Penguin Random House Canada, 2020
“I felt as though I was a part of an endangered species. I still do,” writes Billy-Ray Belcourt in his genre-fluid memoir, A History of My Brief Body. A member of the Driftpile Cree First Nation in rural northern Alberta, Belcourt transcends the confines of memoir to deliver his thoughts on grief, queerness, colonialism, joy, loneliness, and love in pieces that feel like poems and essays simultaneously.
Belcourt prefaces the memoir with a letter to his kokum—his grandmother—”Here, and in my poetry, you’re always looking up at the sky, longing for the future. In order to remember you as a practitioner of the utopian, I need to honour the intimacies of the unwritten” (1). He dedicates the book to “those for whom utopia is a rallying call”—a poignant, stark reminder that although there is much work to do, there is still hope.
Centering his experience as a queer Indigenous man in Canada, Belcourt expands on this notion of the “intimacies of the unwritten” throughout each chapter, addressing the wounds the settler state has caused through ignorance and refusal to own its wrongdoings. He writes, “At the time of writing, no one is in an argument with Canada. Yet Canada has its gloved hands over its ears, as though someone were about to question why it is splayed out on a toilet like a widower on an open casket. Canada has yet to recoil at its reflection in the rear-view mirror … Canada lives in my refrigerator. It spoils my groceries, just days old” (46).
Belcourt’s focus on “NDN joy” as resistance to colonialism in the final pages is perhaps the book’s greatest contribution. The final chapter, “Hang Our Grief Up to Dry” is an ode to those lost to, or struggling with, racial, gender, and cultural violence. It is also an ode, as is the book as a whole, to using poetry—or any form of creativity—to cradle those who are grieving. He maintains that joy is fundamental to Indigenous freedom: “They hate our freedom, so only freedom matters” (161).
This book expands on Belcourt’s debut work, This Wound is a World (2017), a poetry collection awarded the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, a 2018 Indigenous Voices Award, and the 2018 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize. His detailed, thoughtful insights into the stories behind some of those poems are gifts that make each vignette a sibling to This Wound is a World.
A History of My Brief Body speaks to Belcourt’s “out of body” experiences when he is on the outside looking in, examining his past relationships, and the effect colonialism has had on his life. It isn’t a “brief history” of his body, but a history of his “brief body.” He explores the nature of being and the systemic violence against Indigenous Peoples in Canada asking, “How will we ever look white people in the eyes and not periodically see our mangled bodies?” (155).
Belcourt’s erudite voice and unique diction mix poetry, story, and abstract academic reflection. Belcourt’s Masters in Women’s Studies from Oxford and Ph.D. in English and degree in Comparative Literature, both from the University of Alberta, add a post-structuralist complexity to the book, but the sections where Belcourt share the intimacy of his lived experiences feels the most accessible and effective.
A History of My Brief Body is very quotable, full of one-liners and poignant truths. Each sentence is masterfully crafted to underscore timeless themes from loneliness to love. It also serves as both a calling out and a calling in. It will make you want to take a contemplative walk to carefully consider your place in the world. Answer that call.
A History of My Brief Body is a Canadian bestseller and finalist for the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography. His second book, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes From the Field, is also a national bestseller. As the youngest person to win the Griffin Poetry Prize, Belcourt’s voice is perhaps the most urgent of this generation, representing strength, intimacy, pain, and vulnerability, and how they can be used as tools to rally change, to find joy, to reach that utopia.