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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers


Billy-Ray Belcourt, A History of My Brief Body

I try to avoid quoting long sections of anything, because as a teacher I find it to be a lazy person’s approach to writing, and as a reader I prefer to hear the analysis, not the primary text, which I could just read myself.


Read this:

“Often, being a person of color in a white-dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world. Every day is a new little hurt, a new little dehumanization...Imagine if you were walking down the street and every few minutes someone would punch you in the arm. You don’t know why. You are hurt and wary and weary. You are trying to protect yourself, but you can’t get off this street. Then imagine somebody walks by, maybe gesticulating wildly in interesting conversation, and they punch you in the arm on accident. Now imagine that this is the last straw, that this is where you scream. That person may not have meant to punch you in the arm, but the issue for you is still the fact that people keep punching you in the arm.

Regardless of why that last person punched you, there’s a pattern that needs to be addressed, and your sore arm is testimony to that. But what often happens instead is that people demand that you prove that each person who punched you in the arm in the past meant to punch you in the arm before they’ll acknowledge that too many people are punching you in the arm. The real tragedy is that you get punched in the arm constantly, not that one or two people who accidentally punched you in the arm might be accused of doing it on purpose...And if you just punched somebody in the arm that would not be the time to talk about how important it is to protect your right to gesticulate wildly, even if sometimes you accidentally punch people. Once you know that your wild gesticulation is harming people (even if you've been raised to believe that it’s your god-given right to gesticulate as wildly as your heart desires without any thought of consequences), you can no longer claim it’s an accident when somebody gets hit.” (19-20)

I’m about to do an academically dicey thing, which is to rely on the pronoun “we” in a way that generalizes white people. Hope you’re okay with that. If not, and you’re one of those “not all white people” folks, you should probably stop reading now.

White people are so accustomed to viewing the whole world and the experiences of others through a limited and privileged lens. So yeah, we don’t understand why a racialized person would become upset by what we might call unintentional racism, since we simply do not experience the kind of ongoing abuse that people of colour do. It was an accident, we might think, let’s move on, because that’s what we would do.

What Oluo so cogently and powerfully illustrates here is that there are no accidental racist events. White people need to own the reality that no one cares about our intentions if our actions result in harm to others. And it’s our responsibility to learn how not to harm others in our day-to-day lives. When we inevitably do, the only option is to humbly apologize and then find a way to ensure we never do it again. No need to prove how good we are and how much we’d never hurt anyone. I get it, we all want to be perceived as good people. But you know what? It’s actually not that hard to avoid being a racist. Just take the time to listen and learn what racialized folks are telling you, and stop letting your white friends and relatives perpetuate the idea that racism isn’t real.

When I wrote about Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, I noted that she had never been hired by an organization to prove that racism exists, but rather to train folks how to be anti-racists in their places of work and learning. Despite this (and anyone who’s gone down this rabbit hole with a racist colleague or relative knows what I’m talking about) she was frequently called on to defend the need for anti-racist training in the first place. Exhausting! The world needs white people to stop arguing and start working to undo injustice. It’s really that simple.

As a young teacher I spent a lot of time working through feminist texts with my students. I’m kind of in awe of my younger self when I think about this now, since I rarely engage in the conversations I did then - discussions about inclusive language, rape culture, pay equity, and homophobia. There was always pushback from students. For example, in a conversation about using “person” instead of “man” to denote all humans, students would frequently say something along the lines of, “Aren’t there more important things for us to be worrying about, with all the rapes and murders happening in the world?” This is a classic deflection technique. I’d have to respond by proving that indeed language seems like a small thing, but is actually a powerful component of a deeply entrenched sexist system. Students could reject this information out of hand, and we’d all walk away frustrated and having learned nothing, never really engaging with the actual issue. Which is, How does it hurt you to make room in your language for everyone? Or, as Oluo might ask, Why is it a problem for you to stop gesticulating wildly? Before you go thinking that the world has changed enough that such conversations no longer need to happen, I will sadly report that a female student recently said “I’m not a feminist or anything” while describing a clearly feminist point of view in a classroom discussion. Sigh.

How is this relevant? We need to stop defending anti-racist action as though there is some other acceptable option out there and it’s a legitimate subject for debate. The alternative to anti-racism, as Ibram X. Kendi tells us, is racism. Intriguingly, even actual conscious racists (Donald Trump, proud boys, Jordan Peterson) know it’s bad to be called a racist and will make a lot of noise arguing that they are defending free speech and not hating anyone.

Like Austin Channing Brown, Ijeoma Oluo draws on personal experience to illustrate responses to common questions white people ask, like: “Why Can’t I Say the N-Word?” and “What if I Talk About Race Wrong?” The questions are real, but they also represent the sort of delay tactics that white people undertake to avoid grappling with their own participation in a racist system. By addressing the questions so clearly and without judgment, Oluo moves them out of the way and reminds her audience to focus on the real problem: We live in a deeply unjust world, and until each of us claims responsibility for improving it, racialized citizens will continue to suffer. Get on it, people!

In many ways, this book is a straight up adventure story. The novel takes place between 1952 and 1970, but is not told chronologically. Set on the swampy coast of North Carolina, it begins in 1969 with the discovery of rich boy Chase Andrews’ body underneath the town’s fire tower, setting the book’s central conflict. Only much later in the book does Chase appear as a live character who befriends the protagonist Kya.

Kya’s family is terrorized by an alcoholic father, and by the time she is ten, her mother and all three of her older siblings have left with no plan in place for her care. She must spend her time avoiding her father’s drunken rages and finding enough food to survive. Ultimately her father, unreliable at best, also leaves. She is ten, illiterate and owns one outfit. She spends her time outdoors, boating through the marsh in search of food, all the while observing the natural world that surrounds her. Because she knows it’s wrong for her to be living alone, but also knows she doesn’t want to be taken into the care of strangers, Kya spends a lot of time avoiding people. She becomes intimately familiar with the ecosystem that surrounds her, and observing nature and animals becomes her education.

There’s a particular American-ness about this narrative that evokes the poverty and loneliness of unparented children also present in Educated or The Glass Castle. Even though they are stories of resilience, like Kya’s, it is not possible to overlook the dangerous, devastating impact of absent parents. The survival of these protagonists is more accidental than anything else, yet their stories suggest a bit of the ol’ American Dream in which all can thrive and be successful if they try hard enough. There’s such an intimacy to their loneliness, such shining self sufficiency, that it almost reads as desirable and makes us forget about the criminal negligence of a society that allows children to be so abandoned.

Then again, I might just be overthinking it.

The question of how Kya’s story intersects with the Chase Andrews’s remains until midway through the book, when she and Chase meet and fall in love. Being a philandering rich douchebag, Chase has plenty of enemies, so several different characters, including Kya, are plausible murder suspects. The last third of the book deals with the murder trial and its outcome. The chapters describing the interior courtroom scenes are dark and static, intentionally contrasting the vibrance of the outdoors of the rest of the story.

Overall, I’d say this is a compelling narrative with a believable central mystery. The writing is solid, except for a narrative device I found distracting and overused: Kya often recites poetry to reflect on her feelings. This is simply not plausible. Anyone who recites poetry unprompted, even if it’s only to the horizon and gulls, is a ponce. And at first the poems are by recognizable writers, found in books Kya’s mother left behind, which makes them significant because they help Kya understand who her mother was. But, for the whole second half of the book the poems are written (not artfully) by someone named “Amanda Hamilton”. I kept wondering, should I know who this Amanda Hamilton is? Why are there so many of her poems in this book? Frankly, it felt contrived and conspicuous in a narrative that is otherwise well written. Amanda Hamilton is, as it turns out, important to the story’s ending,

Despite her implication in Chase’s murder, Kya ultimately leads a quiet and happy life. Her independence and integrity are admirable, and she is a character not easy to forget.

Billy-Ray Belcourt, A History of My Brief Body

Belcourt is an Indigenous and queer poet who writes with rare immediacy, weaving together the banal (hemorrhoids) with the profound (life’s meaning). Also a professor of Creative Writing at UBC, Belcourt is keenly aware of what it means to take up space in an academic community that was historically created by and for white people. He uses the language of academia to tell a visceral, personal story of colonial violence. This juxtaposition is jarring, and acts as a reminder to those of us enjoying white privilege that any platform that exists for Indigenous voices does not exist naturally, but has been carved out, fought for and taken, rather than offered or expected.

In length and intensity, A History of My Brief Body makes me think of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, but I’m not sure if that’s because the books are alike in content, or style, or the way they make me feel. I’m reminded as well of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which similarly dives deep into the politics of identity and sexuality, not providing context for or an invitation to understanding so much as demanding attention be paid. All three titles could loosely be called memoir, but as a descriptor, “memoir” fails to represent the richness of the writing. They are also studies of desire, meditations on love, and explorations of pain.

Belcourt quotes Nelson, among many other writers and academics (Dionne Brand, Jose Estaban Muñoz, Ocean Vuong, Terese Mailhot, Roland Barthes and more) simultaneously telling his life story while reflecting on and analysing it. He seamlessly integrates post-structuralist theory into memories about his life and commentary on contemporary Indigenous reality. A rash of suicides in Attawapiskat, (“suicide emerges as a political response to structually manufactured sorrow where joy has been shut out of everyday life for a long time”) the murder of Colten Boushie, and the Pulse Nightclub attack provide concrete examples of violence and mainstream society’s ensuing inability to acknowledge the violence for what it is: a sustained attack on (often queer) bodies of colour.

Belcourt invites us to wonder, where and how can the individual lead a just and meaningful life in this world that denies individual existence? He asserts, “Sometimes, I’m so bored with my puny life that it feels as though the roof above me is going to cave in. When not distracted by the noise of the social, life looms over me, like a single rain cloud.” Who among us can say we have never felt untethered by lack of connection with others and sought to avoid this feeling through obsessive checking of our twitter feeds? I’m reminded of Sartre, who similarly observed, “Sometimes I yawn so widely that tears roll down my face”, but also not reminded of Sartre, whose right to exist was never denied by straight white settler culture, who was existentially bored, sure, but who was not in danger of being obliterated by his own country.

What I love about Belcourt’s writing is his refusal to either censor the filthiness of his experiences or dumb down the message he is serving. If we are to appreciate art, he suggests, artfully, then we must acknowledge the suffering that has led to its creation. It’s a powerful thesis, bracing and gorgeous.

Talk about post-structuralism! This is one of those books that is classified as fiction but reads like a memoir and all the characters are named after real people. The protagonist’s name is Sheila, her friend is named Margaux, like Heti’s real life friend, and Sheila also engages with a larger circle of artists who really exist in Heti’s home city of Toronto. The fictional Sheila has been commissioned by a local feminist theatre group to write a play, and the novel’s structure, divided into five acts, appears to reflect her attempt at writing the play.

Having missed the deadline, Sheila is struggling, both practically to do the writing, but also existentially in that she doubts her talent and ability to create a valuable piece of art. She turns to her group of friends, most of whom are also artists and writers, to seek a definition for what it is that makes art “good”. By extension, she is looking for what makes a person good, that is, ethically competent and a healthy contributor to society. Or, to put it another way, how should a person be? But, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, she seems to have no idea of where to look. Advice from her friends and lovers converges on her like a solid mass of possible answers that she picks through slowly, unable to determine what is useful and what is nonsense. Her confusion and aimlessness lead to rash decision making. At one point she leaves her home in Toronto and moves to New York city in pursuit of the artist’s ideal: an environment so dynamic it can serve as a muse and solve her writer’s block. The city can’t solve her problem though, and she quickly returns to Toronto, finally beginning to realize that what she is seeking cannot be found outside of herself.

Sheila’s desire to extrapolate meaning from art is a very human one, as is her confusion in determining which details (of anything) are significant. She’s not unlike Hannah in the HBO show Girls, faithfully committing to her self-perception as an artist, but lacking the confidence to really dive in and own it. As a result, her identity remains unfixed and her life a scramble without clear guiding principles. She’s envious of her friend Margeaux’s success and confidence, but does not try to comprehend Margaux’s process or personality, which is often explicitly revealed to her through Margaux’s radically honest emails. There’s no excuse, in other words, for Sheila to remain in the dark about details that are so clearly defined for her. Yet she fails to understand.

Overall, this is a provocative, if not always enjoyable novel. In it, Heti challenges readers to question their expectation of what a novel should do, what it should be. Should it comfort or unsettle us? Should it provide answers or ask questions? Should it be beautiful or ugly? Unwittingly, Sheila the character shows us that like life, it should be all of those things and more.

This is a lovely memoir that describes Gharib’s upbringing in the late nineties and early 2000s as the child of immigrant parents. Her Egyptian father and Filipino mother work like mad to create a comfortable middle class life for Malaka, because, as her mother tells her, “You have to be better than us.”

Gharib’s high school years are particularly well-told. She attends a private school in Cerritos, California that is populated by many non-white students like her. She is comfortable sharing her background in great detail, answering the ubiquitously asked, “What are you?” with a catalogue of information: “I’m Egyptian-Filipino. I grew up with my Filipino family here in Cerritos. I eat rice every day, and I went to Catholic school, but my Dad is Muslim and lives in Egypt...I can understand Tagalog and Arabic...Well, I kind of feel more Filipino because that’s who I spent more time with.” At the same time, she is conscious of her own investment in popular culture of the time, dominated as it was by whiteness. Though she is proud of her heritage and does not try to hide it, still she absorbs the message that whiteness is simply better to the extent that her friends accuse her of being “whitewashed”. She follows her teenaged dream of attending university in New York, like her hero Felicity. But once she gets there, she faces a new and previously unencountered level of white status quo. All the girls are named “Megan” and “Sarah”, nobody thinks Spam is viable food, and somehow they all know the words to “Sweet Caroline”. Television has not prepared her for this, and she realizes “It’s just like Felicity,” but not in a good way. Gharib’s post-college work life is peppered with fears that her identity as a woman of colour is limiting her professional progress. She beautifully depicts the micro-aggressions of her white co-workers, whose version of “What are you?” suddenly feels more sinister than curious. Gharib sensitively, but also humorously, explores her struggle to fit in, which is often at odds with her identity as a person of colour. She cannot hide who she is and still be happy, she realizes, or still achieve what her parents want for her.

Gharib’s drawing style is inviting, if a bit sketchy. It reminds me of Roz Chast or Lynda Barry, both stylistically and in her attention to the minutiae of ordinary life. Like Barry, Gharib spends a long time describing food and providing details about family relationships. She includes a reproduced page from her high school zine circa 2003, along with instructions for how to fold it into a readable booklet, immediately endearing her to me and (I assume) all readers old enough to remember life before the internet. It’s cool to see this artefact from her youth nestled into the story she tells otherwise retrospectively.

A great memoir is one that tells a universal story in a unique and personal way. Gharib achieves that here, not denying the pain of trying to fit into white society, but also taking time to celebrate her roots and the new identity she creates as a first generation American / Egyptian / Filipino.

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