The new book by the multi-talented Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg of Alderville First Nation) is a novel of Anishinaabe aesthetics cast in prose and poetic fragments. It presses readers – Indigenous and settler alike – to consider the novel form as a wider venue for storytelling than it is traditionally conceived. Structured in small sections akin to little scenes or moments in a life, rather than chapters with clear beginnings, middles, and ends, the fragments bear the name of the character who is central to each. Other characters show up and engage throughout, creating a web of relations across the whole work.
The opening section is in the disembodied voice of Mashkawaji (Ojibwe for “frozen”) who “fell through the ice / to find quiet / to get out of the wind.” Their poetic utterances shape the landscape and offer readers a prism through which to approach this novel. Particularly useful for those not well versed in Anishinaabe storytelling traditions, this conceit also serves to teach readers how to read this text.
Seven characters are introduced: Mindimooyenh, Sabe, Ninaatig, Asin, Lucy, Akiwenzii, and Adik. Mashkawaji asserts that each is connected to them in some way: one is their will, another their lungs, another their brain, and so on. Mashkawaji says, “I believe everything these seven say // even though, / even though. / I believe everything these seven say /even though / their truths are their own, / not mine.” Poetry here calls down attention on language – on words and their meanings. The repetition and the corresponding weight of belief is an invocation, lighting the fire that drives story and offering readers a key to the novel.
We can approach Noopiming as much for its language as its story. Language is thrilling in all of Simpson’s work, and nowhere more so than in this newest offering. Structured and old-fashioned language flows into syntax that is more playful and modern. For example, in an early section narrated by Sabe, we encounter this passage: “They are relearning things like fun and happy and how to talk basic-human with basic humans about nothing.” Then, a few pages later: “Things seem pretty fucked for the humans, to be honest. The white ones who think they are the only ones have really structured the fucked-up-ed-ness in a seemingly impenetrable way this time.” Simpson’s writing is at once political and loud, honest and whisper-quiet.
In Anishinaabe, language is not gendered like in most European languages – it is instead characterized as either animate or inanimate. All the characters in Noopiming are referred to by they/them pronouns. The moratorium on English gendered pronouns that invoke a binary (she/her and he/his) reinforces the multipleness of Mashkawaji and the seven, while at the same time deconstructing gendered language and the violence it inflicts (an ongoing project in Simpson’s writing). This radical use of Anishinaabe aesthetics in English asks the reader to reframe how they view the world and how language structures relationships. It asks us to think of relationships as multiple and intersecting rather than binary and individual.
While all of this may sound heavy, there is ample humour in this novel. It sneaks up on the reader in moments Mashkawaji sees more than the seven. Mashkawaji says Akiwenzii “[goes] to bed when it gets dark. [Gets] up when it gets light. They’ll tell you to make sure there is a big pile of wood and kindling beside the cooking fire for the morning. ‘That’s what the old people say,’ [Akiwenzii says]. Like they aren’t an old person.”
Noopiming moves through Akiwenzii’s way of being in the world to Sabe’s sharp understanding of humankind to Mindimooyenh, who talks incessantly, “maybe because all those years in residential school they weren’t allowed to talk, and now their words have just built up and come bursting out.” Through the various characters, the reader is given all of life, not simply the weight of trauma or any one way of seeing the world. The reader becomes a part of the web that interconnects the seven characters and Mashkawaji.
Simpson’s novel invites readers to see themselves as part of these relations. The author asks the reader to do the hard work of honouring relationships between living things while also goading us to chuckle gently about the shared joy of finding “bargoons” at the local store. This novel will be reread for its many truths and teachings and for its undeniable power. The complicated questions Noopiming poses are worth revisiting and the novel’s wisdom will continue to grow as the reader does.