Love’s Pedagogy, or: My Kookum is a Philosophy Instructor

By Billy-Ray Belcourt*

“Love always returns us to what we do and do not know. We have no other choice than to become shaken by doubt, and to persist with what we can know when we can know it.”

– Judith Butler, “Doubting Love.”

My sister and I have a running joke about how my kookum** only phones her when she’s searching for me, because for whatever reason – usually when I’m in class or taking or nap or in a meeting – she couldn’t find me between the hundreds or thousands of kilometres that make the world too wide for her to be beside me anymore. Recently, I traveled to Honolulu for an international conference and before I departed she said something to the effect of: ‘don’t forget to call me, because I’ll go crazy if I don’t hear from you.’

What a sentence! If we think of love as a process of world-making that we can never adequately anticipate or manage, then it’s always-already prone to running amok or to shattering. Indeed: might love’s tendency to shatter – to weaken over time or to be lost in a split-second – partly animate its ability to anchor us in the present? Without it or its object, we might go crazy, if we describe ‘crazy’ as a state of being whereby one loses their bearings in the world. To say that without ‘you’ I could go crazy, is thus to admit that ‘you’ are one of my world’s conditions of possibility and that my world wouldn’t be the same without ‘you.’ In fact, I might not be able to adjust to your absence and what’s left of my world might become unlivable.[1] And, though disparate social worlds might have congealed in the wake of our distance or incompatible desires and patterns of thinking, there’s this geographic overlap – however small – that is worth attending to or even residing within. There is a struggle to determine how best to keep going without that locatability.

Differently, however: to speak of the possibility of losing you because you are not near me might also point to the ways that the world cannot bear all of us. It is as if she is saying, à la Warsan Shire, that “you are terrifying and strange and beautiful, someone not everyone knows how to love.”[2] It is as if she is warning that her house might be the only sanctuary for native boys like me who love too much, and that it is risky investing in love’s promises because they are haunted by the threat of being ripped away from you by someone else.

But, has anyone ever stopped loving because they calculated the risks of losing their love object and were deterred by the foretaste of injury? What work does this fantasy that love can be subject to statistical scrutiny do? Of course love is not merely about what might be lost when it inevitably falters or ends or is violently withheld; it is a process that makes us submit to incalculable forms of transformation, ones that make life bearable, if life is described as a collectivity sutured by good and bad affects. Might love be better put to use as an ethical imperative to be with others in ways that require your constitutive becoming?[3]

We have to learn from love’s endurant form, how it makes doubt workable in a world whose continuity is always in question. My kookum’s love has always been about nurturing forms of sociality that glean hope from the unhopeful. This is a common scene in my poetry. In June, a ten-point poem of mine called “we were never meant to break like this” was included in an exhibit at SFU’s Audain Gallery called “the fraud that goes under the name of love.” The seventh point read: “my kookum has survived oceans and yet still loves like trees do; you know, the way they feed themselves so that their leaves can live too.” And, in a chapbook I’m writing by the same name, there is a poem called “epilogue” and it reads:

“when I look

into the rubble

of him

I see my



and I think

about the way

she made


feel livable


how things

that died

ages ago

never forget

what breathing

feels like.”

In Cruising Utopia, José Muñoz writes: “To accept the way in which one is lost is to be found and not found.”[4] Love is thus not a roadmap to an other who then becomes your compass, but a proposition to notice that you are lost like I am and that we can be lost together. For many, the present is not only not enough, but also lethal – love transports us to a future within which sadness doesn’t always nest in our breath, a future that isn’t neatly demarcated, but one that can house the hitherto unhoused.

My kookum’s love is one that gestates worlds – a form of love that zeroes in on the ways her life is messily bound up in mine, and vice versa. For Indigenous peoples, love has been a hornet’s nest of sorts, as we have died and died again defending it. Love like my kookum’s is telling: in a world saturated with mass death and crisis, love is the glimmer of patchwork futures that could and should be. My kookum’s is a sort of love that expects change, as our love objects never stay the same. In sum, her love was and is one that evinces ways of being in the world that proliferate Indigenous life. Love proliferates Indigenous life.


*These remarks were presented as the keynote for the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Student Services Centre’s Annual Spring Gathering, June 17, 2016.

** I use ‘kookum’ here not because it is grammatically correct (because it isn’t), but because it is the spelling I was taught as a child.

[1] These thoughts are partly inspired by Judith Butler, “Speaking of Rage and Grief,” Critical Theory, June 5, 2014, accessed June 16, 2016,

[2] Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (London: flipped eye publishing limited, 2011).

 [3] Judith Butler’s work circa 2002 has been asking similar questions about how the life of the one is bound up in the life of the other, such that the former cannot persist without the latter.

[4] José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 73.



  1. Shanne McCaffrey · June 20, 2016

    Billy-Ray, I am becoming a huge fan of yours–you have such a poignant way of netting together the memories and characters of people that resonate strongly for me. I appreciated reading of your Kookum–it warmed my bones. Keep the great writing coming that keeps our hearts beating and our spirits being lifted up, Shanne McCaffrey


  2. Tricia Marck · June 25, 2016

    Your writing feels like a force of nature Billy-Ray, one that lifts up the whole people. It is a gift for a world that needs to find its way to the love, courage and wisdom that your Kookum shares with you. Thank you for opening more ways forward to healed hearts with your brave words.


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