A Generous Spirit: Selected Works by Beth Brant. Inanna Publications and Education and
It is highly gratifying to finally have a collection of works by Mohawk writer Beth Brant (Degonwadonti), who passed away in 2015 with many of her books out of print. Lee Maracle (Sto:lo) rightly states in her foreword that without Brant there wouldn’t be a Connie Fife (Cree), or Joshua Whitehead’s (Oji-nêhiyaw) novel Jonny Appleseed.
Edited by Janice Gould (Koyangk’auwi), who passed away in 2019, A Generous Spirit brings together nineteen of Brant’s essays, poems, and stories. Gould’s introduction is a moving history of Brant’s life and writing. Lesbian and working class, Brant didn’t begin writing until 1981 when she was forty after having three children. She then had a relationship for twenty years with Denise Dorsz, who co-founded a feminist coffeehouse in Detroit. Gould not only gives us a biography of Brant’s life, but the milieu in which she lived and wrote, emphasizing “the themes of survival and empathy permeates Beth’s entire oeuvre.” Gould also places Brant’s writing in the context of feminist presses (Selected Works is published by Sinister Wisdom journal and Toronto’s Inanna Press), some of the few places for a lesbian woman to publish in the 1980s and 1990s, although the editor noting specifically where the selections are from would further aid the reader in understanding Brant’s writing journey. I am curious how Gould was able to gather together Brant’s writings, especially as she stopped publishing in the mid-1990s, which was a great loss for Indigenous literatures.
Rereading the stories (I’ve taught Brant in my classes), I find it so apparent that Brant was writing and living kinship. In “That Place,” the character David goes back to his reserve to die from an AIDS-related illness, a journey made less terrifying by Joseph, a gay elder who protected David’s dad from bullying at residential school. David laments that “[i]n the city they didn’t want to be Native. In this place, they don’t want me to be gay.” A woman loses custody of her child because she loves another woman, which Brant intersplices with the anguish of a woman having to send her children to residential school in the 1890s.
Brant’s work is prescient because it focuses on kinship and solidarity among women and among working class people, particularly Black and Indigenous peoples. “Food and Spirits” is deservedly one of Brant’s better-known stories, in which Mohawk elder Elijah Powless takes a seven-hour-long bus ride to Detroit to see his twin granddaughters, who are late because of a traffic jam. Terrance, a Black Indigenous youth, helps Elijah at the bus station, taking Elijah to a bar while Terrance waits for Elijah’s granddaughters. Elijah shares his frybread with Archibald, the bar owner and Alana, who works in the sex trade, forming a bond with them, telling them, “Your people didn’t get the chance to be familiar yet. You was brought here without your say-so.” The story ends with Terrance bringing the twins to the bar, where “the sign blinked off, then on. FOOD & SPIRITS. FOOD & SPIRITS. Inside there were music, stories, good food, and friends. Elijah was content,” a space that Brant asks us to share.
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