A Poetic Smorgasbord: A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt

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I guess I should start with the fact that Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body made me feel dumb. In a good way, like reading Borges or any of the fifty or so philosophers Belcourt references. To sum the book up, it’s about being Indigenous and queer, but most importantly, it’s a collection of essays focused on the future, one in which there’s absolutely no way this book, any book, or anyone could be summed up with two fucking words.

A History of My Brief Body starts out with a letter to Belcourt’s nôhkom, or grandmother. In it, he writes, “Having inherited your philosophy of love, which is also a theory of freedom, nôhkom, I can write myself into a narrative of joy that troubles the horrid fiction of race that stalks me as it does you and our kin.” The idea of love is mentioned a lot throughout the letter, and the collection as a whole; the book itself reads, oddly enough, like a love letter. It made me wonder whether all letters are of the love-sort, seeing as how, generally, writing and sending one feels like going out of one’s way.

Another central theme in this collection is joy. Belcourt poses the question, “How do a people who have been subject to some of the country’s most programmatic and legal forms of oppression continue to gather on the side of life?” I think of all the Black and brown families grilling at the park, their kids playing tag. Everyone’s full of laughter and hidden beer. How?! When basically no one wants you alive, how and why would you celebrate? Belcourt goes on to say, “Joy is art is an ethics of resistance.” Every time we choose to smile, we’re choosing to fight for our children, ourselves, and those who have had the fight beaten out of them.

He discusses the Indian residential schools in Canada, something that I previously knew nothing about. They were government-sponsored religious schools that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child.” These schools were overcrowded, unsanitary, and within their walls many students were beaten, chained, and sexually abused. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more than three thousand children died, mostly due to diseases like tuberculosis and influenza, though TRC Chair Justice Murray Sinclair suggests that the number may be closer to six thousand. When Belcourt asks his grandfather if he’d been forced to attend, he replies, “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

Excuse how short and selfish this paragraph is, but the first line of the title essay is, “Let’s start with the body, for so much is won and lost and lost and lost there.” Isn’t that so good?

I was trying to figure out what the title meant. Whether “Brief” had more to do with the body being ephemeral (Belcourt’s specifically? The bodies of the marginalized?) or with his age. Belcourt is young. He’s the youngest-ever winner of Canada’s Griffin Prize for Poetry, which reminds me: this is prose written by a poet, and it shows. Each sentence is calculated; each word explodes. But back to the age thing: it shows. There is an immediacy to the book, and a hope—like utopia is possible, and I want to see it. Belcourt’s first book of creative nonfiction reminds me of Kendra Allen’s When You Learn the Alphabet. She has this wonderful piece called “How to Workshop N-Words” wherein she talks about being in class, and listening to non-Black students read stories with the n-word in them. Allen’s frustration is evident but, similar to Belcourt, her true motivation is love and faith in a better tomorrow.

Another line from Belcourt that struck me: “My hands are made up of a set of hands that puppeteer me. The hands aren’t God’s. They are History’s.” Everything we do, we do because of a past that has nothing to do with us, but then, I suppose it does. It’s the old free will debate, but almost unarguable. You can easily say, “God isn’t real!” but, unless you are racist and want to deny that slavery and colonialism happened, you have to admit that Belcourt’s argument makes sense. White, Black, or Indigenous, you act a certain way because of an invisible force that either shoved your ancestors down—which might make you now want to rise up, to make yourself heard—or your ancestors did the shoving, and so it feels okay to follow suit. Of course there’s some in-between, but who wants to talk about that when we could talk about sex instead?!

Sex is everywhere in this book. Penises. Buttholes. It’s great. I have a hunch that Belcourt does this in order to balance the mind and body. It seems that, like many of us, Belcourt’s thoughts take him to these dark depths that only a numbing, carnal overload can dig him out of. There’s one part where he says, “Fucking won’t rescue me from my longing[,]” then goes into a rant about engineered catastrophe, and how “no one can apologize for or administer a cure for the racialized and sexualized condition of existential ennui.” That if any “puppet” or “political actor” does try to apologize for something that they created, it is a mere work of fiction. And as soon as he’s done, he goes, “Back to the fucking.”

Dating apps such as Grindr and OkCupid play a major role in the collection, particularly in the chapters “Gay: 8 Scenes” and “Loneliness in the Age of Grindr.” There’s a scene where the author has a random, uncomfortable hookup, then asks the other guy if he’s clean, to which the man, in a joking manner, responds, “Yeah. Well, I mean I hope so.” Belcourt goes to the STI Clinic to ask about post-exposure prophylaxis, but the nurse explains that PEP is only administered to patients whose risk of infection is exceptional: “a prisoner raped by an HIV-positive inmate, for example.” He then waits an hour in the emergency room at the University of Alberta Hospital, and is told that his case is not life-or-death, that he’s still breathing, and that the doctor would probably send him home untreated. So, finally, he drives to a nearby walk-in clinic and talks to a doctor whose attention seems to be elsewhere, and coldly explains that he’ll have to wait eight to ten weeks to be tested. This calls to mind a sentence in one of the later chapters, “To Hang Our Grief Up to Dry,” which examines the gunning down of gay men, from the Orlando nightclub shooting to Bruce McArthur’s killing spree in Toronto. Belcourt writes, “I felt as though I was a part of an endangered species. I still do.”

From “Futuromania”: “I have a phobia of the police. How could I trust he who disavowed personhood to instead be a gun? … To be a gun is to be against life.” I think that when a lot of people criticize the police, they’re criticizing the idea of law enforcement perpetuating a BS sense of entitlement rather than officers as individuals. And this is that, sure, but it’s also the complete opposite. It’s the extremely individualistic notion of choice (which, as we’ve discussed, may be a lie, but nonetheless), of choosing to be a gun, that’s what makes Belcourt and N.W.A., I won’t say right, but pretty close to it. I recently attended a protest in honor of George Floyd in Chicago, and there was a speaker who said: “How can you say, ‘Blue lives matter’ when blue is a color? I was born Black.”

Belcourt also brought to my attention the suicide crisis within the Attawapiskat First Nation, and how on April 9, 2016, eleven of its residents attempted suicide. He writes, “[S]uicide emerges as a political response to structurally manufactured sorrow where joy has been shut out of everyday life for a long time.” A list of these “manufactured sorrows” include inadequate and improperly constructed housing, overcrowding, and state mismanagement of funds. From September 2015 to April 2016, more than a hundred people at Attawapiskat (whose population is 1,549, according to the 2011 census) tried killing themselves. Within the Wapekeka First Nation in January 2017, two twelve year old girls carried out a suicide pact. The Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency in 2016 in response to one hundred and forty suicide attempts in the preceding two weeks. Some people believe these suicides and attempts have to do with funding shortages for mental health facilities, but Dr. Alex Wilson of the University of Saskatchewan insists that many of the youth involved identified as LGBTQ, and that no one factored this in to their analysis of the situation. Belcourt argues that “suicide prevention, then, can’t simply be about keeping NDNs in the world if it remains saturated by that which dulls the sensation of aliveness for those who are queer and/or trans and/or two-spirit… [It] needs to entail a radical remaking of the world.”

I don’t think Belcourt presumes to know exactly how to remake the world, nor do I think that’s what he’s trying to prove. I do, however, think he’s presenting us with everything he is conscious of: the Indian residential schools, the medical field’s apathy toward STIs, how terribly frightening the police are, the suicide rate among NDNs; Belcourt’s taking all of this stuff and presenting it as a poetic smorgasbord, full of love and joy, so that if one aspect doesn’t resonate with you, another will. Above all, he knows there’s something wrong, and he’s warning those he cares most about, meaning us.

I work at an independent bookstore in Chicago, and have for about two years now. I’m one of maybe eight booksellers of color in the city. I’d say I read a fair amount. More than your average person, but less than many others. This is only the second book I’ve read by an Indigenous author, following Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. Now, a lot of you are going to think: Whoa, not me! I’ve read tons of books by Indigenous people, and my response to that is: Why? Really think about it. There’s a section of A History of My Brief Body where Belcourt describes some of the men he’s dated, and their hidden fetishization of NDNs. He writes, “One white man from Atlantic Canada spoke proudly about how all his male partners had been NDN, unable to diagnose his own desires as dehumanizing, unable to discern that when he fucked me, he made me into a moaning object.” This may be a stretch, but I believe the same applies here. Read books by writers of color not to brag about having read them, in that not-so-subtle way white readers do; read these books not to, once again, have ownership of their authors and their stories, but to learn from them! I had a conversation with my father the other day, and I asked him whether or not people change. Together, we came to the conclusion that learning equates to change, and you can always learn, if you want to.

I think we need more booksellers of color. I don’t know an Indigenous bookseller. We need these stories told. We need them recommended. And not on the front table in November for one month. I say knock over a Native American Heritage, a Black History Month, a Women’s History Month table. When will these stories be placed front and center year-round, instead of temporary displays, instead of voices to be silenced when they’re done trending?

Cody Lee is a writer and bookseller from Chicago. His work has been featured in Maudlin House, Oyez Review, The Absurdist, and elsewhere. You can find him at codyleechicago.com. More from this author →