Saturday, December 12, 2020

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground - Alicia Elliott

Maybe I expected too much from Alicia Elliott’s memoir A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Maybe it’s my fault that I found the book so frustrating and, in the end, more confusing than enlightening. I wanted (still do want) to learn more about how North America’s indigenous people live today and whether the reservation system has been overall a good or a bad thing for them. As it turns out, this is not the book to answer that kind of question despite Elliott’s complaints that whites do not bother to wonder what their lives are like today. 


A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a memoir centered on the dysfunctional family that Alicia Elliot had the misfortune to grow up in. Elliot, whose mother is a white Catholic and whose father is a Canadian Mohawk, grew up in a home where her mother was institutionalized once or twice a year on average when the mentally ill woman’s bipolar depression became too much for Elliot’s father to handle. What the author so frankly reveals about her childhood is as disturbing as it is sad: the constant hunger, living largely on whatever junk food was available, a case of head lice that lasted more than a decade, being accepted by neither whites nor indigenous schoolmates, etc., but what she describes is a function of poverty not exclusive to indigenous Americans or Canadians. 


As readers learn, this is largely a book about depression and those who suffer from it either directly or indirectly. The book’s title, in fact, is a translation of a Mohawk phrase for depression in which such a person is described as having a mind “literally stretched or sprawled out on the ground.” According to Elliott, indigenous people suffer disproportionately from depression, and that is because of the colonialism her people are still suffering from to this day. And, she says, until her people “decolonize” their minds, the problem will not go away.  


Even so, Elliott does not seem to expect all that much, for instance, to result from today’s efforts to make the publishing world more obviously reflect real-world diversity because “diversity is a white word.” As she puts it in a quote attributed to a Tania Canas essay of that title:


Diversity is about making sense of difference “through the white lens…by creating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness.”


Elliott says, “That is the crucial problem with the push for ‘diversity’ in publishing…’diversity’ is not about letting those who aren’t white make whatever art matters to them and their communities.” She goes on to say that, “It’s the literary equivalent of ‘ethnic’ restaurants: they please white people because they provide them with ‘exotic’ new flavours, but if they don’t appease white people’s sensitive taste buds they’re not worth a damn.” 


Alicia Elliott’s frustration and anger is obvious in her words, attitude, and accusations even when she momentarily turns her biting sense of humor on herself to make a point about how her childhood memories are different from those of most people, “…my childhood itches. This makes sense, since I had head lice for over a decade. My relationship with head lice was, until recently, the longest relationship I’d ever had.”  


The book’s anger is understandable when one considers the generational impact of Canada’s and America’s genocidal approach to their indigenous peoples. The despair and low self-expectations passed from one generation to the next, according to Elliott, continue to plague these people. And she is angered that those who even acknowledge that “awful things” were done in the past expect people like her to forgive and move on with their lives. I’m not convinced she is right about that, but I can understand why she believes it.


Alicia Elliott

8 comments:

  1. I came to read this because the title sounded so interesting. It sounds like one of those tough, depressing books that's still important to read because it can teach you what others go through... even if it isn't cohesive or neatly presented?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's true in this case, Jeane. There is so much anger in the author's tone that I felt her message to be a little off-putting, but in the end, she leaves the reader with a lot to think about.

      Delete
  2. Such a difficult subject and I don't pretend to understand the point of view of someone who has been so affected by living the life she has. Do you feel you understand better from reading this, Sam?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I do, Cath. What I fear, though, is that the past becomes too much of an obsession with some groups at a certain point, even to the point of becoming counter-productive. I hope I'm wrong, but Alicia appears to be approaching that stage. But, who am I to judge her? And, of course, she would condemn my white point-of-view for questioning her attitude about life. It's a no-win situation for anyone on the outside looking in.

      Delete
  3. Sorry you found this one frustrating and a little disappointing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's worth the time, though, Lark, so I'm glad I read it. It's a very hyped book by the establishment these days, and I decided to satisfy my curiosity about it. I just wish it would have given a clearer picture about what life is like these days for most indigenous North Americans. Elliott is Canadian and most of what she describes took place there, although her mother was often taken south of the border when she had to be institutionalized.

      Delete
  4. A beautiful cover, but a dark and sensitive subject in a myriad of ways.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's all very disturbing and heartbreaking, Jen. It's one of this country's shames that this group of people is still so disadvantaged as a group. What was done to them, especially the genocide that almost physically wiped them out - along with the later attempt to destroy their culture by turning their children "white - is hard to stomach.

      Delete