Books·How I Wrote It

How turning to her Nishnaabeg roots helped Leanne Betasamosake Simpson get creative

The award-winning storyteller and scholar's book This Accident of Being Lost is longlisted for Canada Reads 2019.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is the author of This Accident of Being Lost, a collection of stories and songs. (Zahra Siddiqui/House of Anansi Press)

Drawing from her Nishnaabeg storytelling roots, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has created a poignant collection of songs and stories in This Accident of Being Lost. Her album f(l)ight serves as a companion to the book. This Accident of Being Lost was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

This Accident of Being Lost is on the Canada Reads 2019 longlist. The final five books and the panellists defending them will be revealed on Jan. 31, 2019. The 2019 debates are happening March 25-28, 2019 and will be hosted by Ali Hassan.

Below, Simpson describes how she wrote This Accident of Being Lost.

From the land

"I spend a lot of time on the land with elders and with my kids, doing Nishnaabeg things. That is a really rich artistic and creative space for me. A lot of these stories and the poetry have ties or have roots to those experiences. It's also just a space in my life where I have time to breathe and I feel free and I think that's really important in terms of my own creative process. These stories kind of came on their own at different points in time and they have different origins. My writing process looks a little bit scattered or eclectic. They come from the interstitial moments in my life."

The struggle to write about missing and murdered Indigenous women

"I have been asked over the years from a number of different people to write a creative response to this phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. I always struggled with that because I think it's one of those things that I'm just too close to. The emotional and traumatic load on Indigenous women can make it hard sometimes, for me anyway, to write creatively. I had written political interventions and blog posts on that topic, but I hadn't been able to write anything that was poetry or short story. I started to think about traditional stories, storytelling practices and aesthetics that come from within Indigenous nations.

"My nation has a lot of escape narratives. So do the Cree and the Dene and lots of other nations. I started thinking about that feeling of escape and fugitivity. Not just escaping from the violence of colonialism, but escaping into the beautiful things that make my nation. I wanted it to not be a victim narrative. I wanted it to be a taking stock of sort of all of the things that had been erased and stolen from me as an Indigenous woman in 2017, so things like land, culture, language, a sense of well-being, a feeling of safety and freedom. I sent the poem to Jonas Bonnetta from Evening Hymns and he came back with a fantastic electronica dance piece. At first, I was like, 'Oh no, this doesn't fit the lyrics at all.' But he explained that this piece to him was a celebration of me, a celebration of not being murdered and not being missing and taking back those things that are meaningful to me. That's the story behind that first piece, Under Your Always Light."

The constraints of writing lyrics

"With writing lyrics, you have to be able to say what you're going to say in a fairly succinct way. There's an economy that puts a constraint on it. Music has its own poetics and it takes audiences on an emotional journey. In a sense, your words are working with the music to set up a space in a theatre or in a performance hall to lead your audience into a particular emotional response. That's very different than just writing poetry on the page. You almost do less with the words. The words don't have to encompass everything because you have instruments and other voices weaving in. That was one of the things that I've learned in writing this book, that there's almost a restraint in lyric writing."

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's comments have been edited and condensed.