What does it mean to write a novel in a world defined by the violence of colonization and white supremacy—a world that can’t be saved with mere words? What does it mean to want to write a novel at all, especially as you doubt yourself and recognize the contradictions in your desires and intentions? And what does it mean to be a queer Indigenous man living through these questions and their consequences?
These are the quandaries at the heart of Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt’s extraordinary debut novel. A Minor Chorus is a slim, sparse book with a breathtaking structure, a genre-defying blend of fiction, critical theory and oral history that holds seemingly endless layers of stories in its mere 176 pages.
Belcourt’s unnamed narrator is a 20-something queer Cree man fed up with the overt and insidious racism of the academic realm. He abandons his dissertation, leaves his Ph.D. program and returns to his hometown in northern Alberta, Canada, to write a novel. While there, he speaks with various people from his past: an old classmate, a closeted gay elder and his great-aunt. Between these conversations, he recounts childhood memories of his cousin, another Cree man who’s just been arrested on a drug charge.
It’s hard to describe just how moving and unusual this novel is. It is intensely interior, sometimes dizzyingly so. The narrator is a scholar who constantly analyzes his own experiences, philosophizing and interrogating, but he’s painfully aware of the limits of academic thought. This tension sizzles and spits at the center of the book, and while the narrator never resolves that tension, he begins to dissect the rigid binaries between living in the world and thinking about it, creating experience and feeling it.
Belcourt crafts sentences like only a poet can, each one precise and shimmering. He writes with ferocious intensity and beauty about Grindr hookups, queer Indigenous friendship, police violence, the open wounds of Canada’s residential schools, loneliness and longing. The narrator frequently invokes the work of other poets and writers—Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, Carl Phillips—and in doing so, firmly places himself in a lineage of struggle and resistance, artistic rigor and poetic thought.
A Minor Chorus is a feat of technical brilliance, a novel that questions the worth of writing even as it asserts its own value. It is a slippery, scholarly work, rooted in the layered complexity of Indigenous life. Belcourt has established himself as one of Canada’s leading contemporary poets. Now, with his first work of fiction, he cements his place as both writer and world builder, his words creating portals from the past and present into the queer Indigenous future.