Joshua Badge sits down with Driftpile Cree Nation writer, poet and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt for a conversation that covers (among much else) colonialism, revolution, rural life, truth, sex, joy, and his new collection of essays, A History of My Brief Body.
J: So I knew from the opening pages that I would enjoy the book because you dedicate it to ‘those for whom utopia is a rallying call’. That’s how I came to see it: as a call to arms, a dream about a world beyond the haunted house of the settler state, as you call it.
BR: After reading Jose Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, I’m always thinking about utopia. Not as a destination that we eventually end up in but rather as something in everyday habits… the minor ways that we care for one another, perform our politics, relate to loved ones, friends and co-conspirators that suggest the present isn’t all there is.
For Queer people, Indigenous people, people of colour, I think that’s our shared motto: the present isn’t all there is. With the essays, I wanted to show the depravity of the present and the terror it unleashes, as well as the possibility of a world without those terrors.
J: The present isn’t all there is—I sure as hell hope not! This points to the central demand of the book, which is to radically remake the world. The essays accomplish this by revealing different intersections of domination.
BR: The books’ first proposition is that Indigenous peoples not live in a condition of suffering and not be haunted by the atrocities of the long 20th century. But further to that, I also think of Indigenous sovereignty, what it looks like when it’s not stymied by settler states, like Canada or Australia.
What would it look like in the Canadian context, for example, for reserves to be places where we have adequate health infrastructure, where we have culturally safe education, where there’s clean drinking water? Where the promise of human rights is actually extended fully to Indigenous people?
But another thread throughout the book is about, as you’ve already mentioned, those who live at the intersection of gender and race and sexuality and class. I call sub-textually for a theory that begins with the doubly or the triply marginalised.
In particular, the essay on the so-called suicide epidemic in Indigenous communities, where it’s anecdotally known that a lot of those who attempt suicide or do end up taking their own lives are LGBTQ. I think one of the most urgent ways to address colonialism is by centring Queer and trans Indigenous youth and Two-Spirit youth.
J: That was the essay that I had in mind, talking about those intersections. On that point, while the book grapples with distressing experiences, you forward the idea that poetry can act as a space for grief, that it counters destruction.
BR: When I think about poetry as a revolutionary possibility, I think about Audrey Lorde’s essay ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’ where she spells out a program for revolution by way of Black feminists poetics. There’s a quality of light in our poems, and that has something to do with the way poetry is diametrically opposed to how states utilise language.
The experience of Indigenous life is, in many ways, determined by state language. We’ve been called so many things over the years, and documents like the Indian Act in Canada delineate the possibilities and impossibilities for Indigenous life. Poetry runs counter to those impositions and gives us a space to be brave and to imagine otherwise.
A refrain that runs through my writing is that a country is an unbeautiful thing. Canada is not a space of beauty because of the terror and violence required to maintain itself but poetry is about beauty. Poetry can be, should be anti-state if it’s not co-opted by the neoliberal machine.
J: While we’re on writing, you rebelled against the description of your writing as ‘simple’ as a kind of negation grounded in Whiteness, which adverts to what ‘simplicity’ does to the work of minoritised people.
BR: When my first book came out, there was a high profile review in a national magazine. The thesis was that the book is effective because it is simple, that it eschews aesthetic complexity. Though that’s not fundamentally a bad thing, it immediately turned me off because for decades, the way that colonial publics have understood Indigenous literature and art more generally is through this optic of simplicity.
They see in our work not as rigorous contestations of the status quo or the present or the state itself but rather a purely emotional act. Anyone who thinks critically about systems of race and radicalisation would understand that the application of a descriptor like ‘simple’ does a lot of work. It is a piece of the larger colonial order.
I wanted to write a book that had difficult sentences and took up difficult ideas. I was scared of being roped into this culture of reading in which Indigenous books become opportunities for White people to feel better about themselves. I thought one way to do one way to avoid that is to be theoretical.
J: You’ve preempted my next thought. One thing that stood out for me is that you don’t hold the reader’s hand, which I adore because it expects something of them. There’s a high degree of assumed knowledge and philosophy for a settler public, potentially making it less consumable.
BR: Yeah, I didn’t feel that I had to do the kind of background historicisation that much Indigenous nonfiction work does. I was writing for Queer Indigenous poets and grad students and those who find, in theory, another kind of language for inhabiting the world. If the book can resonate outward from there, yeah, I would be happy with that.
J: You write in one essay that the experience of being a gay man in rural Canada is that of ’a stampede of horses in a cul de sac’ which is a metaphor that floored me. As a Queer who grew up rurally, it’s haunted me for weeks. I keep thinking about it when I’m doing the dishes or in the shower [BR laughs].
In a tangential way, it reminded me of what Ocean Vuong says about how queerness saved him, how it made him a better person. I keep coming back to this metaphor of queerness and freedom.
BR: I’m always thinking about rural life. I grew up in an incredibly small community and in northern Canada, where there are so few queer people and their horizons of possibility are narrowed.
The book I’m working on now, which is fiction inspired by my own emotional history, takes place in northern Alberta and Canada. There’s a character who is a Queer man who doesn’t ever really end up coming out, and for whom grief and sadness become the ways that his queerness registers in the world… there’s something incredibly tragic about that.
J: I love this idea of ‘emotional history’. The Australian copy of your book is labelled a memoir, but in North America, it’s billed as a collection of essays. In the opening note, you talk about the tension between ambiguity and veracity, and so I find the idea of an emotional history really intriguing.
BR: Halfway through the writing I realised that I was less beholden to truth as a simple accounting of facts and more beholden to emotional truth. I turned to poetry and theory and away from memoir at some point because I couldn’t see my life as part of a narrative arc.
I felt that I’d lived in such an incredibly fragmented way, and that meant I had to write in fragments. So the book is essentially an emotional history; maybe that’s a better subtitle [both laugh].
J: On turning away from memoir, I found it interesting how you talked about writing as ‘throwing yourself at the page’. I can identify with that. Every time I sit down to write, I feel like I forget how to do it [BR laughs]. Was there a cost to writing something like Brief Body, I wonder, or was it a release?
BR: Probably both. When I wrote that line I was thinking about how literary festival attendees related to me in a way that suggested an intimacy with me that is not actually there.
There’s always the risk of confirming long-held stereotypes and tropes in your declarations of trauma or racism. You can’t escape miscomprehension. And I don’t think the answer is to fully withhold our stories of suffering and sadness because I think they reach the shores of whoever needs them.
But I remember the week before the book was published in the US. I was in bed at midnight or something, and I was suddenly alert to the fact that I [BR laughs nervously] discuss incredibly personal aspects of my life [J laughs] and was suddenly very anxious about that [both laugh]. It was shocking because I was like, ‘I never… this never occurred to me’.
J: I can think of some of the things you’re thinking of… it makes total sense. Didion talks about how, when you write, it’s almost as if to a void. You’re always wondering if anyone is actually listening. So that realisation that people will read that book you just published with very sensitive information is… I don’t know if comic is the right word?
BR: Yeah, it’s almost like when the curtain comes up, but you’ve already said everything [Both laugh].
J: I also agree with what you said about writing trauma. As someone who’s had more than a few traumatic experiences, it feels unfair to say, ‘we can’t tell this kind of story anymore’. I’m left wondering, ‘okay, where do I put all of this?’
Relatedly, at the end of one essay, you mention the biopower of slurs—that disciplining of the body—and how racialised or minoritised people internalise that exercise of majoritarian power. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
BR: Yeah, I mean, I was gonna say I feel like writing is one way of putting it down, we put it down on the page literally [J laughs]. But it’s more complicated than that… the truth is that many people don’t know how to work through it.
We have all these ways of suppressing trauma, but that’s one of the most important uses of literature. I can think of countless times when reading something set in the realm of my experience allowed for momentary freedom, a connection or an opportunity to acknowledge my own complexity.
J: Connection in the form of desire, intimacy and sex are themes that recur throughout many of the essays. There’s a moment that I thought was philosophically interesting, where you don a jockstrap at a hookup’s request. It’s an instance of racial fetishisation where you nevertheless feel like an erotic being.
We’re familiar with the feminist understanding of objectification. Philosophically, though, there is a kind that we desire. When I put on a jockstrap, I want to be the object of someone’s sexual desire—that’s the whole point. This is a difficult space for racialised people to navigate, to put it mildly.
BR: Right. Something I learned from feminist theory was that marginalisation can itself be an erotic event. Indigenous feminists have very elegantly and powerfully articulated the sexual component of colonial conquests.
As a young, Queer, Indigenous person in a conservative space like Edmonton, it was apparent to me that the ways men, especially White men, could engage with me were over-determined by those by those scripts, the erotics of race and racism.
And so, the possibility of any kind of transformative intimacy was written off from the start… there’s like a world-shattering quality to that [Both laugh].
J: How disappointing.
BR: Yeah. That experience of the world-shattering is one of the currents that compelled me to write in the first place. But I do think that what Indigenous feminists have also taught us is that love can be an anti-colonial force in the world.
When I think about love, I always think about Lauren Berlant’s interview where they said that love is one of the few places where, maybe, we want to be different, we want to be changed. That felt to me like an incredibly anti-colonial position.
J: That’s fascinating! You titled that essay ‘Loneliness in the Age of Grinder’, which I love because those things are so synonymous. In it, you write how the big secret about sex is that most people don’t enjoy it. And yet, hookup apps are ubiquitous among men who have sex with men and other queer people. So what are we all looking for on there?
BR: Part of how the apps work is by refusing to offer an answer. They don’t want to tell us what we’re looking for because when we realise it’s not there, they’ll be obsolete. There’s a line in one of my poems where I say what I want from love is what I want from revolution…
I always tell my students: we have to allow ourselves to be deeply serious about the liberatory possibilities of writing poetry. I was deeply serious about ‘liberatory possibility’ [both laugh], and Grindr couldn’t express that. It’s the bad kind of objectification but the apps were the only place I could go [BR chuckles].
J: That essay is also about sex and contagion. It was viscerally frustrating to read your experience of medical stigma and the inaccessibility of post-exposure prophylaxis. At the same time, the language struck me as less considered than the rest of the book. The protagonist uses terms like ‘infected’ and ‘clean’, for example.
BR: That was a difficult essay to write. The events of the essay took place when I was 19 or 20, and it’s partly about how I internalised the stigma that continues to dominate public conceptions of Queer sex. It’s been a source of criticism but that’s the language that I used at the time, that I was conscripted into. So there’s a truthfulness in maintaining that in the essay, to show my own implication and end up critiquing it.
J: While we’re on the topic of fucking: in another essay, you conjure the image of a man face down, ass up in your bed, a ‘monument to shame and therefore godly’, you write. I find that association between submission and religiosity absolutely fascinating.
I recently joked to a friend, what is religion if not subbing for God? [BR chuckles] You know, there’s a sense of spirituality in a lot of Queer practice, dance floors and beats feel can feel sacred, holy even.
BR: There’s something to be said about surrendering oneself to an ideal. I have another line in my first book where I say, I’m the kind of hopeless romantic who wants every blow job to be transformative [J laughs], maybe in the way that a churchgoer wants every service to change her life.
But at that moment in the essay, I was trying to show the ways that these supposedly contestatory concepts exist in a singular moment. That something like shame and devotion can co-constitute one another.
J: There’s something to that. When I reflect on my own experiences in darkrooms or beats, they feel like moments of transcendence and connection. I can only assume it’s something like what people of faith feel in communion.
Maybe it’s the vulnerability of existing in what is constructed as a shameful position… the honesty of inhabiting that moment, a release from the ego which creates an uplifting feeling. I don’t know; I’m just spitballing.
BR: I think some great theories have been had in this conversation. How have we ended up here? [Both laugh].
J: Moving from sex to love, in one opening essay you say that loving someone means being prepared for them to devastate you. You say that in the context of your family’s reaction to your coming out, but it also seems applicable to many kinds of romantic and sexual relationships.
That’s a pretty bleak view but I have to confess it’s one that I share. Does that stem from a Queer experience? Or are we just pessimists?
BR: We all know that love is devastating. Love can be devastating. The absence of love or the refusal of love is devastating. We all know this but we seek out love all the same. That seems to run counter to scripts of individualism and the politics of Man with a capital ‘M’.
What is shared amongst Queer people and racialised people is how we wound one another in minor ways, everyday ways, that shouldn’t exist in a relation of love but do nonetheless, because we are human and make mistakes, and we hurt one another, and we’re desperate and selfish and all those things.
J: … and anxious and self-conscious and insecure and all of the other pleasant things that come with being a hairless ape on a rock floating through space [BR laughs].
In the last essay, you suggest that First Nations peoples and Queers and Indigenous Queers share typography of pain and trauma but also (and this is the crucial bit) of love and hope. Survival is the name of the game but the essays repeatedly come back to joy.
BR: To me, what’s striking about joy is that it exists under conditions of intense duress. Rarely, in circumstances where state violence rears its head, is joy non-existent. That we are joyful reveals the impossibility of total conquest or oppression.
Indigenous people are often associated with words and emotions like despair, and sadness, and deficiency. Those are anti-joy concepts, so to centre the narrative in joy is to centre our desire for freedom as Indigenous people. To desire freedom is joyful, and joy always makes a demand of freedom.
J: This has been a pleasure, thanks for sitting down to chat.
Joshua Badge (they/them) is a Queer non-binary writer, poet and philosopher living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. Their writing has featured in Junkee, Meanjin, Overland, Pedestrian and the Guardian and their poetry has appeared in Cordite and Going Down Swinging. Joshua lectured in philosophy at Deakin University for several years and, more recently, taught literary theory at Swinburne.
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 long-listed 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.
Photograph of Billy-Ray by Tenille Campbell.