National Aboriginal Day Profile: The Amazing Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

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As a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer and academic, Simpson is a member of Alderville First Nation, who artfully blends traditional storytelling, critical analysis, poetry and spoken word. She holds a PhD from the University of Manitoba, and is currently faculty at the Dechinta Centre for Research & Learning in Denendeh (NWT), the Indigenous Writing Program at the Banff Centre and a Visiting Scholar in Indigenous Studies at McGill University.

Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, a collection of stories and songs, published by ARP Books, is an offering of literary and social activism. As a harvest of storytelling, it is deeply ancestral, spiritual, and contemporary. It was nominated for a ReLit Award in 2014.

A soundtrack to the book can be found on ARP’s website, featuring musical collaborations with Nick Ferrio, Tara Williamson, Sarah Decarlo, Melody McKiver, A Tribe Called Red, and Sean Conway. Several song-stories include; “she hid him in her bones,” “leaks,” “smallpox, anyone,” “identity impaired,” “spacing,” “ishpadinaa,” “she sang them home,” and “a love song for attawapiskat.”

“Leaks”

Simpson is the editor of Lightning the Eight Fire: The Liberation, Protection and Resurgence of Indigenous Nations (Arp Books), co-editor with Kiera Ladner of This Is An Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades (Arp Books), author of Dancing On Our Turtles Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Arp Books), The Gift Is in the Making: Anishinaabeg Stories (Debwe Series, Highwater Press), and Winter We Danced: Voice from the Past, the Future and the Idle No More Movement (Kino-nda-niimi editorial collective).  Her new record, f(l)ight, produced by Jonas Bonetta of Evening Hymns, will be released in collaboration with RPM.FM this September, as well as a second book of short stories and poetry, This Accident of Being Lost (House of Anansi Press), out in April 2017.

How do you approach your short fiction? Do you write your way to the end of a story, or start in the middle? What’s your process like?

This is always a difficult question to answer because stories are like miracles to me and I don’t know entirely what my process is. I live my life in a particular way, I need a certain amount of emotional space and I need to be open to the world. I need to have a really strong and present relationship with the land. Under those circumstances, stories come to me, they unfold as I write, and then I go back and layer deeper levels of meaning into them.

Your work explores contemporary lives of Indigenous Peoples, especially of your own Nishnaabeg nation, on and off reserve, in bars, community spaces, and in pickup trucks. How does oral storytelling play a role in your work?

Oral storytelling is the base of my work. I love working within Nishnaabeg thought, storytelling practices, theory and aesthetics. I really know next to nothing about writing conventions. I have no formal training as a writer.

Why is it important for you to write both in English and in your native language Nishnaabemowin?

It is truthful and reflective of the community I live in.

As a Nishnaabeg writer and academic, who tackles historical and ongoing issues of racism and colonialism, how does your work act as a decolonial project?

My life is a decolonial project as kwe, by extension my work is a decolonial project.  Academic writing is extremely constrictive in terms of theory and aesthetics and as a medium, fiction offers me much more freedom.

How did you come to the title Islands of Decolonial Love? What is decolonial love?

The idea of decolonial love comes from Junot Dias, but we have different ideas of what this means. One of the most evil parts of colonialism is that its violence infiltrates and encodes itself into our most intimate relationships – the damage of colonialism plays out in our relationships with the people we love the most. Decolonial love refuses that, and generates a series radical attachments, empathys and compassions as practices, in the face of ongoing violence, based on the ways love is conceptualized and practices within for me Nishnaabewin.

As an Indigenous creative person, I’ve always felt all art is in conversation with one another – music, art, poetry, and literature – yet we live in a society that likes to compartmentalize. How does music shape you as a writer?

Lyrics have probably been my biggest influence as a writer. Performance is a chance to embody art, and so that to me is more generative and powerful than say a reading. Music is a layer that deepens my work – I like collaboration, I like writing with musicians. I like generating 20 minutes of decolonial love in a performance.

Your poetics are inherently political. How does the role of the personal play a role in your work?

My life as Kwe is political and theoretical and artistic and revolutionary.

Several of the stories in Islands of Decolonial Love explore themes of education, love, trauma, and forgiveness. How does one learn to let go, heal and ultimately decolonize love?

You just do it. Eventually it feels normal.

Stories are like medicine bundles. How does storytelling play a role in your healing?

This might sound funny, but I’m not particularly interested in healing. I am interested in processing the trauma of ongoing colonialism, so that I can continue to refuse it and to generate within my own life, family and community a nation that my ancestors would recognize as their own. My ancestors are right here, with me, with those yet unborn, and our job is to generate an Nishnaabeg present. The spiritual world is at the base of that. I’m interested in having a profound relationship with that world, but I’m not interested in healing.

Islands of Decolonial Love explores various aspects of love, loving, loss, and self-love. It’s a book that embraces the multi-layered experiences of falling love, being in love, letting go and loving within. It honours ancestral love, the self, and collective love. What do you hope readers take away from this collection?

I hope Indigenous readers feel less alone.

About Author

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell is an award-winning Mi’kmaq poet, writer, and curator. Still No Word (Breakwater, 2015), recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award, is her first collection of poems. She was Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence 2014, and is a board member.
Shannon holds a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia, a BA from Dalhousie University, and currently studies and teaches English Literature at Memorial University. Her work is anthologized in IMPACT: Colonialism in Canada (Manitoba First Nation Education Resource, 2017), Where the Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets (Goose Lane, 2015), This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2015), and others. She curated “Screening the Offshore” at The Rooms Provincial Museum, Art Gallery and Archives, and currently works as a curatorial assistant at Eastern Edge Gallery. Shannon is poetry editor at Plenitude Magazine. Her play Neither Love Letters Nor Moonlight, premieres at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland February 2017. She is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.