During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Laraib Khan’s Medium.
“Is there a language of depression? Depression often seems to me like the exact opposite of language. It takes your tongue, your thoughts, your self-worth and leaves an empty vessel. Not that different from colonialism, actually.”
In her mind-blowing collection of essays, Alicia Elliot, a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River, encapsulates personal trauma due to Canada’s on-going systematic injustices. By retelling her lived experiences, Elliot brilliantly addresses the legal systems’ problems and their attempts to ‘reconcile’ the trauma of Indigenous communities. What’s really interesting about her writing is that it directly addresses the readers; there are multiple places within her essays. She asks questions about the art of writing and language. I find this fascinating because she takes her readings through her writing process; she lets us into her private, mental space, making this piece a metafiction. Particularly in the first chapter, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, where she explains facets of depression using analogies comparing the mental state with colonialism- seen in the quote above. She simultaneously compares language and colonialism to depression, two drastically different systems, yet she explains her comparisons. The language she says is ‘opposite’ of depression, in which she associates language with liberation and depression, which ‘takes away your tongue.’ And while expanding her definition of depression, she mentions how this devastating state of mind isn’t different from colonialism. “leaves an empty vessel”- these phrases give me goosebumps, and they paint the horrific reality of colonialism in such a brilliant way.
Her unpredictable comparisons and expressive narration connect the readers deeper into her journey. Along with a focus on mental health, she discusses the aspects of displacement while addressing governmental systems’ insensibility. Eliot’s essays capture settler issues -colonialism, Indigenous governance and sovereignty, the Canadian reconciliation Act, and, most importantly, mental health problems.
The first chapter of her book is a creative documentary of the word ‘depression’ through analogies, personification, and allusions, Elliot puts various perspectives of depression in the reader’s mind. From the very first page of A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, Elliot grabs the reader’s attention by asking, “Can a metaphor or simile capture depression?” In this way, not only is she expressing her difficulty with defining the term but by including literary terms’ metaphor’ and ‘simile,’ she is also including her struggles with writing about it, which makes this essay a metafictional piece. The aspect of language and expression is prevalent through these rhetorical statements: “Terminology is tricky,” or “As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one.” In this fascinating analogy, she personifies depression by giving it demonic features, such as mentioning how both “[leave] you disconnected and disembodied…both whisper evil words and malformed truths.” These characteristics paint diverse and accurate images of depression.
Most importantly, the title itself comes from one of these definitions; a passage on page 9 captures this book’s essence. The words “Wake’nikonhra’kwenhtara:’on,” — are Mohawk expression of what depression is. As Elliot explains, they ‘loosely’ translate to something ‘literally stretched or sprawled out on the ground.” Even in her translation of the Mohawk term, the struggles of actually defining depression is troublesome. Hence, through elaborating the explanation of depression, Elliot has made a point; how difficult it is to put someone’s mental health into defined boxes. I believe she has intentionally devoted an entire chapter to one word to depict the various forms of depression one can feel and how insensitive it is to place all the symptoms under one overarching term: depression!
Moving on, not only does Elliot focus on the mental space, but she also expands on the importance of physical space by tackling the feelings of displacement. She mentions her past living situation and the poverty she had faced as a result of colonial violence. Elliot writes about the effects of always having to relocate, the struggles of living in a constrained space, and governments’ insensible actions in their fake ‘attempts’ to help. In the chapter Scratch– she compares herself with a parasite: “As a poor, mixed-race kid, I was treated like a parasite… “Elliot tells the story of her childhood and the dilemma of having head lice, which she creatively compares to the political system. In the retelling of how she got rid of them, Elliot explains her strategy of just killing the obvious ‘bright white nits’ and leaving the darker ones behind so they would go undetected by her school. She compares her strategy to the social services’ problem-solving tactics, where “they don’t solve the problems of poverty or racism or violence or mental illness. Just hide them away.” This chapter then states the approach of societal systems in Canada based on flawed theories and subversive ideologies. “Instead of supporting poor families and helping them become financially secure, social services’ approach is to simply take the kids.” Here, Elliot speaks about the struggles of maintaining a ‘look’ for the social services people or else to suffer living away from your family. The fear in which these ‘justice’ systems put people reflects insensibility and dehumanization amongst them.
The unfair treatments still prevalent in the present reflect the settler-colonialism aspect of this novel- where the privileged- white people set the rules for communities, misusing their powers, and exhibiting dominance. The neglected and arrogant ‘laws’ reflect how much work there needs to be done regarding Indigenous governance and the Canadian Reconciliation Act. This is a subject these essays mention thoroughly, but I cannot dwell on the details with the limited space I have. However, to reiterate what I have said, Elliot expresses specific details of colonial violence and its insensitivity in this country towards the Indigenous group through her parents’ struggles and childhood. These well-researched essays combine her personal experiences with statistical data, written in such an intriguing way that opens up a new perspective for the readers. Through eloquently using prose and various literary techniques, Elliot brings a new stance in her essays with unpredictable and impressive storytelling.