Reviews of Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World and Joshua Whitehead’s Full-Metal Indigiqueer

by Kai Cheng Thom

“my body, like the land, was up for grabs.” – Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Boyfriend Poems”

How does a settler of colour like me – a third generation, ripped from homeland, utterly cityfied trans girl – learn real love for the land? How do diasporic people of colour learn to become responsible, to have integrity, in our relationships to Indigeneity, to Indigenous people, to the stories that bind us all? These are the questions that surface in my mind as I read the poetry collections: This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt and Full-Metal Indigiqueer by Joshua Whitehead – two recently released debut collections of poetry by queer Indigenous authors that have lit up the queer poetry scene this year.

Whitehead and Belcourt, along with writers such as Gwen Benaway and Arielle Twist, are among an emerging generation of Indigenous queer and Two-Spirit poets who follow in the lineage of groundbreakers such as Chrystos and Qwo-Li Driskill. In the tradition of anti-colonial poetry, their work – in each of their unique voices and styles – interrogates the violence of European colonization and genocide on Turtle Island though the lenses of intimacy, sexuality, and gender. In so doing, each poet also breathes new vision, affirmation, and possibility into the conceptualization of Indigenous queer identity.

In This Wound is a World, Belcourt pulls the reader into a searingly intimate examination of what it means to live in the world with an Indigenous, queer body – the narrator of the opening poem, “The Cree Word for a Body Like Mine is Weesageechak”, introduces himself in the opening poem as “a broad-shouldered trickster who long ago fell from the moon wearing make-up and skinny jeans.” Simultaneously, Belcourt troubles the notion of what it means to “have” or to “be” a body at all, perhaps most explicitly in the piece “If I Have A Body, Let it Be A Book Of Sad Poems” and in the Epilogue, in which Belcourt reflects on love as “a process of becoming unbodied.”

Tender yet fierce, vulnerable yet unrelentingly powerful, Belcourt’s poetic voice skillfully uses the confessional register in order to evoke an emotional landscape of love, loss, heartbreak, grief, and hope. Over and over again, in myriad ways, Belcourt asks the question: What is Indigenous queer love in a colonized world? Each piece in This Wound is a World offers part of the answer.

Poems such as “I Am Hoping to Help this City Heal From Its Trauma,” “The Back Alley of the World,” “Native Too,” “OKCUPID” and “There Is No BeautifuL Left” explores the potential and power of sexuality in an Indigenous queer context. Here, Belcourt does not shy away from the impact of trauma on the body. “i am the monster in the closet / your bedtime stories prepared you for / you want a man / whose body doesn’t whisper / horror stories / each time you touch him,” he writes in “OKCUPID.”

Yet there is possibility as pain in sex, for Belcourt, as the title of his collection suggests. In wounds, there is sometimes wisdom, and through the abject, there is sometimes absolution. In the gorgeously written “Native Too,” he writes:

“he was native too

so i slept with him.

i wanted to taste

a history of violence

caught in the roof of his mouth.

i wanted our saliva to mix

and create new bacterial ecologies;

contagions that could infect the trauma away

[…]

i wanted him to fuck me,

so i could finally begin

to heal”

Interspersed with the first-person confessional poems that comprise the majority of This Wound is a World is a series of third-person meditations on moments in history and current events that reflect on the collective trauma of colonial genocide and violence. These pieces, such “A History of the Present,” “God’s River,” and “Wapekeka,” ground the intimacy and emotional authenticity of the rest of the book by placing it within a historical frame. Like the shape-shifting trickster of “The Cree Word for a Body Like Mine is Weesageechak,” Belcourt weaves himself in and out of this frame, using his words to reach into and through the notions of body and time toward decolonial love.

Where This Wound is a World is an intimate close-up, Joshua Whitehead’s Full-Metal Indigiqueer is an explosive panoramic that shatters the frame: inspired by anime and sci-fi archetypes, the collection follows the journey of Zoa, a cybernetic trickster virus that infects, transforms, and rebirths everything that it touches – which is to say, pretty much every colonial literary and cultural trope – in order to re-member and re-centre Two-Spirit stories. Whitehead’s conceptual genius and technical brilliance come to the fore in Full-Metal Indigiqueer as he takes Zoa and the reader on an expansive revolutionary tour of the English literary canon and contemporary Western pop culture.

Full-Metal Indigiqueer is at once trenchant in depth and breathtaking in scope: Like Donna Haraway’s cyborgs, Zoa manifests itself from everything and anything around it, all the while remaining fixedly devoted to its mission of Indigiqueer vivification. Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, RuPaul, Mean Girls, Harry Potter – if it is in the zeitgeist, Zoa can and does subvert it with almost ecstatic zeal. Yet the human(e) aspect of Zoa remains apparent throughout; Whitehead balances meta-human nature of his protagonist with haunting emotional clarity:

“there is no safety word here,” Zoa proclaims,

“you’re on the precipice of sex;

i am unas lion; i am sansjoysanslovesansboy

i am the real fairy queene

femme-boy-fatal[e]

thegreenbladeofgrass

that castrates Whitman endlessly

do you still want to dream of me [questionmark]

tell me: “i didn’t think gay natives still exist”

 

The intensity continues to build as Zoa grows through the narrative, becoming at once more human and more powerful in its otherworldliness. In, “MIHKOKWANIY,” a poem dedicated to Whitehead’s kokum, or grandmother, Zoa states “to be honest / I’m im just a little brown boy / obsessed with mutants & robots / queered by his colour / queered beyond his tradition / the saving grace of ceremony / writing for a kokum he’s hes never met.” This tender, vulnerable piece is immediately followed by the “THE EXORCISM OF COLONIALISM,” in which Zoa breaks the code of colonialism and digitally resurrects a host of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The piece serves as both a heartbreaking testimony and an unrelenting challenge to the ongoing violence of the colonial legacy.

Among Whitehead’s many achievements in Full-Metal Indigiqueer is his resounding success in the creation of a map for an Indigenous futurism that breaks the colonial boundaries of English language and literature. In giving birth to Zoa, a consciousness that transcends words and time, Whitehead offers readers a new way of conceiving queer Indigeneity – or rather, Indigiqueerness.

Whitehead and Belcourt have given great gifts to the world this past year with the publication of their debut collections. As I read their words, I am reminded that stories are a pathway into the heart – into a place beyond body, words and time. In order to reach that place, we must be open to stories that destabilize us, that centre others, that push the boundaries of our sense of self. As Belcourt implies in his Epilogue, decolonial love is non-sovereignty. As a trans girl of colour far from a homeland of my own, reading Indigenous poetry on Turtle Island, I am trying to learn what that means: For me, it begins with gratitude. Gratitude for the land, for Indigenous queerpoetry, and for Indigenous poets.

I read these books, and I am grateful.

Kai Cheng Thom

Kai Cheng Thom

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, healer, lasagna lover and wicked witch based in Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, the poetry collection a place called No Homeland, and the children’s book From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea.