Joshua Whitehead’s first novel packs a gorgeous punch ... It’s a stirring and bold debut, one which Alicia Elliott, writing in the Globe and Mail, says “creates a dream-like reading experience—and with a narrator as wise, funny and loveable as Jonny, it’s the sort of dream you don’t want to wake up from.”
Joshua Whitehead’s first novel packs a gorgeous punch. Jonny Appleseed introduces us to a young Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer named Jonny, who moves from the rez to the big city but is called back home to return to a family funeral. In the meantime, he recalls stories of love, heartbreak, and longing as he casts a wise and world-weary look back over his young life.
It’s a stirring and bold debut, one which Alicia Elliott, writing in the Globe and Mail, says “creates a dream-like reading experience—and with a narrator as wise, funny and loveable as Jonny, it’s the sort of dream you don’t want to wake up from.”
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is the author of full-metal indigiqueer (Talonbooks, 2017) and the winner of the Governor General's History Award for the Indigenous Arts and Stories Challenge in 2016. Currently he is working on a PhD in Indigenous Literatures and Cultures in the University of Calgary's English department (Treaty 7). Jonny Appleseed is his first novel.
THE CHAT WITH JOSHUA WHITEHEAD
Trevor Corkum: Jonny Appleseed is such a gorgeous, gutsy novel—full of love, despair, bravado, deep tenderness, and truthful desire. How did Jonny first arrive for you? And how and when did you know you had a novel on your hands?
Joshua Whitehead: Jonny first arrived to me about a decade ago while I was trying to write a young adult novel about a handful of Indigenous beatniks in Selkirk, MB, that I tentatively titled the “Concrete Poets.” It was a mess of a story, hah, and was more an attempt at a writing exercise than anything—it was more like me trying to write white. But within that cast of characters was Jonny, this hyper-femme, contemplative, seductive existentialist.
When I excised the “beach” poems, as I call them, from full-metal indigiqueer, Jonny returned pining for me to write him into the world—well, more like demanded of me to write him. He began as a short story, then a novella, and then finally, in full NDN glitter princess fashion he finally said, “Ah, for hell sakes just write a damn novel about me already.” It’s funny how the smallest of ideas or characters can live within you for some time and it’s my job as a storyteller to listen to their needs, desires, demands. My characters always know when it’s their time. Both Jonny and ZOA (the protagonist of full-metal) are returning in some small semblances in my new writing as well so stay tuned!
He began as a short story, then a novella, and then finally, in full NDN glitter princess fashion he finally said, “Ah, for hell sakes just write a damn novel about me already.”
TC: Jonny’s an unabashedly sexual character, proud and comfortable of his desires, yet vulnerable as well. Did you have any trepidation about writing the sex scenes in the book? Was it difficult to write these scenes truthfully?
JW: While I do sometimes think of writing as method acting and the body of writing as holistically intertwined with my own body—Jonny Appleseed is an act of fiction. Though, I would be lying if I didn’t have a fear of writing so voyeuristically and sensually and the type of reaction I would get from my readership but while doing so I continually asked myself, “Josh, time-travel to yourself as a young 2SQ person, what type of writing would you have loved to see in the world? What would validate you?”.
I continually asked myself, “Josh, time-travel to yourself as a young 2SQ person, what type of writing would you have loved to see in the world? What would validate you?”
That helped guide me. As did my family, which may sound weird, but I think a lot of Indigenous families and communities are unabashed about sex—we make jokes about who snagged who, who has the smallest “bannock bum,” call each other “weenuk” and “tuguy”. And in my queer circles we are also explicit and truthful about our sex lives, our bodies, our desires.
What this tells me is that Indigenous peoples are super sex-driven, hell, I also come from a land of post-contact nations (such as the Oji-Cree, the Métis) and this tells me too that my homeland is a space of sexual ceremonies—that being said, I think a lot of Indigenous peoples are still quite traumatized from an idea of queerness that was wrought upon them through residential schools, the 60s Scoop, CFS, adoption, etc. They are difficult conversations to have.
... my homeland is a space of sexual ceremonies ... that being said, I think a lot of Indigenous peoples are still quite traumatized from an idea of queerness that was wrought upon them through residential schools, the 60s Scoop, CFS, adoption, etc.
So I thought what would happen if you braided together these two worlds, what would an Indigiqueerness look, sound, feel like? And that’s the type of language I tried to weave into the novel, those two worlds Jonny walks within, Indigenous and queer, and how his tutelage from both would exacerbate his vernaculars. He’s sexy because he is desirable in all of his ruinations, and he’s sexy because he doesn’t give a damn what other’s think—he’s sexy because he uses that as a type of medicine that heals everyone around him.
TC:Jonny is Two-Spirit. In the acknowledgements you dedicate the novel in part to other Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people, describing how you consciously chose to centre the novel around the experiences of Two-Spirit folx and Indigenous women. Why was this important to you?
JW: I have been taught that within nehiyaw ways of being we centre our most vulnerable. A lot of Indigenous literatures which I see held up a lot, and which I love, seem to centre a lot of het cis men be them writers or characters. I wanted to place 2SQ folks and women within the centre of my novel because those are the worlds that nourished me, taught me, loved me, helped me come out and come in to myself. I needed to honour that and be truthful to that.
I wanted to place 2SQ folks and women within the centre of my novel because those are the worlds that nourished me, taught me, loved me, helped me come out and come in to myself.
Within Jonny Appleseed, he explicitly states that he doesn’t quite care for his father, and his step-father Roger has already passed by that time. He lies to himself, he still cares for them but, I believe he does so in a different register. By animating himself and the cast of characters he chooses to call kin, he holds the world accountable to him for once. That’s what I envy the most about Jonny—he summons worlds for those who need them.
TC:Earlier this year, you declined a Lambda award nomination for your poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer—which had been nominated in the trans poetry category. Can you talk more about that decision?
JW: I think now that we’re in a literary and literal position of seeing so many 2SQ folx become centered, to hold, take, demand space, and to also be publishing posits all of us within CanLit in a unique position. I’m so happy to see all of us emerging and being rewarded and being loved—but I think we’re still quite vulnerable to the world and to ourselves.
To be Two-Spirit is something that is heavily appropriated by settler culture as it quickly becomes an alleviator that says, “Well those NDNs over there have always been queer and have had third, fourth, fifth genders since time immemorial so thereby our ideas of “queerness” are validated.” To an extent that is true, but Two-Spirit is a pan-term and many nations within Turtle Island have their own terms for that within their own languages—being 2S is much more than an indicator of one’s gender, sexuality, sex, or positionality; it’s also a type of responsibility and accountability to one’s peoplehoods. I can also see how easy it can be to google 2S and see that it’s an amalgamation of masculine and feminine spirits and to write that off as trans.
While I was beyond honoured to be nominated for such a prestigious award I would be obliterating bits of myself if I were to accept that award—the bits of me that practice a type of 2S ethics towards my kin and communities and the bits of me that told me I needed to centre and honour my 2SQ and women kin. Maybe in the future I’ll be put into a more applicable category, or even see a 2SQ category made, but the Trans Category is a hard-won battle by many trans writers that I could not claim, that is their space, that is their home.
Awards are wonderful tools and help us financially and socially gain new grounds but an award is not the epitome of writing, story is: how it heals, how it nourishes, how it fills the belly with wonder. I am so happy to see Ching-In Chen win the trans poetry Lambda this year and wish nothing but the best in their future endeavours. And I hope with my withdrawal that I’ve helped to teach folks, queer and not, about what writing with care looks like, what it means, and what 2SQ entails to some extent.
Awards are wonderful tools and help us financially and socially gain new grounds but an award is not the epitome of writing, story is: how it heals, how it nourishes, how it fills the belly with wonder.
Trevor Corkum:We’re in the midst of a powerful resurgence of Indigenous writing in Canada. Eden Robinson, Katherena Vermette, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Cherie Dimaline, Gregory Scofield, and Leanne Betasamoke Simpson, among many others, have won or been nominated for major literary awards in the past couple of years. How has their success and recognition impacted you? As a scholar in Indigenous literatures and cultures, how would you describe the current climate for Indigenous writers and writing in Canada?
Joshua Whitehead: I think Indigenous literature is entering its third wave in our current moments—it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. Everyone you’ve named is a loved kin of mine that have all helped me in their own ways to become a better writer, thinker, critic, academic, and overall person.
Katherena I owe so much for showing me the glimmer of NDN love in Winnipeg with her work, Billy-Ray for teaching me how to mourn and transform, Cherie for showing me that 2SQ folks can and will survive the apocalypse (of which we’re already in), Gregory for helping pave the way for 2SQ writing, Leanne for everything, literally, she is the beloved aunty to NDN literature—I’d also add Gwen Benaway here for being such a steadfast rock and mentor in my life.
We also have so many new and emerging writers breaking new ground too: Arielle Twist, Jaye Simpson, Erica Violet Lee, Lindsay Nixon, Rebecca Benson, Darrel McLeod. What I love about Indigenous lit and all of us is that we care for one another, honestly, critically sometimes, but always generously and with love.
When one of us slips, we stop to lift them up, we phone one another, email, text, we stop and say, “What do you need right now?”. And when one of us succeeds, we all, I think, in our own small way leap forward. I am beyond excited to see what is to come and who is to also find their story and help us pave way for the youth who will surpass us. I think of myself as merely a door opener, a barrier breaker, a forger sometimes and it’s always been for those kids and always will be because that’s what makes it worth it.
I told Tias about that night a few weeks afterwards. He came over while my mom was at bingo and my kokum was in Winnipeg for the weekend. My body was shaking involuntarily as I recalled the story for him. I had to sit down and he took me to my room which was less an Ikea showroom and more a hand-me-down mattress without a boxspring on the floor and a hamper for a dresser. My saving grace was my box TV and our pirated satellite. He brought me a cold cloth and laid it on my forehead and told me everything was going to be okay. I asked him if he could hold me and say that. He did.
After a few minutes, he took my hand in his and we laid our legs over top each other like a wishbone. We both stayed there looking at each other, not saying a word, sweat forming on our brows in the dry heat of August. I moved the cloth so it draped over both of us and we slid our heads that much closer. The tips of our noses touched and we left them there, puckering for a kunik.
We clasped one another like a zipper. The cloth blocked out all light and we lay side by side in darkness. I felt the heat of his breath on my cupid’s bow. We slid off our jeans and raised our T-shirts to press our bodies closer, our nipples kissing too. Our breaths grew heavy. His thighs were bony and my clavicle dug into his, but it was the most comfortable I’d been in a long time.
After our bodies were drenched in sweat, we pulled off the cloth and laughed. He stared at me for a long time. I saw new parts of his body I’d never seen before: a chickenpox scar on his cheek, the width of his bottom lip. We both knew what the other was feeling.
Instead of saying we liked or loved each other, we just lay there on our backs, our brown skin shiny in the rosy light that poured in from the evening sun. We surveyed each other’s body: him seeing the scar above my clavicle from when I fell down the stairs as a kid, and me seeing the patch of hair missing from his scalp. I knew then that I loved him.
Funny how an NDN “love you” sounds more like, “I’m in pain with you.”
Excerpt from Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018