Arts·Queeries

With Joshua Whitehead's Jonny Appleseed, Indigiqueer storytelling has a spotlight at Canada Reads

Whitehead's powerful debut novel is one of the books on this year's nearly all-LGBTQ shortlist.

Whitehead's powerful debut novel is one of the books on this year's nearly all-LGBTQ shortlist

Joshua Whitehead. (Tenille Campbell)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

There was something wonderfully queer about the short list of books Canada Reads announced for its 20th edition. After last year's winner We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib, Canada Reads has continued to prove just how much queer storytelling is leading the field of contemporary Canadian literature. Four of the five books selected this year were written by LGBTQ authors — including Joshua Whitehead's transcendent and powerful debut novel Jonny Appleseed

Released in 2018 by Arsenal Pulp Press, Jonny Appleseed comes to Canada Reads with a considerable set of laurels already attached to it. It won the Lambda Literary Award, the Amazon Canada First Novel Award and the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction. It was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. It was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. And now it will compete on CBC's annual battle of the books, with actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs championing it on the show.

As Canadians scramble for their next pandemic winter book, they'll be lucky to find a truly exceptional read in Jonny Appleseed. The book follows a young two-spirit Indiqueer man has left the reserve to try and find a life in the big city. A self-proclaimed "NDN glitter princess," Jonny ends up becoming a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. But this is all upended when he has return home to attend his stepfather's funeral. And in the dream-like seven days leading up to the trip, Jonny learns to reconcile the pieces of his life before he faces his past.

Vivid and intimate, if you haven't already been introduced to Jonny Appleseed, now is the time to change that. You'll be introduced to one of Canada's most exciting literary voices, who I had the pleasure of chatting with last week.

The cover of Jonny Appleseed. (Arsenal Pulp Press)

It's been two years since Jonny Appleseed came out, and yet it is still getting much deserved attention, now from Canada Reads. How does that feel? It's been quite the ride of acclaim.

Jonny is very much like Joshua in that way — he's a voracious caretaker, love-giver. When the [Canada Reads] longlist was announced, I wrote on Instagram, "Jonny m'boy, you find me again and again with gifts and medicine aplenty just when I need you," and I truly stand by that. Jonny always provides. He has found me in the darkest recesses of my minds [and] during personal financial crises; he's gifted me knowledge I needed to hear; he's eased me into sleep through insomnia; and now he has found me again emerging with ragged spiritskin after a deep dive into depression during the final lonely months of COVID 2020.

I owe him — and by him, I too mean community — in this acclaim and recognition. He stands as the pinnacle of what I/we intend to do for 2SQ literatures, art, stories and futurities in this coming decade and onwards. He is ablaze in glitter and dentalium and I am honoured to continue fanning those flames. 

As you will continue to do as Jonny gets even more attention through Canada Reads, likely introducing a whole new group of readers to a story about a two-spirit Indigiqueer young man and "proud NDN glitter princess" — which is amazing. What do you hope new readers take from it, particularly those that aren't well-versed in terms of queer Indigenous literature?

I hope readers, new and old, take what they need from this book within whichever moment they find themselves. Like I noted before, Jonny has helped me mend severed relationships and tend fractured friendships — I treat him as I would a plant: I take what I need and only that. I never uproot the medicines inherent, and I too give back with what I've taken. I hope readers find the beauty, hope and strength of Indigenous families, especially matriarchal and queer kinships inherent within Indigenous worldviews.

I too hope readers, especially non-Indigenous and white queers, see the horrors that settler colonialism, settler sexualities, and appropriation have wrought upon those most vulnerable within Indigenous communities: 2SQT (Two-Spirit, queer Indigenous, and trans Indigenous peoples) and Indigenous women. As we look south in this moment to what we now refer to as the United States upon our home, Turtle Island, I hope we can see how imperialism and state sanctioned violence wreaks havoc here too, literarily and literally. Jonny embodies history and futurity in equilibrium, witness his wickedness and his vulnerability. 

Joshua Whitehead. (Tenille Campbell)

How has this strange time been for you? Have you been able to write through your pandemic existence? 

The pandemic has affected me in a multitude of ways. It has cut my income into shreds as a freelancing storyteller, it has obliterated my mental health, and it has taken away much of my ability to think beyond doom, let alone write. I have found that my own writing has had to go on the back burner, and I have had to invoke my ability, like Jonny, to caretake and community-build. I've spent the grand majority of the last year working as an editor for emerging 2SQT writers with Love after the End: an Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. I've also been mentoring Indigenous poets, blurbing new Indigenous books, spending countless hours on Zoom and on phone calls holding space for those who needed me. I've helped fundraise for Book Clubs for Inmates, attended BLM and Land Back protests, and tried to make as much space for those who have found themselves isolated and alone.

I suppose, in these ways, the act of reciprocity has now garnished me with a plethora of story, coping strategies, mourning techniques, radical politicizations, and kin to lean on as I move into 2021 finishing my forthcoming book, Making Love with the Land, to be published with Knopf Canada. Sometimes the act of storytelling is much more than putting pen to paper or pixel to page, but rather it too is about community engagement, kinship enrichment, and, most importantly, placing person before persona. For me, literature will always be a synonym for reciprocity. 

Have you been finding time to get up to anything else?

I have been spending a great deal of time this year outdoors. Outside of that, I have been dedicating time to my alternative hobbies too: cosmetics, comics, video games, and baking. I've also been glued to the screen watching Trickster and the amazing release of Indigenous films and television shows: Monkey Beach, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. And to top it all off, I have a rez pup with me now (from my own reservation, Peguis First Nation), a German Shepherd named okîmaw/Chief, who, I'm sure, will keep me more than busy in the coming months.

What excites you about queer Indigenous literature right now? Who are some other writers people should check out if Jonny Appleseed is their entry point?

What excites me is that there's been a blooming of new and emerging writers coming forth with stories to tell that may be atypical to non-Indigenous readers in that they move beyond the scope of expectation (the residential school narrative or idyllic portraits of Indigeneity). There are eight wonderful 2SQT self-identified writers in my edited anthology: Kai Minosh Pyle, jaye simpson, Nathan Adler, Adam Garnet Jones, Nazbah Tom, Mari Kurisato, Darcie Little Badger, and Gabriel Castilloux Calderon, all of whom I cannot praise and recommend enough. Outside of that there is the incomparable work of Arielle Twist, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Gregory Scofield, Brandi Bird, and Tyler Pennock (to name but a few). 

What do you feel remains one of the most pressing issues in terms of how this country's mainstream media treats Indigenous queer stories and artists? And conversely, what is something that has felt really hopeful about that in the past few years?

The most pressing issue I have noticed is a type of literary voyeurism, in that many folks, especially non-Indigenous, read these works of fiction and creative ingenuity as memoir or boudoir, as if the book is a confessional booth or autofiction. A persona is not necessarily a person, even if their identities mirror. Subsequently I would advise that we all treat these writers — BIPOC writers largely included too — with care so as not to consume a body as we can a book. Behind the pages, paper or pixel, are people who deserve kindness, ethical inquisitions (i.e. don't trauma-mine for personal histories), and support (even if you don't care for the book, a story is a gift, treat it as such).

Joshua Whitehead. (Tenille Campbell)

What gives me brazen hope, though, is the sheer shifting of gravitational forces in this industry we call CanLit in that queer, BIPOC, and trans narratives have made space, taken space for themselves in this machination as a legitimate and powerful force of oration beyond simply pulp or genre work — works that span generations, young and elder, intersections, space and place, and most importantly, voice. I believe what's to come is a miracle in the making.  

Joshua Whitehead's novel Jonny Appleseed will be championed by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs during the 20th edition of Canada Reads, which takes place March 8-11 on CBC. 

About the Author

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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