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Searching For Connection With Billy-Ray Belcourt

Searching For Connection With Billy-Ray Belcourt

In Coexistence, the author presents 10 short stories that look at queer Indigenous love and Indigenous joy in its spectacular and ordinary form…

By Stephan Petar

In 2017, we were introduced to the words of Billy-Ray Belcourt (he/him), a writer from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta. His first book, This Wound is a World, was a poetry collection that earned him the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, in which he was the youngest recipient ever. 

In the past seven years, Belcourt has released an array of books spanning poetry, memoir and fiction, touching on themes of queerness, identity, love, grief, decolonization and more. They have garnered international acclaim and several literary award nominations and wins. 

His fifth title, Coexistence, is a collection of 10 intersecting stories looking at Indigenous love, hope and loneliness. Each chapter features characters searching for connection, set in various places in the Prairies and west coast of Canada, with most centring on Alberta.

In “One Woman’s Memory,” Belcourt introduces a mother reaching out to her son and sharing the story of an intimate relationship she had with a friend during her childhood, saying, “I didn’t know two Cree girls could fall in love.”

In “Outside,” we meet a man recently released from prison named Jack (a character from his novel A Minor Chorus). Belcourt says the story explores themes of police violence, looking at the disposability of Indigenous lives and how love can escape the cycle of violence.

The catalyst for the book was “Lived Experience,” a love story featuring the characters Will and Tom. “The first kernel of the book was my desire to write a queer Indigenous love story in which the characters ultimately stay together and nothing traumatic happens to them,” Belcourt told IN Magazine. “Sometimes the inclination can be to write towards the traumatic, probably because our lives are traumatic, and also because that’s what a non-Indigenous readership wants and is accustomed to.” 

When Belcourt speaks with Indigenous youth and his students at the University of British Columbia (where he is an assistant professor), he notes how they want stories centred on Indigenous joy as opposed to trauma. He has also examined the larger literary landscape and found it necessary to offer examples of queer Indigenous love and the various relationships between Indigenous peoples. 

“I wanted to hold space in this book for joy, both in its spectacular form, but also in its more ordinary form. I was interested in the minor domestic lives of queer Indigenous people. I wanted simply to depict them making art and loving one another and having petty feuds, but, ultimately, committing to a life together,” he said. 

“Then I started thinking about other kinds of relationships between Indigenous people – a mother and her son, a grandmother and her grandson. The book is a cast of characters who orbit around each other, but don’t come into contact.”

Throughout the book, many characters face unjust power structures, suspicion by non-Indigenous people, a haunting colonial past, loneliness and treatment as disposable objects, something the character Tom notes by saying, “Before Will, men treated me like a museum artifact to pick up, then put back down and walk away from.” The characters face these moments and process them on their quest to find the connection and happiness they deserve.

Belcourt creates a series of beautifully crafted verbal portraits of his characters. His poetic and descriptive sentences are powerful, moving and heartbreaking, and will occupy the reader’s mind long after they finish his text. 

While Coexistence has just been released, Belcourt is already finishing his next book of poetry, due out sometime in 2025. With all his accolades and mentions on numerous “Best Book” lists, the author continues to write for himself and his audience. “I’ve always tried to honour my own vision and think about how other queer Indigenous people might relate to the book or about the kinds of books queer Indigenous people want.”

Coexistence by Billy-Ray Belcourt (published by Hamish Hamilton Canada) is now out and can be purchased wherever books are sold.

STEPHAN PETAR is a born and raised Torontonian, known for developing lifestyle, entertainment, travel, historical and 2SLGBTQI+ content. He enjoys wandering the streets of any destination he visits, where he’s guaranteed to discover something new or meet someone who will inspire his next story.

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