world through her eyes. Alicia is exactly the voice we need to hear now." —Tanya Talaga, author of Seven Fallen Feathers
"Incisive. That's the word I keep coming back to. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is incredibly incisive. Alicia Elliot slices through the sometimes complicated, often avoided issues affecting so many of us in this place now called Canada. She is at once political, personal, smart, funny, global and, best of all, divinely human. Necessary. That's the other word I keep thinking about. In every chapter, she manages to find the perfect word and the precise argument needed—I found myself saying 'yes, yes, that is exactly it' more than once. I am so grateful for her work." —Katherena Vermette, author of The Break
"A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is an astonishing book of insightful and affecting essays that will stay with you long after the final page." —Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People
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