Alicia Elliott is an award-winning Tuscarora writer. Her debut collection of essays about trauma and legacy, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, was published in March. She spoke to Sheima Benembarek about the publishing industry, the media and how to build relationships with Indigenous communities.
Sheima Benembarek: You mention in your new book that Indigenous writers getting opportunities through reverse racism is a laughable idea. Has there been a shift in the publishing industry that is favourable to them in recent years?
Alicia Elliott: The shift is not very romantic. It’s very much tied to economics. I’m happy that Indigenous writers are getting a chance. They’re so talented that I feel like it would be stupid not to publish them. But I will say that a lot of the interest in Indigenous writing has been very much linked to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report. And a lot of the calls to action were targeted toward funding for the arts. There was money put aside specifically for reconciliation arts programs and so quite a few literary journals did all-Indigenous issues. I think that people were excited about the possibility of reading Indigenous authors at that point and Indigenous people were excited at the possibility of seeing their stories and their lives reflected in art. The Malahat Review’s all-Indigenous issue, for example, was so popular that they had to order more runs.
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Once [publishers] realized there’s money to be made with Indigenous authors then things really shifted. This goes along with social change. People are more interested in other types of stories. They see more of the value in different perspectives. [The shift] is in response to readers… recognizing that these writers have been talented all along — they just needed a shot.
SB: You talk about the concept of the white gaze in relation to art. Can you elaborate on how white writers can tell stories that belong to other cultures, or is that just never okay?
AE: There are certain people who are better suited to being generous and not making it about them. It really does depend on the writer. When you’re writing something, you really need to think about why it is that you feel you need to be the one to write that. There is this idea — very informed by Western colonialism — of ownership, almost like staking a flag and saying I’m going to make this mine, including people’s stories. If, as a white writer, you want to decolonize your thought process around that, it really does involve much more work than many are willing to put in. And in that case, why not step aside? It’s strange to me that this is sometimes seen as political correctness gone wild or censorship when it’s just acknowledging that you don’t have access to the life you’re trying to portray. You don’t know what it’s like and so doing deep research and creating relationships where people are comfortable telling you when you’re wrong is important. Do the work!
SB: There have been a number of influential media outlets that took issue with the use of the word genocide in the findings of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report. What are your thoughts about Canadian journalism with regards to reconciliation?
AE: I wonder what the people who are in charge of these media institutions would say if someone were to ask them: What is your role as a member of the media? I would be interested in what they would have to say because I think that a lot of them do think that they’re informing the public. And with these kinds of rights come responsibilities. I think about times where they’ve done positive things like putting a spotlight on the struggles of missing and murdered Indigenous women which made it so that creating an inquiry was part of an election campaign promise. At the same time, they can also do things that can be really negative.
In these media institutions, it’s primarily white people who are in charge, and I don’t think they’re interrogating their biases. This word [genocide] didn’t just come out of nowhere. Genocide doesn’t always look the same, the way racism doesn’t always look the same, the way sexism doesn’t always look the same. These things have a ripple effect that continues to impact people’s lives. If there’s no public swell of support for using the term genocide, then there won’t be public support for actually enacting policies that will stop it. These are the things that I don’t think a lot of the people writing headlines and editorials think about.
SB: What would you say to those who want to be allies?
AE: Try to create relationships with nearby Indigenous communities. Try to find out if they hold events that are open to the public where you can go. It’s so much easier to humanize people when you actually meet them. It’s harder to see them as people when they’re just a theoretical group to you.
This interview has been condensed and edited. For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.