Zones of Paradox: A Conversation with Billy-Ray Belcourt
In the final essay of his genre-defying memoir A History of My Brief Body, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes, “To be alert to freedom and doom is what I make of my job as a writer.” On page after page of this extraordinarily quotable book, we see him do just that. With keen sensibility and precision, Belcourt delivers a complex meditation on love, NDN queer identity, sexuality, art and joy amid the compounding brutalities of settler colonialism. This is a radiant collection.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is Canada’s first First Nations Rhodes Scholar and the author of the poetry collections NDN Coping Mechanisms and This Wound Is a World, which was awarded the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, the 2018 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, and a 2018 Indigenous Voices Award. He earned his PhD in English at the University of Alberta, and is an Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. A History of My Brief Body is his nonfiction debut.
Belcourt and I corresponded this summer about the limits, rewards, and power of writing. In our conversation, we touched on love, sex, rage, utopia and the similarities between Canada and the US, as well as the recent surge of marches for Black freedom.
The Rumpus: There’s a moment in the preface to A History of My Brief Body wherein you describe how your kokum (grandmother) loves to tell of the joy she experienced while feeding you and your twin brother when you were babies. The image is buoyant with vitality and works as a masterful element of the book’s opening. When, in the process of developing the collection, did you write the preface? I’m curious about the impact the shaping of the preface had on the other essays in the book.
Billy-Ray Belcourt: The preface, the letter, began two years before the book did. I wrote an early version of it for an address at a celebration of First Nations, Métis, and Inuk graduates of the University of Alberta. I left the task of writing the address until the morning of, and it wasn’t until then that I realized the only wisdom I had to offer my peers had to do with unconditional love, that it was now our job to go out into the world and love and be loved. And to talk about love I had to talk about my kokum. Before I sent the manuscript to my agent I snuck the letter in there, and it fit nicely!
Rumpus: Nicely indeed! So, it sounds like it was a spontaneous choice. It’s absolutely beautiful. After that point in the creative process, presuming there were further edits, did you find yourself approaching the material differently? Or, put another way, did addressing your kokum at the onset alter your editorial sensibilities as you finished the rest of the essays?
Belcourt: I’m going to borrow from a line I wrote about another person: I’m always writing about my kokum even when I’m not writing about her. As I admit in the letter, I haven’t yet figured out how to write a book about her or to her. No received form feels appropriate. So, instead, she is everywhere, in ways that are both named and unnamed. She represents a kind of ethics of care that I have found useful as an aesthetic mode. The question is: how best to write in a way that doesn’t disavow my dignity or another’s? She wants those in her orbit to live dignified lives, to be free from violence and subjugation, to be joyous. From her I learned how to write toward dignity. In this sense, the essays I wrote after adding the letter were renewed by that spirit.
Rumpus: The collection is structured such that there’s a potent momentum, particularly toward the end. What considerations went into the ordering of the essays?
Belcourt: My editor at Penguin Canada, David Ross, put a lot of thought into the order of the essays and intelligently spotted both a kind of chronology and a series of thematic concerns. So, it had to begin with my childhood and end with the present and a call to arms, but would, as is my aesthetic tendency, veer in and out of chronology, disobey it entirely. Part of the experience of reading the book, perhaps, is that of ordering it!
Rumpus: During an interview with author Hanif Abdurraqib in May, he asked you about the discomfort that can sometimes come with publishing nonfiction. Among the potentially anxiety-provoking aspects of depicting autobiographical experiences, you mentioned the number of sex scenes in the book. Which reminded me of the eloquence with which Garth Greenwell has spoken about sex as a tool for writers as a means for “asking the largest questions about human beings.” The sex scenes in your book include disparate contexts. Can you talk about some of the artistic choices that went into one or two of them?
Belcourt: The most important sex scene in the book, to my mind, is the one in the titular essay. It is a moment of tragedy and comedy, and one that is deeply historical, in that it is made possible by history. It holds so much contradiction: risk, a kind of surrendering to the poetic (to live like an image), a sense of duty or purpose. To me, it illuminates how impermanent we make ourselves in the drama of anonymous sex. I wanted to sit in that zone of paradox, and I hope I rendered it in a way that doesn’t suggest any sort of simplistic moral evaluation.
Rumpus: You definitely succeeded. There’s so much complexity in that scene. I’m glad you mention the comedy, too, which is so deftly woven in and provides relief even as it accentuates the emotional depth and, as you say, tragedy.
Do you experience surprises through the writing process? Can you talk a bit about that?
Belcourt: All of the essays rely on fragmentation, some very heavily. Perhaps fragmentation is a kind of aesthetics of surprise, which is to say it allows for forms of meaning-making outside linearity and common sense. To answer the question from a different direction, I was often surprised, in the wake of writing the book, how vulnerable I made myself. Interestingly, I didn’t feel like I was exposing myself when I wrote, and maybe that made the writing possible! Now I reread the essays as if reading about another person. Sometimes to write memoir is turn oneself into another person.
Rumpus: That reminds me of how you’ve spoken about the ways in which your writing portrays “past selves”—both honoring and abolishing these past-selves. Going back to the titular essay, there’s a gorgeous image of a new self in the act of mourning a past self: “I wished to assassinate history’s version of me, put him to rest, let him soar into the clouds like a floating lantern. I wanted to be there, below him, with a single candle, crying for the last time.”
Is writing an act of healing for you?
Belcourt: A few years ago, when This Wound Is a World came out, I would’ve said yes. The emotional truth of writing that book is that it did allow me to breathe more spaciously. It made me realize I didn’t have to bear my past alone. Today, I regard the relationship between writing and healing with more ambivalence. This might simply be because I don’t write out of desperation anymore.
There’s a moment of juxtaposition in Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend that is instructive here. The narrator makes these two remarks: “You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing, warns Natalia Ginzberg.” And, “Turn then to Isak Dinesen, who believed that you could make any sorrow bearable by putting it into a story or telling a story about it.” These are simultaneously true, in my opinion. Writing both will and will not save us from ourselves, our pasts, etc. What drives me to write these days is a longing for a kind of artful existence, something in opposition to the artlessness of oppressions of all kinds, of capital, of work. I don’t need to be redeemed or repaired; it is the world that is in a state of disrepair. Writing, at least the kind I’m interested in reading and producing, proves that the present isn’t all there is. Maybe that is something like healing.
Rumpus: Beautiful. Can you say more about writing proving that the present isn’t all there is?
Belcourt: I always say that I am compelled to write because the present isn’t enough. Writing is one of the few activities that feels immediately futurist, if simply because what we make is a future object—books are from the future. More profoundly, though, is something Ocean Vuong wrote [in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous]: “I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication.” This holds particular resonance for those against whom the world continues its suffering regime. Writing is one way to replicate, to self-replicate, against the odds, in opposition to state violence. And, finally, a beautiful sentence can be a little reason to live, can be something grander and more capacious than the present.
Rumpus: An earlier version of “Fatal Naming Rituals” appeared in Hazlitt in July 2018. In the current version of the essay, NDN has been used instead of the word “indigenous.” Why the change?
Belcourt: Simply, a matter of coherence. The essay was also published before I used NDN across all writing. NDN resonated for me because of its multiplicity. It indicates both an unofficial language (how to talk to one another as opposed to how the state talks about us) and a refusal of colonialism (Not Dead Native). It is one of the minor ways we invent a new language of intimacy and kinship.
Rumpus: Your work addresses governmental negligence and state-sanctioned violence specific to “what is now improperly called Canada.” The collection will assuredly galvanize and resonate deeply with readers concerned with justice in the United States, too. I delighted in your description of America as Canada’s “deranged brother… already engorged on itself like a nesting doll.” I’m indulging in some American narcissism by asking, would you be willing to expand on that metaphor?
Belcourt: In some segments of Canadian cultural life, especially in the face of Trump’s presidency-cum-death march, it is easy and, often, satisfying to distinguish our political situation from yours. America is undeniably corrupt; it is visibly destructive. So is Canada, but some have been conditioned to look at themselves and their countrymen differently, with a kind of historical amnesia, as if they weren’t beneficiaries of the original crimes of dispossession and conquest that made the nation. Canada and the US are brothers in the same demented family. They begin with a lie (a self-imposed sovereignty) and an ethical infraction (the theft of life, bodies, and land). Together they authorize the precarity that so many are ensnared by their whole lives.
Rumpus: A phrase from your essay “Please Keep Loving: Reflections on Unlivability” comes to mind: “exhaustion as a symptom of governmental neglect.” The piece calls for needed reforms in suicide prevention, specifically ones that “entail a radical remaking of the world.” In it, you write (particularly of NDNs): “How any of us survive in a world always against us, against what we signify and make imaginable, is a sociologically significant act.”
If you don’t mind my pulling that quote out of context, there are echoes of this notion finally being given more prominent attention in the United States. With this summer’s uprisings, it seems more people than ever are discussing issues raised in A History of My Brief Body—including the importance of not ignoring crimes against the doubly and triply marginalized. What are your thoughts about the recent events? Do you have hope?
Belcourt: The protests in the US in the name of Black freedom expose the impossibility of the project of American democracy, a project predicated on Black suffering, the theft of Indigenous land, and other violent seizures of life. They bring into focus the long history of catastrophization that America requires. There is a beauty and profundity about the refusal to live complacently and miserably under the sign of the nation that the protests represent; they are an insistence on the possibility of another world—so we Indigenous thinkers and activists need to pay attention and collaborate. It was incredibly moving to see the involvement of Black Lives Matter at Standing Rock, and I hope that Indigenous peoples show up with the same intensity of allegiance and sense of entangledness in the months and years to come.
Rumpus: You’ve spoken about how the work of writers can have “immediate and life-sustaining force” in the realm of everyday life. Do you have any instances you’d like to share about the impact your work has had so far?
Belcourt: Sure! When This Wound Is a World came out, it got good press in Alberta, the province in which I was born. A newly out Cree man from a reserve near mine was gifted the book by a relative and shortly thereafter he messaged me to say he had been reading the book every day since, that he kept it in his bed with him. I was so struck by this kind of intimacy with the book I gasped. Had my book not won any prizes, had it not received institutional attention, this message would’ve been enough.
Rumpus: Wow. That’s profound. I’m guessing that as time goes on, you’re hearing from more and more readers who draw sustenance from your work. Has it changed your creative process? When you sit to write, do you hold an audience in mind?
Belcourt: My response to this question of audience depends on the book in question. With This Wound Is a World, I wrote for an audience of queer and trans Indigenous young people. I wanted them to see themselves as the subjects of literature and history, not simply as acted-upon objects in a grammar of deficiency. There are essays in A History of My Brief Body for which this is also true: namely, “Please Keep Loving,” which ends with a note of care for Indigenous youth, imploring them to “Speak against the coloniality of the world… in an always-loudening chant.” Otherwise, my modes of address shift in subsequent books, encompassing settlers, Indigenous peoples, and other racialized populations. As I suggest in “Fatal Naming Rituals,” one of my goals is that of breaching the sound barrier of liberal ignorance. To hear Indigenous peoples’ declarations of state-sanctioned suffering as indictments of a country, an entire citizenry, takes an affective openness that isn’t easily enabled by history. In other words, I hold out hope that anti-colonial writing has the power to rewire perception and felt knowledge such that readers feel called on to refuse a romance of the present.
Rumpus: You’ve talked about how poetry is a “socially sanctioned arena” where one can access and express one’s fury. I’m guessing you’d say the same regarding essays. The rage in this book is so exactingly calibrated and satisfyingly rendered, at least from a reader’s point of view. Did you edit toward this tone, or did it emerge organically for you?
Belcourt: Sometimes I worry about how rage and fury translate in my writing because it seems that some understand them to be unliterary (yikes), so this is great to hear! It is not that I am an angry person, but that the world, and those empowered by history and politics to live like grim reapers, are enraging, and fail us again and again. To write autobiographically meant I had to honor the emotional state of anger alongside the more digestible emotional states of reverence and celebration. I write books that are emotionally cacophonous because we, Indigenous peoples, are made to hold so much inside us.
Rumpus: The book is dedicated, “To those for whom utopia is a rallying call.” The prose is anthemic at times in its demand for a radical remaking of the world into one that is “imbued with brown queer possibility.” When you envision utopia, what do you see?
Belcourt: In the great tradition of José Esteban Muñoz, I see bits and pieces of the utopian in the present: in how my people resist state violence and celebrate the joyousness of Indigenous life, in how queers and trans folks remake the codes of gender and embodiment, in how we love one another despite the injunction on care that capitalism implements. Of course, utopia, in a de-colonial sense, would also mean the end of capital, the end of property, the end of oppression of all kinds. Utopia as a politics means we do more for one another.
Photograph of Billy-Ray Belcourt by Tenille Campbell.