Billy-Ray Belcourt Wants Literature About Queer Indigenous Possibilities ‹ Literary Hub
Possibility is not just a felt absence. It is a zone of life from which some are excluded because of the logic of exclusion of racism and heteronormativity. To see one’s own life as a possible life is a kind of fortune, a small miracle even. As a teenager trapped in rural northern Alberta, I struggled to imagine a future in which my homosexuality and my indigeneity would be fully expressed. In a way, this ambivalence towards time made me a ghost. I haunted my own adolescence. My sense of self was steeped in melancholy; the future was an impossible object to which I was nevertheless bound.
Perhaps, then, it makes sociological sense that the queer literary characters of my teenage years were complicated inventions imbued with a range of human emotions. The repressed sexual environment in which Jack and Ennis navigate in Annie Proulx Brokeback Mountain felt stunningly familiar; Proulx’s story of a fragmented gay love affair that ultimately couldn’t break the constraints of inherited political storylines left me breathless.
When I first watched the film adaptation, home alone in my mother’s living room, I turned off the television when it closed and lay in bed, overwhelmed with anxiety. I yearned to be seen the way Jack and Ennis could see each other, if only for brief moments. Even a brief moment seemed enough. All I wanted was to become what I touched. Tragedy strikes men, yes, but the film and later the short story sparked in me the determination to act on my wishes. I didn’t want to be doomed to self-alienation or become a minor disaster for myself.
Another book in this aesthetic vein is that of Christopher Isherwood A single man, and it’s about how grieving can become a way of being rather than a stage you go through. George, the protagonist, loses his partner and must find a way to stay attached to the world. Its first line is a kind of mantra that I carried with me: “The alarm clock begins by saying a m and now.”
I first read A single man in my undergraduate; I had just graduated the previous semester and I turned to queer literature to make me exist. These works revolve both around death and despair, but they also outline the possibility of a queer life liberated from them. I slipped into this pattern because I knew it would save me.
Ultimately, however, the gay literary canon is largely white. I had to draw what I could from these works while feeling distanced from them. We, those of us who are Indigenous and queer, deserve a broad and represented ‘am’ and ‘now’ in literature. That’s why I wrote my first book, This wound is a world.
That’s also why I go back and teach Joshua Whitehead Jonny Appleseed, a novel that disrupts the canon to center an “Indigiqueer” protagonist whose multi-faceted identity is in no way compromised. It sounds like a blueprint for the future of queer Indigenous literature that mixes both pain and joy and honors our indomitable. I want a whole literature of queer indigenous possibilities.