Billy-Ray Belcourt's debut novel A Minor Chorus uplifts the modern queer Indigenous experience
A Minor Chorus is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize
A Minor Chorus is the debut novel from Griffin Poetry Prize-winning poet and author Billy-Ray Belcourt. A Minor Chorus follows an unnamed narrator who abandons his thesis and goes back to his hometown, where he has a series of intimate encounters bringing the modern queer and Indigenous experience into focus.
Belcourt is a writer and academic from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta. In 2016, he became the first Indigenous person from Canada to be a Rhodes Scholar. Belcourt won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize for his first poetry collection, This Wound is a World. The collection also won the 2018 Indigenous Voices Award for most significant work of poetry in English and was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.
His second book, NDN Coping Mechanisms, uses poetry, prose and textual art to explore how Indigenous and queer communities are left out of mainstream media. It was on the Canada Reads 2020 longlist and was shortlisted for the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards.
Below, Belcourt reflects on how he wrote A Minor Chorus.
Fiction, in my own voice
"A Minor Chorus is about a queer Indigenous doctoral student who leaves academia because he's feeling creatively unfulfilled. He's also weighed down by the structural pressures of a colonial institution.
"He chooses instead to attempt to write a novel. The book is a record of an attempt to write a novel about northern Alberta. Anyone with any familiarity about my autobiographical details will suspect that the protagonist is a lot like me.
I began with my own voice, my own circumstances and then inserted invented lives into that.
"Yes, the protagonist reflects my life. I did that partly because I felt that there were so few novels in the history of Canadian literature that centred queer Indigenous life.
"I began with my own voice, my own circumstances and then inserted invented lives into that."
The conceit of the novel
"One of the things I find most difficult about writing a novel is having to be OK with simply conveying information and not always attempting to do something interesting with language, as one does in a poem.
In the novel, you have to work across simultaneous levels — from the sentence to the book as a whole.
"With my memoir, I brought that same intensity of language. I felt that I was working at the level of the sentence. But in the novel, you have to work across simultaneous levels — from the sentence to the book as a whole. Having to hold all of that information at once was quite difficult, and I was not prepared for that."
An act of self-examination
"The creative process is partly an act of self-examination. In this case, the protagonist is compelled to write a novel or to work creatively because he's unsure if he's happy.
"And in constellating these various voices from northern Alberta, he's attempting to glean some kind of insight into how others have weathered various structural pressures like racism and homophobia, and still managed to build a kind of life.
It's the fact of life that one is living that matters.
"What the protagonist eventually understands is that the notion of a happy life is always partial and provisional. It's the fact of life that one is living that matters."
"Autofiction blurs reality and fiction. The blurring is the point, and it's how new kinds of meaning can be produced, so that the narrative being unnamed is part of that autofictional tradition.
"I wanted readers to wonder about who this person was. But also, more practically, I never found myself needing to name him. It didn't organically emerge. So I trusted that meant that I didn't have to name him."
LISTEN | Billy-Ray Belcourt on the power of Indigenous joy:
"Since my second book, I've been interested in the sociological component of reading, especially in Canada. In my memoir I addressed this more directly in an essay where I said that there seems to be this tradition for Indigenous literature that is oversimplified and reduced to an anthropological experience.
I'm continuously interested in how to subvert that anthropological fetish and instead offer up a portrait of Indigenous life that should be seen not as a definitive representation, but one among many.
"I'm continuously interested in how to subvert that anthropological fetish and instead offer up a portrait of Indigenous life that should be seen not as a definitive representation, but one among many.
"I think part of how you do that is by particularizing the details of the story. So it's clear, I think, that this is a book about a small pocket of northern Alberta.
"Even that small pocket is so historically specific that a whole novel can be written about it."
Billy-Ray Belcourt's comments have been edited for length and clarity.