Yes, I am weird looking. Yes, it does make me a better writer. But what if despite being weird looking and a good writer because of it, I never write a novel? I want desperately to write a novel so as to realize my full artistic potential. Not only am I a weird-looking writer, I am also a writer who is queer and NDN. What could be queerer and more NDN right now than the act of writing a novel? We are all bearers of the brutal inheritance of history and this is being revealed to us with each passing month; to me, the novel is the most hospitable form to tell a story about how despite my ability to diagnose the horror behind what animates the world, it still feels awful to exist. I could write an unduly long novel about the burden of being a person in Canada. I could write a novel about how taxing it is to talk to white people who are afraid to say the wrong thing to me. Even better, I could write a novel, in vignettes, about all the outlandish things white people say to me when they are trying not to say the wrong thing to me.

I tell everyone who will listen about the experimental novel I want to write. I tell them it will pressurize form and narrative and ask the reader to do a lot of work; I want to write a novel that will not disappear the labor that goes into writing it. I tell them the novel will register the blood and sweat and tears of writing at the level of typography.

I hate the idea of writing a novel teeming with dialogue and description, I confess to everyone repeatedly. I will not shut up about how I want to write a novel about what it is to write novels in this day and age, which means that I want to write a novel that interrogates ideas and idea-making. The novel will be like a child to me and thus I will be like its mother. I want to be a mother terribly, to give birth to words and to treat them all equally on the page.

My friends say encouraging things to me:

  1. I am so here for this!

  2. This is a work of staggering genius!

  3. You ARE the Cree Judith Butler—so productive!

When I tell strangers or acquaintances about the novel that I have not yet given birth to, they say things like:

  1. That sounds like a great idea for a short story.

  2. Sounds interesting, but not really like a novel.

  3. Who reads novels anyways?

I am upset with my friends who do not have the guts to tell me that no one gives a fuck about the novel anymore. Why do they withhold from me the cultural belief that novels are like damp firewood, untenable no matter how much gasoline you throw onto them? Social media killed print journalism, so why not the novel too? Why do I feel more like an artist and less like a writer when I tell people I am working on a novel?

I am writing from my deluxe dorm in the Cassiar Residence at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. I was invited here to take part in a residency that coincides with an Indigenous Art Intensive. When I arrived on the weekend, I was picked up from the airport by a fellow poet and, predictably, he asked about what I was working on (I asked this question myself at least a dozen times in the subsequent week).


(In a coy tone) I think I am writing a novel, but that is still to be determined! I was up all night yesterday turning over an idea that came to me out of the blue.


(laughter) That’s why I don’t write novels—they keep you up at night! Sure I have read novels and thought, I could do this too! What are you writing about?


I want to write a novel that expands on what “the NDN novel” can be and do. No one is really writing novels that take the novel into uncharted waters. There’s nothing wrong per se with the NDN novel as it is, but there seems to me to be an opportunity to have the form articulate what language cannot, especially when that language is not our ancestral tongue.


That sounds to me like a fair assessment. Whenever I try to write a novel it always descends into a meta exercise (laughter).


Right. I guess what I am trying to say is that I want to write the first-ever postmodern NDN novel in Canada.

The Okanagan is subliminal and this does not change because I am not yet writing a novel. I am such an unfree person, will writing a novel make me freer? There is so much an NDN has to say to properly render the diminished life he lives—will a novel afford me enough space to do this? What if I wrote a novel and I still did not like what I saw in the mirror? Worse, what if I wrote a novel and it did not make NDNs happier or want to live fuller lives? If I don’t write a novel, no one will know how unhappy I am.

Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a PhD student and 2018 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar in the Dept. of English & Film Studies at the University of Alberta. His first book, THIS WOUND IS A WORLD (Frontenac 2017), won the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize. His next book, NDN COPING MECHANISMS, is due out in the fall of 2019 by House of Anansi Press. You can find Billy-Ray on Twitter @BillyRayB

© 2018 Billy-Ray Belcourt. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, November 2018.

Images from The Noun Project (credits: Laymik).


««« | MAIN | »»»


by Billy-Ray Belcourt
What If I Never 
write a novel?