Now or Never

Towards the end of the 1996 documentary, Listening for Something…, Dionne Brand gently corrects Adrienne Rich, specifying that Brand does not write “for” Black people, but “to them.” The differences between these two approaches are both subtle and profound. “For” implies a gifting, something that can be accepted—or put on a shelf and ignored. “To” implies a momentary communion, and asks for engagement and togetherness. While the entire conversation between these two brilliant poets gives the audience plenty to think through some twenty years later, it is Brand’s remark that I’ve carried with me and thought most intensely about in my own writing: following Brand’s example, I want to write to Nishnaabeg first, to and not for. The differences are both subtle and profound.

The works below can teach us how to encounter them if we pay attention. These writings refuse whiteness and colonialism by breaking open space, making room for worlds otherwise. This is world-building work, and these books’ exploratory nature makes them similar, in some sense, to speculative fiction. But these texts arise from and are rooted in the lived experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. The worlds they envision allow us to see the present—and the past—anew, and are life-giving precisely because they refuse the efforts by white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism to undermine them. They offer a study on how to read, or how to read differently, or perhaps how to listen.

Dionne Brand, Listening for Something..., 1996. Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand. National Film Board of Canada
Dionne Brand, Listening for Something..., 1996. Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand. National Film Board of Canada

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip (2008)
On November 29, 1781, the captain of the Dutch ship Zong! ordered the murders of one hundred and fifty enslaved African people, a massacre by drowning that took place over the next ten days so the ship’s white businessmen could collect insurance money. The legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert documented the colonial discourse that ensued, and provides the text for poet M. NourbeSe Philip to build a world almost two hundred and fifty years later in which the urge to make sense and meaning from events that are senseless is refused in favor of telling a story “that must be told by not telling.” This requires the writer and the reader to be “implicated” and “contaminated” by the untelling. In constructing Zong! exclusively from legalese, Philip locks herself in a text that is not her own, mirroring in method, she explains, the way Black people were locked in the holds of the ship. She uses silence and space on the page her advantage, forcing the reader to track the poem through a circus of typography, trying to make sense of the poems. In her own words, she whites out, blacks out, mutilates and “murder[s] the text.” By randomly picking words and phrases and forcing them to work together grammatically, she does to language what was done to bodies, minds, and souls aboard that ship.

Zong! teaches us to write differently, to think differently, and to read differently. In some ways, Philip refuses to be confined to the page. Last year’s annual ten-day durational reading of the book, starting on November 30, 2020, was no less resonant for taking place virtually. Philip’s reading echoed through the space created by the global uprising of movements for Black Lives, through a global pandemic disproportionately impacting Black and Indigenous communities, and at a time where many of us are reconsidering the work our writing does in a world preoccupied with Black and Indigenous death. Allow this book to lead you to Christina Sharpe’s consideration of Zong! in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, and Robyn Maynard’s foundational work, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq
Until 2018, one could only fully experience the Inuk artistic brilliance of throat singer and composer Tanya Tagaq in the sonic body of one of her albums or live performances. Split Tooth allows us to experience her voice in the form of a novel. Be prepared, because as is the case with Tagaq’s immersive performances, you will not come out of this book the same—and this is a very good thing. Reviewers have noted that Split Tooth defies genre, and while it certainly refuses to conform to western notions of writing, at its heart, this book is an Inuk story. Set in the 1970s in a Nunavut community, it is born from Tagaq’s own life, drawing on twenty years’ worth of journals and her sovereign creative practice. It is rooted in her understanding of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: the wisdom that her people have used forever to resist, defy, refuse, love, and to build Inuit worlds. We follow Tagaq’s unnamed narrator from her youth on the tundra to adulthood, and she reminds us: “What happens before birth and resumes after death—this is more real than the brief spark of life.” Pair Split Tooth with Tagaq’s full length album Retribution. For more layered frequencies, listen to sisters Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik and Kayley Inuksuk Mackay’s collaboration Piqsiq, or consult the films of Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. Your reading—and your listening—will have created a constellation of sound and insight from four of the most important Inuit artists untelling Canada, each in their own way.

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (2020)
Natalie Diaz is Aha Makav and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. I am Michi Saagiig Nishnaabe and a status member of Alderville First Nation. The Colorado River runs through her body; the Great Lakes are my internal organs. Despite this distance, my overwhelming feeling after reading Postcolonial Love Poem is that Diaz has written this collection both to me and for me. This is not to say non-Indigenous readers are not welcome. The collection offers varied layers of emotional valence within the text. Readers from one group may feel affirmed and seen while those with a different positionality might feel as if they are eavesdropping on an intimate conversation from worlds they would not otherwise have access to. Diaz reflects to us her Aha Makav world in the twenty-first century—one in which rivers are verbs and run through the middle of bodies as well as lands, one in which the hidden world of surveilled wolves resemble the hidden worlds of surveilled Two Spirit and Queer Indigenous experiences, worlds in which “Manhattan is a Lenape word” and a place complete with reparations. “Why not now go toward the things I love?” Diaz asks in the closing poem. In “Wolf OR-7,” Diaz turns our attention to a travelling gray wolf wearing a tracking collar, and then brings this into conversation with the narrator’s experience—“In the tourmaline dusk I go a same wilding path, / pulled by night’s map into the forests and dunes of your hips”—sharpening our focus on colonial surveillance. Postcolonial Love Poem is a river through my body, full of relationality, internationalism, and Aha Makav unconditional love, and leads me to poets Layli Long Soldier and Tommy Pico.

eat salt | gaze at the ocean by Junie Désil (2020)
The first word in Junie Désil’s debut book of poetry, eat salt | gaze at the ocean, is “here.” From the start, she grounds readers in the present, but continually locates the present in conversation with its past. The interplay is simply stunning. The title of the book references a two-step cure, reputed in Haiti for reversing the process of zombification. Désil begins by exploring, through her poetics, the meaning of zombies and zombification by sorting through Haitian knowledge, story, and books from the library. In the second section, “transatlantic | zombie | passages,” she deepens her understanding of the archive on transatlantic slavery, and its “afterlife” (to use Saidiya Hartman’s term). The third section, which gives the book its title, focuses on the cure, a de-zombification literally and metaphorically reversing Black death. In these poems, Désil scaffolds her personal present of growing up Haitian and Black to immigrant parents on Indigenous lands in Canada with meditations on what it means to exist in the diaspora writing through eliminations, extractions, opacities, and hypervisibilities. Désil works with the archive, using court documents and newspaper articles to conjure their story. The book comes together as a study of the present through a conversation with the past, of a Black and Haitian world in which Désil asks, “if i gaze at the ocean / can i undo the zombie curse / no longer be ‘proximate to death.’” Read eat salt | gaze at the ocean and then make room in your reading for Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French, a Canadian collection of first-person narratives from emerging and established Black writers.

Severance by Ling Ma (2018)
The past year has pelted us with pandemic slogans like, “We’re in this together.” At the same time, it is very clear to those of us paying attention to the arithmetic of death that the impacts of COVID-19 are more intense in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Ling Ma’s Severance provides a satirical—and, as many have noted, prescient—take on the many struggles the global pandemic has brought to our collective doorstep. Severance is both scathing and hilarious. As the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino put it, Ma’s novel is about “the alienation and cruelty that comes with being a functional person under advanced global capitalism, and the compromised pleasures and irreducibly personal meaning to be found in claiming some stability in a terrible world.” Those words, and the book in its entirety, mean something different to me now than they did in 2018, when Severance was published. The first line of the book, “The End begins before you are ever aware of it. It passes as ordinary,” makes me reconsider the early parts of 2020, as we pass the one-year mark of living with COVID-19. Next on my reading list is a revisiting of Omar El Akkad’s American War, with the hope to similarly reassess and listen to how my own reception of the work may have shifted.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is the author of seven books including Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, recently published in the US by the University of Minnesota Press.