Book Review: A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground – Alicia Elliott (Doubleday Canada, 2019)

I’m hesitant to write a review of A Mind Spread out on the Ground. Not because I didn’t enjoy it – I really did, sneaking sessions of reading throughout my day and after my kids were in bed. Elliott’s writing is concise and her stories are compelling. The content is often heavy but Elliott grabs her reader and doesn’t let them go until the end. I hesitate because I don’t think I’m the right voice to critique what Elliott has to say.

There are a lot of themes that Elliott explores but race is primary among them. Elliott is Haudenosaunee, her father a member of this Indigenous tribe while her mother is white. Their family moved around frequently but did live on the reserve for some time. Race and its effects and being a minority and dealing with the generational trauma of residential schools and racist government policies are a huge part of what Elliott is talking about. She’s angry and she’ll make you angry too and I was left feeling a spotlight shone on my own white privilege.

So instead of reviewing this essay collection, I simply went to put Elliott’s writing in the spotlight instead. I want to say that Canadians should read this book. They should think about how it makes them feel and let those feelings of discomfort simmer and maybe think about what positive action can come out of that discomfort. Elliott talks about the first time she read writing from an Indigenous author that seemed to speak to her, to see her as a young Indigenous woman. There are not yet enough of these voices, which have been silenced, often violently, for too long. But Elliott is speaking out loud and clear and I’m glad to have the chance to listen to her.

(Alicia Elliott will be one of the featured authors at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts this summer and I read A Mind Spread Out on the Ground as part of my Writers Fest 2019 challenge.)

19 thoughts on “Book Review: A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott”

  1. I know what you mean about sometimes very much enjoying a book, or having lots of thoughts on it, but feeling like you’re not the right person to be commenting on its subject matter. But for what it’s worth, I think you did a great job!

    1. I agree. Did the author mention whose book she read? I often see lists of indigenous writers, and they pretty much always include the same two people: Sherman Alexie (accused during the height of #metoo) and Louise Erdrich. There have to be more!

    2. The author she mentions is Leanne Betasamos Simpson. Some other Indigenous writers I can think of are Lee Maracle, Richard Wagamese, Eden Robinson, and Richard Van Camp. Those are kind of the “big” names in Canada, though I’m sure I’m missing some. (There’s Joseph Boyden too but he’s very controversial now so I hesitate to recommend him even though I loved Three Day Road.) I just finished Van Camp’s latest book so I’ll have a review of that soon, hopefully. He, Eden Robinson, and Lee Maracle are all coming to our Writers Fest this summer as well as Elliott so I’m excited to read and hear a variety of Indigenous voices.

    3. That’s so great that you have a writer’s fest near you. Despite my town having loads of published writers (several local colleges drawn them here), we don’t do much to celebrate writing.

    4. It is really cool! It’s the longest running festival to feature solely Canadian writers (37 years this summer) and they find a good mix of newer authors and more well known names.

  2. Yes I really want to read this book too, it’s been on the bestseller list for weeks now which is such great news, because you’re right in that we need to hear more voices like this, and I do hope this only helps lift up other writers who are marginalized.

    I know what you mean about being hesitant to comment or critique her writing, because it doesn’t feel like our place, especially when our white privilege is so glaringly obvious when reading books like this. However, I think we’re also doing a disservice by not voicing our opinions at all. I’m always a bit nervous to critique indigenous writers on my blog because I don’t want to put off people from reading their books, and I typically recommend them regardless, even if I disagree with some things, but engaging with their work as a piece of art is important to me. Despite that, it’s your blog, and it’s important for you to do what you feel comfortable with-there is room for everyone on this spectrum 🙂

    1. Has it really been on the bestseller list? That’s awesome! As you say, this type of book is not always found there.

      It’s a tough balance to find when it comes to critique. I found that my initial reaction was one of defence and so I needed to step back and think about why it made me feel defensive. I don’t think we can’t critique Indigenous writers, it’s more that she’s talking about such intensely personal experience and ones that I’ve never been through that I can’t add much to that conversation. It feels like when women try and talk about their experiences of sexual harassment and then men try and compare it to some other man hassling them at a bar. But I completely agree that we should be able to engage with the work as a piece of art and I think it’s important to do so in general. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    2. Ah yes, I see what you mean. I’m the same way too when I read indigenous literature sometimes-I feel defensive at first, but then I have to take a step back and really think about why I feel defensive, and just that inner-dialogue is what I assume indigenous writers are aiming to inspire in us ‘colonizers’ when we read their work, which I really appreciate, and am thankful for.

  3. I read a similar review of this book just yesterday – both of you recommend the book but were hesitant to ‘review’ it. I’m glad you both decided to write about it. I definitely have it on my list!
    I also enjoyed reading the comments here!

    1. Oh, that’s interesting! I’m really looking forward to hearing her in person. There’s so much passion in her writing I’m curious as to what she’ll be like as a speaker.

    2. I hope to! I get to be at the festival as part of my job but sometimes that also means I don’t always catch all the events. But I also get to hang around even when I’m not working so that’s nice too!

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