Between climate change, the pandemic, a new civil rights movement and political chaos, alarming predictions of apocalypse have become mainstream. But, as Billy-Ray Belcourt shows in his memoir A History of My Brief Body, the ending of the world “as we know it” is not the end of the world. Belcourt explores his life as a young queer Indigenous scholar navigating academia, sexuality, masculinity and his relationship to the settler-colonial Canadian state. In doing so, he provides a manifesto of Indigenous hope, joy and world-building.
The author of two critically acclaimed poetry collections and the youngest-ever winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, Belcourt writes with heady depth and aching love, bringing us from his childhood home in the Driftpile Cree Nation, to Edmonton and university life, into lovers’ beds and across the ocean to Oxford. As with his poetry, Belcourt’s prose defies convention, using a genre-bending style that blends poetry with social cultural theory to explore his own experience and, by extension, possibilities of Indigenous love and resistance: “I write today on the side of joy, to expand its geographical confines against the tentacular ways that the state and its gruesome history extinguish possibilities in the lives of NDNs.” Belcourt emphasizes the possibility of creating new worlds through what he refers to as “political imagination”—an intellectual act of resistance in which, when we imagine a new world, we challenge, and even change, the one we live in now.
Readers unfamiliar with Canada’s long and dark history of oppression and violence towards Indigenous peoples, as well as social theorists Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, may want to study up before diving into this memoir. Theory plays a major role here, with Belcourt illuminating theoretical ideas through poetic language, providing the reader with a complex view of the ways in which state power impacts all aspects of his life.
In a time when thousands gather at our legislature in support of Black Lives Matter, Belcourt’s vision of an Indigenous future free from colonial constructs and oppression could not be more immediate: “What’s missing or fleeting in the world is evidence of other ways of being, of something dawning, so the onus isn’t to observe a phenomenon as it happens but to chase after a hunch or a half-formed hypothesis that might accumulate into an artifact of a future history. Their keywords include possibility, utopia, futurity, hope and optimism.” Belcourt urges his readers to think against the current status quo, to feel and express joy and to pursue new social and political possibilities, arguing that the end of the settler-colonialist state is only the end of a world, and that we can create a new one.
—Samantha Wesch is a grad student at the University of Alberta.