Although marketed as a memoir, in his author note Driftpile Cree writer Billy-Ray Belcourt describes “A History of My Brief Body” as a “composite” in which he endeavors to “marshal the forces of poetry and theory.” In this collection of essays, Belcourt’s writing sometimes leans toward poetry, sometimes memoir and sometimes theory, coming together to create a stunning portrait of queer Indigenous life.
The majority of the chapters of the book are broken down into small chunks rather than a continuous narrative, which creates a mosaic effect when combined with Belcourt’s decision to avoid a chronological account of his life. There are certain standout themes that recur throughout the book, such as joy, utopia, loneliness and care, all of which are vibrantly illustrated in brief scenes from Belcourt’s childhood and early adulthood.
The scenes that Belcourt uses to paint this picture of Indigenous joy in the midst of world-defining violence vary. The book begins with a letter to his grandmother and proceeds to recount “An NDN Boyhood” defined by relatives like his grandmother, father and twin brother. The middle section takes as a jumping-off point his relationships, both sexual and romantic, with other men. Finally, near the end of the book, Belcourt turns to dwell with personal and public reactions to widely publicized deaths of Indigenous and LGBTQ people in Canada and the United States.
Throughout the book, Belcourt takes moments to consider the role of the poet, and specifically the queer Indigenous poet, in the world today. As the chapter “Fatal Naming Rituals” indicates, he is keenly aware of the ways that Indigenous people have been defined by the tropes of non-Indigenous writers. This book sets out to write a different kind of story about queer Indigenous life, a completely new narrative that bypasses those tropes entirely.
In the creation of this new narrative, Belcourt’s language is full of intense sensual imagery. He describes abstract concepts like history as “a layer of dust on everything, so granular it encases me.” The body becomes a vehicle through which the entire world can be deconstructed and reinterpreted. When you begin reading a sentence, it is impossible to predict where it will end, as that ending will often take you in a completely new direction you would not have expected. Reading closely is well rewarded.
In his endeavor to honor the reality of Indigenous pain while also remaining steadfastly committed to queer Indigenous joy and utopic futures, Billy-Ray Belcourt has written an incomparable book full of emotion, analysis and poetic beauty.
Kai Minosh Pyle is a Métis and Bawiting Nishnaabe writer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota.
A History of My Brief Body
By: Billy-Ray Belcourt.
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio, 140 pages, $15.99.