'A Mind Spread Out on the Ground' is a stunning meditation on trauma, decolonization, & love

Alicia Elliott balances personal reflection and Indigenous realities in debut book

Elliott’s novel compares colonialism to depression.
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Tuscarora author Alicia Elliott starts her debut book, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by comparing depression to colonialism.
 
The feelings of death, mourning, pain, and loss are present in both experiences; she uses her personal journey with depression, layered with intricate metaphors and poetic musings, as a foil to the present realities of Indigenous communities grappling with the effects of colonization. 
 
Elliott does not hold back in her analysis of colonialism and Eurocentrism. Her writing is raw and hurts to read, likely because it is so unapologetically truthful. 
 
There is no condolence ceremony, she describes, for those “mourning themselves” in the aftermath of colonialism. “There’s no collective condolence ceremony for our people […] those who need help to see our beauty and hear our songs and speak our language. But maybe, one day,” she writes, “there can be.” 
 
Her opening essay encompasses the heart of the book—a balance between candid personal reflection and analysis of Indigenous history, all linked together through her complex Haudenosaunee identity. 
 
She delves into her personal struggle of being mixed-race, how internalized racism impacted both her childhood and her experience with motherhood, and her experience with de-colonial romantic love. 
 
Elliott uses the essay on recurring head lice to reveal a much deeper analysis of poverty on reservations; similarly, her essay on weight gain reveals a deeper truth about the inability of Indigenous families to afford nutritious food. 
 
Nothing about the essays are simple, which is why her writing is so captivating. Every statement is an interconnected web of race, class, identity, and history that cannot be separated or boiled down to a single theme. 
 
Elliott does not shy away from writing the most complex feelings of shame and resentment, admitting hard truths that most writers would run from. 

 
“As much as it made me sick to admit it, internalized racism had warped me so much that I was actually relieved that my child didn’t look like my father, my aunts, my uncle, my grandmother,” writes Elliott in her essay on being mixed-race. 
 
“Now my kid could, if they chose, deflect the sharp, parasitic legacy of shame and violence they’d inherited and disappear into whiteness.” 
 
Because of her honesty, I felt comfortable addressing my own ignorance, condescension, and bias toward Indigenous communities in Canada. I realizedthe importance of decolonizing my mind to understand the complex realities of our country; I saw my internalized racism sticking out in the spaces between her writing. 
 
This collection has been called “hard, vital medicine” by Warren Cariou, “a stunning, vital triumph of writing” by David Chariandy, and “fire with warmth, light, rage, and endless transformation” by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. 
 
When I read it, the book was all of the above. I had the profound experience of being truly seen as a woman of colour—with the knowledge that I am still an outsider to Indigenous culture—as if Elliott had climbed inside my body and felt the ridges of my bones, putting the feelings I could never articulate into writing. 
 
I can only imagine the validating experience of experiencing her words as an Indigenous reader. Elliott presents herself as a flawed, honest, sexual woman who acknowledges and battles her childhood trauma. She refuses to be a simple archetype of Indigenous culture, and this in itself is wildly powerful. 
 
Most importantly, she writes with love. She writes with love for her culture, her community, and her family, regardless of how flawed they are. She writes with love for herself while acknowledging she is the product of intergenerational trauma and colonialism. This idea is vividly encapsulated in her essay On Seeing and Being Seen. 
 
“If you can’t write about us with a love for who we are as a people, what we’ve survived, what we’ve accomplished despite all attempts to keep us from doing so,” writes Elliot, “if you can’t look at us as we are and feel your pupils go wide, rendering all stereotypes a sham, a poor copy, a disgrace—then why are you writing about us at all?”

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