Just before the beginning of the pandemic, Black activist and thinker Robyn Maynard (author of “Policing Black Lives”) sent a letter to Indigenous writer and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (author of “Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies”). They’d long admired each other and began to correspond when the pandemic hit: through the first summer of lockdown, through the Black Lives Matter uprising, through “climate catastrophe,” without ever thinking, they said in an interview that those letters were going to be turned into a book, “Rehearsals for Living.” We also spoke about some of the ideas of their writing life illuminated.
At the beginning of COVID there was all this lip service paid to where we’re all in this together. It seemed with all the failures of the systems being exposed that it might actually lead to change. What’s your take?
Robyn: Dionne Brand described this as an X-ray into the racial and gender and economic inequalities that already exist in our society. So we saw the very disproportionate impact right off the bat of Black communities in Toronto, and across the country of Indigenous communities, of who was allowed to stay home. We saw that people inside of prisons who are grossly disproportionately Black and Indigenous being exposed and contracting COVID-19 in detention centers and shelters, all the places where people are abandoned by society. Even though there was this idea that we’re all in it together, we really saw who was considered weak … At the same time, we saw so many people refusing that idea. I’ve never seen such an exciting time of people coming together in terms of supporting those who are living in encampments, bringing water, bringing food. So some people really did insist on a kind of togetherness of no one being left behind.
Leanne: I think for the Indigenous community, to get to this moment in time, we’ve lived through lots of world endings, we’ve lived through lots of pandemics and epidemics. We know that in times of crisis, there’s an amplification of the asymmetrical violence of colonialism and capitalism. We know that there’s also opportunity, Robin has pointed out, for organizing and for movement building, and for taking care of our own communities. It was a vulnerable spot to be writing from because we didn’t know how this was going to unfold. It’s interesting to go back and see and read those first letters, given what’s unfolded. I remember worrying that I was being too cynical, maybe, too critical. And now that I’ve lived through it… no, perhaps not even enough.
The letters to each other are so intimate; your everyday lives intertwine with the bigger issues. What kind of dialogue did you hope that would lead to?
Leanne: I want the communities in that movement that we come from to feel affirmed and to feel seen. The work these communities have produced in the past has been so important to me as a thinker and as a writer and as a human being. I think that, more than having an idea of what kind of dialogue and what kind of discussion, it’s more of fitting into this long history of scaffolding the intimate with the collective and, continually in times of crisis, thinking of the collective and not just one’s individual needs.
Robyn: I think that (my) writing is trying to step away from this sort of “one great man sole thinker” version of what it means to write about freedom, about human liberation, and looking to try to lift up the collective brilliance of our communities. So trying to write one another, as individuals, coming from these different communities and backgrounds and histories and traditions of radicalism, but also really trying to look at what kind of world-making we’re seeing from people who are on the front lines of struggle … this liberation work is being written out every day by everyday people.
Why the title “Rehearsals for Living”? Aren’t we just living?
Robyn: I would say that it’s the rehearsal that is the living. It’s not about this end destination, that we’re rehearsing and rehearsing for a final show. It is in practicing that we’re making the lives that we want to lead; it’s by being part of everyday movements that we’re creating the kind of futures that we want to see. We were trying through the process of writing to show what that means. Ruth Wilson Gilmore had forwarded the concept “abolition is life in rehearsal.” That, in particular, really helped us think about what we were trying to do.
So the process is everything right? That’s what life is.
Leanne: Well, that’s what Indigenous life is. And I think that’s how my ancestors lived. They got up in the morning and they made everything, and they repeated those processes … and that’s how they’ve generated the knowledge collectively to live in the world, to make the world. I’m also a musician; I love rehearsal more than performance because you’re not nervous, you’re not being watched. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But it has to be genuinely connecting with your other musicians: you have to do a tremendous amount of listening. I find that those rehearsals are actually very generative in terms of making the music and figuring out how to play together.
Robyn, at one point in the book, you say, “I knew that this meant walking away from the life that I knew. I made my choice and exploded my life.” That seems to be an example of a way forward, is it?
Robyn: I was speaking about my own experience, which was just realizing that certain life choices and ways of living weren’t getting me to the way that I wanted to live authentically as myself. As a society that nominally bases itself on freedom and diversity, what we’re actually living is something quite different from that. If we’re going to genuinely think about wellness, from a planetary sense, an environmental sense, we actually need to really break apart and break away from so many of the kinds of ways that society is run today. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting things to be different, we actually need a much more radical transformation.
Leanne, here’s a line that struck me that you wrote: “The absence of hope is a beautiful catalyst.” What do you mean by that?
Leanne: It was coming from Miriam Kava and her idea that hope is a discipline, it’s a practice. So often people in my position are like, well, the youth are hopeful. And that feels like a tremendous amount of pressure to put on youth. I feel like elders, my own community, people in my family have demonstrated that it doesn’t matter whether you feel hopeful or not: you get up and you do the work anyway because you have a responsibility as a living being on the planet to leave it in a better position than it’s in right now. And so, I think through that practice of getting up and doing it anyway, particularly if it’s done collectively and communally, groups start to generate moments of joy, moments of laughter, deeper relationships with each other. And I think that sort of fuels the wherewithal to go on.
The whole idea laid bare about the pandemic of being together and seeing inequality has pretty quickly dissipated. Was an opportunity missed or is there still a chance to set a reset button?
Robyn: I think collectively, there was the idea of the pandemic being a portal. I think what that meant (in that) particular moment is different choices could have been made: a pandemic could have been possibly ended by not patenting and providing massive corporate profits for a vaccine, for example; there could have been the mass release of incarcerated people; the violence of long-term care was exposed. But at the same time, I really don’t think we can lose sight of how many people were radicalized, that high school students, that elders, believed and still believe that we can imagine a future in which all people can thrive, who saw injustice and rejected it very strongly and continuously over the course of many months. So as I’m not a prophet, but I do think that every moment can be a portal. When we decide to take part in a movement large or small, you never know if it’s going to be something that will be massive or significant.
Leanne: I think that part, Robin, when you say every moment is a potential moment, that’s the kind of thinking that I want to adopt as a practice. I think history has shown us that if we put too much pressure on these flashpoint events for miraculous change, that’s not the way change has happened in our communities. It’s been long, it’s been slow. It is not going to be easy for us to remake everything and begin to live in a way that respects the sanctity of the Earth. It’s not going to be that moment in the pandemic where we’re banging pots and making sourdough. Every day we have to get up and make the moment, think of struggle as a daily communal practice, where we’re working to meet the material needs of our communities, and we’re working to enact these systems of care for our communities in the face of this overwhelming violence.
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