A Vast Body of Water

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This Accident of Being Lost
By Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
House of Anansi, 2017
152 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Dylan Kinnett

The first point of orientation in This Accident of Being Lost is that the book alternates between prose and verse or, more aptly, story and song. It is a pleasant transition, made navigable by a consistent voice.

The stories depict contemporary life: settings, individuals, and perspectives situated among the Mississauga, a subtribe of the Anishinaabe-speaking First Nation in Canada. Some of these aspects of life are universal: checking a phone too often, trying to avoid one thought by thinking several others, listing reasons for wearing a skirt, the possibility of rape. Others are specific: singing the last remaining lines of the last remaining song of its kind, what it means to harvest maple syrup in the traditional way in a non-traditional environment, or arguing with neighbors about whether the land is better used for sunbathing or harvesting rice.

They won’t change and we won’t change and no amount of talking fixes that. They  want a beach. We want rice beds. You can’t have both. They want to win. We need  to win. They’ll still be white people if they don’t have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won’t be Mississauga if they can’t ever do a single Mississauga thing.

All the stories are personal, told with clarity and fluidity like that of a vast body of water.

The songs immerse the reader in such a life. For example, the poem, “how to steal a canoe” considers the reclamation of a canoe, taking it back from a box store to its rightful waters.

kwe is barefoot on the cement floor
singing to a warehouse
of stolen canoes

bruised bodies
dry skin
hurt ribs
dehydrated rage
akiwenzii says, ‘it’s canoe jail’

Both stories and songs are grounded in location, filling the book with fresh surprises: a forest, a housing development, a lake, a parking garage, a car. The characters, however, are not always so detailed. Most only appear once, as if in passing. It’s the speaker’s personality that holds these pieces together.

There is a socio-political setting to This Accident of Being Lost. Gathering sap to make syrup in the traditional manner (by boiling it for hours in the yard) is contrasted against the custom of neighborhood fliers in the housing development, for example. One of the songs is “Dedicated out of respect to the intelligence and commitment of Black Lives Matter Toronto for halting the Pride parade in 2016.” and it speaks to the effort for social progress:

catharsis is still elusive
so we’ll save that for another day

meet me at the underpass
rebellion is on her way.

In addition to the variety of forms, settings, and themes, This Accident of Being Lost’s multifarious approach streams beyond the boundaries of its pages. In concert with the physical book, Simpson also commissioned a series of music videos available from her blog. There are three videos, which expand upon the written word with their music, images, landscapes, and faces. Via the first of these, the book’s titular song can be heard in addition to being read. The creation of the video is no afterthought. It was made with the same attention to detail as the book it accompanies. Simpson describes that process:

I could make one video with a professional production company, or I could attempt to make a series of low/no budget videos with emerging Indigenous filmmakers. I fell in love with the later idea because I wanted to see how these brilliant Indigenous artists would re-interpret my work and add gorgeous visual layers to the soundscapes. To date, we’ve released “How To Steal A Canoe”  by Métis filmmaker Amanda Strong and “Under Your Always Light” by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Sami/Blackfoot). Both directors and videos are outstanding.

The third video is the title track from my newly released book of short stories and poetry, This Accident of Being Lost by APTN’s Dene A Journey producer and filmmaker Amos Scott (Dene) , and it is a precious video, very close to my heart.

On the whole, it is delightfully easy to get lost in this new book by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. It isn’t a disorienting feeling. Instead it is a trek across a range of territories that are as vivid as they are diverse. These stories and songs, they’re all poems in a sense. The territories they traverse are largely internal ones. It may introduce you to places you’ve never been, names you’ve never named. There are no apologies or explanations for those, only comparisons. “You’re alone in your head for days on end, just wondering if you actually can die of loneliness.” Enjoy the journey.

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About Author

Dylan Kinnett is a writer, spoken word performance artist, and the founding editor of Infinity's Kitchen. His writing seeks to alter traditional literary forms with the use of media, hypertext, and performance. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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