‘Temporary spaces of joy and freedom’

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in conversation with Dionne Brand

Decolonization, and the role of art and the imagination in this liberatory enterprise, is at the heart of As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press), a book published late last year by the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, artist, and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. That idea is also at the centre of this conversation between Simpson and the celebrated poet, novelist, and critic Dionne Brand, whose writings explore the politics of race and resistance.

Simpson and Brand spoke in Toronto last month. Their conversation was moderated by Idil Abdillahi, assistant professor in Ryerson University’s school of social work, and a longtime activist. This is an edited transcript.

Dionne Brand: Your book As We Have Always Done seems to me a kind of manifesto. When I got to the end, and you talked about Idle No More, which you were a great part of, I realized these are some of the things you had learned or thought through, or come to know as a result of being engaged with Idle No More. So I read the book as a kind of call to arms, in a sense, and a manifesto for unsettling, or keeping unsettling going. It is also an analysis of struggle, I thought: of anti-colonial organizing, and your role in it, and what you learned. You also do a comprehensive analysis of the various institutions that are involved in past and ongoing colonization, such as the church, and other pedagogical systems, like colonial literature. Am I right?

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: Yes. Indigenous Peoples have been in engaged in anti-colonial organizing long before Idle No More. The communities you and I come from have been resisting and mobilizing for as long as we have been facing domination. I was a young adult during the so-called “Oka crisis,” and watching the mobilization at Kahnawà:ke and Kanehsatà:ke was in many ways the beginning of my political awakening. Anti-colonial organizing and struggle has always been a part of my adult life, and I always learn so much from the act of refusing and then building something different. That’s a rich, generative, theoretical and artistic space for me. In Nishnaabeg thought, there is a sort of unfolding that is important. Our intellectual practices are embodied and are animated through our relationships with the commune of life. I wanted that unfolding to be part of the book, and for me to be in conversations with that commune of life and with others who are doing this work. I wanted the book to be a conversation more than an authority. I wanted people to come out of the book with different perspectives than they went into the book with and to be able to find meaning in the context of their own trajectory, but to have sort of a collectivity to it as well.

Brand: You say in the work, “I write for my people.” And I just wanted you to expand on that. Your audience.

Simpson: I do. I write for my people, as an act of love and resistance and because until relatively recently, very few people were able to do so. I grew up a disappointed reader because I never saw myself in the books I was reading—none of the books were written for me. I made a decision early on in my career to speak first to a Nishnaabeg audience, as a way of not centering whiteness. I am not writing to educate white folks. That’s not what motivates me. I want to interact with my audience on my own terms. In a way that was truthful and that was not edited or massaged to make it palatable to white people in order to sell more books. I’ve been lucky to find independent publishers that support that vision. Of course this has set my career on a very particular trajectory that I didn’t realize at the time. When I meet new publishers they will often say, “We know, we read that you write for an Nishnaabeg audience, but would you be willing to write for a white audience? We could reach a wider audience.”

Brand: What would that possibly look like?

Simpson: I’ve never even thought about it, because…white people are welcome to read my work. My work asks that they would have to read my work from a position of not being centered in it, and I think that is really, really, important.

Brand: Seriously, and that would look like…?

Simpson: “Wider audience” is code for white audience, which is code for less angry, less political, more palatable. It means paying attention to the experience of a white person reading my work with very little knowledge of the Indigenous. It means privileging the experience of a white person reading my work over Indigenous readers. Making sure that I’m making my point without offence. Paying attention to tone. Having a glossary so “everyone” can understand the Nishnaabeg words. Removing insider knowledge and layered meanings. Being concerned with such things produces different work. It limits the stories you can tell and the way you tell them. It limits the worlds you can build. I’ve always been drawn to writers that reject this premise. I like reading books where Indigenous lives and worlds are affirmed. Where we are not victims or feeding victim narratives. Where we open up worlds, not close them down.

Brand: I think the book speaks to how to remain constantly vigilant to the ways in which colonialism is an active organizing system. It’s alive all the time, continually making and remaking itself through its apparatus of governance. In a sense, it is at work daily through the most mundane exchanges. People say or hear “colonialism,” and they think that was in a certain period of a certain system, but they don’t see it as an ongoing act.

Simpson: For Indigenous Peoples, colonialism is a system, a process, an ongoing act that is very much alive in 2018. It is the defining relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian state. It controls all aspects of Indigenous life. It is a system of laws and policies that are designed to maintain the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from our homelands, from our cultures, languages, knowledge, and even our own bodies. In the Trudeau era of reconciliation, there have been superficial signals and promises of a different relationship in the form of inclusion and recognition—land acknowledgements, smudging, and traditional dancers participating in government functions, and minor changes in insignificant policy. We must remain vigilant, though, because the structural changes are not happening. The system of colonialism is becoming even more embedded and obfuscated. The majority of the book was written in this moment of time of Harper leaving office, Trudeau coming in, where I think we wanted to feel hopeful. It didn’t occur to me when I was writing that, by the time the book was published, Trump would be president.

Brand: Yes. The morning when we realized that Trump was elected I thought, So the real monster has arrived. The one we’ve been staving off and making concessions to. I thought of all the movements backward and forward, even just the last thirty years—periods where people got satisfied with institutional recognitions, with the middle classing of everything, with liberal democracy’s piecemeal agreements to give you this right and that right. I talk about it in my forthcoming book The Blue Clerk: you are given a right to one hand and one foot but the whole body’s integrity is disallowed. Some of those compromises were people trying to save themselves—I’m going to be generous and compassionate around that. So all of our efforts in the last thirty years or so were to hold the monster back, in full recognition of what the monster could do, which was to kill us all completely. We constantly make concessions to white supremacy by yes, accepting remediation instead of liberation. Concessions to, and characterizations by the state instead of the demand for our full lives.

You write in your book that the characterization of the effects of colonialism as “social ills” is a failure to see that “the politics of land and body dispossession serves only to reinforce settler colonialism, because it doesn’t stop the system that causes the harm in the first place while also creating the opportunity for neoliberalism to benevolently provide just enough ill-conceived programming and ‘funding’ to keep us in a constant state of crisis, which inevitably they market as our fault.” And so many have yielded to these characterizations in the false or misguided hopes that somehow this monster will back up, and yet a most honest, utterly naked manifestation of the monstrous has appeared. No more liberal democratic language to obscure what has been lived.

Simpson: Liberation. That’s what I’m writing towards. The monster has arrived, and the monster was always here. I believe I have a responsibility to this most honest, naked truth, and to as you so beautifully say reject “liberal democratic language to obscure what has been lived.”

Brand: Certainly we have to be alert to the threat or the enactment of violence.

Simpson: Yes, because we know it will play out on those of us with the least resources to survive it. In times like this, we need to also build and maintain scaffoldings of care for our communities. Colonial violence is always asymmetric. I think it is important then to build mechanisms into our anti-colonial organizing to make sure we are taking care of our communities, acting in solidarity with other communities of resistance, and not just refusing the violence of the colonial world, but relentlessly building liberation out of whatever we have.

Brand: The clarity in your text is stunning when you talk about how Indigenous bodies are observed, and the role that the Indigenous body plays in the colonial project, where it is located, how it is seen, and what its uses are. You write and I quote, “…it is these bodies that must be eradicated—disappeared and erased into Canadian society, outright murdered, or damaged to the point where we can no longer reproduce Indigeneity.” Can you reiterate that?

Simpson: Well, I was thinking a lot about bodies and land and space and time. I wanted there to be no way you could come out of this book thinking that when I say the word “nation,” or “Indigenous nation,” that I mean “nation-state.” I was trying to think this through within Nishnaabeg ethics and philosophy and I was thinking that if I am living in a deeply relational way, my body is a hub of networks cycling through time and space and a very living, organic mechanism that extends beyond my physicality.

Land is very important to Indigenous Peoples, but we think of land quite differently from the colonizers. For us, land is not an enclosure that is protected by a border. Land is not a natural resource to exploit. Land is not a commodity. It is a particular space full of relationality to which we form very deep attachments over very long periods of time. Nation-states need to remove Indigenous bodies from land in order to commodify land and exploit natural resources. This process of expansive dispossession has a very long history in Canada. Two Spirit and Queer people’s bodies were targeted and disappeared first. And then women who did not conform to Victorian principles of womanhood—because women are sites of world building and we replicate Indigeneity. This expansive dispossession is evidenced today by the thousands of MMIWG2S. If you have a world where relationships and process are paramount, land and bodies become so very connected in relation to both space and time.

Brand: You also talk about colonialism having to make Indigenous bodies disappear, either in a kind of mist of history, or in assimilation, because that body has to disappear in order for the Canadian state to possess the land. There has to be nobody living there in order for the land to be legitimately claimed. But of course, Indigenous Peoples are alive. And continue to be alive. Yet the colonial mythmaking is in constant operation of disappearing those bodies—Indigenous bodies and also Black bodies. And it makes symbolic these sets of bodies for its possession of these Americas, if you will. In the case of Black bodies we see the spectre, the emergency of police shootings all across North America—that body was first captured for labour in the colonial project and now is beaten, dragged, shot, or imprisoned as a sign of its non-nation status—of the impossibility of its ever being folded into nation and a sign of its continual possession. So I find that interesting.

Simpson: The liberation of Black people’s bodies and Indigenous People’s bodies is, as Robyn Maynard says, “an interlocking justice project” because of this, although our experiences and perspectives are different. This erasure, disappearing, outright killing is a continual, relentless process and it plays out differently in each community. It is important for me to continually and critically think through visibility in this context. There is a gendered asymmetry to the disappearance of Indigenous bodies, and there are a large number of ways that being Nishnaabeg is not okay, and makes one a target. There are benefits to performing a certain kind of Indigeneity particularly in the shadow of state reconciliation. There are certain kinds of Indigeneity that are acceptable in the context of liberal multiculturalism.

Brand: Right, having to perform a certain kind of Indigeneity.

Simpson: And so what happens when you write books that I think are perhaps opaque, but then they are getting recognized for book awards? That makes me think that maybe I’ve made a mistake….

Brand: That’s the paradox…

Simpson: …and so for me there is a continual negotiation and a continual refusal and a continual reinsertion of me into this. Whiteness erases it, and we reinsert it. Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson and Dene scholar Glen Coulthard’s work on recognition and refusal was so influential in the formation of As We Have Always Done.

Brand: Yes. There is a certain dexterity, I’ve certainly learned, about living Black. About producing creative work that gets co-opted and that must be reconstituted all the time. I mean, you think about Black music in particular, which is constantly being reconstituted, mainstreamed, and then of course when the living conditions that art evinces haven’t changed, one must always make more imaginaries for one to live in. Art is often reproduced as belonging somehow to the national, to the nation-state, if you will. But artists such as you and I have to constantly undo that. You are living the undoing of it and constantly have to produce against it. So it is a real paradox, what becomes of one’s work. You are a multi-genre artist, and a beautiful artist at that, I should say. And so I am interested to know how and why you work your art and your poetry and your music in the ways that you do.

Simpson: I got interested in performance because I like the work of embodied practice and because I like making things. I’m drawn to the world building and visioning capabilities of artistic practice. Historically Indigenous and Black artists have been visionaries in our struggles and movements. They have also affirmed our presence—­created temporary spaces of joy and freedom, and enabled me to go on. In the academy I think about things, and lecture about things, but in performance I can set up space together with an audience to share something different. I really liked creating these islands of freedom, little glimpses of freedom where we stand together and we get to feel, just for a second maybe, what freedom might be like, and to get that feeling into our bones. These spaces open up different possibilities. These spaces are not just spaces of refusal, they are also generative. They are also spaces of joy and possibility. I love how Ashon Crawley writes about the importance of joy.

Brand: So you are saying that these various ­practices open up different spaces for a kind of communal understanding or different angles to understanding. When you think of this academic work, As We Have Always Done, whom does it speak to?

Simpson: I think my intention was to “think through with,” not “speak to.” My ancestors worked and worked and worked and worked. They got up every day and made things. They made their political system and their healthcare system and their education system, their transportation networks, their clothes and their food. They were constantly engaged in creating, and through those individual and collective embodied processes, generated thought, ethics, theory. I’m interested in living in a different world. I’m interested in building a different world.

Brand: For me it is about the commitment to art as liberation and the miracle of shapes to communicate. I am not this singular writer distinct from community. I have obligations to a “freedom to come,” as Rinaldo Walcott calls it. I think of writing as an obligation to that. A pleasure, certainly, but a willing obligation to a future world, or to imagining a future world, so I will use all the tools at my disposal, at least all the ones I love.

Simpson: Yes, that is a beautiful, brilliant way that Rinaldo Walcott frames it. For me, that responsibility to “freedom to come” means that we have to build alternatives in the present because it is our actions now that give birth to that future. The present, our presence, is interesting to me because each moment is a collapsing of the past and the future. The present, our presence, is our power. In my territory, I also have a responsibility to support “freedom to come” for the Black community. I have a responsibility to act in solidarity, to share land and space, and to respect the sovereignty and self-determination of this community as well.

Brand: Talk about the Radical Resurgence ­project.

Simpson: Well, it used to be just the resurgence project, a political idea that the way out of colonialism would be for us to, individually and then collectively, think within our own ethics and processes and do that world building without seeking the recognition of the colonizer. That was always very attractive and appealing to me. There are important things, though, to think through. It is crucial to me to place women and Two Spirit and Queer Indigenous People at the centre of our movements as a mechanism for reclaiming consent, body sovereignty, a spectrum of genders and sexual orientations, individual and collective self-determination, and empathy. It is critical we think through solidarity and materially contribute to abolition and the undoing of anti-Blackness. It is important that we do not allow resurgence to be co-opted and deradicalized. It is okay to be radical. We need to be radical. It is the only ethical response.

Brand: You’re suggesting a constant thinking and rethinking since colonialism is, in effect, corporate-ism and capitalism now—it morphs very quickly. It absorbs radical concerns by taking the edge off. But it is moving on in that same shape; it simply has integrated some of your claims into its shape without fundamental change. And we, I’m using “we” here broadly to speak of all people who are affected by it, have to be as agile. Because it keeps moving, holding our bodies in the same situation.

So it is a tricky, tricky thing. But talk some more about the difference between cultural resurgence and political resurgence, because that is interesting to me. In Black communities there are cultural nationalists, capitalist nationalists, left radicals, LGBT and feminist revolutionaries, so many strands of politics, and these categories are not always discrete, all attendant on opposing racism but with differing strategies.

Simpson: Some forms of resurgence—let’s say language learning, or learning a cultural practice (both crucial forms of resurgence) are more palatable to whiteness and the state than returning land, or building an economic system that rejects capitalism. I’m not particularly interested in reclamation or Indigenizing things. Resurgence for me is an undoing of the settler state. When I start to hear presidents of universities and mayors use the term “resurgence,” then I know that we’re not talking about the same thing anymore.

Brand: Absolutely not. Then you have to change the word entirely.

Simpson: Yes.

Brand: I am disturbed sometimes by the glib language of land acknowledgement at public events. The acknowledgement must be spoken, of course. But there is a packaging of it, if you will, in the language of “sharing” as if the audience is being forgiven instead of notified. It resembles a consumable item for the audience, and a consumable item for history. It is not sufficient, the language of it should be much more radical, actually, it should lead to action not mere obligatory ritual.

Please talk about truth and reconciliation. You talk about it here…well, you talk about it everywhere. Maybe I should frame it like this: what are the pitfalls of that?

Simpson: Part of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg political practices is to acknowledge the peoples whose homeland we are visiting, as a mechanism of affirmation, diplomacy, relationship building and to recognize their self-determination and nationhood and our responsibilities to them. Doug Williams, an Elder from Curve Lake First Nation, taught me how to do this. It is not meant to be empty words. It is an ethical and political intention meant for continual follow-up. It is a very particular way of living. When I am in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal), I think of the 450 years of resistance from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawà:ke. I think of my nation’s relationship to Kanien’kehaka (Mohawks). I think of Ellen Gabriel. I think of writers and academics like Audra Simpson and the Kanien’kehaka whose attachment to that place is so deep. A few weeks ago, Robyn Maynard had a public conversation in Montreal. We both started with an acknowledgement—I did mine according to my political practices and in my language. At the beginning of Robyn’s talk, she called into the room a series of Black people who had been killed through anti-Black violence in the city of Montreal.

So yes. The language should be more radical. It should lead to action. It should lead to a further unsettling and decolonizing. It should not be an obligatory ritual designed to exonerate those in the room from colonialism.

Brand: Tell me of other artists, painters, writers, musicians, that are doing work that you admire.

Simpson: Rebecca Belmore is someone that has a pretty big influence on me. She comes into space with her head held high, grounded, unapologetic. She commands the space around her.

Brand: Fierce.

Simpson: Fierce. Her work has been so influential and generative for me. Her work forced me back into my body. As a writer and an academic it is easy to just live in your head. Belmore challenged me to be in my body, to re-inhabit my own sovereignty. To get comfortable in my own bones and own skins and to speak my truth in a clear and strong hearted way.

Brand: I saw her do a piece at Nuit Blanche in 2009, Gone Indian it was called, so powerful. Just ­amazing.

Simpson: I feel free in ceremony, and I feel free watching her performances. This is where I first felt like someone had my back. Alexis Pauline Gumbs and her work M Archive is another work that influences me right now. The way that she “thinks through together,” the way that she thinks with ancestors, the way that she is detonating all the different kinds of genres in her work. It broadens me and makes me see other possibilities. I have a lot of admiration for Lido Pimienta. We were on tour together for New Constellations. She is amazing on stage, but what really spoke to my heart was the way she interacted with Indigenous youth in workshop settings. We were on a reserve and she was in a songwriting workshop with a small group of young Indigenous women. She brought them on stage to perform with her that night. Seeing how important it was to them, and to their community was just an incredible thing to witness. I have a lot of admiration for my sisters and my kids. And of course, as a writer, Dionne Brand.

Brand: Really? Are you kidding me?

Simpson: No, I am not kidding. Of course. Your gorgeous body of work and your practice has always been a beacon. You are doing things differently, unapologetically, politically, in a bunch of different genres, and that gave me the idea that it was even possible. You are brilliant. I am (after Christina Sharpe’s work) so very lucky to be writing in your wake.