Simpson’s spirited stories shift perceptions

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July 9, 2014

Islands of Decolonial Love

By Leanne Simpson

ARP, 143 pp., $14.95

Reviewed by Tyler Gabrysh

Leanne Simpson’s latest work, Islands of Decolonial Love, is an impressive collection of short stories. Simpson’s book includes poems and brief vignettes, as well as audio downloads for select stories to round out the reader’s experience.

Simpson’s writing concerns Indigenous Peoples– particularly those of her own Nishnaabeg nation.  Her work conveys heartache, sensitivity, and innocence, sometimes at odds with circumstance, blemished truth, and awkwardness.  Readers are introduced to this collection through the narrator’s unsettling (and implied) account of a relationship incident.

Throughout the book, many words (and chapter titles) replicate the language of the Nishnaabeg with an according translation given at each chapter’s end. While this is admirable, a single index would have been helpful.

“waaseyaaban” opens with the narrator describing the single shower all four family members take as mother “instructed us to wash ourselves and our five pairs of dirty underwear.” Then, “binesiwag” tells of an eight-year-old’s resistance to staying with relatives for the first time. Next, “it takes an ocean not to break” reveals disdain for an ignorant white therapist who uses the word “aboriginal” too frequently.

Simpson jolts us with jarring content, including the following from the narrator’s friend: “lucy says that i made a critical mistake on my first day of therapy. ‘you have to lay all of your indian shit out on the first day, drug abuse, suicide attempts, all the times you got beat up, all of that shit. then you sit back and watch how they react. then you’ll know if they can deal or not.’ ”

As effectively as Simpson jolts us here, she finesses elsewhere. “Caged” concerns a spotted lynx and a male bear, along with  “nozhem,” a female bear spirit. The tone is warm, reaching for compassion. “She told him 10,000 years of everything” is rich in atmosphere as a thirty-something waits at a music gig to interview the lead singer before a timely romantic encounter. “For asinykwe” is tender prose about a woman healer. Although not a central focus, humour pops up now and again, too.

Overall, Simpson provides a host of rarely heard characters and various means of travel and experience. The language is woven with spirit, symbolism and metaphor. Phrases strike a chord and readers are made to re-examine presuppositions they may have held about Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Tyler Gabrysh (www.tylergabrysh.com) is a writer who lives in Victoria.

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