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August 9, 2018
As always, The Word On The Street is coming up this September. But the fall can’t get here soon enough! So we sat down with Lindsay Nixon, author of nîtisânak, who will be joining us at the festival this year!
WOTS: Your book is titled nîtisânak. Can you tell us what it means, both literally and to you personally?
Lindsay Nixon: nîtisânak means “my siblings,” in Plains Cree. But it can also be used as a gender-neutral way of saying “my relations,” generally. nîtisânak is, at its core, a work that considers relationality manifested through my own experiences and connections. I like the gender-neutral form of relationality that nîtisânak expresses. My choice for the title of my memoir speaks to my particular interest to the queer-Indigenous ethics, life, and peoples I write about, and to my desire to queer Indigenous language, generally. Not that Cree needs much queering—it’s queer and sexy on its own, even if it’s not always read as such.
WOTS: Tell us a bit about your process. How did you start writing? Do you have any favourite stories about when you were just starting out?
LN: I’m a bit scatterbrained. I’m one of those people who has to schedule writing and doesn’t believe creativity descends from the heavens in moments of individual inspiration. Writing is an art, yes, but it’s work, too. My process usually starts with free-writing, organizing my thoughts as best I can. Then, after hashing out larger projects I want to undertake, I go back to my free-writing to develop and edit my ideas.
When I was starting out, I was always afraid to write. I thought everything had to be perfect on the page right away. Workshopping with other writers and editors has taught me that an idea, and idea of an idea, is enough! I’ve learned not to think about my writing in critical ways, but with the same openness as I would with another writer’s work, and to just let it flow, as best I can.
I like to let writing sit and to come back to it much later with a clearer head and eye—especially because I draw from my own life for inspiration, often in moments of heightened emotion. I find that the thing I almost didn’t write down because I thought it wasn’t valid, at a time when I thought my writing needed to be a completed draft with well-developed thoughts from the get-go, will be my favorite part of the following week! I had to shut down the inner saboteur, as RuPaul would say.
WOTS: nîtisânak is a memoir that draws on your experiences as a queer and 2 spirit Indigenous punk, along with the loss of your mother. Was it difficult to share those experiences? Why did you want to share such deeply personal stories?
LN: We are witnessing a moment in Canadian media wherein prairie Indigenous peoples’ suffering is being tapped for consumption by its audiences, following the violent deaths of community members like Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine.
I was very cognizant of the aesthetics of trauma often ascribed to Indigenous literary work when working on this manuscript, not wanting to play into the trope of tragic Indigeneity made for settler consumption—exhibited in the work of Wagamese and Boyden, for instance. These pieces are intendedly written to evoke a voyeuristic non-Indigenous reader who is looking to read about the tragic lives of Indians so they can be down with our cause.
But then I started thinking about who I am writing for and to. I think I have two audiences that I ground in the book: the first being queer/trans folks, and the latter being Indigenous folks. I’ve always felt caught between these two communities.
I don’t know if the Indigenous community understands, respects, or is responsive to the needs and realities of queer and trans Indigenous peoples. I don’t know if they know that so much of the work of being queer and/or trans is just keeping your friends alive—a shared experience that has created kinship between me and queer folks, and sometimes in deeper and more respectful ways than I’ve experienced in the Indigenous academic and literary community.
While queer community was a space of regeneration for me, it’s also been a space wherein I experience complex embodied forms of colonialism. I think the stories of racialized queer and trans peoples are important to share and publish right now because we are only just starting to make our way into gay and trans literature. I’ve heard white men critics say that the gay novel is dead, and there’s nothing left to be written about dance floor utopias. Whenever I hear this reasoning, I always think what they really meant to say was that the cisgender, white dude gay novel might be dead. For some of us, we are just gaining the space to talk about how dance floors regenerate our colonized bodies—but also how they equally degrade them.
Similarly, I think that Indigenous literature is at an interesting turning point because there are critiques popping up about the diversity of diversity. That is to say, Indigenous communities are very rich, including the voices of queer and trans peoples that are often marginalized, and what vision of Indigenous peoples has been constructed by its literature thus far?
Perhaps one without queer and trans life. It’s equally as important that the voices and cultural productions of queer and trans community members be centered and revered right now. Owning my experiences and stories without the evocation of sadness and tears, as something that just is, that speaks to my condition in the world that surrounds me, at times even with humor, is one of the most Indigenous things about me.
In dealing with stories about my mother, I think that was a meditative practice for me. As an Indigenous person, I feel I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to sort through my experiences in environments wherein I was told that my truth was not valid. Colonialism is the ultimate gaslight, as eyos has said. nîtisânak was a form of meditative and personal resolution with my mother who recently died, and who I never got to say goodbye to. There’s something empowering and validating about being able to publish it and, in essence, it becomes an authoritative truth. That might be selfish to say, but it’s been a very healing process for me.
WOTS: What are your favourite places to write? Any quirky must-haves when it comes to sitting down and writing out your experiences?
LN: I hate writing in public. I am a very animated writer. I read to myself out loud, get up and pace, and take multiple breaks. For this reason, I am a homebody writer through and through. Think of me writing with sweats and a t-shirt that I wore to bed the night before, a sheet mask on my face, and plenty of coffee and weed—the poor man’s speedball. I’m a big believer in the ethos of the body being a vessel for creation, and learning to treat my body with tenderness and care throughout writing processes.
WOTS: What would you say to a writer who’s just starting out? What one thing do you think it’s crucial to know?
LN: This one’s for brown or Black non-dude writers: you probably don’t believe you’re a writer, even. I know I didn’t when I was starting out. But, there are so many white men writers who have no substance to the things they write—it’s all extensive form and verbose, pretentious content—who have no trouble calling themselves a writer and demanding respect as such.
You are a writer if you write, period. You’re a writer if you think about writing, and you just haven’t been able to get to it for all kinds of life-getting-in-the-way reasons, I’m sure. Seek out mentors and allies you trust. Not everyone is going to “get it” and, admittedly, publishing is going through a time of rapid change. Try to get pen to paper a few times a week, even it it’s only jotting down ideas at first. You’re already on such a good path. I believe in you. I love your writing!
WOTS: nîtisânak explores themes such as kinship in Indigenous teachings. How can non-Indigenous readers engage with the book respectfully? How can they take what they learn from your book and use it to decolonize queer communities?
LN: I tried to express with nîtisânak that I share kinship with non-Indigenous peoples too, through the community we share in queer spaces and the family I build there, which might be a controversial read for Indigenous folks. That said, not all those in the queer community are my kin. I’ve witnessed some intense moments of anti-relationality in Montreal’s queer scene.
I guess, non-Indigenous audiences should use this book to think about their own values and ethics in relation to indigeneity and settler colonialism, and how that translates into their relationships with Indigenous peoples in their communities and lives. I think we should move away from generalizing ideas that often are at the core of decolonizing rhetoric—that there is one queer Indigenous experience, and that experience can intervene in an altruistic and way on any and all queer communities.
If anything, my work is about rigor and specificity. My work holds that Indigenous peoples and the relationships they form cannot fit into the limited identity categories ascribed to their experiences, and undoing colonialism doesn’t happen through sound bites from the Indigenous celebrity du jour doting fit-all solution. Indigenous peoples are complex and varied, and contending with unethical relationships with Indigenous peoples should be the same.
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