The Current

Living with lice for a decade became a metaphor for the shame of poverty, says writer Alicia Elliott

In her new book, the Tuscarora writer uses her own experiences and more to explore how colonialism, poverty and mental health affect families in Canadian society.

Her new book explores how colonialism, poverty and mental health affect families in Canadian society

Alicia Elliot, Tuscarora, is from the Six Nations of the Grand River territory. (Ayelet Tsbari)

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Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott, grew up living in poverty on the Six Nations of the Grand River. For nearly 10 years, she also lived with head lice — an intractable infestation she says became a metaphor for poverty itself.

"It felt like it was just so unmanageable, like it was something that we could never escape from essentially," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Knowing she would be sent home from school if anyone discovered her lice, she had to get creative.

"Me and my sister were like, 'Well we're going to, like, try and get rid of this ourselves.' So we would be trying to pull nits out of one another's hair," she said.

Elliott and her sister were able to remove the more visible eggs from behind their ears and the napes of their necks, leaving the grown lice, which blended in with their hair and would go undetected if they were checked.

"It just really felt like kind of a metaphor for the shame that is inherent in being poor and how the ways that you deal with poverty is never going to be enough," she said.

"You're tainted in a way almost by this poverty and the shame and you don't know how you're going to get out of it."

An itch you can't scratch 

Six Nations of the Grand River is located just south of Hamilton, Ont. Elliot's family lived with no running water, and limited access to electricity. 
Alicia Elliott's book, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. (Doubleday Canada)

On top of that, Elliott's mother struggled with mental illness. Most recently, she was diagnosed with bipolar type schizo-affective disorder.

She'd frequently travel in and out of hospitals, while going on and off medication.

Her father, a salesman, was often out working to make sure the family could make ends meet.

"It made it so that we couldn't really deal with the lice. So at a certain point I was just like, 'Well, as long as they can't see it right away, the stuff that the top, then that's fine," she said.

"It was kind of like a never-ending battle, essentially."

Elliott has written about all of this and more in her new book, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground.

Through her own experiences and beyond, Elliott hopes to encourage Canadians to listen to how the ways we deal with colonialism, poverty and mental health affect families like hers every day.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Mac Cameron. Produced by Karin Marley.