A bicultural, binational writer examines racial justice, mental illness, cultural appropriation, and other issues in this powerful set of essays.
Born in the U.S., Elliott moved to the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario in childhood. That early period of life shapes her recognition, recounted here, of the pain of poverty and mental illness. Her parents “slept in the living room on the couch and recliner,” lacking both privacy and a place where her mother could hide her growing depression, which she considered a form of demonic possession. “As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one,” writes the author in a sharp passage. “Both overtake your faculties, leaving you disconnected and disembodied. Both change you so abruptly that even your loved ones barely recognize you. Both whisper evil words and malformed truths. Both scare most people shitless.” Elliott evokes both fear and considerable melancholy as she chronicles the hardships of life at Six Nations, where convenience-store food and suicide were constant companions. Later in the collection, she writes of her Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) father, who once cut the tip of a finger off with a chainsaw and stoically endured the ride to the hospital without acknowledging his own fear and pain: “Maybe I couldn’t map the pain on his face because he was always in pain.” Elliott writes with honesty and empathy of her life and the lives of family, constantly reckoning with institutional racism and less intentional private prejudices, as when she recounts a fellow writer’s telling her that of course she’d be “published right away because I was Native,” an unguarded moment of essentialism in which only ethnicity and not ability mattered. The author is not inclined to shrug off such things, and her larger views on the treatment of Indigenous peoples by the Canadian and American governments and critiques of racism, sexism, and other such offenses are well thought through and elegantly argued.
An impressive debut from a welcome new voice in Native letters.