The Breakouts are presented in partnership with Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
There is a certain thrill of discovery to reading Billy-Ray Belcourt. His writing feels like a secret: something important, something to be shared among close confidants.
It’s not that he’s unknown—his five books, multiple literary award nominations and wins, and track record as a national best-seller certainly suggest otherwise—it’s that his work feels singular and special in an industry of sameness.
Bridging the academic and the literary, Belcourt’s writing is gorgeous to read: sentences are sweeping and expansive, full of breath and lyricism. And he uses this command of language to, as he describes it, express “a desire for another world.” His background in academia (he’s currently an assistant professor at UBC’s School of Creative Writing) gives his topics—which range from colonialism to queerness to education—a layer of depth most authors could only dream of.
“My introduction to style was through academic writing; the first writer I ever wanted to write like, who inspired me to try to write differently, was Judith Butler,” Belcourt, who is from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta, says via phone. “When Butler is the first person that awakens in you a desire to write differently, your sentences will look a particular way. And I think as I have progressed in my writing career, I’ve tried more deliberately to strike a balance between the academic and the colloquial, because my language—my thinking—is a mixture of those two.”
His latest book, a collection of gently intersecting short stories called Coexistence (launching this May with an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada), is a meditation on Indigeneity, love, queerness, and self-governance. After mining his own lived experiences for two books of poetry and two books of non-fiction, he says it was time to find a new way to storytell.
“What I like about fiction is that it allows me to think like other people, so I necessarily have to reach outside my own autobiographical experience and imagine the texture of life for someone who’s not like me,” he says. “I think I had to make that shift in my writing practice, because I had exhausted my own autobiographical experience.”
Coexistence began with the two characters in what became one of the book’s short stories, titled “Lived Experience”.
“I wanted to write a queer Indigenous love story, because I think they’re relatively rare in the literary landscape,” Belcourt says. “I wanted to write a love story in which the characters stay together, and nothing traumatic happens to them.”
As he was working on that story, he found himself thinking about other characters and narrative pathways. Coexistence is the culmination of that exploration, and the resulting text is classic Belcourt: highly intellectual, but also vividly emotional.