Two writers and movement builders reflect on their new book, written as letters throughout the pandemic.
by Amanda Ong
This Wednesday, July 27, acclaimed writers, movement builders, and academics Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Robyn Maynard will virtually visit Elliott Bay Book Company. The two are releasing a new book, Rehearsals for Living, a series of letters between the two written mostly over the pandemic. The book in itself is a dialogue between the two authors as they processed and reimagined life and liberation amid the pandemic.
Maynard is best known for her book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, and is currently an assistant professor of Black feminism at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. Simpson is a Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer and musician, having written books such as Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, A Short History of the Blockade, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, and more.
The two bring to Elliott Bay music, words, and reflections on what it means to ask ourselves and one another what it means to build a world premised on love and care.
“It’s a book of letters between two feminists, theorists, parents, people who’ve been part of, in different ways, Black liberation and Indigenous decolonization and liberation movements over many years,” Maynard said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “And it’s a way of thinking globally about what does it mean to build liveable futures in the context of all of this in the context of the long history and afterlives of slavery, and colonialism? And trying to map out together, through the process of letter writing [and] through personal scaffolding, different intellectual traditions. To try to convene and commune on building a more livable life for ourselves, for our kids, and for our ancestors to come.”
As the pandemic began and many were living in relative isolation, both authors were able to continue to think dialectically and work together through their letters to each other. Maynard said that from the climate catastrophe’s uneven effects on the African continent, the Caribbean and Indigenous communities here, to the crisis of Black and Indigenous communities being killed at the hands of police and mass incarcerated across North America, the question of how we build a world together freely becomes all the more pressing and more fleeting.
The origin stories of this book trace back to after Policing Black Lives and As We Have Always Done were released in 2017, and Maynard and Simpson were able to discuss their books in conversation with each other at a literary event in Montreal. Afterwards, the two spent time together during a retreat to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada with other Black and Indigenous writers and activists. There, they had conversations that eventually spilled into letters after they left Yellowknife.
“[T]hat first letter was for me like a tremendous gift — it was an invitation,” Simpson said in an interview with the Emerald. “It wasn’t let’s write a book together. It was just an act full of humility, and love … As I read it, it pulled me alongside Robyn and the communities that she’s a part of. It was this beautiful space that was created during the pandemic, where we could think through, analyze and critique and read.”
What resulted was an informal letter-writing project that that engaged them both in thinking alongside movements about the world they want to build, particularly given the world that we live in — one full of anti-Blackness, colonialism, and genocide, with systems benefiting the few.
“For me, [writing letters] was an act of love. But it was also an act of resistance and an act of refusal,” Simpson said. “It was an act of political and ethical thinking through what’s happening in the community, what’s happening on the land, what’s happening in encampments, what’s happening in prison, and how people are coming together, dreaming, visioning, and building something different.”
Maynard too said that the book both felt like a sort of love letter to Simpson, but also to her son, and to the movements that have made them. They stand on the shoulders of the people before them who have tried to build the world differently, beyond capitalism, racial capitalism, colonialism, who have tried within their communities to actually build a world in which Black and Indigenous peoples can thrive.
Now, these thoughts will be shared beyond just Maynard’s and Simpson’s letters. Rehearsal for Living is no 10-point plan, but it does encourage us to think about what it means to build freedom in ourselves, in others, and in our communities. Readers are invited into Maynard and Simpson’s dialogue by reading the book, and to think for themselves about these questions. The book too is an invitation to act.
“I always hope that a takeaway from anything that I participate in is to lead some people to want to join a local defund the police campaign, to support a campaign to get police out of schools, to think about what land defense looks like in the territories that they live in,” Maynard said. “For people who are wondering, what could I do? I would always hope that everyone continues to ask that question, but then also to try to answer that question in a very practical way.”
For Simpson, the book is an affirmation and reminder that important work can’t be done in isolation, and that there is always tremendous learning involved.
“Robyn and I were both born into struggle, and the struggle is different, but it’s also related to systems of racial capitalism, which are global and international,” Simpson said. “It’s a very good practice to be engaged with other anti-colonial people in the world, and to understand how the same systems that are impacting Indigenous people and that have caused genocide for my people are also causing genocide and transatlantic slavery and all kinds of injustice around the world, whether it’s in the Caribbean, or in the African continent, or in Palestine, or in Indonesia, and in the northern part of what’s now known as Canada.”
The book tour began in Toronto, where Maynard lives, and the book was released with many of the Freedom Schools and movement elders, among other poets, thinkers, and organizers in attendance.
“Even as I was trying to think globally, and transnationally, that’s also so much rooted about what it means to be here, in the place that I live in,” Maynard said. “The counter lesson to that is what can we learn from other people who are living a very local kind of manifestation of racial capitalism, of carceral violence, of gentrification?”
The question suggests that every community’s freedom struggle looks different, and is unique to their land and the history it has been built upon. But still, freedom cannot be built or imagined in isolation, and through standing alongside the struggles of both our local communities and other global movements linked to our own, there is much we can learn.
“I think it will be wonderful to come and visit your community and be in conversation,” Simpson said. “To see how some of the letters and some of the experiences that Robyn and I have from pretty far away speak to and speak alongside the issues in South Seattle. So I’m interested in having those folks come to the Elliott Bay Book launch and be in conversation, and then come be in community with us.”
See Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Robyn Maynard virtually at Elliott Bay Book Company from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Register for the event or buy Rehearsals for Living on the Eventbrite page.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Robyn Maynard (right) is a Black Canadian writer and scholar who has written about police abolition and Black feminism. Academic and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (left) writes and lectures about Indigenous resistance, organizing, and education. (Photo of Maynard: Stacey Lee) (Photo of Simpson: Nadya Kwandibens)
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