New collection by Billy-Ray Belcourt brings northern Alberta characters into his readers’ orbit

In his fifth book Coexistence, Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation) shares a collection of short stories that moves through Indigenous love, loss, queerness and hope. Themes of identity, belonging, past and present flow through each of the stories.

Belcourt burst onto the literary scene in 2017 with his book of poetry This Wound is a World, winning multiple awards. Subsequent bestselling novels continued to bring recognition to the author, including the 2019 Inspire Award.

Belcourt is now an assistant professor in the School of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.

At the heart of Coexistence is a convergence of worlds—the academic and the intimacies of the everyday—reflecting Belcourt's identity as both a scholar and a poet.

“I wanted to be a conventional scholar when I was in my undergrad,” Belcourt said, “and then I discovered poetry.”

Belcourt said he started writing poems when he was around 19 years old as an outlet to analyze his life, his community history, “and feel like it was personally benefiting me in terms of catharsis. That's when it clicked for me that I could make a practice out of writing.”

Since then, Belcourt has worked to blend two different ways of expression in his writing—academic and everyday language, he explained.

"I try to err closer to the colloquial but bringing my usual theoretical lens to bear on the lives of people going about their daily existence," he said.

“With this story collection, I wanted to conjure an entire community. I think of these characters as all orbiting around each other. They're all in some way, or most of them are in some way connected to northern Alberta,” Belcourt said.

“What would it look like to ask readers to be in conversation with, or to bear witness to, all these Cree lives in northern Alberta? And I think ultimately that is a desire to build a shared world and pay attention.”

The lives in Coexistence are relatable yet distinct, grappling with personal and collective struggles.

In the story "my diary," where an older queer man confronts the ghosts of his hometown and the rift of regret. Belcourt writes: “To return to the site of one’s upbringing shouldn’t be an experience of incoherence. Somehow, it is.”

In that story, Belcourt “was thinking about when you're Indigenous, you're rooted to place, your people are land based, but in some cases they're called elsewhere. And I wanted to grapple with what it means,” he said, “and how that opens up a gap between you and your loved ones or community.”

In “one woman’s memories” as Louise’s Catholic upbringing intersects with ancestral spirituality it becomes an example of superimposed worldviews. Belcourt doesn’t simply introduce or describe characters, he brings us into their dreams and memories.

In Belcourt’s books, Spirit is present “in not a religious sense, but in an existential sense; the things that connect you to something outside of physical embodiment. And how it has come into my writing is through love and intimacy. I see those things as activities that can nourish your spirit or diminish it.”

It’s a place where a professor’s chalkboard prompt in the story “poetry class” invites survival in the face of adversity, “building little worlds wherever we go, often with the desire to not be destroyed by life,” Belcourt writes. Some of those passages will resonate with Indigenous readers right away, while others may approach it in a different way.

“One of the cool things about being an Indigenous writer right now is that we don't have to spell everything out. I think previous generations of Indigenous writers felt compelled to do that or were pressured to do that so that they could be totally legible to non-Indigenous readers,” he said.

“I don't think there's that same pressure these days. And so when I'm writing, I am thinking primarily about how other Indigenous people will read the story.”

“And it sometimes doesn't even occur to me that a sentence I've written or image I've drawn up is specifically Indigenous. That's just organic to the process. And I love the moments where people can be like, ‘oh, this spoke to me in an Indigenous way’,” Belcourt said.

Coexistence can be found on the Penguin Random House Canada website at

By Odette Auger, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,,