Books

Joshua Whitehead explores Indigeneity, queerness and identity in new personal essay collection

Making Love with the Land is a finalist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Making Love with the Land is a finalist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Portrait of author Joshua Whitehead, with his head looking off to the right. He is wearing glasses, a black shirt, and long beaded earrings.
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer poet and author. (Tenille Campbell)

In recent years, Joshua Whitehead has emerged as one of the most original and compelling new writers on Turtle Island, starting with his first poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer in 2017 and his Canada Reads-winning 2018 novel Jonny Appleseed.

The Oji-nehiyaw Indigiqueer member of Peguis First Nation has followed up the breakthrough success of that novel with his first nonfiction book, Making Love with the Land: a collection of essays exploring Indigeneity, queerness and the relationships between body, language and land.

Making Love with the Land is one of five books shortlisted for the 2022 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $60,000 prize annually recognizes the best nonfiction book in Canada. It's the biggest prize for nonfiction in the country. The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022.

Whitehead spoke with CBC Books about how Jonny Appleseed was the catalyst for writing Making Love with the Land, and the challenges of delving deep into his own story to wrestle with some big questions about the body, mind and soul.

Planting the seed

"Making Love with the Land is very much a sibling to Jonny Appleseed — specifically the reception to that book. Some of the core questions that Jonny grappled with, Joshua is also grappling with, so naturally this book came into being out of necessity, one might say.

"I feel like I've been an outlaw to genre for all my books so far — poetry, fiction, nonfiction — though I can definitely say, no more nonfiction for me for a decade! [laughs]

"I feel like I wasn't setting out to write nonfiction — it was just kind of the form that it became through the personal exploration I was doing, and how it was being received and the questions I was being asked, and just putting it down on paper. And then, lo and behold, it became a book.

The larger aim was to normalize conversations around mental health after years of secret conversations in the corners of rooms that people were having.

"Some of the lessons I took from Jonny — if I'm going to go there, I'm going to do it on my own terms. And that was kind of what I wanted to do with this book — the larger aim of it was to normalize conversations around mental health after years of secret conversations in the corners of rooms that people were having. And so I felt like the best way that I could do that was to step on the stage and put the spotlight on me and turn it into a monologue, really."

LISTEN | Joshua Whitehead discusses his debut novel, Jonny Appleseed: 

We revisit Shelagh's interview with Joshua Whitehead on his book Jonny Appleseed. The novel is a 2021 Canada Reads selection.

Body language

"With the body, there's always so much to explore, in terms of etymology and translation — I think it comes back to the Western understandings of ownership in a capitalist, colonial sense. Owning the land, owning others, owning stories — and writing singularly, rather than communally.

I was trying to show that everything always ends up working in continuum and in relations of synchronicity rather than hierarchies of verticality.

"And so when I was exploring that, I was trying to show — to myself, primarily — that everything always ends up working in continuum and in relations of synchronicity rather than hierarchies of verticality."

Poetic prose

"I think that writing in a poetic style comes naturally to me. If I had to give a visual representation of my cognition, my mind thinks in fragmented vignettes that are peppered with razors and barbed wire, but then also in that same barbed wire, there are florals growing.

My mind thinks in fragmented vignettes that are peppered with razors and barbed wire, but then in that barbed wire, there are florals growing.

"Also as a poet, it is the most fundamental tool we have as writers. I really try to ingrain that in my students: read poetry, write poetry — even if you don't want to publish it — because it is a very strong and useful tool that I think all writers should have. There's also the kind of capital-L literature that we attribute to poetry, which can be alarming to writers who maybe don't partake in the poetics of poetry."

Pop-culture references

"I think the focus on pop culture comes from my master's in cultural studies, and it's always been telling that Indigenous writing, Black writing or queer writing has often been seen as a disposable or ephemeral genre."

"With Jonny, too, I never gave Jonny an age — the pop culture was doing the work of world-building and also giving perhaps a temporal register that you as the reader could interpret.

Referring back to pop culture gave me little ledges to hide behind, which were needed when you're in the open field of memory and excavation.

"And so with Making Love with the Land, the pop culture kind of became, I would say, putting the 'C' in CNF [creative nonfiction] — it gave me little ledges to hide behind, which were needed when you're kind of in the open field of memory and excavation. It was a small refuge — pop culture kept doing that for me."

Winning Canada Reads

"Canada Reads was the most stressful few weeks! It was probably the most intense but energizing experience I think I've had in writing so far. It propelled me into the households of people who perhaps may not have read Jonny at first.

Canada Reads was probably the most intense but energizing experience I think I've had in writing so far.

"It was actually a very community-building experience — I became good friends with Devery Jacobs and was able to build small pockets across Turtle Island in the bookstores and book clubs, and all sorts of folks from different walks of life who I don't think I would have had the ability to meet if not for Canada Reads."

LISTEN | Joshua Whitehead and Devery Jacobs discuss winning Canada Reads:

Personal cost

"This book required me to do a lot of bloodletting that I don't think I was fully prepared to undertake when I began opening up the floodgates that are the history of my life that nonfiction requires of you.

"In the spaces of COVID lockdown and in the energizing magnetic field that this book placed me within that required me to be very still, I wasn't fully prepared at the time for the rupturing dam that was about to burst. I have the hindsight to look back and think, 'Maybe you weren't quite ready to do that all at once.' [laughs]

"I think all my acknowledgements [at the end of the book] show that the old adage that we write as a solitary person [isn't quite accurate] — those stories are attributed to me by so many others, too."

Inviting the reader in

"The one thing I hope readers take away is what it means to enter into a book that you are a guest to. I do this as well, with books by Black authors or trans authors — always remembering that I am being invited into the space they are creating.

The one thing I hope readers take away is what it means to enter into a book that you are a guest to.

"I hope they understand the relationship we have as consumers of literature — that word 'consumption,' as I write in the book, helps remind us of that."

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

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