Books·How I Wrote It

Why Alicia Elliott challenges us all to think critically about trauma, oppression and racism in Canada

The Haudenosaunee author discusses how she wrote A Mind Spread Out On The Ground. The essay collection is a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Alicia Elliott is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. (Doubleday Canada, Ayelet Tsabari)

Alicia Elliott is a writer to watch. The Haudenosaunee writer from Six Nations of the Grand River was selected by Seven Fallen Feathers author and journalist Tanya Talaga as a recipient for the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award in 2018 and she won gold at the National Magazine Awards in 2017 for her essay, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.

Her book, also titled A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, examines the historical treatment of Indigenous communities in North America. It draws personal and political connections between the legacy of colonialism with intergenerational trauma, racism, mental health and poverty.

Elliott, who lives in Brantford, Ont., spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a finalist for the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 5, 2019.

From writing essays to writing a book

"My first piece of creative nonfiction was Half-Breed: A Racial Biography in Five Parts. But after that, it was a long time until I wrote Weight, one of the essays in A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. When I first started writing those pieces, my husband mentioned that I should probably write a memoir or something that blended all my different experiences. But a memoir didn't feel right to me. Telling stories chronologically doesn't excite me in the same way as having some kind of framework to talk about these experiences does.

"I didn't do anything with that idea until I spoke with another creative nonfiction writer, Ayelet Tsabari. Both my husband and Tsabari helped me realize that I probably should write a series of essays — a type of writing I love to do — but in the form of a book."

Life, love and unconventional circumstances

"I didn't have a conventional relationship with my parents, although I did feel so much love from both of them. But as soon as I was about 12 years old, I was put in situations where I had to see things that I didn't totally understand and I had to learn things very quickly. It wasn't until I was an adult and had moved out of the house that I could think about these things in a more caring way.

"You grow up thinking your parents were amazing, perfect and can do anything to later thinking they can't do anything right. As an adult, I realize that kind of thinking isn't very realistic. I needed to step back and think about the things that they had gone through and be more compassionate. I found that it didn't feel good to carry around a lot of the anger that I had been carrying.

    "I wanted to think through the situations my parents were in and why they reacted the way they did. I wanted that to be reflected in the writing as well. It's never that simple, that someone is inherently good or inherently bad. There are all kinds of grey areas. I wanted to make space to talk about that in a way that acknowledged the difficulty and the complexity of loving someone even as there are ways that they hurt you and neglected you. They are still someone you love. What do you do with that love?"

    Strategic emotionality

    "Capturing the right tone between the personal and the political for the book was about reading different memoirs and trying to decide how I wanted to approach it. It occurred to me that I can be very strategic in choosing what I want to reveal and what I want to keep private. That helped me in terms of deciding what to include and what not to. If it wasn't something that I felt comfortable talking about in front of a group of people, I didn't want to necessarily put it in the book.

    I hope that the book makes people think more critically about how they got to where they are.

    "There was a point in my last essay in the book, Extraction Mentalities, where I initially went into much more detail. But I decided to take that out because as I read it to edit it, I started crying. I wasn't ready to talk about that stuff in a direct way. I had to pull back a little bit. I had to remind myself that I didn't have to necessarily bleed on the page, so to speak, for everything. Sometimes it's enough to talk about how something affected you without having to relay all of the details about exactly what happened."

    Making space

    "I initially wanted to write this book for Indigenous women and non-binary people. I definitely wanted to make space for other conversations because we all live in a vacuum. I wanted to make sure that people who were marginalized felt like I still was acknowledging them. I did want to include things about disability, anti-blackness, transphobia and other situations.

    "I feel like those are often the people that hold me up and help me through my day-to-day life in terms of friendships and stuff like that. I wanted to make space for that even though that isn't my direct experience. These are the experiences of people that I love. I wanted to make sure that they were at least a little bit represented in my book."

    Think openly, critically, lovingly

    "I hope that the book makes people think more critically about how they got to where they are. There's this notion that people are the result of their own actions, and to a degree that's true. But there are also ways where you aren't always in control of how you got to where you are.

    "How did your parents get to where they are and how does that impact you? How did their views impact how you saw the world? Did the circumstances that their own parents were in affect them — and how did that affect you? I want people to think more critically about circumstances, histories and systems of discrimination and how they bear down upon individuals, as opposed to thinking about these things as abstract concepts. 

    "When you think about racism, colonialism or transphobia, they're these big words that don't necessarily mean something physical, but I want to be grounded in individual experiences. I want people to think about how they are grounded in their own individual experiences."

    Alicia Elliott's comments have been edited for length and clarity.