Having Jonny Appleseed on Canada Reads gives Joshua Whitehead 'hope for what's to come'
Actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs is championing Jonny Appleseed on Canada Reads 2021
Joshua Whitehead is a two-spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw member of Peguis First Nation, currently pursuing his PhD. He is also the author of the poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer and is the editor of the anthology Love After the End. Jonny Appleseed is his first novel.
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.
Could you tell us what Jonny Appleseed is about?
Jonny Appleseed is about the titular character, Jonny. It takes place over seven days, whereupon he is trying to return home to his home reservation, Peguis First Nation, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the wake of a stepfather, Roger. In that time, we move in between past, present and future with Jonny. I call this book a photo album instead of a novel. We get glimpses and looks into Jonny's life from childhood to the present day and all the relationships you have, from lovers through to his precious, precious grandmother.
It sounds like some painful topics mixed with some stories of love and of beauty. How did you find a way to balance it all?
For me, it's a natural process as an Indigenous person from the Prairies. If we had a funeral, we'd all mourn and grieve in the space. Then afterwards you all hit your gran's house and she cooks a big pot of soup, with some bannock and tea. And you sit there until the morning breaks, telling stories and having gut-busting laughter and reveling in nostalgia and memory. Laughter will always transform the sufferer. It was easy and normal to have Jonny, who's almost an appendage or a persona of mine, to also have those same ways of mourning and the same coping mechanisms. Laughter is the salve to his pain.
How much of this is based on your own experience?
I call Jonny Appleseed a biotext. It's not biographical. It's not memoir. But he's a character who is so closely intertwined with myself, who has been with me for over a decade now and has helped me in many instances, from writing to thinking. We're very tight. He's a very much a character that lives with me still.
I can only hope that Indigenous folks and non-Indigenous across Canada see themselves on that stage and say, 'I can do that too.'
I try to keep the enigma of which parts are autobiographical to myself or to some select few in my life. But it's also fun because attaching myself to a character in the book like that helped me kind of ingrain and think about truth telling and truthfulness and demonstrating perhaps the beauty but also the viciousness of Winnipeg. I wasn't afraid to critique and I wasn't afraid to enlighten. I couldn't have had those experiences without having been there and experienced those myself as Joshua instead of Jonny.
It's a high honour for me to to have Jonny, who is the self-proclaimed glitter princess, who is unabashed about telling any story to anyone, on this national stage. It gives me such hope for what's to come in terms of storytelling. But it's also important to me that it's a strong Indigenous representation on that stage. I can only hope that Indigenous folks and non-Indigenous across Canada see themselves on that stage and say, "I can do that too."
The theme this year is one book to transport us. How do you think Jonny Appleseed might transport Canadians?
Jonny is the magician of storytelling and a weaver of time. As the story takes place over these seven days, you move through past, present and future very quickly and simultaneously. But what Jonny does, and what I try to crack him to do, was to not forget the history, but rather bring it into the contemporary, to bring it in to the now and show the ways in which story and history and time are always intersecting. They're always bleeding into one another. We can use that current or that that force to also craft futurity. For me, Jonny is a transporter of time and of story.
Your book is being championed by Mohawk actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs. What does it mean for her to be your book's champion?
I'm very excited to have Devery championing this book. We got to meet briefly and I was overcome with awe. I had to tell her, "I just watched you last night on American Gods, and here you are on my phone." This is just a whirlwind of things that are happening. I've been making the joke to her that I said if the Oka crisis has taught Canada anything is that being in the hands of a queer Kahnawake woman is the best hands to be in, especially for a glitter princess.
What do you hope people get out of your book?
What I hope people take away is that two-spirit of people and Indigenous people at large that we're not always deferred to the past. We're also in the present and we also have futures that we're building toward. Furthermore, to not so much focus in on the trauma of indigeneity through cultural genocide here in the space, but also hone in on the fierce love and care and laughter and delicious recipes and food, which are in the book that we share and have. It is a community and it's a very beautiful community. Even in spaces that might be deemed uncouth, like the reservation or urban rez like Winnipeg, there is such care there. Specifically between grandson and grandmother. I hope folks see that.
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