I always find reading Billy-Ray Belcourt challenging, his work pulls at the threads of hidden assumption in my thinking about the world while also creating a space where I feel seen, and held with a level of care and compassion that is so often lacking in the wider world. In particular, his debut novel A Minor Chorus which was published this September as I entered the final year of my Master’s degree speaks to the ways that theory is problematically constrained to traditional academic spaces and all the harm that those spaces have the potential to cause.
Belcourt captures the emotions and tension that arise out of my contentious relationship with the academy, addressing both the joy and deep sadness that I encounter as I move through my education. Early on in A Minor Chorus the idea of harm in the institution is complicated in ways that I rarely see articulated and that align with my own experience, “It wasn’t that I had been wronged by the university per se. Rather; something inside me shifted in the last year such that I was no longer moved to play by its rules”. The narrators articulates the desire to think deeply about ideas saying “I still want to write” when considering a departure from a PHD program, but there is an awareness that the traditions of the university do not bring the kind of radical community or support that the kind of work he wants to do requires. It is so easy for me to read my own experience into that space, when I left Queen’s half way through my BA part of the catastrophe was that I had realized that the academy, particular the old school mentality at Queen’s, wanted to exploit my intelligence without any care for how I understood my own being and project. Growing up I often ended up telling people around me that “my brain is not a toy” when they asked endless questions trying to poke at the limits of my intelligence but when I arrived at university it felt like instead of a toy my brain had become a machine that was appropriated and directed by the goals of the institution. There was no explicit wrong, in fact through my time at Queen’s my professors and peers often celebrated my intelligence, but I felt trapped by the rules. I no longer was able to exist within those constraints, I was harming myself in an attempt to become the kind of enlightenment subject that the university desired, but I still wanted to write and to think. It seemed like there was no other place for those processes and that by leaving I was placing myself into an unwinnable catch-22 of misery.
Thinking through how to exist within the neoliberal academy is a core theme of Belcourt’s novel and in his exploration of the joy of thinking deeply and the tragedy of who and what is excluded from that process that makes me feel so at home in A Minor Chorus. However, as a white settler reader of the book I am also challenged to remain conscious of the ways that I cannot fully understand the experience of Belcourt and/or the narrator. When he writes “it occurred to me that so few of us are given permission to theorize about our lives, so many are bound to the register of everyday chitchat” he is not writing in generalities about the exclusivity of the academy but rather the specificities of how Indigenous ways of knowing have been systematically oppressed and erased from the spaces of so called serious thought. My existence within the university system has been taken as a given since I was very young and even after a hospitalization, a year off, and a radical shift in my thinking I am still on track to begin a PHD program next year with the general feeling that this was inevitable. This is not the experience that A Minor Chorus is speaking to, instead Belcourt writes of a radical resistance and the survival of centuries of colonialism on Turtle Island. He works in the context of Cree identity and considers ways of being from the foundation of that experience, “My rez, like most in Canada, came into being so as to function like an open-air prison, but today, against this logic, we care for one another in ways that the state could and will never interrupt”. The networks of care and traditional ways of being are core to the journey that the narrator of A Minor Chorus embarks on and exists in a different register to my own experience.
Beyond my philosophical, critical, or emotional engagement with the Belcourt’s writing he also presents stylistic choices that undermine hegemonic ways of thinking about storytelling and writing. In A Minor Chorus the narrator is unnamed but also possibly the author himself, suggested by the CREE HOMO tattoos that both the narrator and the author wear in reference to their Twitter handle in an act of self naming. As a reader this blurred boundary between narrator and author also suggest a mixing of truth and fiction, none of which becomes clarified throughout the novel so instead must be set aside in order to move deeper into the story. However, for a casual reader who comes to the text without a knowledge of Belcourt himself, the most notable challenge to novelistic conventions will likely be the way that speech and quotation are handled in the text. While lines or passages from critical theory texts receive quotation marks and a clear attribution of who was writing, the speech of the narrator or any of the people he interacts with are not bounded in the same way. Which to me at least also points to a challenging of the way that writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, asserts truth claims. In Belcourt’s narrative it is not important to make those demarcations of which character is speaking at any given moment, or whether ideas are vocalized or are a part of an internal monologue. By refusing the conventions of quotation marks A Minor Chorus creates a space that emphasizes dialogue more in the sense of how people exist in communication and deep consideration of one another beyond the requirement for a mis-en-scene that is ‘believable’ or ‘immersive’ to a conventional reader. The impact of Belcourt’s subversive style of writing is profound and deeply moving. It brings up a desire to write like he does, not in the sense that I will adopt similar stylistic changes – for better or for worse my own style remains much closer to academic convention than the poetic – but that it encourages me to think about how the way I write can align with the challenge to the privileging of the academy that I hope to explore.
There is so much to consider in A Minor Chorus, much more than I could possibly contain in the space of this response. It is a book that I will recommend to many people around me for both aesthetic and conceptual reasons but also in the hope that those readers will be willing to share their own response with me. Billy-Ray Belcourt extends a challenge to allow ourselves to theorize our own experiences but also to listen better to the voice of others. To be in dialogue with ideas both inside and beyond the academy from a place of appreciation and care.
If you enjoyed this post or have ideas that you would like to share, please feel free to leave a comment and if you really enjoyed this post please consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee here. If you found the ideas in this post interesting you may also enjoy my post about the use of Walter Benjamin’s theory in Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness which can be found here.
This post was written as part of a larger project in an autoethnography class in my MFA program at OCAD University. The post therefore reflects concepts that have been presented to me in the context of the course and I would like to recognize my professor for encouraging me to use the framework of the course to think more deeply about these ideas.