It’s clear from the beginning that this is not going to be a gentle book. Right away in his Preface: A Letter to Nôhkom, Belcourt says,
“Nôhkom, I’m not safe. Canada is still in the business of gunning down NDNs…Despite the stories of progress and equality at the core of Canada’s national identity, a long tradition of brutality and negligence is what constitutes kinship for the citizens of a nation sat atop the lands of older, more storied ones.”– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 23 of e-book)
As white Canadians, we don’t like to hear things like this. We like, instead, to point at other countries (Hi America!) and say, Well, we’re better than some! We’re not that bad! It is uncomfortable to have a light shone on our national flaws.
The cover of this e-book declares A History of My Brief Body to be a memoir but I think this is slightly misleading. At least, it’s not the full story. While Belcourt does share some of his own history and several intimate scenes from his life, the book as a whole felt more like a collection of essays rather than a life story following a straightforward timeline.
What Belcourt shares of himself is the navigation of life as both an Indigenous person in Canada and as a gay man. Belcourt examines how this affects him, how it “others” him from the world around him.
To go about the drudgery of the day, I have to at least marginally play dead to white anger and white sovereignty and white hunger and white forgiveness and white innocence.– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 92 of e-book)
Belcourt writes painfully of his danger in both roles. Both as someone who others see to be dangerous and as someone who is at a higher risk of experiencing violence. It’s a painful reminder of the inherent danger that so many live with.
Something that really stuck out to me was a section where Belcourt discusses the 2018 trial of Gerald Stanley, a white man, for the murder of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man. Stanley was acquitted by an all-white jury. Like many Canadians, I followed the case and the trial as it was occurring but did so at a distance. When reading Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and now reading Belcourt, it was clear how differently their experience of watching that acquittal was. This was not an impersonal or distanced case but deeply personal, deeply heartbreaking. Both Belcourt and Elliott have strong, visceral reactions to the news of Stanley’s acquittal.
At the same time, Belcourt explores a recurring theme of beauty, of a search for beauty, for utopia. A poet, Belcourt writes:
On the one hand, poetry did nothing to prevent Colten’s death or the subsequent and dizzying display of juridical violence in Battleford. On the other hand, poetry made room for me to grieve.– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 232 of e-book)
Similarly, Belcourt expresses the power of poetry to share beauty and grief when talking about the Pulse nightclub shooting or the targeting of gay men in New York by a serial killer.
Today, I read and write for beauty, and live so as to disappear.– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 63 of e-book)
There is a lot in this book and as someone who carries the privilege of white skin, I struggled with it at certain points but in the end hope to amplify Belcourt’s words and draw attention to where we as a nation need to change and do better.