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Billy-Ray Belcourt on using short fiction to show a range of Indigenous experiences

Billy-Ray Belcourt, as shown in this handout image, has populated his first short story collection with a pantheon of Cree characters, each presenting a different possibility for modern Indigenous life. (Penguin Random House Canada / jaye simpson) Billy-Ray Belcourt, as shown in this handout image, has populated his first short story collection with a pantheon of Cree characters, each presenting a different possibility for modern Indigenous life. (Penguin Random House Canada / jaye simpson)
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Billy-Ray Belcourt has populated his first short story collection with a pantheon of Cree characters, each presenting a different possibility for modern Indigenous life. 

The cast of "Coexistence" started with just one couple. Belcourt wanted to write a story about queer, Indigenous partners who stay together, in which nothing traumatic happens. 

"I didn't see that represented in the literary landscape and so I felt a certain degree of urgency in portraying that kind of story," he said. 

But as he was writing their story, which comes second in the collection of 10, more characters presented themselves to him and the book began to take shape — along with an expanded mission.  

"I was interested ultimately in what I've been calling the Indigenous domestic: the ways that Indigenous people go about their daily lives, how history manifests in that daily sphere, but also how they make choices around love, identity, art in ordinary ways." 

Some of the stories are connected — that first couple Belcourt wrote is at the centre of two tales, one from the perspective of each man. A mother who stayed in the First Nation where she was born is the subject of the first story; her son who left is the subject of the last. 

Other stories stand alone. A man is released from jail determined to live up to his grandmother's expectations in the face of a justice system that seems designed to push him down. A woman returns to her mother's home, which used to house the nuns who ran a nearby residential school. 

The stories serve as portraits, slivers of people's lives drawn in sharp detail and pieced together.

"My life only represents a certain facet of being bound up in history, whereas if I write other characters into being, I can touch on and grasp toward these other experiences, historical embeddedness. So I'm really interested in the sociology of these characters' lives and not just their interior existence."

All of Belcourt's protagonists are Cree and from northern Alberta, like him. Many are queer; some have moved far from home; some are intellectuals or academics. 

These are throughlines in Belcourt's work. He calls it a "habit, which might become a problem." 

"Often when I'm writing fiction, I think I'm writing alternative versions of someone like me — or, you know, the multiverse of a queer Cree man," he said. 

His first novel, "A Minor Chorus," which was published in 2022, follows an unnamed narrator who returns to northern Alberta after a stint in academia, longing to write a novel about his rural hometown. Belcourt published a memoir in 2020, "A History of My Brief Body," and before that, two poetry collections — one of which won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. 

"I have a real desire to be specific about queer Indigenous life and politics, partly because of course the literary landscape in Canada has mostly neglected that perspective until very recently, and also because I think about my own youthful experiences with art," Belcourt said.

"It wasn't so much the fact of representation but rather the emotional power that these texts afforded me to think that my own life was possible. Writing is about endowing possibility in a reader -- especially writing fiction. And I want to imbue my works with queer Indigenous possibility."

But it would be a mistake to think all of Belcourt's characters are representations of himself. Instead, he thinks of them as people close to him.

"I did feel as though I was spending a lot of time with them in an intimate way, and that relationship of proximity allowed me to feel, if only briefly, that their lives were legitimate," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2024.

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