Devery Jacobs & Joshua Whitehead discuss Canada Reads contender Jonny Appleseed
Devery Jacobs is championing Jonny Appleseed on Canada Reads 2021
Jonny Appleseed is about a two-spirit Indigiqueer young man who leaves the reserve and becomes a cybersex worker in the big city to make ends meet. But he must reckon with his past when he returns home to attend his stepfather's funeral.
Jonny Appleseed won the Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. It was also longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Canada Reads will take place March 8-11, 2021.
You can watch their conversation above or read an excerpt below.
Devery Jacobs (DJ): I love Jonny Appleseed. I love the book. Reading it felt so personal. I kept forgetting that it wasn't a memoir. I know you had mentioned that to me before, that people keep calling you Jonny, as opposed to Josh. It's very much a novel, but it feels so personal. What inspired you to write Jonny Appleseed?
Joshua Whitehead (JW): I wrote Jonny Appleseed because I needed Jonny to be in the world, like an avatar, as a figure for myself and then for the larger communities that I represent: a two-spirit community, queer Indigenous, trans Indigenous, non-binary Indigenous folks, specifically the youth across Turtle Island. I needed this glitter figure to be in the world, to be offering his stories and then also to be representing us. It's very Jonny Appleseed, the folktale figure planting the seeds but it's medicine instead of apples, all over and in people's bellies as they listen to these stories. He's been with me for over a decade now, percolating and collecting things. I would say Jonny Appleseed does get misread as a memoir. And Joshua the writer does get confused sometimes for Jonny. But I think that speaks to the kind of truth-telling that Jonny embodies. Jonny is very embroiled with my own life.
I needed Jonny to be in the world, like an avatar, as a figure for myself and then for the larger communities that I represent- Joshua Whitehead
In my instance, specifically as a queer Indigenous person, I don't have the ability to dissociate the physical body I inhabit from the body of text that's being produced. We feed and nourish each other — and grow into this novel or story form. So Jonny is very connected to me. It is not a memoir, but there are very autobiographical parts in Jonny Appleseed, which I won't say but you can guess.
Jonny's kokum is very much a character that is an amalgamation of a lot of the women in my life, specifically my great-gran. Jonny's kokum's name is Frances, the name of my great-gran who passed away a handful of years ago. She lived a long, beautiful life. It's also a love letter to her and to the women in my family, to have this strong matriarch who can hold simultaneously a multiplicity of people. The parts that make it feel like memoir are, I would say, an accomplishment, but it also points to Jonny's ability to craft and be in the world and invite you in.
DJ: I think it's a compliment and is a testament to your writing ability that Jonny Appleseed does feel like a memoir. It feels so three-dimensional. Reading it, I had a full-body experience as Jonny. It's definitely a testament to your capability and skills as a writer.
JW: I'm glad you felt like you got to go into the body of Jonny. He's very attached to his body, the fictional body. I wanted to hone in on that when I was writing it. I remember, at this point in time, I had terrible insomnia and I was trying to think of it less as a negative and more as a positive. When I'm doing writing workshops, people ask me for tips and my number one tip is to sleep with your characters. This usually brings a lot of laughter. They're like, "What are you talking about?" How I learned to craft Jonny was when I couldn't sleep, I would try to almost method act. I would say, "What does Jonny like? What are his taste buds like? How do they taste the world? What does his sweat smell like?" And then try to hone in on the essential elements: looking at scars or chickenpox or birthmarks and ask what stories are there. It's a high accomplishment and a level of respect that folks feel like it's almost like virtual reality to enter the body of Jonny and see through his lens.
DJ: I love that. I've spoken before, specifically in my work, how I'm queer, I'm Kanien'keha:ka. So I'm a queer Mohawk woman and sometimes it feels like these two things can't exist, they can't intersect, especially when it comes to the work that I'm doing. In your novel, Jonny says, "I played straight on the rez in order to be Indian and here I played white in order to be queer." This resonated so deeply with me. I was wondering why Indigiqueerness was such an important topic in your work and in Jonny Appleseed.
JW: I first identified as gay and then I moved to queer. And both of those didn't work for me because when you think of, quote unquote, gay pride, it signals automatically whiteness and a certain class and a certain body type and a certain kind of masculinity and cis identity. It didn't feel like it fit me as a person. The same thing with queer. Both are projects that are so embroiled in settler colonialism. In conjunction with that, I felt like I could be Indigenous, but I would have to obliterate my queerness or vice versa, to be queer meant to obliterate my Indigeneity. Going to spaces in my early 20s like gay bars, it would be Halloween and many folks would be wearing, for example, headdresses.
There's so much hope and love and magic in this book, despite everything that Jonny goes through.- Devery Jacobs
When we think about gay or queer LGBTQ history here on Turtle Island, it arcs back to a certain time. But Stonewall, a very important historical moment, becomes the stand-in for what we call queer rights. But when I think about Indigeneity and two-spiritedness and Indigiqueerness, it arcs back so much further than 1492. I try to conceptualize that and think about that when identifying myself. It was important for me, and for the character Jonny, to embody that and to pay respect to the legacy work that preceded us and paved this path for us. I would say that Indigiqueerness or two-spiritedness is a way for me and for the character, and hopefully for those who read the novel, to braid together their Indigeneity and their queerness and whatever element that may be and not have to think about them as opposing figures or of opposite, different magnetisms but as a cooperative sweetgrass. They belong together. They've always been together.
DJ: In so many of our stories through our cultures, we always find that gallows humour, or that balance of darkness and laughter because it's a means of survival for us. And your novel is no exception. There's so much hope and love and magic in this book, despite everything that Jonny goes through. I was wondering how you balance all of that.
JW: I think you said it perfectly. As Indigenous folks, this is just a survival strategy that we all embody, to think about laughter as a salve and humour as a kind of medicine. For example, we go to a funeral and then we mourn and grieve. This was pre-COVID. Then someone invites everyone back to the house, usually a grandma, a kokum, who cooks this huge pot of soup and makes bannock and this huge pot of tea. Then everyone sits around a dinner table, packed in the living room, cousins on cousins, and we tell stories until daybreak about the person that we lost. Funny stories, sad stories. But the whole point of it all is to honour and then to produce nostalgia and memory as a means of moving forward. Indigeneity has taught me that when it comes to pain, laughter will always transform the sufferer. That's such a coping strategy and such a survival strategy. So without the laughter, without the joy, it would just be overwhelming. It's like a shield. It's so natural for me to do that.
Jonny is such a trickster and a jokester that I just couldn't not have it. I also didn't want it to read like trauma pornography, because that's not how I navigate and it's not my modality and it's not Jonny's. There are some serious moments in this book that go down. But then he'll flip it right away and tell this joke or reference pop culture. That's just his style. And that's my style, too.
DJ: I fully agree with what you say about funerals. Those are some of the best rez parties I've been to, hanging out with all the aunties. The proximity that we are in relation to death, we're very hands-on with everything. That also makes way for joy, and not this odd hands-off grieving. I definitely feel all of that throughout Jonny Appleseed and also your writing in general.
JW: I would say lead with Jonny, embody Jonny. My advice to you would be to let Jonny guide you. Hold his hand. You can do your makeup together prior. I'm sure he'll give you some glitter tips and critique slightly in a shady way, but in a loving way. Go together hand-in-hand. You already know what you want to say and what you need to do. Then embody his favourite saying, we are our own best medicine. That is already the path forward.
Just knowing that being in that space and championing the story and holding hands with his glitter princess on this large national stage is already winning. We're already giving so much medicine to folks who need it.
DJ: I'm so excited, I can't wait. This book means so much. It's such an honour to be able to represent you and Jonny on this stage.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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