Indigi-queer Philosophy 101

Book review by Daniel Gawthrop posted on British Columbia Review on May 28, 2024

coexistence, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, 2024/$27.95 / 9780735242036



Earlier this year, a publicist from Random House Canada emailed The BC Review with an effusive, 500-word testimonial on behalf of a rising young superstar in its ranks. “It goes without saying,” the message began, that “every Billy-Ray Belcourt release manifests as a major event in Canadian publishing.”

Overkill? No doubt. But one can hardly blame the publicist, given Belcourt’s track record.

In just a few years, the Driftpile Cree Nation author has been a finalist or longlisted for seemingly every major literary award in Canada. He won last year’s BC Book Prize for his first novel, A Minor Chorus, and the 2018 Griffin Prize for his debut poetry collection, This Wound is a World. A Rhodes scholar now employed at UBC as an assistant professor of Indigenous creative writing, he has received book-of-the-year kudos from both mainstream media (CBC, The Globe and Mail) and the queer lit world (the Lambdas, etc).

And all this before reaching the age of thirty.

If coexistence is any indication, it appears there is nothing that Belcourt can’t do. This first collection of short stories suggests a writer at the top of his game: fully in control of his voice, confident of his reach, and utterly fearless. Among the ten stories the range in subject matter, richness in detail, and generosity of spirit are impressive. So, too, is the author’s fiercely independent queer sensibility, which combines a sharp critical instinct with refreshing candour about sex—whether of the shameful and disappointing or joyfully erotic (and hot) variety.

Belcourt explores the idea of coexistence through various types of relations. In the two stories bookending the collection, it’s between a mother and son separated by their respective fortunes. Louise, who grew up in residential school and remains on the res, wanted only a better life for Paul, the first family member to earn a post-secondary degree. But since his move to the city, their distance from each other has been more than just geographical. In “one woman’s memories,” the long widowed Louise bridges the gap during a phone call when she reveals to Paul that her first love was a woman—thus becoming a new person in his eyes. In “various people,” Paul is separated from his wife Julia when he visits the dying Louise and reflects on “the distance between who he is and who he could have been.”

In “lived experience,” the narrator Tom abandons casual dating app sex with white male strangers in favour of deeper connection with a fellow Indigenous artist, Will. Later, he’s confronted by the presence of someone important to Will’s career who he previously encountered during a soul depleting hook-up. In “literary festival,” we are relieved by the narrator’s decision not to indulge Luke, an enthusiastic fan of his poetry who shows up at one of his readings. Luke transforms into a stalking menace, even locating his idol’s hotel room in a final desperate attempt to fuck him. (And this after a dispiriting encounter with a wealth-obsessed novelist who tells him he’s never met a poet who has “lived off” his poems.)

Author Billy-Ray Belcourt

There is more than a hint of the autobiographical in some of these stories—the narrator as touring author/academic. But Belcourt is sufficiently conversant in New Narrative, as well as other postmodern and Indigenous storytelling traditions, to render the fiction/non-fiction binary irrelevant. His stated creative purpose, expressed in different ways throughout the collection, is to account for what has changed in settler/Indigenous relations over the past century while working toward a better world than he inherited. And there are plenty of characters unlike, too.

In the pandemic love story “outside,” Jack is just out of prison on a drug charge. He is eager to reassure his “Kokum” (Cree for grandmother) Mary of his rehabilitation, and his old schoolmate Lucy of his worthiness as a lover. This story is a tender and convincing account of hetero love and the universal “ache to be alive.” In “summer research,” the main character housesits at the family home while his parents are away, uneasy about its history as the living quarters for nuns who ran a residential school. He gets a measure of satisfaction—as do recovering Roman Catholic readers—when he visits the local Catholic church and decides to attend confession. (Turning this ritual on its head, he reframes the confessional’s terms, interrogating the priest about the Church’s role in colonial violence—thus rejecting the mandatory self-subjugation that confession requires of the faithful.)

The remaining stories reflect this same quiet confidence, of Indigenous characters who are not traumatized but learn from every compromising situation they face. In “sex lives: an anonymous chorus,” the narrator contemplates a series of flings with men he will never see again, regarding each as worthwhile in its own way (“I decided that if I were to desire and be desired, it would come at some cost, there would be some act of forfeiture”). “young adults” explores the evolving relationship of two young artists as domesticity sets in, when “banality acquires its own form of meaningfulness.” In “my diary” (“the ur-text that puts my previous art works into context”), the narrator writes convincingly of his thirties in the past tense.

* * *

With his body of work to date, Belcourt has pulled off a high wire act that many a lesser writer struggle to achieve: being both creative artist and scholar who not only “gets” different audiences but writes without the jargon of academic-speak hijacking his literary prose. (At least, not often. While coexistence contains occasional lapses—using “architect” as a verb, rhapsodizing about the “idiom of beauty” that is a lover’s body, etc—Belcourt employs much ironic humour about quasi-academic affectation or pretension. (In “poetry class,” the narrator notes ex-lover S.’s contention that he is “overly seduced by theoretical paradigms.”)

For any literary writer in this country—never mind an Indigenous one—the burden of addressing the legacies of anti-Indigenous racism and colonialism in fiction is to create characters and situations that aren’t weighed down with predictable didacticism or polemics. Throughout coexistence, Belcourt meets this challenge by engaging his readers with original insight. This is a writer equally at home describing the beauty and global importance of the boreal forest and citing Virginia Woolf in defence of writerly independence.

As a philosopher, Belcourt sheds light on the struggle to co-exist with white Grindr tricks, lazy tenured professors, commercially successful novelists, and creepy fans. Their behaviour is problematic not only for its unconscious bigotry but also for its compromised ethics. Seeking better human relations, Belcourt is weary of behaviour that reduces everything to the lowest common denominator—whether it’s an opportunistic quickie in the conference men’s room, the cowardly failure to include colonialism studies as course material, or opting for easy cash over artistic integrity to reach a film deal. The question becomes: how to create more mutual awareness from these encounters?

In “lived experience,” Belcourt’s narrator repeats the phrase “geographical violence of colonialism” to interrogate its possibilities. An elder has told him that the river is still the best way to traverse the city and connect with the land’s ancestors. But instead he finds himself on a train above that land, “suspended in a kind of disembodied space with people who don’t look at one another.” Then he pivots: It occurs to me that one also has to love despite the geographical violence of colonialism. I want to love in a way that has geographical consequences. Can love undermine a settler state? It’s likely that my happiness depends on it.

This is not hollow New Age sentiment but subversive agency. The will to choose love—compassion, empathy, patience—over judgement and hate, while continuing to interrogate, is a theme running through all these stories. It’s what will keep readers going back to Belcourt again and again.