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Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

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Leanne Betasamosake Simpson redefines what it means to be Indigenous in the 21st century


(Rachel Idzerda)

It’s tempting to view Leanne Betasamosake Simpson as a contemporary manifestation of the shape-shifting spirits that feature in Indigenous storytelling, their changing forms meant to teach through their transitions. Simpson, a Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg First Nations artist in her mid-40s, has managed a strikingly similar feat by establishing herself variously as an activist, academic, editor, short-story writer, poet, songwriter, and musician.

Simpson is prolific in ways that seem perfectly at one with a multi-tasking, multi-platform world. But in a deeper sense, this act of fragmenting herself and her work is a reaction to what she calls the “violence I feel from the process of colonialism,” she says, which is deeply engrained in the structure of Canada’s institutions, practices, ideologies, and, ultimately, the way the culture tells its stories.

Simpson says it “took getting into university and encountering Indigenous writers and academics, and some of the activism that was on campuses in the ’90s” for her to be able to articulate this paradigm. Her first two years at University of Guelph coincided with the Montreal massacre, the Oka crisis, and the activism of the James Bay Cree around the Great Whale Project. “I had this amazing political education that took place outside of the university system,” Simpson says. “Seeing these indigenous people on TV every night was a transformative experience – one that propelled me over the next two decades.”

Simpson’s latest book, This Accident of Being Lost (House of Anansi Press), is a testament to that political transformation. Its pages alternate between short stories and poems that comprise the lyrics of her most recent album, f(l)ight. “I set out to write stories for an Indigenous audience,” she says, an act that’s equal parts community allegiance and political reclamation. The structure of her book breaks from colonial modes of storytelling that cement their own hierarchy across peoples. “I wanted to present an honest reality of what it’s like to be Indigenous in 2017. I wanted to get at it from a place of grounded strength, to cast off narratives around victimhood and come at it with fire and humour and love.”

The stories in This Accident of Being Lost showcase the inequities in the fabric of everyday life. Indigenous characters are made to get gun licenses to use for hunting on their own land after attending certification courses given by white men. An Indigenous woman who feels socially anxious relies on text messaging to access comfort from an Indigenous man she has never met. The social structures that govern these stories can feel like nothing or everything, depending on the perspective and history of the person reading them. “My experience with colonialism is that it’s something that me and my family and my community have to deal with every day,” Simpson says. “I wanted to have an honesty and a vulnerability about what that’s like.”

This Accident of Being Lost caps off a productive year for Simpson: f(l)ight was released last September, and her next book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, will be published this fall by University of Minnesota Press. Simpson’s storytelling, coupled with her editorial efforts to introduce Canadians to as many new Indigenous voices as possible, convinced Thomas King to select Simpson as the winner of the inaugural RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer’s Award in 2014. The prize led to numerous opportunities, among them Anansi’s interest in Simpson’s next manuscript.

Simpson initially had concerns that working with a more mainstream trade publisher would force her to water down her approach. She says Anansi’s poetry editor, Damian Rogers, “put in a real effort to develop a sense of trust. She was able to take a step back and make me more effective at what I wanted to do. I hate the feeling of compromising my values for some kind of exterior benefit, and I haven’t felt like I had to do that with this book.”

Simpson has managed to break into Canada’s cultural mainstream on her own terms. Her books, music, anthologies, and academic work amount to an ambitious redefinition of what it means to be an Indigenous person in Canada in the 21st century. “It’s getting easier to get our voices out there,” she says. “There are so many Indigenous writers coming out. We now have two Indigenous publishing houses, a writing school. We honoured Thomas King and Lee Maracle in Toronto last year at the Indigenous Writers gathering. … When they started writing, they didn’t have that.”