Here’s a review of A Generous Spirit: Selected Works by Beth Brant
Edited by: Janice Gould (Inanna Publications, 2019)
Just published in Herizons Magazine (Fall, 2020)
This inspiring and important book doesn’t just bring Beth Brant (Degonwadonti, Mohawk) to new, younger readers. It enriches current conversations, fueled for example by Anishinaabe-kwe Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s assertion (in As We Have Always Done,2017) that self-determination starts with one’s most intimate self and sexuality. Hence, Simpson argues ,colonial authorities particularly targeted women and the gender fluid and queer for erasure: to help break that self-determining spirit.
All the more reason to celebrate the combined courage and compassion of lesbian poet, storyteller and essayist Beth Brant for her path-making work, selectively restored here under the fine editing hand of Janice Gould. Beth Brant was among the first lesbian Indigenous writers to be published, in the flowering of previously unheard voices with the rise of small presses in the 1970s. Her 1984 anthology, A Gathering Spirit, was also the first collection of North American Indian writing to be edited exclusively by an Indian. The anthology has 61 contributors, including women in prison, on reservations, in ‘remote’ rural areas as well as cities – thanks to the effort Brant made writing letters, inviting contributions through every kind of organization she could think of that might touch Indigenous women’s lives.
Then there’s Brant’s own writing, sampled here: from the brash boldness of “Coyote learns a new trick,” where a traditional trickster story is queered into a hilarious tale of lesbian awakening, to the deep compassion for the see-saw of erasure and resistance in “Her name is Helen.” Here, a woman who has learned to define herself as “a dumb Indian,” “a fat, ugly squaw” and “a gay Indian girl” uses the dollar-a-photo booth at the local bus station as a ritual for reclaiming herself.
The generosity signalled in this book’s title is everywhere, including as she brings the particulars of working-poor, and often racialized, dialects and vernacular to the page, honouring the social identities behind them. There are many lines that speak to Brant’s vision and wisdom – such as “Recovery is the act of taking control over the forces that would destroy us.” And “To deny our sexuality is to deny our part in creation.”
Her transformative legacy lives on, as witnessed by the Afterword written by Deborah Miranda who kept both her sexuality and Brant’s books hidden while she stayed in a heterosexual marriage under threat of losing her children. Her moving last word recounts her journey from the books hidden in the heating vent through her dogged pursuit of education until, with the support of her now old-enough-to-choose children plus her longtime friend Margo (now her wife), she secured a tenure-track position at an American university.