Billy-Ray Belcourt explores the possibilities of decolonial love.
by Claudia Mazzilli
The problem is that I love you. The problem is that I’m in love while bound at the ankles to a country.
Billy-Ray Belcourt, Canadian poet from the Driftpile Cree Nation (in northern Alberta), in A History of My Brief Body composes an original memoir, which disrupts the norms of heteropatriarchal writing, alternating short autobiographical stories, family memories, news stories, theoretical arguments on gender, race, class, personal comments or quotations taken from important texts of feminist and decolonial poetry and thought (Judith Butler, Maggie Nelson, José Esteban Muñoz, Audra Simpson, Ocean Vuong, Claudia Rankine, Christopher Soto and many more).
Billy-Ray Belcourt “embodies” his queer and indigenous gaze on the world. And the body is short, because before and after, above and below all around it is surrounded by a history of domination. But Billy does not want to bow to “political depression” (a category borrowed from Ann Cvetkovich) or to the mystifications of the colonizers (who built their rhetoric of progress and equality on the lands of native peoples). Billy never tires of devising ways to “inhabit imperilled bodies in a shrinking world in which we don’t remember how to coexist without stymying collective flourishing”: he wants to write and live without giving up shouting utopia, without ceasing to sing the beauty and joy learned from his mother, nôhkom (grandmother) and the entire community of natives confined to the reservations: because joy is “an ethics of Resistance”.
Peppered with references to Sheila Heti, Motherhood (published in Italy by Sellerio and already reviewed by Lunàdigas), A History of my brief body, while subjecting to critical review the entire white supremacist paradigm with all its binary antinomies (male-female; black-white; colonizer-colonized; rich-poor…), does not even idealize the indigenous community and deconstructs the myth of forced motherhood/fatherhood, rooted also among the natives, whose culture has been polluted and tampered with by Christianization and in general by the normative system of colonizers:
“Maybe I spoke too soon. I remember the worrisome responses from a number of relatives upon the declaration of my queerness. Despite establishing in clear yet sparse wording that their happiness was contingent on my happiness, there was also a fog of grief. This was the grief of childlessness. In my vocalization of a non-normative sexual identity, they heard too a disavowal of futurity, that I had relocated permanently to a land emptied of fathers, one inhospitable to the customs of fatherhood. Perhaps in those seconds and minutes I became less like them, less theirs, less bound up in the ticking time bomb of social reproduction, so less beholden to the continuation of a name, a history. In the quiet variations of tone and tempo I heard the world rearrange in their minds. I watched their language ache and falter as I myself ached and faltered.”
The act of coming out is no longer subversive. Best left in the previous century, Billy admits. The umpteenth narration seems superfluous. Yet “Much of being a gay man in rural Canada is still the experience of being a stampede of horses in an enclosed cul-de-sac. The horses are invisible and translucent, but the pain of galloping through walls and furniture and fences is acute.”
Between short episodes of a love apprenticeship that takes place on Grindr and other gay dating apps (which redouble the tight space of the reservation, replicating the sense of oppression, the segregated vitality and the siege of hetero-patriarchal conventions, the fear of HIV infection, the frustration for loves wasted by the omnivorous consumerism of the apps’ fleeting encounters, disposable loves colonized by the logic of liberal capitalism, in which each body is immediately usable and replaceable merchandise or, as we read, “a series of mistakes that led me to dating a swath of white men who teetered between two poles: fetishization and colour-blindness”), between theoretical digressions and introspective pages, close to the art of prose and real poetry, these new “fragments of a lover’s discourse” take shape (the reference to Roland Barthes is explicit).
A “love speech” but also a “political speech”, which in the last chapters leads to the account of the Canadian judicial chronicles (trials in which there is always an all-white jury) and to the account of the numerous cases of collective suicide of natives: eleven suicide attempts in the indigenous community of Attawapiskat on April 9, 2016; one hundred and forty suicide attempts in the first Cross Lake Nation of Manitoba on March 9, 2016. “Political” suicides, caused by a double or triple stigmatization: not only racism but also homophobia and transphobia – removed from the public debate on suicide crises, which have very often involved people from the LGBTQ universe – to which it is added the material suffering of a life in inadequate housing and in a natural environment continuously violated. Suicides that are a voluntary exile from a State that considers (and wants) extinct the natives, without assuming any responsibility, with carelessness, removing an ancient history of occupation and oppression, with a “selective historical amnesia”. It is no coincidence that the text continuously uses the acronym NDN (Not Dead Native), an acronym born online as a reaction to the Western stereotype that represents natives as deceased or on the verge of extinction. Death hangs over the individual, racialized communities, the planet and ecosystems devastated by the white man, the “Sad Reaper” capable only of destruction and self-destruction.
“To go about the drudgery of the day, I have to at least marginally play dead to white anger and white sovereignty and white hunger and white forgiveness and white innocence (…) Until today, I railed against the grisly fate reserved for men like me. I’m an anachronism in the way that all queer men are anachronisms – far too early. ”
But Billy does not give up, does not retreat into moaning: “NDN youth, listen: Please keep loving.” “We haven’t had time to hang our grief up to dry, for the mourning is never-ending”, however poetry has the task of coining a new language, of freeing the energies of the imagination from the signifiers of inevitability and overwhelm, of saying yes to life. Billy considers it “an ecology of creativity”, projected into the future. Far beyond, much further than those who generate children.