Kate Dooley Reviews Non-Fiction from Madhur Anand and Billy-Ray Belcourt for EVENT 49/3
Kate Dooley Reviews:
Madhur Anand, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, Strange Light, 2020
Billy-Ray Belcourt, A History of My Brief Body, Hamish Hamilton, 2020
At the heart of memoir writing exists an author’s ability to carefully piece together the fragments of their lives. Although the genre suggests a focus on a single writer, it’s clear that this kind of narrative often involves incorporating that which exists outside the author—from familial relationships, to historical anecdotes, to the strangers that pass through the writer’s web-like life. Two Canadian writers, Madhur Anand and Billy-Ray Belcourt, are keen to make their readers aware that books of this nature are not solitary endeavours. In their newest memoirs, each author writes about the complexities of being human and connecting with others. Anand’s and Belcourt’s projects seek to make sense of one of the messy realities of life: that who we are is often the product of ripple effects that expand outward from our families, countries, education and technology.
An ecological scientist and a poet, Anand was born in Thunder Bay in 1971. A professor within the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph, she has published a collection of poems, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes. Her most recent undertaking, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, takes the reader on a multigenerational journey from India to Canada. The book is separated into two halves, mimicking the 1947 Partition of British India into Pakistan and India—an event that forever changed Anand’s and her parents’ lives.
‘Do you want to hear Aap beeti or Jag beeti? My version, or the version written by others?’ Anand asks, assuming the voice of her mother. In the first half of the work, called the First Partition, she inserts herself within her parents’ memories, using the first person, instead of the third, to recount their stories. In this way, Anand’s memoir is a work of embodiment. Anand demonstrates that ‘my version’ cannot be separated from ‘the version written by others’ because they are inextricably tied together. In writing about her own life, she consequently must write about the lives that have impacted and surrounded her. In the second half of the book, the author recalls a memory where she is mistaken for her mother in the hospital: ‘It makes me feel like I am in the First Partition. It feels totally natural now. I become my mother.’ Despite Anand’s taking on her mother’s identity—both through the narrative project and physically in the hospital—the book’s form reminds the reader that the author is seeking to differentiate her own story from that of her parents. Thus, this is also a work of disentanglement. Even so, as she writes her own narrative, she repeats her mother’s question, phrased slightly differently: ‘Which would you prefer to hear? My story or the story of the world?’ Despite Anand’s search for her own voice, this echo in the work hints that disentangling her story from her parents’ is an ongoing project.
‘I want to match every feeling in one partition with its mirror image in the second. I want to trace that four-sided figure: a country’s border drawn by connecting a number of arbitrary dots, the past meeting the future,’ Anand writes. She is invoking a mathematics theorem (the Theorem of Friends and Strangers). Here, like in many instances in the book, Anand applies mathematics to her storytelling project: placing one foot within the first partition and another foot within the second. These detours from the non-fiction narrative into complicated theorems, systems and theories are imperative to her memoir. As she carefully explains the work of researchers and scientists, she proves her point that no event is truly random. While the language is dense at times, Anand’s ability to transition from a scientific register into a poetic one helps to ease the reader through her examples.
With this, she reminds readers that there are many different forces we use to make sense of our lives and, equally, the world around us. For her, intertwining branches of science, math and poetry become the catalysts through which her family trauma—relating to immigration, an abusive father and a cold mother—is explored and tended to. In connecting fracture mechanics, a physics field devoted to stress and strain, to her mother’s heart attack and subsequent fall, Anand seeks to both explain and understand how damage affects the body. The memoir, then, does not chastise readers for their possible lack of understanding of such fields, but instead successfully offers new ways to think about the progression of one’s life.
‘I cannot make sense of all my family stories,’ Anand writes. ‘There is so much I have left out. The bankruptcy. The loans. The profits. The alcoholism. The gambling. The eating disorders.’ Understanding our own lives, especially insofar as they touch those of other people, is always a difficult project. Yet, as Anand’s memoir demonstrates, narrative has its uses, organizing the fragments of a life into a tangible whole.
Like Anand, Billy-Ray Belcourt executes another deeply vulnerable project as he recounts events from his life. In A History of My Brief Body, he takes his readers through intimate and traumatic sexual encounters and guides them through theoretical texts. Yet for all this heaviness, both emotional and intellectual, the book manages to captivate, even intoxicate, the reader with its beauty.
‘To be alert to freedom and doom is what I make of my job as a writer,’ Belcourt writes. ‘It is my job because I’m aware of the conditional and thus refutable nature of both facets of social life.’ The book shifts between depicting the harsh reality of growing up as a queer Indigenous boy from the Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta and moments of what Belcourt calls ‘NDN joy.’ Achieving the latter may be difficult as Canada continues to deny its ongoing colonialism, but Belcourt manages to locate joy through his experimental writing, which seamlessly transitions between a letter to his nôhkom, prose poetry, lists, fragments and endnotes.
This versatile form of storytelling suits a narrative that reveals both pain and beauty. ‘I have to tell my story properly, and to do this I need to guide you through a cacophony of things that could break a heart without negating the sociological import of our enactments of care,’ Belcourt writes. Indeed, the memoir includes many heartbreaking moments—from violating Grindr hookups, to falling out of love, to instances of targeted racist hatred.
Regardless of this, Belcourt’s words are chosen so tenderly that his utopian vision continues to shine through even the darkest memories. Nowhere is this as clear as when he speaks directly to Indigenous youth, offering them a mandate for the future: ‘NDN youth, listen: to be lost isn’t to be unhinged from the possibility of a good life. There are doorways everywhere, ones without locks, doors that swing open. There isn’t only now and here. There is elsewhere and somewhere too.’ Such a statement pulls both the author and the reader out of the past, reorienting them toward the present just as Anand does in the second half of her book, the Second Partition.
In varying degrees, therefore, both writers liken themselves to caretakers. ‘This essay sits at the centre of the multi-sensory labyrinth that is memory recall,’ Belcourt writes. ‘When not distracted by other business, I, like a janitor, scan the darkened building of me for detritus and misplaced things, something to put me to work again.’ In envisioning himself a janitor, Belcourt compares his writing to the act of cleaning. Similarly, Anand repeatedly discusses clearing out her parents’ home. ‘I find more handwritten notes of my mother’s tucked in bags of old clothes as I continue to de-clutter the house and I steal them,’ she writes. ‘Part of me believes she has stashed them there knowing that I will be the only one to find them.’
As caretakers, Belcourt and Anand tend to their memories, their loved ones and their trauma, either lived firsthand or inherited from past generations. By taking part in these projects, each writer lets their readers peer into fascinating new realms, whether that is the India inhabited by Anand’s parents or a world that prioritizes Belcourt’s vision of Indigenous joy.