Book Review: A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt

A History of My Brief Body – Billy-Ray Belcourt (Hamish Hamilton, 2020)

It’s clear from the beginning that this is not going to be a gentle book. Right away in his Preface: A Letter to Nôhkom, Belcourt says,

“Nôhkom, I’m not safe. Canada is still in the business of gunning down NDNs…Despite the stories of progress and equality at the core of Canada’s national identity, a long tradition of brutality and negligence is what constitutes kinship for the citizens of a nation sat atop the lands of older, more storied ones.”

– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 23 of e-book)

As white Canadians, we don’t like to hear things like this. We like, instead, to point at other countries (Hi America!) and say, Well, we’re better than some! We’re not that bad! It is uncomfortable to have a light shone on our national flaws.

The cover of this e-book declares A History of My Brief Body to be a memoir but I think this is slightly misleading. At least, it’s not the full story. While Belcourt does share some of his own history and several intimate scenes from his life, the book as a whole felt more like a collection of essays rather than a life story following a straightforward timeline.

What Belcourt shares of himself is the navigation of life as both an Indigenous person in Canada and as a gay man. Belcourt examines how this affects him, how it “others” him from the world around him.

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.

– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 92 of e-book)

Belcourt writes painfully of his danger in both roles. Both as someone who others see to be dangerous and as someone who is at a higher risk of experiencing violence. It’s a painful reminder of the inherent danger that so many live with.

Something that really stuck out to me was a section where Belcourt discusses the 2018 trial of Gerald Stanley, a white man, for the murder of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man. Stanley was acquitted by an all-white jury. Like many Canadians, I followed the case and the trial as it was occurring but did so at a distance. When reading Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and now reading Belcourt, it was clear how differently their experience of watching that acquittal was. This was not an impersonal or distanced case but deeply personal, deeply heartbreaking. Both Belcourt and Elliott have strong, visceral reactions to the news of Stanley’s acquittal.

At the same time, Belcourt explores a recurring theme of beauty, of a search for beauty, for utopia. A poet, Belcourt writes:

On the one hand, poetry did nothing to prevent Colten’s death or the subsequent and dizzying display of juridical violence in Battleford. On the other hand, poetry made room for me to grieve.

– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 232 of e-book)

Similarly, Belcourt expresses the power of poetry to share beauty and grief when talking about the Pulse nightclub shooting or the targeting of gay men in New York by a serial killer.

Today, I read and write for beauty, and live so as to disappear.

– Billy-Ray Belcourt, “A History of My Brief Body” (pg 63 of e-book)

There is a lot in this book and as someone who carries the privilege of white skin, I struggled with it at certain points but in the end hope to amplify Belcourt’s words and draw attention to where we as a nation need to change and do better.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt”

  1. It’s so wild to think of a trial dealing with a hate-crime murder with the eyes of the nation upon it. It seems like most hate crimes in the U.S. are committed by police against black men and women, and those people don’t even end up on trial. A white officer in my city shot and killed a black man. He was later fired because the police service learned he’d been having sex with a prostitute on the job. Ugh. They dug more into his past and learned that when he was first hired, other officers noted that this guy constantly asked about “seeing action” while on the job and if officers got to rough people up quite a bit. RED FLAGS EVERYWHERE, and his co-workers did nothing to prevent him from shooting another human. Here’s a bit from the local paper:

    One officer wrote that most of O’Neill’s questions about police work “centered around officers using force,” according to the documents.

    Another reported O’Neill “regularly questioned whether we (officers) had a chance to beat anyone up while working on duty.” A third wrote O’Neill’s most frequently asked question was “have I gotten into any good fights lately.”

    By early 2005, the department’s internal affairs system generated an alert after O’Neill was linked with nine use-of-force cases in the previous year, according to the court documents.

    1. That’s sickening. I can’t believe that someone like that could end up in a position of power and yet I can believe it because it’s way too common.

      This was a very high profile case across the country. Our self-defence laws are, I think, less cut and dry than in the US (at least as I understand it) plus the question of whether Stanley was really in danger or just thought he was plus the perception of an Indigenous person being more dangerous than a white man. Then add on the way the jury was formed to consist of 12 white people, it was a result that was widely condemned but indicative of a lot of the racism in Canada.

    2. Yeeees, that question about real danger vs. perceived danger is real. The reason the case I mentioned from my town got so much attention is because Pete Butteigig, who is from South Bend and was the mayor, was running for president at the time, and folks wanted to point at how this young liberal couldn’t even make a trustworthy police service in his own town, let alone say something about George Floyd and BLM.

    3. I recognize Butteigig’s name but know nothing about him. But yeah, that doesn’t speak well of his leadership skills. Though issues like that are so much bigger than one person. The Stanley trial really highlighted how easy it was to work the system so that it favoured the white man.

    1. That’s a good description of it. It’s also quite densely written and references a lot of other works so there was a lot to absorb but I hope it finds the right readership, especially here in Canada.

  2. This sounds so sad but meaningful. Those quotes are really heart-wrenching. I hadn’t heard of the Stanley trial, but just from what you’ve said here about the all-white jury it really makes one reconsider how our justice systems can fail victims even when playing by the book, and somehow those legal failings always make ongoing social issues seem that much worse (imo). Great review, this sounds like such an important book.

    1. Thanks, sometimes it feels hard to review books such as this that are hard to read but really important at the same time. There is so much that needs to change. The Stanley trial was really a case that drove home how much the justice system fails Indigenous people, even while following all the “rules”.

  3. Your observation that this isn’t really a memoir is an astute one! I felt the same way when I read it, but I never realized why until reading your review. I view him as a poet first and foremost, and his words are just so beautiful and raw, it’s a very powerful way to learn about the male, gay, indigenous experience in Canada.

    1. Apparently the US edition of this book is labelled as essays rather than memoir. So I’m curious what Belcourt would label it as. Or does it need a label? Because it does walk the line between the two. I’ve only read a couple of his poems but you can definitely tell that he’s a poet from the way he writes here.

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