I spent more time trying to understand Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body than I did reading it. Part memoir, part poetry, part academic treatise, part political rallying cry, it is truly a middle finger to categorization. Just as the reader feels ensconced in a straightforward memoir, Belcourt begins writing poetry. When the reader grows accustomed to the mysteries of his disorienting voice, he shifts to an academic essay replete with the polysyllabic jargon of Queer Studies and Critical Race Theory, which in Belcourt’s usage befogs more than it reveals. Through each transformation, however, Belcourt incorporates personal anecdotes from his life as a young queer member of the Driftpile Cree Nation in Canada: a blissful viewing of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, family get-togethers on the reservation, a breakup through text. They substantiate his musings on queerness and indigeneity, enlivening an otherwise dry text. Some readers will surely deem his challenging prose style not worth the effort of deciphering. Still, he couldn’t have written his book any other way.
If, in fact, the book is finished. Though published in July of last year, the book’s mission remains unrealized. Belcourt explains:
My field of study is NDN freedom. My theoretical stance is a desire for NDN freedom.
My thesis statement: Joy is an at once minimalist and momentous facet of NDN life
that widens the spaces of living thinned by structures of unfreedom.
I will spend the rest of my life enfleshing this argument. This catalog, then,
doesn’t and can’t end.
What is it like to read a book that “doesn’t and can’t end”? Writing as a queer NDN, he is uniquely situated to provide an answer. NDN is an abbreviation of Native Indian, a term used by indigenous people of North America to refer to themselves, and queer means . . . well, a lot of things. It means that growing up in ultra-conservative Alberta was like being “a stampede of horses in an enclosed cul-de-sac.” It means having sex with strangers was a “rite of passage.” Above all, it meant focusing on futurity, a world beyond home, or even a home beyond the world. This dawning vision is described by a single word in Belcourt’s History: utopia. It’s by far the most important word in the book, and it comes with other terms that lend it texture and shape: “decolonized,” “communities of care,” “family,” “queer,” “love.” More simply, utopia is the only place where a “brief body” like his can survive.
The word “brief” in the title is the reader’s first encounter with Belcourt’s elusive style. What does it mean for a body to be “brief”? It could refer to his youth; he is still only a graduate student. It could also denote settler colonialism’s ability to cut queer, indigenous life short.
Nevertheless, Belcourt talks a lot about growing up. Reared on a reservation where Native culture flourished, he began to grasp utopia after witnessing the nurturing spaces his friends and family created. “Language is inadequate here,” he writes, “to bring into focus the communal effort […] that went into raising two NDN boys not in a way that would ignore the coloniality of the world but so as to engender life that might breach its grip.” His nôhkom, or grandmother, especially showed him how to survive in a country whose hands are wrapped around his neck. He learns from her that “Joy is art is an ethics of resistance.” In a country that saps indigenous communities of their vitality, happiness is the greatest rebellion. His nôhkom’s teaching guides his History, which is not only an excavation of the past but a search for a joy-filled future.
His upbringing reads as the first part of a tragedy. Raised in a community of care, he grows accustomed to a kind of love and acceptance that will never appear again. As a gay man in the age of Grindr, he pursues sex with strangers as a substitute. He writes, “I hook up with men I don’t find attractive because I suspect they’ve been told they aren’t thin enough, toned enough, tall enough, pretty enough, or white enough to fuck. I adopt a liberal savior complex. I commit to the idea that my body can be the conduit through which they learn to love their own.” He surrenders himself night after night to nameless, anonymous men, himself nameless and anonymous. Grindr takes the old-fashioned, dimly lit bars where men once sought men in secret—those “strangulated forms of sociality” in Belcourt’s words—and updates them for the digital age. The app displays a wall of a faceless torsos, the perfect place for a gay man to disappear. It also creates an environment where men can discriminate openly behind the aegis of anonymity. “‘NO FATS, NO FEMS, NO ASIANS’ is a banner under which white men build a dystopia,” Belcourt writes. He experiences this racism firsthand. His craving for casual sex disguises the deeper, darker “desire to exist less and less, to deplete little by little” which “internalize[s] the ugliness of colonialism.” When an older white man hosts him in his hotel room, Belcourt sees that he’s been watching interracial porn. At that moment, he knew he was not a person to this man but a fetish.
Because indigenous erasure structured Canadian history, racism is both everywhere and nowhere. Escape from a genocidal society is impossible, but its omnipresence renders routine instances of racism invisible. Only history can expose the horrors of the past to show how they persist in the present. In this regard, Belcourt started young. As a small child, he asked his nimôsom, or grandfather, if he’d been forced to attend the Indian Residential School at Joussard.
For a century, Canada tore indigenous children from their parents and bussed them to far-off boarding schools. There, they suffered brainwashing that attempted to erase their memory of Native culture and assimilate them into Canadian society. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, concluded in 2015, discovered that children endured rampant disease, physical violence, and sexual abuse. His nimôsom responds, “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
Belcourt wants to talk about it. He wants to talk about everything. To capture settler colonialism’s physical and psychic wreckage, he adopts an oblique, sideways approach that skirts the edges of what he describes. Often, however, he obscures what should be clear. When he writes that Canada is “a radioactive wolf in wolf’s clothing” or refers to himself as “a question mark with fur,” it’s hard to discern whether this is poetry or nonsense. In the traditionally essayistic passages, his dense academese can give the dual impressions that he is at once flexing his academic bona fides (which are many) and giving the reader the intellectual runaround. I considered minoring in Queer Theory just to follow his line of thought. A poetic, purposefully vague evocation would behoove Belcourt’s book if his political aims weren’t so central. The longing for a utopia free of “white supremacist, cisnormative, heteropatriarchal capitalism” invigorates every word. The sense of how these words intertwine—and how they might be disentangled—is left ambiguous.
Then again, ambiguity is a virtue in Belcourt’s work. “If I were to rank my aesthetic concerns,” he explains in the Author’s Note, “ambiguity would come before veracity.” A History of My Brief Body, then, may be less a map towards utopia and more a gesture in its general direction. Any description of a utopian future of decolonized love would inevitably and paradoxically use the vocabulary of a settler colonialist society. Belcourt sums up this tension with a devastating quotation from his poetry collection This Wound Is a World.
sometimes i cry in indian
and it sounds like
i am speaking
If utopia seeks to embrace joy, how can such a future be imagined amid a society still struggling to accept its bloody past? First, space must be created for hope. Belcourt’s History accomplishes this by conjuring a liminal space to wonder about the nation-state, love against empire, intersecting identities, and everything those identities can’t contain. Second, a way forward must be articulated, but this is not Belcourt’s domain. For some readers, this will surely lead to frustration; it did for me. When he speaks in the final paragraph of “an ecology of creativity, one invisible from our futurity,” I didn’t feel the sense of closure his tone implied, only the familiar head-scratching perplexity. But I did keep thinking about what he might have meant. Perhaps this is enough. A History of My Brief Body is, if nothing else, an incitement to wonder.
“What’s missing or fleeting in the world is evidence of other ways of being, of something dawning,” Belcourt writes. A History of My Brief Body is not the dawn; it’s the early morning dark that promises the sunrise. His vision confuses and consoles, mystifies and moves, frustrates and frees in equal measure. The bewildered reader will have to sit with the discomfort of not understanding the text in their hands. Belcourt doesn’t focus on making his reader comfortable. He focuses on utopia. “Perhaps this romance with the not-yet makes me a bad lover,” he says. “So be it.”