May 23, 2016
by Billy-Ray Belcourt and Maura Roberts
Friendship is messy: it’s a form of kinship whereby two disparate bodies and their histories hastily come together. Friendships aren’t usually held together by biology or romance but by the promise of shared investment in the world, a world in which we see and want the same things.
Unlike other scenes of living—marital, familial, or professional—friendship doesn’t always carry the same ‘eventfulness.’ It often disappears in the face of goings-on that distract us from the ordinary. We grow older, and supposedly more useful or permanent relationships take friendship’s place. This is not to say, however, that short-lived forms of relationality can’t leave their mark.
For us, friendship carries a kind of forward-dawning futurity (to borrow José Muñoz’s term): it can make possible and easier the labour of getting through the day, keeping you in this world when things have run amok (and we know that things are almost always running amok). Friendship can make space for forms of difference in ways that don’t destroy that difference, paving a route to a shared lifeworld, even if it’s small or makeshift. A radical sort of friendship is about making the world more workable or livable for one another, throwing a wrench into the future that settler colonialism narrates.
Billy-Ray Belcourt: I met Maura in a moment of collective—though uneven—exhaustion. It was the first week of a course on Indigenous literatures and we were sorted into the same group to go over assigned readings. There, another student, as if provoked by his proximity to a Native body, quickly announced that colonialism wasn’t that bad. He insisted that there was more to the story. Note the historiographic work of this kind of comment: colonialism, locked in the distant past, was not only over, but it also made way for a present that had to be good, if only a little. But, my body—a body to be policed and narrowly interpellated—was sore from the labour of surviving a world that didn’t want it from the start. This was a war I had been conscripted into. When all you’ve ever known is pain, it’s hard for anyone to tell you that there’s something else out there.
Maura threw me a lifeline, turning a war into a teach-in. She showed someone like her that this wasn’t their history to tell, that this was in fact a history murderously written at the expense of Indigenous life, social and legal orders, and philosophies. Indigenous peoples are expected to do the work of conflict resolution in universities. There is a lopsided neoliberal fantasy that our presence in the university is good enough in the melodrama of progress. The skin is where diversity policies begin and end. How might we be in the university in ways that don’t wear us down? Making do is sometimes the hardest thing to do.
Maura Roberts: We didn’t meet in the way that most friends do: at a social setting like a party, through mutual acquaintances, or because of immediate common interest. We met in a moment of crisis; not the kind that makes headline news or gains public attention. No, the crisis that was also our introduction came in the form of an older white man talking about colonialism. My stomach dropped and my skin started to prickle (a reaction usually reserved for moments of my own objectification or other discomforts). I listened as Billy-Ray was forced to confront yet another attack, not necessarily having the energy to attack back but forced to fight regardless. His voice shook. He sounded tired.
For me, living on these lands is conditioned by whiteness, settlerness. This has contributed to my ability to move within the world, my skin an epidermal camouflage. Perhaps there are waking and sleeping ghosts, white ones who float in this world with no attachments, no strings. My inheritance of white skin and its accompanying socializations enables the illusion of neutrality. It became clear that not supporting Billy in this fight was another form of complicity. White supremacy offers certain bodies the illusion of a lack of responsibility. To stay silent in this confrontation would reproduce this sort of systemic harm. I added my voice.
Billy and I both attempted to convince this man how inaccurate, harmful, and entirely problematic it was for him, as a white man, to voice such opinions without attending to the lived realities of colonial violence. He dismissed our words for various reasons. Some battles are already lost before they’ve begun.
BB: Decolonization is selfish: it is about modes of wanting and becoming that take indigeneity as their referent, building an otherwise that untangles violence from life, because premature death shouldn’t be that which ghosts the ordinary. We want something else, because the present can’t bear all of us. Decolonization, then, isn’t an evened-out enterprise: there is much more at stake here for us than for our allies. I am hunting for forms of allyship that make our decolonial dreams more dreamable.
If we want this world to end (and that’s what decolonization calls for), we need friends who will get knee-deep in the rubble, so to speak. Decolonization is apocalyptic: entire worlds have hardened around patterns of thinking, forms of sociality, and state-building practices that unevenly distribute life. Decolonization therefore pushes us to live, however precariously, at the juncture of the then and the next. Indigenous worlds are fraying, how might we sustain them without detracting from their political and cultural particularities?
MR: Realizing how certain bodies inherit particular futures, procrastination might be another way to deny particular conscriptions in the systems we occupy. I am uniquely experiencing a life, but one that is also part of a longer and wider history. Histories are written on our bodies, and my existence is the one some expect, the kind of existence that our classmate affirmed as being the “good” of colonialism. I recognize the disparities between Billy and me, and I know survival is not always in isolation from others. It’s not always obvious what shape or form radical friendship might take.
Procrastination opens up possibilities for resisting certain types of productivity mandated by colonialism, by heterosexism, by ableism, by racism, by capitalism. By inhabiting a space that’s holding out for something, a space of procrastination, we might make time to wonder how a temporary deferral of the present allows us to turn attention towards work for a different, more liveable future. This space which recognizes exhaustion, which recognizes a present inability to do, which avoids producing or making in the world, is its own haunting. How effective, how integral to living, is this suspension? Can it reject the systems that demand some of us to do? The systems that demand some of us to die?
BB: I’ve been thinking about the emotional work of friendship, how it doesn’t need happy object attachments as desperately as other forms of relationality in order to persist. I might ask: Would it be okay if you were sad with me too? I know I am almost too tired to keep up with the hurt anymore, but there’s something poetic about having another body, however worn down, to help carry the world with me. Which is to say that sometimes I want to let the world swallow all of me. But I don’t, because I can’t be a martyr for a fight that’s not over yet. Perhaps friendship coats survival in positive affect.
MR: My friendship with Billy is of the sort that challenges what happinesses are linked to, that shows me how ways of being in the world are contested, how important it is to take cues from and make space for each other. Radical friendships can create suspended time warps of belly laughter, ugly cries, cuddle naps, or spaces to encourage each other’s work. They can be spaces that offer room to undo, experience, and reckon with the harms, the violence, the demands, of our multi-faced existence on this land, in these spaces, in our minds. These friendships take time we might not have, the time it takes to make them into what we need. We teach each other in moments of productive crisis, we love each other when we “fail,” and we celebrate the disruption of anyone who has ever reduced us to a mirage. We will disrupt: from our communities, from our moments of exhaustion, of defeat, of erasure. We will call you out from our Netflix binge-watching, our bubble baths, and Facebook messenger. Radicality doesn’t always look like what you’d expect it to; but we are slowly tearing things down anyway.
BB: In this day and age—one in which politics looks mostly like moments of catastrophic decision-making on behalf of a population that doesn’t consent to that form of governance —we need better and perhaps even smaller modes of interruption. Friendship offers up a kind of sociality that makes experimentation in the name of a larger political project possible. Loose ends don’t have to be tied up. Radical friendship might show us how we can live better—when things change—at the end of the world. For us, friendship is partly what’s keeping us attached to life, and to a future that actually wants us in it.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a 2016 Rhodes Scholar-elect and completed a BA (Hons.) in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. He blogs and writes poetry at nakinisowin.wordpress.com.
Maura Roberts is a white settler, born in Northern Ontario. She has been living on Treaty 6 land for about fourteen years. She is working towards an After-Degree in Women and Gender Studies (Hons.) at the University of Alberta and does human rights work advocating for folks with disabilities through Neighborhood Bridges.
Image by Louise Reimer
“Making Friends for the End of the World” is from our FUTURES Issue (spring 2016).