Canada Reads·My Life in Books

The books and authors Canada Reads author Joshua Whitehead loved reading

Actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs is championing Jonny Appleseed on Canada Reads 2021.
Joshua Whitehead is the author of Jonny Appleseed. (Submitted by Joshua Whitehead/CBC)

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 the editor of the anthology Love after the EndJonny 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. 

Actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs is championing Jonny Appleseed on Canada Reads 2021.

Canada Reads will take place March 8-11. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

"I've always been drawn to books," Whitehead told CBC Books. "We grew up poor and I lived in the housing projects, the reservation, for most of my childhood and teenage years. I was this chubby, overweight kid who didn't know he was coming into his own queerness and his own Indigeneity. To assuage the boredom, I would go to the library almost every single day, among stacks and stacks of books. So I would go home with books by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin."

Here are the books and authors Whitehead has loved reading. 

The Redwall series

James Brian Jacques was an English writer known for his Redwall series of novels and Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series. (Firebird)

"It's particularly embarrassing, but I was obsessed with this book series. I think it speaks a lot to some of the scenes in Jonny Appleseed

"It's about these little anthropomorphic mice that have gigantic epic wars and battles. I was so drawn to that because I'm an #Indiginerd! This fantastical story about anthropomorphic mice was perfect for me.

This kind of fantastical story about anthropomorphic mice was perfect for me.

"My parents had this little short story that I wrote when I was five or six. It was about my toys coming to life. This was before Toy Story. The Redwall series was the progenitor of that, of thinking about inanimate objects, as I do now, and thinking of them as having a life or spirit of their own."

Ordinary People by Judith Guest

Judith Guest is a Detroit-born novelist and screenwriter. (Penguin Books, Simon & Schuster)

"This book was also made into a film. I was always a book nerd in school. Being the femme that I am, clearly I wasn't going to take woodworking and metalwork, so I kept on taking more English classes. 

"In class, we were able to pick one book that we wanted to read based on this large stack that my teacher, Mrs. Nussbaum, brought in. I saw this book and I picked it up. 

It completely opened up my eyes to thinking about grief and mourning and pain in a way that I hadn't read before.

"It's basically a book about death, mourning and trying to cope with how to live. I remember reading that book and I have returned to it often. It completely opened up my eyes to thinking about grief and mourning and pain in a way that I hadn't read before. 

"It resonated with me as an Indigenous person and thinking about the ways in which genocide and intergenerational trauma have impacted me."

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai 

Larissa Lai is the author of Salt Fish Girl. (larissalai.com/Dundurn)

"While working on my master's degree, I was working with Jenny Heijun Wills, a fellow Canadian literature author. She gave me this book to read. 

I was nerdy and interested in mutants and cyborgs and this book blew my mind.

"I was nerdy and interested in mutants and cyborgs and this book blew my mind. It is about automatons from a BIPOC perspective in this post-apocalyptic world. But what Lai does so well is thinking about the kinship and connection between human and non-human."

The Beat generation

Allen Ginsburg was a poet and one of the best known members of the Beat Generation and 1960s counterculture. (Hans van Dijk/HarperPerennial )

"I have a bunch of tattoos inspired by the Beatniks. I was very obsessed with the Beatniks. I came to this on my own. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Albert Saijo, Neal Cassady — I loved the psychedelic stream of consciousness and existential thinking. They spoke to me in terms of thinking about how to break the kind of traditional form of writing.

They are not my favourite writers any more, but I still owe a lot to them in thinking about polyamory, queerness and grunge in everyday urban life.

"I was drawn to the language. It was like poetry meets prose, which might have been some of what I've taken from them. They are not my favourite writers any more, but I still owe a lot to them in thinking about polyamory, queerness and grunge in everyday urban life. 

"Those books really, really shifted how I wrote and what I wrote."

The X-Men

The Dark Phoenix Saga is an extended X-Men storyline in the fictional Marvel Comics universe. (Marvel Comics)

"I'm a huge, huge fan of Marvel Comics. I was a huge fan of the X-Men comic books, I think you can see elements of the X-Men and Larissa Lai in full-metal indigiqueer

They have these godly abilities and I always was drawn to that. I think I use that in thinking about how the everyday person is a superhero.

"I was so obsessed with this idea of mutation and the X-Men being inspired by the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement. It embodied 'the other.' It's about empowerment as a disempowered person in a nation state that's trying to genocide you. They have these godly abilities and I always was drawn to that. I think I use that in thinking about how the everyday person is a superhero. 

"A water protector is also a kind of superhero, for example, or everything we've seen with the Black Lives Matter movement throughout Turtle Island. These are superheroes as well. I just love the X-Men."

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Tomson Highway is a celebrated playwright, novelist and children's author. (Doubleday Canada/Facebook)

"This book is one that I would say shifted me into where I am now as a queer, two-spirit, Indigenous writer.

"Highway is a Cree queer writer who is also unabashed about sexuality but also ties it in with creation stories. This book is set in Manitoba. I read it while doing my bachelor of arts degree. It shifted every single thing about me. It also helped me to come into my own identity.

"This book is one that I would say shifted me into where I am now as a queer, two-spirit, Indigenous writer.

"It gave me the key to open myself into thinking about not myself as gay or queer, but also braiding — where we might consider braiding queerness and Indigeneity together into Indigiqueer. This book is high medicine to me. I cannot recommend it enough."

Beloved by Toni Morrison 

Toni Morrison won a Pultizer Prize for her 1988 novel, Beloved, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. (Vintage)

"This book is a complete game-changer. I'm a huge horror fan and Morrison is the high queen of the Southern Gothic form. But this book also taught me a lot about temporality in orality — about how past and future always intersect with the present. 

It taught me a lot about kinship between Black and brown bodies. It taught me a lot about time.

"It's specifically thinking about the Atlantic slave trade and then also me tying that in to cultural and actual genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. 

"It taught me a lot about kinship between Black and brown bodies. It taught me a lot about time. It also told me to not shy away from history for the sake of appeasing whiteness."

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Monkey Beach is Eden Robinson's first novel, published by Vintage Canada in 2000. (Vintage Canada)

"This is from our Indigenous aunty Eden Robinson. I'm a huge fan of all her work but this book is one of my faves. 

I'm a huge fan of all her work but this book is one of my faves.

"Like her Trickster series, this book shows that fantasy stories don't have to mythicize or romanticize BIPOC characters."

Joshua Whitehead's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

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