Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, artist and member of Alderville First Nation. Her writing extends from scholarly work grounded in twenty years of Indigenous land-based education, and extends to genre-bending creative forms of poetry, song, and short stories. Her debut collection of stories and songs, Islands of Decolonial Love, was chosen by Thomas King for the 2013 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. This Accident of Being Lost was released by House of Anansi Press in April 2017 and has just been shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It is a spell-binding collection that shifts between lyric poetry and short stories using a fragmented, weaving narrative. From PRISM’s Executive Editor, Jessica Johns, are six reasons why reading This Accident of Being Lost will have you openly weeping in coffee shops and ignoring cute dogs at the farmers market.
1. Love that is often trivialized is written about in a non-trivial way.
This is the part where I start crying in the coffee shop. I’m sitting next to some dude who is playing on his phone and trying very hard not to show that he notices the crying. But here’s the thing. I’m eleven pages in, reading the section “22.5 Minutes,” and it starts like this: “I am 10 minutes and a bottle of cheap wine away from falling in love with you, which means I already am in love with you and that this fact was discreetly caged in the space of the unspoken and unwritten and the unsung.” My mind is blown. In this section, the narrator is trying to complete an exercise where she tries not to think about the “you” for forty-five minutes every day, and she starts by focusing on twelve topics for two minutes each.
The topics range from the hilarious (e.g. “Kate Middleton” and “Pink Pants”) to heavy (e.g. “Body Image” and “Being a Writer Sucks”), but the thread weaving it all together always comes through: love. Why I’m crying, really, is because I’m relieved. I’m relieved that someone will write about love like this. A love that has grown out of texting, a love that isn’t “real,” in that there is no physicality to it. A love that is not conventional and so is often trivialized. But Simpson doesn’t trivialize it. She grounds it firmly in reality, as her narrator tries (and fails) to set boundaries around it.
2. It is beautiful in a way that is surprising, and I haven’t been surprised in a while.
Speaking of writing about love, the amount of love and the forms love takes throughout this book are astonishing. I’m about a quarter of the way through now. The most notable, surprising, and (again) relieving thing for me is the speaker’s love of the land. This love is just as complicated as love in any other relationship, whether it’s with a person, place, or animal. In the section “Brown against Blue,” Simpson takes the reader through her narrator’s communication with the “you” (a different “you” than in the other sections) before going hunting. It’s unclear from the language whether this “you” is a lover, a friend, or a family member. In the end, it’s revealed that the narrator was communicating with the moose that she eventually ends up killing:
“I kneel down and kiss your fallen moose forehead. I close your eyes and say the same words as my Ancestors, Chi’miigwech gii miizhiyan bimaadiziwin. There are tears in my eyes and that’s ok where I come from because it was love, not hate. And then he comes to me again and he brings three things: tobacco, a knife, and some proud, just for me.”
Simpson’s description reveals that loving your land and hunting on it doesn’t come without complicated feelings and emotions. It’s not just easy because it’s part of your tradition. It’s beautiful, terrible, and messy.
3. It’s hilarious.
This book as a whole is raw and deep and emotional. But sprinkled throughout almost every section is a sense of humour that will punch you in the gut. One of my favourite sections comes about halfway through the book and is titled “A Few Good Reasons to Wear a Long Skirt.” Some of these reasons include “if you want to masturbate, but you are in public, you could use your skirt as a tent” and “if you are ice fishing & someone falls in the hole, you could use your skirt as a rescue rope to rescue them.” These funny moments give the reader an opportunity to laugh and breathe for a second, and make the important points that come either before or after, such as the last item listed in this section, hit a little bit harder:
“if you need to attack a fort, you can get everyone together to play a fake game of lacrosse with the shirts, and then when one of the skins ‘accidentally’ throws the ball into the fort, & they open the gates to get it, you & all your skirted friends can take your knives & axes out from underneath your skirts & attack the fuck out of the british.
(tested and proven to work june 2, 1763, at fort michilimackinac.)”
4. Because you will have to remind yourself to slow down.
This will happen around page fifty-five, almost halfway through, when you read the lyric, titular section, “This Accident of Being Lost.” You’ll get to the end of the third stanza, “fill your empty with smoked meat / vomit this fucking mess,” and make an audible noise as you exhale. You’ll continue into the fourth: “weave spruce into your fix / forget missed shots & mean boys / tie these seven pieces of heart / use whiskey as your decoy,” and feel a sharp pain in your chest. Your eyes will start to move faster, to drink in everything all at once, and you’ll have to stop and remind yourself to slow down. You can always reread things, you can always go back, but the first time feeling can only happen once, and you know it’s important to slow down now. To feel it right.
This is also when I ignore the dog. I’m at the farmers market reading on the grass, my half-eaten meat pie next to me. The dog sniffs at it, and I can see out of the corner of my eye that it is really cute. But I ignore it anyways and I don’t really care if it eats my pie. That’s how good this section is.
5. It’s okay to be angry at things.
The tone in this book is always subtly pissed-off, which is beautiful in its own way. But there are parts where the anger really comes to the surface, such as in “Plight,” when the speaker and two other Nishnaabekwewag have to draft a letter to their (mostly white) community indicating that they are going to collect maple sap from the maple trees in their neighbourhood. The tricky part is, they have to word the letter as though they’re asking permission, so no one will make a fuss about it. The impact of having to “ask” in order to act on their traditions is apparent, and not just in their frustration at having to write the letter. It becomes clear that this is only a small example of a series of negotiations that they have had to make their entire lives, and their anger about “this strangulation” is clear. Because of this, they are forced into a performance of toughness in order to “protect the fuck” out of themselves.
In the section “Doing the Right Thing,” the narrator takes a firearms safety course from a “blue-blooded Harper Conservative” in order to exercise her treaty rights. Among the funny-because-they’re-so-apt descriptions of the instructors (she’s fascinated by the younger instructor’s ability to be a “bro-whisperer”) and of the white men taking the class, are moments of palpable anger:
“I am holding a loaded shotgun, face to face with the epitome of a white man. In the past twenty-four hours he has erased all of my people from our land. He has said ‘Indians’ are only good for shooting cormorants. He has said ‘Indians’ twenty-seven times in two days. And here I am, one of ‘their’ women. The only thing he thinks I’m good for is what I’ve been marketed to him for: deviant fucking.
I look him in the eye in a way that makes him feel unsafe, and wrong. Threatened. Like he has met his match. I do not look away.”
What I like about this anger is that it is unapologetic. It is blunt and in-your-face and the kind of bold I am often scared to be but Simpson’s characters are not.
6. You will feel like you’re not alone.
I read an interview with Simpson in The Overcast where she was asked what she hoped readers took away from Islands of Decolonial Love, her debut story collection, and she said, “I hope Indigenous readers feel less alone.” In reading This Accident of Being Lost, I did. I felt like someone was finally saying something that I didn’t even know I needed to hear.
Simpson made me feel less alone in a million other ways, too. I’ve written about “relief” multiple times in this piece and I can’t think of a better word for how I felt reading This Accident. I’m relieved that this kind of writing exists in the world for people to see and so we can say, It’s okay to do this. It’s okay to write about love, and everything else that’s fucking hard. Even next to the bigger things like having to fight for your land and your family.
I have a stack of books that I wanted to read this past summer and still haven’t gotten to. Meanwhile, I’ve read This Accident multiple times. I’ve texted photos of passages to my friends. Read it out loud to someone making food in my kitchen. Taken it to a reading group. I can’t get enough of it. I haven’t loved something like this for a while and all I want is to keep loving it and for everyone else in the world to experience it, too.
Jessica Johns is a writer of Cree ancestry and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation. She is the Executive Editor of Promotions for PRISM international, living and working on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Glass Buffalo Poetry Contest, and was the winner of Saltern’s 2017 Short Forms contest.