DN: Today’s episode is brought to you by Ethan Chatagnier’s Singer Distance, a debut that Matt Bell calls, “One of the rarest and best kinds of books: a truly thrilling story driven by big ideas and bold writing, whose gripping mysteries only deepen as the plot thickens.” In charting an alternate history in which human civilization has made contact with Martians but struggled for years to understand their most recent message, along with themes of loneliness, exploration, and love, the novel explores how far we’ll go to communicate with a distant civilization and the great lengths we’ll travel to connect here on Earth. Says Erica Swyler, “Chatagnier looks at the sky and people with equal wonder, and the result is deeply moving. Singer Distance is a book for readers of Sagan, lovers of paradoxes, anyone who has ever looked up.” Singer Distance is out now from Tin House. Sometimes there are episodes that are very obviously in conversation with each other that might reflect a question that I’m having around writing, literature, or life that doesn’t have a simple answer and continues to ask itself. For instance, what can changing how we tell our stories do to help us as humans imagine us back into a world that isn’t fully humanized, human-centric, and shot through only with human concerns, to such a degree that it jeopardizes our very futures? I think of my conversations with Thalia Field, eff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, and Elvia Wilk in prose, the Crafting with Ursula conversations with Karen Joy Fowler and Isaac Yuen, the poetry conversations with Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, and Arthur Sze, all being very different and discreet conversations that are nevertheless in conversation with each other around this question. Similarly with questions of empathy and literature, you could say this question is lingered for many years from when I first talked to eslie Jamison aboutThe Empathy Exams through my conversations with Solmaz Sharif and Natalie Diaz, to my very recent conversation with Elaine Castillo. None of this is by design on my part. It isn’t planned out or aimed for, and usually I don’t notice these thematic threads until I’m looking back. Yet I do wonder if I’m at the beginning of or in the middle of one now, when I look at most of my recent conversations with novelists, with Sheila Heti, with Hernan Diaz, with today’s guest Billy-Ray Belcourt, and perhaps, most on point, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch for Crafting with Ursula. And when I look forward to three of the upcoming novelists on the show, none of these novelists have written novels that are novel-like. All of them could, in different ways, be considered novels that are anti-novels or novels reaching toward a new form of the novel. I say all of this because I wonder if it is a coincidence that I’ve lined these all up in this way. It could be. But I think it is also true that I myself, as much as I love traditional storytelling, as much as I love disappearing into the fictive spell of the journey of an individual protagonist on a quest, I also feel uneasy about the ways this story feels aligned formally with both the ways we tell our histories and the way we propose problem solving into our future that feel connected more to the problems with the world than the solutions. Perhaps my favorite form is the “poet’s novel,” not necessarily a conventionally told tale told lyrically, though I love that too, but a poet bringing a different sense of time and voice to a story, a poet bringing different ways to move story forward other than plot. But before I read poet Billy-Ray Belcourt’s latest book, his first novel, if you can call it that, I didn’t know how much I would love a poet’s anti-novel that is also a novel of theory, a novel that has a sociological praxis, a sexual praxis of that theory. A Minor Chorus, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s novel, is truly a highlight read for me this year and I’m excited to share this conversation. Quickly before we begin, if you enjoy Between the Covers, which perhaps like these novelists, doesn’t really conform to the podcast form, if the podcast has a form, consider transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode, every supporter can participate in the collective brainstorm of who to invite into the future, and there are a ton of other possible benefits to choose from, the bonus audio archive with readings by everyone from Natalie Diaz to Layli Long Soldier to Dionne Brand, becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, and much more. Check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers and enjoy today’s episode with Billy-Ray Belcourt.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
DN: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet, essayist, and now novelist, Billy-Ray Belcourt. Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation in Northern Alberta, received his undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, and was named a Rhodes scholar, the first First Nations Rhodes scholar pursuing a master’s degree at Oxford University in Women’s Studies, with a thesis that focused on Indigenous women in social resistance movements, titled Decolonial Sight: Indigenous Feminist Protest and the World-to-Come. Returning to Canada, Belcourt completed a PhD in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, whose thesis The Conspiracy of NDN Joy was both an autobiographical and theoretical examination of the ways Indigenous peoples lead joyful lives despite, and in opposition to, the long history of colonization and its continued attempts to flatten their emotional lives. In 2019, Belcourt won an Indspire award, which is the highest honor the Indigenous community bestows on its own leaders. In 2020, he joined the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program as Assistant Professor in Indigenous Creative Writing. Belcourt’s 2017 debut book of poems This Wound Is a World was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry, was named by CBC Books as the best Canadian poetry collection of 2017, was also named the Most Significant Book of Poetry in English by an Emerging Indigenous Writer at the 2018 Indigenous Voices Award, and was the winner of Canada’s most prestigious poetry award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, making Belcourt the youngest recipient ever at the age of 23 years old. He followed up his debut with the best-selling poetry collection NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards for gay poetry, NDN Coping Mechanisms was a Library Journal, CBC Books and Writers’ Trust of Canada best book of 2019. A collection that according to Open Book, cements Belcourt as one of the most imaginative and creative writers in the country. Belcourt’s third book, his debut nonfiction, A History of My Brief Body, was released as memoir in Canada and as an essay collection in the United States, but really sits between genres: philosophical, political, poetic, autobiographic, and scholarly. A History of My Brief Body was a number one National Bestseller, a finalist for the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Prize for nonfiction, a finalist for the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir, and received the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction. Sheila Heti says of Belcourt’s non-fiction debut, “A History of My Brief Body puts the reader at the center of a deeply serious struggle—with language, with sexuality, with race and colonial Canada, and with love and joy and a life in art. It’s about the attempt to stand in a center one has created, all while feeling the impossibility of ever doing so, and also wondering if maybe one shouldn’t. This is a passionate and vital autobiography about the intellect, the culture, and the flesh, as it bears its assaults and preserves a true light.” So it is with great pleasure to welcome Billy-Ray Belcourt to discuss his latest book. Yet another shift in genre, Belcourt’s debut novel, A Minor Chorus, which is already long listed for the 2022 Giller Prize for excellence in Canadian fiction, whose previous winners have included Alice Monroe, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood. Book Riot proclaims that Poet Billy-Ray Belcourt’s first novel is, unsurprisingly, a genre-defying masterpiece. It’s academic and anti-academic, full of poetry, longing, theory, and philosophy. Library Journal in its starred review says, “This book registers less as minor chorus than symphony . . . Belcourt’s boldest, freest, and most linguistically assured work yet.” Publishers Weekly in its starred review calls it “a breathtaking and hypnotic achievement.” Finally, Alicia Elliott says, “The literary child of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, this novel builds on both, and is yet still something so new. It has the guts to centre Indigenous queer life as worthy of serious intellectual and artistic inquiry—which, of course, it always has been. We will be reading and re-reading and learning from A Minor Chorus for decades to come.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Billy-Ray Belcourt.
BB: Thank you so much. I’m so pleased to be here.
DN: I want to start with genre and the inherited legacies and ancestries of genre, especially given how you’ve now written in each one but written in each one in a way that never conforms to the formal expectations of the genre in question. As a way to talk about the novel and what your thoughts are on the novel as a form, I’d like to first just quote some things you’ve said about your work before now that I found compelling and generative. For instance, you’ve said that you came to poetry and theory at the same time to Foucault and Danez Smith at the same time, for instance, and you feel like poetry and theory are streets in the same part of a city, streets that sometimes intersect. You’ve also said, to continue the city metaphor, that there are many back alleys between your essays and your poems, that your poems can be essayistic and your essays poetic, that while your last book, your memoir, was marketed as such, that it would more accurately be called poems in essays. You’ve also talked about how you like the term auto theory and the blending of the autobiographical and the theoretical. You’ve taught a class on politics and form. All of which makes me curious about how the move to fiction has been, what politics do you confront in moving into the novel form, and what attracted you to the form in the first place.
BB: Perhaps I’ll begin with Roland Barthes as I so often do, the French philosopher, and in the recent translation of The Preparation of the Novel by Kate Briggs, in her translator’s note there’s a point about how Barthes, nearing the end of his life—that he didn’t know of course was the end of his life—was transfixed with what he called the fantasy of the novel which is less about the material object of the novel and more so about the mode of living that novel writing suggests which is a total commitment to art and to literature. In 2018 I had my own bout of fascination with the novel. I tended to write a novel and ultimately failed and then later on when I was reflecting on that period of failed writing, I thought, “What if my transfiction with the genre of the novel is the story?” That’s the novel and then I had to think, “Well, why?” Why was I so determined to write a novel and why did I fail? And I thought of course of the history of the novel, at least the Western novel, as one that is bound up with the project of the individual. It has an individualizing function, which runs in contradistinction to the spirit of a lot of revolutionary struggle and social protest, and also of course, decolonization. I decided that if I was going to write a novel, it had to be a record of, in part, my failure to do so because of this literary history of the individual.
DN: Well, I love how your memoir already contains your failed attempts to write an autobiographical novel. But I was really fascinated, I had stumbled across you mentioning Kate Briggs’s translation note to Roland Barthes’ final project, a book called The Preparation of the Novel. Just curious, I looked into The Preparation of the Novel a little bit which is eight elliptical plans for a novel for a new way of writing and for a future book that he imagined called Vita Nova, New Life that he never wrote. I wondered if perhaps the preparation for a novel, the preparation for a means to begin a new writing practice, and even a new way of living implied by the title of the novel he imagined, and something he completed just before he died, this book, The Preparation of the Novel, if perhaps the preparation of the novel was the point, not the novel. He simulates the trial of novel writing and then documents the creative process along the way, and like you, he finds difficulty in transitioning from his familiar way of writing to this imagined way of writing. He then explores the conditions under which other writers have engaged in novel making before him. The book he produces becomes about bookmaking and the decision-making process of novel writing, which I think your book shares a spirit with that in many ways. It feels like that spirit connects also your novel and your memoir and that we see the process of you looking for and puzzling out and abandoning forms. Even within the new novel of yours, the main character is searching for a new form for the novel. It’s not just you searching but your protagonist within the novel is also searching. Before we talk about A Minor Chorus specifically, I was just curious if there was an interest in Roland Barthes beyond this phenomenon here. Because he appears frequently in your work. Is he an important writer for you in a broader sense than this question of novel writing?
BB: I think the text of his I’m most influenced by is his Mourning Diary. That book as well is described, not as a book but as a hypothesis of a book desired. I think that A Minor Chorus could also be described in that way and it’s working out a hypothesis rather than laying one out or pursuing a hypothesis to a logical end. But what strikes me most about Mourning Diary is that it represents a writing practice that is indivisible from grief. I suppose I’ve transposed that spirit to the colonial context where grief, as an Indigenous person, is ever present. One of the theses, I suppose, that runs throughout my work is the paradox of having to live in a world that one does not want or that one did not build for themselves. That’s the Indigenous condition, and of course it is filled with grief. So I take a kind of inspiration from Barthes’ project in Mourning Diary to write into the unwritability of grief and I hope that that’s what the work does as well in my case.
DN: could we hear the opening section of the book called A Problem of Form?
[Billy-Ray Belcourt reads from his debut novel, A Minor Chorus]
DN: We’ve been listening to Billy-Ray Belcourt read from his debut novel, A Minor Chorus. The main character in this book from the get-go, from these opening words that you just read, is wanting to bust out of inherited forms. He acknowledges that the university hasn’t wronged him per se, he has an amazing thesis advisor in fact who encourages him to write outside of expectations, who doesn’t see a problem with his thesis being more like a depression diary or a lover’s discourse, another nod to Roland Barthes. He has this great supportive friend, River, a bond you described as both citational, that they read the same scholars, and circumstantial, that they are the only two NDNs, let alone the only two queer NDNs in their politics and gender course. But it seems like the university as form is the problem, that he didn’t want his efforts, as you just said, however benign the atmosphere, to advance an institutional body of knowledge. Perhaps the most immediately apparent way your novel pushes against genre and form are its autofictional elements, the ways this character feels both uprooted and stuck, in a way that feels similar to the ways you yourself have described your own time at Oxford for instance. It feels like the character’s life is at least meant to rhyme with your real life. Without being reductive and asking is he you, [laughter] does his experience in the opening pages, his need to find an exit route from this track of knowledge production, and the questions he wants to pursue that he has no answer for, do these experiences reflect your own experiences in some regard or echo them?
BB: I did complete my PhD unlike the protagonist of the novel, but I did consider leaving at a number of points throughout the process. I think it was after coursework during my PhD I realized that I was being conscripted into a particular vision of intellectual institutional life in which diversity and equity didn’t mean that I was freer, but rather that the institution looked better. It’s a problem of both concept and aesthetics. It made me seriously grapple with the future I wanted and whether the university, generally speaking, could bring about something like Indigenous freedom. There’s a remark also later in that chapter where the protagonist says that the university isn’t interested in giving the line back, for example, so that means that it’s ultimately not interested in Indigenous struggles for land. In the period after I failed to write a novel, it occurred to me that if I was going to write a novel, I should begin with my own emotional texture, partly because there are so few novels with protagonists that are queer and Indigenous. I thought if I had anything to say in this space of the novel, which is so vast, it had to be about a life like mine. I inserted essentially invented lives and details into something resembling my life and my interests.
DN: When you were in conversation with Oneida Nation writer John Hill, he brought up that he thought maybe there was a new trend in contemporary Indigenous writing with the use of avatars. He brought up Tommy Pico and his character Teebs, and Joshua Whitehead with Jonny Appleseed in relationship to you and what we’re discussing around these autofictional elements. I wondered if there was anything compelling there in him raising that to you. Do you see that form a particular usefulness to autofiction as being a particularly useful troubling of form or new form for Indigenous writers without obviously speaking for Indigenous writers in a general sense?
BB: There’s a sociological way that Indigenous literature is taken up by the general reading public that suggests that we are incapable of imagination, that certain creative powers aren’t available to us, and I think that autofiction surprisingly can be one way to subvert that reading habit because the blurring of reality in fiction is the point, that’s how meaning is produced. It’s the ongoing question of whether the book reflects out a lived life. I wanted I think the book to feel non-fictional partly because the lives represented aren’t out of the ordinary. Northern Alberta, where most of the book takes place, is so overdetermined by history, such that everyone lives the historical life. Yet there’s so little discourse or discussion about that. So I wanted to bring in almost journalistic or other ethnographic energy to the novel without, of course, reoccupying anthropological interests in Indigenous life.
DN: Yeah. That’s a good segue for my next question because in certain places in your books and also speaking out in the world, you talk about what you wouldn’t want a novel to be. For instance in your memoir you say, “The aesthetic function of the novel, to my mind at least, is to whisper, to hide critique, to grab a reader by the throat with an invisible hand. I want no part in this. My provocations will be bare-faced. I wont trick anyone. Maybe what I want is to be violent in an epistemic sense; the blood will be not on my hands but on my words. This is why I’m a poet before all else.” You’ve also talked about how the novel, as you’ve mentioned here today, is meant to be shaped around an individual subject and an individual consciousness in a way that forecloses the possibility of representing queer indigeneity or indigeneity at all. In a similar vein in an Australian podcast, you talked about how novelists are known to say no to the world, that novelists spend a lot of time alone at their desks shut away, which seems counter to some of your political beliefs of being out in and engaged with the world. In your memoir, you list the titles of novels you tried to write: Critical Race Theory, The Museum of Political Depression, A Beast of Burden Is a Beast Nonetheless, Bad Lover, and It’s Lonely to Be Alive! but the actual title of the novel you did write, A Minor Chorus, I think really captures what this character is reaching for that is fundamentally different than all the ways he sees novels being written. Now I was hoping maybe, which you’ve nodded to already just now, but if you could talk to us a little more about what our protagonist decides to do when he leaves the university and how this relates to his imaginings of a different type of book.
BB: After already having decided to leave the university, the protagonist, after a period of dullness, realizes that if he’s going to write a novel, it has to be about where he’s come from because he wants some light shed on who he might become. But also, and more importantly, because there’s a whole chorus of voices there that indicate something about the colonial condition. I think the protagonist said that he wants to write an ethnography of sadness and possibility, which is ultimately an autobiography of a town. I think the protagonist, and by extension me, I’ve been putting contradictory concepts together to see what kind of new possibilities emerge. I think maybe again that’s partly my poetic nature because that’s what metaphor is. It’s a relation of proximity to two images that are unalike, making them produce something new.
DN: Your character in A Minor Chorus says, “My theoretical framework was that place governs the practice of self-fabrication,” and you, the real you, has said elsewhere that you knew that with this fourth book, you needed to write about Northern Alberta. Which suggests perhaps that you weren’t ready too before, that perhaps whatever self-fabrication would come from returning to that place or space, maybe it required some preparation or some time. I wondered if I was reading into a subtext that isn’t there, but is there a way that writing into Northern Alberta was delayed until now when perhaps you found a form to be able to go and write it?
BB: I think you’re right. It both had to do with form and with personality. At that point I felt like I had exhausted the materials of my own life, because of that, more space opened up, there’s another window onto the world which revealed Northern Alberta. I also, as you’re suggesting, needed a specific kind of form to do justice to the polyvocality of the people who live there. The book, I don’t think it’s giving away anything that the book is a series of interviews and conversations rather than a more conventional unfolding of plot.
DN: Speak to us a little bit about the interviewing, how much of that is you imagining yourself or imagining your protagonist as an ethnographer of the reserve, and how much of it is you actually interviewing and then taking transcripts, and if so, if it’s the latter, if you are actually interviewing yourself and then folding real interviews in a fictional way into your novel, talk to us a little bit about the emotion of that and also the craft of that.
BB: All the interviews are imagined interviews, so none of them actually took place. I hadn’t actually gone and done any kind of ethnographic work or field work. It’s all imagined field work. I think importantly one of the conceits of the novel is that most of the traumatic experiences that are discussed occurred in the past, that was so that the fact of these character’s abilities to survive were most important rather than cater to those who are hungry for depictions of Indigenous suffering. To me in order to do that, I needed a formal technique like interviewing. In order to do it with a philosophical resonance, I had to allow myself to imagine that these characters could theorize about what happened to them.
DN: Well let’s spend another couple minutes with theory and theorizing before we talk about the body and embodiment. Because in a way, it is theory, this theoretical framework of place and your theory of a new novel, that brings our character’s body back to his place of origin. But when you were in conversation with the fiction writer and creative writing teacher and chairman of The Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria in California, Greg Sarris, he asked you about your use of academic and scholarly language in your work in relation to how your work is received in your community because he says he is often lovingly made fun of as the “cousin” professor who uses white men’s language. Here we’re in a novel where someone who is leaving an academic world, but still steeped in a lot of the analysis and the language of it, is returning to a place of origin, and encountering people who have varying degrees of relation to that language and that analysis. Do you see something similar to Greg Sarris for you as a writer or is that not at all your experience in writing these books about queer indigeneity that are erudite as well as moving and accessible at the same time?
BB: I could ask a question like this in relation to The Letter to My Nôhkom, my grandmother in my memoir, because I know that though she may not understand the language I’m using, she’ll be able to feel the emotional vibrations that that language produces, that that’s important. The protagonist also reflects in A Minor Chorus on this conundrum as well, he says something like, “Why am I bringing the language of analysis to Northern Alberta when it can be so alienating?” and he says, “Well, just like we don’t get to choose who we love, we also don’t get to choose which kinds of language envelop us like another layer of skin.” Maybe that was my way of circumventing that argument or anticipating that argument and expressing my own inability to break from that language as a writer and a person. Again to return to the protagonist in the novel, there’s another moment where he says that the first time I was ever moved by language was when I read queer theory, and that query theorists were using language in order to rebel against the ways that language has been used against us as queer people as a kind of weapon. There’s both an admiration for the beauty of the language of queer theory and recognition that it can be used as part of a collective struggle.
DN: Well, I love how, I think in all of your work, poetry and prose, you do bring in other voices, citing scholars, thinkers, and writers from Dionne Brand to José Esteban Muñoz, that this citational practice within your lines or sentences, it feels to me like another minor chorus in your work. It seems to situate in you in a field of voices that places your own experience and your own desire for liberation among others who come from very different subject positions from you, but perhaps are aiming toward a similar future, that here in the book called A Minor Chorus, I was curious if you could speak to placing that alongside the testimonies and the interviews, how you see those co-inhabiting in the novel.
BB: I think my approach to citation is indebted, on the one hand, to my academic training, humanities graduate students are always seeking in relation to those in their fields. It’s a kind of cohabitation of an intellectual space. But on the other hand, I was incredibly moved by the citational notes in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. The name is appearing in the margins rather than simply inside the text or relegated to the back of the book. That felt to me like a way of being in relation to those who have shaped your thinking without subordinating them. That’s one of the ongoing problems of academic training, especially in the humanities where sometimes it can feel like you have to subordinate the voices of others in order to emerge yourself as a singular voice. One of the other reasons why I grew disinterested in trepidations of academic life, and so in the book I wanted to have the chorus that is the characters but also the chorus that is the intellectuals to whom I am indebted. I suppose someone could argue that there are two minor choruses operating simultaneously.
DN: Well, maybe a flip side to Greg Sarris’s question is something you brought up when you were on a panel with the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli, who was a past guest on this show, where you mentioned that a lot of people on the reservation don’t know its history as an open-air prison. Yet the main character in your novel encounters some Driftpile Cree who are beginning to employ a different language and theoretical socio-political framing where they see themselves in a very different way, one that seems more oriented toward liberation than accommodation, let’s say. I’m not sure if I’m saying this right but you say in the book, “What would people say if they were empowered to theorize about their happiness and misery? If the sociological imagination was available to all of us, what kinds of truths would surface?” I guess I was hoping maybe you could speak to that a little more, both the way colonial erasure can reproduce itself within native communities themselves, but also this suggestion that perhaps theorizing or theoretical analysis might be a way out, which is so fascinating because I love how the character is trying to find an exit route from academia, and yet is also suggesting theorizing, not in an academic setting, but theorizing outside of an academic setting as being another form of an exit route from another prison.
BB: I think the book is a work of sociological fiction, but that it is so unsexy to call it that. [laughter] Then maybe that’s a more appropriate subtitle than a novel. But when I was writing the book, I realized that I had to turn my attention to characters who were already living out some kind of vision of liberation despite perhaps their inability to describe their activities of living as such. That was important to me because we don’t have to go elsewhere, we don’t have to leave the reserve to enact decolonial tenants or tactics. But the power of caring for one another emerges organically, and then that’s worthy of theoretical and literary consideration. The character of Lena, for example, is a mother who the character says is mothering with whatever materials are available to her, but nonetheless doing so in a way that attempts to make her children’s joy infinite. That is incredibly philosophically significant.
DN: You also make a nod to a reproduction of colonial modes of being within native communities when talking about resource extraction and how the last jobs were in the oil fields. It’s a topic that I also touched upon with Jake Skeets and Natalie Diaz when they were on the show also. In A Minor Chorus you say, “I believe there’s a story here, about how people are made to participate in the production of their own misery,” something that feels like it almost demands analysis to puzzle its way out. I just wondered if you had any thoughts in that regard in the ways that the last jobs are just that.
BB: That line was actually one of the first hypotheses that became the infrastructure for the book. A number of the characters remain in miserable conditions, partly because they can’t see a way out and also because they might not necessarily want a way out. Now we’re sinking in relation to something that Judith Butler argued we remain attached to difficult objects, things, and situations because the psychological investment is so intense that it seems counter-intuitive or counterproductive to relinquish those attachments. That seemed to me to be enough emotional material for a novel. I think I lost your question.
DN: Oh no, it’s just a question about the quote that you’re mentioning about participating in the production of your own misery and also the only jobs being extractive jobs, jobs that I think would be the most emblematic of colonial capitalist extractive behavior. The way that, say like the Navajo, are so involved in coal or oil pipelines or fracking in Northern Canada and the Northwest Territories, which there’s an irony there that makes me think of the need for an analysis, maybe as a first step to another way when no way is presenting itself.
BB: Exactly. Yes, the town that the town in the novel is based on is described sometimes as the gateway to the oil sands in North Eastern Alberta. It’s a vast amount of territory but it’s all now so incredibly governed by an oil economy, such that people have to leave to go work in the oil sands in order to make a living. It’s an incredibly emotional issue because people’s qualities of living are at stake. Anecdotally, a lot of people that I know from the area end up voting conservative or conservatively because resource extraction in the conservative party have become synonymous. People, especially Indigenous people, have to vote against themselves essentially because opportunities for living a good life have become so winnowed. I do think that the ability to cultivate a critical consciousness is bound up in this because that ability is not democratically distributed, it’s unevenly distributed, such that people can induce the conditions for their own misery within an overall structure of colonialism where that becomes possible.
DN: Well, I picked out another really brief section I was hoping you’d read.
[Billy-Ray Belcourt reads from his novel, A Minor Chorus]
DN: We’ve been listening to Billy-Ray Belcourt read from his novel, A Minor Chorus. I want to move from theory to the body, to embodiment, to Eros, sex, love, and how it relates to self and selfhood. Even when your protagonist calls his relationship to his friend, River, citational because they share interests in the same scholars, even there there’s a certain charge to that intimacy that isn’t entirely academic or scholarly but suggests something more embodied and tender. In your last book, your memoir, you say that Judith Butler suggests that both language and style of behavior are citational, that they echo from a history of use. From there you conclude that joy then is a politics of citation, which I love. Likewise, our protagonist in the new book says, “What I wanted from sex I wanted from writing: to be more fully inside my body without encumbrance, to experience embodiment as something other than a catch-22.” I’d love to hear more about the sex in A Minor Chorus in this light because the anonymous sexual encounters in this book feel somehow like experiences of embodiment however temporarily, but also paradoxically of the annihilation or the obliteration of the self sometimes too. I’m not suggesting those are even opposites. Perhaps these two things are related, embodiment and the annihilation of the self. I’m not sure and I’m curious. But talk to us about the sex in this book in relationship to embodiment, then in relationship to how embodiment is potentially a catch-22.
BB: In a novel of ideas, it’s easy for the work to become disembodied. I think that the sex in the book is one of the ways I try to prevent that experience of total disembodiment. There’s the line in one of the chapters where the protagonist says or reflects that there are many nights where after writing, he would have sex because his sadness and his horniness had become inextricably entangled. It seems to me that writing is incredibly embodied and erotic. When I write, it is one of the few times where I do feel fully in my body. That maybe explains why I’ve written so much in my 20s. It’s because I want to feel immersed in the world but there’s so much, when you’re queer and Indigenous, that keeps you out or removed from the world. Finding both sex and writing as correctives to that experience of alienation has been both good and bad because to want every man you meet on the hookup to transform you is impractical and naive because sometimes these men want to harm you. I’m working on something now where a character says “The men I spoke to seem sometimes to want to to kill me more than they wanted to have sex with me.” That’s been an ongoing interest of mine, the paradoxical condition of sometimes wanting what destroys you.
DN: When your protagonist goes up to Northern Alberta to conduct these interviews, he hooks up with anonymous men he finds on apps while he’s there and he has largely constructed his queer life, and identity before this in the city in Edmonton, so this is his first time he’s had sex in rural Alberta. I wonder if this is one way you and the character diverge, not what I just said, but diverge insofar as I’m not sure he sees these sexual encounters as part of the book he is writing or at least, not in the same way that you do in the book that you are writing, where a good portion of your book, A Minor Chorus, is really dedicated to these encounters, often in scene, and where sometimes after sex, there is some post-sex talk where the unknown man in a way offers his own testimony or at least, our protagonist meditates on what he says in a way that makes it feel this way. For instance, when he hooks up with a 40-year-old white guy named Graham who himself is in a heterosexual marriage, the protagonist says to us, “Anonymous sex is tantalizing partly insofar as it allows for suspension of individuality that made it possible to be a non-person given over to animalistic urge. Perhaps this sort of metaphysical ambivalence was always the precondition for Graham’s sense of self.” But he also describes Graham’s life as split in two, the time he spends with his wife and the time with men, which our protagonist describes as a time of self-making. Here again we have self-making and suspension of individuality happening simultaneously. Not that Graham’s queer life involves the same questions as an Indigenous queer life but there is some overlap. To me it feels like whether or not your main character sees these encounters as part of the book, you most definitely do. I think these people’s lives sit alongside the interviews and the scholarly citations. They’re almost like interviews themselves, sometimes only physically revealing, non-verbal interviews but sometimes really emotional and verbal. I guess I wondered if this is a third, I know we’ve mentioned two minor choruses, the people you’re indebted to and your protagonists are indebted to as academics, thinkers, or writers, the people who are being interviewed intentionally, then the people who somewhat accidentally end up in his life from these sexual encounters but then offer their stories with him. Is this another chorus of the novel making in a sense?
BB: I like that observation, probably because I think that during the sexual encounters, the protagonist becomes an object of analysis, both to the other person but also to himself. The sexual encounters are one of the few places where the critical lens is directed at himself. I remember in early iterations of the novel wanting actually to subjugate the narrator, I didn’t want the details of his life to be central to the novels, plot, and ideas but then again, it felt incredibly disembodied and as though I was hiding something or the character was hiding something, then I started writing these sex scenes that opened up this other dimension in the novel but I think link his pursuit of knowledge as commitment to art and as deep need of indications that another world is possible. Perhaps these sex scenes bring all of those things together because it is through human relations and intimacy that some of these more abstract ideas are put into practice. They’re translated into action.
DN: Yeah, I can’t imagine this book without those scenes. It’s hard for me to imagine. It feels like everything like you say gets enacted there, so I have one last little segment I was hoping we’d hear from the book.
[Billy-Ray Belcourt reads from his debut novel, A Minor Chorus]
DN: We’ve been listening to Billy-Ray Belcourt read from his debut novel A Minor Chorus. Staying with this question of finding an embodiment that is not a catch-22, I’m thinking about the way you’ve written and talked about the body in different ways. For instance, your TED Talk called Gallstones and the Colonial Politics of the Future where you look at how gallstones have a politic gallstones as a condition Indigenous North Americans have the highest rate of and the lines from NDN Coping Mechanisms, “Another sticky dawn. The res opens its eyes, the past hiccups. Dogs holler back. In a bed someone who is loved is found dead from cancer or heart disease or mercury poisoning which are history by other names.” Thinking of these bodily conditions as history by other names, I wanted to ask you about having a body. You say in a blog post from years ago now entitled If I have a Body, Let it be a Book of Sad Poems, you say in that post that indigeneity troubles the idea of “having a body.” Somehow, when I read this, I connect it to when you were on the panel with Adania Shibli where you said “I’m serious about my indeterminacy. The lake is my ancestor, even if it will outlast me.” But rescue me from this question and talk to us about having a body, and how it is troubled by indigeneity in your mind if it is.
BB: To me it seems that colonialism works by removing an Indigenous person’s sense of autonomy over themselves, over their body. Some of the most acute forms of violence that occur in settler colonial states are biological. They’re bodily. Indigenous people’s experience health disparities across the continual of possible health disparities. There are constantly statistics and studies proving that we die sometimes as much as a dozen years before other Canadians. To me, that means that the traumas of the 19th and 20th centuries were so intense and catastrophic that we’re still experiencing their after effects inside our bodies. So any kind of anti-colonial or even generally liberal attempts to remedy those past traumas needs to account for the cellular and biological ways that trauma lingers. In Canada, the government has been undertaking a project of reconciliation, beginning with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 2010s. The government wants to turn the pages of history, to put the past to rest. To me that seems impossible because Indigenous experiences of embodiment are still so frenzied, unpredictable, and world shattering. In my work, I want to grapple with what it means to still be in the world, in the face of all these world-shattering experiences.
DN: Well, to bring this into writing for a moment, in the preface of your first poetry collection This Wound Is a World, you say poetry is creaturely resisting categorical capture. That it is an entity because our skin becomes its and its skin becomes ours. That the lyric “I” opens up on itself and particularities, and the poem brings us into our bodies and readies us for the touch and affection of others. But in the epilogue of the same collection, [laughter] you say that the Wound is a World is obsessed with the unbodied. You quote Lauren Berlant who said “Love always means non-sovereignty,” and you say “Love is a process of becoming unbodied; at its best and wildest, it works up a poetics of the unbodied,” and in A Minor Chorus you say that evoking an “I” is an elegiac act. It kick-starts a losing game. Again, there seems to be this paradox that the lyric “I”, which off the page in the world maybe we can connect to a coherent sense of a self and subject position, that that “I” readies us for the touch of others but perhaps that the love itself that arises unbodies us, if I’m following this line of thought correctly. But I would love to hear the way you bring this into the actual writing here which I think is brilliant, if you could just talk more about what this sparks for you.
BB: I’m going to continue with your thinking and suggest that if love ruins us or embodies us, poetry is one of the ways that we survive an experience of an unbodied thing and that there’s some connection between love, and poetry that is reparative. I think of the poet Richard Siken who I quote in the book and in my previous book where he says, “The enormity of my desire disgusts me.” I think that poets are interested in enormous desires like love. Poetry is also an enormous desire in and of itself. One of my most enormous desires is a desire for another world. I’m not disgusted by it though.
DN: Well, let’s stay with language in relationship to these questions. In your memoir, you talk a lot about the trauma of being over described, something I think we see in the novel, in the sexual encounters where the protagonist’s indigeneity can sometimes be something that the lover might either fetishize or something that is used to diminish or harm the protagonist. You say in A History of My Brief Body, “Living as we do in the charred remnants of a time during which the voices of Indigenous peoples were siphoned out of the theatres of culture and into the wastelands of law and order, you, a white and settler you, are beholden to a project of lessening the trauma of description.” You say that each of your books, each poem, each story, works against the trauma of description, against the poverty of simplicity and this is anti-colonial insofar as the colonial position is against opacity. I was hoping you could talk a little more about the trauma of description in relationship to embodiment or perhaps in relationship to becoming unbodied but even more so how the trauma of description informs the choices you make as a writer on the page.
BB: There’s a long history in Canada at the very least, probably also in the US, of considering Indigenous literature as simplistic and as being devoid of craft and technique. This has the effect of transforming Indigenous literature into anthropological spectacles. Where our work somehow becomes about the solidification of white subjectivity, that white people read our books in order to experience the difference between whiteness and indigeneity. That’s incredibly problematic. [laughs] Since my second book, in the wake of some of the reception to my debut, my poetry collection, I wanted to write difficult books in order to refuse the tyranny of over description and also to offer up a portrait of Indigenous life that can’t be co-opted into that anthropological frame, that explodes that anthropological frame. Part of how I do that is through my attention to sex and embodiment. At the very least, bringing into focus my complexity, my character’s complexity because so much has been said about us by those outside our communities, that we have to, in our own ways, know ourselves differently. I think that one of the ways we do that is through sexual relations.
DN: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to bring this up was in relationship to the Jack character in the novel, a cousin who seems to represent an alternate path the protagonist’s life could have taken perhaps. Jack makes me think of your essay An NDN Boyhood where you talk about you and your twin brother Jesse. Much of the way you talk about it feels like it is in relationship to description and selfhood. For instance, your Indigenous father names both of you with cowboy-like names, Billy-Ray and Jesse, but you also say that everyone kept applying contrasting labels to you and your twin brother to differentiate you, good-bad, masculine-feminine, academic-unruly despite your own subjective sense of the two of you being intertwined, despite the two of you having a selfhood that felt intertwined, that your two selves were being narrativized, solidified, and flattened by everyone else in a way that did not reflect your lived experiences. I like how this question of self and description plays out in the novel too, just the active meeting unknown people for sex where it all starts with labels, how old the person is, what race, the size, and shape of their body, their sexual preferences perhaps, and sometimes what those things represent play out exactly as one might expect them to. But sometimes the removing of clothes also becomes a removing of labels even briefly. But I also see this character Jack is connected to Jesse and how even when Jack, and our protagonist are briefly roommates, something about the way their lives have been described for them keeps them separate as if they were ships passing in the night, as if they weren’t inhabiting the same house and space, the same city. I was wondering if you could talk about Jack in this light or in other lights. He feels like a really important character in the book even if he’s not a central character but something’s happening with Jack’s presence throughout.
BB: Jack does represent one of two possible outcomes for an Indigenous life that the book is interested in, which is one of incarceration, police brutality, and economic precarity. He’s meant to stand in for the experience of total subjugation that a lot of Indigenous people, Indigenous men experience their entire lives. What does one do when one lives like ongoing subjugation is why I was interested in writing a character like Jack. I do something at the end that I think is how I refuse to contribute myself to the tendency to simplify or over describe. I wanted Jack to be able to want some other kind of way of life that resembles the protagonist’s desire for another world. We see in these two characters different but complementary longings that reveal the difficulties of the present.
DN: Well, two other threads that run throughout your work are questions of masculinity and questions of motherhood, and they feel like they’re often in conversation with each other. For instance, in your memoir, you call your dad’s disorderly home a home that embodies an anti-authoritarian rhythm. You call it a feminist project because it is a socialization or democratization of the maternal function and you’ve written quite a bit about violent acts done by Indigenous men, and how these acts are symptoms of performances, of racialized masculinity where you say, “The trauma of colonialism erupts in the minds and bodies of men, who then bombard the lives of women and girls, two-spirit peoples, and queers.” To connect this to motherhood, you have a new short story out called One Woman’s Memories where the main character Louise calls her adult son and when she says to him, “I want to talk to you about my past,” where she ultimately shares her long-ago desire for another woman prior to meeting her son’s father, when she says “I want to talk to you about my past,” the narration continues with these words, “It is a foreign sentence. Neither of them has heard anyone utter it before. It occurs to Paul that he knows very little about his mother’s past. What he knows is limited to images, brief anecdotes, old family jokes. He feels a pang of shame about this state of unknowing. If a mother is a shape of unknowing, then perhaps a son is a bit of dying light. It is never that simple, of course. ‘I’m listening, mom. You have my undivided attention.’” I bring this up because it made me think of the lines in your latest book, “To write out of North Alberta, I had to do so in a feminist mode. To insist on a form of gender that was not a natural disaster,” but also the line “Everywhere NDN men are in a struggle against gender,” because this line comes in the same place in the book where the protagonist grandfather won’t talk about his experiences as a child in the residential school, he won’t talk about his past the way Louise and your new short story surprises her son and talks to him. I wonder if somehow this silence might be something that not only might perpetuate certain forms of gender, forms that might be natural disasters, but also perhaps might connect back to not knowing the history of the reservations as prisons. But either way, talk to us about what it means to write out of North Alberta in a feminist mode and how this relates to your examination of men in the book.
BB: It has me thinking that maybe to silence about the past is a masculinized silence and that Indigenous women have become the historians of our collective lives which can be a burden, and which can let Indigenous men off the hook and questions of responsibility become blurrier in that framework. One of the central questions I had was about gender and colonial gender norms in particular as they exist in Northern Alberta. The character reflects that it seemed to him that there were two scripts available as a man in Northern Alberta, one of domination and the other of emotional unavailability. He says he had to figure out how to free himself from those scripts because he didn’t want to live in a way that bulldozed others. I suppose that is something that all men have to decide to want because we aren’t socialized into being little prisons in and of ourselves. But again, I didn’t want to write directly about gendered violence because it’s such a difficult and traumatizing thing. I want to show that women have survived and continue to survive gender violence in Northern Alberta, and that part of the project of any novel about Northern Alberta in the character’s mind and in my mind should be the envisioning of other modes of gender that enable flourishing and coexistence for all.
DN: This whole enterprise for the protagonist of leaving school, going to Northern Alberta to write a novel that has a form outside the lineage of inherited novel forms, one that involves encounters and engagements with members of his community on the reserve, and his own past, the whole enterprise feels like it is one of risk that he’s choosing or he’s putting himself outside of the form of the university, outside the form of the novel. He’s returning perhaps with hesitation and a lot of questions, and not a lot of answers but it all also orbits often silently around a greater sense of risk which is the figure of his mother, a charged figure because he wasn’t raised by her but by his grandmother. He had a long-standing anger about his mother’s inability to mother. For a long time, he couldn’t wholeheartedly trust her and because he didn’t know how to ask her how they could begin to heal, he can’t bring himself to interview her for the book. He mentions the anger and the distrust in the past tense which makes me wonder when he says that later, he felt that motherlessness had also to do with history, if that suggests he found a way through by seeing his mother’s history and his people’s history as a framing, and here again, a theorizing perhaps that freed him somewhat from only collapsing into his own individual pain. Some of the things you write include “Mother, the unarticulated, the misarticulated, silence, indifference, small talk, not deep talk” and “A mother is a library seconds before the tornado strikes,” but ultimately you say, “This severance from a traditional notion of motherhood opened up to me a closeness with a queerer notion of motherhood. A more egalitarian distribution of the labor of caretaking, less a gendered burden and more so a collective undertaking that is reciprocal.” I guess I wanted to use this as a portal to ask you about mothering. Sometimes, the sex scenes, post sex, the quiet moments afterwards felt like mothering to me as a reader and I also wondered if you saw the gesture of the book itself in this light, A Minor Chorus as an act of a more egalitarian distribution of the labor of caretaking or of storytelling for that matter.
BB: The figure of the mother in the novel is a complicated one. She says almost nothing in a book where all the characters say so much. I wanted to be honest to the experience of a lot of Indigenous people who aren’t raised by their parents. That the lack of a story about that experience shapes our lives. The character realizes that his motherlessness allowed him to see these other modes of mothering that aren’t biologically determined. I think it’s a kind of political undertaking that he’s interested in because maybe decolonization is about how we mother one another differently. I think decolonization is about how we care for one another in ways that don’t require immediate proximity to how we fight on behalf of our communities rather than simply fighting on behalf of her own flourishing.
DN: Well, a place that I wanted to end with you was with utopia which you’ve brought up about a future world or a world to come already in our conversation. It’s a topic that’s more obviously present in the memoir than the novel but I would love to hear you speak to it and into it. In your poetry debut, you say “Sadness and death seem to stain indigeneity as if co-constitutive,” and that you wanted to free sadness from a politicized cages of pathology and the private, to see bad affect as a ground instead for transformation, to see the potential of sadness and you ask, “Is it possible to share the feeling of being lonely or alone as a way to make new forms of collectivity?” which reminds me of this gesture you do around motherlessness in A Minor Chorus, motherlessness as the grounds to create a new queer form of mothering. When you are in conversation with your thesis advisor, she mentioned how many times love is mentioned in your thesis. You said that care plus possibility equals love. That love is both a practice and something that has to do with futurity. You call your memoir, A History of My Brief Body, an ode to your grandmother and to the world-to-come, and you dedicate that book to those for whom utopia is a rallying call. You say “I can’t promise I won’t become snared in someone’s lethal mythology of race. What I can do is love as though it will rupture the singularity of Canadian cruelty (irrespective of whether this is a sociological possibility). Herein lies my poetic truth.” In the new book you say, “I wanted my future novel to be like a ‘valley of its making’— to not be seen as someone trespassing onto already stolen land.” I was hoping you could speak about utopia and futurity for you. I sense, without knowing what it is, perhaps a scholarly lineage behind this as well, there’s definitely an emotional valence to this but I also suspect that there is an academic one possibly but I would love to hear about utopia and this idea of the future world.
BB: I’m always thinking about José Esteban Muñoz but especially this thinking around utopia. In his book, Cruising Utopia, he argued that queerness wasn’t yet here. It is an ideality that we pursue but queer is in the present, lived in ways that suggest that utopia is possible, but there are already kernels of utopia in the present and that should be a cause for a celebration, protests, and world building. I think my poem, The Terrible Beauty of the Reserve which is a response of sorts to Saidiya Hartman’s essay, The Terrible Beauty of the Slum, most overtly reveals my thinking around Indigenous utopia. In that poem, I say something about my own reserve, the trans of the highway cuts through it so people drive through the reserve all the time, non-Indigenous people but they don’t look at us, they don’t look at the people on the reserve. They don’t see our quiet joy, our everyday joy. Instead, they see depravity and other signs of race. I say that that produces a kind of anonymity that is about freedom. We have the freedom of anonymity, so we can live differently. I think that everywhere, Indigenous people are enacting a future against the colonial president. As I said earlier about most of the characters in the novel having already survived trauma, the novel is less overtly, but nonetheless, still interested in the minor, subtle, and sometimes unperceivable ways that Indigenous people elide or escape subordination, and insist on their right to be free.
DN: Well, thinking about futurity and the way your writing in all three genres has resisted subordinating yourself to any of the three with your novel already hardly out on the world, already long listed for the Giller Prize, and already a National Bestseller in Canada, do you have a sense of your next future book, what it might reach for or what you will attempt to rupture in grappling with a new form?
BB: I’m working on some stories, so I did turn to another form, but maybe surprisingly, and I hope not too disappointingly, I’ve attempted to be less formally disruptive. I thought I would try to commune with and reason with the form of the short story.
DN: Yeah. Well, I love the new short story that just came out.
BB: Thank you.
DN: Thank you for being on the show today, Billy-Ray.
BB: It was such a pleasure, such thoughtful questions. I’ll be thinking about them for a while.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Billy-Ray Belcourt about his debut novel, A Minor Chorus. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Billy-Ray Belcourt’s work at billy-raybelcourt.com. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the Between The Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Join our brainstorm of future guests, receive the supplementary resources with each conversation, and choose from a wide variety of other potential enticements, whether becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to any number of gifts and collectibles from past guests, from out-of-print chapbooks by Ursula K. Le Guin, to a personalized handmade Korean wrapping cloth from Mary-Kim Arnold, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. Not to mention the ever-growing bonus audio archive which includes things like Dionne Brand reading from two forthcoming books in 2023, Canisia Lubrin’s Code Noir and Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, readings by Alice Oswald, John Keene, Ada Limón, and many others. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.