Book review: Essays on racism & abuse, a legacy of resilience

Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a book of autobiographical essays chronicling the author’s childhood in a biracial family living in poverty

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Reviewed by Fiona Watson, Port Moody Public Library

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“A mind spread out on the ground” is one way to translate the Mohawk phrase for depression into English. The mind is suspended, sprawling and disorderly, leaving the sufferer without the ability to concentrate. 

Alicia Elliott’s book of autobiographical essays explores many paths to depression with astonishing courage and insight. The author chronicles her childhood and adolescence in a large, biracial family living in poverty. The tension is thick between her alcoholic, Haudenosaunee father and deeply religious, mentally ill, Caucasian mother, and Elliott struggles in and outside the family to find a sense of identity and confidence.

Although she moves back to the Six Nations Reserve at the age of 13, she is always straddling multiple identities, trying to balance the experience of both colonizer and colonized, wracked with guilt over the privilege and loss of identity that comes with her light complexion. Instability is a constant in her life and the only thing she can really truly count on is the inevitable return of her head lice. When she becomes unexpectedly pregnant with her white boyfriend, Elliott fears her child will suffer in all the same ways she has. 

Heavy topics, including racism, poverty, sexual assault, intergenerational trauma, low self-esteem and loving one’s abuser, are interwoven with historical and scientific research to stunning effect in this collection. But what is perhaps most astonishing about this work is the clarity and strength of the author’s voice. The dark, self-loathing essays of the author’s young life are contrasted by the evidence of her survival and her ability to flourish as a writer.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a legacy of resilience and proclamation of identity. This book is a must-read for lovers of lyrical memoirs and essay collections like I’m Afraid of Men and Heart Berries.

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