During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Rachel Gopal’s Medium bog.
Arielle Twist is from George Gordon First Nation, Saskatchewan and currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is a Nehiyaw, Two-Spirit, Trans Femme writer and sex educator. Twist is a multi-disciplinary artist that has won the Indigenous Voices Award for English Poetry as well as has been named a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for emerging LGBTQ+ writers, both in 2020. “Disintegrate and Dissociate”, published in 2019, is her first book and it consists of a collection of poems that speak of Twist’s experiences with identity, sex, femininity, kinship, and tradition.
Twist approaches trauma and healing in a very personal way that allows the reader to be able to feel the vulnerability and strength in her writing. In an interview with CBC Books in February 2019, Twist notes the importance of representation; growing up, she had never seen an Indigenous Trans Woman. Now, she receives support from Trans youth that are happy to see their perspectives being represented. In another interview with CBC Books later that year, Twist speaks on her experience writing. Despite not having any formal training on writing, Twist writes to prove that she can be successful without going through a system and believes that she has made that point.
Biography and the self are utilized in Twist’s work to analyze forms of colonial violence through personal experiences in the way she is made to feel about her femininity. Her poem, “Dear White, Cis Men” consists of four letters and express an attraction to white cis men, but also a fear. Twist addresses these men as “objects of affection” at the beginning of the first letter but then again as “the thing I fear the most” at the end of the last letter. This poem illustrates colonialism existing through Twist’s questioning of her desirability in the eyes of these men and also through her questioning her safety. She writes, “Because you are / the ones to decide / if I am f — -able / if I am smart / if I am worth love”, which illustrates the prevalence of a colonialized idea of beauty, intelligence, and worth, defining her being. There is figurate violence toward Twist and her culture in the way that everything is disregarded to adhere to colonized standards of beauty, intelligence, and worth. Colonial violence is also illustrated through the lack of mutual respect, she writes, “with voices that boom / power and authority / demanding the respect / you would not give me…” bringing to attention the unfair treatment of Indigenous individuals where they are made to feel and act inferior those demanding respect yet refusing to give it. Literal violence is also referred to in the same poem where Twist mentions feeling unsafe and worrying about dying at the hands of white individuals because of her Trans identity. Colonial violence is also alluded to in the poem “The Girls”. The line, “funny that your sex feels like colonization in this / body I call home” illustrates the feeling of violation on an intimate level. This expression further exemplifies the interruption of Twist’s experiences with the self as an act of intimacy gets impacted by generational trauma.
Indigenous Queer Ethics + Indigenous Womanhood
Twist’s writing has a strong undertone in the theme of Indigenous Queer Ethics. Indigenous Queer Ethics, which can be defined as the said demographic finding a way of being, doing, enacting, creating and resisting, is interrupted in Twist’s world as she tries to have regular experiences but gets marginalized and objectified because of her identity as an Indigenous Trans Woman. Poems such as “The Girls” are structed in a way that emphasizes her pride in Indigenous Womanhood but notes the how her identity and interactions are impacted by Queerness. The language in the poem suggests that her sexual experiences are hook-up based, for instance, “I am the kind of girl you pick up in your car at / three in the morning” as well as “I am the kind of girl you take on dates in dark / rooms”. Further in the poem there is evidence that the individual being addressed is only using her for hook-ups which results in her questioning why that is the case, she questions her features “…too trans? too brown? too fat? too femme? too tall?” and then a comparison was made, “I can’t stop thinking about when you left / me / for strawberries and cream, even though caramel is / sweeter” which symbolically refers back to a “cute cis white blonde skinny girlfriend” that was mentioned near the start of the poem. The mentioned adjectives can be analyzed in the way that her Indigenous Womanhood is being deemed less desirable in comparison to a white, cis woman. However, near the end of the poem, she takes back the portrayal of her own desirability. She describes herself as “this girl who stopped showing up / at three in the morning / The girl who knows I am not a secret / …The girl who is more desirable than f — -able”, Twist refuses to be othered and objectified. She refuses to continue associating with someone that made me feel as if her Indigenous Womanhood was less than the womanhood of anyone else.
Twist describes her book “Disintegrate and Disassociate” by explaining, “This whole collection is about grieving and the ways in which I am coping by disassociating or deconstructing or disintegrating or rebuilding.” There is evidence of her disassociating in poems such as “Under Uprooted Trees”, where she mentions “losing track of / selves I killed, / buried under / uprooted trees”. There is also evidence in her rebuilding of herself as well as her Two-Spiritedness in poems such as “In Dying I Become”, “words written / to welcome and dismiss / two selves / not whole, not mine / not quite yet // In dying I become, reborn”. Similarly, there is evidence of Indigenous Kinship within these themes. Mentioned in the Prelude, Twist writes about the passing of her kokum and how she will deconstruct her current self and will rebuild for her kokum, “Disintegrate or dissociate. / I will deconstruct myself, / and rebuild in her vision”. Twist’s poetry is reflective, powerful, and has themes rooted in her Indigenous identity. She uses her words to share her experiences and allow readers inside such personal moments that are meaningful to her rebuilt version of herself.