A History of My Brief Body
Past, Present, and Future: Billy-Ray Belcourt on Autonomous Indigenous Livability
In the summer of 2020, Billy-Ray Belcourt published his third book, A History of My Brief Body, with Hamish Hamilton in Canada and Two Dollar Radio in the United States. An instant best seller north of the 49th parallel, this collection of twelve essays has attracted international attention, including Lambda, Governor General’s Literary Award, and BC and Yukon Book Prize nominations.
Belcourt is foremost among a new generation of Indigenous writers in Canada. A member of the Driftpile Cree First Nation in northern Alberta who now teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he took Canadians by storm in 2017 with the publication of This Wound Is a World, a first collection of poetry that, in bold, unapologetic terms, articulates what it is like to be Indigenous and queer in a country that still doesn’t face up to the impact that 500 years of colonialism continues to have on its First Peoples. A book described by Ocean Vuong as “a monument for the future of poetic possibility,” it was also nominated for multiple awards and won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, which is one of Canada’s most prestigious accolades, and it comes with one of the largest windfalls of cash—$65,000 CAD—given out anywhere in the world for a volume of poetry. Belcourt, who’s in his mid-twenties and is also the first Indigenous person to be a Rhodes Scholar, is the youngest writer to receive this award in its twenty-year history. His well-received second book of poems, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes From the Field, published in 2019, also attracted critical acclaim and a Lambda Literary Award nomination. Since Margaret Atwood published The Circle Game, her award-winning first book of poetry, at the age of twenty-seven in 1966, no writer in Canada has made such an auspicious debut. And unlike Atwood, Belcourt has a charisma that makes him the equal of Leonard Cohen—another writer who began as a poet and who early on made an indelible mark on Canadian (and world) writing.
In A History of My Brief Body Belcourt blends autobiography with queer theory, aesthetics, and political and cultural critique, pointing out in his author’s note that “my story isn’t linear, and in these pages I marshal the forces of poetry and theory to create a kind of memoir that stretches well beyond the boundaries of my individual life.” Writing from the perspective of a young Indigenous man born in the mid 1990s, Belcourt lets his boundaries bump up against, annex, and sometimes overrun many existential challenges, including, love, sex, homophobia, suicide, cultural appropriation, and racism, that emerge out of our relationships with ourselves, with other people of our acquaintance, and with society as a whole.
In “Gay,” the book’s fourth essay, Belcourt notes that “at first queerness was guesswork, a series of mistakes that led me to dating a swath of white men who teetered between two poles: fetishization and colour blindness. … In their minds we were inside an experiment, one in which they could sculpt better, more cultured selves. I, however, was inside a proxy war, fending off yet another assault on NDN livability.” The tension between the white mainstream or settler culture that wants to think better of itself and NDNs (a term adopted by many Indigenous people in Canada in roughly the same spirit that “queer” has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community) runs through the whole of A History of My Brief Body, no matter in which direction Belcourt trains his attention. “Livability” is crucial to understanding what drives Belcourt’s analysis and why he suggests that it exceeds the purview of his own experience. He is concerned with how Indigenous sustainability has been mercilessly and unbearably reduced by forces that can only be understood as genocide while making space for an agency and futurity for Indigenous people that is autonomous from the
very real and ongoing traumas of colonization. As Belcourt says so succinctly in “An Alphabet of Longing,” his “field of study is NDN freedom.”
His essays are unforgettably sexy, angry, and tender. They are primarily written to stand with and inspire other Indigenous people. The rest of us may read along and maybe even learn something, even though our edification is of little concern to him. Nor are non-BIPOC people invited to add our two bits to the conversation—we have already had more than our fair share of airtime. Even by writing this review, I am doubtlessly taking too much air for myself—and not for the first time! In 2019, I included an essay about This Wound Is a World in a book of my prose writings, We Are Not Avatars. If I’ve come to realize that reconciliation is firstly about stepping back, why can’t I shut the fuck up?
Therefore, for me, one of the most thought-provoking essays in A History of My Brief Body is “Fatal Naming Rituals”: “Everywhere in the colonial archive there is a plethora of descriptions that seek to hold the position of the NDN in a state we could describe as against opacity, as against the right to be unseen and unseeable. Colonialism is in part a system of clarity in the visual sense: what we and our communities look like becomes the basis for a mythology of race that refuses us the freedom to define ourselves. We were and still are made to exist in a visual field in which we’re barred from democratizing the felt knowledge of our dignity.”
Belcourt lets his boundaries bump up against, annex, and sometimes overrun many existential challenges, including, love, sex, homophobia, suicide, cultural appropriation, and racism, that emerge out of our relationships with ourselves, with other people of our acquaintance, and with society as a whole.
Contemporary Indigenous writers, he says, “are caught up in the singularity of coloniality, but each book, each poem, each story is”—the italics are Belcourt’s—“against the trauma of description.” For Belcourt “the world is just beginning, so I pack light. I start and end with books by NDN writers” because in their books they are describing themselves, the world that settler culture willed upon them, and the world(s) that they insist upon for themselves. To the rest of us, Belcourt says, “You aren’t invited to our commune. We aren’t yet at that point of hospitality. I won’t tell you when the time has come.”
Three or four generations after my own ancestors were among those who forced Indigenous peoples onto reserves (the term used in Canada for “reservation”) through treaties that have never been honoured, I grasp why I’m being shown off the land. As a gay male poet, I, too, have claimed the right to be the best arbiter of my own experience. As a gay settler, I understand a few of the hazards of being othered through language. But never have I been as exacting or as certain as Belcourt is in A History of My Brief Body in my comprehension of my own predicament. This is a book to come back to. I shall endeavour to deepen my appreciation for what Belcourt has to say while aiming as best I can to read him as he means himself to be understood.
John Barton’s twenty-eight books, chapbooks, and anthologies include Polari, Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos, and The Essential Douglas LePan, which won a 2020 eLit Award. His twelfth collection of poems, Lost Family: A Memoir, a book of sonnets, was published in September by Signal Editions. The Porcupine’s Quill published The Essential Derk Wynand in October 2020. He lives in Victoria, BC, Canada, where he is the city’s first queer poet laureate.