Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost, Reviewed by Sonya C. Brown


Look for a minute at the cover of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s collection, This Accident of Being Lost. The figure in a hooded black jacket rides away from you into a gray distance on an angry cloud of black hair so long it becomes a skirt. You can just barely make out the lettering running from the head to the back of the figure: “uckinartist”.

The genre-bending nonfiction between the book’s covers also seems, at times, to have turned its back on you, the reader. You can imagine it turning around to flip the bird, at you and scowl, then, laugh, or you can imagine it roaring away [like what?], leaving you behind to choke on fumes. Because Although Betasamosake Simpson’s work is at times deeply, even painfully, revealing, at others it remains frustratingly opaque. No glossary explains either the mythic or human figures who inspire much of the writing here, though fans of this artist’s work, both on the page and in concert, may be better prepared more able to jump into this collection than a newcomer.

The openings stanzas, “under your always light,” are a good example of what I mean:

after they stole you & you fought your way out, no one was going to
fuck with you ever again. get your own gun.set your own net.shoot
your own moose. get two husbands & a wife & make them all feel
insane with good love. Give birth to a nation in an inglorious way,
crawling through feces & urine & dirt & the bloody underbelly of

kwezens falls asleep cradling the body of a duck while he weaves
stories from bobcats & chickens & luck.

maybe-kwezens steady-slices through whitefish, while gwiiwizens
finally speaks.

they all aim & fire. (3)

I don’t know who kwezens is, or gwiiwizens, might be or what significance to these figures each animal named may hold. I’m not even sure who the second person is here, the “you” invoked is some strange mix of not-me-the-reader and someone else who has endured worse. In short, as a reader, I felt like I did not quite belong—and in that confusion, there is no doubt a lesson about whose histories and whose cultures are passed down, and whose are not. I can, after all recognize an invocation of the muses, or a prayer to the father, son, and holy ghost.

“Plight” is the first prose, but the lyric lingers in its early lines: “the maples were being swallowed by flame-arms of red and orange” (4). It often felt to me while reading as if such lyrical magic was waiting, both in language and in experience, while the author had to grapple with a frustratingly banal reality. The “plight” of this narrative sets a theme for the collection, which might be glossed {as} “how to try to maintain Mississauga customs and have {retain} deep connections with friends and lovers, while navigating the politesse of suburban liberals and their spaces when, despite nominal acceptance, the white people remain wary”. The author and friends, having labeled themselves “The Fourth World Problems Collective,” collect maple syrup in a Canadian neighborhood that was built on Mississauga lands. The FWPC has carefully crafted a letter and attached copies of it to the relevant maples. Betasamosake Simpson describes:

several meetings about the forty-eight words on the flyer in order to get the proper balance of telling, not asking, while side-stepping suspicion. No one feels good about hiding the fact that we are Mississaugas and that this is us acting on our land, but no one wants to end up a dinner- party conversation either. I fought hard [to include] the word “adventure” because it is such a signifier with these people. It makes them part of it; they can be part of the solution without doing anything. . . . This is the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card. Feel liberal in all its glory. No need to call the cops or the city; it’s sustainable. Help the Indians with their plight. (6)

Such encounters between cultures generates up the conflict of {in} a substantial part of the collection, as in “Tidy Buns”, in which “the most irritating mom at the ballet” offers to teach Betasamosake Simpson how to create that hairdo for her daughter to perform in:

She’s sort of right. Like if my kid did grow her hair long and did want a tidy bun I would be in the bathroom right now on my phone googling youtube videos of tidy buns and doing my best. And yes, I would produce a go-fuck-yourself dykey mess of a bun and my kid would be embarrassed and Ivory would rush over and fix it, like the white saviour she is. This week alone I’ve already googled “games white people play at birthday parties” (and then learned to leave out the “white people” part because white people think of them as just birthday parties), “how to tie a karate suit belt,” and “offside in youth soccer.” (86)

While there is often snarky commentary (“I am so fucking glad I’m not Kate Middleton. Like even if for the sake of argument we just set aside the whole colonialism/settler colonialism denial delusion and just focus on the day-to-day meaninglessness of her life. . . . Like how many pairs of nylons does she go through in a year?” [12]), the despair behind the snark is often quick to emerge, as in “Circles upon Circles”:

Who the fuck cares anyway, I think as my irritation rises into my neck. They won’t change and we won’t change and no amount of talking fixes that. They want a beach. We want rice beds. You can’t have both. . . . They’ll still be white people if they don’t have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won’t be Mississauga if they can’t ever do a single Mississauga thing. (78)

Internal conflict is also a focus, and Betasamsake Simpson spares herself no snark:

I have to fake that I have a good body image around the kids because that’s what good parents do. Love the body you are in. All bodies are beautiful. I don’t have any imperfections, just a storied tapestry I call my beautiful body. That’s not really how I feel. I hate my body like everyone else. For one thing I think I have unusually large shoulders because my mom said, “You have shoulders like a football player,” but my sister says that’s ridiculous and that after 35 years I should let that outlandish and untrue idea go. Mostly I hate my upper arms because they are old fat grandma arms. I apologize to all the grandmas out there reading this. (13)

Yet there is also tenderness and poignancy in the internal conflicts, at times, and especially so when they revolve around a desperate search for connection:

Kwe is sitting on a white plastic lawn chair, breastfeeding baby Ninaatig into a sleep coma by lifting up her “Not Murdered, Not Missing” T-shirt. She is laughing, saying, “This is the least queer thing I do.” I try to think of something smart to say, like that there’s nothing in the NDN queer rulebook that says you can’t have a baby or breastfeed, but she already knows that, so I just smile and nod. I’m thinking the curve of her breast is sacred and sexy as fuck. . . . I’m wishing the gentleness Kwe has for Ninaatig, Lucy had for me. Lucy is wearing my black leather motorcycle jacket, chain-smoking out of range of Ninaatig. . . . They act tougher than they are. For NDNs the tougher we act, the purer our hearts are, because this strangulation is not set up for the sensitive and we have to protect the fuck out of ourselves. I wish they’d soften for me. I wish they’d drop it sometimes, and let me in. . . . I
wish loving Lucy wasn’t so lonely. (7)

The style is often heavily influenced by social media and its versions of English, and it gives Betasamosake Simpson’s speech-like introspection a conversational feel at times, and allows her to hop loosely-related topics within a single sentence without any jarringly apparent shifts. Some of This Accident of Being Lost feels like loose collection of social media posts (“i just posted a photo of me harvesting birch bark at this time last year and after 3 minutes I already have 50 smartberrytm likes and I totally feel better even though you still haven’t texted. #nativerthanyou #hollaatmekwe” [100]). “Selfie” is a lovelorn dissection of someone else’s social media posts. “Big Water,” one of my favorite pieces in this rich collection, is a sort of ultra-contemporary folktale in which a sacred lake, full of pollutants and considering whether to flood, texts the author angrily from an iphone, “Where are you? ffs” (65).

In “Akiden Boreal,” Betasamosake Simpson writes, “After all, everything we are afraid of has already happened” (50). The book offers no easy solutions to the problems of colonialism and genocide that strafe history, or the challenges of sympathetic cohabitation and wariness that plague contemporary societies. This Accident of Being Lost is a difficult book to read, for a lot of reasons, but it’s well worth the effort.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. This Accident of Being Lost. Astoria, 2017.