Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I first met Billy-Ray Belcourt at the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony, where we were finalists in different categories. Billy-Ray was kind, disarming, and, most of all, true to himself. When he won the Canadian prize for This Wound Is a World, his first book, the audience rose in gleeful, ecstatic cheering. Billy-Ray’s acceptance speech began not with a single word but with an open, vulnerable sob. He thanked the women in his family and community for supporting him as he wrote poems that allowed him to be in the world. “It is a world that many of us who are Indigenous did not want. But [this book] was written also to try to bring about a world that we do want, collectively.”
Through his new collection of essays, A History of My Brief Body, I have come to view Billy-Ray as a trusted intellectual and scholar, a prolific creative, and a necessary voice of resistance. “My field of study is NDN freedom,” he writes. “My theoretical stance is a desire for NDN freedom. My thesis statement: Joy is an at once minimalist and momentous facet of NDN life that widens the spaces thinned by structures of unfreedom. I will spend the rest of my life enfleshing this argument.” It was an indescribable joy, and nothing less, to speak with him about this desire, this lifelong argument.
—Layli Long Soldier
Layli Long Soldier Billy-Ray, you know already that one of my favorite topics to talk about is love, which is a unifying thread in your essay collection, A History of My Brief Body. I want to start our conversation with a quote from your book that says, “To love someone is firstly to confess: I am prepared to be devastated by you.” That’s a very hard proposition for me to accept, but I think there’s truth in it.
Billy-Ray Belcourt That line is from the essay “An NDN Boyhood” and tries to get at the paradoxical experience of being deeply loved but also misunderstood. I was thinking about the fundamental alienation you experience when you’re the only queer person in your family. When I was a teenager, it felt as if there was a social script—one that was not unique to but still distinctly rural Albertan—that didn’t allow for the kind of queer love that my body longed for, that my body knew as the shape of desire before my mind did.
We could also think about the calculus of love equals devastation vis-á-vis the ways that systems of oppression, indifference, and cruelty govern the contours of intimate life for Native people, queer people, and queer Native people. Growing up, queer Indigeneity seemed impossible to me because I didn’t see queer Indigenous love in my immediate social world or in literature or media—it was negated. Queer Indigenous love wasn’t even there as a ghostly presence. It was just absent.
LLS Forgive me for this understatement—queer Indigenous love has existed forever. It’s wrenching to think that one would ever need to search for it, its traces, or even its ghost.
BRB The loneliness of the closet, to feel that one will not actualize what one wants and needs the most, is a structuring experience, unfortunately. But I don’t think that love has to be devastating. In certain instances—because of history, because of politics—love can be devastating, and that sometimes feels inevitable because it is so over-determined.
As I was writing this book (the first essay was written in 2015 and the last in late 2018), all of my experiences of love had ended in heartbreak. Those experiences often had to do with the incommensurability of people coming from different places with different values and desires. Their modalities of relating and loving emerged from distinct and, at times, conflicting histories. What often bound us together, or what defined the experience of intimacy, were dating apps. Dating apps operate partly through the racialization and the eroticization of data, but often in different directions. When one is racialized by dating apps one becomes either de-eroticized or fetishized, both of which are forms of marginalization. So there were all these compounding forces that made love seem like a structural impossibility to me. Of course, that outlook would make me pessimistic, whereby I would write a line that conflates love with devastation. (laughter)
LLS Do you feel like you had to leave your family and community in order to find that connection? I’m thinking about the hero’s journey, how one must travel into another world in order to learn about one’s abilities—one’s latent powers. The hero doesn’t abandon their home world but returns with new skills and powers that allow them to function and participate in both worlds. I’m thinking about this in terms of what you experienced as a young person, needing to have that desire fulfilled, even though you couldn’t necessarily name or define that desire.
BRB I think queerness constitutes a definitional problem. It is the conundrum of the embodied self, a self yearning for not just other bodies but a different world. Part of the queer experience is allowing oneself to be moved by that shapeless desire, and a lot can go wrong when you’re pulled by invisible forces toward something that you don’t know.
LLS But in a way aren’t we all? I often feel like I’m a salmon going upstream, and I don’t know why. It’s instinct. I’m being pulled.
BRB Totally. (laughter) There’s something earthly or deeply human about that, as if we’re living in a kind of metaphysical darkness. It’s not exactly darkness, but it can feel that way.
LLS Maybe it’s not always darkness. I like what you said earlier, when you referred to it as an invisible force. Would you say that you were following your instinct?
BRB I knew that the life I wanted to live could not be realized where I grew up. I moved to Edmonton, Alberta at seventeen to start university. Between eighteen and nineteen, I toggled between staying closeted and not staying closeted. I didn’t yet have the emotional intelligence to know that one choice means a life of rotten solitude and the other doesn’t. I was still in that psychic space where a rotten solitude felt livable. Through learning about feminist theory and queer theory, I underwent a process of unlearning and undoing. That finally led me to dating, and, as I detailed in the book, the different kinds of agony that one experiences as a queer Native person when dating. I encountered a series of existential dilemmas. For instance: In order to be with this person, does my Nativeness have to be disappeared or delimited?
LLS Those are big questions to confront.
BRB I hope that most of us as a Native people have an experience where we finally say, “Feeling like I cannot fully be who I am when I’m in a relationship is an act of oppression.” It makes me think of Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk, in which she asks, “What would the world be with us fully in it?” For Native people, what would love look like for us to be fully in it? Early on, I had all these experiences of not being fully in the world, in the world of love. I’m finally in a place where I know what is deleterious and what is nourishing. Unfortunately, one can only come to that place—or at least I only came to that place—after having experienced relationships I couldn’t survive because I was viewed as either a fetish or a compromise. One can’t find a sustainable joy when one is made to live in either of those positions.
LLS In my life, I feel most loved when I feel understood by someone. When I feel seen and understood, there’s an intimacy that it is not a consumption, and I’m able to return a compassionate gaze. As Native people, coming from very particular cultures and communities, that is very important to me. There are some things I cannot compromise anymore or lay at the feet of erasure.
Billy-Ray, I’ve been going crazy over this particular quote from ”A History of My Brief Body”: “There are over seventeen million results when one googles Is it possible to cry oneself to death?” Let me tell you something: I’ve been there. But I didn’t think to Google it.
BRB I can’t remember precisely if that came out of any sort of lived experience. That essay in particular, the titular essay, charts the early tragedies I already alluded to: when one wants love but is given a rougher form of it. In the ongoing experience of devastation, of heartbrokenness, one is confronted again and again with the body’s capacity to manifest grief and sorrow. I think that line—and the seventeen million results—stands in for that. There’s also a flipside to being hurt that means: I had been willing to love, to be in that position of non-sovereignty, to be vulnerable. I’ve learned from feminist theory that being vulnerable is a small rebellion in a hetero-patriarchal, toxically masculine culture that wants men to inhabit positions of cruelty and joylessness. There’s also a shadow claim that if there’s seventeen million results when Googling “can one cry oneself to death,” maybe there’s also as many, if not more, results for something as simple as “how to be happy.”
LLS When we’re in an environment that encourages a sterile existence, when we’re alone in our little boxes, hell yeah we feel like we’re crying ourselves to death!
You write about your dad’s house as a haven for Native and Brown people. It was a place to feel comfort and share with one another, free of judgment. It’s important to have those places, those homes, and that sense of family and community to come to, at whatever time of day.
BRB You could go to my dad’s house in emotional distress and simply the spirit of the place would free you from that feeling, at least momentarily. Though I’ve spent a lot of my adult life living alone, I’ve always wanted to architect a home that models that ethic of communality. At the risk of over-intellectualizing, I think there’s something quite defiant about that in our capitalist world, where possessorship and private property negate the togetherness that might allow us to do more for one another. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine defines loneliness as “that which we can’t do for one another.” To me, decolonization, or utopia perhaps, is a politics by which we can do more for one another. It makes sense to me that that starts in the home. We must detonate the ways in which the domestic sphere replicates the structures of incarceration and capital that keep us from one another.
LLS What is beautiful about that model is there’s also an acceptance of failure that is so freeing and liberating. Those of us who have pushed ourselves to move beyond our difficult histories and the ruptures in our past, have also created internal pressure to not fail. I can feel that pressure in my body—this divide I’ve created. I want to do my best, my best, my best. But I also want to have room for my failures, my totality, my humanity. And I desperately want to obliterate this sterile box that I sometimes put myself into.
BRB That makes me think about the literary world and how it’s different from places like my dad’s house, where status and accomplishment don’t matter and the terrain on which we speak to each other is much more human. As a Native writer in the literary world, so much of my experience has to do with refusing to perform the kinds of Nativeness that institutions have been desirous of—at least in Canada—since the mid-’90s when reconciliation emerged as a primary mode of liberal governance. It’s similar to bad kinds of love, where one is in this bind that is both existential and political, where one has to carve out a space to speak and to write that doesn’t reify all these grammars of deficiency and brokenness that have come to dominate popular conceptions of Native life. Does that resonate for you?
LLS Yes. In all honesty, the literary world is sometimes lonely for me.
LLS It is. I’m tired. Traveling to these places, institutions, where many times I’m the only Native person there. The questions I have faced at public events are shocking. I once saw a black-and-white photograph from the early 1900s, in which two Native children had been put on display as a carnival attraction. People paid money to watch them, as if those children were novelties. That photograph pierced my soul. As I stared at that image, in a flash, I could see how that still occurs even now, just in different contexts. The settings may be more sophisticated, more academic, but the function is the same. It’s difficult, and I’m trying to find my way. I have more that I can say, but I’ll save that for personal—
BRB Off the record. (laughter)
LLS However, let’s jump back to where you left off with the literary world. That makes me think of your education at Oxford. You left your family, your community, your country. Journeying on one’s own to acquire specialized skills and knowledge can be difficult.
BRB My time at Oxford was my first experience of being utterly unknowable. Many in the UK, and at Oxford in particular, don’t have robust understandings of contemporary Native life. Because of that, I was sort of an ethnically ambiguous blob haunting the streets of Oxford. That’s one kind of racial over-determination, whereas in Canada, I was racially over-determined in a very physiological and political way that felt more immediately existential. I was a philosophical conundrum unto myself in the heart of the empire (Oxford being the epicenter of colonial education). And though that burden was incredibly difficult, that experience gave me space for theorization and poetic study. I wrote so much when I was at Oxford; much of my first book, The Wound Is a World, was written, or began, while I was there. In the end, however, I knew I had to come back to Canada, that being in a place with other Native people, where I wasn’t misunderstood or misapprehended, would allow for a more dignified life.
LLS That sense of dignity and integrity translates to a sense of wholeness, right? It allows us to interact with the world in a way that is comfortable and natural to us. The way in which we honor our nature is so important in our life’s journey, in love’s journey, in our profession. I‘m thinking about a passage from your essay “Futuromania,” in which you quote Claudia Rankine, whom you mentioned earlier. You’re telling a friend about a dream and you say:
I had a dream recently in which I was bent backward, my arms perpendicular to the floor. This is how I wander about, I tell her. What others see is out of sync with the interior of my body, which is rarely still or upright. It sounds to me, she says, like you’re plagued by a kind of dysphoria with the world. Loneliness, I wonder out loud. Yes, she answers, yes. I’m reminded, she adds of a line in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: “deep within her was an everlasting shrug.” Not a shrug, I protest, but a bark, a primal shout.
Elsewhere you write, “All my writing is against the poverty of simplicity. All my writing is against the trauma of description.” The idea of that deep shrug, that primal shout, feels connected to this stance against simplicity.
BRB When a Native person is lonely, it’s often because we are in a world that we did not want, a world that we did not build for ourselves. The original scenes of dispossession, the theft of land, and all that unraveled from that, all the terror and sacrifice and compromise on our part as Native people emerges from that. That loneliness is less an individual experience and more a social collective one.
LLS That’s right.
BRB It’s unsurprising to me that the primary way that settler publics in particular have attempted to interpret or understand our work has been within the confines of a world that isn’t ours. There’s this ongoing desire for assimilation, and literary analysis is absolutely caught up in that. I’m tired of Native literature being read as if it is simply and solely sociological.
LLS An artifact.
BRB Totally. And that what it’s useful for is the enlightenment of the settler. In “Futuromania,” I begin to trace how this optic of simplicity has dominated literary analysis or cultural criticism for decades now. In Canada, some of our first major, classic Indigenous books had the same treatment that my work has had. My first book was described in a national magazine as simplistic, and as making meaning not via language but suffering. So there’s something about the shrug or the moan or groan—
LLS —or bark—
BRB —when one has to write as a Native person knowing that we have to write against this matrix of ideas that wants to swallow the work even as we try to make something that feels artful.
LLS Exactly—artful. I recently read A Treatise on Stars, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new book, and there’s a line in there that brought me such solace. If I don’t read anything else ever again in my life, this idea is enough to carry me through! She wrote, “When no one observes us, not even ourselves, our particles regain their wave aspect.” I understood that. In the space of creating, of making, when I’m able to come to the page and mentally free myself of others and even my own self-judgment, I feel a frequency change. My “particles” return to a natural flow. Maybe that’s the good place I’m looking for. Is it utopic to think that we can be free of the outside gaze, or even our own gaze? Just talking about it feels good. Are there times when you’re able to enter that place in your work?
BRB Yes. I’m working on a fiction project about northern Alberta. I ended up there after about a year and a half of trying to write a novel and always hitting dead ends. I was so unsure of what my subject matter was, and then finally I ended up coming to this metafictional idea where a narrator interviews the residents of a rural town in order to write a novel about a place where people think of themselves as outside of history and politics. Landing there, a place so specific that it seems unliterary to write about it, I felt an openness I had been longing for. It felt as if there was no longer any pretense or superimposition of any sort of aesthetic structure. I was able to write with more truthfulness after I gave up writing something that could have larger commercial appeal. I think there’s a kind of beauty and power in the humility of writing for five or six people.
LLS The power is in its truthfulness and honesty, and in the simplicity that comes when you deliberately relinquish ideas of aesthetic structure and commercial appeal. And that’s interesting, too, because isn’t that a kind of paradox? A refusal of the settler’s “optic of simplicity,” while embracing simplicity in one’s personal creative process.
I wish I was there to give you a hug in person. I want to thank you for being who you are. You’re so beautiful, inside and out.
BRB Thank you so much, Layli. Your work is such a beacon to me as well.
Layli Long Soldier’s poems have appeared in POETRY, the New York Times, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Whiting Award, a PEN/Jean Stein Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the author of Chromosomory and WHEREAS (Graywolf Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Originally published in
Our fall issue features interview with Erica Baum, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Carolyn Lazard, Nathalie Léger, Martine Syms, and Rufus Wainwright; fiction by Kevin Brockmeier and C Pam Zhang; poetry by Yi Sang and Vijay Seshadri; nonfiction by Lorraine O’Grady and Paula Mónaco Felipe; a special project by Garrett Bradley; and more.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.