Beyond Body, Words and Time

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

by Kai Cheng Thom

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 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.

Living Together in a Time of Re-creation

By Shane H. Camastro and Louis Esmé

 Titiesg Wîcinímintôwak // Bluejays Dancing Together art collective is the name we use to organize our work on projects related to two-spirit resurgence, such as the Two-Spirit

Skillshare, Two-Spirit Bi-Monthly Social and Living Legacies, as well as artistic collaborations with other communities we may be a part of. Our name comes from the L’nu word for ‘bluejay’ and Nehiyaw term for ‘dancing together’, suggesting a collective creative process rooted in legacies of Indigenous resistance. We understand that Two-Spirit is a contemporary term specifically created by and for people Indigenous to Turtle Island, and is part of a growing resurgent movement to restore queer and trans leadership in our own nations, communities, as well as chosen and biological kin.

Founding members who helped shape the way we do things include Theola Ross, Krysta Williams, Pierre Beaulieu-Blais, Gesig Isaac, (name removed), Louis Esmé, Mikiki, Naty Tremblay, Joce Tremblay and Ange Loft. Most recently we’ve been grateful to keep working with some of these folks while bringing in teachings from Emma Allan, Shane H. Camastro, Kiley May, Jamie Whitecrow, Gein Wong, Erika Iserhoff, Maanii Oak, Zephyr McKenna, Willow Beyers, Melisse Watson, and Nicole Tanguay. Many community members have come to events, bringing their brilliance with them. Over the years we’ve worked with others whose legacies still shape our collective, creative process including Meg Bert, Ariel, Elwood Jimmy, Nathan Adler, Cherish

Blood, Fallon Simard, Vanessa Dion Fletcher and Gwen Benaway. Many, many people have given direction, provided groundwork, and found their own ways of supporting as mentors, aunties/uncles/auncles, grandparents and friends: Nora Melody Williams, Aiyyana Maracle, Jen Meunier, Jaret Maracle, Kahsenniyo Williams, Christa Couture, Ma-Nee Chacaby, Margaret Robinson, Seán Kinsella, Lisa Boivin, Ogimaa Mikana Project, Wanda Whitebird, Vera Wabegijig, Percy Lezard, Mashkiki:aki’ing with Sagatay, Billie Allan, Ruth Koleszar-Green, Melody McKiver, Amanda Thompson, Qwo-Li Driskill, Terri Coté, Daniel Heath Justice, Carmen Lane, and Audrey Huntley. We want to acknowledge the many settler friends who support without needing a biscuit, degree or platform in addition to the ways they’re already benefiting.

Titiesg // Bluejays come together to meet our communities’ needs such as making, viewing, and discussing Indigenous art, culture and theory. We are creative Indigenous people who are from many Nations and talk about what it means to be in a community art space without perpetuating pan-Indigenous stereotypes, while also resisting queer and trans settler nationalism. Some of us know how to describe our cultural responsibilities in our languages, or english, or both, or neither. All of this is okay because it’s okay to be in different stages of healing from colonization. Similar to how we don’t judge babies for not knowing how to start a fire, we support one another to pick up teachings at all life stages. Babies are awesome!

What’s most important is that we recognize one another as inherently worthy, powerful and loveable. Colonization has taught our people that transphobia, homophobia and misogyny are okay. This is literally harming us. We need two-spirit, trans and queer Indigenous leadership because we know how to do a lot of things including starting our own fires, collecting our own water, chopping our own wood. People who justify harms against us don’t see us as worthy of protecting/supporting, and they may even be people we love. This hurts. We are able to make art together so we already know that we can remake our bodies, lives, communities, families and Nations using our creative spirits. When we see one another as powerful, those hurtful attitudes and behaviours become intolerable and we learn to set boundaries. This heals our Nations. When we tell our stories, using our teachings to guide us, we become more powerful than those who criticize us for existing. This heals our communities and families. Two-Spirit people are here and we have always been present on Turtle Island. Together we remind ourselves about this and what it means to uphold our cultural responsibilities. This heals our selves.

Over the past year, Titiesg // Bluejays has been working on a project called Living Legacies:Two-Spirit Stories. We hosted two seasons of art workshops (funded by Community One and Toronto Arts Council) in plant knowledges, sound, performance, mask making, pottery and writing. Our stories are centred but we encourage Indigenous kin who aren’t two-spirit to join us. The work itself is as important as the places we re-inhabit, such as growing medicines along Gete-Onigaming at the Tollkeeper’s Cottage and Spadina Museum. At these colonial museums, we hosted workshops where our stories were spoken out loud and our bodies created new works. A special performance re-storied the typical “museum tour” through the actions of interplanetary Indigenous time travellers. Our songs were sung and our ceremonies shared, in this relic of genocide. We are pretty sure Spadina Museum staff and the white families who previously occupied this colonial building never intended for the Original People of this territory to return. We were mighty in our gentle, wise approach.

In October we’ll be sharing some of the results of Living Legacies with an exhibition at

Whippersnapper Gallery through their PEERS Projects initiative, further down Ishpaadina. During gallery times we’ll host small events for everyone to come by and see what we are up to. Beyond the next month, Titiesg // Bluejays will continue what we are already doing to hold creative space for our two-spirit selves that reflects who we are, where we are coming from and how we relate to the vibrant gathering place: Tkaronto, Gichi Kiiwenging, Toronto. This is what we’ve always done.

Louis Esme is a Mi’kmaq, Acadian and Irish ceramist, writer, illustrator, beader and community art facilitator. Their images have been on the covers of mâmawi-âcimowak, Transgender Studies Quarterly, and within the pages of kimiwan zine, Sovereign Erotics and most recently in Indigenous Feminist Cats. Order one at redearthstudios.ca

Shane Camastro is an anishinaabe 2spirit educator and mixed media artist from tkaronto, Dish with One Spoon territory. Shane is responsible for many communities and can be found caring for children, co-ordinating projects, and facilitating community workshops. They work at the intersections of art making, community building and education. Shane teaches and facilitates dialogues around space building, ‘anti-oppression’, and decolonization for over 10 years.

Fibro Warrior

by Bitty

 I am a Two Spirit art-creating, youth-centering, forest wandering, garden growing kick-ass crip with maternal roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed-Euro ancestry. I use drawing and writing as a tool of empowerment and as a way of processing, accepting, and sharing where I’m at.

This article breaks some barriers and isolation of living with a chronic and invisible illness as a Two Spirit person. It’s enough to navigate everyday Fibro life, never mind how overwhelming it can be to try to explain it and how I am affected. Much of my brain and energy go to internally coping with pain, as well as other symptoms and with there being little awareness, it made sense to share some everyday life info in an accessible form.

 What is Fibro/CSS?

 Fibromyalgia is a Central Sensitization Syndrome (CSS). It is a condition that presents mainly in women 20-50 years of age and can also occur in children and men. Some people prefer only to use CSS in referring to their illness as it more clearly specifies the involvement of the Central Nervous System (CNS). The CNS consists of the brain, nerves, and spinal cord and therefore opens our minds to the true whole-body complexity of the illness. When the CNS is hyper-sensitized, the body-to-brain messengers (neurohormones) have communication failures and changes. Our pain messengers (substance P) are increased, leading the body to register and feel pain from everyday use of the body and surrounding stimuli – for some even a cool breeze, lightings, cold or hot temperatures, strong/chemical smells, clothing textures and food sensitivities can be read and therefore experienced as real pain.

Other neurohormonal imbalances and dysfunctions in FMS/CSS involve serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and/or epinephrine, growth hormones, and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal gland– causing a cascade of symptoms. Pain is usually the major symptom of Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS)/ CSS and is generally felt throughout the whole musculoskeletal make-up of the body and/or it can move around. Probably the next most common symptom is sleep disturbances, often resulting in non-restorative sleep and profound fatigue.

 The word fibromyalgia can be deconstructed in Latin as:

“fibro” – connective tissue fibres

“my” – muscle

“al” – pain

“gia” – condition of

 This is just a glimpse of what is going on. Currently there is no known cause or cure for FMS/CSS. Though FMS is often discussed under the umbrella of auto-immune illnesses, it is not known as an auto-immune illness (or at least, not yet). It is known to often co-exist with Myofascial Pain Syndrome and other auto-immune illnesses. It is common to be tested and/or monitored for other auto-immune illnesses with similar symptoms before reaching a FMS/CSS diagnosis. I won’t get into FMS diagnostics then, on average, it takes someone suffering with FMS/Css 5 years to reach a diagnosis.

 To know more about FMS diagnostics I like the National Fibromyalgia Association (USA) website: http://www.fmaware.org/about-fibromyalgia/diagnosis/

 To know more about Myofascial Pain Syndrome check out books by Devin Starlanyl: “Healing Through Trigger Point Therapy: A Guide to Fibromyalgia, Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction”, “Fibromyalgia and Chronic Myofascial Pain: A Survival Manual” (1st and 2nd Edition) and “The Fibromyalgia Advocate: Getting the Support you need to cope with Fibromyalgia and Myofascial Pain Syndrome”

The following are selected from the zine Following the Beat of Our Wings, Two spirit Crip zine Issue 1: Fibro Warriors. To contact the author or order a copy of that zine send to: seawolfrise@gmail.com

Black and White portrait of Bitty close mouth smiling with arms raised in a black shirt. They have on glasses and dark lipstick

My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.