“Book Review: A History of My Brief Body”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
Billy-Ray Belcourt’s collection transcends the conventions of the personal essay, confirming an undeniable talent and control over language
It is easy to say that the first impression of A History of My Brief Body is that of a memoir. On one hand, Billy-Ray Belcourt successfully incorporates his life experiences into a melting pot of observations, theoretical arguments, and erudite storytelling. On the other hand, Belcourt is a poet and puts the reader into an active agent role—we are always present in Belcourt’s prose—even while we’re learning something.
The backbone of the essays is painted with the author’s indigenous identity. In the introduction, “A Short Theoretical Note,” the reader is presented with the image of a museum. A metaphor that stands for a history that appears to be upside down and unclear. How Belcourt has had to navigate himself and curate his own exhibition to understand and contextualize his identity and subsequently present his narrative. “This is my job: to report from the scene of an undead past colliding with a still-to-be-determined future.”
Shame plays an instrumental role in this collection. In the title essay, “A History of My Brief Body,” the author ruminates on the shame we feel with our bodies, of the shame felt being a queer person living in a world built on heteronormative standards.
While many of the essays in the collection are punctuated heavily with theoretical references from psychoanalytical contributions, sociological perspectives, and of course, literary references like Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Belcourt flourishes just as much as an earnest storyteller.
In the essay “Gay: 8 Scenes,” the reader is taken on the author’s sexual trajectory. His experiences are relatable while not appearing to be hackneyed in any way. Presenting some invaluable ruminations on race, internalized homophobia, sexuality, and the world of dating apps. I also found it admirable to read his uninhibited approach to writing about sex. “Loneliness in The Age of Grindr” manages to convey the shame of catching an STD and the inevitable fear that it brings. The anecdote, without revealing it, is arguably a fear that many gay men will have had at some point in their sex lives.
In “An Alphabet of Longing,” the writer returns to his poetic origins. A piece that bends all the conventions of what an essay is. The result—tiny snapshots of observations that bounce off each word. I often felt compelled to read parts of this piece aloud, especially during the section “NDN Homo.” The unequivocal power of its repetition reads like a tiny island of a poem amongst this essay.
A History of My Brief Body is a collection that consolidates Billy-Ray Belcourt’s alchemy as a writer. One of my favorite pieces from the collection is “To Hang Out Grief Up to Dry.” At times it reads like a piece of long-form journalism, documenting hate crimes throughout the USA and Canada. What I enjoyed reading were all the poetic references and how poetry is a tool we can use to understand and meditate on these horrific events. The presence of poetry in this piece only confirms how, like his readers, Belcourt is perpetually asking questions.
A History of My Brief Body is a complex, nuanced, and stunningly written collection. Belcourt accompanies the reader, sometimes as a friend, sometimes with academia as if he is the approachable teacher at college I never really had. His work is important and comes to us when we need it desperately.
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Paperback: 142 pages
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