Where Smudging Meets IKEA
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s new novel reclaims Anishinaabe culture by weaving together past and present, Kim Honey writes
Reclaiming Anishinaabe culture
What is the cure for white ladies? This novel and its beautiful prose, with sentences that take your breath away and lodge within you long after the last page is turned.
It is in the bush, which is what noopiming means in Anishinaabemowin, the foundation of the book and the language of author Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s nation, the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, or Mississauga Ojibway.
The novel is an Indigenous antidote to the white ladies alluded to in the title: Susanna Moodie and her sister, Catharine Parr Traill, who settled with their husbands in southern Ontario in the 1830s on land that belongs to the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg.
Its title refers to the 1852 book Roughing It in The Bush, Moodie’s seminal settler account of the family’s unsuccessful attempt to clear land north of Peterborough, Ont., and impose a farm on the wilderness. A canonical text still taught in English classes across the country, it has inspired CanLit stalwarts from Margaret Atwood and her 1972 book of poetry, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, to Carol Shields, Timothy Findley and Cecily Ross, who published The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie in 2017.
Simpson has always had a “very complicated relationship” with Moodie’s book, with its “violent and racist” depictions of Mississauga Anishinaabe and Black people as physically and intellectually inferior, which persist more than 150 years later.
“The idea that we are naturally less than our white counterparts continues to produce generations of Native youth that believe they are,” the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar writes in her 2017 book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance.
Noopiming is not a critique of Moodie’s book but a reply to her “removal from the impact that was going on at the time in terms of colonialism,” the author said in a telephone interview from her home in Peterborough, explaining that Anishinaabe stories have many layers.
“My response to that was to invite readers into this contemporary Mississauga Anishinaabe world that’s existing right alongside Toronto and Peterborough … and say, ‘This is what Susanna Moodie couldn’t see.’”
So Mindimooyenh, which means old woman in Anishinaabemowin, spends 11 hours a day each December at the IKEA in North York, where they (all
characters take they/them pronouns to be inclusive), smudge in the parking lot before they go in, sprinkle tobacco in the rubber plants and wander the aisles in meditation, repeating “Gersby” and “Hemnes” over and over.
“I really wanted the book to show an Anishinaabe world … that isn’t often seen or affirmed or appreciated outside of Anishinaabe people,” said Simpson, a member of the Alderville First Nation, located about 30 kilometres north of Cobourg, Ont., on the south shore of Rice Lake.
The book begins with the narrator, Mashkawaji, frozen in a lake. Their form dissolved when “tragedy happened again,” an oblique reference to the trauma of colonization because Simpson didn’t want to re-traumatize Indigenous readers with details.
The novel, which is written in prose, poetry and short narratives, jumps into the stories of the seven characters to whom Mashkawaji gives their physical and metaphysical parts: Akiwenzii, their will, lives on the reserve but prefers a tent in the bush; Ninaatig, a tree who represents their lungs, pushes a shopping cart around the city that contains a Mason jar of soil “for emotional comfort”; Mindimooyenh, their conscience, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the sizes and prices of Canadian Tire’s blue plastic tarps; Sabe, their marrow, a benevolent bigfoot creature who roams the city looking after lost souls; Adik, their nervous system, a caribou who wears a Fjällräven Kånken backpack that contains spruce gum balm for their hooves, which always hurt from travelling the city; a stone, Asin, who is their eyes and ears. Lucy, a human who represents their brain, constantly streams Star Trek on Netflix when they are “trapped in the city.”
The novel explores the theme of dispossession – from the land and from culture – at the heart of the post-colonial experience.
Some of the characters – like Akiwenzii, Sabe and Kwe – show up in Simpson’s previous novels, Islands of Decolonial Love (which won the 2013 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award) and 2017’s This Accident of Being Lost, and on the singersongwriter’s companion albums like 2016’s f(l)ight.
Kwe gets the adjective Bougie in this book because they have a house in the city and a backyard they renovate “to classy up the joint,” but then raccoons move in and trash the place.
It is a metaphor for humans imposing themselves on nature and amplifies the idea that there are worlds within worlds, but Simpson said it is also about how difficult it is for Indigenous people to live in the urban settler world.
She hopes readers take the seeds of the ideas she has planted in the book and “think about them over time in different contexts at different points in your life” when they will acquire different meaning. The grand design is to keep the past alive by showing how it meshes with the present, give non-Indigenous people a window on the Anishinaabe world and allow Indigenous people to inhabit their world without fear.
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies will be published by House of Anansi Press on Sept. 1.
In Simpson’s world, animals, spirits and ancestors come alive.