*WINNER OF THE 2023 BC AND YUKON ETHEL WILSON PRIZE*
*LONGLISTED FOR THE 2022 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE*
An urgent first novel about breaching the prisons we live inside from one of Canada’s most daring literary talents.
An unnamed narrator abandons his unfinished thesis and returns to northern Alberta in search of what eludes him: the shape of the novel he yearns to write, an autobiography of his rural hometown, the answers to existential questions about family, love, and happiness.
What ensues is a series of conversations, connections, and disconnections that reveals the texture of life in a town literature has left unexplored, where the friction between possibility and constraint provides an insistent background score.
Whether he’s meeting with an auntie distraught over the imprisonment of her grandson, engaging in rez gossip with his cousin at a pow wow, or lingering in bed with a married man after a hotel room hookup, the narrator makes space for those in his orbit to divulge their private joys and miseries, testing the theory that storytelling can make us feel less lonely.
Populated by characters as alive and vast as the boreal forest, and culminating in a breathtaking crescendo, A Minor Chorus is a novel about how deeply entangled the sayable and unsayable can become—and about how ordinary life, when pressed, can produce hauntingly beautiful music.
About the author
BILLY-RAY BELCOURT (he/him) is a writer and academic from the Driftpile Cree Nation. His debut book of poems, This Wound is a World, won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2018 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, and was named the Most Significant Book of Poetry in English by an Emerging Indigenous Writer at the 2018 Indigenous Voices Award. It was also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and the Raymond Souster Award. It was named by CBC Books as one of the best Canadian poetry collections of the year. Billy-Ray is a Ph.D. student and a 2018 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. He is also a 2016 Rhodes Scholar and holds a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies from Wadham College at the University of Oxford.
- Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
- Winner, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
- Long-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize
Excerpt: A Minor Chorus: A Novel (by (author) Billy-Ray Belcourt)
In the end, the idea came to me suddenly, as I was walking with River in a park near their neighbourhood. We were talking about the summer night I had sex with a man in the basement of a parking garage. I said it was the most alive I had ever been because I felt so close to death. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you,” the man said before he stripped naked. River said people didn’t naturally make the kinds of decisions I did when I was cruising. Once we stopped laughing, it occurred to me that I wanted to examine how we live under conditions of duress, both visible and invisible. My novel, then, would be a kind of literary ethnography of sadness and hope, of constraint and possibility. My informants would all come from the same place: the town in which I was raised, in a region heretofore unexplored in Canadian letters. I would write a book that reflected a community’s emotional lives rather than just my sensory experience of the present. I would drive into town with graffitied fists and make art that would matter. If I wanted to study what was and wasn’t worth living for, I told River, I had to make the trek to northern Alberta. They bought us a second round of coffees as a celebratory gesture.
Within hours, I had devised a methodology: I would collect the testimonies of those who were, in an existential sense, contortionists, people whose personal histories were marked by structural neglect, by cruel fate, by heavy silence, by a joy that pressurized sociological theories of deficiency. Why not do this in Edmonton? For starters, it represented a past life I disavowed, it stood for an embargo on creativity and revolution. It was true that history could fabricate a world anywhere, could become the contours of a body, a person, a house, a neighbourhood; I suspected, however, that in some places this fact was hidden. There was nothing new to say about the city and everything still to say about the outskirts of the modern, about the zones of existence where the present was always the past, or, more precisely, was always the past reverberating like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Rural Alberta was where I’d reacquaint myself with the preciousness and wildness of life. In talking to those who came from where I came from, I also hoped light would be shed on the person I was or the person I might become. Perhaps I was no longer repressing the fact that I was as determined as anyone else by the milieu into which I was born.
This is what I knew about where I come from: It’s a place where history begins and ends. Before it was part of Alberta, it was the District of Athabasca, and before that it didn’t have an English name. It’s the homeland of the Cree and Dene and Métis, and for centuries my ancestors lived in harmony with the land and water and forests and animals. At the close of one century and the start of another, those from whom I descend signed a treaty near the shores of the lake around which many reserves are now located, including my own. They signed in the spirit of communality and peace and in the name of future generations, though what followed was an era defined by a systematic assault on Indigenous livability: death schools, open-air prisons, child abductions. Many sick experiments were carried out by the federal government and its henchmen from which we’re still recovering, though recovery isn’t always an option. All the while people resisted, loudly and quietly, but always creatively. This was one way to tell a story about northern Alberta. There was another way, one that was embodied and consequential for the living, one that zoomed in on emotion and intimacy. It was this more corporeal mode of storytelling that enticed me.
What I knew about being queer and Indigenous and in my twenties was desperation. It is we who experience aliveness as both inescapable and a shimmering impossibility. We improvise life outside the frame of futurity while also being ensnared by it. We don’t die. We proliferate life as if machines engineered to do so; that’s it. I would return to my hometown and go about the practice of not dying, I thought. My liveliness would be artful.
Death itself wasn’t nearly as devastating as what the human drive to stay alive causes us to accumulate over time. We endure with quaking certainty; the world devastates us without end and still we are hungry and hungrier. What dazzling logic.
In a matter of days, I confirmed a number of interviewees, all of whom were amiable and eager to participate, a symptom, to my mind, of an urge to perform the novelistic as a kind of abstract moral value (an urge I found relatable). During the phone calls, it occurred to me that so few of us are given permission to theorize about our lives, so many are bound to the register of everyday chitchat. It made me wonder: If there isn’t time or space to account for or to avow with bewilderment and frustration and joy the emotional fabric of one’s life, to assert one’s enmeshment in a narrative of humanness that continues to unfold, where does that language go, where does it pile up? Inside us, as routinized as oxygen? Or is it like dust, a porous, vulnerable, almost unperceivable film covering everything? In one’s mouth, would it taste like the earth?
Once I’d made arrangements and packed my vehicle with my bags, with books I treated like talismans, I drove northward out of the city and, in so doing, deeper into my homeland. I drove for four hours through central Alberta and into the boreal forest, along the southern edge of the subarctic. I whirled past rows and rows of trees, which, blurred by speed, looked like a wall I could knock over. Upon crossing the Athabasca River, I pulled over, in front of a sign that marked the division between Treaty 6 and Treaty 8, an old but not ancient division I felt called to acknowledge. After a few minutes I darted away, shoving my palms into the off-white bark of a single poplar. I swear, for a second or two, the whole forest shook.
As I made my way from one side of the province’s third-largest lake to the other, I passed through reserves as well as predominantly white villages and hamlets, one after the other, a pattern that could only have been devised by a colonizer’s militaristic imagination, and maybe it was. There were swaths of forest around the reserves and farmers’ fields in between, especially so around my hometown. Nothing was inextricable from the trauma of the twentieth century, everything was bound up in colonial policy, in the processes of racialization and settlement, yet the topography was gorgeous, yet my people were still so full of life. I was a product of this paradox, and I had returned to study it.
*WINNER OF THE 2023 BC AND YUKON ETHEL WILSON PRIZE*
*LONGLISTED FOR THE 2022 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE*
Named a Best Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail, Indigo, and CBC
"No one breaks your heart as elegantly as Billy-Ray Belcourt. Innovative, intimate, and meticulous, A Minor Chorus is a thoughtful riot of intersections and juxtapositions, a congregation of keenly observed laments gently vivisecting the small, Northern Alberta community at its core."
—Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster
"The literary child of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, this novel builds on both, and is yet still something so new. It has the guts to centre Indigenous queer life as worthy of serious intellectual and artistic inquiry—which, of course, it always has been. We will be reading and re-reading and learning from A Minor Chorus for decades to come."
—Alicia Elliott, author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground
"An absolutely dazzling confluence of big ideas and raw emotions, told in Billy-Ray Belcourt’s singular poetic voice. A Minor Chorus is about loving, questioning, and fighting for your life, and it’s as compelling a debut novel as I’ve read in years."
—Jami Attenberg, author of I Came All This Way to Meet You
"A truly exceptional novel about how the disregarded sometimes live the most remarkable lives, and how storytelling will redeem us somehow, make us less lonely. A Minor Chorus is like a song that’s over too soon; I want to play it on repeat, to memorize the words so that I can sing them to myself."
—Katherena Vermette, author of The Strangers
“An achingly gorgeous debut novel of Indigenous survival. . . This is a breathtaking and hypnotic achievement.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Registers less as minor chorus than symphony . . . Belcourt's boldest, freest, and most linguistically assured work yet.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
"Poet Billy-Ray Belcourt’s first novel is, unsurprisingly, a genre-defying masterpiece . . . . This book is unlike anything else I’ve ever read: it’s academic and anti-academic, full of poetry, longing, theory, and philosophy."
“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.”
“Belcourt is a brilliant writer and this book is further proof.”