Archer Asks: Billy-Ray Belcourt
By: Declan Fry
Billy-Ray Belcourt (he/him) is a writer and scholar from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize for his debut collection, This Wound Is a World, which was also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. His second book of poetry, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, was longlisted for Canada Reads 2020. A recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and an Indspire Award, Belcourt is Assistant Professor of Indigenous Creative Writing at University of British Columbia.
Image: Tenille Campbell
Declan Fry: I love the Maggie Nelson epigraph from Bluets that opens this book: “I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live.” It speaks to one of the larger themes of the book – this longing for desire and the capacity to love and be loved.
Billy-Ray Belcourt: I think in that epigraph I was drawn to the anti-presentism of Nelson’s thinking. Which I guess comes to her by way of a trend in queer theory to invest in the future as the terrain of joy and pleasure for queer people. That appeals to me as a queer and Indigenous person because the present is both insufficient for queer life and hostile to Indigenous life.
DF: That hostility yields, I think, some of the poetry in this book.
BRB: One of the arguments that shapes my body of work so far, and will continue to, is that the present isn’t all there is. That requires that we, in our writing, don’t fall back on a romance of either the past or the present. I think a lot of writing both consciously and unconsciously does that.
DF: It was moving to see you write about revealing your queerness to family. Did you ever feel as if you were being too vulnerable, or not vulnerable enough, in this book?
BRB: There was a lot that I didn’t say, because it was not mine to. And also, I was less interested in writing memoir strictly speaking. Though perhaps it’s ironic because that’s the subtitle.
DF: Is that the American subtitle as well?
BRB: The American is “essays”.
DF: In Australia, it feels like there’s a strong desire to extract memoir – especially from women and non-white peoples.
BRB: It was a marketing decision. One I consented to, probably because I still wasn’t quite sure what to call it. More precisely, it’s a series of essays and poems that are less concerned with narrative than with the various themes around which the essays orbit.
I wrote most of the book in 2018. At the time, I was quite frustrated with the way that my first book had been taken up in Canada. The first book is very much vulnerable and open, and written in an accessible way. Those are poems I wrote from a place of desperation.
Colonial publics being what they are, many sort of feasted on that and wanted to find something in it to redeem themselves. I was incredibly, viscerally repelled by that response.
DF: In this book, you mention being hurt by a review of your debut that referred to “Billy-Ray Belcourt’s Simple and Radical Poetry”. Is that connected?
BRB: Yeah, it is, for sure. That review came out a day before I won the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the largest poetry prizes in the world. It reminds me of Toni Morrison saying that racism functions as a mode of distraction.
I felt I was distracted by that rhetoric, and I was writing against it. I think every writer has these feelings, but I would rewrite the book now.
DF: How would you rewrite it?
BRB: I think I would want it to be a bit more linear. I would want to spend more time writing about my early 20s; expand on those essays about dating and intimacy and their discontents, and really flesh that out.
But, you know, when I go through it now, I still admire that version of my writerly self. He was writing from a position of anger and a desire for beauty, and he wanted his sentences to be as vast as the history he was critiquing and illuminating.
DF: In describing dating, you say “you can’t fuck your way out of white supremacy”.
As soon as I read that, I thought about how during the Black Lives Matter protests mid last year, quotes like the Toni Morrison one you just mentioned were everywhere, but people were also talking about how just because you have a Black partner doesn’t mean you’re not necessarily racist and so on.
BRB: When I started dating, I didn’t realise that this was the narrative I was stepping into – that of being either an object of fetishisation, or repulsion, or erasure.
DF: Yeah, I mean it’s probably not what you hope for when you get on Grindr. Or maybe it is, right? Like, “This is why I’m here!”
BRB: Yeah, totally. Sometimes those are desirable categories for sure. But I felt very much squished inside them. The kinds of intimacies my body longed for were behind this barrier that had calcified over decades, over centuries.
It took a long time for me to realise that I was injuring myself more than I was being nourished. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
DF: It’s also something profound in this book; this idea of wanting to be nothing. It’s certainly something happening in queer writing. Like, in Garth Greenwell’s writing it comes through really strongly.
BRB: Yep. I think queer theorists have said a lot about that drive. It’s not a death drive, but it’s a kind of psychological drive – the desire to self-shatter as a kind of erotic act. Perhaps some would argue that the erotic is precisely about that kind of loss of sovereignty and self-sovereignty.
DF: Tell me about your time studying at Oxford.
BRB: It was deeply existentially troubling to go from a context like Canada, where there is general public awareness of Indigenous life, to the UK, where I didn’t exist. I had no subjectivity really other than ambiguity.
In my first book I write about how a professor blatantly told me that he didn’t know what I was, racially, and couldn’t guess. And even my peers, those from the United States, had no conceptual framework with which to think about modern Indigenous life outside the frames of erasure and deficiency.
I also think some of the most meaningful connections I made while in the UK were with, you know, men on dating apps. The men were different than the ones that I met in Edmonton – gender norms were less rigid and less callous.
Though there wasn’t often much depth outside of the realm of the erotic in these interactions, there was still something that made me feel deeply seen. I’m only realising now how incredibly important that was to my sense of stability.
DF: What was it that you felt was deeply seen?
BRB: It was to be seen as a person with the capacity to desire and be desired. Even as an intellectual subject that wasn’t available to me. A desiring subject. That’s what I was able to be seen as with these men.
DF: I think one of my favourite stories that you tell about your experience on dating apps – and a rare moment of humour – was where you say that standing to pee seems like a relic of a bygone era (nowadays we maximise excretory time) and that this was “another unanticipated confluence of the gay agenda and late capitalism”. That leads to what was, for me, one of the most vulnerable and funny moments in the book.
BRB: I’ll say that my Canadian editor at one point remarked that it felt too light-hearted among the other essays, so I think you’re right about what you detected there.
But that essay was important to me because, as I say, it was the first instance in my life where I felt like I could build a life with someone, and that they would do that work even if it was ugly. Even if I had to leave my country. And it really brought into focus the worldly applications of the theories I had been so fixated with.
DF: You write about how “NDN boys are ideas before they are bodied”, how “Feet like ours are singed with a history that isn’t done with us”. It’s lovely writing. You go on to talk about this idea of there being at least two types of anger: one that is imprisoning, and another which is “quieter but equally denigrating, a slow injunction on happiness and possibility”.
BRB: I remember writing that essay on my mum’s porch. I’d gone home for a week, or something like that, and I was thinking about how I couldn’t tell the story of my childhood without at least gesturing to the kinds of masculinity I had to rebel against.
I was 23 when I wrote that essay. I think that was maybe too young to see parts of what I can see now, which is that I had to learn how to live in a way where I didn’t put an embargo on my own happiness. I spent a lot of those early years in my 20s in a kind of self-effacing phase.
Now I can see that that was something that I could have resisted. I think I would tell that story differently now. It has to do with gender, I think, as I was socialised into a rural conservative context. I think now that even my predilection for theorisation was a kind of vulnerability, and that the emotionality of that kind of writing had everything to do with how I was existing in the world.
In a prose poem I wrote about Foucault, I say that no one runs to theory unless there’s a dirt road in it. I realised as a teen that, in order to live a vibrant Queer Indigenous life, I had to leave my community and go to the city. There was a degree of mourning in that.
I also have this line about learning later that portraiture had everything to do with human notions of what a soul was. I made the choice when I was a teen to look at myself – to really deeply look at myself – which I don’t think people always do. And I think in that choice there was something in my writing life that began.
DF: How old were you when that happened?
BRB: I was probably about 13 or 14.
DF: That’s younger than I was expecting. Do you feel a sense, as an Indigenous person living under settler colonialism, of writing towards any sort of global indigeneity? Because for me, I think settler colonialism tells you – part of the trick it plays – is to say, “This is all you’ll ever know. This is life, since time immemorial.” Because it has to tell itself that story.
BRB: In terms of writing with a sense of global indigeneity in mind, I think I thought continentally, perhaps specifically across Canada and the US. Although the settler projects are quite different in these two countries, the structure operates in a similar way.
In my first book there’s a suite of poems called the ‘Oxford Journal’. In one I write about how Cornel West says that there are moments in which we cannot escape the normative gaze of the white man. The normative gaze of the white man is the air you breathe; it makes a jail of your lungs. This is what it is to live in existential limbo.
I really did feel like I was in some kind of existential limbo. I felt like an empty signifier, and I refuse to exist as an empty signifier for people, for white people, for British people. And that meant that I wouldn’t assimilate – that I would be an outsider of sorts.
There’s a general disavowal of native life in the United States public awareness, which is nowhere near where it is in Canada. When I go there, I do feel a similar sense of invisibility as I did in the UK, though they’re obviously fundamentally different. I’m interpellated in the US as a kind of ethnic other, you know, brown, which carries more cultural and political intensity than it does in the UK.
Perhaps it’s because of my foreignness to the United States that I actually feel like I’m arriving into a kind of solidarity by virtue of the severity of racial violence in the US. I also feel more vulnerable there. There’s a precarity that I take on. It could be a symptom of the degree of news that comes out of the US about racism and white supremacy.
But Canada, as I write in the book, is often cast as this ‘liberal kin’ of the United States that does everything with more care and with a sense of social welfare. And though we do have much better systems of social welfare here [in Canada] than in the US, just this week there’s been a barrage of news.
There was a brutal attack on a Muslim family. A 20-year-old white man murdered four or five family members. Last week, they found a mass grave of 215 Indigenous kids who had attended residential schools in the 20th century.
Canada, for decades now, has spun this narrative of moral goodness. Probably by contrasting itself to the US, which is much more bear-faced about its tactics of cruelty. In high school, you learn about Canada’s ‘peacekeeping global identity’. That’s what you’re taught in social studies.
Not about the various systemic acts of oppression against various marginalised populations from the beginning, from before Confederation into the present. And a lot of us Indigenous writers here have to write against that erasure and that silence and disavowal.
Something I didn’t want to do with this book – which some other writers feel called on to do, and I respect that they do – was introduce a non-educated public to the history of Indigenous life and politics, going over various documents and historical events.
I thought, what if I just begin not at the beginning but right in the thick of it? And care about readers who already understand the context, [as well as] other Indigenous readers and folks who come to the conversation from a poetic and theoretical place?
DF: I see that so much in Australian publishing, where memoirs of refugees, First Nations peoples, are always heavily journalistic.
There’s this mode of, “Let me tell you my life in a very socio-political, memoir, journalistic-type way.” Whereas, as you say, when you read the theorists you read in university, it’s like, “Let me start with joy, let me start with disturbance, let me just start with what is troubling me right now. If you want to read about me, go and read the paper.”
As you say, you can read all that stuff, and it seems so wasteful to see an industry like publishing – I mean, I see being published as such a joy and a privilege – for it to just continually be reiterating what you can read in the paper. To not start with the poetry, or the joy, or the disturbance.
BRB: I agree that that is a part of it. I consider my work to have a social critique element, but I think it’s problematic when the framework of our literature, being seen as social work, is imposed or expected or becomes a publishing norm, while work outside of that vein is seen as too illegible or experimental.
In Canada, certainly in the US as well and perhaps also in the UK from what I can tell – I’m not sure about Australia – it’s clear that a relatively small cadre of people are determining what books are published. I think for a while that wasn’t necessarily something that was talked about.
This small cadre was, predominantly, shockingly white and cisgender. And I think that part of the something that needs to be urgently considered going forward from all those who participate in publishing, is that we want our literature, our Indigenous literature, to be diverse and polyphonic. Both knowable and unknowable, legible and illegible.
We want multiple literatures and literary traditions, and we don’t want to be homogenised. And I think part of that means reclaiming some of that power as writers. I don’t know if that’s been totally permitted in the publishing world.
DF: I think my last question would have to be about the section of the book where you talk about the titles of novels you have tried to write so far: Critical Race Theory, The Museum of Political Depression, A Beast of Burden is a Beast Nonetheless, Bad Lover, It’s Lonely to Be Alive!
That last is my favourite, by the way. I believe you’re currently working on a novel: which of these titles might be most applicable to that novel?
BRB: The novel does not have any of those titles, unfortunately. It’s called A Minor Chorus.
DF: Okay, I still like It’s Lonely to Be Alive!, but go on.
BRB: For sure, I didn’t even actually consider that as a title. But those are sincerely all novel attempts that ended up having to be deserted or reappropriated.
DF: They’re all actual novels?
BRB: Yeah, five different novels.
DF: I want to read all of them.
BRB: The Museum of Political Depression was supposed to be about the criminalisation of Indigenous protest. Canada had introduced a security bill that allowed for the classification of some Indigenous protest as terrorism, and I wanted to write something about that. But I couldn’t quite get it right, and it’s still something that I’m thinking about.
And then It’s Lonely to be Alive!, that was one of the cases where I gave something a title and then wrote, like, a page or two. A lot of my attempts to write were autobiographical novels that I ended up putting in A Minor Chorus and A History of my Brief Body.
DF: Tell me about A Minor Chorus.
BRB: It’s also a slim book. It’s about a queer Indigenous doctoral student who deserts his dissertation and writes a novel instead, or attempts to write a novel. I wanted to write a novel of ideas because, you know, Indigenous writers weren’t necessarily empowered to do so.
It’s a series of conversations with various folks from where I grew up in northern Alberta, about how to live; how we resist structures without knowing that we’re doing that or without having the language to vocalise that. The protagonist tries to become a kind of a mediator, co-theorising essentially.
DF: Why fiction? Was there more freedom in that?
BRB: Yeah, I felt like I could say things that I couldn’t say in nonfiction. I could write from outside my subjectivity, without feeling like I’m betraying a loved one.
Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, Declan Fry has written for The Guardian, Saturday Paper, Overland, Australian Book Review, Liminal, Sydney Review of Books, Cordite, Kill Your Darlings, Westerly and elsewhere. His Meanjin essay Justice for Elijah or a Spiritual Dialogue With Ziggy Ramo, Dancing received the 2021 Peter Blazey Fellowship and he has been shortlisted for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. He lives on unceded Wurundjeri country with his partner and their cat, Turnip.