The World Beyond This One: On Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Rehearsals for Living”

By Jenna M. WilsonFebruary 25, 2023

The World Beyond This One: On Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Rehearsals for Living”

Rehearsals for Living by Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

REHEARSALS FOR LIVING (2022) is a theoretical work that documents the overlapping crises of climate disaster, state violence, and a global pandemic, all of which snowballed into what some might call apocalyptic conditions in 2020. Consistent with Black and Indigenous methodologies and epistemologies, the book is structured as an ongoing exchange of letters between Black radical feminist Robyn Maynard and Nishnaabeg feminist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, written to one another during the lockdown of 2020.

Throughout Rehearsals for Living, Maynard and Simpson insist that the apocalypse is not new, nor universal. Instead, they argue that their respective communities of Black and Indigenous people have suffered and survived through “an array of world-endings” because their lives and the lives of their communities were abandoned by the state long ago. Maynard and Simpson encourage their readers to understand how world-ending is thus also an opening for the emergence of a new world — one built on collectivity, care, self-determination, and a celebration of all life that is rooted in our relationships to land. Built on a beautifully communal practice, Maynard and Simpson contribute to the radical tradition of police and prison abolition and decolonization while connecting these liberatory frameworks to struggles against racial capitalism, environmental degradation, and border restriction. Foregrounding the interconnectivity of struggles, Maynard and Simpson’s book is a critical resource for organizers and scholars across movements: they show that liberation is not created in silos but in radical and collective coalitions that recognize that our emancipation is bound to one another’s, and is bound, as Maynard states, to “the end of (this) world.”

Rehearsals for Living’s emphasis on apocalypse, crisis, and world-ending as nonuniversal and, for some communities, routine helps underline the claim that, in Simpson’s words, “there are ancient bodies of knowledge that can provide comfort, meaning and guidance through this turbulence,” if only society is able to listen. While recognizing that state-structured precarity is nothing new, the authors acknowledge the novelty of conditions that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, Maynard and Simpson focus on the redefinition of essential workers, whose classification as “essential” reveals the structural ways in which racial capitalism relies on underpaid workers. During the pandemic, essential workers, who primarily come from racialized and migrant communities, were deemed expendable, despite public praise and words of gratitude from politicians and other world leaders. As Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities grappled with the acute and intentional abandonment of their lives by the state during COVID-19 — and contended with the ways in which the afterlives of slavery and colonialism rendered their communities more vulnerable to the virus itself — news broke of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade at the hands of the police. The very public murder of multiple Black people by agents of the state, while not new, had a different resonance at this particular moment. As Maynard poignantly writes, “[O]ur usefulness does not contradict our disposability. This is what it means to exist in the afterlife of the commodity.”

As protests for racial justice swept the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world, there was an unprecedented groundswell of support for defunding and abolishing the police. This is not to say that this support was spontaneous — rather, this “summer of revolt,” as Maynard terms it, was a result of arduous organizing “built from generations of intellectual and political labour.” Indeed, both authors refuse colonial temporalities that demand movements end in either success or failure. Instead, they favor an understanding of movements as intricate, fluid, and ever-expanding — movements that are rooted in long traditions of Black and Indigenous radicalism but also extend forward to futures that are constantly coming into being through radical imagination. By suggesting that the Black Lives Matter uprisings in Ferguson in 2014 “did not end […] but saw the creation and expansion of root systems that would be ready for the next act,” the authors help readers reflect on what seeds are being planted in this current moment. What do the mobilizations of today give rise to in the future? As Maynard and Simpson play with temporalities, they contribute to an important conversation that connects science and speculative fiction to real-life world-building. Imagination is critical. Maintaining white supremacy, racial capitalism, and the nation-state requires a suppression of the imagination. Movements like abolition and #LandBack uncage collective imaginations, and, as the authors argue, shift the possibilities that we can imagine for the future.

Rather than succumbing to the divisions that white supremacy and colonialism attempt to sow between their communities, Simpson and Maynard understand that investing in and deepening their relationship with one another, and the relationships between their respective communities and movements, “opens up endless possibilities for dismantling the white supremacist, colonial and capitalist present.” The practice of pitting marginalized communities against one another has long been used as a tactic of revolutionary suppression. Maynard and Simpson insist that liberation is a collective and communal project, which underscores the significance of this book as a collection of letters. Rather than understanding relationship-building and dialogue as tangential to theory (the definition of which has often been dictated by Western epistemologies), Maynard and Simpson, building on the legacy of Black and Indigenous feminist epistemologies, show that their letters are the theory. Historically, Black and Indigenous feminist ways of knowing were systematically barred from primarily white, male institutions like academia — and their work was excluded from the category “theory.” In response, Black and Indigenous thinkers have historically turned to “nontraditional” ways of theorizing — creating theories that are critical to their lives and the collective survival of their communities through books, music, conversations, and dialogue. Maynard and Simpson’s letter exchange is a celebration of Black and Indigenous epistemologies, an acknowledgment of knowledge generated in movement spaces, and an insistence that theorizing is best created in dialogue.

In the spirit of radical epistemologies, Maynard and Simpson’s work is also profoundly accessible and deeply indebted to their respective communities, commitments, and movements. Centering their specific geographic, historical, and political positionalities, the authors rebuke the (heavily critiqued) Western insistence on objectivity and detachment from one’s research in favor of situated knowledges (to use Donna Haraway’s term). Rather than embracing expertise, permanence, and universalism, Simpson writes that their book embraces “openness, intimacy, care and humility,” sharing that the book should be thought of as “a chronicle of our thinking in a particular moment” and is “messy […] incomplete […] gentle.” Not only is Rehearsals for Living meant to represent one historically specific piece of an ongoing conversation; it is also partially a practice of care, which — while offering readers a wealth of knowledge on the historical roots of the contemporary moment — aims to heal. As Maynard states,

I’m hoping, mostly, in writing you, that maybe this grounding, together, will help remind me, remind us, that we and ours have been building livable worlds all along, despite and against forces aligned to steal our light, and that we will continue to do so no matter what comes our way.

The purpose of the book, in other words, is to remember survival and liberation together as a practice of world-building — a practice built on a mutual acknowledgment of those that came before, who will teach us how to survive and build a better world for those who come after. Though their objective lies most importantly in their commitment to one another and the legacies of their respective communities, as a reader who is joining the authors in their journey of collective remembrance and healing, I certainly learned a lot, and my hope for a new world was nurtured along the way.

If there is one area that the authors undertheorize, it is the importance of disability justice as a framework for understanding this current moment. Though the authors exemplify the importance of accessible language and embrace the “messy,” “incomplete” nature of their work, there are few comments about how the violent structure of ableism was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, rendering disabled people — especially Black and Indigenous disabled people — even more vulnerable. As scholars such as Liat Ben-Moshe have demonstrated, disabled people are disproportionately targeted by the carceral state, and as a large portion of the book is dedicated to anti-carceral discourse, this is an intersection that is largely overlooked. Beyond an important framework for understanding the way that the carceral- and nation-state structure death, disability justice also offers suggestions for moving forward. As communities that are often left out of state-based solutions, disabled, crip, and mad communities, along with Indigenous and racialized communities (communities that are, as many have argued, certainly not mutually exclusive), are quite skilled at building ways of taking care of one another and organizing to get the resources they need to survive. This is a practice that Maynard and Simpson acknowledge as one potential strategy for combatting the structural precarity of neoliberalism, racial capitalism, and the nation-state, but it is one they do not necessarily attribute (at least in part) to disabled ways of knowing.

Despite this oversight, Rehearsals for Living is a critical contribution to radical scholarship that organizers, scholars, and activists pushing for decolonization, police and prison abolition, climate justice, and the end of racial capitalism could all benefit from reading. Maynard and Simpson thoroughly reframe the current moment, insisting that the present articulation of apocalyptic crisis be understood as a continuation, albeit also an exacerbation, of conditions of crisis that were intentionally structured through racial capitalism and the settler nation-state. By situating Black and Indigenous communities as “post-apocalyptic experts,” Maynard and Simpson make clear to whom we might look to help us “imagine worlds beyond our current realities” — especially if we understand that the systems, conditions, and relations that created the current crisis will not lead us out of it.


Jenna M. Wilson is a PhD student in English whose work explores how speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy can help build a world beyond the current carceral regime.

LARB Contributor

Jenna M. Wilson (she/her) is a PhD student in the English department at UC Riverside. Her research concerns how speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy can be used to critique the carceral state and open up conversations around prison abolition. Her academic and political investments lie in building a world beyond the current carceral regime. Jenna is an organizer with Detention Resistance, a San Diego–based abolitionist organization that works in accompaniment with people detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center. She received her master’s degree in gender studies from San Diego State University in 2022.


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