Voices among Us
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s latest
This past spring , while working from home in our downtown Toronto apartment, my husband and I began noticing a large raccoon that would waddle across the street and sometimes lounge on the roof of a nearby house. Fat raccoon sightings soon became our antidote to pandemic-related anxiety. “It’s huge!” we’d giggle. “Think of all the garbage it must eat.” Then, one night, we spotted the raccoon again, much thinner now and trailed by four babies. She hadn’t been fat; she’d been pregnant. Suddenly, I felt like a bad neighbour.
Had I already read Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, I might have held my tongue. In this non-fiction work, from 2011, Simpson recalls being told by her elder Edna Manitowabi that Nishnaabeg do not tell animal stories in the spring , summer, and fall “because these beings are awake and active during this time and they could be around when we are speaking about them.” Such a narrative ethic, requiring that these tales be recounted only in wintertime, assumes animals and other spirits have comprehension and feelings. It also goes some way to explaining Simpson’s latest book, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies.
The novel opens with a being named Mashkawaji, who “fell through the ice” of a lake and is now “frozen stiff.” Mashkawaji, it seems, was human once; they have a parent named Mindimooyenh and a younger sister. (Characters are referred to as “they” or “them” throughout, as Simpson follows the Anishinaabemowin convention of categorizing nouns as animate/inanimate rather than male/female.) “The details don’t matter,” Mashkawaji says, about how they came to be trapped there. One interpretation might be that they froze to death and are telling their tale from a watery grave. But our narrator resists this reading , claiming that “being frozen in the lake is another kind of life.”
In this state of suspension, Mashkawaji shares stories of others who come to visit. These characters are wonderfully rendered, by turns tender, sardonic, wise, and neurotic. They include Akiwenzii, an old man trying to pass on bush knowledge to Lucy, whose enthusiasm for hunting deer is matched by their awful aim; Asin, who can sleep only next to a fire; and the aforementioned Mindimooyenh, a “bargoon”-hunting grandmother obsessed with “Certified Value Tarps” from Canadian Tire. But Mashkawaji’s visitors are not restricted to the human. There’s also the maple tree, Ninaatig , who pushes a shopping cart between a Peterborough provincial park and downtown Toronto, unnoticed by most people; Sabe, a recently sober giant, who creates sculptures from the detritus of modern life; and Adik, a hipster backpack-sporting caribou spirit, who uses their Sony digital voice recorder to capture the “sound of hope” (green leaves moving in the wind, water flowing over rock).
The book’s form is perhaps meant to mimic the snippets of sound gathered by Adik’s recorder. Many pages contain only a single sentence or even a single word. Such sparseness brings to mind a textual fragment, as if the lines surrounded by blankness represent pieces of a narrative that has otherwise been erased. A visual analogue can be found in “Fringe,” the photograph by the Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore that graces the cover. It depicts a woman lying down, facing away from the camera, with a diagonal line of stitching running across her naked back. What appear at first to be rivulets of blood oozing from her are actually strings of red beads, gesturing toward colonial violence against Indigenous women and the resilient beauty of their creative labour. The double valence of this image suggests that Noopiming ’s structure should be read not as fragmentary but as a reclaiming. This is a novel that takes up space, that insists on the value of a page containing only the word “Rebuilt” at the top. The blankness doesn’t signify emptiness. It is a pause, a moment of necessary listening.
Noopiming is rich in Anishinaabemowin words, but, in contrast to many of Simpson’s earlier works, English translations are notably absent. This shift marks another form of reclamation: the storyteller and musician is now in a position to push back against an industry that tends to centre the needs of white English-speaking audiences, who she has acknowledged are not her primary focus. The novel’s narrator tells of life “in the bush,” which is Noopiming ’s English meaning (words can be translated through the online Ojibwe People’s Dictionary). As Simpson states in her acknowledgements, this title was motivated by Susanna Moodie’s 1852 memoir, Roughing It in the Bush, which gives an account of her family’s migration from England to the place some call Douro Township, right in the middle of Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogaming (the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg’s name for their territory). Moodie’s portrayal of “wild lands” of “primeval beauty,” peopled by “dark and unlovely” inhabitants, has long held pride of place in the Canadian literary canon, appearing in anthologies and on university syllabi all over the country. Noopiming’s subtitle, The Cure for White Ladies, positions the text as a remedy for the outsize role settler narratives have played in shaping mainstream Canadian perspectives about the land.
Of course, much of the region depicted in the book is no longer “in the bush.” It comprises the north shore of Lake Ontario, including a large chunk of Highway 401, at least two nuclear facilities, the cities of Toronto and Peterborough, and several municipalities in between. The bush that these beings inhabit is a colonized space overrun by zhaganash (white people) driving Mercedeses, “tree cops” who prohibit the tapping of maple trees in the springtime, and municipal bylaws that bar Asin from lighting their much-needed fires. It’s not the bush, and yet it remains the bush at the same time. In Tommy Thompson Park, on Toronto’s waterfront, young Canada geese learn the art of flight formation from their elders. In the forest of the Mark S. Burnham Park, Ninaatig , the maple tree, is happily welcomed home by their children each spring despite the tree cops’ surveillance. This welcome is just one instance of the care circulated among the story’s non-human characters. Another example is the esibanag (raccoons): despite being “dispossessed, displaced and their habitat gentrified like everyone else,” they have “moved the fuck back in” to build lodges, speak their languages, raise children, and look after each other, regardless of the “asshat humans.”
Noopiming is a remarkable and unusual novel that is both tender and defiant. It tells of moments of intense Nishnaabeg joy that unfold in a colonized space through the medium of a colonial language. The book doesn’t end in revolution or the cataclysmic rupture of imposed structures: the highways remain standing , the tree cops still patrol. Instead, characters flourish in “simple stolen moments,” like the raccoons’ brief, triumphant takeover of a backyard lily pond. Simpson leaves us with the esibanag and one of their mantras for living — something I’ll recall next spring if I once again spot my four-legged neighbour waddling across the street. “Take very, very good care of each other, always, no matter what happens.”