Billy-Ray Belcourt dives into himself to inspire a better world with his gorgeous debut memoir
A History of My Brief Body cements Belcourt as one of our greatest young writers
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Billy-Ray Belcourt begins his debut memoir A History of My Brief Body with a dedication: "to those for whom utopia is a rallying cry."
"I learn from José Esteban Muñoz that utopia inheres in everyday life," Belcourt tells me about the meaning behind the decdiation. "Because minoritized populations relate to themselves and one another in ways that exceed normative violence. With friends and lovers, we make a joy that is not sullied by history but one that suggests another world is possible."
"For me, utopia is a politics by which we do more for one another. It is about building a world in which flourishing is not inhibited in the name of property, police, capital, land theft, etc. We feel in our bodies all the time the feeling that the present isn't all there is. I see it as my job as a writer to sit with and theorize about and render that feeling."
During a year where so much of society — and so many of us as individuals — have been forced to re-evaluate our existence, Belcourt's words feel both consoling and urgent. He reconciles his own personal history as a path for him — and us as readers — to imagine a better world. A History of My Brief Body begins with a letter Belcourt has written to his nôhkom, followed by memories of his childhood in Joussard, Alberta and on the Driftpile First Nation, before continuing to explore how the impact of colonialism and coming to his queer sexuality affected his world from there. The book is immensely quotable and incredibly vulnerable.
To write memoir is to sometimes write about oneself as if you're another person. You need to continue to maintain an intimacy with and care for that 'another person.'- Billy-Ray Belcourt
"I didn't feel like I was exposing myself when I wrote the book, especially the moments when I am incredibly honest," Belcourt says. "Perhaps I was only able to write the book this way. Now, when I reread, say, the end of the titular essay, I see that I made myself very vulnerable, but also that there is a distance between not only that version of myself being described but also the one who wrote about him. To write memoir is to sometimes write about oneself as if you're another person. You need to continue to maintain an intimacy with and care for that 'another person.'"
Belcourt became the youngest winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize ever when he won for his debut collection This Wound Is a World (which was also a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Awards), and his second book of poetry NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field was longlisted for Canada Reads this year. A History of My Brief Body is his first foray into memoir.
"After NDN Coping Mechanisms, I was writing non-stop, though in fragments rather than in, say, poems or essays," Belcourt says. "I envisioned, firstly, assembling them into a book of vignettes that wouldn't be categorized. But then a set of themes began governing the writing: adolescence, my early 20s, my shape-shifting meditations on art and literature. Part of the editorial process, with my wonderful editor David Ross, was to bring them into a kind of order, both chronological and thematic."
Within that kind of order are two essays in which Belcourt writes about queer sex that really stand out for how complex they are in mediating his experiences.
"Let me begin with Judith Butler," Belcourt says when I ask about what he wanted to get across in those sections. "[She wrote,] 'Who am I without you? I was not just over here and you over there, but the 'I' was in the crossing, there with you but also here.' Sex is one of the locations for one of these kinds of crossings. It is where we negotiate personhood and ways of being in the world; and it is where norms of race, gender, sexuality, class collide. It felt urgent to portray the two sex scenes in 'A History of My Brief Body' and 'Loneliness in the Age of Grindr' because they illuminate how structures of power and oppression shape intimate life. We are drenched in the world, even in the bedroom."
Like most of us, Belcourt is currently drenched in a world that's partially shut down due a pandemic.
"Thankfully, my partner and dear friends have kept me grounded to a social form that could persist despite the pandemic," he says. "I've also been someone with a small social circle, so we could do what we need to do to keep safe and still visit and laugh and care for one another."
He says he's been writing less than normal, "perhaps because life was put on pause for so long."
"I need to be in the rhythm of living to be compelled to write," he says. "I do think, however, that I am now attuning to a different rhythm because my writing impulse is strengthening lately!"
That's hopeful news for us, because this world definitely needs more of Belcourt's words.
A History of My Brief Body is available for purchase through Penguin Random House Canada. Billy-Ray Belcourt will also be giving a free talk on October 26th at 9pm ET through this year's virtual edition of the Toronto International Festival of Authors.