A Space for Writers of the World
Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs by Leanne Simpson (Mississauga Nishnaabeg), ARP Books, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. 2013.
Because you want a challenge… because you want to fall in love… because you want to lose yourself and learn from a range of characters who have the best stories to tell—not always happy and not always sad—but great stories… and because you want your mind to be blown by the accompanying tracks available online, you should read Leanne Simpson’s collection Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs.
Understandably, some people may not be up for the challenge. One of these challenges is her use of Nishnaabemowin throughout the text and in the songs, which she provides translation for most uses. However, Simpson also anticipates that her reader may learn something along the way and therefore does not explain all uses – or perhaps in those moments she is not thinking of a non-Nishnaabeg reader like myself at all, but of other Anishnaabe peoples who will understand and do not need a post-scripted explanation. She also resists capitalization in her poetry, leaving the reader to either recreate colonial systems of importance or to envision a new system of importance around names, concepts, and interrelations. However, language and Simpson’s elegant and nonnormative use of it are not the only challenges offered by the text.
From the opening pages, Simpson puts forward a curated set of epigraphs to lead her readers (and listeners) into her meditation upon the possibilities of what decolonial love can look and feel like for the myriad peoples involved. She rejects the idea of the tragic, seizing instead upon decolonial love as a transformative way to enter into relations between people, romantic or otherwise. Building on the ideas of Lee Maracle and Richard Van Camp, Simpson leads us to understand that the circumstances that enable connection can lead to further oppression unless we choose love, the love that Junot Diaz describes as decolonial. Yet throughout the text, Simpson resists the idea that colonization has broken her characters, has made them tragic, instead showing how their scars complement and reflect, and even sometimes how they, in turn, mark each other.
Throughout the text, I kept thinking “oh, this is my favorite piece” only to turn the page and find I was mistaken – like a relationship that continues to gratify and satisfy you over time as you continue to bring attention to it, or a hike that offers views you had never before imagined, only to turn the path and be stunned yet again with a slightly greater magnitude, this text offers that sense of surprise and elation. Again, these songs and stories are not beautiful in their tragic dimension, and they are not beautiful to be beautiful, but they are beautiful because they engage the reader in the process of creating and viewing decolonial love, in imagining it, in seeing why it is needed, and in practicing it in everyday ways, even across time and space. We learn from characters like the storyteller in “gezhizhwazh”, who points out that her interlocutor must not know what decolonized is if they cannot conceive of sexy as anything other than pornographic, while mixing humor and wisdom to remind us all to listen and to tell the stories not of a tragic ending/indian but of “strong young nishnaabekwe”. In the final poem, “a love song for attawapiskat”, Simpson returns us to the fight of Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence’s resistance of Harper’s colonial regime, but through the everyday vision of a young child who is inheriting this fight, and can help others choose love as a powerful weapon.
After I had read the whole text cover to cover, I listened to the songs Simpson made to complement and complete the written, to bring more alive a voice somehow flattened on the page. These songs further enact a decolonial love to Simpson’s readers, not denying them the right to read the stories themselves but to instead demonstrate the possibilities of uniting song with story, to question assumptions, bring forth a distinctive rhythm for each piece, and mark these words in the mind of the reader – to help the listener decolonize the mind. For those who just want to taste the work before you invest in the full package, the tracks are available at arpbooks.com/islands, but I think you will also find yourself strongly pulled to see what the rest of the journey entails and what the stories make possible for you too.
So if you are up for the challenge (or perhaps comfort) of Nishnaabemowin, if you want to have a diverse set of characters teach you about the possibilities of decolonial love across gender, sex, time, and space, and if you can help to carry the message forward to others who want to listen, then Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs in print and online audio accompaniments will suit you well. If not, may this text help the rest of us to learn and practice decolonial love without remorse.
Jessica Bardill, Ph.D.
East Carolina University