More than Five Questions with Writer Alicia Elliott

Alicia Elliott (photo credit: Ayelet Tsabari)

On the latest interview for #Invisibooks, we caught up with the fantastic Alicia Elliott to hear her thoughts on encouraging emerging writers, the power of seeing yourself in a story, how her new book came about, and why she’s such a wrestling fan.

Tamara Jong: Hey Alicia, huge congrats on your debut non-fiction book, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground coming out in March 2019 and receiving the 2018 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. You were chosen by Tanya Talaga who said that you “tell searing truths of Canada today, truths we all need to listen to.”  That’s how I feel when I read your work in The Globe and Mail Opinion section and recalling your speech in 2017 at the National Magazine awards. You don’t back away from the hard stuff and tell it like it is. You’re an inspirational leader and mentor in my CanLit community. It’s so great to see you recognized for your gifts Alicia. How does it all feel?

Alicia Elliott: It’s incredible! Though I have to admit, I’m a bit surprised to be recognized for anything. I never won awards for literary writing in my undergraduate, and I’m not sure many of my teachers really saw me as the “star” student. Of course, that didn’t mean I had nothing to offer. I knew that – and I think that’s the mentality that I’ve held onto when interacting with other emerging writers. Trying to nurture the unique talents and perspectives of each writer always seem more interesting and worthwhile to me than picking out which writers adhere to a specific idea of “potential” or “success” and only nurturing them. That’s the best part of having recognition, to me: being able to leverage that to help other writers who need it, or other causes that need it. So, I’ve been trying to do a lot on that end to uphold my responsibility to the literary community.

TJ: You and I have talked about not seeing ourselves in literature and what happens when we try to emulate someone we’re not. I wrote some bad versions of Jane Eyre (honestly, they’re terrible). I’m a mixed race Quebecer of European and Chinese ancestry, and it wasn’t until my thirties that I came across Red China Blues by Jan Wong and something clicked. In your piece for Room MagazineOn Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing with Empathy and Writing With Love” you describe the first time you saw yourself reflected was when you read Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love.  “Every sentence felt like a fingertip strumming a neglected chord in my life, creating the most gorgeous music I’d ever heard.” I love what you wrote here. It was the first time you, as an Indigenous woman read another Indigenous woman and you said it permitted you to write your own stories. There’s such a power in seeing yourself represented in the world around you.

AE: Absolutely. It’s validating on a deep level, especially in a world that’s constantly finding new ways to make you feel like you don’t belong, or your perspective doesn’t matter. What’s more, seeing other people like you creating art exactly the way they want to create it makes space for possibility. If they can do that, why can’t you? Why can’t your friends, your family? No two peoples’ experiences of the world are the same, so no two stories are the same – even if they have similarities. What kind of literary world would we have if we opened encouraged all writers to explore the possibilities of their art? What new genres could be created? What new forms? This is why I’m so excited about people writing their own stories the way they want to: as a reader of that work, you can learn things you never could have imagined, and that new learning can inspire you to go further, dig deeper, take chances. I’m in love with the possibilities our writing can open up.

TJ: So, about MFA programs. I’ve applied to two and been rejected twice. I read “How To Build Your Own MFA Program” that you wrote for The Malahat Review. You noted that not everyone has access, money or the opportunity.  I thought that your piece had solid tips for writers to put their MFA Program together for themselves. The biggest take away for me was to expect rejection but persevere. Writing a book without an MFA is possible. Like you’ve done! How did your book deal come about?

AE: I was taken by surprise, which I think is sort of a theme in my career so far. I’d been writing essays in different publications before I came to an Indigenous writing conference in Banff. Some of the other Indigenous writers knew me, as they had mentored me, but I was still the least accomplished writer in the room by far. I was asked to speak on a panel exploring what young Indigenous writers need, and without going into too much detail, I spoke at length about how young Indigenous writers need safe spaces where they can work on their craft with mentors who care – and who don’t try to take advantage of the teacher/student relationship. After my panel, Jennifer Lambert, a fantastic editor at Harper Collins, and I spoke, and she gave me her card. When we got back to Toronto and talked about my ideas for a book, she put me on the radar of a couple different agents. At the time, I was only concentrating on my collection of short stories.

Not long after that, though, when I was in Toronto for the National Magazine Awards, the amazing writer and photographer Ayelet Tsbari had offered to take some professional headshots for me. As we were talking between shots, she suggested to me that I write a book of essays, since I’d already written so many. My husband had suggested I write a memoir before, but the usual form of memoirs – following your life from birth to where you are now and requiring a tidy ending when your life was still happening – never appealed to me. When Ayelet suggested a book of essays, though, it all made sense.

So, when I told my agents, Samantha Haywood and Stephanie Sinclair, that I was interested in writing a book of essays, we collected what I had, outlined what else I wanted to write, and sent the pitch to specific publishers. Doubleday Canada was incredibly excited with my manuscript-in-progress, so they offered me a pre-empt deal, and after talking to them, I decided it would be a good fit. Then I had to actually finish the book…

TJ: Can we talk about different jobs writers did while writing? Kafka was a legal clerk; Octavia Butler was a potato chip inspector, and James Baldwin was a preacher.  You used to be a barista. Any other memorable day jobs you’ve had? 

AE: I was a barista for a loooooong time. I actually learned a lot about my ability to be a leader and also how to manage different types of personalities from working as a shift supervisor, which was a position I was kind of pushed into by my boss. Before that, I worked selling lottery tickets at a kiosk in my local mall; I worked for one summer as a paid intern at Global News in Toronto (which effectively killed any desire I had for broadcast news); I worked for years at a gas station convenience store on the rez selling mostly cigarette cartons, but also junk food. That one was nice because if you worked the night shift you could do a lot of reading in between customers. I started getting really interested in movies from reading the film reviews in the newspapers when I forgot to bring a book. Nothing that interesting – a bunch of customer service positions.

TJ: Heard on the Can’t Lit podcast that Roxane Gay (OMG!) gave you your first big break by publishing “Half-Breed: A Racial Biography in Five Parts” on The Butter. You said you love her work. That must have been so great! Can you tell us about what that moment meant to you?

AE: It came at a really crucial moment for me, as I was feeling really low about my prospects in the literary community, particularly since I was working a barely-above-minimum-wage job and had been rejected from three MFA programs. Roxane Gay wrote incredibly important work that I loved, so when she emailed me saying she thought my essay was worth publishing, I knew that I had some talent and I shouldn’t give up.

TJ: What are you reading right now?

AE: I’m reading so many books at the same time! Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, which is coming out soon; Andrea Warner’s official biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie, which is also coming out soon; Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which is incredible. I just finished Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which is such a smart, weird, interesting, creepy book. I’m also trying to savour Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties which is the most unique, exciting short story collection I’ve read in a long time. Plus, I have so many books on my shelf that I’m dying to read. I have a terrible habit of buying more books than I have time to read.

TJ: Besides your busy writing life, I know you’re a big fan of wrestling. When I was little, I thought it was real. My brother used to tell me it’s a soap opera for guys. My husband watches it every night. One of my faves is Daniel Bryan (Yes! Yes! Yes!). I have to admit there’s some hilarious storylines and interesting characters (think Goldust). So Nikki Bella and John Cena break up three weeks before their wedding. What are your thoughts on that? How long have you been a wrestling fan?

AE: Before I started watching this season of Total Bellas, which is a reality show that follows the Bella twins, I was shocked at Nikki and John’s breakup. I love them as a couple. They’re so goofy and ridiculous and really seem to appreciate one another for who they are. BUT! As I’m watching Total Bellas, it’s pretty easy to see that Nikki has been prioritizing others’ desires and needs – including and especially John – over her own. That kind of mentality, while generous, is totally unsustainable and bound to breed resentment. As you can tell, I spend a lot of time analyzing this relationship hahahaha. I just hope that they’re both happy because I enjoy both of them.

And I watched wrestling casually with my Dad back during the Monday Night Wars in the early 2000s. Nearly every boy in my classes was telling everyone and their mom to “Suck it!” back then, or asking if we could “smell what the Rock is cooking?” etc etc. When I was living with my husband in university, though, we had cable included in our rent, so we started watching RAW every week. I got super into it, because it’s campy and ridiculous, but also creates this fantastical world where people pretend to hurt one another, where their bodies are used to tell a story in as little as a minute, or as long as an hour. It made me think about storytelling and characters in a different way. Plus, I’m a sucker for giant wrestling robes. I pretty much just want to look as amazing as Asuka in any given situation.

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River living in Brantford, Ontario with her husband and child. Her writing has been published by The Malahat Review, The Butter, Room, Grain, The New Quarterly, CBC, Globe and Mail, Vice, Maclean’s, Today’s Parent and Reader’s Digest, among others. She’s currently Creative Nonfiction Editor at The Fiddlehead, Associate Nonfiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and a consulting editor with The New Quarterly. Her essay, “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” won Gold at the National Magazine Awards in 2017, and another of her essays, “On Seeing and Being Seen: Writing With Empathy” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2018. She was the 2017-2018 Geoffrey and Margaret Andrew Fellow at UBC and was chosen by Tanya Talaga to receive the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize in 2018. Her short story “Unearth” has been selected by Roxane Gay to appear in Best American Short Stories 2018. Her book of essays, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, is forthcoming from Doubleday Canada in March 2019.



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