In his highly anticipated memoir, Billy-Ray Belcourt – the youngest winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize – proves yet again his astonishing linguistic precision and beauty. Reimagining the form and structure of a conventional memoir, Belcourt masterfully documents memories, encounters, reflections, and dreams in hybrid form, ranging from short paragraphs to lists to longer expositions. Despite the stylistic variety, A History of My Brief Body displays a pervading lucidity, akin to dreaming while standing wide awake, feet firmly on the soil.
Belcourt’s academic rigour remains intact even when describing his most personal encounters. He layers into the writing complexities of meaning so rich they sometimes require rereading, and he grounds his vulnerability with turns of phrase both jarring and jewelled: “Gender is what’s heard when wind touches glass. Remember: by the time sound reaches the flesh, innumerable bursts of light have already shot through us.”
Over the course of the book, the author delves deep into the well of loneliness, enjambing the personal with the political and harkening to their inextricable link. He recalls, in heartbreaking detail, the ways in which intimacy is denied and granted in his most euphoric and anxiety-riddled sexual encounters. He also explores the ways in which his humanity is denied, at one point recounting the words of a white woman who, unprovoked, begs him not to kill himself (at his book launch, no less). Elsewhere, he relates experiences dating white men who viewed him with artificial colour-blindness or exotic fetishization.
In contrast to these prejudiced or dehumanizing poses, Belcourt invites us to witness the fullness of his being, freed from the narrow eyes of the White Gaze and conscious of the challenge in writing about his life without his identity becoming commodified: “To my mind, one of the most vital modalities of decolonial life is that of remaining unaddressable to a settler public that feasts on our misery. Most of the time, writing a book seems incompatible with this.” One of the most refreshing elements of A History of My Brief Body is Belcourt’s awareness of his purpose and place as a writer. He points the compass of his writing life in many directions of inquiry, from responding to the words of fellow authors and contemporaries to exploring his own choices.
The book is also a fascinating exploration of the impact of colonialism in all its ramifications: the ways it is encountered in the heart, body, and mind; the ways it infiltrates daily life and relationships; the ways in which it needs to be resisted; and the ways it persists as living history. At a time of public reckoning focused on increased awareness of police brutality, Belcourt reminds us that this is an ever-present reality for a racialized individual: “I have a phobia of the police. How could I trust he who disavowed personhood to instead be a gun? He who is bullets rather than an organism capable of nurturance?”
In the preface, Belcourt writes a letter to his kokum, stating, “I need to honour the intimacies of the unwritten.” And how beautifully he does.