Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Robyn Maynard envision a future shaped by freedom in Rehearsals for Living
More than two years ago, as the world moved into pandemic lockdown, writers Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Robyn Maynard struck up a correspondence. Through those letters, the two began to imagine a future shaped by abolition, resistance and freedom.
The exchange grew into their new book Rehearsals for Living — an urgent demand for a different way forward that offers new insights into where we go from here.
Betasamosake Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, activist, musician, artist, author and member of Alderville First Nation. Her books include Islands of Decolonial Love, This Accident of Being Lost, As We Have Always Done and Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies.
Maynard is a Toronto-based Black feminist writer, activist and educator. Her debut book, Policing Black Lives, traced the underreported modern and historical realities of anti-Blackness within a Canadian context.
Betasamosake Simpson and Maynard spoke to Shelagh Rogers about the conversations that led to Rehearsals for Living.
Robyn, how did the title of this book come about?
Robyn Maynard: The title has so many different meanings. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who wrote the foreword for our book, describes abolition as "life in rehearsal." And that's really a way of thinking about the kind of world that we want to live in — about the kind of world that freedom could mean.
And to me, that also just means, "What kind of actions do we need to take every single day?" So if every day I wake up and rehearse the kind of person I want to be, this is who I become. So in the everyday acts and work toward freedom, we are building more liberatory worlds all the time — and that's something that I think we are really focusing on.
In the everyday acts and work toward freedom, we are building more liberatory worlds all the time.- Robyn Maynard
This book is all the small and enormous waves that we are living through in which people are trying to build more livable worlds for Black people, for Indigenous communities, and just more broadly in terms of a livable planet.
Leanne, why did the word "rehearsal" resonate so strongly with you?
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: I think in part because Black and Indigenous people have been engaged in world-making for so many centuries now. And when Ruth Wilson Gilmore sent out the lesson of "life in rehearsal," it struck me that it's not sort of a recipe or a series of instructions — it's a practice.
As a musician, rehearsal is what you spend most of your time in. You spend most of your time engaged in that repetition, in that space — a kind of safe space, because there isn't an audience and it isn't a performance. I like this idea of coming together and trying to make or build something with a group of people in real time, and then practicing it as a way of generating the knowledge that we all need to be engaged in these little making practices. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, "Practice makes different," which I really like a lot.
Robyn, what led you to reach out to Leanne in the first place?
Well, Leanne is somebody who I had already had a deep respect for as an intellectual, and somebody who was becoming a friend. I really needed to reach out in the sense of what it means to be coming up against so many crises, to somebody who was very much a part of freedom-making traditions and comes from a history of work and thought in Indigenous radicalism.
My own writing, scholarship, and organizing has always been in Black liberatory traditions. So it was really a way of reaching out to commune in what was a very isolating time to collectively make sense of some of the horrors of the world around us, and to think about what it means to make freedom in a time of enormous unfreedom — thinking about the histories of unfreedom created by slavery and slavery's afterlife created by ongoing settler colonialism.
Leanne, you write to Robyn that it's never enough to just critique the system, a name or oppression. We have to create the alternative on the ground in real time. How important is this building of the alternative?
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: For me, I think it's the most important part, because I think we can use that critique to inform what we do. Right now, I'm in the territory of Yellowknife and with a group of 16 Indigenous women living on the land. In a sense, it's a little microcosm and a way of coming together on the land to create a different world.
And for me, I've learned that when you come together with people and you make a world, you learn a whole bunch of information — whether that world is an encampment community in an urban area, or whether it's a protest or whether it's organizing against some of the material struggles that Indigenous and Black communities face.
Knowledge-sharing generates another piece of the puzzle-building and systems of care that uplift all.- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
That knowledge-sharing not only uplifts me when I'm connecting intimately with community and with the land, but it also generates another piece of the puzzle-building and systems of care that uplift all.
In your letters, you both declare yourselves as nerds and Star Trek fans. And this is a serious question: What does Star Trek bring to your thinking in your practices?
Robyn Maynard: This is a dangerous question to ask me! [laughs] You have no idea how much Star Trek content didn't make it into the book based on the amount that I actually talk and think about Star Trek in my everyday life. For me, in the Star Trek world, The Next Generation universe is this world free from want — this world in which the divisions of race and gender are now seen as foolish; in which capitalism and the senseless destruction of the planet is seen as foolish; that people have what they need. They don't have a cash economy. It's not based on extreme wealth and poverty.
There have been so many incredible revolutions [led] by Black anti-colonial struggle across the African continent and the Caribbean, and by Indigenous land defenders, that have actually been trying to bring us to that very same utopic — but quite possible — future. And those revolutions have been assassinated and destroyed — so that we could only understand this world that we see in Star Trek as sci-fi when, of course, that's always been one of the possibilities for the planet that we live in today.
Liane, you say the absence of hope is a beautiful catalyst — and you reference Mariame Kaba's idea of hope as a discipline or a practice. Can you talk about hope as a practice?
Liane Betasamosake Simpson: I think right now, particularly over the last three years, lots of people have lost the feeling of being hopeful. And I think when you lose that emotion, it's very difficult to organize beyond. But it's also a discipline: you get up and you do the things that you need to do to make life better, to care for the people in your sphere —whether you're feeling happy, whether you're feeling hopeful or not. You do the work anyway.
The more you do that work together, the more it generates those bits of light that are hopeful and full of joy.- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
That practice is something that has sustained Indigenous worlds for a very long time. The beautiful thing about that is that the more you do the work, and the more you do that work together, the more it generates those bits of light that are hopeful and full of joy. And I think those can be very, very sustaining.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.