“A History of My Brief Body” resists distillation, embracing instead the contradictions of triumphing over oppression by honoring joy and desire. Flickering through lyric essays that function as chapters, Belcourt centers queer and indigenous thought as he braids theoretical and literary references with vignettes from a sex life brokered online.
His corporeal and erudite nonfiction debut begins with a letter to his grandmother. “Nôhkom, I’m not safe. Canada is still in the business of gunning down NDNs,” he writes.
The epistolary form, which imbued Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” with such intimacy, serves to preface what is, at heart, a rallying cry for freedom. The ongoingness of resilience demands a manifesto, and here it is: “Joy is art is an ethics of Resistance.”
The trouble is that the enemy has wormed its way within. Shame is a weaponized emotion of the colonial state. Throughout the Americas, homophobia within tribal communities was encouraged by the Christianizing forces of capitalist Western expansion.
That stain spreads through the psyche. “To be queer and NDN is paradoxical in that one is born into a past to which he is also unintelligible. I wasn’t born to love myself every day,” Belcourt writes of a self-loathing that he sees “everywhere on the rez, when talking to men on Grindr — the aftereffects of surviving a struggle against oneself, against an identity you’re squished inside.”
Burdened by expectations, Belcourt found a way to get free. Through the body, and on the page. But it cost him.
“I didn’t know what to do with my agony, so I did what most do with the at once unknown and menacing: I waged a war on it, on myself,” he writes of the before and after of being a “closeted gay kid” with an “endangered” coming-out story. “Desire appeared around me as a flammable entity.”
Prejudice has particular pathos when espoused by peoples who endured genocide only to be forcibly separated from their families by abusive boarding schools. “I remember the worrisome responses from a number of relatives upon the declaration of my queerness,” Belcourt writes. “Despite establishing in clear yet sparse wording that their happiness was contingent on my happiness, there was also a fog of grief. This was the grief of childlessness.”
What can threaten a person can engulf entire communities that are pressured to enact and sanctify whiteness. Belcourt’s book is against indigenous self-erasure, which he himself had enacted through anonymous sex.
“I take on a liberal savior complex,” Belcourt writes. “I commit to the idea that my body can be the conduit through which they learn to love their own.” But to manage his departure from that fraught path within his creative production, “I’m up against decades and perhaps centuries of a literary history that extracted from our declarations of pain evidence of our inability to locate joy at the center of our desire to exist.”
Overcoming the “manufactured sorrows” of indigenous life in late capitalism required Belcourt to draw nearer to his subject through poetry, theory and essays in which “a third you exists — the ‘lyric you’: he who observes, keeps watch, analyzes from afar, takes in data, then writes from a distance.” That expanse narrows and widens in these essays, in which the register rises and falls like a conversation that takes all night.
Like “Heart Berries” author Terese Marie Mailhot of Seabird Island Band, who counsels others who write about trauma to “carry many stories about yourself” and “let that dynamism inform your work,” Belcourt shows tenderness for his own experience as he explores his destructive impulse — “My kink is the annihilation of my core sense of self” — with the aim of liberation.
Quoting theory and favored writers such as Layli Long Soldier, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Gwen Benaway, Belcourt seeks to transcend a landscape of “inadequate and improperly constructed housing, overcrowding, state mismanagement of funds, ecological harms, intergenerational trauma, and so on” that has created the ongoing emergency of suicides by indigenous youth, whom he addresses directly.
“NDN youth, listen: to be lost isn’t to be unhinged from the possibility of a good life. There are doorways everywhere, ones without locks, doors that swing open,” he writes. “There isn’t only now and here. There is elsewhere and somewhere too. Speak against the coloniality of the world, against the rote of despair it causes, in an always-loudening chant. Please keep loving.”
Kristen Millares Young is the author of the novel “Subduction.”
A HISTORY OF MY BRIEF BODY
By Billy-Ray Belcourt
Two Dollar Radio. 142 pp. $15.99