Billy-Ray Belcourt is a poet and scholar from the Driftpile Cree Nation. His first collection, This Wound is a World, won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, which he followed up with 2019′s NDN Coping Mechanisms. His new book, A History of My Brief Body, is a memoir pairing life and theory in a style reminiscent of Maggie Nelson. It tells the story of a young queer Indigenous man yearning for utopia amid a broken world.
Your work draws attention to the significance of the body. Why is that so important to your writing?
Because it has been left out of the political and legal discourse about Native life. To talk about the body is to talk about gender, sexuality and sex. Opening up that discourse to those concepts is to make space for those who occupy multiple intersecting categories of identity. I’m always interested in moving beyond a single-issue focus on race toward an intersectional focus on the complex web of identities and bodies that make up the Native world.
This is also a work of theory. Some might consider body and theory as opposites. Do you?
No, I don’t, because I think a theory of the body is a theory of freedom – and freedom is one of our most communal desires. I hope my book can begin to dispel some dominant anxieties about theory and push us to think about theory as an embodied practice itself, as a lived experience, and that embedded in all our social and political choices is a theory of living. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the body as a conceptual trap door, thinking about the ways that the body is paradoxically both a site of precarity and flourishing. Precarity, because sometimes settler-colonialism, in which we all live, can be felt as pressure inside our bodies. But then there are moments that manage to exceed that structure, when we can feel in our bodies the possibility of another world, another kind of arrangement of ideas and feelings.
You write, “If I’m a writer, it’s because to be an NDN is to be a concept that speaks.” Can you explain?
There are particular normative ways in which the mainstream public has been authorized by history and anthropology to understand Indigenous peoples. The effect of that is to bring us out of our bodies and into the world of ideas. We existed primarily as ghosts of a sort, partly because for so long we were shunned from public life and our writing was not published. We did not occupy political discourse in the way we do today. Now, we Native writers write against that philosophical tradition. I’m deeply aware that what I say needs to breach that past and open up space for something else. I don’t want to be a concept that speaks. Part of how that ends is if we are allowed to be complex, joyous people in the minds of others.
Two threats to life vie for public attention right now: the coronavirus, and the police – particularly their threat to Black and brown life. You write about the latter. What do you make of that juxtaposition?
Firstly, the catastrophe of white supremacy has not ended because of the pandemic. In many ways, it has been exacerbated. We’ve seen how it has disproportionately affected communities of colour all over the country. Just recently, a family in a remote Manitoban First Nation who contracted coronavirus highlighted the inadequate health care infrastructure, not just in that particular place, but all over the country on reserves.
Secondly, though this predates social distancing, I think about the Wet’suwet’en solidarity rallies and blockades that happened across the country in February and the deployment of a kind of militarized police at many of them, and the ongoing brutalization of Black and brown people across the country in the last few months. It shows that we – we racialized people, queer people, trans people – continue to need each other in ways that don’t mean immediate proximity. That’s a radical politics in and of itself. The pandemic throws into relief the urgency of that kind of politics. It makes me think of Claudia Rankine’s definition of loneliness as that which we can’t do for each other.
Whereas, if we can do for one another, are we really lonely?
Yeah, I think feminism and decolonization means we do more for each other.
One of your epigraphs quotes Maggie Nelson: “I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live.” How do you respond to someone who says, “I just want life to go back to normal”?
I would say that “normal” was always a thinly veiled catastrophe, the kinds of mundane terrors that many minoritized populations experienced so that “normal” could exist for the privileged. Perhaps what the pandemic has stirred up in people is alertness to their desire for something else. A lot of activists and writers are hoping that something fundamental shifts in the political composition of the world, such that in the wake of this pandemic, we can better fight for our freedom. So much has to be shaken up. We do have an opportunity to remake the world, and it is dire that we do so.
There’s a vision running through your book that another world is possible. What would you want change to look like?
The pandemic goes to show the global form of racial capitalism operating right now can only ever engender disaster. And that we need a politics that is first and foremost against disaster! (laughs)
And we need a politics that is for flourishing. At the level of Indigenous sovereignty, this country is presented again and again with proof of its own criminality against us as Native people, and there needs to be a shift that gives way to a understanding of Indigenous political life as sovereign and national. That way we can build communities that don’t bear the burden of inadequate health care.
In the face of all that’s happening right now, publishing a book can seem small. But if we’re committed to revolutionary ideas and literature, however small the gesture is, there still can be some ripple effect – especially in the case of writing by queer Indigenous people, for queer Indigenous people.
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