Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) is a prolific and celebrated writer, educator, musician and scholar. In addition to scholarly work and 20 years of experience in Indigenous land-based education, Simpson is the author of six books. Her newest, her first novel, is “Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies.”
In this soaring volume, a narrator, Mashkawaji, lies frozen in the ice, a place of memory and healing. Mashkawaji introduces the reader to seven characters, each part of the narrator and their own autonomous selves. As the characters navigate their individual and entwined lives both within and beyond an urban settler world, Simpson uses spare and beautiful prose to render an Anishinaabe-centered story full of love, grief, humor, community and acute observation.
Ahead of her virtual event with renowned poet Natalie Diaz (Mojave) hosted by Elliott Bay Book Company on Feb. 16 — see below for details — Simpson spoke to The Seattle Times over the phone about Anishinaabe aesthetics, capitalism, gender and the nature of storytelling.
The blurb for “Noopiming” blurb says it “is a response to English Canadian settler and author Susanna Moodie’s 1852 memoir ‘Roughing It in the Bush.’” How is this book, and your work in general, a response or resistance to settler colonialism, especially as it manifests in the literary genre of settler memoir?
Susanna Moodie is often celebrated in Canadian canon as being one of the first white women who was writing memoir, and writing “Roughing It in the Bush” as a sort of guide for settlers coming to my territory as colonizers. “Noopiming,” in my language, in Anishinaabemowin, means “in the bush.” I took the approach that when Susanna Moodie came, her white supremacy didn’t allow her to see all the Anishinaabe brilliance and organization and politics and ethics and story that was happening in my territory with my ancestors. There was so much world-building, and that’s an echo of what happens today. So I wanted to really center an Anishinaabe world in cities and in the bush and in these interstitial spaces, and center this Anishinaabe world-building that Moodie and others like her missed or erased or dismissed or destroyed. So I refer to it in the title and then her work doesn’t appear again in the book. And that’s actually the cure, the centering of Anishinaabe world.
Within the text of “Noopiming,” you write that, “All the stories have always already been told … if you are patient, something you forgot breaks through.” Can you talk about how you see your work as part of a larger whole? What did you forget that has broken through? How do you practice storytelling patience?
The spine of my work is Anishinaabe storytelling practices and there is a big body of oral literature that I’m told and pass down, that’s also called complex and rigorous and intellectual. So in one way, I’m pushing back against this idea that Indians don’t have an intelligence system. And on the other hand, I’m trying to work with Anishinaabe stories. One of the aesthetics that’s really important in Anishinaabe storytelling is repetition, because the stories are coded and layered with meaning. There’s also a diversity of ways of telling the stories. There’s also a kind of story that are personal stories, that everybody carries. I really love that part of having artistic and creative and making practices — everybody having their own practice of that, not just specific people who have those gifts, but the community as a whole. I thought a lot about how, under capitalism, artistic practice becomes very individualized. So I really love this idea of thinking through together and working in formations, of using art and literature and thought to strengthen relationships and to build something together.
Can you talk about your use of pronouns in your work and your thinking around gender for your characters?
I went back into Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, and the thought around gender and having a spectrum of genders … our language doesn’t have gender pronouns. So I wanted to take that idea and play around with it in English, because it disrupts the reader’s experience of our very much ingrained experience of he/she pronouns and gender. I wanted to disrupt that in myself and also in the readers. Also within Anishinaabe thought, I’ve been thinking of the body as sort of a hub and a network, where I’m made up of a whole bunch of different relationships with air and water and soil and my ancestors and those that are yet to be born, and all of the living plants, animals and humans that I share time and space with. I was looking at the body as more of a node in a network rather than this hyperindividualistic sort of thing. I wanted to create a space where queerness was normal, because that was something that was normal in Anishinaabe worlds in the past.
What was the role and importance of objects in the narrative of “Noopiming”?
I was thinking about belongings and how, under capitalism, belongings are thought of as property. I was playing with that and questioning it and blurring some of the edges around that idea. Some of the character’s special things are very organic, and are medicines or something that would be very useful. At other times, their belongings are different. So I was interested in the area of when an object ceases to be property and starts to be a belonging, as a way of inserting an Indigenous presence, and also pushing back against this dichotomy between traditional and contemporary.
What are you most looking forward to about your event at Elliott Bay with Natalie Diaz?
We’ve emailed before, but this is our first “in-person” conversation, so that’s actually what I’m most looking forward to. I’m a big fan of Natalie’s work and “Postcolonial Love Poem” is a really amazing book. I’m excited to be in conversation with her and to bring these two books and conversations together.