Excited About Everything: Alicia Elliott

Interview by 
Isabella Wang
Alicia Elliott

A series in which Isabella is excited about everything that is happening at #GrowingRoom2019, so she sat down with some festival authors to hear about their work and what events they are most excited to take part in. Learn more about the 2019 Growing Room festival by visiting our website, festival.roommagazine.com.

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River living in Brantford, Ontario with her husband and child. Her writing has been published by The Malahat Review, The ButterRoomGrainThe New QuarterlyCBCGlobe and MailViceMaclean’sToday’s Parent and Reader’s Digest, among others. She’s currently Creative Nonfiction Editor at The Fiddlehead, Associate Nonfiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and a consulting editor with The New Quarterly. Her essay, “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” won Gold at the National Magazine Awards in 2017, and another of her essays, “On Seeing and Being Seen: Writing With Empathy” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2018. She was the 2017-2018 Geoffrey and Margaret Andrew Fellow at UBC and was chosen by Tanya Talaga to receive the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize in 2018. Her short story “Unearth” has been selected by Roxane Gay to appear in Best American Short Stories 2018. Her book of essays, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, is forthcoming from Doubleday Canada in March 2019.

ROOM: Hello, Alicia, how are you? I’m so glad to be joining you here, in this space! First of all, your book, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, just came out with Penguin Random House. HUGE CONGRATULATIONS! This is your debut collection, too! Take us back to the writing process of writing this book, when it began. I remember reading some of the pieces in here that were first published online, as individual essays. Did you have a book in mind, even then? How does it feel now that it’s out there?

AE: I actually didn’t realize I was writing an essay collection until I had about a quarter of it already written and published. My friend writer Ayelet Tsbari was working on her memoir in essays, The Art of Leaving, which is coming out this month, and she asked me if I considered writing a collection of essays. I loved creative nonfiction and I wanted to write about my life, so I did want to write a book-length work, but the idea of doing it in a linear fashion the way most memoirs are structured was very unappealing to me. There’s something that’s ultimately unsatisfying about a book that takes you from birth to the current moment, because the closer you get to the present, the harder it is to actually analyze and write about your life with any amount of honesty or intelligence. It’s so boring, structurally, too. You fall into this rhythm of this happened, then this, then this, then this—and I just find it very uninspiring.

But when Ayelet asked about a book of essays, it opened everything up for me. I thought, “Yes! I don’t have to follow the typical trajectory!” It meant I could write about broader subjects that interested me, such as photography, then move sideways into personal moments, then back out to examine the wider implications. Plus I could experiment with form from essay to essay, which is something that I really enjoy.

I’m a bit nervous to have this book out in the world because it’s so intensely personal. But I did consciously try to write it with love, so even when I wrote about things that were traumatic or difficult, the reader wouldn’t be left with these heavy emotions. I wanted to care for my reader, so they understood why I was sharing these moments with them, and so they knew what to do with them. I really hope that readers feel that love and care when they read my book.

A Mind Spread Out On the GroundROOM: What I love so much about your book is way you integrate the personal with the political. When I was reading your book, I was reminded of something that Maria Kovach said on situating the self, in that “we can only interpret the world from the place of our experience, [and] it shows respect to the ancestors and allows community to locate us.” Would you like to speak more to that?

AE: I want to write with Haudenosaunee philosophies in mind. For me, that means that I try to bring the concept of the seven generations into my writing. It’s the idea that every decision we make, no matter how seemingly small, will impact the lives of our descendants seven generations into the future. In addition, it means that we are the result of the decisions our ancestors made seven generations into the past, so we should reflect on that history and what we can learn from it before making decisions ourselves. In terms of my writing, that means I need to firmly situate myself in a context where the history of my family and my people are acknowledged as I write towards a better future for us. That said, while I speak from the history of my people, I definitely do not speak for my people. I haven’t been given that responsibility, so I can only speak for myself.

I do wish that more white writers contextualized themselves for readers, though, so we could know what experiences they’re coming from before we decide how much weight to give their opinions. There is this notion, particularly in mainstream news, that just because you can have an opinion on something, it should be given a platform—even if you don’t have any actual knowledge on that subject, and you haven’t done adequate research to inform your opinion. This leads to the uninformed public taking these people’s opinions far more seriously than they ought to. If, for example, you haven’t even read the summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, why should we take your opinion on it seriously? Quite simply, we shouldn’t. What do you know about this topic? Why do you want to write about it? How does this topic impact you? What do you have to lose or gain from this? Editors should be asking their writers these sorts of questions.

The idea that the personal is political is hardly new. We’ve had that notion since Carol Hanisch’s 1970 essay “The Personal is Political,” since the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement,” since Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back. It’s practically been a refrain for decades. If you aren’t doing work to determine how you personally fit into the politics you’re writing about, frankly, you’re being lazy. The only way we can undo systems of oppression is by recognizing how they operate in our own lives—often in ways we don’t want to admit to.

ROOM: I have no doubt that your book will resonate deeply with readers. But tell me, what are you hoping for your audience to take away? What conversations are you hoping to raise?

AE: I really wanted to model an ethical way of positioning yourself within the important political conversations of our time. As I mentioned above, I think it’s essential for everyone—not just writers—to think very carefully and critically about how they fit into the society that we’re living in. How has the history of your family impacted your life? How has the way that you were raised impacted the way that you see the world? How closely do your opinions mirror your parents’ opinions? Do you know why you hold the opinions you do?

Once you start pulling at these threads in your own life, all these abstract ideas about discrimination, colonization, race, gender, disability—they all start to unravel. You start to see the ways that systems of discrimination and oppression have molded you. And then you can start the process of undoing that molding. I hope that my book gets people to ask themselves these difficult questions, to contextualize themselves, so we call all move forward honestly, respectfully and empathetically.

ROOM: I’d love to know where you turn to for inspiration — favourite writing spot? favourite books or work that you return to time after time? other Indigenous writers? Give them a heartwarming shoutout, if you will!

AE: I definitely get most of my inspiration from reading. Sometimes that comes from books, but often it comes from reading essays, articles, Twitter threads, scientific studies, song lyrics. In terms of specific writers, one of my favourites who constantly gets me to think differently about things is Gwen Benaway. Her essays on love, abuse and sex as a trans woman are so generous and warm and vulnerable, while also being critical and intelligent. Her latest book Holy Wild is incredible, as well—though it hasn’t gotten anywhere near the press or publicity it deserves. The collective silence that CanLit has shown this brilliant book has honestly been shameful.

I finished Lindsay Nixon’s memoir nîtisânak late last year, and it continues to inspire me. They are a genius. The book embodies kinship, relationality, punk, trans and queer Indigenous prairie life. It’s written in a clear, no-bullshit voice, but what’s remarkable is Lindsay isn’t afraid to be soft or sexy, either. It’s definitely one I’ll go back to.

I probably will never stop raving about Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. She writes like no one else. There are multitudes of meaning in each paragraph. Her book says more in less than 150 pages than most will say in three or four times that amount.

I also can’t say enough about Joshua Whitehead. He’s one of the most exciting writers working today. Both his poetry book full metal indigiqueer and his novel Jonny Appleseed completely upend the way we think about what poetry and the novel can do. They basically laugh in the face of Western conventions, and create a space for 2-Spirit and Queer Indigeneity to exist and be celebrated, in all its anger, trauma, hilarity and joy. I cannot wait for his nonfiction book to come out.

ROOM: So much is on the horizon. You are getting involved with mentorship programs and I assume that there will be lots of exciting things happening with your new book. What are you most looking forward to this year? Anything fun planned outside of writing?

AE: Honestly, I’m most looking forward to going to WrestleMania in New York in April. I’m a HUGE pro-wrestling fan, and I’ve been to WWE events as well as a bunch of independent wrestling events, but I’ve never been to WrestleMania. It’s like the SuperBowl of Wrestling. All the indie promotions come to whatever city is hosting WrestleMania and put on shows that week, too, so it’s pretty much nonstop. I’m leaving the week after my book comes out and going to as many indie wrestling events and wrestling conventions as I can, eating a bunch of cheesecake and bagels, then coming back to my humdrum life, where there’s no spandex or suplexes, but there is my yorkie Sam. He’s just as good.

ROOM: We have you featuring in several panels including “On the Subject of Truth: Telling True Stories in Fiction and Non-Fiction ,” “Journalism: A New Hope,” “The Might of the Pen: Writing as a Political Act,” and the “Whatever Gets You Through” anthology launch. But tell me, what are some other events that you are most keen on attending?

AE: So many of the ones I’m most excited for are happening before I get there! I’m such a big fan of Eden Robinson, Arielle Twist, Katherena Vermette, Lindsay Nixon, jaye simpson, Samantha Nock and Emily Riddle, so everyone should go to the big “Indigenous Brilliance” event on March 9th they’re all reading at since I can’t. “Body Politics,” “The Writing on the Wall: Storytelling in Visual Art,” “Kinship Bonds: The Love that Holds,” “Black Voices Raised,” and “Transcendent: Writing & Surviving in a Cissexist Society” are all panels I’m really sorry to be missing. I’m sure they’ll be fantastic.

As for when I’m actually going to be there, I’m hoping I’ll be settled in from my flight in time to get to “Dream Me a Dream: Literary Futurisms.” I really want to see “Place and Inspiration,” and I’ll definitely be at “In Conversation with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha,” as she’s absolutely brilliant and I’m so excited to get my hands on a copy of her latest book, Care Work. “Mother Goose Was a Feminist” sounds really fun, so I’ll probably go to that, too. Honestly, this festival is so well-curated that I feel like any panel is going to be great. Other festivals really need to take notes.

ROOM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me, Alicia. I’m so excited to have you for Growing Room 2019!

Isabella Wang’s debut poetry chapbook is forthcoming with Baseline press in 2019. At 18, she is the youngest two-time finalist and writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest. Her poetry and prose have appeared in over a dozen literary journals, and she holds a Pushcart Prize nomination in poetry. She studying English and World Literature at SFU, interning at Room Magazine, serving as the Youth Advocate for the BC Federation of Writers, and co-ordinating the bi-weekly Dead Poets Reading Series.

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