A HISTORY OF MY BRIEF BODY, essays by Billy-Ray Belcourt, reviewed by Christina Ghent

A History of My Brief Body, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, July 2020. 142 pages. $11.99, paper.

History has traditionally been written by those who have the privilege to write it. Archives are created and maintained by those same people in power who can write their own narrative and the narrative for those they have conquered. Monarchies seeking to expand their power colonized places in the name of the throne and declared that they were in the right. They wrote their story on top of the existing narrative, declared themselves the victor, and set a system in place to maintain their position. Those who are conquered have their voices suppressed, their agency stripped from them, and their very being prescribed to them by those who write the new historical record. Billy-Ray Belcourt is a voice of the colonized, oppressed, and easily discarded members of a modern day colonial Canada. He provides an alternate view and deconstructs the historical record that resides in the museums and minds of a society that has provided an inaccurate and harmful record.

A History of My Brief Body is more than just a simple collection of nonfiction essays; it is a nuanced, careful, and full examination of the harmful and fatal effects of a history of colonization and systematic oppression that bends the genre of nonfiction into a theoretical and poetical telling of a personal and racial and sexual historical record. Belcourt is able to give a voice to those who are voiceless and agency to those whose agency has been forcibly taken along with a look toward a future where the borders will be broken and the Native Indian (NDN) voices will be heard once again across the ancestral home stripped from them. A History of My Brief Body is not only an NDN deconstruction of history, but also a coming-of-age of a queer NDN, one who learns and hones a philosophy of love that guides him and continues to seek  truth and joy and resistance through art.

Through a philosophy of love that holds up care and the art of making and finding joy, Belcourt examines not only his own life, but that of the NDN who is subject to systematic racism, classism, and repression. Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation, and throughout this work, he celebrates who he is, where he is from, and the future that holds freedom. He uses his art of writing, of poetry, to provide a resistance against colonization and advocates that within each of the essays.

Belcourt introduces us to the person who was pivotal in shaping his philosophy of love: his nôhkom, or grandmother. She taught him a philosophy that was not only of love, but “which is also a theory of freedom.” He recounts the joy she had of just taking care of him, that caring for someone is not a transactional practice, but rather a “cycle of losing and finding, this unending transference of vitality … It is a proposition to nest in the unrepayable and ever-mounting debt of care that stands in opposition to the careless and transactional practices of state power that mire the lives of NDNs and other minoritized populations.” It is through care without debt, without the expectation of payment-in-kind, that freedom can be found. It is in the essay “An NDN Boyhood” where Belcourt looks back to see the philosophy of care amplified by his father. His home provided a “brown space” in which people came and went. The “brown space” his father provided is one that defies the traditional rules of masculinity and instead “dissipates the governing power of the male property-bearer and proliferates space for other forms of life, other ways of togetherness.”

The “shelter for brown life” is further examined in the essay “Loneliness in the Age of Grindr,” which is an examination of the systematic racism against the NDN being. Belcourt examines the use of hook-up apps such as Grindr and his personal and perpetual loneliness cast upon him through a lack of care by the men who use him and the health system who discards him. This essay is an intimate look at how queer NDNs are stripped of their agency and regarded as simply a thing to be used. He discusses how his “body, too brown to be innocent, enflames the nurses’ racialized curiosities” and allows them to dismiss his need for the kind of philosophy of care which would provide him the space to be. Through his personal essay, Belcourt tackles the public health system that not only judges him for his heritage, but also for his sexual preference. A public health system that has been put in place by a government that has hidden him and other NDNs away on reservations in isolation and poverty. A government that has declared a state of emergency against everything he is: queer and NDN and a historical record of colonization. In the current state of Canada, there is no shelter for brown life, only continued repression and misrepresentation. To care is to provide a space for someone else to be.  

A History of My Brief Body is a feminist, decolonialization, postmodern, and queer coming-of-age not only for the author but also for the entire indigenous people of Canada. The author brings us through a nonlinear historical archive, one written both on the page and on the bodies of those who have been subject to colonization and all that colonization entails. But, the book is not only about the past. Belcourt looks to the future, one where he reminds himself and us that “freedom is itself a poetics, in that it seeks to reschematize time, space, and feeling in the direction of a future driven by an ethics of care, a relational practice of joy-making that is all of ours to enact.” The future is not the past. As long as there is the ability to make joy, there is resistance because for Belcourt “Joy is art is an ethics of resistance.”

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Christina Ghent lives and writes in South Carolina where her family has settled down after having lived all over the world. She has received her MA from Winthrop University and continues to hone her craft.

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