How does one write a novel in static English language using material that is derived from a dynamic system of Indigenous oral storytelling and performance? Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who is a member of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg people of southern Ontario, uses a combination of genres — poetry, literary prose and dialogue — in her most recent novel, "Noopiming."
Mashkawaji (they/them) is frozen within the ice. But rather than presenting their fate as an ending, Simpson goes beyond rhetorical strategies of synecdoche and metonymy to represent the whole encased in ice. Instead, the frozen Mashkawaji relies on seven beings who function outside: Akiwenzii is an old man who has become Mashkawaji's will; Ninaatig, a tree, is the lungs; Mindimooyenh is an old woman who is their conscience; Sabe is the gentle giant man who functions as marrow; Adik the caribou is their nervous system; and Asin and Lucy are the humans who function as ears, eyes and brain. No longer able to be outside the ice, Mashkawaji seemingly has no agency over the seven. Just trust.
"I believe everything these seven say / even though / their truths are their own, / not mine. / I believe: In the absence of my own heart, / I will accept the hearts of these seven."
In a recent interview, Simpson spoke of the difficulties faced by Indigenous authors working in the Western literary tradition. Her work, she says, "[is] based on Nishnaabeg storytelling practices — living practices — and so it doesn't fit neatly into Western genres. That's one of the reasons why it appears that I have so many different things going on. But I'm coming from a very different place."
In addition to prose and poetry, she also creates recordings, such as the forthcoming "The Theory of Ice," that further expand on the subjects of her books.
Mashkawaji is and is not an "individual." They are a being comprising not only the seven other narrators, but also the stories that have been passed down by ancestors that have become part of each of the narrators' ways of being in the world. In a tradition built upon the oral transmission — from elder to child and among peers — the webs of stories wrap around each person to create meaning. In turn, each person passes along their own stories plus their interpretations of the stories they've heard as a means of extending that web in the formation of others.
Western thought often devolves into discussions of the individual and community, and whose needs must be privileged. But community in "Noopiming" expands beyond a collection of humans to take in beings not often given sentience in Western imaginings. And individual conceptions of time are supplanted by a fluxion where past and present lose their fixed boundaries.
"Lucy thinks: Things unfold in good time. / Lucy thinks: Sometimes you have to make things happen. / Lucy thinks: There is a tension between unfolding and making."
Simpson's skill as creator allows those outside Indigenous traditions to apprehend a complexity of meaning-making whose fluidity challenges Western reliance on notions of fixed boundaries and discrete categories of being and nonbeing.
Lorraine Berry is a writer in Oregon.
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies
By: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 368 pages, $24.95.
Event: In conversation with Natalie Diaz, 8 p.m. Feb. 16, hosted by Elliott Bay Book Co. Register at bit.ly/3tggabf.