A History of My Brief Body
by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Published May 2021
Let’s start with the body, for so much is won and lost and lost and lost there.
It is with this statement that First Nations, Driftpile Cree, queer scholar and poet, Billy-Ray Belcourt opens a piece called ‘A History of My Brief Body’, which is also the title of his recent collection of lyric essays. This statement is a direct affront to colonial archives that have for centuries notoriously separated her/histories of First Nations peoples – across many colonised nations – from their physical bodies and communities and incarcerated them in larger inanimate bodies such as state-run and state-controlled archives, galleries, museums, and libraries. Belcourt’s statement goes beyond the bricks and mortar galleries, libraries, archives, and museums to tackle the violent written records that, for the main, create fictitious doppelgangers of First Nations peoples through files and records that become the ‘history books of nation’. These doppelgangers stalk and haunt the living, they demand to be set free from the paper incarceration that has written and continues to write us all so wrong.
Belcourt is not the only First Nations writer to locate and write about the body as the first site of history. Nor is he the first to note that the body is an archive – above, beyond and outside the state. First Nations Australian poets, such as Ellen van Neerven, Natalie Harkin, Elfie Shiosaki, me, and more recently Evelyn Araluen have all written to and of the body – of bodies as a repository not only for our own brief histories in this life to date, but as the storehouse of intergenerational memories of survival against state violence and trauma. And as archives that hold intergenerational resilience and joy that empower us to continue through and in the ongoing colonial structures. What is ground-breaking about Belcourt’s work is his chosen medium – the lyric essay.
In 1997, John D’Agata and Deborah Tall published a now familiar definition of the lyric essay in the Seneca Review. According to D’Agata and Tall:
The lyric essay takes from the prose poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language.
Lyric essays combine the autobiographical information of a personal essay with the figurative language and form of poetry. In the lyric essay, the rules of both poetry and prose become suggestions, because the form of the essay is constantly changing. The writer draws on a series of images or ideas, not narrative or argument, to craft the essay. The image can be of a person, place, thing, or object or all of these things. The idea can be anything. The writer recreates the experience and evokes emotion in the reader by using sensory details that express what the writer sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels. Lyric essays are not organised as a narrative, with one event unfolding after the next. Nor are they organised in chronological order. Instead, the writer creates a series of fragmented images using poetic language, such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and rhythm.
As is the case with other literary genres, such as poetry, the novel, critique and long-form prose, First Nations writers and scholars have been both swift and dexterous in adapting, changing and experimenting with these genres to make them our own – to give them a cultural resonance, so that they will speak to us, and give voice to our stories, hopes, concerns, traumas and aspirations beyond the confines and constrictions of the continued structures of colonialism. The lyric essay has gained credence in Turtle Island among First Nations writers but appears to be largely ignored by Australian publishers, despite the evidence mounting across the Atlantic that this form has much potential as a vessel of expression that is free from genre constraints.
In the introduction to Shapes of Native Nonfiction (2019), a vast and rich collection of First Nations creative nonfiction in lyric form, the editors, Cowlitz scholar and writer Elissa Washuta and her settler co-editor Theresa Warburton, point out that before the twenty-first century (and still persisting today), Native (sic) nonfiction was seen and handled by settler scholars as exclusively related to content; that is, as purely a form of ethnographic reportage, that can and could be used to bolster colonial archives and record offices with Native information that comes into the hands of white experts to be reinterpreted and republished and rebranded as ‘Native History’. Cherokee writer and scholar, Daniel Heath Justice and settler literary scholar, James Cox noted that it is only recently that such an approach to First Nations writing has been supplanted with an approach by First Nations writers, scholars and critics that eschews this ethnographic methodology in order to open up new ways of writing and new areas of inquiry for First Nations writers of Turtle Island. Belcourt, a contributor to Shapes of Native Nonfiction,writes of the lyric essay as ‘an impulse towards uncovering a genre of experience from the graveyard of Indigenous history.’
A History of My Brief Body starts out with a letter to Belcourt’s nôhkom, (grandmother). In it, he writes,
This isn’t a book about you, nôhkom. A book about you, a book in which you appear uncomplicatedly in the world of your own making, would be an anti-nation undertaking. Canada is in the way of that book.
A critique and exposé of the fiction of the modern nation – in this case invaded Canada, written over many First Nations countries – occupies much of Belcourt’s writing. Canada is as much a fiction to Belcourt and all First Nations peoples whose lands it occupies as Australia, with its false narratives of peaceful settlement, prosperity on the sheep’s back, ‘the fair-go’ and the ‘classless society’ is to me, and to all other First Nations Australians who now live and work on lands never ceded. The fiction of nation is an important consideration to keep at the forefront of the settler readers’ mind throughout this discussion of First Nations lyric creative nonfiction from Turtle Island. Much damage was done in the past (and continues) to First Nations storytelling practices and our creation stories which were relegated to the domain of myth and described with words such as ‘fantastical, whimsical, irrational, impossible and make-believe’. Yet, as the first peoples of Turtle Island, Aotearoa and Australia, we were introduced – quite rudely to say the least and with extreme violence in most cases – to the concept of ‘fiction’ right from the very moment of invasion, with the ‘fiction of nation’. Or as Belcourt says, ‘a nation sat atop of the lands of older storied ones.’
This is quite radical, given much of the violence and ongoing discrimination he describes that is still an everyday occurrence in the lives of NDNs (the First Nations peoples of Turtle Island). As Belcourt writes, ‘Nôhkom , I am not safe. Canada is still in the business of gunning down NDNs’. He continues:
This book, then, is as much an ode to you as it is the world-to-come. In the world-to-come, your voice reminds those in your orbit that we can stop running, that we’ve already stopped running.
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.
Love and joy are mentioned frequently throughout this letter, and the collection as a whole. The book itself reads as a testament to love and joy in the face of ongoing dispossession, continued violence and lack of recognition of the rights of First Nations peoples in Canada and abroad.
Belcourt writes expansively about growing up. Reared on a reservation surrounded by First Nations culture, he began to conceptualise utopia after witnessing the nurturing spaces his friends and family created. Describing his childhood retrospectively, Belcourt grapples with the limitations of English to fully articulate this experience.
Language is inadequate here, to bring into focus the communal effort […] that went into raising two NDN boys not in a way that would ignore the coloniality of the world but so as to engender life that might breach its grip.
He also writes,
Too much can go missing in the space of translation.
His nôhkom especially showed him how to survive in a country whose hands are wrapped around his neck. He learns from her that ‘Joy is art is an ethics of resistance.’ This is a radical statement given that Belcourt was born in a nation that saps First Nations communities of their vitality and still dispossesses and denies culture and existence. His nôhkom’s teaching guides his work and writing, which is not only an excavation of the past but a search for a joy-filled future.
A History of My Brief Body embraces the contradictions of triumphing over oppression by honouring joy and desire. Moving through lyric essays, Belcourt situates his reflections on love, longing, and vulnerability amid a political reality of trauma, violence, and oppression ‘on the shores of what is now improperly called Canada’. The essays address the Indian residential schools, the medical field’s apathy toward STIs, the terror of the police, and tragically the suicide rate among NDNs.
It is not a chronological life history, nor is it autobiography or a set of academic treatises. These fragmented and elegantly crafted essays explore Belcourt’s personal experience as an NDN boy through themes of queer identity, sexuality, and love; family bonds that defy colonialist brutality; and the tension of living and writing on the edges of ‘killability’ and freedom. He pushes against the history of colonialism, the violence and neglect perpetrated against NDNs, and the ongoing oppression of ‘otherness’. Yet, all the while he chooses to find and celebrate joy, to seek utopia, which is a powerful reminder to the reader of the continued resilience and determination of First Nations people; and that hope exists – has always existed. Hope and joy are and always have been the foundations of the solidarity and strength of the continuance of First Nations peoples on the stolen lands of colonialism.
Belcourt confronts histories of marginalisation as well as urgent present-day issues, including the racialised coding and ‘ontological shaming’ that infect online dating apps and what the author sees as a lack of unbiased medical care. ‘Hospitals have always been enemy territory’, Belcourt writes.
My body, too brown to be innocent, enflames the nurses’ racialized curiosities. For them, there’s always the possibility that my pain is illusory, dreamt up in order to get my next fix.
Belcourt centres queer and First Nations thought as he braids theoretical and literary references with vignettes from a sex life brokered online.
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 centre of our desire to exist.
Overcoming ‘manufactured sorrows’ such as inadequate, improperly constructed and inaccessible housing, overcrowding, over-policing, state mismanagement of funds, and the ongoing deficit discourses of First Nations life in invaded Canada under late capitalism required Belcourt to draw nearer to his subjects through poetry, theory and essays in which he writes,
… a third you exists – the ‘lyric you’: he who observes, keeps watch, analyses from afar, takes in data, then writes from a distance.
That distance expands and contracts throughout Belcourt’s essays, in which the tone rises and falls like an ongoing conversation. The work is permeated by a sense of unfinished business.
Belcourt rages against colonial gender binaries that cut up and sectionalise queer bodies in the same way the state-imposed borders and boundaries have artificially and detrimentally sectioned up the First Nations lands of Turtle Island. He describes growing up in ultra-conservative Alberta as like being ‘a stampede of horses in an enclosed cul-de-sac.’ People often speak about ‘outing’ as a practice that relates to the LGBTIQ+ community when community members announce their queerness to the outside world. Belcourt reverses this practice through ‘outing’ the homophobia of invaded Canada as an introduced colonial practice which has been allowed to continue in the settler mindset for centuries.
Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer, musician and academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s research shows that two-spirit bodies and the knowledge and practices those bodies house are threats to settler society, sovereignty, dispossession and the project of colonialism and assimilation. The powerful relationships queer bodies house – consent, diversity, variance, spiritual power, community, respect, reciprocity, love and attachment – were the very things that colonisers sought to destroy.
In their autobiography, A Two Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder (2016), Ma-Nee Chacaby recounts a childhood in Ombabika, a community in Ontario. Chacaby’s grandmother explained to them as a young child that there were two spirits residing in their body. Their grandmother used the term niizhin ojiijaak to explain how both female and male spirits lived inside Ma-Nee as a child. They were also told stories by their grandmother of niizhin ojiijaak men living together and raising children together. Chacaby also remembers meeting other niizhin ojiijaak in Ombabika.
Two spirit, queer and trans First Nations peoples have always known this. One of the many important things that Belcourt’s writing does is take the mauled and manipulated settler myth of binarised Canada and expose it against a childhood and adolescence that he describes as ‘utopian’. In an essay called ‘An NDN Boyhood’, he describes himself and his twin brother as ‘key architects’ of a world of care and hope that ‘brought and is still bringing us into being against the odds, in opposition to the insufficiencies of gender that colonialism yields’.
Belcourt summarises the invading nation and the damaging baggage it brought with it, in particular western capitalism and Christianity.
…those who arrived with enmity on the shores of what is now improperly called Canada inaugurated a modality of gender that produced men who self-destruct.
But rather than succumb to defeatism, which is after all one of colonialism’s best weapons against First Nations peoples, Belcourt asks,
How are we to architect places through which NDN life flows, through which it isn’t slowed down or disappeared but embraced and therefore multiplied?
If utopia seeks to embrace joy, how can such a future be imagined amid a society still struggling to accept its violent past? To achieve this a space must be created for hope. It means focusing on futurity, a world beyond nation. This vision is described by a single word in Belcourt’s work. That word is utopia. It is by far the most important word in the book, and it is framed and referenced by other terms that together scaffold what a ‘red utopia’ (sic) might look like such as decolonised, communities of care, family, queer and love. In a section called UTOPIA that is part of a longer piece titled ‘An Alphabet of Longing’, he describes what utopia might look like for NDNs.
NDNs are moved – positioned and oriented – not in the direction of the dead future that state violence anticipates but instead toward a time and place gushing with all that this violence can’t extinguish, which is our metaphysics of joy.
Belcourt’s essays write back to the nation that never wrote an accurate, much less kind or fair, picture of NDNs; or even wrote First Nations peoples as subjects at all. He reclaims subjectivity through in his own authorial position by writing to nations, to NDNs, to nôhkom, to Canada, and to the colonialised world. It is powerful to take your own story back and retell it in your own image. Belcourt’s History of My Brief Body accomplishes this by conjuring a liminal space to reimagine the nation-state – to think about love against empire, intersecting identities, and everything First Nations identities can contain, and hold and share.
We are all caught up in the singularity of coloniality, but each book, each poem, each story is against the trauma of description, those ways of reading and listening that makes vampires out of people, possessed by an insatiable hunger for racialized simplicity that makes us into the objects of study to be fed through the poorly oiled machines of analysis.
Self-loathing is the tool of colonialism and shame has been weaponised against First Nations peoples from the moment of invasion. Homophobia was introduced and encouraged among tribal communities by western Christianising forces of western expansion. Belcourt writes of the self-loathing, self-hating shame that he sees ‘everywhere on the rez’. He speaks of aftereffects of surviving a struggle against yourself, your being and your identity.
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…
He took up the pen to explore what he called his ‘kink’ which was ‘the annihilation of my core sense of self”. He insists on an artistic approach that rallies against ‘the museum of political depression’.
…we need poetry to counter the world of that courtroom, the logic that NDNs are dispensable in the face of property, capital and democracy.
In doing so he acknowledged that:
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.
Belcourt writes openly and honestly about how not knowing what to do with his agony was both ‘unknown and menacing’. At a loss he ‘waged war on himself’ and enacted a form of self-erasure through anonymous sex, ‘hooking up with strangers’ – men he doesn’t find attractive, because they have been told that they are not ‘thin enough, toned enough, tall enough, pretty enough, white enough to fuck’. He writes in an essay called ‘Loneliness in in the Age of Grindr’:
I think I owe them my flesh because they find me desirable when what I see is a knot of contradictions and sour myths.
He describes himself as having a ‘liberal saviour complex where his body may become a conduit through which they can learn to love their own’.
Earlier reviews have speculated about Belcourt’s use of the word brief in the title of the book. For example, Michael McCarthy, wrote in The Adroit Journal:
The word “brief” in the title is the reader’s first encounter with Belcourt’s elusive style. What does it mean for a body to be “brief”? It could refer to his youth; he is still only a graduate student. It could also denote settler colonialism’s ability to cut queer, indigenous (sic) life short.
As a First Nations reader I have an alternative view. Belcourt is young – at the time of writing this he was 25; and certainly, colonial Canada, like colonial Australia is a dangerous place for First Nations peoples to be, and this danger is intensified for those who identify as of First Nations and LGBTIQ+. Yet I read beyond this to see First Nations’ bodies as part of a greater whole that is the intergenerational archive and future of place and people. I’ll backtrack to the quote I opened with: ‘Let’s start with the body’. Belcourt’s History positions his body as an archive that holds part of a bigger, ongoing story. He writes in ‘Futuramania’,
I’m a body of knowledge, not one of chemical compounds.
Survivors’ bodies like Belcourt’s are metonyms of intergenerational archives. As he writes in ‘NDN Boyhood’, ‘NDN boys are ideas before they are bodied’. For survivors of genocide, transmitted memory becomes the material of intergenerational trauma and resilience. Transmitted trauma, joy and resilience elide the categorical distinctions of state apparatus such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Previous scholarship has explored collective and post-memory, but such scholarship does not explain descendent-survivors’ trauma and resilience embodiment. Nor does it explore or interrogate the construction of physical bodies as archives, memory, and story. In this way, First Nations writings – in this case Belcourt’s work, breaks new ground to explore how intergenerational, ‘blood-memories’, to use Chadwick Allen’s term, of trauma and resilience become a new narrative of transmission and continuance for future generations. He goes on to say in a later piece called ‘Please Keep Loving’:
If all we need is one overdetermined reason to suffer the mode of aliveness, perhaps art is mine. Perhaps if Billy Ray Belcourt is a concept that shouts and dances and philosophizes I’ll in the end have been scattered in thousands of pieces across the nations. Everywhere will be my graveyard and I’ll have lived and died as that which is more than the sum of my body parts.
A First Nations body is also a metonym of a community. What is affecting a body is also affecting a whole community.
A History of my Brief Body takes the violence and erasures of colonialism and presents it as a lyric treatise, full of love and joy. While joy is one of the central threads of the book, Belcourt doesn’t mention happiness. I was interested in the etymology of the origins of distinction between these two words that are so often conflated in English. As I delved deeper, I was reminded of Belcourt’s comments on the inadequacy of colonised language to describe First Nations’ experiences, her/histories and aspirations. The general consensus in western dictionaries is that joy is an inner feeling, while happiness is an outward expression. So, joy is in the heart, while happiness is on the face. Happiness is a product of a particular moment, place or time. Joy is an ongoing process of growing and becoming. When you consider that happiness is reactionary – an emotion that responds to a certain situation, while joy is transcendence, the ability to move beyond the physical to a state of mind, Belcourt’s choice takes on a lot more meaning. Happiness is externally triggered and is dependent on what happens in and to the outside world. When positioned in these terms, there is not a lot to be ‘happy’ about for an NDN in colonial Canada.
Joy on the other hand is internal consistency – a personal and purposeful choice to refuse to be either silent or erased by the nation state.
In a broader transnational context Belcourt’s work is part of a body of writing that is a First Nations’ theory of self-love. Towards this aim he cites and takes inspiration from the works of fellow writers of Turtle Island such as Layli Long Soldier, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Eve Tuck, Gwen Benaway and Liz Howard. He writes in ‘Fatal Naming Rituals’, quoting Howard:
With these books I build a monument to furturity where we assemble another ‘congress/of selves’ where we perform and enact ‘everything we long to know and hold’.
And in ‘An Alphabet of Longing’ in a section called VOICE:
My field of study is NDN freedom. My theoretical stance is a desire for NDN freedom. My thesis statement: Joy is at once minimalist and momentous facet of NDN life that widens the spaces of living thinned by the structures of unfreedom.
I will spend the rest of my life enfleshing this argument. This catalogue, then, doesn’t and can’t end.
‘In the face of antagonistic relation to the past,’ Belcourt writes in the concluding piece, ‘Hang our Grief out to Dry’, a writer is the ‘public’s barometer of freedom and terror’. He calls to NDNs of Turtle Island to ‘let us start anew in the haven of a world in the image of our radical art.’ If we are to read this barometer through Belcourt’s collection of lyric essays the overwhelming message, to NDNs for whom he writes first and foremost, and to First Nations peoples on stolen lands never ceded, comes from his essay, ‘Please keep Loving’:
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. 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.
Allen, Chadwick Blood Memories Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Maori Activist Texts Duke University Press, North Carolina 2002
Chacaby, Ma-Nee and Plummer, Mary Louisa, A Two Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016
McCarthy, Michael ‘A Review of Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body’ Adroit Journal.
Simpson, Betasamosake Leanne, As We Have Always Done; Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2017
Washuta, Elissa and Warburton, Theresa (ed.) Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, University of Washington, Seattle, 2019