This is a first-book for author Alicia Elliott, spawned from the National Magazine Award-winning title essay “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.” It reads like an award-winning book, and not at all like a first-book. That first essay centers on the English-translation of the Mohawk phrase for depression and mental-illness. And doesn’t depression make me feel like a puddle, spread thin, a liquid that lacks a container? Doesn’t my life feel like a floor strewn with spilled legos, sharp and disorderly? In Elliott’s essay we carefully examine depression and all the cultural, societal, colonial, and personal factors that contribute to our mental health.
A great deal of this book resonated with me, not just the mental health discussions. Food and my relationship to my weight. Abuse, and the greyscale of hurt and love that confuses these relationships. Something about Alicia Elliott’s talent for her craft and voice as a writer has made me think that I’m her friend. That we have a lot in common, that we grew up together. We actually don’t, but there’s something about her openness, her opinions and her questioning, her clear craft, that makes me think that we do.
The mental health essays felt familiar. The studies of cultural practices in historical and present-day Canada as compared to Elliott’s Haudenosaunee practices were illuminating—more for what they taught me about my own habits than what they showed me of Elliott’s. But the crowning jewel of the collection is the final essay, which plays with form to pull readers from passive observation.
“This is a participatory essay. Think of it as a survey of sorts, or perhaps a conversation I’m trusting you to finish…I tried to write it without your help but, quite simply, I don’t have all the answers—even if I sometimes might imply that I do.”
On the page this essay looks like a junior high reading comprehension assignment. Elliott writes for a few paragraphs, then pauses to ask questions. And the questions help us stay active in the narrative, help us understand how complicated these situations are even if we’ve never experienced them first-hand. And they allow Elliott to write with poise and authority without closing the conversation.
“According to a 2014 survey of 2,542 women aged eighteen to thirty-five, nearly 60 percent had experienced abuse. Knowing this, can you think of members of your family or any of your friends who have been abused?
Can you think of members of your family or any of your friends that have been accused of being abusive?”
But A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is not another piece of poverty-porn, not parading the problems of an oppressed people for bleeding-heart white liberals to sob over. It’s not painful to read, nor overly sad. It’s just truth, and beauty.
“I can’t even write this now without feeling like I have to make excuses for my family, to explain that despite all the dysfunction and trauma, each of my siblings was raised with so much love and self-confidence that we’re all now, as adults, doing well in our chosen fields, and even if we weren’t, we still deserve to be considered more than our dysfunction and trauma, we still deserve to be considered valuable, whole.”