Writer-in-residence coaches others to find their voices

Alicia Elliott is Western's writer-in-residence for 2020-2021.

Western’s 2020-21 writer-in-residence is Alicia Elliott, a Mohawk writer living in Brantford, Ontario. Her bestselling first book, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, was recognized as one of the best books of 2019 by CBC Books, Globe &  Mail and Quill and Quire. Here, Elliott discusses her craft and her hopes for her residency in a question-and-answer session with 2020-2021 student writer-in-residence, Courtney Ward-Zbeetnoff.

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Courtney Ward-Zbeetnoff

Student writer-in-residence, Courtney Ward-Zbeetnoff

Courtney Ward-Zbeetnoff (CWZ): In your memoir, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, you mention that at age 12 you knew you wanted to write. What brought you to this realization?

Alicia Elliott (AE): It’s funny, I originally wanted to be a visual artist. I grew up in such poverty that I couldn’t even imagine the wealth that surrounds and buoys the visual art world, but I knew I wanted to create. When I came to be about 12 years old, I was introduced to sexier writing – namely, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Her writing is full of aching, longing, confusion, clarity, spirituality and sensuality. The world she created with her Vampire Chronicles nourished me in a way I’d never known before. In Rice’s world, even the most beautiful people – people who could, technically, never die – still had to undergo physical death, emotional deaths, spiritual deaths. The idea of people living like ghosts as they wander places like New Orleans, or histories like those surrounding ancient Egypt and Rome, being both of the world and not, is what I think made me focus my attention back on the written word. It wasn’t hard for me to throw myself into it after that. It also helps that writing is something anyone can do anywhere as long as they have a pen and paper. Visual art costs more to even start.

CWZ: Writing has the ability to inspire change in the individual and propel a shift in society as a whole. What are the driving forces behind your writing?

AE: The idea that if I share my secrets, my fears, my hopes and my shame, then maybe the reader will feel a little more comfortable sharing their secrets, fears, hopes and shames with the people around them. I’m very much someone who believes every systemic issue needs to be solved by bringing the abstract back to the concrete, from the so-called ‘big picture’ back down to the ‘here and now’.

If we can’t make change in individual’s hearts and minds, how can we possibly hope to tackle such huge issues as colonialism, racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia and homophobia? I write with the hope my truth will enlighten others about not only my own truth, but their own. ~ Writer-in-residence Alicia Elliott

CWZ: What is it about the genre of creative nonfiction that resonates with you?

AE: Creative nonfiction is kind of a mystery to everyone—which, to me, is why it’s so exciting. No one seems to be able to agree on what makes something a piece of creative nonfiction instead of a piece of personal journalism or a lyrical essay or a ‘gonzo’ piece of reporting. To me, defining the boundaries of creative nonfiction is boring. What’s exciting is the fuzziness of the boundaries—the way we can blend poetry, fiction, screenwriting, lists, maps, photos. I’m a writer who likes to play, and who likes to be surprised—and creative nonfiction, by its very mysterious nature, encourages all writers to embrace that sense of play and surprise.

CWZ: In your essay On Seeing and Being Seen, you share the resonance of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love and the importance of representation in literature. Did you write A Mind Spread Out on the Ground with the idea of your words being a similar representation for other young Indigenous writers?

AE: I was writing for Indigenous women, queer, trans and 2-Spirit folks. I wanted my work to resonate the most with them. However, I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure my work was, in fact, going to resonate with those audiences. You can never anticipate how anyone is going to respond to anything, regardless of how much care and planning you put into your chosen art form. Luckily, I’ve received such incredible feedback from the groups of people I wrote the book for, so I’m proud of myself for putting in all the work. I wanted my book to feel like a safe place for them to be themselves, to witness me and my journey and the ways that I’ve tried to pull myself out from beneath the layers of shame society has tried to convince me are mine.

CWZ: Creative nonfiction is an extremely rewarding genre, but it also comes with many challenges. How do you practice self-care when writing?

AE: The idea of self-care has largely been co-opted by ‘comfort capitalism’, which means that for us to treat ourselves, we need to somehow be buying what we need for comfort and self-care. Things like new makeup, bubble baths, nice food, etc. While those small comforts are nice – and I partake of them often – those comforts don’t fill your soul up. In some ways, I think writing about the difficult shit in my life is what fills my soul. It’s only when others start to read the work, project their own shit onto the work, then try to use that as a way to make assumptions about me, my life and my intentions that I feel writing is a drain.

CWZ: Could you share some of your plans for this year as writer-in-residence?

AE: In terms of myself, I mostly just want to work on my novel and keep on learning and reading. As far as the Western community goes, I want to help writers find their own voice and perspective and passion – not impose mine. I want them to think about craft-based questions they’d like me to answer over the course of our meeting. Their work deserves to be treated seriously, so let’s treat it seriously!

Alicia Elliott’s office hours are Wednesdays, 2 – 5 p.m. To book a meeting, contact Vivian Foglton in the department of English & writing studies.